Sunday, June 17, 2012

Meredith Meets Baksheesh: It Was Going So Well Until They Kicked Us Out

2012 06 17
Hammamet, Tunisia

Caveat: this describes our experience at Marina Sidi Bou Said.  It does not happen like this at Hammamet.  We know because we came to Hammamet when Sidi Bou Said kicked us out without warning.

If We Hand't Been Turfed from Sidi Bou Said
We would have missed this stunning sunrise at Cap Bon this morning
Prior to our arrival at Sidi Bou Said we had been alerted to the fact that the system of tips, bribes and government corruption known generally as “baksheesh” was in full effect at that marina. An angry 2010 letter posted on noonsite described the marina and its port police and customs agents in most unglowing terms.  Sadly nothing has changed since that letter.

Having generally led a sheltered and uninspired life we decided it was time we experienced baksheesh on our own.  Viewed by us as a cultural abherration we had to admit we were woefully inexperienced at manouevering in a corrupt system. It would be, we hoped, educative.

So entering Tunisia at Sidi Bou Said was to be an education for us.  We decided we wanted to be players not victims and gain some useful insight into how to deal with officials seeking bribes.  

Every time we get an education it costs us money and this was no different. Interestingly it cost us less than it did the writer of the noonsite letter who chose to be disapproving and grumpy.  Our approach was simple and resembled my approach to poker: take as big a roll of bills as we could afford to lose and be prepared to lose it all.

Here's how it went:

After our exuberant welcome to the marina described earlier marina staff gestured us to a nice well protected slip at the end of the slipway. They patiently waited while I brought Meredith slowly into the slip and helped us tie up.

When we were done securing bow to in a laid Med mooring the staff were waiting. I inquired as to customs and immigration. “Of course” they replied, “we wait to take you there. First you pay us and then we go”.

Well that was easy. No uncertainty as to expectations. I attempted to slip them €5 but they were horrified. “Not here, Not here” they excitedly explained and then pointed “cameras. We go under the camera and you pay”. Aha.

Entering the Port Captain's office we signed in and handed over our ship's papers. The Port Captain kept our Certificate of Registry. He explained that he would return it when we paid our account and left the marina. No hint of a bribe or request for same.  I guess he did not have to.  He had a hostage.

Next we had to clear customs before the port captain could finish signing us in.

In the Customs and Port Police office, which adjoins the port captain office, a ream of paper was put to pen and multiple copies of forms flew in all directions. For the Customs Official we swore a Customs Declaration listing every bottle of wine and beer on the boat, the number of firearms and a detailed listing of all electronics onboard.  They wanted details. 

The Customs Declaration should have been called a shopping list.  For the Customs Officials that is.  What the declaration does is alert the officials as to what goods they might be able to shake you down. (I indent the official's comments)

Reading from my newly sworn declaration the customs officer commented “It says here you are a lawyer.” With this the Customs Official looked up at me and gave a knowing grin.  I was not sure if I should be pleased that as a lawyer I was deemed intelligent enough to know what was coming and how to play it or if I should be dismayed that as a lawyer he knew I would be familiar with the tawdry and the underhanded.  In any event I confessed my crimes against society and acknowledged my profession.

You were last in the port of Valencia in Espana?”.

I did not demur.  I hate answering statements.  If a guy wants to ask me a question, fine.

So then you perhaps would have some nice Spanish beer on your boat perhaps that I could try?”

Pretty slick eh? He segued his way right into a harmless request to try a beer. Of course I had just filed a customs form stating that I had six beers onboard. 

I decided to have just a little bit of fun.

No, I am sorry, I do not have any Spanish beer on my boat”. With that I fixed him straight in the eye with what I hoped was a twinkle in mine.

The man's facial muscles went  rigid. Gone was his welcoming smile. His eyes fired up and it was apparent he was not pleased. I decided there was no time for more play.

However I do have some really good Dutch beer, Amstel, that I think you should try. It is far better than the cat's piss they make in Spain. I don't drink that swill.”.

Instantly the man's face reformed and again I was being addressed by Mr. Congeniality. “Dutch beer?” he mused. “That might be nice”.

Great I will bring some over. Let me know what you think. I am pretty sure you will like it. It would be nice to get another opinion”.  You see I was offering not paying a demand.

There is no need to bring it over. These men”, he gestured to two guys standing in the corner “will board your boat for inspection. You can send the beer with them”

So the touch was made before the customs inspection. Give the guy a hard time and he would direct the degree of difficulty of search to be imposed.

His was not the only discretion involved however. Accompanied by the port police agent and thecustoms agent I returned to the boat. Once aboard the two officials stood in the salon looking uncertain. I complimented them on the efficient process in the office and explained that in Canada the customs men could be rather overbearing and difficult. I expressed appreciation for their conduct and I handed them each €10.

They smiled for the first time. We talked for a bit about beer and wine and then I dug out five Amstel from the fridge for them to take to their boss. I discretely placed it in a grocery bag. Discretion is my middle name.

We all returned to the customs office to retrieve our passports and finally back to the port captain to complete his paperwork. That was dealt with smoothly and as we left his office I palmed him €10. Discretion was still my middle name.  And I wanted to ensure the safe return of my ship's papers.

In total it cost us about €50 and five Amstel Beer that we had had on board since Melilla.  The beer was well past its "best before" date.  

The way we engaged the process seemed to work.  All the officials were happy and helpful after the process.  Our boat avoided a potentially destructive custom's search and it only cost us €50.  The grumpy old letterwriter to Noonsite ended up paying €100 and he suffered a very hard time.

Three days later, without notice or warning, the marina evicted us.

1 comment:

  1. Guess the beer was skunky, Bob.

    While I'm not naive enough to think I can avoid this sort of thing, I do think it's a corrosive practice and will not seek it out, even as an instructional process.

    So I will avoid this port unless I am made aware these little games cease.

    It's funny how people think five years is a long time to anticipate sailing around the world. They don't realize how many places I've chosen not to go before we've even left.

    That may be closed-minded. I'm OK with that.