By John Vogel
It wasn’t illegal to walk around that particular area, and it wasn’t illegal to walk around with a backpack, but as the Kenyan military soldiers emptied the contents of my bag on the ground, it didn’t really matter.
I had been walking around the outskirts of the U.S Embassy attempting to handoff educational material to a missionary group who was going to trade me for soccer balls. The material was in a tribal language that no one at my school spoke, but everyone speaks soccer, it was a good deal. But as I found out, 75 pounds of books and paper in an OD green rucksack looks like explosive material, and with the memories of the 1998 US Embassy bombing still fresh, I made myself a target.
So as I laid on the ground, FAL pointed at my head while another soldier rummaged through my pack, I realized I might have miscalculated my appearance. As the soldiers spoke to one another in Swahili, I could tell they were disappointed that they only caught a dumbass. They were hoping to find bombs, which would result in medals, which would bring fame and fortune. They weren’t happy.
I remembered back to my required reading of Robert Young Pelton, in which he advised that in most areas, there are two universal problem solvers: guns and cash. And since they had the guns, I had to have the cash.
“Pesa n’gapi?” I said, face in the dirt.
“eh?” they both asked
“Pesa n’gapi?” I offered again. Basically, I was asking the price to be let go with my organs intact.
They began to discuss the issue and informed me I was in big trouble. I explained how sorry I was, how I clearly wasn’t a threat to anyone but myself, and that in America, we get fined for everything. “I would rather not go to jail, how much is the fine? I’ll pay it now.”
$100 later, I was free to go, rucksack and all.
If you travel to 2nd and 3rd world countries (including Los Angeles) often enough, you will find yourself in these situations. I had lunch with an anthropologist who believed it is ingrained in cultures around the world to pay for services such as law enforcement on a case by case basis. So obey the unwritten rules of greasing the wheels and you’ll survive.
1. Cash is king. Distribute a good amount around your person. Under insoles, in hats, pockets, wherever. As mom always says, shit talks and money walks. There’s nothing worse than talking your way through a situation to the point of transaction only to realize the pickpocket kid from earlier in the day nabbed your singular, consolidated stash of cash and thus, your way out.
2. Don’t say “bribe” or “pay off” or anything that makes it sound like what it actually is—“fee,” “fine,” or “tax” always work well.
3. Be nice, play dumb, stay vigilant. Most cops abroad don’t want the headache involved in hauling you in. Most often, the cash helps them out in the long run as it puts food on the table.
4. Stay out of trouble. You win 100% of the fights you don’t get into. Don’t do dumb shit.
5. Get drunk at the hotel, not at the bar. I learned this the hard way.
Bottom line: have fun and have cash.
Editor’s note: lead image created with AI