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June 2011    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 26, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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“Taxes,” “Fees” and Just Plain Bribes Divers Face

smile, negotiate, and pony up

from the June, 2011 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

There is always a new twist on an old bribe. If you travel long enough and visit enough far-flung dive spots, you may eventually face the dilemma of how and when, or even if, to bribe. Many dive destinations are in Third World countries where the rule of law is loosely followed. As Undercurrent subscribers' stories below show, sometimes it's worth it to fight back against ludicrous bribes. And sometimes it's in your interest to hand over $2, $20 or even $200, because that money could save your skin.

Mexico's "Camera Tax"

Bribery starts just across the U.S. border. We continually get reports from readers about Mexican custom officials who are willing to "negotiate" letting them bring their camera gear into the country. Officially, Mexico's law only lets tourists bring two cameras for personal use, and like many laws travelers face in Third World travel, an occasional official puts his own twist on it. When one of our readers who we'll call Mel arrived at the Los Cabos airport in Baja California in April with four cameras for a Solmar V trip, the agent confronted him with this rule. While there's nothing on the Mexican government's website about fees for bringing in extra cameras, this customs agent said Mel would have to pay a $128 tax on the other two cameras. Mel asked him if he would accept $50 cash and "he did (in the bathroom)."

Terri Roberts (Jupiter, FL), passing through Cancun customs this spring, was carrying her Storm hard-sided, waterproof camera case "in which I carry my housing, strobes, arms, chargers, etc. At customs, I received the 'red' light, which meant someone would search my bags. Two women agents asked me the value of certain items, looked at a paper, and told me I was a professional photographer because I had this case. I explained the case was only to protect the items inside, but they stated I had to pay them $660 - - in cash. I said there was no way I was paying that kind of money. They replied that I could take the camera and lenses that were in my backpack but not the case. I asked to see their supervisor, and they said he was busy. I said I would wait and they said 'No!' So I told them, 'I'll close up the case and return to the U.S. because you're trying to steal money from me." Then they started reducing the amount, and it went on and on for over an hour. I was upset, but not showing it because I needed to get on the ferry to Isla Mujeres. The only way out was to give them some money. I offered $220, and said if they didn't accept, I would go back to the U.S. They accepted. I had to go to another counter, where another employee gave me a receipt. This was a robbery, but I felt like there was nothing else I could do."

A bribe? An unknown fee? An effort to tax the potential resale of goods? Who knows? But Roberts was prepared and negotiated.

Driving While Tourist

If you're DWT (driving while tourist) in Mexico, be prepared for the police to stop you for the smallest infraction, but they're usually willing to let you off with a small "fine." While on a dive trip in Playa del Carmen on the Yucatan, Kimberly Kuppens (Modesto, CA) and her husband "were returning to our resort after a night on the town. The streets were under construction and some of the signs were down. My husband turned on a street and the next intersection had a one-way sign, so he turned around and went back. There was a police car waiting with lights on. The policeman took his driver's license and said he was going to fine us a significant amount of money, and we would have to pay at the city hall the next day and stand in a huge line. We said, 'We have $14 on us. Would you not write the ticket?' The policeman took the cash, had us follow him to city limits, then stopped his car and gave back the driver's license. He was smiling, and even waved goodbye. A woman who worked at the resort said police there do that all the time - - that it was illegal for the fines to be more than the local workers wages in a week."

Grin and Bear It

"I've never been harassed if I'm smiling. Even
though you cringe at the thought of respecting
thieves, the point is you have to fake it."

Kuppens did the right thing, said Todd Wandering, a travel blogger who has been shaken down by local cops in Africa, India and Indonesia (www.toddswanderings.com). "I've never been harassed if I'm smiling. Even though you cringe at the thought of respecting thieves, the point is you have to fake it. Don't disrespect them because it could land you in trouble."

Perry Lewis (Big Rapids, MI) told us that his dive buddy played along while they were in Cozumel this spring. "I was waiting for my friend Jim to finish snorkeling up north. But as he drove back, he was stopped by two motorcycle policemaen. After the snorkel, he stood around the car and had a beer and that is when the cops saw him. The cops said that was a no-no, and also that he had parked illegally as well, which was not true. The cops said his car would have to be towed, so there would be a traffic fine as well as a fine to get the car back. Well, Jim had been through this before at Tulum, so he apologized (sincerely?) and asked what the fine might be. The cops implied 200 pesos. So Jim asked if they would do him a favor and pay the fine for him. They said they would. Money exchanged hands and Jim was free to go." Now, 200 pesos is not a lot of money, and the cops are probably underpaid, but they know vacationers want to avoid hassles, so they are just making a little money on the side."

Another way to view the situation is to consider it a tax, like crossing a toll bridge, says Wandering. "Don't take it personally, it's just a fact of life in many of these countries. I used to be pissed off for someone of authority to take advantage of people, but I soon learned you can't think this way. It's just another way of doing business, and even the locals, who have to pay bribes all the time, have to accept it. Just play the game, and relax."

In Cozumel, Mark Lindsey (Richmond, VA) played the game. He had borrowed a friend's SUV, which had expired Florida plates and an expired Mexican customs sticker on the windshield. "We drove through a license checkpoint and our adventure began. The cop spoke very little English, and my Spanish was just as bad. But in lieu of spending the afternoon explaining at the police station, I gave the cop a 'pay the fine now' fee. It was cheaper than going to the station. He opened a tourist info book and stuck it inside the open window. I stuck $20 in it, he closed the book and we were on our way. I always carry a $20 bill in a pocket by itself just in case we get stopped. It has only happened once, but if $20 is all we have, they gotta take it, right?"

Put the big bills in your sock, and a couple of bucks in your wallet, says Wandering. "If you see yourself having to pay a bribe and realize you have a huge wad of cash in your wallet, try to stash it out of sight as quickly as possible. Leave only a meager amount in your wallet. When you are discussing the bribe, open your wallet and show them your little money. Usually they are shocked and tell you to continue on -- and wonder how you will fill up your gas tank."

Airport Shakedowns

"If the airline insists on cash for overweight
luggage, ask for an official receipt. Either
they'll give you one, or forget how heavy your
luggage really is."

Customs officials at certain countries' airports are notorious for demanding bribes for infractions, real or made-up on the spot. While you might enter the country with no problem, you may still get hassled when you depart, as Harriet Rhodes (Greenwich, CT) found out. "Three years ago I visited Dominica. Upon departing -- and leaving with less baggage weight - - I was accused of having an overweight bag. Evidently, the incoming weight allowance is greater than outgoing allowance. I was told my bag would not be able to travel with me. After suggesting a bribe of $20, I was told it would be accepted outside the airport by a third party. My bag made it home safely."

We get many complaints about outstretched hands at Indonesian airports. "I had to change planes in Biak, and after the immigration check, I was advised by a customs agent that I would have to pay $100 to bring my dive gear into the country," says Michael Igoe (Centennial, CO). "After the customary protests, I handed the agent a $20 bill, right in plain sight. All was well after that."

It's a good idea to read up on immigratingion and customs laws for each country you're visiting so you are better positioned to resist the fear that can lead to a bribe. Before traveling to Indonesia's Raja Ampat to go diving, Margaret Howerton (Vacaville, CA)) had made sure she had at least two blank pages in her passport, a rule facing travelers. "But when I arrived at the Manado airport, I was ushered into a back office where I was told I didn't have a blank 'visa' page in my passport. Neither of the two last empty pages were labeled 'visa' at the top. (When I returned home, I checked the website for Indonesia's passport requirements, and sure enough, blank 'visa' pages are required.) The immigration officials didn't permit me to call the U.S. Embassy, use their telephone or their computer. I was told I would need to return to Singapore or fly to Jakarta (to get my passport amended by U.S. officials). Finally, another official told me I could pay $200 and be processed through. After agreeing to a discounted bribe of $100, I was promptly on my way." She's lucky. We've reported cases where divers have indeed had to fly elsewhere to a U.S. embassy to get empty pages put into their passports, but perhaps a Franklin or two would have helped them avoid the lengthy hassle.

When a small airline asks for cash for the baggage fees, Dee Wescott (Ruidoso, NM) has this good advice that may stop some airlines personnel from pocketing an illegal fee. "If the airline insists on a cash payment for overweight luggage, ask for an official receipt. They may balk, but if you insist, they will either give you one or forget how heavy your luggage really is. They have to account for the cash you have given them, so it can't go to a new car or a bauble for the girlfriend. My dive travelling sources also told me that if airlines can take a credit card for ticket payment, they can take a credit card for overweight luggage. They don't like to because, again, the money now has to be accounted for."

And while this isn't a bribe, reader Jane Swing thinks it's a scam for sure. "Garuda, Indonesia claimed we had not made our Sydney- Bali leg two weeks prior, and, therefore, would not allow me to board the final Garuda leg of my journey plane unless I purchased a new ticket. I had made three Garuda flights after the Sydney-Denpasar leg they were claiming, without any problem. And the Garuda, Indonesia, representative in the U.S. claimed there was nothing wrong with my reservation. I am trying to get a refund."

How to Dodge the "Tax Man"

If you don't want to pay a bribe, there are a few actions you can take, if you have chutzpah. Todd Wandering recommends playing dumb. "Just stare back, don't say a word and the briber may get uncomfortable with the silence and you being naďve." Or pretend not to understand. "Depending upon the country, you can shake your head and pretend you don't speak their language well, or if they're speaking English to you, speak in French, Spanish or the jibberish language you invented when you were a child. I've managed to get away by pretending to not communicate."

If you're a woman, you have a better chance doing what Linda R. (Montara, CA) did. "In 2007, when my husband and I arrived at the Bali airport, we were stopped by two uniformed men who inspected our dive bags. One asked, 'How much is all this stuff worth?' I threw out a crazy number and said, 'About $250.' He said, 'That's too much! You might sell some of this equipment here for profit, so you'll have to pay a tax of $200. But when you leave the country, you can show us you still have this stuff and we will give your money back.' I debated with them for 15 minutes. Finally in utter frustration, and to the embarrassment of my husband, I pulled the old female stunt of starting to cry, and they let us go. Moral of the story: If asked the value of your gear, say, 'It has no value because it is used and no one wants used stuff.' Or be prepared to cry."

Or do what Pat and Bob Watson (Eucha, OK) did, and keep a local divemaster or trip guide near you at Customs. "At one of Indonesia's inter-island airports we were told there was a significant 'extra baggage' fee. Herry, our wonderful Indonesian divemaster, had stayed with us until we reached the gate out to the plane, where our baggage was weighed. He started joshing with the fellow behind the desk, and suddenly the 'fee' disappeared."

Or stand up for yourself, as a dive buddy of Michael Bernhardt (Jacksonville, FL) did when shipping his dive gear ahead of time for a Bahamas trip. "Bahamas customs wanted him to pay $1,000 to claim his own gear or they would not allow release from Nassau to Exuma. When he told them they could stuff it and keep the gear, the gear showed up the next day."

Bribes can sometimes just be another part of a colorful dive trip. Don't get nervous, upset or angry during the process - - it's not worth your time. However, don't put yourself in a compromising situation to begin with, like driving fast or under the influence. Follow the laws, stay under the radar instead of acting the flashy or bumbling tourist, and you're more likely to avoid paying unofficial taxes and fees or, worse yet, be held up so long that you miss your liveaboard departure or your flight out.

- - Vanessa Richardson

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