Bribes? Corruption? Collusion? If one pays money to shortcut, cheat or bypass published or unpublished rules, have they fed a greedy piper on the Motorcycle Adventure Dark Side?
I admit I have had monetary relationships with a border fixer or two. Once I paid a bribe through a fixer to a ship’s captain to let me pay for an air-conditioned crew room on a stinking, hot, overcrowded boat going up the Amazon River for three days. I took my gear and left my previously booked, now-empty hammock swinging above chickens, pigs, squealing kids and seasick passengers on the metal deck, and the smells of the plugged, overflowing toilets with yellow and green grunge from floors to ceilings, for $10 to $20 to a fixer and $50 to the captain.
Another time I paid a fixer at the Honduras border a “service fee” to move my passport and Temporary Import Permit application from the bottom of a pile of about 30-40 others (truckers), each taking 10-20 minutes to process, to the top of the pile. It was a small fee, $10, but by the time my paperwork would have gotten to the top of the pile the customs and immigration office would have been closed for the night. I was happy, the fixer guy was happy, and his aunt, who was the government official processing the paperwork, was happy. I considered it a road tax, kind of like the fee to use a commuter lane. But I knew it was a bribe, corruption was smack in my face, and we colluded to get me and my motorcycle to the top of the pile and across the border while the truckers snoozed away the day in their cabs, drinking beer and trading tales.
Some weeks ago, entry by a group of 13 mostly Americans into Ecuador from Colombia put a different light on paying bribes. They, their motorcycles, luggage van and trailer were at the end of a line for Customs and Immigration, behind several hundred poor Venezuelans fleeing their country where a monthly minimum wage was $8.00 or on the black market $1.09. The tale raconteur said one person was being processed every 12.5 minutes.
A fixer was found who could move the group’s paperwork, vehicles and themselves to the head of the line for $45 each.
Reportedly, a vote was taken and it was unanimously decided to pay the fee and jump to the head of the line. The riders, on their blinged and farkled BMWs (and one V-Strom), rode around the lengthy line of Venezuelans holding babies, sitting on luggage, and generally close to starving. Since it had cost each rider $30,000 to join the tour, plus another $10,000 for airline tickets, gas, wine, cigars and tips, the $45 to jump the queue was minimal in their total adventure cost. Paying the bribe was softly referred to as “paying the piper” by the leader of the bribe-paying customers who had sourced the expedited fixing process.
What caught my attention was that at about the middle point in the lengthy line of Venezuelans was another American on a KTM motorcycle, carrying a surfboard. When asked why he had not paid a piper he said he was living on $30 a day, so paying the bribe would mean not sleeping indoors for several nights. Rather than offer to donate $45 to his piper, one of the group, the Suzuki rider, gave him a business card and asked him to keep in touch, and then the group left him with his American-plated motorcycle and the crowd of starving and poor Venezuelans as they zipped around the crowd on their American-registered motorcycles.
I suspect the KTM rider experienced more than a few negative looks and possibly comments until he could pass through Immigration and Customs that day, if he could, and get well away from the throng of destitute Venezuelans.
I have wondered if the tour group on their $15,000 to $25,000 BMWs gave a thought to having another vote about each contributing $3.50 to the KTM rider and offering to include him in their payment to the piper. While he might have had the moral and ethical qualities to turn down a contribution, at least it would have been a Christian / Muslim / Hindu / Buddhist / Agnostic / Libertarian / Democratic / Republican / or fellow-motorcycle-traveler-camaraderie thing to do.
I’ve reflected on that road tale for several weeks and concluded I would have insisted the KTM traveler join me, on paying the bribes for both of us, passing it off as my bit of needed good karma for the week. However, I would admit to him I was doing it in exchange for his telling me some of his experiences of traveling by motorcycle through Central and South America carrying a surfboard.
My experience has taught me that wherever I travel on my motorcycle, I am a self-anointed American Ambassador. A close-up look at my motorcycle might give me away if the viewer sees the AMA sticker I usually have affixed (but no American flag stickers). My license plate translates in numerous languages to the word “mountains,” and sometimes I am asked where this country of Mountains is, and I reply, “Next to Canada.”
However, my passport and Americanized use of the English language tend to give up my country of origin. What I do say or imply is that I am an American and a reflection of the country and its people as a whole.
As for the Bring Mega Wallet (and one Suzuki) adventure tour group, I wondered if they had a nano-inkling as to why so many people from countries around the world dislike Americans as they colluded and conspired to corrupt the border crossing after bribing the officials, leaving the KTM adventurer to suffer—or if they did give him a thought, writing it off as his bad joss, being poor or, “It’s his decision. He could pay the piper to bribe the officials or sleep on the ground for a week.”
This story originally appeared in our April 2018 issue.