Tag Archives: bribes

Traveling in India: Bribes and Baksheesh

India’s massive corruption in government has come to a head with Anna Hazare’s hunger strike. However, corruption is not exclusive to India, nor is it new in that country. But India may have made it a fine art.

When I traveled to India, lo these many years ago, I was aware of the bribery (or baksheesh as they call it) before I went. However, due to an ingenuous blend of naiveté and stubbornness I managed not to pay a single rupee. I probably extended my waiting, boredom and frustration but I made it through with the limited funds I had. Mostly, I imagine they left tourists alone who might not know the system or understand what one had to do. There are only two incidences that I think involved a try for a bribe.

When I left the tribal state of Meghalaya, I had to make sure I had a transit paper or visa that showed I was allowed in the state, where foreigners could only enter with a special permit. Because I was traveling into Assam, the neighboring state, I needed to show I was allowed to travel between states. The border was closed at the time because the Khasis and Assamese were fighting with each other (they’re traditional tribal enemies). It was a very long, hot and thirsty bus ride to the Assam airport and then, typical of Indian time, a three-hour wait for the late plane.

I’d probably been sitting there two hours when three men came rushing over, in three different colored suit jackets asking to see my passport. At first I was confused because there was nothing that indicated that they were official in any capacity. And for all I know two of them might not have been. Then I was taken into a back office where they pored over my passport and the papers and wrote everything out, in painstakingly slooooow handwriting. I believe they were trying to intimidate or scare me into paying but I wasn’t sure so I just sat there and let the guy write out everything. After all, I had time to kill until the plane arrived.

The second time was as I was returning from Nepal into India, where you must go through a double border check. Due to the fact that Indians will give you directions even if they don’t know the right directions, I had been told to wait for my connecting bus from the border town of Gorakhpur (near enough to be a major outpost) at the wrong spot and therefore missed it. This meant that I had to take a later bus not meant for tourists. So I was the only white person and only woman on the bus that drove off into the dark of night. Everything was fine and I was sleeping when the bus was pulled over and two men in nondescript jackets boarded and demanded to see my documents and what was in my bag. Note that in India (at least the areas I was in) men and women do not touch in public at all. This doesn’t mean they won’t try to sneak a fondle at a tourist’s expense but it means that a male border inspector won’t search a woman.

I showed them my papers and one bag and then they said, get off the bus. It was not just dark outside but pitch black, barely any lights to indicate a city and nothing but fields around. So I asked them to get my pack off the roof (where bags were stored) and which direction was the closest city. All I could think to do so late at night was walk. They looked at me and said, “What are you doing? Get back on the bus.” So I did, wondering if they had wanted me to pay baksheesh but too bewildered to know it.

The saddest example of seeing what bribery was doing to India, was when I was in Shillong, Meghalaya. I was talking to these bright young men, some in university. They were already defeated because they said that there was little chance of getting a good job without paying baksheesh. They saw no future for themselves and it was such a waste of brilliant minds. Now this was before Microsoft and the IT industry started outsourcing so maybe it got a bit better, but obviously one of the biggest epidemics in a country 1 billion strong, is the rampant bribery that still affects them.

For a bit of fun, here is an artist’s image of Baksheesh Boy.



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Solo Travels in Mexico

Many years ago, on a whim I decided to go to Mexico because it was cheap. So up I went and flew to Mexico City for a week. This was the first time I had travelled on my own and I figured it would be a safer country to try my solo travel in than farther away in Asia.

I knew pretty much no Spanish and had a little phrase book at the time with your essentials. I arrived in Mexico City, finding a hotel to stay at that was also a residence for some people. I don’t even remember if I had a guidebook but somehow I got around. Mexico City was huge, at something like 25 million people, and the pollution was so bad I could taste it. Still I went to the Zocalo (the city center or public square) to see some of the buildings. And of course to a few churches as well.

The first night I went down to a local restaurant to order something to eat. I wanted to avoid the Zona Rosa, the tourist zone, as much as possible. After all, tourist areas tend to be pricy and don’t give you a real slice of the local haunts. As I sat in the restaurant with my tiny phrase book, I looked at the menu in bewilderment. Another customer must have seen my consternation. He came over and talked to me and told me what the food was so I could order something.

I was only in Mexico a week and even before I tasted the water my stomach started to suffer from Montezuma’s revenge. The airport had actually had people giving out pamphlets saying you could be affected from the altitude and so it was with me. I also had tummy troubles in India and Nepal (from dysentery) curtailing some of my gastronomic adventures. So I don’t remember much about Mexican food but there were a few highlights.

One day I asked a street vendor for naranja–orange juice. He asked, con huevos? And I said si, not knowing what it was. I received an orange juice with a raw egg floating in it. Gah! I drank around it and left the huevo behind. I also wandered into one market in the city that had various vegetables and tortillas and cactus. I never did try cactus. But at one booth there was a basket of white nuts. When I looked closer I realized it was grubs. Thankfully I never ordered those by mistake. I did get to try pulque (pullkay) which is a fermented cactus juice, very thick but tasty. It was considered to be a drink of the gods and I guess the old kings used to imbibe.

At that time my hair was nearly to my waist, blonde and brunette. As I walked through the city of brown-skinned Mexicans I stood out with my white skin and lighter hair. The men would hiss at me and call out, “Muy buenita.” I didn’t know what this meant and I found it disconcerting. It turns out that in certain countries they don’t whistle, or wolf whistle as we call it when men whistle at women. Instead they hiss their appreciation.  And muy buenita meant very beautiful. I began to realize how latin lovers got their names.

In fact, every day some man hit on me. There was the guy living at the hotel who tried to tell me he had met me at a party in Vancouver. It didn’t work but what he had done was ask the desk manager what my name was and where I was from. There was the hotel owner in Taxco who wanted me to accompany him on his holiday to a town that had a church for every day of the year, and another young guy looking for someone to buy him dinner. There were the guys at the restaurant in Cuernavaca, and a guy at a cantina who wanted me to go to Puerta Vallarta with him, but I wasn’t about to embark on trips with strangers.

My second last night, no one hit on me except to rob me on the train as I returned from Chapultepec Park which houses the world-class anthropology museum. It was the least invasive robbery, my bag being slit with a knife and my wallet taken. Lucky for me, my passport was tucked behind my camera lenses and the wallet held only about ten dollars and my Visa card. Even my traveller’s cheques were back at the hotel. No Mexican would look like an Anderson but I cancelled the card. I ended up not eating that night as it was a Sunday and I had no cash left for dinner. Most of the places wouldn’t take the traveller’s cheques.

Then on my last night I did go for drinks at a cantina with a Mexican man, named Fernando. He tried to get me into bed, pretty much like all the other guys, except the thieves. I wouldn’t give in and he proclaimed I wasn’t like all the other American women, many of them teachers who came down for a good time with the Mexican lads. But he did give me a ride back to my hotel. Before we got there though, the cops stopped him though he wasn’t speeding.

It seems they wanted a little bribe. So Fernando came back to the car, passed me money below the view of the window and then had me hand it to him visibly in view so the cops would think we had given all our money. Then we were free to go.

Fernando and I did exchange addresses and continued to write each other for years. Now we both have email and Fernando and I still keep contact. Some day one of us might actually travel to the other’s country again. There’s a lot of Mexico I never saw.

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Losing it in India

In1989 I travelled through India for two months. The first month I spent in a tribal state with a friend and the second I travelled through northern India and Nepal. There are many tales from that trip but this one takes place in the last two weeks.

I was in Delhi and sick as a dog with dysentery. I was puking, had diarrhea and generally could not eat. But I tried to see a couple of things and finally dragged myself out one day. I can’t remember but I think I went to the Red Fort. I bargained with a rickshaw driver for a price. This was one of the motorized rickshaws and when we finally agreed on a price, I said to the driver, that’s for both directions, there and back? And he agreed.

So off we went. When we arrived, he asked how long I would be, and I said an hour or two. I had no idea because it was a large site and I was still pretty sick and lethargic. So I wandered around and took pictures and then came out about an hour and a half later. The driver started berating me, standing with about eight other drivers, saying I’d taken too long and that it would cost more, etc. After some arguing, with the other drivers giving their opinions in his support, I couldn’t take it and felt ganged up on so I took out half the money for half the trip and gave it to him and then went and got a bicycle rickshaw.

By this point I was completely distraught and depressed and didn’t even pay attention to anything. I just let the driver take me back to the hostel. Except the hostel was off of Connaught Circle (can you see British influence in that name?), a gigantic traffic circle with radial roads. Far too much traffic zooms through there so bicycle rickshaws must stop at stands at the edge of the circle so as not to interrupt traffic flow.

We arrived at the stop, I paid the rickshaw driver and started to walk when I heard “memseeb, memseeb.” I turned and there was the motorized rickshaw driver with two cops. At that point I completely freaked out. I started crying and shouting at them, holding my wrists together to them saying things like, “Just lock me up. Your country is trying to destroy me. Go ahead and take me away.”

The cops were so flabbergasted I don’t think they said two words to me and in truth I never even tried to argue reasonably. I’d already seen how the baksheesh (bribe) system worked. I continued crying and took all the money from my wallet and threw it at them. Then I went and sat on a wall and bawled my eyes out. I don’t know how long I was there crying but the police made the rickshaw driver give me back any money above what he’d asked (I presume–I never counted it.) He gingerly placed it at my feet when I yelled at him and asked why he didn’t just take everything. Then they went away.

I stayed and cried and cried. I had been ill for three weeks at this point and was in fact my sickest in Delhi and Varanasi. Eventually I noticed about six men standing around me in concern as I cried, asking, “Memsahib, what is wrong?” To which I wailed, “Nothing. Your country is just trying to keep me here.” I wasn’t exactly in my right mind.

I eventually got up and walked disconsolately back to my hostel. At one point a beggar came up to me and touched me. I already knew that in India people don’t touch each other unless they think you don’t know the culture. It’s a sign of disrespect. The beggar touching me was just another injurious straw. At that point I was so distressed with the day that I said, “Oh just go die. It’s easier.” To a beggar. A child. Because I wanted to. It was not one of my more stellar moments.

India was the hardest place I ever travelled to, where nothing ran on time, bribes were expected, and no one would say they didn’t know something so you could end up with six directions to get somewhere and none of them would be right. The culture was different enough and the concept of time was hard to grasp. With trying to fathom these things, on top of trying to find signs, which were few, and if they were there they were in Urdu or Hindu, as well as being severely sick and carrying an overburdened pack, it was too much.

I learned something about myself in India. I found my melting point and my darker side. But I came back from my trip and was forever changed. This of course wasn’t my only adventure in India but it was my hardest.

We wear a lot of masks in our society. There are ones for work, for friends, for dates, for family. Sometimes there are layers and layers of masks. I had them when I went to India but I had way fewer when I came back. India stripped me down to an essential aspect of myself. I truly was just surviving the experience by the end of the trip and was sick for another month after I returned. To this day, I have fewer masks. India made me integrate myself and my different aspects.

Everyone gets much more a blend of me these days. I remember one friend telling me I was more accessible after going to India.The barriers had been stripped away and I built new ones, but not as high nor as thick.

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