A few years ago, I traveled to Bali with five other people — five women, to be exact. They were wonderful travel buddies, but when they proposed we spend the entire afternoon at a luxury spa, I opted out and chose to rent a motorbike instead — for $2 an hour, no less. So while the ladies received skin treatments, I cruised along the rural roads of inland Bali. Eight of the best dollars I ever spent, but my ride incurred some additional expenses before the bike was returned.
I cruised a few kilometers outside Ubud, a rural settlement widely regarded as Bali’s cultural center. Distracted by the lush foliage and local farmers who waved from roadside fields, I failed to notice a police checkpoint in the distance. So by the time I reached the armed officer, he was already gesturing wildly and ordering me to shut off the bike. I complied, but I could tell he was already suspicious.
“International Driver’s Permit, please.”
“I left it with the guy who rented me the bike,” I lied. I didn’t own, nor had I ever owned, an IDP.
“Show me your receipt.”
I pulled the scrap of paper out of my pocket and handed it to the officer. He read it quickly and shook his head. “Look here,” he said, pointing to the last line on the receipt. It was a disclaimer: the person who rents this vehicle must carry an International Driver’s Permit at all times. I was screwed.
“OK,” I said. “What now?”
“Well, I can take the bike to an impound and place you under arrest. Or…”
“Or, you can pay a fee.”
I knew what that meant. I produced my wallet and thumbed through the stack of rupiah bills I withdrew from an ATM earlier that morning. I had nearly 2 million rupiah — which, at the time, was roughly equivalent to $180. I did my best to appear nonchalant.
“How much do you want?”
“Oohh… let’s say… thirty U.S. dollars.”
Realizing that the bulk of my remaining vacation fund was secure, I breathed a sigh of relief. But then it occurred to me that this policeman was well within in his right to accept the bribe, and then arrest me anyway. So I breathed another sigh of relief when he smiled, pocketed the bills, and sent me on my way. Was it morally and/or ethically wrong for me to pay the bribe? Perhaps, but giving in to the officer’s demand saved me from a night in Indonesian jail. So there’s that.
Bribery is a universal practice, and certainly not limited to police officers; passport officials, doctors, taxi drivers, and even post office workers have been known to prey on tourist wallets. According to the 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index (published by Transparency International), the three most corrupt countries in the world — tied for a score of 8 out of 100 — are Afghanistan, North Korea, and Somalia; no surprises there. But several popular tourist destinations ranked somewhat poorly on the list; these include Cambodia (with a score of 22), Papua New Guinea (25), Nepal (27), Kenya (27), Egypt (32), Ecuador (32), Indonesia (32), Philippines (34), Mexico (34), India (36), Greece (36), and Jamaica (38). These aren’t bad countries by any means, but tourists are warned that bribery is somewhat commonplace in each one. But for what it’s worth, only 54 countries (out of 176) scored above the 50-point threshold. In case you were wondering, the least corrupt countries are Denmark (90), Finland (90), New Zealand (90), Denmark (88), and Singapore (87). And for the record, U.S. placed 19th.
Should you pay the bribe? Experts say it depends entirely on the context — and tourists can employ certain tactics to avoid bribery exchanges altogether. European travel guru Rick Steves warns tourists to beware of shady characters disguised as local law enforcement. ‘Room inspectors’ may ask to search your hotel room, but don’t be fooled — there is a chance that they just want to lift your valuables. Also watch out for phony-looking ‘uniformed’ officers with faux badges; these individuals will loudly demand to see the identification in your wallet, but they’re really just interested in swiping a few bills. Drive the Americas urges those who travel to Latin America to make photocopies of their passport, driver’s license, and other valuable documents; during a police pullover, only photocopied materials should be exchanged with the officer. And Hidden Cancun urges tourists to always accept a written citation from a Mexican police officer, rather than ‘tip him’ to make the ticket disappear; regardless of the fine, the bribe will usually exceed this amount. These strategies, coupled with a general knowledge of local laws, will help tourists steer clear of bribery incidents wherever they travel.
But sometimes, paying a bribe may be the only feasible option — such as situations where your personal safety is in question. The demanding officer is intoxicated, for instance, or you’re in an isolated area and the official is armed. Or maybe your travel partners are in a day spa and you just don’t want to go to jail, am I right? In these instances, Travel Insurance Review urges tourists to negotiate the bribe amount; start as low as possible and raise the amount in small increments. In some cases, bartering with goods (a watch, disposable camera, clothing, etc.) may be an option. Remain calm and pleasant as you pay the bribe — anger will only increase the bribe amount. When the transaction is completed and you’ve managed to escape, feel free to report the offending official to the nearest police station; bribery is technically illegal in most countries, and violators are often punished. But even a simple chewing-out from the local supervisor might be enough to deter officials from bribing tourists in the future.
To pay or not pay? That is the question. Just remember one thing: getting bribed might make for an unpleasant, potentially terrifying experience — but once the incident is over, you’ll be left with one helluva travel story.
By Brad Nehring