The Particular Anger of Powerlessness
Travel Stories: Lauren Quinn confronts a culture of bribery while crossing the Cambodia-Laos border
03.05.12 | 11:50 AM ET
“Passport for border crossing,” the tout called out.
Sporting a comb-over and an untucked shirt, he moved slowly through the bus aisle, collecting navy blue, green and maroon booklets from the hands of bleary-eyed Westerners.
The Cambodian countryside rattled outside the window—bushes and thatched houses that gave way to lots of nothing, brown expanses of dirt— as the bus maneuvered down the pitted road leading to the Laos border.
I reached out to hand him my navy-blue booklet.
“Five dollars,” he told me.
“For what?” I asked, keeping my grip on my passport.
“Two dollars for overtime charge on both sides,” he said, averting his eyes. “One dollar for me.”
“Oh, well,” I said with a smile, “can I walk across the border myself?”
He gave an annoyed sigh and waved his arm—“Yeah, yeah”—and continued down the aisle.
“Well, that’s good,” I said to my friend Alicia. “We can stretch our legs and save a dollar. And,” I added, “see about negotiating that ‘overtime charge.’”
“Mom and Dad and other crazy shit.”
The subject line of my brother’s email stared back at me. It was a day earlier; I sat on the veranda of my guesthouse in Kep, along the Cambodian coastline, drinking morning coffee and breathing salt air.
It wasn’t going to be a good email. I took a deep breath and clicked.
“Dad is stuck in Mexico,” my brother wrote. “He got detained and is being sent back to Cuba.”
I let out a long exhale. “Oh. Shit.”
When the roadblock appeared, our bus eased to a stop. The karaoke video that had been blaring love-torn pop ballads snapped to an abrupt black; we made our way out of the air-conditioning and into the heat.
It was Saturday afternoon. Which meant our busload of Westerners was being subjected to a Southeast Asian “overtime charge”—rough translation: “My supervisor isn’t on duty so I’m gonna make you give me money to let you pass the border.”
Bribery is part of everyday life in Southeast Asia, and especially in Cambodia, where the average government official makes $80 a month. In order to live, it’d been explained to me, they collect bribes. And as a foreigner, you’re an easy target. (“I finally got rid of my car,” Paul, a wealthy American lawyer in Phnom Penh, had told me. “I got tired of paying bribes, tired of getting stopped and being late everywhere. So I just ride my bicycle now.” He’d patted the handlebars happily.)
The Cambodian border control was a faded wooden shack with three un-uniformed men sitting behind a table, all potbellies and wrinkled shirts. My eyes narrowed on them. I’m usually able to roll with cultural differences, even ones I don’t agree with. But that day, I was in no mood for shenanigans.
“What the hell?” Alicia had asked. “Why would your dad be detained by Mexican immigration?”
I shook my head. My parents had just traveled to Cuba—still illegal for Americans, so they’d gone through the popular gateway of Cancun. I’d been nervous and excited for them, since it was their first trip in decades to a destination not covered by Rick Steves. Internet access being what it is in Cuba, this was the first update I’d heard from their trip. It wasn’t the kind I’d wanted to hear.
“The only thing I can think of,” I began slowly, “is that they tried to bribe a Mexican official to avoid a double-entry stamp, and it didn’t work.”
The double-entry stamp is something a lot of American travelers worry about, the number one question I’d been asked about by readers of a Cuba series I’d posted on my travel blog.
Basically, it’s like this: Cuba doesn’t stamp American passports, so if a traveler enters through Mexico, they end up with two Mexico entry stamps and no evidence of where they were in between: a red flag for American immigration. It thus used to be common practice for Americans to place $20 in their passports when they re-entered Mexico; the immigration officials would accept the bribe and not give the second entry stamp.
The notion of bribing an official is largely disconcerting for Americans—how do you know when, or how, or how much?—or else it ignites righteous indignation. We like, I suppose, the black-and-white, the idea of uncorrupted order and justice. But in other countries, bribery’s an accepted part of life, an expected way of doing business. And when it comes to things like officials and borders, they make the rules; they’ve got us by the huevos, so to speak. We can squirm and scream and try to negotiate, but ultimately, we’re at their mercy.
I used my friend’s phone to call my brother, Aaron, and got the full story. Sure enough, my dad had slipped a $20 bill into his passport in Cancun. Turns out Mexican immigration is trying to clean up its image—the agent freaked; they whisked my dad away, locked him a room with no food or water for a day, then sent him back to Cuba.
“I’ve talked with him, he’s okay,” Aaron told me in his voice of detached officialty. “He’s back with Rydel’s family in Havana and they’re taking care of him. He might be able to get on a flight back to Cancun tomorrow. If not, there isn’t another open flight for three weeks, so he might have to fly through Toronto. Mom’s in Cancun, waiting it out.
“They both sounded pretty shaken,” my brother added, in a softer voice. “They’re getting older, you know, and this is scary. And they’re not together. Dad sounded as frazzled as I’ve ever heard him.”
I shook my head. I wished it’d been me instead.
Back along the border, I led my pack of Westerners—two friends and a Swedish couple who’d overheard my protest—to the Cambodian shack. A few weeks earlier, I’d negotiated the Thai-Cambodia border bribe down about 50 percent, so I thought I’d try my luck again.
I smiled. (Smiling is important.) “Hello,” I said casually, handing over my passport.
A pudgy man with a deeply lined, grumpy face flipped open the pages. “Okay, you pay two dollars.”
I widened my eyes in feigned surprise. “For what?”
“Stamp fee,” a darker man replied, his eyes averted.
“Oh,” I said slowly, softly. “But there was no fee when I crossed from Vietnam. Or Thailand.”
“Overtime charge,” the third man said. His eyes also looked away. “Today Saturday.”
I nodded. “Overtime,” I repeated. I gave them the look I’ve honed, the same one I use to negotiate with the tuk-tuk drivers: the oh-you-wiley-guy look—like I’m amused, like we’re both in on a joke, the one they’re trying to play on me.
We stood in silence.
“Two dollars,” the pudgy man repeated.
“May I have a receipt?” I asked.
“Okay, one dollar, you.” The dark man still wouldn’t look at me.
I peeled open my wallet. I was two-for-two.
I‘d gotten through to my mom the night before. I stood hunched over on the terrace of a cheap guesthouse, straining against the din of the city to hear her.
She was eating breakfast at a cafe in Cancun, in some working-class neighborhood where she hadn’t seen any other tourists. Her voice sounded tense, brittle, like a surface about to break: “Oh, I’m doing okay.”
She filled me in on all the details: the long debate with other Americans in the immigration line over whether to put money in their passports; the way my mom had waited for hours when they took my dad away; the taxi driver from East L.A. she’d met, who spent a half-day with her, helped her get a cheap hotel; the plans she and my dad had devised to get him home.
“I don’t even want to think about how much all this is costing us,” she said at last, sounding more like herself.
I thought of her there, in a dingy cafe, her first time alone in a foreign country. I thought of my dad, alone in a bare room, spinning worst-case scenarios in his head, the way I know he does. I imagined him back in Cuba: no money, no ATM access or cell phone reception, his first time alone in foreign country.
“It sounds like they were trying to make an example of you,” I said. I felt the particular anger of powerlessness.
“Two dollars” the Laotian official told me in a stern voice.
I repeated my farcical surprise, the charade and smile.
Our gang of Westerners stood before the Lao immigration desk. Unlike on the Cambodian side, which we’d just left, this was an actual desk, in an actual office with an actual window we had to slide our passports through.
“Two dollars,” the official repeated more harshly.
I asked for a receipt. He pushed my passport aside and folded his hands.
He wouldn’t look at me. I leaned back on a railing. The bus wasn’t going anywhere soon, and I was curious to see what would happen if I waited him out.
A Laotian man approached, handed over his passport, paid the $2 fee. “They don’t make enough money,” he told us in English, to explain the bribe fee.
“I know,” I answered with a shrug. I could feel a kind of stubbornness building up in me, disproportionate to the $2.
The agent kept taking other passports, collecting bribes. He wouldn’t look at me.
“The ultimate irony, eh?” I said to Alicia. “My dad gets denied entry for trying to bribe, and I get denied entry for not bribing.”
I thought, without saying it, of another denied entry—a metaphorical one, the “other crazy shit” of my brother’s email. The same day my dad had gotten whisked away into detention, a dear family friend had attempted to cross a different kind of border, the one between life and death. Weary of the spreading cancer and growing cocktail of AIDS medication, he’d swallowed a handful of sleeping pills. (“There’s something to be said,” my brother had remarked, “about choosing your own time.”) But he’d been caught, stopped, similarly denied and sent back. He’d had his stomach pumped and now lay sleeping at St Luke’s Hospital, on 72-hour watch.
I felt the particular anger of powerlessness.
I sighed, reached into my wallet, pulled out $2. I crouched down, my face level with the window the official sat behind. “Okay,” I said with a big fake smile. “Here you go, buddy.” I slid the money over, watched him flip through my passport pages.
“So,” I continued in a confiding voice, as though we were friends, “whatcha gonna do with the money?” He still wouldn’t look at me.
I glanced at his wedding ring. “Buy your wife some flowers,” I told him as I took my passport back.
I knew I was being an asshole. I knew it was a pathetic, impotent anger—that I’d smiled and played up the Clueless Westerner angle, hoping for some sort of exception, but really, there was nothing I could do.
I was powerless. As we all are sometimes.
My phone beeped at 3 a.m. It was my iPhone, not my cheap local phone. I reached through the dark rattle of the overnight bus, the Laotian highway hissing outside the window, and fished through my bag.
“Just landed in SFO with your Dad!!” the text read.
I smiled and rolled back over.