illustrations by Crimson Ape
During our latest experience crossing a border (Haiti to the DR) I had an epiphany:
It’s commotion, you’re tired, it’s usually hot, it’s messy, you’re not sure where you’re going or where you should go, you might or might not have all your papers in order…. AAARRRRRRRRGGGGG
SO, we’ve come up with a few third world border crossing tips to help you get across that border with LESS hassle (It’s still going to be a hassle, it’s part of the price you pay for the luxury of travel)
1. Don’t pack drugs.
That’s called smuggling.
No matter how little of it you have (even seeds, or dust, or residues, or anything a dog can smell) and no matter what the drug is, this is THE top most important, if-you-forget-everything-else-just-don’t-forget-this-one, no-brainer “tip.”
Don’t cross a border packing.
Unless sleeping in a single cell with other people in everyone’s feces and urine for a while sounds like a good idea to you, just don’t do it.
You could try to contact the press, if you were ever allotted your phone call, but that might not help much either.
Better call a very expensive lawyer.
I’m not saying you’ll get caught EVERY time you smuggle drugs across a border, plenty of your friends might have done it “by accident” multiple times without consequence, what I’m saying is that IF you are caught, which is more likely to happen than not, you are f!@#ed, probably literally and figuratively, for life, unless you’re luckier than most.
The difference between smuggling drugs and breaking other laws is no-one will have any sympathy for you, and you will get no help. I’d give you an anecdote, but I’ve never crossed a border with drugs. ever. And I never will.
2. Know your responsibilities
We made a few mistakes crossing into and back out of Haiti, and the first was not fully understanding the paperwork that we needed to legally drive our car in Haiti.
While it took us almost a week to get our full paperwork from the Dominican side, we didn’t realize we would need almost as much paperwork from the Haitian side.
This didn’t seem like such an issue since getting the Haitian paperwork seemed easy enough to get done quickly right at the border.
HOWEVER, I was unaware that I needed a signed authorization from the Haitian police to legally drive my car there, so when I was sent to the police station after customs, and the officer looked at my papers, then said to me, “you’re free to go” I figured I had everything I needed. WRONG!
It also meant that we had to pay a fine for everyday we “illegally” drove our vehicle in Haiti. Pissed off.
Knowing your responsibilities will keep you from accidentally overlooking something you’re not going to be let off the hook for later.
I could have insisted that the officer give me the papers I needed, if I knew I needed them, which I should have.
3. Know your rights
Although you might have done absolutely everything you’re responsible for, this doesn’t guarantee your crossing won’t be a hassle.
For some of us, still a bit green on the edges, used to authority existing to serve and protect, and used to uniforms signifying obedience, it’s time to wake up, fast.
This is important to remember when crossing borders. You might think of them as scum, but they probably have mouths to feed.
Knowing not only your responsibilities, but also your rights, can get you through that border quicker and without having to pay for unnecessary fines, taxes, permissions, stamps, or flat out bribes.
For example, crossing the Haitian/Dominican border, we were accosted by about 6 different “officials” before making it to the legit immigration office, all asking us to pay some kind of “fee” There was a customs fee, and an agriculture fee, and a this, and a that, all of which I knew had nothing to do with us, but they were all wearing “uniforms” and seemed pretty “official” so someone less informed might have ended up paying an extra 20-30 bucks on bull!@#.
The last one was the Dominican Customs officer, a legit officer, with legit documentation and ID, who assured me I needed a customs stamp on both our passports at the low low price of $20 each, after I’d already passed the actual offices.
I knew he was full of it already, but was even more certain when he told me “No, pero se resuelve aqui y no hay ningun problema” (We can take care of it right here and there’s no problem)
Call them out on their bluff. Which leads us to the next tip.
4. Have the right attitude
Some people will tell you to respect anyone in a uniform, no matter what, and I agree, that’s most definitely how you should start every conversation.
Always be kind, frank, to the point, and speak in the most formal tone, voice, and form of the language when speaking to officers. (legit or not)
Don’t call them man, or brother, or partner, or amigo, or anything other than ‘sir’ or ‘officer’ in whatever language you need to speak in.
This is true also of body language, ESPECIALLY the less of the language you know.
Watch your posture, stand tall (but no taller than them) wear clothing that doesn’t make you look like a drug dealer or addict, but also not clothing that makes you look like you make millions.
If a dispute over paperwork occurs, calmly ask, as clearly as possible, exactly what the issue is. Once you’ve identified the issue, figure out wether or not you are in the wrong.
If you’ve overstayed your visa, or are missing an entry/exit stamp, you will most likely have to pay something and YOU are in the wrong, so fork up.
Otherwise, don’t let someone milk you of your cash just because they’re an “official” and intimidating.
This is why you need to know your rights and responsibilities. If you’re absolutely sure you are NOT in the wrong, firmly let the officer know you are not going to pay them anything.
Call them out on their bluff and they’ll most likely not want to create more issue than it’s worth and move on to an easier target.
If they do insist, let them know you’d love to clear this up with their boss, or at the local police station. This is level two of calling them out on their bluff.
Depending on the price of the issue, I wouldn’t step much beyond this line.
Of course if you’re talking about hundreds of dollars, dial up your embassy’s phone number, before the problem gets out of hand and you end up behind bars.
Sometimes it helps to get colloquial, but only when you master that skill-set already.
With the aforementioned customs officer requesting I resolve the issue with him, my attitude quickly turned from formal to not at all.
First of all, a customs officer can’t handcuff me, only bring me to someone else.
Second, his attitude was already less-than-formal.
Thirdly, as a woman, I need to find a leg up anywhere I can and using local slang confidently shows I’m not one to be pushed around and intimidated by men, official or not.
So when he insisted I indeed needed customs stamps on our passports and threw in “amor” every third breath, that was my cue to use more hand gestures and more neck waves, get a bit more up in his face, and let him know which side of the law I knew I stood on.
This wasn’t done with any disrespect, it was simply done matching the cultural norm he was showing me he found to be appropriate, and to show him that I wasn’t clueless as to how things went down here.
They’ll find it ever more odd to give them attitude.
That’s why it’s especially important to make it clear that this is sometimes NECESSARY, if to be used with caution and only confidently.
I ended up walking back to the official desks where I let them know what was going on, they stamped my passport for free and told me not to let the “tigueres” get to me.
(Once I had everything I needed and knew he had no power over me at all, I did go back and disrespect him completely, letting him know with plenty of attitude that it was people like him who made it so damn difficult for their country’s tourism to develop in a way that would actually benefit HIS people and that he should be ashamed of himself…. this is not compulsory, nor recommended, but it made me feel better because it had been a long day)
5. Take a deep breath
As I just confessed I had, it’s easy to loose your cool when crossing borders.
There’s a lot of commotion, often you’ve traveled hours just to get there, not counting the wait time, there could be a cultural barrier if not a full on language barrier, the whole thing is just not fun.
Try to create a mental barrier between everything negative that’s happened earlier in the day and tell yourself the day is starting fresh and new now.
If you have water or wet naps, go ahead and refresh your face.
Take a moment to put yourself in the shoes of whoever you’re going to be facing and remember they’re probably having a crappy day as well, imagine how you would want to be treated if you were them.
Take a moment to remind yourself of your rights and responsibilities and to remind yourself you have all of your papers in order. (especially if you do not speak the local language, it might be of help to have printed an official list of your required documents in english and the local language)
The point is that you’ll never know what is about to go down, and sometimes things can escalate very quickly, being in control of your emotions in such a situation can get you a long way.
6. Dress the part
Once while crossing from Canada into the US going to a music festival called Bonaroo, we were asked to go inside so I could fill out some necessary paperwork.
The people in the car ahead of us had been called in for the same reason, and were headed to the same festival, small world.
We were let go in about 3 minutes, the time to fill the forms, while the other car was searched inside and out, bags and all.
I was wearing clean blue jeans and a blouse fresh out of the dryer, while the other guy was sporting a “Grateful Dead” shirt that looked like it hadn’t been washed since it was purchased at a second hand store.
Which just made them search harder (and made me chuckle. I’m terrible.) As we were pulling out he had mentioned police brutality under his breath (the officers had not laid a hand on him) and the look in the officer’s eye made me feel like this guy was going to have to screw his door panels back in place before leaving the border.
The point is, if you give them a reason to think they can get something off you, they’ll try, it’s their job. At the Canada/US border, mostly the guards are after drugs and illegal immigrants, if you give them no reason to think you’re smuggling either, they’ll mostly let you slide right through the barrier with no problem.
In the third world, things get a little more complicated because they are paid worst wages than migrant workers in the US.
Give them any reason to think you have enough cash to spare and they’ll try to get their hands on some. It only makes sense.
Dress respectfully, but not too nicely.
Take off your jewelry and your rolex, don’t flaunt your electronics, don’t flaunt big wads of cash, don’t show up munching on anything.
These last tips are true of travel in the third world PERIOD, not just border crossings.
7. Know the local scams
It takes a while to come up with something that works, and it takes a lot of effort to change your strategy.
Chances are, the tricks are already in a book. Before crossing a border, not only should you inform yourself on your rights and responsibilities, you should also do a quick internet search on the border crossing.
Take note of the tips and tricks that are specific to that border, if someone tries to pull a fast one, you’ll already have a leg up.
8. Have the local currency
Where possible, save yourself time by having a few US bills as well as about $20USD in the local currency.
This will save you unnecessary wait time at the ATM line (if that exists) or sketchy exchanges with the currency exchange guys. You’ll be ready for any fees you’ll need to pay (legit or not)
While we’re on the subject, if you have any left over currency from the last country, this might be your last opportunity to change it. It’s better to do it before you get here, but if this is your last option it’s better than nothing.
9. Find a buddy
But be suspicious of overly helpful strangers.
This won’t work crossing some remote African border, but if you’re, for example, in Central America, find someone who speaks both languages and agrees to help translate.
It’s obviously better to find someone you trust ahead of time than picking a stranger out of a crowd, but use good judgement and have a conversation with this person while you’re waiting in line.
Also, don’t rely on your buddy completely, use common sense and try to follow the conversation as best as you can.
If something starts getting fishy, thank your new found buddy for their time and tell them you’ll handle it from here.
This is why it’s better to find a buddy ahead of time.
Yes, it’s true, most people are good Samaritans, but that fact is less true around situations where people can be scammed.
Anyone approaching you offering help before you’ve asked for it is, in my opinion, and depending on their face/attitude, not to be trusted.
It doesn’t mean you can’t let them help for a while, but in this situation, let them know immediately you do not have the means to compensate them for their time, and are not looking for a guide.
If they insist they just want to help, and you could use a hand, let them help you, but be vigilant.
10. Take your time.
If you pass through the border and are faced with loud pushy taxis (or any other form of transport) on the other side, walk right through the mess and recompose on the other side.
Repeatedly letting people know you’re not looking for transport will get them off your back.
You can instead take a few moments to buy yourself a bottle of water, or a pop, and take your time looking and the ins and outs of what’s happening.
When you’re ready, approach whom you’d wish and negotiate a price before getting in.
Borders are a mess and in a way are a reflection of the country you’re visiting, but only in a very concentrated form.
From here on it’s going to be fine. (until the next border)
illustrations by Crimson Ape