Is it ever OK to pay a Bribe?

BRIBERY! BAKSHEESH! BEGGING! AND BARTERING! The “four Bs” aren’t necessarily the first subjects you think about before embarking on a cruising life. But if you are intending to move a long way from home, to places with different cultures and beliefs, you will have to think about readjusting your perceptions. In this post we talk about our experiences and show you how we have tackled some of the unusual situations we have found ourselves in over the years.


In Thursday’s episode Liz talks about being put in a compromising position when we arrived at a new port of entry. On that occasion, we gave away a couple of bottles of wine to an official. But why?

These are the reasons:

  1. The official may have made life difficult  for us by: refusing entry, coming up with a customs/quarantine/visa objections, informing colleagues further along the line that we are not to be trusted. It was a new port and she wasn’t sure if this was normal practice (we had heard bad things in the past).
  2. They were old bottles of wine which we would never have drunk, so we didn’t mind losing them! She held tight to her bottle of Baileys which she refused to give up!
  3. Liz was on her own below while Jamie was in the cockpit talking to the other officials. Had Jamie been there too it might have been a different matter – and the official may not have been so pressing.

We discovered later that this particular individual was known to the authorities and had already been in trouble for this kind of behaviour. When pressed by our agent, who suspected someone had tried to elicit alcohol from us, we told him what had happened for which he was grateful.

Since arriving in SE Asia in 2013 we have noticed a real effort by the authorities to crack down on this type of corruption. There are now signs in most offices making it clear that you must not pay bribes of any kind and to tell someone if you are asked for money. Some offices no longer have the ability to accept payment.

This isn’t the first time we have experienced blatant corruption. Here are some of examples of what has happened to us over the years:

  • In Egypt you are required to carry an official pilot as you transit the Suez Canal (in our case late 2009). Not only do you pay for this service, but they will demand a personal ‘fee’ for their services. If you don’t pay it there are tears, histrionics and tantrums. And no matter how much we had put in that brown paper envelope, our first pilot would have wanted more.
  • In Oman the appointed agent demanded an extra ‘fee’ – it was all done with a smile, but was non-negotiable and as he was appointed by customs clearance there was no recourse.
  • In Mumbai our agent did his best to negotiate the lowest fee possible for clearing in, but we still ended up paying hundreds of dollars.
  • Baksheesh has different meanings in different situations and culture. Yes, it can mean bribery, but can also refer to a genuine tip of even giving alms to the poor.
  • What we might consider “Bribery”, in some cultures might be the normal way of oiling the wheels of commerce.
  • It’s worth doing a little homework and asking around before arriving. Ask people who have already been to the country or are resident there, ask questions on travel or sailing chat forums, watch videos like ours! Try to get a feel for how the new place works before you arrive so you are ready to tackle the situation.
  • Before arriving in Egypt we had been told by so many people that Baksheesh would be demanded from us everywhere. We didn’t find this to be true. On one memorable experience after a young man showed Jamie through the back streets of Port Suez to a camera shop, he was offended when Jamie offered him some cash as a thank you!

And while we’re on the subject of being fleeced because we’re foreigners…

  • In many countries there is a local price and a tourist price. Sometimes it’s even official, like the historical sites in India where they show the two different tariffs at the ticket office.
  • Our general advice is – Get used to it and don’t let it irritate you. In many countries “westerners” are perceived as wealthy compared to most of the regular population. Although we may not consider ourselves wealthy, in comparison to many poorer folk in these countries we live like Royalty. Isn’t it fair to pay a bit more? Do you agree?

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How you respond depends on the situation and how you feel about it.

  • In India, where it is widespread (we’ve all heard and seen the stories of professional begging there) we generally didn’t respond. But occasionally we did help out when we felt it was a genuine case of destitution. In Kerala, unlike Delhi and the northern states, there is no culture of begging, but we regularly gave a few rupees to a destitute lady whose home was the street by one of the churches there.
  • In Sudan we saw no begging, except on one occasion when a shop-owner quietly handed some money to a dignified old man who clearly had nothing. When the locals can help each other like that, it seems the charitable thing to follow suit.

Children asking for “dollars, mister!”

  • In SE Asia, this happens (sometimes) in the street, or in canoes around the boat.  In these situations we never give cash, it sets a precedent and makes life difficult for following cruisers. But we do hand out pencils, pens, fishing hooks, sweets, even games like small balls for playing with in the street (Sudan).

  • In some countries young men will come to the boat asking for beer or any alcoholic drink. Firstly, Jamie NEVER gives his beer away unless he’s invited someone on board – it’s a precious commodity! Some places are particularly sensitivity towards alcohol. In Aceh (northern Sumatra) and the Maldives at check-in you are expressly told NOT to give locals alcohol. We always offer water and soft drinks if we have them (but not Liz’s tonic water 😉).



Most fishermen around the world will offer fish in return for something. We carry cigarettes and sugar because these are the most popular requests. But we usually give them followtheboat t-shirts, old clothes and fishing gear. Off the desolate southern coast of Eritrea we were offered two fresh lobsters by some raggedy smiling fishermen. We searched round the boat to give them something and found a pile of old clothes and some sugar. The following morning they passed by our boat with shouts and waves, all wearing our clothes. They were happy and so were we!

  • There are really no hard and fast rules.
  • Your best line of defence is to PREPARE. Do your homework before entering a new country. Ask on forums, read blogs, try to talk to people who have already been there, WATCH VIDEOS LIKE OURS!
  • When someone asks for a bribe:
    • If you don’t know the answer, do what is comfortable for you.
    • Sometimes it might be more expedient to swallow your pride or principles and just pay.
    • Sometimes it might be better to stand your ground against corruption.
  • Remember – in some cultures, particularly where there is no kind of welfare state, giving money to beggars and the destitute is a way of giving alms. Once we left the Mediterranean we have come to realise how much more wealthy we are compared to many of the poor people we have met.
  • There are other ways of putting money back into the community:
    • Use LOCAL shops, restaurants, markets, roadside food stalls and craftsmen.
    • Don’t throw anything away – we have hardly ever had to throw anything away since moving on board; there is always someone who will find a use for our old bits and pieces, even if just to sell them.
  • Fish direct from a fishing boat is just about the best fish you can eat – always have something ready to offer in return!

Peace and fair winds! Liz, Jamie and Millie xxx


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