On the busy transit road between Belém and Icoacari we ran into a blitz: The police had cordoned off part of the road to pull vehicles over to the side to the road. We were among the chosen.
A police officer leaned into my window.
“Hello, everything okay?”
“Yeah, sure. Everything okay.”
“So, do you maybe have a donation for me to pay for my lunch?”
I understood his question all right and all kinds of thoughts raced through my mind: This was Brazil, a country known for its corruption and never-ending bureaucracy. I had read enough to know that making a police officer unhappy could land me in prison or give me enough paperwork to be stuck in this city for a month.
I realized that if I didn’t pay, he might be calling his colleagues down the road to stop me and fine me for trumped-up charges. And obviously, this would cost me more than this so-called donation for a police officer’s lunch.
Fortunately, I had a 10-dollar bill in my pocket. I retrieved it and handed it to the police officer with a smile. “Sure, no problem,” and could move on.
It is a major topic on forums, around campfires or in some cases the first issue to be discussed when meeting fellow overlanders: police (or border) officials and corruption. How do we deal with them? We all have our own ways. What works for some doesn’t necessarily work for others. What works in one country / on one continent may work against you in/on another. Do you chat with the officers, are you nice to them or do you stare ahead of you, pretending not to understand a word the officer is saying? Do you feel confident, or insecure? Do you trust the person or is there this gut feeling that something is not right?
Reading the above example you could conclude we had been lucky. If only this was what really had happened. It wasn’t. Those who are familiar with our journey, and/or who have had discussions with us on the topic will know that this is not our way of thinking. It’s a scenario we came up with after we had had a police check in Brazil, and were speculating how this scenario might have been played out according to an “I-always-have-to-pay-bribes-in-Latin-America” kind of traveler.
This is what REALLY happened:
On the busy transit road between Belém and Icoacari we ran into a blitz: The police had cordoned off part of the road to pull vehicles over to the side to the road. We were among the chosen. This didn’t often happen to us in Brazil – most of the time we were waved on – and when it did happen, the police officers generally asked for our papers and wanted to chat a bit.
This time it was different. No request for car papers but a police officer, typically dressed in a dark uniform and with a bulletproof vest, leaned into Coen’s window.
“Hi there. Everything okay?”
“Yeah, sure. Everything okay.”
“So, do you maybe have a donation for me to pay for my lunch?”
We needed a second to let his words sink in. Were we hearing what we were hearing? Were we, for the second time during our journey, asked for a donation by a government official? (The first time was in India.) Straight to the point, without beating about the bush? Was this guy speaking Portuguese? Did we understand his question correctly?
Five times ‘yes’.
“No, I don’t think so,” Coen answered and we both gave him our sweetest smiles.
“Okay, please move on then. Have a good journey,” he said, slapping his hand on the bodywork and waving us on.
We never carry 10-US-dollar bills in our pockets nor have we paid any equivalent in local currencies to police or border officers. That does not mean nobody never has to pay anything. Situations differ, people differ. There are too many subjective elements that play a role for there to be a perfect scenario. However, after 13 years on the road in Asia and South America with a record of one expensive lesson, and one close call (both will be shared below) we must be doing something right. Here are some of the tricks we learned over the years.
1. Trust people; trust officers
Simply believing, from the bottom of your heart, that not every official out there has the sole goal of squeezing money out of drivers – let alone foreigners – makes a huge difference in your attitude. The majority is just there to do their job. There are some who may take advantage if the occasion arises, and there may be a handful of true assholes out there, but most of them are just nice people earning a living the legal way.
2. Be nice
The consequence of believing #1 is that there is no reason to be unkind. Be nice, be friendly, and meet the officer as an equal. Of course you have situations where officers appear at your window with an air of Mr. Important. When that happens, neutralize it. How? Shake hands, look at the badge and greet the officer by his/her name. This often throws them off guard, putting you on equal terms which often results in a new level of communication. Some may already have asked you questions or they sort of bark into your window, “Passport!” Coen – who is generally the driver, and thus has to deal with these matters – will simply not have that.
“Good day officer Johnson, how are you today? My name is Coen and I’m from the Netherlands. We feel privileged to visit your beautiful country. How can I help you?” he’ll say, ready to shake hands.
Sometimes his hand is refused. “Passports.” Coen will make the officer look into his eyes. “Hello, how are you? What a beautiful day, isn’t it? I’m Coen, what would you like to see?” or something like that, making sure eyes have met before he hands over any papers.
3. Speak the language
As a result of #1 and #2, it only makes sense to speak the language. We truly don’t believe in pretending to not speak the language. We know some overlanders have a different opinion on this, but look at it this way: if you are given a blank face when you are just doing your job, asking for somebody’s papers, wouldn’t you be irritated? I would be, for sure. It complicates any communication on the spot and frankly, being rude like that is not helping the image of foreigners in other countries.
When you really cannot speak the language, it’s a different matter. Your struggle to make communication possible will quickly become clear to the officer and will – in most cases – help get you on a friendly footing with him/her.
4. Use humor
I can’t count the times I dropped to the floor laughing at Coen’s way of responding to officers. Well, of course, I never literally drop down and in fact generally hold my breath to see how his remark goes down with the officer in question. But on numerous occasions I have seen how his response took the sting out of a potentially problematic situation by saying something funny, or at least unexpected.
Humor is, in a way, a logical consequence of #1,2, and 3 because it puts you on an equal footing with the other person.
A favorite of mine that has worked on numerous occasions:
“Adonde vás?” – Where are you going?
“Al cielo,” Coen will respond with a poker face. “To heaven.”
Either they don’t understand it the first time and will ask again, and Coen will respond with the same answer, or they laugh right away.
“Right, yes, in the end we all go to heaven,” and instead of having this potential nasty stand-off with them wanting to see a passport or driver’s license and us pretending not to understand them, we laugh together, chat and are waved on without having shown a paper.
4. Understand the culture
As I said, what works in one culture / country / continent may not work in another. Which is something Coen quickly learned when we switched from Asian to South American (Argentinean in particular) culture. On the first day we left Buenos Aires, where we had shipped our Land Cruiser, we had an argument.
“You should turn on the lights.”
“Why? We never do.”
“Well, this is not Asia. We’re in South America now and there are signs along the side of the road stating as much. We should also wear seat belts now.”
“We never did in Asia.”
Which was true. Still…
This went back and forth for a bit which resulted in Coen putting on his seat belt but refusing to turn on the lights – it was daylight and we had a clear blue sky so it was useless except, well, in Argentina this was the law. Not much later we got stopped by a police officer. We had just arrived on the continent and didn’t speak any Spanish, but non-verbal language can be very clear: The police officer was not amused. Neither was Coen, and his tone became somewhat arrogant.
His words were nice and friendly, as always, but his tone and non-verbal language said it all – who was this police officer telling him what to do? Contrary on the subcontinent, where this attitude had worked miracles, here it backfired. In fact, the officer doubled the already outrageous fine on the spot. Coen was livid while I was stunned into silence for a moment. I told Coen to stay put, got out of the Land Cruiser, sweet-talked the officer into accepting the pesos I had, which was about half he had initially fined us, but still some 90 dollars, if I remember correctly.
It was an interesting start of our South America adventure. Unsurprisingly, seat belts and headlights have no longer been a point of discussion between us.
For a long time we thought that we had been fined because of our own stupidity. It turned out, we learned months later, that it wasn’t, well, part of it wasn’t. In fact, this was Argentina’s most famous scam. For years, and maybe even today, locals and foreigners were pulled over at kms 312 on Ruta 12 (Entre Rios). But – at the risk of sounding like oldies now – at that time (2007) there were no Facebook groups and if any online forums existed, we didn’t know about them. We went to South America with nothing but a Lonely Planet guidebook.
Obviously we shouldn’t have paid on the spot and instead should have asked for an invoice and paid at a police station.
6. Distract the officer
In Bangkok Coen was driving by himself and got utterly lost. To get where he wanted to go, he took a short cut into a one-way street but going against the flow (it was dawn, no cars and thus no problem). He got caught and in Thailand you’d better take officers seriously.
Coen acknowledged the officer, but didn’t respond to the officer’s words that he had broken the law. He ignored them. Instead, hanging out of his window with a paper map he asked for directions. It worked. He got his directions and the officer let him go.
Now that I am writing this down I realize that indeed, we have used this tactic of asking for directions on several occasions when we were actually breaking the law, combined with a story about how wonderful their country is, how helpful the local people have been, and how we’d really like to visit this one particular spot.
7. Be honest
We had one scary situation, one that could have gone very wrong. Since Venezuela has been brought to its knees economically, crime has been on the rise and the country is notorious for (violently) corrupt police officers. We had traveled there for a couple of months, had been stopped multiple times a day, but hadn’t had any problems having used all the tips mentioned above.
One stretch in particular had a very bad reputation: between Caracas and Maracay, and we knew of overlanders who had been in serious trouble there. One day we were on an empty, double-lane highway when a police car tailed us with all its bells and whistles going, motioning us to pull over. We were both immediately alert. Being cornered without other people present when clearly we had not done anything wrong was a bad sign.
Three officers got out. One walked up to Coen’s window, instructing him in harsh words to get out of the car. Coen’s tactic of shaking hands and introducing himself didn’t work. I told Coen to stay in the car. Staying together is crucial in a situation like this. Of course they know that too.
Meanwhile the officer walked around the Land Cruiser to my window with the other two behind him, instructing Coen – who was still in his seat, racking his brain what tactic to follow – again to get out. What was so different about this situation? It’s hard to pinpoint, really. Gut feeling, I guess. For the first time in all those years, I was truly frightened.
“You are scaring me,” I burst out to the officer who was partly hanging into my open window.
“You are scaring me. Stop doing that!” I said once more.
“I’m scaring you?” The man took his head out of the window and stepped back.
“Yes, you’re intimidating us, you’re making demands, you’re not being nice.”
That all sounded very brave, but I was close to crying.
Coen meanwhile had stepped out of the car and had walked around the front of the Land Cruiser. He walked up to the officer and said straight to his face, “No wonder she is afraid. We have been in Venezuela for months. We hear nothing but stories about police officers and the Guardia Nacional being corrupt and demanding bribes and sometimes even resorting to violence. So yes, she is scared. And frankly, so am I. We have never been stopped in the middle of nowhere without there being a problem that needed to be discussed”.
“That’s how we work here.”
“We have never noticed before. We have had many checks, but never along the side of the road like this. Isolating people like this even though we weren’t breaking the law is nothing but an attempt to ask for bribes.”
It was amazing to see the effect. They were baffled. Looking back I think that by not playing tough, but showing our emotions and expressing our fear we defused the situation. Obviously, this had not been a meditated move – it just happened. Through our words and Coen’s action of walking right up to the official we had shown we knew what we were in for; that we weren’t newbies to be easily cornered into some bullshit story with trumped-up charges.
Not that the game was over. They wanted to see our car papers and Coen walked to the rear of the Land Cruiser with them. One wanted him to open the rear doors. More attempts to separate us. It was a game of cat and mouse, which we played very carefully. Coen made sure to stay visible in my rearview mirror, doing his spiel about what a great country Venezuela was, how friendly and helpful the people had been, pointing out our route on the decal map on my front door.
One officer actually became enthralled by our story and wanted to know more, his face now showing a big smile. The other two were growing tired of the situation and I saw one shaking his head and saying to the other, “Okay, let’s go.”
When they walked to their car Coen and I felt we should end this on a positive note. On impulse Coen ran up to their vehicle, suggesting taking a photo together. This they liked and that’s how we parted with a smile on our face.
8. Use a combination of factors, e.g. trust people, be nice, speak the language, use humor, and be firm.
You know, I could turn this list into an endless one with yet different encounters and yet different ways of dealing with them. Maybe that’s not so strange given the fact that we’ve been on the road for so long and our experiences are countless. Truth is, I shared our worst encounters in all those years with you: in Argentina and Venezuela, and we’re confident that we could have turned around the one in Argentina as well, had we known then what we know now.
Of course there are more tips to share, such as carrying copies of your documents and never handing over the original. While good tips in themselves are very practical, the big difference, I think, lies in that ours are focused on behavior.
While you can’t always control what happens to you, you can always control how you respond to it.
And there, we believe, lies the key. By taking responsibility for your actions, your behavior, you create power within you. Traveling is about a lot of things, but trust is a big one on that list. Trust is believing that our fellow men on this planet are good people, willing to help and wanting to share. Enjoy the ride!