My wife’s Great-Great-Aunt Mildred traveled far and wide, long before such a thing was fashionable. Late in life, Aunt Mildred set about to writing a memoir of her experiences. The title: Jams Are Fun. It turns out, after seeing so much of the world, Aunt Mildred realized that it’s not always the big museums, the fancy dinners, or the castles and cathedrals that stick with you most. It’s those serendipitous moments when things go awry. And so, in the spirit of Aunt Mildred, this post is the first in what I hope to be a recurring feature about when good trips turn bad, and the journey is better for it. This travel jam takes place on the dusty back roads of rural Bosnia-Herzegovina.
I remember a time, not long ago, when crossing any border in Eastern Europe came with the possibility — or probability — of being shaken down for a bribe. If you slip the guy 20 Deutschmarks, you enter Hungary now. If not…you wait two hours.
I’m happy to report that, in most places, those days are in the distant past. The allure of EU membership was enough for most countries to crack down on corruption. Still, in a few out-of-the-way enclaves, bribery is still a way of life. And one of those places just cost me €50.
After two fascinating days road-tripping through Bosnia with my buddy Ben, we were on our way out of Republika Srpska, within sight of the Croatian border. Leaving the little town of Vrbaška, the country road entered a sparsely populated area, and the car ahead of me slowed way down. Now, in Bosnia, this is far from unusual. Most Bosnians drive either recklessly fast or tortoise-slow — anything but the speed limit. So I zipped around him, just in time to see a roadside policeman flick his handheld “stop” sign at me.
Pulling over and rolling down my window, I trotted out my best “clueless tourist” routine (which, in this case, was not an act): “I’m sorry, was I speeding? I didn’t see any signs!”
The scruffy policeman, with a ragtag uniform cobbled together at an army surplus store, was polite but matter-of-fact. “You go too fast,” he said. He motioned me out of the car and over to his English-speaking partner back at the police cruiser.
Standing proudly by their radar gun, they showed me a stack of documentation in Cyrillic lettering. “Limit here is 50 kmh,” he said, gesturing at the fine print. “You go 66 kmh. Fine is 100 Bosnian marks, or 50 euro.”
They explained that I’d need to take the paperwork back to the town I’d just left, and pay my fine at the police station or post office. The problem was, it was Sunday morning, when every office in town is shut up tight. Meanwhile, back in the car sat Ben, who had a flight to catch in Zagreb, just over the border. Time was not on our side.
“Is there any way I can pay you the fine?” I suggested helpfully. The cops exchanged knowing glances, scratched their heads theatrically for a moment, and held a quick conference in Serbian. Finally came the answer: “We can pay fine for you later today. You pay us 50 euro, we take it to police station.”
Very pleased with themselves for brainstorming this solution, they filled out the byzantine paperwork in triplicate. Meanwhile, a strange sensation began to crawl its way up the back of my neck — a creeping certainty that my money would never make it back to that police station. Oh, they were doing someone a favor…it just wasn’t me.
The paperwork complete, I decided to experiment a little bit. “Can I have that carbon-copy of the ticket?” I asked them. They shot each other an alarmed glance, and shook their heads vigorously. “No, no, no, not possible, not possible,” they insisted. “This paper, you get only when you pay in office,” he explained.
Well, since we’re all being completely aboveboard here, certainly they couldn’t object to my taking a photograph of the speeding ticket…right? I pulled out my phone and held it up to frame a snapshot of the paperwork. They both jumped out of their uniforms and practically reached for their guns. “No! No! No! No! No!”
Really amping up the “stupid tourist” routine, I said, “Oh, I’m sorry! I need a photo for my company.” But they were on to me being on to them. They shot me a “nice try, bub,” look, and, using only gestures and a few gruff words, made my choice clear: You give us 50 euros and drive away with no more questions, and this is over. Otherwise, you’re about to spend a frustrating Sunday morning in bureaucratic hell, wandering around a two-bit town, begging somebody — anybody — to take your money.
I hate to contribute to corruption. But I had places to go. Would I make a principled stand against greedy small-town cops who clearly savored shaking down passing tourists? Or would I toss a bone to a couple of likely underpaid, hardworking guys in a hardscrabble corner of Europe, salvage the rest of my day, and get Ben to his flight on time?
The policeman took my 50-euro note with a tip of the hat, and we were on our way. Crossing the Croatian border minutes later, I was filled with a mix of regret and relief. While much of my beloved Eastern Europe has made great strides in joining the rest of the civilized world, it seems that Republika Srpska is trapped in their old ways. No doubt, those cops enjoyed a few laughs (and a few beers) at my expense. But little did they realize that today’s target was a travel writer who’s devoted much of his career to celebrating their overlooked little corner of Europe. And who would later be blogging to the whole world about just how corrupt the police force is in Vrbaška, Republika Srpska, Bosnia-Herzegovina, postal code 78400. Ask for Srđan and Saša.
When it comes to getting out of a jam, 50 euros is a hefty price to pay. On the other hand, I came away with a vivid memory. And in the grand scheme of things, I suppose I’ve paid a lot more for a lot less.