Driving from Pipa to Natal - the nearest big city - takes about 1 ½ hours and is a journey of about eighty kilometres. You have to cross about fifty speed bumps to get there. I haven´t counted but maybe I will when I next have to take that formidable journey. Eighty kilometres is not far and having spent days on buses, this should be a breeze but somehow it seems to take forever, as if every speed bump exerts an emotional toll as the vehicle slows down, lumbers and staggers over the bump, like a drunk navigating a step (or a drunk with piles), all hesitant and wobbly, and then to enthusiastically speed up again only to be similarly curtailed, maybe a hundred meters further down the road. It is as if suddenly, people have figured out a way of doing something about the admittedly crazy driving of the Brazilians, not to mention the Ghanaians and Tanzanian bus drivers, and oh yes, Indian bus drivers, and so now are determined to reign them in, whether they need to or not. So, one speed bump after another and all of a different style and size.
The perfect and most reasonable speed bump is one that makes the car slow down to a reasonable speed for the road, whether it is 20 or 50 kph and the car can cross fairly easily without jarring the passengers too much or the struts of the car. Those large, gently rolling ones are the ones I mean. They work. The worst are the ones are not necessarily that big but which rise vertically from the ground maybe 4 inches, are often made of stones and are very narrow. You have to virtually stop the cross them, one wheel at a time. As the car crosses, even fractionally too fast, the whole car vibrates and the struts scream in pain. In Ghana, one such improvised speed bump – many spontaneously appear in the morning, a local resident having decided it is needed – broke the axle of a Mercedes of the local head teacher of a school. I know because he told me as we crossed the very same bump. It was lethal. There are many other varieties. One I saw in Brazil was a rope that curls its way across the road like a snake. Most of them are somewhere in between the most reasonable gentle one and the speed bump from hell, making the car slow down too much, and in time damaging it no doubt, not to mention the physical and emotional toll on the driver. Of course, the logic is that a speed bump has to be big enough to slow traffic down. Otherwise it could be just a fun thing to do, to speed up and not down as one gets to the bump and whizz over it like a rally driver. But many are simply mad. There was one in Mexico, on a rutted dirt road, going up hill, where it would be hard to go very fast anyway, just before a very fancy house, which was made from bricks and was virtually impassable if you didn’t have a four by four. It was obviously a rich person’s statement of how he/she wanted any cars to pass their house.
Talking with my friends and other people living in Pipa about the thievery, I get the impression that in Brazil, or at least here, it is basically accepted that it will happen. It is part of the culture. People who have nice houses have elaborate security systems, including dogs, alarm systems, walls and full time guards. This is not Rio or Sao Paulo but small town Pipa but still this is accepted. If you do not one or all of the above, then really, what do you expect. It is really your fault. As far as the police are concerned – who by the way make around $500 a month in pay – you are rich and have options and if you don´t take care, so be it. There seems to be no great outcry in the community to do much about it, except from expat residents who obviously feel something should be done. We made police reports, were visited by both military police, machine guns at the ready and saying they already had suspects, and then the local police, all 4 turning up to ask questions and look around, but nothing else happened. Apparently they have to have direct evidence to go after someone, catch them in the act or find the goods on them, but it seems they aren’t about to go and search a suspect’s house or round them up and ask questions. Given the size of the town, it is probably clear to the police and many others who did it as it happens so often, but nothing seems to change. Perhaps unless the order comes from on high that something has to be done nothing will and apparently the Governor of the state thinks this place is just full of hippies anyway and doesn’t really care. It made me think that in India, for example, if local police wanted to find a thief they would simply go and get the suspects and if they were found with any evidence, would get an instant beating. Not that this kind of cavalier justice is good but it can be effective. Maybe the police here are more hamstrung by legitimate limits to their power – not that you would think that by the amount of dubious hits that are made by traffic police extracting fines for shaky traffic offences. We recently passed a police officer who had just stopped a driver and as we drove through, he waved his finger at us. My friend said he is going to write us a ticket and I wondered how as he hadn´t even stopped us and had nothing to write one for. But my friend turned around and went and spoke to the officer who said that the person in the backseat wasn’t wearing her seat belt, which was not true, and he couldn´t have seen one way or the other. So, after a couple of minutes of document checking he let us off. My friend said that if we had not stopped, he would have had a ticket issued and would have had to go to court to dispute it. The last time this happened, he did dispute it, had the fine cancelled and yet when going to register the car, found the fine still on the books and had to pay it there and then anyway, as they wouldn’t register the car and he wouldn´t be able to leave with the car without the registration! Maybe the number of speed bumps in a country reflect the level of bureaucracy and corruption there. Brazil and much of Africa definitely are near the top of both tables.
So, our confidence in the police being willing and able to help became somewhat limited. Five days after the robbery, we were speculating again about the route that the thieves could have taken. My friend had already found a phone SIM card packet that was in my bag on a path some ways from the house, heading into town so we knew they had to go toward there. So we deduced they would have left by the back and skirted down a hill before crossing a road to another path and from there, following it until reaching the other path. So he went scurrying along that path and looking into all the bushes on the way. By some extraordinary good fortune, he found the sheet and one bag and when he brought it back, I found my passport and other belongings in there. Unfortunately the money was gone but at least my passport, credit cards and other odds and sods were there. Amazing. The next day, we went back to check again and found another bag, in which was my money belt and lo and behold, there was even some cash in there that the thieves in their haste or exuberance of having made such a large heist, had overlooked. So, I was thankful for small mercies.
My friend called the police to let them know of the find a few days later and two officers came to the house to check it out. As my friend walked with them to check out the spot, the officers drew their guns and went ahead into the bush, as if the thieves were still going to be there 10 days later and then they promptly got lost. My friend had to show them the way back to the house, hoping the guns weren’t going to go off accidentally.