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Getting around corruption anyway I can

By: Eric Gonzalez Posted: March-20-2014 in
Eric Gonzalez

I was the Director of an Anti-Poverty program and all of my staff were convinced I needed to pay a bribe. They all gave me my opinions on how much I needed to pay. 30% of the overall value and a bottle of Jack Daniels was the consensus.

I ignored their advice and when the goods arrived I headed down to the seaport city of Sihanoukville and started on my task of getting my goods through without paying a bribe. I had the paperwork that said I didn’t have to pay, I was well dressed, I was sure of myself, and I had no clue what I was doing. After all I had never heard of anyone succeeding in getting anything through customs without lots of bribes.

Several times I was sent from one office to another, always in a building far across the docks. I’m sure they did this to annoy people like me. Several times I had to go back and inform the officials that the paper they sent me for, didn’t exist, after a few times of sending me all over the place, the officials got annoyed and signed my documents for free. When the document did exist, I was asked for a fee, which I would always negotiate down to as small as possible. The largest I paid was four dollars. Of course all of this frustrated me, but I never showed any anger or discomfort, only a smile and a firm handshake. In Buddhist cultures showing anger, any anger at all is not only completely unacceptable but akin to a personal attack. On top of this, in the corrupt governing system, fearlessness and strength of will, always gets you what you want.

I met with a top administrator, he wrinkled his aged brow when a blond, white man spoke to him in Khmer. I talked to him about my problems and he told me there was nothing he could do. Then I struck gold. I noticed a picture on his desk. It was a young Cambodian man hanging out with a bunch of white people. The photo was grainy but I assumed it was him in his college years. Most Cambodians who have a chance to hang out with white people, in the 1980s, either made it to the west and thus never returned to Cambodia, or studied in the Soviet Union.

“Where was this taken?” I asked in Russian.
His head rushed back, eyes wide. In Russian, broken by years of nonuse, and with holes filled in with Khmer he said. ““When I was young I studded in the Soviet Union. Are you from the Soviet Union?”
“Niet, I’m American, but I studied in the Ukraine.” I answered.
He looked me over with renewed interest, an American, who studied in Ukraine, spoke Khmer and Russian, who was at his port, and trying the impossible - to get goods through without paying.
“The Ukraine? I studied there too, I studied in Kiev ever been there?”
“I had, I had visited his Alma matter, and knew the area well.
We talked for a while; he was excited to hear about how things had changed in Ukraine- the good and the bad. He teared up when I told him stories of how the people suffered when the Soviet Union collapsed, he chuckled when I told him desperate people ate all of the pigeons and stole the metal sewer lids to sell for scrap.
“The Cambodian people are so poor they have never had the chance to eat a pigeons or see a metal sewer lid” he joked.

He took a liking to me and asked to see my papers once more. He studied them for a while and then stood up, walked to the door, and in improved Russian, said “follow me”.
We went to the storage yard, it was filled with moldy crates and dust covered cars, evidently lots of people didn’t want to pay bribes. He found the boxes my goods were in and cracked them open. After a quick inspection for “heroin”, he asked me to show him what they were. I showed him, and he was thrilled with their potential to help his people. He told the dock workers to load them for the next day’s delivery to the capital city.

I’ve met this man a few times since, we always speak Russian with Khmer interwoven and he helps me get my goods through the port. Afterwards I take him out for an expensive meal, expensive being $10 for the two of us. He loves telling me stories of his life in the Soviet Union. I guess I do bribe, but at least my bribe is only a dinner and a chance to reminisce, something no one else can offer him.

Eric Gonzalez wrote this piece. He's a world traveler who spent 2 years in Cambodia. He blogs about his adventures, including lots of Cambodian ones, on his blog Your World Your Home.He is also about to released a new book "The worst travel guide to Cambodia" which depicts many of his adventures around Cambodia.

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