1. First Bribe

By Paul Vanderveen

Copyright ©1999, 2003 by Paul Vanderveen

The day after leaving my job, I hopped a plane to New York for the overnight flight to Dakar, a new notebook computer in my backpack. I had traded my desktop for the portable, but now had to pass Senegalese customs. Jan had mentioned that getting a computer into Senegal wasn't easy. The State Department's Consular Information Sheet, which I had gotten off the Internet, confirmed that computers were on a list of items "held by airport customs officials if brought in as baggage or carry-on luggage." The tariff on personal computers, as I learned by calling the Senegalese embassy in Washington, was about 30%. The consul had specifically warned me against trying to evade it.
     A thousand dollars was far beyond an acceptable loss. Besides, carrying a notebook computer while traveling seemed routine in business and professional circles. What kind of place, I wondered, was Senegal? Was it really a "developing" country?
     Telling customs officials that I wouldn't pay their stiff tariff didn't seem like a good idea, so I started taking Jan's lessons in bribery seriously. I had never bribed anyone before, but wanted to get into the country with the notebook. Could I regard bribery and perhaps even lying, in this case, as an adventure in alternative living?
     During her last visit to the States, Jan helped me devise three possible strategies. First, I could declare "books and clothes" and try waltzing past customs officials while failing to mention the computer. That seemed particularly risky to me. Although certain circumstances, such as facing aggression, can make lying a perfectly moral response, I knew I had little experience and generally poor skills in this area. It wasn't my style. What if officials found the computer in a routine check? What would I do then? If I had lied, wouldn't I be worse off?
     The second strategy, bribing customs officials with a little cash in my passport, also seemed risky. Wouldn't I be flagging a problem? What if they held up my money for all to see and asked, "What's this?" What if I got arrested for bribery? She laughed when I admitted my anxiety. It was clear that I hadn't traveled abroad before.
     I had trouble even envisioning the final alternative, enlisting the assistance of a porter to carry my bags through customs in a bribery conspiracy. "What?," I asked. "There are porters before you clear customs?"
     She thought $10 would be sufficient, but I wanted to be sure, so I budgeted $40. Before flying to New York, I folded two twenties, putting them safely in my pocket. I was winging it, flying overseas for the first time, alone, to a country where I didn't speak any of their languages and they didn't speak mine, and I was planning to commit an illegal act which the consul had warned me not to commit. I would be on my own until I cleared both passport inspection and customs.
     Strangely, perhaps, I wasn't worried. Catching a few hours sleep on the long flight across the Atlantic, I awoke before the plane crossed the African coastline, watching as we turned and landed at a dreary-looking small town airport. I followed other passengers down the stairs onto the tarmac and into a barren terminal building for passport inspection. I counted my blessings as the guy in uniform just looked through my passport and stamped it without asking anything. I hadn't had time to learn any French and wouldn't have understood any words beyond "bonjour" and "merci."
     A young porter in a maroon uniform stepped forward as I passed into the drab baggage area. We seemed destined to meet, making the last rehearsed strategy seem good, and I accepted him as my porter. He went over to get a cart and met me by the conveyer belt, where we waited for my bags. The computer was in my backpack, but I had books and clothes in checked baggage.
     Standing there waiting, he told me his first name and I gave him mine. After a brief silence, it seemed my turn to pick up the conversation, so I asked if he spoke any English.
     "Yes, I speak English!" He said it confidently. After some attempt at small talk, though, I realized he knew only a few English phrases, and we quickly ran out of things to say. He then broke a growing silence, popping the big question, "No open bags?"
     I repeated his question, as though struck by a new idea, and followed him when he pushed the cart decisively to the opening where the conveyer belt entered the building. Baggage would first appear here, but the location also happened to be away from the other passengers who had started mulling around.
     "You give me something, I give friend," he said, looking toward customs. "You give me more later," he finished.
     I tried to look noncommittal, thinking that this bribery stuff was a lot easier than I expected and concerned that I didn't want to seem too eager. I also wondered whether "potential bribe" was written all over me.
     After awhile, he said, "You give me passport."
     I had to think about that, not ready to surrender such a vital document to just anybody, but what, I wondered, could he do with it with all these people around? I took it out of my pocket and discretely handed it over. It disappeared in his pocket.
     "You give me something for friend."
     The baggage had not started to appear yet, so I was in no rush and took my time, considering whether I had any indication of a problem. I then pulled my hand with a folded twenty out of my pocket and nonchalantly handed over the bill, wondering if anybody noticed. If he had any doubts about my interest in bribery, they were gone now. I looked away, as though disinterested, and he put his hand in his pocket without appearing to look at the money.
     "For friend," he wanted to be sure I understood the terms. "You give me more later, outside."
     I nodded in agreement.
     When my bags appeared among the assortment of luggage, beat-up bags and large cardboard boxes held together with plastic tape, he loaded them on the cart. I had been careful to dress down and not spend any of my savings on new luggage. At customs, other passengers were lining up for baggage inspection, but my guy and I skipped all that. He just wheeled my stuff boldly toward the exit door, as a uniformed customs officer, spotting us, marched briskly on an intercept course.
     Almost proudly, it seemed, my guy handed over the passport, saying something in a language that didn't sound like French. The officer looked at it intently, at shoulder height, holding it out with one hand, openly. I wondered whether he was palming the twenty, but I didn't notice any motion at all. After taking ten seconds to look at it, he snapped it shut and waved me through, handing it back to me. I felt special, like an ambassador, as I walked past my fellow passengers.
     There she was in the lobby, saying she had spotted me earlier. As we walked out to her little Peugeot, I let her know that I had already spent half my budgeted amount and had promised more. She gave the porter a big tip in local currency, probably more than he expected--his reward for helping me get into the country with "no open bags."
     Glad to be past the gauntlet and proud of success on my very first attempt, I told her I wanted to bribe other officials, just for practice. Spoiling my fun, however, she said that my situation had been special. We would normally just argue a lot and be stubborn, additional skills I apparently needed to hone in the "developing" world.

  1. First Bribe
  2. You Decide  < Next
  3. Acknowledging Others
  4. Passing Grade
  5. Two Foreign Cultures
  6. How Do You Say "Help" in Arabic?
  7. Risks in the Developing World
  8. Un, Deux, Trois
  9. Hello But No Cadeau