In search of the Elusive Peace Corps Moment

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By Admin1 (Admin) on Wednesday, June 13, 2001 - 1:54 pm: Edit Post

Peace Corps Storyteller: Reminding myself

Peace Corps Storyteller: Reminding myself

In Search of the Elusive Peace Corps Moment

Destination: Estonia

by Douglas Wells

19—The Thin Blue Line

It is always nice to see someone who really enjoys his work and who is really well-suited for his job. Officer Karjamaa was one of the handful of police officers responsible for keeping order on the island, which was about fifteen by twenty-five miles in size. Hiiumaa was pretty sleepy most of the year, with some excitement in the summer when the tourists came to enjoy the few months of long days, sunny skies, and warm temperatures. The tourists also served as amusement for locals, as they often got drunk and did stupid things, or just generally tried to show how superior they were, coming from the mainland and all.

Aside from the tourists and visitors who came and went, the police pretty much knew everyone on the island, and all the locals knew who the police were. This familiarity among the island's population was for the most part charming, but it did have its downsides and often created unusual situations you would never see on the mainland. For example, there was no car theft on Hiiumaa. If someone were to steal a car, the police would just go down to the ferry port and wait for the thief to try and leave with it. Or they would just park somewhere by the main road that circled the island and wait for the carjacker to drive by, which he would have no choice but to do at some point. If some petty crime did occur, people on the island would ring their hands and worry that this new democracy would turn Hiiumaa into a "Chicago," the place they used to denote complete chaos and utter lawlessness.

It was in this placid realm that Karjamaa fearlessly did his duty. The Terror of Hiiumaa, as everyone called him, was responsible for traffic safety, a job he took very, very seriously. Drivers feared him. No one was safe from Karjamaa, regardless of their station in life. Rich or poor, young or old, all were equal in the eyes of Karjamaa. He was so notorious and diligent in enforcing the law that if someone would leave a late-night party to go drive someplace, people would look at them with sympathy and say, "Karjamaa in your path," much like actors tell each other to break a leg.

Pretty much everyone had been stopped and lectured by Karjamaa at one time or another, and as a passenger I had witnessed countless traffic stops. The scenario was almost always the same: Karjamaa would step out from the side of the road somewhere and flag you down, sometimes for no apparent reason, which is legal in Estonia. He would walk up to the driver's window, pull himself up to his full height, and introduce himself as "Traffic Police Inspector Mihkel Karjamaa." This was required by law, so he did this even though we all knew exactly who he was. After he completed his official business he would salute, wish you a good day, and wave you off down the road. The last thing you would see in your rearview mirror was the good inspector standing in the middle of the road, arms folded, holding his little black and white police baton with the red reflector on the end.

My first run-in with Karjamaa as a motorist was shortly after I had purchased my first vehicle in Estonia. I wasn't really supposed to drive, but with the infrequent public transportation, I found it impossible to do my job properly without some kind of vehicle. I settled on an old black Volga, which in its glory days was the car of choice among the Communist Party elite. People made endless jokes as I drove the beat-up former taxi around, but for me the important thing was that it was cheap and parts were plentiful. I think every Estonian male had some Volga parts behind his garage and these guys always wanted to tweak something or replace something on my Volga when I came to visit. It was all I could do to keep them from going at my car with a wrench or screwdriver, sometimes even at stop signs.

It was on a day when I was cruising along near the edge of Kärdla that I was stopped for speeding. The speed limits were in kilometers, but I think I was doing like forty-something in a thirty-five zone. Karjamaa stepped out from beside his car and waved me to a stop with his little baton. He came over, smartly introduced himself as always, and asked me to present my documents. Throughout the incident, the officer kept one hand behind his back, which I found a little strange. I also noticed a certain spring in his step and—could it be?—a little mischief in his eyes. He spent some time poring over my Nebraska driver's license before handing me back my papers. He then drew himself up to his full 5'8" of height and proudly announced that I had been speeding.

"Vells," he began, pronouncing my last name with an Estonian accent, "you were going forty-four in a thirty-five zone!"

"Um, okay. I'm sorry, sir."

He seemed perturbed that I had not grasped his point. "No, you don't understand. I mean you were going exactly forty-four kilometers."

"All right," I said, not getting what he was driving at. "That's a little fast. Right, sir?"

At this point, he was visibly shaking with anticipation. "Don't you even want to know how I knew you were going exactly forty-four?" he asked hopefully.

"Okay, I'm game. How did you know I was going exactly forty-four?"

"Because, Vells," he said triumphantly, "I have…this!"

He pulled his hand out from behind his back and proudly showed off his new toy. The look on his face was priceless, like that of a child who had finally received the perfect Christmas present. As he twisted his new possession in his hand and regarded it admiringly in the glow of the setting sun, I realized that a new era had begun in Hiiumaa. Police radar had arrived.

But that wasn't all. Karjamaa then leaned down to show me the blinking blue digital numbers and thumped his finger emphatically on the manufacturer's nameplate. He could barely contain himself as he delivered the coup de grâce.

"Vells, look at that. This little baby is from America. It's made in Texas! That's where you're from, right?""Actually, sir, I'm from Nebraska."

"Doesn't matter! You have been caught with foreign aid from your own country! What do you think about that!"

As he laughed heartily, I slumped down in my seat and sighed. No place was safe from change. Before this, the police would just stop you, say you were speeding, and collect some fine based on how fast you seemed to be going. At first, it was hard to get used to handing a cop a handful of cash, but at least they gave you a receipt—no court costs either. Now Karjamaa had radar, and he was like a kid in a candy store. He regained some semblance of a business-like expression and addressed me sternly.

"Well, this has been great, but I am afraid you're still going to have to pay a fine."

"Sure, I understand. How much?"

"75 kroons." This was the rough equivalent of about six American dollars.

I rummaged through my pockets but came up short. "I've only got sixty-three with me."

"All right, all right," he said impatiently. "Just give it to me and we'll call it even!"

I handed him all the money in my wallet. He wrote me out a receipt, then turned briskly on his heel and walked backed to his car without so much as performing his customary send-off routine. For the next three days he sat on the edge of town clocking people. After being stopped three times myself, I started riding my bike to work. Even when I was safely home in my apartment, I could still see his car out of my window. I began to think that the Terror of Hiiumaa didn't even sleep. He was there when I woke and he was there when I went to bed. I don't think he was even writing tickets, just showing off his new toy. I could see him walk over to the hapless driver's window and wave his radar gun excitedly for a while before the car drove off. Word spread fast that the Terror was now equipped with modern technology, and people muttered behind my back in the grocery store line that it was thanks to those "meddling Yankees" and the "new world order."The last time I saw Officer Karjamaa it was Midsummer Night's Eve. It was at this time that people really cut loose. They would build bonfires, sing, dance and often drink themselves senseless. On the Summer Solstice in Estonia, the days were so long it never got completely dark at night. For just a few hours, an enchanting twilight descended on the island, which seemed to add additional energy and mystique to the partying.

The band had a full schedule at this time of year, so as usual I was driving home in my black Volga from a late night (early morning) party on the other side of the island. I wasn't drunk but I had put down a few of the infamous Hiiumaa beers and definitely would have failed the no-tolerance limit for drivers in Estonia. As I came around the curve on the highway into town, I spotted a police car up ahead by the side of the road. A glance down at my speedometer confirmed that I was a little over the speed limit. Damn.

Sure enough, the Terror stepped out into the middle of the road and waved his baton. I noticed he had a new recruit with him this time, probably breaking him in on the mean streets of Hiiumaa. My biggest worry was that they would make me do a breath test, which, if I failed, would cost me a good piece of change. Plus, it would be hard to explain a DWI to the Peace Corps office when I was officially only supposed to be riding a bike.

I pulled to the side of the road and Karjamaa stepped up to my window while his fresh-faced rookie watched intently from the car. He snapped to attention, went through the introduction and asked for my license and registration, which I figured he would have already memorized. He took them back to the car and showed them to his trainee, who seemed quite interested in my Nebraska license, turning it over and over in his hand and holding it up to the dome light. After they talked for a while, Karjamaa leaned out the window and yelled for me to come over to the car. I got out and walked across the road, expecting the worse. As I drew closer, Karjamaa nudged his new partner and gave a "watch this" kind of wink."So, Vells, you were going a little fast there."

"Yes, sir. I'm sorry. I just crossed city limits and hadn't slowed down yet."

"Do you want to know how fast you were going?"

I played along with his little game. "Uh…okay."

"You were going exactly sixty-two. Do you want to know how I know that, Vells?"

"Well, I imagine it's because_"

"Because I have this radar gun, Vells."

"Yes, sir."

"Look, it says right here that you were going exactly sixty-two."

"Yes, sir."

"And do you know where this radar gun was made, Vells?"

"Texas, sir."

"That's right!" he said and looked triumphantly over at his partner.

I was getting a little tired of this cat and mouse game, and I wished he'd just get on with it. Karjamaa seemed to read my thoughts. He looked at my license and registration again, then scratched his chin thoughtfully. He then looked over at his rookie partner, who sat up straighter in his seat and watched with anticipation. Finally, after a long pause, Karjamaa spoke.

"So you were speeding. Eh, Vells?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, what do you think we should do?"

"Excuse me?"

"What do you want to do?"

This caught me completely off guard and I was at a loss for words. I had never in my life been asked by a police officer what I would like to do, and I wondered if it wasn't some kind of trap. Karjamaa and his partner waited patiently while I mulled over what the correct answer to this question should be. My future as a Peace Corps Volunteer probably depended on it. Finally, at a complete loss, I decided to just take the direct, honest approach."How about this: I walk back over to my car, get in and verrrrry slowly drive away."

I took a step back and waited for a response. Karjamaa thought for a minute, then turned to his partner. "That okay with you?" he said gruffly. His partner just shrugged and looked the other way, seemingly disappointed by this strange turn of events. Karjamaa thrust my documents into my hand and motioned for me to go.

"Okay, Vells. Have a good holiday. Slow down and drive carefully!"

I thanked him and walked back to my car in a daze. What the heck had just happened? I couldn't believe my luck as I started the Volga and drove away. I kept looking in the rearview mirror expecting them to take off after me but all I saw was Karjamaa, standing by the road and thumping that black and white baton into his palm.

I never saw the Terror of Hiiumaa after that. Rumor has it he was reassigned to a desk job, a severe punishment for him considering how much he had enjoyed his role as a traffic officer. What could he have done to deserve such a fate? Karjamaa stopped the Estonian Prime Minister during an official visit and tried to ticket the entire motorcade_or so the legend goes.

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Peace Corps Stories; COS - Estonia



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