One of my biggest fears for before leaving to circumnavigate Africa was corruption and the infamous border crossings. It turned out to be some of the most fun parts of the trip.
At one stage, I even fell asleep at a checkpoint in Gabon on the bosses couch. When he said I should go, I told him I was tired and was going to chill for a while!
Turns out, after that he tied to steel my insurance card. But being calm and relaxed I have seen the sneaky trick and got it back.
I never paid a bribe or kick back at a border or checkpoint.
Me with a cop in Nigeria.
There are always heated discussions on forums about whether to pay bribes and the best ways to deal with corrupt officials.
The hardest borders and checkpoints are normally the ones closest to the richer countries. For example, in Africa, they are between Mauritania and Senegal. The biggest shit holes of borders known to mankind. They expect money because people from Europe don’t know how to deal with corrupt officials, this is taken advantage of to the point where “If you don’t pay you don’t cross”.
This isn’t further from the truth, once you view these people as criminals in suits with a hat to make them look bigger, you will have an easier time.
Borders are full of dodgy people, hustlers, and fixers. They all want your money and will say anything to get it. You don’t need a fixer, but if you want to sit back and relax, by all means, get one. Just make sure you know his/her price and you pay for everything so don’t hand them over money to process visas etc. I never needed a fixer, but I see how they can be handy.
And watch your gear…
Military in Congo
Tips for crossing borders
Be happy and confident. Always be respectful to their person and respect their authority and country. The last thing you want to do is get angry and aggressive. Do that and prepare to be in for a long day.
Know the process
Often it’s not that complicated, immigration > vehicle > health. But after time I just went, I had so much confidence to get through fast I just knew the basics and read a few current blogs. Just know the basic steps to get through.
Show no fear
If you show fear you show you have no control. They will eat you alive if you show fear. Be confident and assertive. There is nothing to fear.
Be early as possible
Earlier the better. In the morning the temperate is cooler and people are more docile. There is also fewer people and the fixers and hustlers are still in bed. Plan at least 3-4 hours for both sides of the border. It averaged out for me one hour per border.
Talk a lot and ask questions
Make them feel you need their help, “What do you recommend to see in your country” “What is the best food to eat that only comes from your country” etc. Take time to speak to people and look like you are relaxed and have time. Make them proud of their country and leverage that.
Anyone can be the boss
There are often no official dress codes, treat everyone as if they are immigration or customs officials. You may not know, it but the worst dressed guy is the boss. Take time and ask them what they do if the conversation is going on too long.
Copies of your documents
Give them copies of your documents, not the real thing. This applies to roadblocks and checkpoints NOT borders. Make a color copy two-sided and laminate it, this will do. They have leverage with real documentation.
Always ask for receipts
No receipt = no pay. Its simple, if they don’t offer a receipt of some kind, its normally a bribe. If they can’t offer a receipt, I can’t pay them. Say “Say you can’t pay as you need a receipt for the next country visa” or something. And see the recipient before you give them money, sometimes they will give a receipt with one number, and verbally tell you another cost.
Have a business card made up for a few bucks and tell then you want to be friends, or will send a gift later. I have a business card with faulty details on the card. Well, it’s mostly correct but with a few additions. For example the phone number, I add a number so they can’t contact me, but if I give it to a person I really want to keep in touch with I cross out the last number.
Have the local currency if possible or at least know your rates. Do a little research. Use an app that stores the rates.
One step at a time
Hold onto your paperwork, do one step at a time and keep your paperwork together, they use this tactic to confuse and control the situation. Simply keep your cool and say you must do it by step by step. They lost my passport once because of this, I got it back but even though they do this every day, there is still a little system to the madness.
It works. If you get directly asked for a bribe like “what did you bring me” say “I didn’t know I was going to see you today so I didn’t bring you something” Sounds like they wouldn’t understand, I hate to say it but many don’t have the background education you may have and its not that hard to outsmart them. You can also change the subject, like ask them for the best palace to stay, food or things to see.
Go the opposite way
Don’t tell anyone where you will stay or what way you will go. 99% of the time they just want to know, but it only takes 1% of them to make your trip hell and send someone to rob you or worse.
Keep your cards close
Don’t show your second passport. Keep it hidden. Many people think it only “spy’s” that have more than one passport. Keep as much information from them as possible.
Show them you have time, wasting your time is their only play card. Add in somehow you don’t know what you will do because you have so much time you are not in a rush and can wait. This is gold.
These are just some of the tips I can give you. The biggest recommendation is to smile and be confident, talk a lot and be over friendly. Act like a pro and they will know not to try it on. “Ohh Mr, you have done this before!”
Some of my fondest and craziest moments happened at borders!
What are your tips? Please let me know in the comments, please!
Border control in Zambia