I have paid my first ever bribe.
Until now I have always managed to act like a goofy dope and charm my way out of bribe attempts while travelling. I’ve got a method that I thought was foolproof. Basically, act like a big, dumb, friendly idiot who cannot speak a single word of their language, compliment the country I’m in, the place I’m in, the person trying to bribe me. Just keep acting like I don’t understand what’s going on while backing slowly out of the situation.
This worked as it usually does at the police roadblock shakedown just outside Asuncion last week, today was different. I’m still in the far north, starting my journey back to the more populated southern part of the country. I shouldn’t have stopped at all but the two army soldiers had enough other drivers pulled over to make it impossible to get past.
The conversation went about like this (except mostly read from our phones, through a lot of Google Translate, which does NOT handle Paraguay’s very strange version of Spanish well at all, a lot of the comments below took 2-3 tries to get across):
Soldier: Where are you coming from?
Me: I was in the Chaco, it is so beautiful! Paraguay is so beautiful! Paraguayan people are the most friendly I have met so far while travelling!
Soldier: Driver’s license?
I show him my license, he makes me take it out.
Uh oh, the usual trick here is to take your passport and just basically refuse to return it until you pay them. I tried to say I couldn’t find it and such but he just kept waiting.
Soldier: Canada? Please, step out of the truck.
He now starts going over the entire truck, inspecting everything, the back, under the hood, etc. He asks everything, my travel plans, travel history, my job, etc.
Soldier: Do you have the rental agreement?
Soldier: Do you have the registration?
This continues for a while.
It’s 35c out and we are just standing on the highway, I’m already feeling the heat but I’m not nervous in any way, I’ve been here before and as seems to be the norm he is very friendly about it.
Soldier: There is a toll for this highway, you must pay it.
Me: Yes, there is, and it is paid at the toll collection back near Asuncion, and I will pay it tomorrow, there.
Soldier: Where did you sleep?
Uh oh, I’m not sure “I slept in the back of this truck” is going to push things in my favour when he’s just looking for anything to stick.
Me: I slept in Filadelfia.
Soldier: You were with family there?
Again, uh oh, he’s trying to make sure I’m foreign enough to not risk blow back on him from the bribe.
Me: No, I stayed at a hotel.
Soldier: Do you have the bill?
I do, it’s from a few nights ago but I hand it over hoping he won’t notice the date, he doesn’t, or doesn’t care.
Soldier: You were driving too fast, there is a fine.
Me: How do you know?
Each of these back and forths takes a lot of phone typing time as we try to get our points across through Google Translate, it is so hot out and I am realizing he’s not going to go away.
Soldier: If you work with us this is easier.
Me: Work? I would be happy to work with you, what work do you need done?
And I literally roll up my sleeves and laugh, looking around for what I can do.
He grunts again.
Soldier: How did you pay for your hotel?
Me: Visa, I never leave home without it.
At least I am making myself laugh, on the inside, a tiny bit.
Soldier: Show me.
I show him my visa, he sees cash in my wallet. I have a secret spot for cash while travelling and only have a small amount in my wallet at any time.
Soldier: How much cash are you carrying.
I really do not want him to start going through my bags, that would be bad, so I pretend that I think he just means in my wallet. I take out my wallet cash and count it, I have about $300,000 guarani, about $55 Canadian.
Me: I need to go now.
He nods, walks over to his compatriot, with my passport, they talk for a while, leaving me in the sun.
A police truck pulls up, I have an instant of thinking maybe I am saved before I remember where I am. The officers walk over to the soldiers, greet each other, talk for a while, point at me, shake their heads, get back in their truck and leave.
The soldier comes back.
Soldier: I need to look in the back again.
I’m realizing now he is perfectly happy to do this all day while I am dying from the heat.
Me: How long will this take.
Soldier: Until we have had lunch, we need to have our lunch.
I try to play dumb a few more times but it really isn’t working, he just stands there blank each time I try.
Soldier: It would be better if you work with us, then you can go.
The car rental place was supposed to give me a letter that supposedly I could hand over in such situations to convince them to leave me alone. I now start digging through paperwork looking for anything like this. I don’t find anything.
I sigh and realize I am beaten. Often in the past the bribe attempt took place in a public or semi-public area where I could just get louder and louder until they gave in. Here however we are hours from anywhere and I am melting in the heat.
Me: How much?
The soldier’s face explodes into a grin. He points at my wallet, shyly, like a kid pointing at an ice cream flavour.
Me: You mean $50,000? ($9 Canadian).
I offer him the $50,000 bill. He shakes his head and points at the $100,000 bills sticking out of my wallet.
I put the $50,000 bill away and hand him a single $100,000 ($18 Canadian). He cannot stop smiling.
He pokes my belly, says “one more” in Spanish.
I poke his belly, say “no more” in Spanish.
He laughs and hands my passport back.
I put my passport in the truck and type into Google Translate.
Me: Now this is what I will remember about Paraguayan people.
He reads it and shrugs.
He’s right, I feel nothing bad about Paraguayan people, or him, it’s just the cost of travel in such places and it could have been so much worse.