Sunday, 30 June 2013

Viven : How we crossed from Guinea to Sierra Leone

Dear Viven,

After the rife corruption of Guinea, especially in the ill-favoured, dusty and dark capital of Conakry, we arrived at the Sierra Leone border where a giant anti-corruption sign was displayed for all visitors and officials to see.  That sign was nearly as welcome as the behaviour: no money or gifts requested, lots of friendly handshakes and salutes, and even some police who actually just wanted to chat.

The information in this letter is accurate at the time we crossed the border on 19 June 2013.  We are one British and one Canadian, driving a 1996 right-hand drive Toyota Hilux Surf from Paris to Tanzania.

Our previous crossing was from Guinea-Bissau to Guinea, and our next crossing will be from Sierra Leone to Liberia.

Visas were required in advance, and obtained online with VSL (Visit Sierra Leone) Travel.  In addition to an online application form, a scanned passport copy and credit card payment (US$100 for Canadians, $110 for British) was supplied.  We submitted the applications on Friday 7 June, and in the promised two working days we received the visas by email (Monday 10 June), and were asked to print both the visa itself, and the receipt of payment.  One application was made for each person.  The gateway website is:

Not only is this service rare for Africa, but we figured that even if it is legitimate (it is), there is the risk that the particular border guard on the day won’t accept something that is not in the actual passport.  We thoroughly researched the process, and found that the printed-off visas are indeed valid and commonly accepted for land crossings – even though the printout states “Freetown International Airport” as the point of entry.  At the border crossing, there was no trouble, and no questions asked.  We did make sure to enter at a major crossing point (the Conakry-Freetown Highway), and despite reassurances from VSL Travel, I would think twice about getting the Sierra Leone visa this way if entering at a remote location, where the police officers might either be unfamiliar, or have the chance to gouge you with a second visa.

Insurance and Carnet
Both our Brown Card insurance and carnet de passages were necessary to drive through Sierra Leone from Guinea. 

At Sierra Leone we reentered English-speaking Africa, where the accents are thick, the vowels deep, and the common language, Creole, still borrows heavily from English.

Sierra Leone has its own currency, the Leone, which is valued at €1 = SLL 5,656.  We exchanged our remaining Guinean francs for Leones with a money-changer walking by at the border, for a rate of GNF 8,250 = SLL 5,000.  After this, Leones are hard to find.  Only ATMs in central Freetown offer services for Visa cards, and these are often out of commission.

The Route
From Conakry we visited the Fouta Djallon Plateau and returned to the city for our Ivory Coast visas, and then drove to Sierra Leone direct via the Conakry-Freetown highway, crossing the border at Gbalamuya-Kambia.  Roads all across Guinea are in a bad state with countless potholes, and it often deteriorates suddenly from paved highway to rough sections of dirt track.  Because of the negilgence and poor design (dangerous unmarked turns), there are a lot of accidents: typically freight trucks driven off into ditches or overturned right on the road.  This state of affairs changes out of the blue not far from the Sierra Leone border, into a very new, very straight, EU-sponsored highway with lines visible and speed limits possible.  This highway continues all the way to Freetown.

The Border
We arrived at the border at 7:45am and were on our way in Sierra Leone by 10.  The delay was caused equally by the Guinean and Sierra Leone sides: at the former, a relatively fresh-out-of-school immigration officer didn’t know what to do with our passports and had to call his boss.  On the Sierra Leone side, we were passed from pillar to post in the large single building where everything is processed (customs, passports, security checks, etc.), visiting probably seven different spots which referred us to the next one.  Aside from a legitimate SLL 100,000 road tax, no money was asked for (there is a big anti-corruption side right before the actual border line), though the Guinean trainee would probably have asked for a ‘fee’ if he didn’t have to get his superior.

A few things to note: the Guinean Douane office where we needed our carnet de passages processed is located in the actual town of Gbalamuya, a few hundred meters from the police office at the border line, where passports are stamped.  The Douane-labeled office adjacent to the police building, meanwhile, is loaded with men who don’t seem to do anything.  Also, there is a grand new border station being developed on a section of road parallel to the current border; the building has been constructed.  When this is open, it looks like all the border services of both sides will take place in the one spot. 

What We Needed

  • US$210 visa fees, paid by credit card
  • Digital copy of main passport page
  • Filled online application form
  • Two working days
At the border
  • ECOWAS road circulation tax: SLL 100,000 (about €18)
  • Passports
  • Carnet de passages
  • Name of hotels in both Guinea and Sierra Leone
  • Printouts of Sierra Leone visas and receipts of payment
  • White forms, for both Guinea and Sierra Leone, filled out with basic information on the spot
  • About two and a quarter hours

Sierra Leone deserves more visitors, and if you're coming from Guinea, it's a welcome relief.

Happy trails,


The last barrier before Sierra Leone
A nice sign
Entering Sierra Leone

Friday, 28 June 2013

I. : Why the Route May Have to Change

Dear I.,

Remember how I mentioned that things could change, we might have to adjust our plans, schedule, and route depending on the situation?  Well, cross your fingers, because nothing has changed yet - but we're on the edge.  It's not the war in Nigeria or the Congo.  It isn't a flat tire (we've had two so far), a car accident (though we do need yet another roof rack, which would be Rack No. 3) or malaria (though I do have a bad cold, the first for both of us of the whole trip).  We haven't lost our big folder of documents, or passports, or international stash of money.  The politics are as stable as we could hope for, the roads still passable, and unlike some beloved hometowns, the rainy season hasn't washed us out.

No, it's bureaucracy.  Pure, simple, non-straightforward "oh well, it's Africa" bureaucracy.

It's the end of the business week, which means our embassy shuffle must cease for Saturday and Sunday - not a big deal, because we're we're swimming in the blue pool, crashing into the tall waves, and enjoying a beachside hotel to ourselves at the former French colonial capital of Grand Bassam, which is pretty much a resort suburb of Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast.  We arrived on Monday after a mad dash of driving on terrible roads from Liberia, and went straight to the Ghanaian embassy on Tuesday morning to get our visas.  From our research, we anticipated problems for this one.  Officially, Ghana only issues tourist visas in the home country of the applicant.  Because we are driving and taking a long time, applying in advance from France would not have been possible: the embassy would not issue us visas, and even if they did, they would likely expire by the time we got to Ghana.  Most people applying for visas, of course, travel by airplane.

The officials couldn't care less about our situation, wouldn't let us speak with the Consul, and said all that we could do was to apply for 48-hour transit visas.

Why is it so important that we get more than 48 hours in Ghana?  Because, in the Ghanaian capital of Accra, we intended to apply for both the hard-to-get Nigerian and the Angolan visas.  What happens without the time to do that?  We must take our chances and apply in other places (in Benin for Nigeria, and in Nigeria or the DR Congo for Angola), where there is no guarantee that we'll get more than transit visas for both; because, in those countries we'll need to apply for further visas (the Cameroon visa, applied for in Nigeria, and the Angolan visa, applied for in Nigeria or the DR Congo - because we cannot apply now in Ghana).

Sound confusing?  Don't worry about it.  This isn't really the problem.  Once we're in a country with a transit visa, we can spend weeks in the morass of paperwork and officialdom extending our stay: being in the middle of an application for an extension means you aren't overstaying your allotted time.

No, we discovered the problem when we came back to the internet to research the domino-effect consequences of a Ghanaian transit visa.  There is news from the DR Congo.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Ghana and Angola were the four countries for which we worried most about getting visas.  I explained a little about Angola in my first letter to you, but the other three governments also state officially that it is not possible to get a visa except at the embassy in your resident country.  We know there are ways around this (the 'African Way'): Nigerian visas are still issued in Ghana and Benin, Ghanaian visas in Sierra Leone or here in Abidjan, Angolan visas in Nigeria, Ghana or the border town of Matadi in the DR Congo, and DR Congo visas in Libreville (Gabon) or Brazzaville (Congo).  We get this information from travelers who made this same trip just a few months ago.  And, even if these things change, there is always the power of patience, perseverance, shuffling around and giving people a hard time, and the bribe.

But here's the news: as of only a few weeks ago, DR Congo border officials are refusing entry to people who carry a valid visa in their passport from an embassy that is not in their country of residence. Not only that, but these officials stamp a large 'VOID' sign on the visa, so it is not possible to try again and again at different crossings or different days.  And, if the crossing is attempted and the visa refused, we will find ourselves on the other side of a river (Congo and the DR Congo are separated by the Congo River), without clearance to return to the other side (our passports will be exit-stamped upon boarding the car ferry).  It is possible that our truck would be impounded, and we could be stuck in no-man's land until we're clear to go back the way we came.

Add to that, the political situation is the eastern DR Congo has changed: the rebel group, Mai Mai Kata Katanga, is threatening to march on Lubumbashi next month.  If we drive through Angola, this shouldn't be a concern; but if we can't get the Angolan visa, we must cross the DR Congo on the notorious road from Kinshasa to Lubumbashi.  If the rebels do indeed take the city, or even get close, this Plan B is suddenly off to the wayside.

Why not skip the DR Congo, you might wonder?  We can't.  There is no viable, even reasonably safe route from where we are now that does not pass through at least part of this vast chunk of Africa.  The Central African Republic, Chad and Niger - countries through which we would pass in order to go straight east from where we are now - are extremely dangerous for travelers, particularly in the regions we would have to go.  It is not possible to simply go back the way we came, and across north Africa to Egypt, then drive down to the Sudan, because the border between Morocco and Algeria is completely closed.  We could return to Europe and get a ferry to Egypt, but this involves not only reobtaining visas for the countries we've already crossed, but also getting a new carnet de passages (a process that takes up to a month) with more pages, and one special page for costly Egypt.

The real problem is time.  If we stick to the DR Congo route and play the diplomatic game, we'll probably eventually get through - after months.  We read a recent account of a traveler who waited in Brazzaville for 90 days to sort out his visas and letters of invitation and so forth, and he didn't bother with a car.  And, if we return to the Mediterranean to attempt the eastern route, we would be too late (it would probably take a month just to get back up there).

So what are going to do?  At the moment, we're in contact with all sorts of embassies and officials who write fancy, stamped letters, to see if our intended route is possible.  We may be able to send by overseas express courier our passports and visa applications to the DR Congo embassies in our resident countries (one to Ottawa, one to London).  We first need to confirm that this is possible (the embassies don't like answering the phone, or doing much work at all), then confirm that it could happen in a reasonable amount of time (the website for the DR Congo embassy in London says 10-18 days to process mailed applications, which is too long, but could it be expedited?), and then we need to get letters of invitation from the DR Congo, notarised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (and who knows how long that will take).

Failing that, we change the plan: this means shipping the truck back to England from here in Abidjan or from Libreville in Gabon.  We'd then fly ourselves to Kenya, Zambia or somewhere else in east Africa, and reach Tanzania on foot.

The one thing I really have absolutely no clue about, is how does the DR Congo's policy give any benefit whatsoever to the DR Congo?

Most people here answer that question with, "it's Africa, that's the African way".

No, it's not.  It's bullshit, any way, and Africans deserve a better one.

Please tell your mother I'm sorry about the language.

Will be in touch,


Tuesday, 25 June 2013

o : Abidjan

PAKO Gourmand Café
Rue des Jardins, Deux Plateaux
Ivory Coast

Dear o,

The city of Abidjan has skyscrapers, patisseries, freeways, traffic jams, big soft-drink and skin-tone adjusting product billboards, a white-collar office class, corrugated-iron-roofed slums, fast food restaurants and an historic colonial resort village just half an hour down a narrow island.  Since we crossed Gibraltar, we’ve visited urban centres of comparable size (Dakar, Casablanca) but nothing like this clustered, western-moulded New World style city.  Abidjan has the feel of a place that has never stopped moving, never stopped growing, never stopped cramming.  It has all the major centre joys and big city problems, glossed by a veneer of monuments, tall post-modern churches, and a shiny glass downtown.

And, just two years ago, it had war.

It’s hard to imagine a sniper positioned behind an accountant’s desk, looking out over wide, lined roads empty of all vehicles but tanks and APCs, taking shots at a city of millions in hiding.  Where did all the cars go?  Where did all the people hide?  How did they get food, water, fuel, electricity, medical care?  And how did they get all this back together so fast, with everything looking flashy and new, without bullet-holes or bomb craters?  Surely they couldn’t hide all the scars – they couldn’t even be scars yet.  A war that recent would still have scabs, open wounds, and blood.

Wearing a cloak of forced naivety, I asked a cab driver named Raimey if the war had come to Abidjan itself.  Bien sur!”  In the actual city?  Yes, he said, right in the centre.  For months.  Every night, pop pop pop, and every day, pop pop pop; there were no cars on the roads, no people out on the streets, everybody was hiding and waiting.  Many bad things happened.  3000 people died in the city alone.  It was the end of the world.

But everything looks so good now, I said.  It is good, he said.  It’s over, forever.  Never again, I said.  He agreed: never again.

It was only when I got out and paid him that I saw the deep, fresh scar around around his eye, pronounced by a broad full-faced smile.  What was his story?  Where did he hide?  How did he fight?

The Ivory Coast might have had the most recent civil war (2010-2011), but there is nothing at all unique about having had a contemporary conflict in this part of Africa.  In fact, a country here is terribly special when it has somehow avoided mass, organised violence.  Of the 20 countries we intend to visit on this overland crossing, 14 have experienced civil war, an international war fought at least in part on its territory, or significant violent insurrection/subjugation in the past 50 years.  Of the remaining six, only one (Tanzania) has avoided a military coup.

Sierra Leone’s long 1991-2002 civil war was one of the most notorious, because of the wanton brutality, unprecedented child soldiery, and nearly complete coverage of the whole nation.  Both Al and I read Ishmael Beah’s first-hand account, Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, prior to visiting the country, and the thing I couldn’t get out of my head as we approached the border from Guinea was that I was almost guaranteed to meet not only someone who had been caught up in the war, but someone who as a child was forced into service by the government or the rebels.  It might be crude to say, but a large proportion of people between the age of 20 and 40 in Sierra Leone have killed someone.  Can you see that, feel that, breathe that?

Tommy was the Sierra Leonean at Bureh Beach who organized our food, boat to Banana Island, and a tarp-roof over our tent.  He had worked in tourism on this beautiful beach near Freetown since 1982, showing people around the village, offering sweet-scented hash, and overseeing the groundnut sauce cuisine.  I asked him, knowing the simple answer but hoping for more, if the war killed tourism here.  He nodded.  Did the war come to the village?  This is what he said:

The war was here.  The rebels came.  Bad things happened.  When they came to the village all of us went in the cemetery, over that way.  We slept there, and we ate there, and we waited there.  We were sure we were going to die.  We stayed in the cemetery because if they were going to kill us, we would already be in the right place. 

After one night in the intense wind and rain on Bureh Beach, we left our car at the village to be guarded by Tommy and his team, and crossed over by fishing boat to the roadless tropical paradise of Banana Island.  We stayed at a beachside guesthouse operated by a man named Dalton, whose beefy face was visible throughout the nearby village, tacked to trees: he is running for election as Island Headman.  We came here for just one night in the hope to go diving off Banana Island at the recently established Dive Centre, but unfortunately, the British man who runs the centre had gone home for the almost-touristless (except for us, of course) rainy season just a few weeks before.  We were left to wander the island, read in an ocean-view treehouse, and wait several hours the next morning for our boat to return in the nasty weather (we got happily drenched on the way back from the island). 

We visited another guesthouse, this one run by a vodka-faced Latvian man named Harry who had come to Sierra Leone only a few months after the war ended.  He ran a newspaper in Freetown for some years before suddenly turning his back and getting a boat to the island, where he now lives in great contentment with his family and friends, eating peanuts and fish, both of which he gets for himself.  When we stumbled on and were welcomed to his guesthouse, he and his circle were gathered for the afternoon chat, under the shade of a gazebo.  Everyone was sweating, everyone was listening, and everyone was chipping in: maybe they do this every day, talk politics to whisk away the heat, while the blonde and tanned young boy bounces his plastic ball.  In any case, the conversation shifted from how island-life beats city-life, to the evil of big corporations and government, to the war, to slavery.  

Sierra Leone was founded in the 19th century by the British as a colony for freed slaves, much like neighbouring Liberia by the United States.  There is an acute awareness of the history especially here on the island, which was a major slave trading post.  But like the much more recent war, there is no sign of the slave-trade, or at least not one we can see.  A fisherman who sat on the gazebo railing at Harry’s spoke up in the discussion: there are apparently some old British cannons up on the island’s big hill, built in the slave-trading years to protect the human cattle, now buried in the earth.  Someone is said to have found them once, but no one at Harry’s can verify the rumour.  He’s been looking for months, because he loves history.  He says that history is only real when you can see it.

Another fisherman showed us back to the village, from where we turned to Dalton’s guesthouse.  On the walk he told us he was the Headman during the war, and that 16,000 people came to the Banana Island seeking a safe haven.  The war itself never touched the island, but fighter jets flew over every day, and from the shores the islanders could watch the navy ships bombard the forests of the mainland.  I asked if the rebels or army tried to come to the island, bringing their guns and knives and minds drugged by bloodlust, and he said yes.  What happened?  Bad things happened.

Liberia tells another of Africa’s saddest stories.  The freed slaves who founded the new nation, using an almost identical flag to the father country, the US, with just one star in the blue corner, eventually became in all but name slaveowners themselves.  The nation’s tribal people’s, who today outnumber the Americo-Liberians (descendants of freed slaves) almost 20 to one, were forced into hard labour for little or nothing in return, many on plantations reminiscent of the Caribbean and American South, while the ruling class lived away and on high.  In the 1980s, the majority rose up, and a generation of nasty civil war ensued.

In Liberia, too, the past is hard to find.  There is poverty and hardship, of course, but also some of the friendliest and welcoming people we’ve met.  Everyone wanted to say hello and talk about what we’re doing, where we’re going, and what we think of Liberia.  There is still a huge pride in the history of a nation founded almost 200 years ago on a principle that we today, even if it is threatened by spies or warped by the powerful, take for granted – liberty.

In Liberia we spent a night in a school playing field, much like in Weling, and an elderly man approached our truck to say hello.  We asked permission to stay and he shook his head as if we shouldn’t ask, and said that would be fine.  He spoke about his village, his people, and its history.  When he told me that the war came to his village, I didn’t prompt him, but I did ask what happened.  He said what I have come to expect, the phrase that comfortably buries the past but still says everything you fear: bad things happened.

It was when he said this that I looked at his face and saw a scar, not so fresh as cab driver Raimey’s, but also around the eye, and just as deep.  It was the same sort of scar I see on the faces of the military at checkpoints in Abidjan, on the face of the kid who sold us banana chips on the out-of-the-blue freeway, on the woman in the unnamed village who waved at us with glee.  It was a scar that changed the way he moved his mouth when he spoke, and said goodnight to us.  It was a scar that made a smile look difficult.  But the man did smile.  He only smiled.

I don’t know if I want to know what lies beside the buried rusty British cannons, what sliced into the flesh to make so many scars, what bad things happened.  But I do need to know, as do we all, that they did.  Somehow, maybe, burying is not quite forgetting.



Bureh Beach, Sierra Leone
Mako the fisherman and Tommy the middleman
View from the Treehouse, Dalton's Guesthouse, Banana Island
Dalton for Island Headman
Advertisement in Liberia
Heading towards downtown Abidjan

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Viven : The carnet de passages

Dear Viven,

I figure you might be confused with my talk and mention of this all-important document, the carnet de passages.  So here's a little explanation, whether you're just curious, or if one day you need to get one.

What It Is
The document's full French name is carnet de passages en douane (roughly translated as a "customs clearance booklet"), and like the fiche de passage (literally, "clearance sheet"), the French term is the global standard.

When driving internationally, a vehicle is essentially seen by national customs agencies as a large piece of merchandise.  If the vehicle owner intends to permanently import a car somewhere, he or she will need to pay the requisite import duties and taxes.  When a vehicle is used to transit through a country, that country's customs service requires a bond or deposit be made on the vehicle, in case the owner fails to export it in a reasonable time (usually three months).

A carnet de passages en douane is a set of customs documents, issued in the country where the vehicle is registered, that represents a singular international guarantee in place of this bond or deposit.  So, instead of paying a deposit at each border, and receiving it back upon exit, a vehicle owner acquires a carnet by making a single globally-valid deposit, determined by the issuer.  If the holder of a carnet fails to export the vehicle from any country, the issuer of the carnet has by means of this deposit guaranteed beforehand that the import fees will be paid.

Carnets typically expire one year after issue.

How It Is Acquired
Most national automobile associations (AAA in the US, CAA in Canada) or touring clubs issue the carnet de passages.  In our case, we applied in the UK with the Royal Automobile Club (RAC).  They required all of the vehicle's details, a photocopy of the registration and owner's passport, and completion of a four-page application form which included a list of the countries we intended to visit.  All documents were submitted by email in order to give a quote.  The 25-page carnet was produced and held by the RAC until payment of the deposit (just under £1000), at which point it was delivered.  We received our carnet in the mail about one month after application, which we understand is fairly standard.

Why It's A Good Idea
Not only does the carnet de passages remove the whole en route deposit-withdrawal game, but it also simplifies and streamlines the import-export process at borders; the document is widely used, widely accepted, and much easier for customs officials to process.

It is ostensibly possible for us not to have a carnet on our route until Tanzania: Morocco and Mauritania did not require it, and other countries do have (so it is said) the apparatus in place to charge a deposit upon entry and then give it back upon exit.  This deposit would have to be arranged either at the border or at each country's embassy or consulate in the neighbouring country; we would also need to acquire a laissez-passer ("pass"), which is, in lieu of a carnet, the necessary document for both customs and immigration.  I can only imagine the headaches, confusion and arguments at borders and embassies, especially the smaller ones, let alone the delays while officials would scour to return a deposit that no longer seems so official upon exit.

Also, keep in mind that many countries, such as Australia, South Africa, India and Columbia, actually require a carnet for a vehicle to transit through.

What Our Carnet Contains
I'm not sure how standardised the actual carnet de passages document is internationally, but I can't imagine big differences from what we have.

The A4-size booklet has a hardened orange cover and comes in 5, 10 or 25 pages (one page per country); each page is divided into three parts.  The lower section is removed and kept by the customs official upon entry (import); the middle section is removed and kept by the customs official upon exit (export); the upper section is never removed from the document, and is stamped on the left upon entry, and on the right upon exit.  At each border crossing, two stamps (exit and entry) should be acquired, and each stamp should be accompanied by the date, time, place, and signature of official.  Thus, this top set of unremoved tabs provides an account of all vehicle travel using the carnet de passages.  The lower and middle sections which are torn away and kept by the customs officials identify the vehicle and list all the major details (registration number, colour, make, model, year, engine, horsepower, etc.).

When Finished
The remaining unused pages and top portion of the used pages of the carnet de passages must be given back to the issuer upon return to the registered country, or permanent importation to another country.  This is so that the issuer may check to ensure the vehicle was indeed exported from each country as stamped.  Once this is done, the bond is reimbursed.

Clear, or even muddier?


The front cover of our carnet de passages

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Scam Art Sam : The Man of Authority Scam

Dear Scam Art Sam,

This one has significant variation, but it can be a highly profitable (with quick and sometimes outrageous rewards) for an often minimal effort (in some cases, you can just show up and hold out your hand).  If you get your set up right, you can make a happy career.  On the flip side, the risks are considerable (if the Scam gets on the wrong side of your government’s anti-corruption campaign, and you don’t change jobs or angles in time, it could mean really big trouble) and the preparation is extensive, especially if you are a real Man of Authority, and not just an actor.  In the case of the latter, you’ll need to hone your performance skills, follow your strategy right, and get out when the shit hits the fan.  In the case of the former, you’ll need money, family connections, the proper qualifications and characteristics, and possibly years of training, and all this just to get you through the door of being a cop, gendarme or border guard; it could take an equally monumental effort to secure the good grounds to set up the Scam.

The good news is, if you are a real Man of Authority with a few years behind you, and you’re in the right country, all kinds of bad money will come your way.  This is where the scammers give you a cut of their earnings, and it means you won’t have to do the dirty work yourself.  In other words, you will be safer from discovery, be surrounded by scapegoats, and can feel a little better about yourself.  But let’s consider this tithe-receiving position as the ultimate reward for the Scam at hand, which we will now discuss.

You Will Need
The personality, confidence and base interpersonal skills of a cop.  You may want to work this Scam as a pair, or even with more – but keep your circle of Scammers tight, and with their eyes on the ball.  I recommend you have a uniform, identity card or badge, belt with a lot of unseen gadgets and, if possible, a gun (the bigger the better).  It is definitely easier if you actually are a police officer, gendarme, customs official, border guard or other authority figure, but not essential: acting can take you a long way, and if you set the Scam up right, your Mark will have no way of verifying you are who you say you are.  And if you’re good, they won’t even think to question it.

Your Grounds
Are in a country where you can get away with this, probably in Africa, parts of Asia and eastern Europe, and Central & South America, typically with a high rate of tourism and/or travelers passing through.  They should be a good distance from central authorities (like capital cities) and anyone in power who might take issue with you scamming tourists and travelers for money.  The best grounds are found at borders, ferry crossings and other barriers that bottleneck travelers; if you are a real Man of Authority, you may get the chance to man road checkpoints, which can be just as good.  Less recommended, but still lucrative, are other spots where you can plant yourself: perhaps as a traffic officer pulling over motorists for made-up reasons, or even just as a beat cop walking around asking for people’s papers.  The most important element about your grounds is that they help you, and your Scam, appear more convincing.

Are, or appear to be, a Man of Authority.  Beyond that, the Scam is your art: you could be young or old, charming or mean, elusive or up-front, smooth-talking or cryptic.  You might speak the same language as your Mark or be bewildered by his speech.  So long as these traits and qualities are consistent and fit into your strategy (good cop vs. bad cop, bribe vs. payment, etc.), they can all work.

Your Mark
Can be almost anyone if you are actually a cop and can play this at a high level.  But for those at a beginner or intermediate scamming degree, this is anyone not from your part of the world, and who obviously hasn’t spent much time there.  Tourists will be your bread and butter, and you can also get a good pull from ill-aware and unexperienced travelers.  You may decide to prey upon your own population, but the returns are small and eventually they will turn against you.  This Scam can be very effective if you have your community on your side, blaming your Mark for all their troubles.

Your Target Emotion
Fear.  But not just fear of you personally – in fact, it might be effective for the Mark to like you and trust you – this is fear that their whole trip will fall apart, that they’ll have to experience the inside of a foreign jail, or best of all, fear of assault and death. 

The biggest trick with instilling this fear is that, logically, you should feel it more.  Typically, the stakes will be higher for you than for the Mark: if they get wise, refuse and report you, you could end up in deep shit.  Then again, if you’re smart in the set-up, you’ll lodge this Scam in a country and organisation that is just as corrupt as you are – and the Scam will be everything but official policy.

You can also try annoyance, impatience, or resignation to the bullshit.

The Scam Itself
Is not just about getting bribed.  In fact, the more you can make your Mark feel like he is making a legitimate payment, the better.  The whole point is, you are catching the Mark at a moment when he is afraid of you and what you might do (delay him, charge him even more, send him to the station, keep his licence or passport, arrest him, hurt him, shoot him, etc.) and usually when he is unable to continue – say, at a crossing where you make, or appear to make, the decision.  If the Mark is convinced the payment is legitimate, he will almost certainly be willing to pay more.

The Methods
  1. The Traffic / Vehicle Infraction. You are a Man of Authority. The Mark has committed a traffic (u-turn, gone a foot past the stop sign, etc.) or vehicle offense (incorrect storage, no fire extinguisher, etc.). It is irrelevant whether the offense is real or invented. The Mark must pay you x amount of money. Make sure you get the Mark’s licence or passport immediately, and hold onto it. If the Mark insists on an official ticket, hold out for a bribe for less than the amount they will pay at the station.
  2. The Missing Document. You are or pretend to be a Man of Authority. The Mark is driving or on foot, and does not have a particular document on hand. It is irrelevant whether or not what you say is the law.
  3. The Crossing. You are or pretend to be a Man of Authority. The Mark cannot pass without paying you x amount of money.
  4. The Delayed Crossing. You are or pretend to be a Man of Authority at a crossing, where there is a delay. You offer the Mark to get him ahead of the queue, for x amount of money, mentioned then or later. You may or may not actually help the Mark get ahead, but if you choose the latter, make sure you get the money before your false effort is exposed.
  5. The Advanced Delayed Crossing. Same as the above, but with exquisite sophistication and a whole team of which you will be in charge. 1) The Buddy, who makes friends with the Mark and always has him in sight. 2) The Rebel, to whom the Buddy openly reports, who loathes corruption and wants to shepherd the Mark through without bribing anyone. 3) The thieves who try to steal from the Mark, but are stopped by the Rebel and the Buddy at the last minute. 4) The Uncle of the Rebel, who has some authority, and who will help the Mark get ahead of the queue but at the last minute asks for money, or a gift. 5) The security officer who sends the Mark to the back of the line when the Uncle disappears, accepts some money for the Mark to stay, and begins a scruffle with the Rebel and the Buddy. 6) You, who come in to fix the whole situation in the middle of the chaos and will let the Mark go just as the ferry is about to leave – for a fee. A huge fee. By now the Mark should pay.
  6. Just Demand Money. When in doubt or desperation or in sight of those one-in-a-hundred Marks who will pay whatever you tell them, just crisp up your uniform, puff out your chest, and demand x amount of money. Many, a glorious many, will simply shut up and hand it over.
For obvious reasons, this Scam carries big risks, both if you are actually a Man of Authority, or just pretending to be. In both cases, it is usually not so much a case of getting caught, but who you are getting caught by. Be wary of those who might be setting you up, of targeting the wrong Mark, and, if you are acting the part, that your grounds don’t go stale or your contacts sour. Here are a few other pieces of advice:
  1. Pick the right Mark. Learn by experience to know by sight alone who should a Mark, and who should not.
  2. Know your Mark’s price. Even if you know the Mark will pay up, there may still be a limit to his tolerance and his bank account.
  3. If the Mark turns out to be too big a risk, let him go. Don’t risk it. If they start asking too many questions, insisting on receipts or names, let the Mark go. You may win today, but it could come back to bite.
  4. Never give your real name. 

The best part about this one is the infinite possibility of variation: complexity or simplicity, real cop or fake, a lot of small returns or a few big ones.  There are whole careers made off the Man of Authority Scam.  Why miss out?

Happy scamming,


Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Viven : The fiche de passage

Dear Viven,

If you are traveling across Africa as we are, you will absolutely require a folder of fiches de passage.  Like the carnet de passage there is no good way to translate it into English, but the fiche is essentially a list of all your pertinent details (and those of anyone you are traveling with) on a single piece of paper.  Police, soldiers and gendarmes will ask you for a fiche at checkpoints and borders, and keep it for their records (which are either a real extensive matrix of travel knowledge, or just physical proof that they’re actually doing their jobs).

The authorities of some countries, such as Senegal and the Gambia, required no fiches from us at all, while in others, such as Mauritania, the gendarmes at every checkpoint asked for it.

The sample fiche below has worked for us so far.  It may be a good idea to add your profession, as this is the single-most asked question at all checkpoints and borders (possibly to root out unwanted journalists and activists).  In the Western Sahara the Moroccan gendarmes and police always checked our passports for our stamped-in visa entry number, which they wrote on the fiche, so you may want to add this to save time, though it was never an actual problem with those officials we encountered.

Other pieces of information you may want to add: vehicle make and model, purpose of visit (if you can, always say work instead of tourism), place of birth as well as the date, passport place of delivery and issuing authority, and if you want to really get all you might be asked for, the full names of your father and mother.  One gendarme in Mauritania stated that our fiche was incomplete without passport photos attached, but this was an extreme case, and after saying this he started to fish for a bribe, which we refused and were let go (which so far has always been the case).

Though it depends on where you’ll be going, on our route it is a good idea to write the fiche in French, or French and English.

Here’s what you should have on your fiche:

Date (with a space left blank to be filled out)
Lieu (Place, with a space left blank)

Nom (last name)
Prénom (first name)
Nationalité (nationality)
Sexe (gender)
Date de naissance (date of birth)
Numéro du passeport (passport number)
Passeport date de deliverance (passport date of delivery)
Passeport date d’expiration (passport date of expiry)

Propriétaire du véhicule (vehicle owner)
Numéro d'immatriculation (licence plate number)

Write the personal details of all travelers on the same sheet.

Prepare to need quite a few of these.  At the time of writing we have given out 20 (16 in Mauritania, 3 in the Western Sahara, and one in Guinea-Bissau), and expect to give as many, if not more, in the months to come. 

Hope this helps,