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Keep an eye out.

Border crossings in dangerous countries can be a pain in the backside, and sometimes pretty scary.

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 Religion

Mocking any religion, no matter where you are, can lead to serious problems. Most wars around the globe are about religion.

Packing Drugs

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.

Flaunting Luxury

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!

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!

About The Author

Cedric Pieterse

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.

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  • http:///www, Jacob

    This has little to do with border crossings, but with “respecting” authority.

    A friend once told me that when insulting a German police officer, the difference between getting beaten/arrested and walking away cleanly is all in the language.

    “I told him, ‘Sie sind eine NAZI’,” my friend tells me, “Whereas if I would’ve said ‘Du bist ein NAZI’ he would’ve had full authority, under German law, to arrest me”

    (side note: this is coming from a guy who had overstayed his Visa for about a year and a half)

    The two phrases (if you haven’t figured it out) both say “You are a NAZI”, but its not the “NAZI” part that’s illegal. The first is formal German, while the second is colloquial and disrespectful German. Its only illegal to speak disrespectfully to an officer…even if you’re calling him a NAZI.

    Great article! I can hardly wait to have my own, terrifying border-crossing experience.

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  • Cedric

    Thanx for the comment Jacob!
    I suppose even border crossings through the airports of “civilized” countries has become a bane lately.
    Altough the usual “Take your shoes off, sir” is becoming more frequent nowadays, there is also all sorts of questions that one has to answer.
    One can attract less attention by not wearing sunglasses and hats. To argue with security is also a sure way to miss a flight. I have seen this happen a lot lately. One wonders what happens to these people in the security room…

    Maybe a full body search, including a uncomfortable latex covered finger where you do not want it. (for some of us:))
    I suppose if you do end up in the security room, one should get very nervous if you feel both the examiner’s hands on your shoulders, accompanied with hot and heavy breathing…

    Why do people wear sunglasses and hats inside buildings anyway?

    As for experiencing your own terrifying border-crossings, I can recommend South Africa-Lesotho as a beginner step, and then you can work your way up the scale with Malawi-Mozambique and when you really want to scare yourself the Sudan-Chad crossing is one you will never forget. I have also experienced an interesting crossing from Zambia in to DRC and out again, complete with RPG wielding, machine-gun-toting rebels! I got away with buying them beer!
    Happy travels!

  • Haley January Eckels

    I think I’ll pass on the Sudan to Chad experience. :)

    Very interesting read, and very well-written. Just like when you’re at home, knowing how to speak politely is key to avoiding conflict. “Good morning”, “please”, “excuse me”, and “thank you” go along way with authority figures, and I love the suggestion of having the offending officer teach you the terms if you don’t already know them!

  • Kango Suz

    Jacob- great comment!

    Wonderful article. Your advice, while it may seem obvious, is priceless. I’ve been in and around Mexico during some very tumultous times and even though I pretty much failed all my Spanish classes, being respectful to authorities (although not a push-over) has enabled me to stay out of trouble, no matter how much I happened to be in…

  • Ekaterina Petrovna

    Nice article! And also funny:) Coming from Russia I had some funny experiences while crossing the border between Russia and Ukraine. Officials indeed don’t earn a lot of money in these countries, and sometimes, very strict laws, are just a way to ‘improve’ the salary.

  • Spiro Xavier

    Does anyone reading this silly little piece know anybody (personally I mean) that has actually gotten into any real trouble (beatings, rape, imprisonment, death) at an African border crossing… Probably not. Because all you need is Attitude, cool shades, and a bag full of Lincolns, and you’ll be greated like the king of Rome… So if an in reality uneventful bordercrossing scares you, well maybe you should just have stayed at home sunny boy ;)

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