How To Know If You Are in a Banana Republic
The one tell-tale sign that gives away what your current country really is about
Once you step out of the mind-numbing daily routine in your Western middle-class life (your “comfort zone”) and you start living in, say, Eastern Europe then you are in for your very own experience of culture shock.
Living in an environment that has no nanny state to pamper each and everyone, no order in regard to public administration and no judicial system that comes across as half-way fair will turn your world upside down. This experience will make you cheerish the friendliness and reliability you know from back home while it will also make you wonder how your life would look like if you were born into the country you are now just a visitor to.
Wide streets, friendly locals – and a heavy Banana Republic: Ukraine.
Could you take living in a full-grown Banana Republic?
Unless you already are thick-skinned with an “been there, done that”-attitude because you have been living in rural Greece all your life, living in a non-Western country will give you a sometimes virtual, sometimes literal slap accross the face.
The longer you have been living in a well-ordered surrounding (think Denmark) the harder it will hit you if you set sail for one of the many Banana Republics that can be found in Eastern Europe, Africa, South East Asia — or most likely anywhere else in the world where English or a Germanic language isn’t the predominant language.
Giving It A Try
If you wanted to get some first-hand experience on what living in a Banana Republic is like then there is a catch. In
order to get the full Banana Repubic experience you would have take off the gloves and go all-in: no special treatment because you are a the tall white man with English as his first language, no foreign money that lets you cash-in big time with the troubled local currency, no nothing. The authentic Banana Republic experience only is available to those who (i) look and act like a local and (ii) whose life depends on making a living in the country.
In order to get a grasp about life in a full-on Banana Republic you would have to cut loose from any cultural influence that you have sucked up like a dry sponge when you were wax in the hands of your Western upbringing.
And even if you managed to rid yourself off everything Western culture has hard-wired into your little monkey brain it would still be hard. Burning your passport and cutting your credit card in half is one thing, but to hide where you are actually coming from when you are the only 1,80m+ guy in Thailand or the only black guy in Belarus seems like an impossible thing to do.
How To Call Out A Banana Republic
But is it really impossible to tell if a country is a Banana Republic without virtually becoming a local? By far not, I say. It only seems impossible. Even if you have no chance or rather: no inclination to put yourself in the shoes of a local when you travel to the likes of Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Tanzania, Morocco, Nicaragua, Egypt, Indonesia, Brazil, Belarus and so many others there is one fail-proof way of telling if a certain country actually is a Banana Republic.
Applying this unimpressive but powerful explanationalso comes totally easy and effortles. It is so easy and unconspicious that you don’t even need to engange in any social interaction in order to see the real deal of a country. The one advice on how to know if you are in a Banana Republic is this one:
It is as simple as that. The only thing you have to take a look at if you wanted to make out what type of country you are in is to look at how the people interact with the police and vice versa.
Now, what does the police bantering with locals have to do with whether a country is a corruption-infested hellhole? A whole lot, I say. In no other situation will you see two principles being confronted that should not to interfere at all (for Western standards, that is): On the one side there is the particularly human feature of reciprocity. On the other side there there is the ruthless one-sidedness of violence, the state.
While Human beings enjoy the specificly human quality of friendship which mainly consists of exchanging attentiveness, friendliness and favors the state sees you as livestock that it has to grant just enough rights so that the cattle won’t turn against its owner. And the one thing through which the states asserts its dominance over you is by keeping its distance from you, in the literal meaning of the word. One must not “touch” the state or its representatives.
The small scale equals the large scale
In conclusion, apart from standard courtesy what real need to people have to engage in any kind of friendship-like behaviour with the state? There is none. In a real Banana Republic, however, things are different.
What you will see in so many non-Western countries is that locals and police seem to know each other so well and interact with each other so naturally and outspoken that things almost seems like a weird form of PDA. Often in the literal meaning of the term, that is the public display of affection.
Warm people, splendid nature and a grade-B Banana Republic: Hungary
Naturally, when there is no real line drawn between the people and the state that, after all, claims to be the one point of reference for “objectivity” and “justice” you can be sure that all kinds of shenanigans will emerge from that atmosphere of “friendship”. And the way police “naturally” interacts with people is the perfect micro-cosmos to observe the degree of much craziness will be going down in the larger scales of life.
Observing A Live Banana Republic
Don’t believe me? Let me just give you two interactions I observed between people and police in Hungary and Ukraine and then let me paraphrase these interactions with some local anecdotes.
A Minor Banana Republic: Hungary
The Observation (small scale)
Beautiful Hösok Ter in Budapest. In the back: 4 Hungarian Police standing around clueless after a car hit a bike.
One of my first nights in Budapest I spent walking around Octogon. Exploring the area while being fascinated by this gorgeous city I was walking along the streets that were sometimes less, sometimes more crowded with people. Needless to say that I also came by several members of the local Rendörseg (“Ran-Durr-Shag”, name of the police in Hungary) who with their McDonald’s-like hats andtheir semi-sketchy looks not always gave off the most favourable impression.
Just Seeing Some Friends
Things got interesting when two Rendörseg men went inside a local pizza restaurant. As you could see through the windows everyone was so familiar with each other that the Rendörseg-men greeted the owner, the barkeeper as well as every single guest in the venue with such enthuasiasm and intimacy as if it was from the scene in Oliver Stone’s Platoon where Charlie Sheen joins the weed-smoking crew in their smoke-filled hideout. “Your highness has arrived!” Even to the most oblivious bystander was it obvious hat people knew each other a little bit too well.
The Anecdote (large scale)
This anecdote stems from the same Airbnb host whom I already mentioned in the post about the the best cities for single men. During the nights I went out with him he could not keep from telling me stories about all the bizarre things taking place in his country. One story he told me dealt with the fact that in Hungary protection money is no stranger to people and that it can actually be considered common practice. For instance, in the field of high-class cars you pay protection money to police as some kind of second car tax. As my friend began to explain paying that extra tax allowed you to keep your car for longer than just a month.
Meet: The List
As I was told by my local source car stealing crews in Hungary are so well-organized that police and most crews agreed to end their game of cat and mouse and start some kind of joint-venture instead. In the words of my local buddy:
“In Hungary police have a list. If you pay then your car is ‘on the list’. It means it is protected. Whenever you park your Mercedes and someone gets “intrigued” by your carhe has no chance. What the crews will do is make one phone call. Whatever crew is interested in your car will call their contact (read: paid informer) working with the police and have him check whether your car’s licence plate numbers are ‘on the list’. If they are the car stealing crew will just ‘lose interest’ and your car will stay where it is. If they are not on the list it means you can look for a new car.”
Needless to say that my jaw kind of hit the floor when I was told about what really goes down in a city that until then was just the “Paris of the East” for me.
A Major Banana Republic: Ukraine
The Observation (small scale)
The only ones to wear coats when it rains in Kiev: Police.
Strolling around Khreshatyk, Kiev’s main avenue, you will inevitably come across cliques of 3 to 4 youngsters with not-so-bright looks on their faces. Standing around on street corners these guys always come in packs and often with a sketchy vibe to them. Smoking like chimneys many of them have tattoos even on their hands. And never does any member of these cliques seem to have anything worthwhile to do apart from chatting away on useless topics like football and car crashes.
If it wasn’t for their uniforms it would take you a moment to realize that these guys actually are policemen. Without their worn-out uniforms signaling you who these guys really are you would often feel compelled to call the police on them instead of the other way round.
The Odd One Out
One thing that sticks out is that almost every time there is one apple in the bunch that wears no uniform whatsoever. Nonetheless that third wheel-type of guy will engage heartfully in the conversation, including hand-shaking, shouder-patting and what may have you. He is by no means sucking up to police but must be considered an actual friend of them who is in the “give and receive” business of favors with the police.
The Anecdote (large scale)
What I do not mean by the odd police-friend are any of the many “veterans” hanging around Maidan Square.
Trying to take a ride on the fame train of those Ukrainian soldiers engaging in what the Kiev government calls ATO (Anti-Terror-Operation), but not a war, any major urban squares comes with some of these lurkers.
Let’s Just Be Friends
However, what you can witness every other day or so in cities like Kiev is an almost-brotherhood of Police – and those who obviously have nothing to do with Police, but are, well, “good friends” with the Police.
What in Budapest seemed to be an exceptional act when Police literally “said hello” to a policeman’s relative/informer/former member of the force etc. in Ukraine seems to be a daily sight. The guys who are paid tax money freely chat away on the street corners while cultivating their frienships with people looking as inviting as this pseudo-soldier above.
In Closing: How To Tell If You Are In A Banana Republic?
Watch out for the little detail introduced in this article and I guarantee you the amount of dubious behaviour you’ll see in the micro-cosmos of people-police interactions is a direct expression of the heavier stuff going down. All the big things like rigged vote-counting, job assignments in the public sphere that are distributed among “friends” or the “fight” against grand theft auto with the help of protection money as it is popular in Hungary – all of these find their miniature expression in how much Police banters with the locals.
The one tell-tale sign that never lies.