Mike visited:

» Thailand
» Myanmar (Burma)
» Laos
» Cambodia
» Vietnam
» India
» Nepal
» Egypt
» Jordan
» Uganda
» Tanzania
» Malawi
» Mozambique
» Swaziland
» South Africa

View a map of his route.

 press/awards earned a few nice mentions in the press, including's vote as best travel blog on the Web. Read about it on the Press/Awards page.

Corruption Free Zone in Mwanza, Tanzania

First glimpse of Tanzania from the cargo ferry
The overnight cargo ferry reached Mwanza, Tanzania at 2:30pm. I disembarked with the other passengers and headed over to the nearby customs and immigration shack.

In my experience, the smaller border crossings are the most relaxed, so I was expecting to sail through customs in Mwanza.

The shack was separated into three sections. I entered the middle one first, filled out a blue immigration form, and was directed to the health office next door.

Visitors to Tanzania must be vaccinated against yellow fever – and have a certificate to prove it. I entered the health office and handed my documents to a middle aged man behind a desk. He inspected the card and my passport and the immigration form. Everything was in order. He said, "Okay, that will be $10."

I'd heard that the Tanzanian visa was $50; $10 sounded like an incredible deal. I fished around in my money belt. Then something occurred to me that gave me pause. "This is for the visa, right?"

"No, this is the health inspection fee."

"What? I've never heard of a health inspection fee."

"Well now you have."

"Is that so." I watched him enter my info into a book.

He looked up at me and said, "Ten dollars."

"Yeah, sure," I said, taking a different tack. "I just need a receipt."

He told me there was no receipt. I told him that, unless I was issued a receipt, I would not pay the fee. He told me to sit down.

this similar sticker was in a Malawi grocery store
I sat on a broken plastic chair behind a nearby desk and thought about a sticker that was pasted above the office door. "Corruption-Free Zone," it had once proclaimed. But somebody had crossed out the "Free".

Beatrice, a Ugandan woman whom I'd befriended on the journey over, entered the office. She gave me a worried glance and then handed the health inspector her documents. He entered her information into a book and sent her on her way; no payment was required. Beatrice asked me what was up on her way out. When I told her, she shook her head and furtively said, "Don't pay."

Beatrice and I hadn't had a chance to exchange contact information yet, so I gave her my email address and thanked her for making the ferry ride more enjoyable. The health officer watched disinterestedly. It was a strange parting.

One by one, the other ferry passengers came in to have their information processed. I sat and waited. Nobody was charged a "health inspection" fee.

After processing the other passengers, the health inspector addressed me and said, sternly, "You must pay $10 or 10,000 shillings."

Customs officials are not typically people you want to challenge, but this man had wasted so much of my time and was so heavy-handed with his bribery that I couldn't prevent myself.

"That's not true. You didn't charge the Ugandans this fee."

He launched into a lengthy monologue about the fee being implemented because I'd come over on a cargo ship as opposed to a passenger ship.

"It doesn't matter how I enter the country. You're making this up."

He continued with his cargo ferry hogwash.

"Sir, what is your name? This is nonsense. Did you read that sticker above the door? It says 'Corruption-Free Zone'."

He looked at me and blinked a few times.

"This is a hell of a way to treat a new visitor," I said, raising my voice. "You're creating a great first impression of your country, and I'd like to write to your superiors and tell them what a super job you're doing."

Another official entered the office, motioned to me, and conversed with the health official in Swahili. The health official smiled as he made his case. The other man was not smiling. He inspected my customs card, turned to me, and said, "You're going to be here for 30 days?"


He nodded his head and said, "That is good. Proceed to customs."

I thanked him, retrieved my card, and walked out of the room. I didn't look back at the health official, although I felt like slapping him hard in the face.


George would like to be an accountant
A week later, I was sitting at a sidewalk bar in Dar es Salaam having a beer with a young safari hustler named George. Midway through our conversation, George told me that his real ambition was to become an accountant.

"That sounds good, George. Do you know any accountants?"

"Yes," he replied. "I have a friend who's an accountant."

"How much does he earn? More than your brother?" George had told me that his brother, a police officer, earned $50 a month and was given free lodging and utilities.

"No, he earns less. But he has a way of fixing that," George told me proudly. "You know the list of workers a company keeps? The list of builders who work on a site every day?"

"Yeah, like a roster?"

"Yes. My accountant friend controls that list, so he adds more names. He just makes them up. Then, at the end of the day, he pays money to those names and takes it himself."

"But George, that's dishonest. That's a dishonest way to earn a living."

George blinked at me as if this had never occurred to him. "Don't accountants do that in America?" he asked.

"I'm sure some do, George, but guess what."


"They get caught, George. Most accountants or businessmen that do things like that get caught."

George dismissed that notion. "In Tanzania," he said, "people have to do things like that to make a living."


After the health office rigmarole and my conversation with George, it seemed like Tanzania was the most corrupt country I've visited. But then I remembered India, where I had to bribe a clerk at the Varanasi post office to get my packages sent at a reasonable rate. Or the suspicious extra charge levied at the Laos border. And Aung San Suu Kyi's stories in Letters From Burma about the corruption on every level in the country, including schoolteachers who extract bribes from parents.

In many countries, having to "entice" workers at the power company in order to have your service resumed is just a given. Paying the department of motor vehicles an exorbitant bribe for a no-questions-asked driving license is considered an easy alternative to taking classes and an actual driving exam. It's just the way things work. And everyone – from the lowliest civil servant to the president of the country – is looking the other way.

No, Tanzania isn't the most corrupt country I've visited. It's probably right on par with everyone else.

As for George's statement about dishonesty being necessary to make a living, that's not true. People can make an honest living just about anywhere. But in doing so, most folks live hand to mouth, work like mules, and have no hope for advancement or savings or retirement. Worse yet, the regular, honest people have to play by the rules of those who choose to look the other way and supplement their insufficient incomes in whatever way they can.

What do you think?

  • What sort of corruption have you encountered on your travels?
Posted on August 19, 2003 05:46 AM


Comments (post your own below)

Thanks for sharing your story, Mike. Definitely thought-provoking.

I admit that I probably wouldn't have challenged the customs officer myself for fear of getting detained or worse deported. Sadly, I've seen it happen too many times - in Asia, in Africa, in Central and South America. Bribery and corruption, sadly, are a way of life in many parts of the world.

But you did the right thing. I'll keep your story in mind next time I travel and have to confront a sleazy individucal demanding "grease money".

Hope you're enjoying Tanzania!

Posted by: anya on August 19, 2003 09:36 AM

Amsterdam, Holland

My trip to Amsterdam was a surprise - After seeing pictures of the windmills and canals, I could never imagine pickpocketing and street sleaze to be so common, even in the residential areas surrounding the city center. The immense banners shouting out warnings against pickpocketing in five different languages only made me more uncomfortable and uneasy. The guide book by Lonely Planet that my friend purchased during our vacation stated that women walking on the streets alone have a good chance of being mistaken for prositutes...No feelings of safety as a woman. The prices often change and it will be difficult to recieve the right amount of change back. Overall, my boyfriend and I became too wary of all the strung out people lining the streets to be carefree on our vacation. However, we apparently came between two huge festivals (Gay Parade and the Heineken Festival) which would explain how crowded it was. So perhaps thed rest of the year is much quieter and RELAXED. Brussels, Belgium on the othner hand was exactly what we were looking for - great food, reasonable prices, and some of the friendliest people. The architecture of the city is mind blowing and who can resist the beer? Walking around on the streets alone, you only felt at rest and enjoyed your surroundings the way you should on your vacation.

I feel ya on the ripping off tip, Mike, I feel ya. Love your website.

Enjoy your travels.

H & C

Posted by: HaeSook on August 19, 2003 02:03 PM

You are absolutely right about corruption at all levels in many countries. I was in Cambodia and had a similar experience where border officials would overcharge tourists and then split the money. Anything you wanted could be had with baksheesh (bribe/tip money)

Excellent journal entries! Happy Travels! :)

Posted by: Lance on August 20, 2003 02:34 PM

The lowest it ever got was with my landlord when I lived as a missionary in L'viv, Ukraine. We'd been having some problems with our toilet and been unable to fix them ourselves. So we called the landlord and he brought in a plumber who was a friend of his. The plumber did the work -- it was something trivial, like replacing a washer, once you knew where to look -- and started saying goodbye. So our landlord asked (in Ukrainian), 'What do I owe you?' and received the answer, 'Oh, it's no big deal.' 'No, really, I ought to give you something.' 'Don't worry about it.' 'No, it isn't right.' 'Fine, give me ten bucks, we'll call it even.' And he gave him the ten bucks.

We had heard all of this, clear as day, from the other room. Imagine our surprise when the landlord came in to talk. (You must imagine this in his accent, which sounded more Italian than Ukrainian. He had learned English in Vegas -- we suspected, from the local Mafia.) 'OK. He's got it fixed. Now I'm'a gonna pay for the labor, but you're'a gonna have to pay for the part.' He got a look from us which was half a sceptical eyebrow-raise and half goggle-eyed wonder at his audacity, and then he went on. 'It's gonna be fifteen dollars.' Riiiiiiight. Well, we didn't even bother letting him know how transparent he'd been; we just told him we knew our contract, and damage would be on our nickel but routine maintenance was his. He tried to tell us otherwise, but once we pulled out our copies of the contract (signed and notarized in both English and Ukrainian) and offered to explain it to him line by line, he knew we had him and went off grumbling.

Wonderful site. I've been vicariously enjoying your travels for a few months now, and it's fantastic.

Posted by: Nathan on August 20, 2003 05:01 PM

Mike my good friend,Im in India and starting to believe everyone here actually does own a jewellery store.Yesterday I got talking to a guy about trust!!He then turned around and asked me to take a package back to England-Being English I told him what I thought of him but I know not everyone is like this in Asia so I remember the good all I got was whisky when crossing the Laos border and if I remember rightly I was with you!!!Take it easy brother

Posted by: Jamie dodds on August 21, 2003 01:31 AM


It was the border guards on the Thai side that gave us the shots of "lao lao". Across the Mekong, in Laos, the guards levied a small "tax".

(Your forgetfulness is typically British - too polite to even remember being swindled ;)

Posted by: mike on August 22, 2003 04:13 AM

I had a similar incident when I was travelling from Venice to Budapest. I took an overnight train ride. The trip went through Slovenia, to get to Hungary. The train stopped at the Slovenian border around 2 in the morning, in a little town in the middle of no where.

A custom agent came into my car, where I was sleeping with a few other fellow travellers. He looked at my passport and saw I had no visa for Slovenia. I was told before I left Venice that I did not require a visa, because I was not stopping. The custom agent saw otherwise. He demanded that I pay him $20US for a visa. I refused and with what little english he knew, he explained my options as being paying him $20 or getting off the train (which was departing immediately). I refused to pay and to get off. He motioned to two other agents going through the car to back him up. Seeing the possibility of being physically escorted off the train and being stranded at the Italian/Slovenia border at 2am, I eventually paid the $20. It wasn't right though.

Good for you for not paying.

Posted by: clint on August 22, 2003 03:55 PM

Good for you to stand up for yourself! A bit scary though because who knows what might have happened next should things have turned nasty, but I am getting carried away.

Posted by: shelagh on August 24, 2003 07:46 AM

Scary Stuff. The Cambodian border guards could learn alot from these guys. If you enter Cambodia, then immediatly leave (to renew your Thai visa), these lowlifes will ask for a 100 baht "one day fee." But they ask while they are handing your passport back, so it's easy to refuse to pay.

And I think I fell victim to the special Laos border "tax." A visa is supposed to be $30, but after a rough night on a bus, I stupidly paid 1500 baht, which is $38. Doh!

Posted by: Terry on August 25, 2003 03:28 AM

Probably my Peace Corps placement. The host country asked for curricula developers and had signed off on a comprehensive plan for the goals, tasks, & milestones for enhancing literacy levels that having curricula developers would achieve. However when I got to my site, I was informed by the Ministry of Education that I was instead going to be a classroom teacher. Basically they went along with Peace Corps in coming up with this ambitious & comprehensive plan and then dumped us into situations where they'd get extra teachers for free. I ended up sticking it out for the 2 years, but they don't send teachers there anymore because it became clear that they were more interested in getting free teachers.

And then there's my first visit to Mexico. My friends and I tried to take a car across the border from Texas without the proper registration (required for Mexican nationals who live in the US or Canada and want to bring their cars into Mexico) and actually failed in bribing the customs agent. We tried to get in line THREE times and failed each time. It was during the anxious July 1997 elections (when the PRI was first starting to lose power), so that may be why the agents didn't want to risk the trouble. So we left the car on the US side and took a bus down to Monterrey. On the way back, we did end up having to bribe the ticket agent as the bus station because he insisted that there weren't going to be any more buses that night (and I had to be at work at 10am the next morning). Since we knew for a fact that the buses to the border ran every 30 minutes, it didn't take long to figure out that it was a bribe request.

Posted by: mk taylor on August 25, 2003 07:20 PM

From my own experience, Central Asia is arguably the most corrupt region in the world. And that helps nothing but making it more exciting. Saparmyrat NiĆ½azow's dictatorship in Turkmenistan is a fascinating live phenomenon by itself. But these countries are still too sovietized, and have just too many things to hide to the eyes of a foreigner.

Anything from an enormous 30-year old gas scape in the middle of the Karakum desert that produces as much light as the whole Turkmen capital, Ashgabad, to a town with houses, cars and a petrol tower, close by the old course of the Amu-Darya river, which was "swallowed" by the earth some 20 years ago, leaving a huge perfectly round-shaped hole in the desert with a deep lagoon of turquoise waters.

Policemen are the ones you have to fear. They will rob you or ask you for a bribe, and in case you happen to cause them troubles, they will send you to jail for one night. Very few countries have an embassy or a consulate there, which makes things much more difficult. ATM's are rara avis and they're not connected to international branches, so you're supposed to bring all your money in cash. In the airport they force you to declare it all. Two corrupt agents will read what you wrote in the form and then ask for a consequent bribe, "just in case you don't want problems."

Bureaucracy is a nightmare and it simply doesn't work. I've seen more efficiency (I mean, some, very little, but some efficiency) in places like Papua New Guinea or Lesotho. There are no answers for the many unexpected things that happen. Hotel room phones are monitorized, the Internet is censored, and good-looking girls (actually, pre-paid prostitutes) make an approach to you in order to get as much information as possible about your "mission" and purposes in their country.

They will try to stop you by all means to visit the Aral Sea, both in Uzbekistan and in Kazakhstan (which are the two most "normal" countries in the region, anyway). Heroine-dealing in the Fergana Valley and Osh, in Kyrgyzstan, is terribly intense. Everyone seems to be somehow involved. No wonder why foreigners are not welcome there, nor why they will always look for a stupid reason to send you back to where you came from. Same goes for Baykonur and many theoretically radio-active areas in Kazakhstan, closed to visitors.

And Tajikistan seems to be in a permanent civil war, so there are virtually no safe places to stay. Everywhere in the country you can see bullet holes and hear intense gun-shootings at night. Robberies are so common that they will even give you (or your driver, guide, etc) a receipt so that next time you're assaulted they won't kill you when they find you don't have nothing to give them. Things get only get worse at the Khorog, one of the most remote areas in the world (and undoubtedly the most scary flight a human can take), where most of the heroine hails from. Everyone there's in the bussiness. They will probably kidnap you and make you pay a resonable amount of money for your own ransom. You can regard it as a cheap, adrenaline-filled way of accommodation, though.

Too many personal experiences to tell on this, but I guess you get the picture. I wouldn't want to sound ironic by still strongly recommending Central Asia as one of the most exciting regions in the world and a definitely interesting trip for, at the very least, two months of travel.

Posted by: cave canem on August 27, 2003 11:13 AM

By the way, shall you follow my advice of not ever talking on the phone as you write a text, or terrible grammar mistakes as the ones on the post above may appear. My apologies.

Posted by: cave canem on August 27, 2003 11:19 AM

Asking for receipts is the best way to get accountability (as you did). But basically you're helpless before customs agents. The traveler is at a disadvantage when he doesn't speak the language or know the rules. BTW, I used to live in Lvov, Ukraine, and I found that experience related above to be hilarious!rj

Posted by: Robert Nagle on September 7, 2003 10:36 AM

Travel to see corruption. When last were you home in the good USA Mike. Where 90,000 plus votes where thrown out in Florida, where bypassing the constitution the Supreme Court went ahead and installed the siting President. Where anyone at anytime can now be at the mercy of the powers that be under the patriot act. Travel, you don't need to travel Mike.

Posted by: Withheld for fear of retaliation on September 26, 2003 12:43 PM

Comments closed.


home | travelogue | gallery | about


 favorite videos

 favorite photos

 latest travelogue entries

» travelogue archive