While preparing my first overland trip around South America, back in 2005, these kinds of stories with the police were stressing me out.
By my estimate I have ridden a good 70,000 to 80,000 miles abroad. That includes a year exploring South America, many long trips around Europe, Russia, Central Asia, Vietnam, USA… and soon to come Africa. And let’s not forget I also lived a year and a half in Brazil (Rio) where we had motorbikes.
I have met many cops and militaries on the road. I have been stopped many times. And I have stopped myself often enough too, near Uniforms, to find my way round, a hotel, a place, a road, ask about safety in the region…
Here are few entertaining anecdotes about some of these encounters, or scroll to the end for my suggestions:
In Colombia, while we were trying to get to a remote archaeological site, we were stopped by the police in a small village. The mountain road had been washed out by landslides and rivers of muds. It was too dangerous on two wheels because of said rivers of mud washing light vehicles down the mountain. After some discussions, it was agreed they would keep our motorbikes while we went to that site on a bus. One Cop volunteered his house, so the bikes would be safe overnight. After a flight of stair, one Beemer (BMW f650GS) was left in a bedroom between 2 beds, the other one in a corridor between the kitchen and the bathroom.
Then while we waited for the bus, we were entertained by the police’s Chief with coffee and stories about the FARC. He took us out to show the hills from where the FARC were shooting at them. After seeing the bullet holes behind me, I suggested we finish our coffee inside!
They even stopped the bus and started searching it so we wouldn’t miss it! The next day we came back and picked up the bikes. We bought cakes for the guys and gave a football t-shirt to the house owner Cop! We decided, with Alistair, not to give any cash, as I am very uneasy about handing cash to someone in uniform.
In Russia, trying to find the trail to Astrakhan, we found a village. Asking the cops for directions, my Russian was too limited to understand all. So they got on their car and drove for miles on end until they told us by gesture to carry on into a main track. I wrote about this in the Post: Where is the Road.
In a Russian town (Nalchik) , trying to find a place to spend the night, with parking for the bikes, I stopped by some cops. One of them explained to me where to find one, and with my limited Russian I still understood when he added to do a U-turn at the following read light. As otherwise, he added with an apologising smile, I would ride over a solid white line and he would have to fine me.
In Uzbekistan, the guys would stop us mainly out of boredom and to check out our bikes, but they were also helpful.
In Colombia one Uniform stopped me and asked me (pointing at my motorcycle suit) why I was wearing an astronaut costume!
Many times, the cops were just doing their job. In slightly less safe places, like Colombia or Uzbekistan, checking for ID, registering our passage, that sort of thing.
We did have a couple of weird encounters though. I let you judge.
The first time we went to Kyrgyzstan, while riding to a small remote border with Kazakhstan, we came across a police check point. Only two guys. The fat chief would not move from his car, eating sunflower seeds that he cracked open with his teeth, barely stopping to breath, while his compere was doing the work. That is when I decided I did not speak any Russian. What he was trying to tell us was that we were not allowed to take Kyrgyz money out of the country and we had to give any left to them. Hmm… sure. We played dumb and stupid. That usually works fine. After a while, saying in English that we had no idea and no money, I looked for some of my British coins, in in my tank bag: a brought out a pound, with portrait of the queen. It seemed to do the trick as they were happy to see the Queen, and let us go.
In Peru, like in Kyrgyzstan, we were stopped for speeding. In both case, we had no clue whether It was true or not. Road signs are rare. In Peru it was in a nice stretch of road, in the middle of the desert, way far from any village. We were probably cruising at 60 or 65mph. In Kyrgyzstan, we had passed a town. We accelerated, going about 65 or 70 km/h, but maybe we should have stayed within 50km/h. Hard to tell with lack of road signs!
In both cases we did not deny or get angry. In Peru, as I speak Spanish, I spoke with the guys. They wanted 100 USD or something like that. I told them that we did not have that cash and that we could not go back to the previous town to get any, as the cash point had not worked with our cards (small lie there). We suggested they keep our driving licences and we would come back, once we got money somewhere. After a long lecture about the dangers of speed, they gave us back our licences and let us go.
In Kyrgyzstan, it cost us a bit. I wrote about this in the Post: The road to Osh. But in summary: the fat chief in his car (why is the chief always fat and sitting in his car?) told us it would be $100 and we would need to go back to the previous town and go to the bank to pay the fine. I had no problem with that. But how lucky we were, if we paid there and then to them, it would be $50. He said we could pay by card. So the guy got a credit card payment machine. I knew what would happen… Alistair tried with a credit card, then another. None worked.
As I was the only one speaking some Russian, I was the one talking to them. I told them we did not have $50 with us in cash. I had discreetly removed cash from my day purse. I only left about 6 or 8 USD equivalent in local currency. As the second card failed, I handed my purse, saying take it all. He took 600 Soms (if I recall – about $8) and let us go. After that we rode very slowly. In Kyrgyz the cops are famed for fining foreigners for speeding. It is unthinkable a real fine would cost $50 or $100. The locals probably don’t make that in a month! We got to the hotel in Osh, were we met, in the hotel’s carpark, a group of polish riders, they had been fined 50USD each for speeding!
So here are few suggestions if you get stopped by Uniforms on the road and they want to get some of your cash:
1. Smile and be friendly, we always are, no one likes an *rsehole.
2. If you break the law, like overtaking where it is plainly forbidden, go over a solid line, speed or anything else, and get caught: the Cops are doing their jobs. The fact you are abroad does not mean you can disregard the rules. Denying it is silly. Especially if they get the gun-speed to show it (as they had for us in Kyrgyz). Too many travellers feel entitled to ignore local rules. However, if they ask payment in cash, see rule 3.
3. Have a dummy wallet with a bit of local money in it, say about 10 to 20 USD equivalent, no more.
4. Do not flash cash ever! Make it clear you have credit cards and you only carry little cash.
5. Take your time when they stop you. You have all the time in the world, why hurry, have a chat
6. Slow down while riding! Don’t give them any reason to stop you.
In the end, don’t worry too much about “corrupt cops”. In all our trips, we only had one encounter where they were plainly trying to get cash out of us for no reason other than they could. And we gave them nothing (well, a pound coin). And if you get caught doing something wrong and they want payment in cash, see rule 3, 4 and 5.
The vast majority of times, the Uniforms (military or police) have been doing their job and been often helpful. If they stop you, don’t assume immediately the worse. 99% of the time, they are just bored, want to have a look at the bikes and have a chat with you about your travels. So smile when you open your helmet! (see Rule 1). After all, you are living the Dream!