Interactions with police officers whilst on a long trip

Perhaps the thing that worries most folk when planning a big overland trip is interacting with authority whilst on the road in developing countries – police and border officials. Will they expect bribes? How will I know when to bribe, and when it could get me into trouble? Will they try and rob me? The questions spiral on and on. Please note that this piece does not condone bribery or suggest it as a tactic – it is illegal. However at times it is forced upon the traveller as a way out of a situation…..

            This blog has touched on this in the past – notably mentioning my friend who decided to take simple conjuring tricks to try and win friends at border points, and ended up getting arrested in West Africa for supposedly practicing “black magic” but it’s worth discussing in depth now that trips are once more being planned abroad.

My pal Fawzi on the trail in the Lebanese mountains

            Cops and border guards in the developing world are generally just regular folks – often bored, underpaid, subject to all sorts of “attitude” from locals and foreigners, and they see overland travellers as both possible entertainment and, yes, at times, potential income supplements. Who can blame them? They see a multi-thousand-pound vehicle appear, dripping with expensive kit, driven by folk in expensive clothing, maybe with sunglasses alone that cost more than a year of their salary. As I often remind would-be travellers – if you want less hassle in developing countries, avoid the blingy “hi-tech shiny vehicle” look – to locals you look like an ATM.

            Bribery is of course the most common topic of worry when encountering cops and border guards – the idea that you might be the victim of a spurious ticket where the cash is pocketed by the uniformed figure, or in some cases you have to pay a cop to look the other way when you’ve actually done nothing wrong. There is no hard and fast set of rules to prepare you for it. A relaxed attitude and a sense of humour linked to a bit of common sense will see you through. It is almost always highly illegal, whatever country you are in, but that certainly doesn’t stop it happening. In Kenya recently whilst driving a rented Range Rover I was flagged down by cops who said that since I didn’t have a PSV licence I couldn’t drive a rented vehicle. Utter rubbish of course, but they held all the cards. Amiable wrangling went on for a while, ending with me paying them the price of a goat for their dinner as a “present” (a common euphemism for a bribe), and on I went. I was pushed for time that day, with miles to go before nightfall, so I wanted a fast resolution to the issue. Pre-revolutionary Egypt was even more blatant, with cops expecting a payoff to look the other way and actively looking for incidents to facilitate this. It’s changed quite a bit since then! Developing countries tend to pay public employees very little, and refusal to accept this sort of thing can land you in hot water as they make your life very difficult.

In the Annapurna range of Nepal

            Equally, use your own judgement. In Tanzania I was flagged down by a cop who tried to fine me for driving with offroad tyres. I pointed at the tractor that had just driven past and laughter ensued. No money changed hands. I was warned, on another recent trip, that police roadblocks in Zimbabwe can often be hazards for the unwary – but by chance the Zimbabwe police had just received a delivery of new squad cars, so amiable chatter about the new cars with the guys on duty diverted their boredom and avoided the question of “presents” or spurious fines. There’s a very good chance you can get away with actual presents instead of cash – cheap but posh-looking sunglasses are always good (especially if they have fake designer labels), as are cheap digital watches, the sort you can buy for a couple of quid. When I turned up at a remote border in the Balkans with missing paperwork the guys asked for a Starbucks coffee as their fee for letting me in!

Crossing from Egypt into Libya

            If you do fall foul of high-up authority, don’t automatically assume you can bribe your way out of it. Many police and border guards in developing countries are very law-abiding and “by the book” – always assume they are unless proven otherwise. If you do find yourself in actual trouble with officials, even if you’ve done nothing wrong, always be polite, always be pleasant. Never attempt any sort of “financial incentive”.

            Use common sense and go with your gut instinct, having judged the person you are dealing with and the economy of the country you travel through. It’s been said before and will be said again, but always approach any encounter with officialdom with gentle good humour and friendliness. The arrogant “Let me through” approach (no matter how tired you are) will land you in hot water. These guys have all day, they aren’t going anywhere!


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