First, the good news: I’m constantly amazed by how little corruption there is in the far corners of the world. While I’m a relatively poor man by American standards, my vessel represents great wealth to the people of Madagascar, Borneo and the Maldives. For the most part, however, these people do not take advantage.
Of course, there are exceptions. Once I was being dragged down a corridor in Venezuela by three beefy federales while my wife, Carolyn, ran after us, screaming, “Pay the bribe, Fatty! It’s only 27 cents U.S.!”
Another time, in Castries, St. Lucia, the customs guy wanted me to buy a flag his wife had made. I politely declined, saying that I too had a wife who sewed, and pointed at the fluttering courtesy flag on my starboard spreader.
“Oh, dear,” he replied with a frown. “I’ve had reports of a smuggling boat that looks similar to yours. Bring her to the dock so my boys can take a look.” Before the eight dock ruffians he’d assigned to rip apart my boat could do much damage, I shouted lamely, “OK, I’ll buy the flag!” Instantly, all destruction ceased. “I thought you’d be reasonable,” said the customs guy with a smile.
In the Galapágos, it was a different story. There the customs agent’s son-in-law was the Official De-Ratter of the Eastern Pacific Fleet. “Here’s how it works,” explained the happy-go-lucky officer. “You pay me $25 for my son-in-law to go out to your boat with a large canister of highly toxic poison strapped on his back, then you pay him an additional $25 to not use that poison to make your home uninhabitable. Does that sound reasonable?”
Our most endearing clearing-in experience took place in the lovely Maldives, when seven men in uniform trooped aboard. Each took out his cellphone, dialed either his mother’s, wife’s or girlfriend’s number, and then curtly informed the womenfolk that they could not talk right now, as they were out on a yacht conducting official government business and, thus, had no time for frivolous chatter. Sometimes all you can do is smile. One time in India, a money-changer named Honest John slid up on our port side as a vessel identified as “Pete’s Pure Water” lassoed our starboard cleat.
“Hello, esteemed gentleman,” said Honest John with grand elocution. “I am Honest John, and as honest as the day is long. Actually, I’m honest longer than that, kind sir, for I am nobly honest in the evening too!”
“He’s a notorious waterfront cheat and a liar!” screamed the other bum-boat skipper, with yellow spittle flying from his toothless mouth. “And universally despised as such! Don’t allow him to bamboozle you, American Skipper and American Lady Friend! Honest John is a complete disgrace to all of India. May Mahatma Gandhi roll over in his grave!”
“And just who is calling the kettle black?” asked Honest John huffily. “Putrid Pete, who gets his water from latrines and urinals frequented by untouchables?”
“My wide array of sterilized water products are 100 percent pure from the town dock tap!” screamed Pete. We hadn’t even set out our anchor rode yet, and were already learning about the sharp business practices of these traditional marine-industry proprietors.
At other times, it’s a bit harder to laugh. Recently, thanks to an out-of-date cruising guide, we attempted to clear into Lombok, Indonesia. Five officials flooded aboard, each having stepped from a shiny new flag-snapping, air-conditioned vehicle. They wore skin-tight tailored uniforms, and each sported an expensive-looking pen, watch and ring — in a country where few citizens have shoes, and many, if not most, lack food. Now, there are two ways to look at what came next: One is that these were exploiters and horrible people — or else they were expert go-getters and having the time of their entrepreneurial lives. Regardless of which one you pick, the fact that they were worldly-naive and somewhat childlike was undeniable.
They stampeded aboard Ganesh, our 43-foot ketch, with hard shoes and soft hands, and immediately settled around the cockpit table. Each time we asked them if they wanted drinks, fruits, snacks or other food, they said yes, yes and yes, with happy and grateful smiles. And they made no effort to begin the clearing-in process, seemingly intent on denting our food stores.
Eventually, one lanky, kind of snaky guy peeled off from the group, donned thick glasses, and started laboriously reading the labels on all our shipboard items, putting about a quarter of them into a growing pile on the main cabin sole.
I ignored him and instead concentrated on being a genial host. Soon I had them rolling in the scuppers, so to speak, with my tales of doing very stupid things in very silly places.
Eventually, however, since no one was making a move to clear us in, I asked, “So, are we done here?”
“We haven’t even begun,” said their leader, who then conferred with the lanky dude. Then, turning his attention back to me, he said, “I’m amazed how nonchalant you are, skipper, in view of the fact we’ve already found eight separate violations.”
Slim could barely read any English, but had evidently trained himself to spot dates. Thus, his job was to go aboard and find any visible items with any visible dates so his masters could threaten the skipper with a dreaded violation.
I smiled, though I didn’t mean to. There is nothing that infuriates these guys more. It was like waving a red flag in front of them. They immediately launched a flood-and-split routine by rushing below and heading for opposite ends of our vessel. With five of them running their fingers lovingly through our gear, it was impossible to keep track. One of the youngest spotted my hat collection, murmured an “Oh, wow!” and demanded a mirror.
I opened a nearby hanging locker so he could see himself. He tried on every hat, pulling a gangsta face with each. Finally, he said happily, “I’ll take this one!”
Before I could say, “Oh no, you won’t,” another fellow started handing out new copies of my books, saying, “Gosh, your sailing stories are funny!”
Meanwhile a guy in the aft cabin plucked a Boker ceramic blade from my pile of boat knives, and said, matter-of-factly, “You have five knives. I’ll take one.” That was just as Slim came to me with great sadness. He solemnly showed me an almost empty aspirin bottle with an expired use-by date on it.
“This is not only a violation,” he said. “This is a drug violation, which makes it much more serious.”
I looked him straight in the eye. (Carolyn immediately slid up on my starboard side, gave my butt a little squeeze, smiled, and whispered to me, “Easy, boy.”) I took a deep breath, because there is always time for a deep breath, and I thought to myself, things could suddenly get far worse or remarkably better. Then I decided to do nothing to escalate and everything to alleviate.
“Hey, guys,” I said with a smile. “Time to head back on deck. Sure, that hat does make you look like Tupac! And, absolutely, I’d be honored if you guys read my books.” Then I turned, reached for the knife, and added, “Alas, that carbon-fiber Boker with the newly patented liner lock was used by my great-great-grandfather aboard the Mayflower. Sorry about that!”
Here’s the truth of it: These five grown men didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. They’d just met us by happy circumstance, and it appeared we wanted to pretty much shower them endlessly with expensive gifts. Sure, they’d pointed out a few “problems,” as the job demanded, but mostly they just enjoyed our company. The kinder, gentler side of me understood their point of view: We obviously had money to burn, so why not allow us to burn it in their presence?
Best of all, once they realized the freebie party was over, they curtly informed us that actually, this wasn’t an official port-of-entry anymore anyway, and we should try Bali instead.
“You mean the joke is on us?” Carolyn asked.
“She’s just kidding,” I said as I unobtrusively kicked her. “Our pleasure!”
Carolyn and Fatty Goodlander just returned to Singapore from Hong Kong in time to attend their granddaughter’s 5th birthday party.