Approaching the tiny La Balsa border crossing between Ecuador and Peru, we watched the morning mist roll up the green foothills of the Andes. The sticky heat was already rising.
On the Ecuadorian side, things went smoothly. The immigration officer, hiding in front of a fan in a small ramshackle hut, stamped our passports while the customs official checked bike papers. Before we left, he’d asked us to take a photo together. Pretending to check our passports again and putting on the most serious expression he could muster, he posed for the camera while the customs man carefully took the photo. “For the bosses, you know?” The immigration officer winked.
Smiling and wishing us a safe journey, he lifted the border barrier – a bamboo tied down with a piece of string.
On the Peruvian side, the heat was stifling. Peruvian immigration officers sat in a small converted container. One was wearing the official uniform, the other, just a colorful T-shirt. Nobody was smiling.
As we gave our passports to Creasy Uniform and Funny Shirt, it started to rain. The computer screen on their desk froze.
“When it rains, our systems slow down”, – Funny Shirt explained. Having leafed through our passports, the officers now sat scrolling on their phones with bored expressions on their faces.
The was no fan or air conditioning. The rain did little to reduce the heat; we sat there in our full riding gear, boiling in our own juice.
Creasy Uniform yawned.
Fifteen, twenty minutes went by. Nothing happened. We asked if we could go do the motorcycles’ paperwork in the meantime.
“No“, – Funny Shirt said abruptly. “You need to do this first”.
The rain kept drizzling on. On the other side of the road, there was a lonely kiosk selling Peruvian soles, candy, and lottery tickets. I went over to get some local money and spotted a small fridge full of ice cream. Salvation! Buying a heap in different shapes and flavors, I went back into the immigration building and gave some of the ice cream to the officers.
For a while, we all sat eating the icy goodness. Creasy Uniform got some melted ice cream on his fingers and licked them one by one, suddenly looking like a little boy.
“So, hm, I think it’s best if I take photos of your passports, stamp them and let you go, and I’ll just enter everything into the system once it kicks back to life!” – Funny Shirt suddenly announced. Creasy Uniform smiled and nodded approvingly.
As he was taking a photo of my passport, Funny Shirt stained it a little with vanilla ice cream. He wiped it off with the back of his hand.
We said our goodbyes like old friends.
What You Need to Know About Paying Bribes
All you need to know about bribes is this: never do it!
Most of the time, border crossings in South America are easy and smooth enough. And if you have ever considered paying bribes, do it in the form of ice cream, coffee or smiles: monetary bribes add to the deep-rooted problem of corruption, which is incredibly hard to fight in this part of the world. Don’t add to it. Instead, if you need to grease the wheels a little, do this:
- Be compassionate. Lots of border officials in countries like Peru or Bolivia make around $200 a month working long, tedious hours. So if a border official isn’t in the greatest mood that day, try to be polite and helpful instead of getting frustrated. They deserve a little understanding.
- Be ready. Get all your paperwork in order. Make sure your passport is valid and has enough empty pages for stamps, and that all your motorcycle documents are there. Make a few copies of each document in advance just in case you’ll need them. Have everything ready before you approach the immigration and customs windows.
- Learn a few phrases in Spanish. Even if you can only say hello, how are you, please and thank you, it sends a much better message than insisting that everybody speaks English. You’re a guest entering their country. Be courteous!
- Be helpful. Fill out the necessary immigration forms in advance so you don’t hold up the line. Offer to make required copies yourself, and have everything ready so you don’t spend half an hour rummaging through your stuff to get that tiny piece of paper that proves you have the required vaccination or bike insurance.
- Get some coffee. Seriously. Buy the border officials coffee (or ice cold Coca Cola, or ice cream, if it’s hot), and if you know you’re approaching a border in the middle of nowhere, get some cookies or chocolates in advance. Coffee and sweets is the best bribe policy out there. You’re being nice and polite, offering a small treat, and bonding over sugar and caffeine. That’s an international ritual of friendship wherever you go!