WITH A FEW PRECAUTIONS one can travel around the globe without having to pay bribes – or spend time in some rat-infested jail in the middle of nowhere. There are countless travel guides and books that tell you the do’s and dont’s of safe border crossing, and explain how to deal with authorities in general.
Most of the advice in these guides is good, and you should read them. But what if you do find yourself in a sticky situation at a border crossing? How do you get out of it?
First of all, let’s go over the things that can create a potentially bad situation.
Mocking any religion, no matter where you are, can lead to serious problems. Most wars around the globe are about religion.
Getting caught with drugs or an unlicensed firearm are obvious “mistakes.” In these cases you WILL spend time in jail, without anybody knowing that you are there.
In most cases, you will find that your embassy will be very reluctant to assist you. Diplomatic relations are far more important than a nice plate of food and a warm bed for someone who has broken the rules.
You will need a very good lawyer and a very big pile of cash, if and when you are allowed to make a phone call. Basically, if you are stupid enough to get into trouble with the aforementioned items, you will get little sympathy with what is coming to you.
Then there are seemingly innocent things that can attract unwanted attention: money, cameras, sunglasses, fancy clothes or a luxury car, and expensive electronics like laptop computers or iPods.
Make sure to pack these items out of sight, and only carry enough money for the things that you need to buy, like visas or bus tickets.
If you have a thick wad of cash in your wallet, the officials might be tempted to “create” a problem. The key is to stay as inconspicuous as possible.
Bribes And Fake Policemen – Oh My!
Now that you more or less know what gets you into trouble, how do you get out of it, without having to blow your travel budget?
The officials that you will be dealing with at border crossings in poor countries do not earn a lot of money. They are always looking for some extra cash, and if you have it, they will often try to get it.
I have spoken to a “policeman” who told me that he was actually renting the uniform from the real cop for the weekend!
He had a “radar” speed checking device, which actually turned out to be a hairdryer with a calculator glued to the back. I insisted to see his certificate of employment, which he did not have. I wanted to see the calibration certificate for the “radar gun” which was going to be a problem for him, but he still did not want to let me go.
He threatened me with going to court, and I took him up on it. When he realized that I’d called his bluff, we had a friendly chat about the whole situation. (He did ask me for a donation, and I politely said no).
Know When To Fold’em
Most of the time a tricky situation is just a bluff. The officials know that travelers are scared to go to jail, and that their uniform is a good intimidation tool. Stand your ground. If you did not break any obvious laws, then you do have rights.
Nine times out of ten, if you insist on sorting the matter out at the nearest police station, they will let you go. After all, they don’t want to get in to trouble with their boss; work is scarce in many impoverished areas.
Refuse with a Smile
Make jokes, have a friendly chat and be polite. Never shout at police, do not be rude, and do not insult them. If you belittle them in front of their peers, you will dig yourself a deep hole.
Learn a few words in their language, or ask them to teach you a few words. Doing so makes them feel important, makes them feel good about themselves. I know this sounds bad, but patronizing them works.
If all else isn’t working, play the time-game and wait it out. The day is only so long, and while you play for time, the officials are losing out on easier targets.
Any tips of your own in crossing borders and avoiding trouble? Share in the comments!
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Cedric Pieterse was born and raised in South Africa, and always had a passion for traveling. He eventually got fed-up with climbing the corporate ladder and decided to pack his bags and hit the road. After four years of criss-crossing Africa, Cedric is currently living in Sweden.