"Just $20," our guide says, motioning as he slips a crisp, green American note into his passport. "Like this, and hand it over to the guard."
This is the plan. We're going to enter the Democratic Republic of Congo on the sly. Ordinarily we would have to apply for a visa and pay $US100 each, but we only want to be in the country for about 10 hours, so that seems crazy. Particularly as the experience we're about to have, viewing mountain gorillas in the wild, is already going to cost $US300 per person.
But the guide on our overland tour – let's call him Jimmy – has an idea. He's met the border guards here at the checkpoint between Uganda and the DRC before. They're reasonable fellas, he says, and if we all slip a $20 note into our passports and hand them over as usual, the guards will wave us into the country, no worries; though, they'll keep our passports and return them when we cross back that evening.
Cool. Of course, the downside to this is we'll all be in the Democratic Republic of Congo with no passports and no official way of getting them back or even explaining where they are, but she'll be right, Jimmy assures us, it's better this way.
There's a group of 10 of us, tourists from Australia, England, Germany. We all slip twenties into our various passports and give them to Jimmy, who drives us to the border in our big overland truck and then jumps down to approach the guards, chatting to them easily while we hang back to see what will happen.
Pretty soon we're waved through. We pass a faded blue sign that says "Welcome to Zaire" – despite the fact the country hasn't been called that in eight years or so – and then we're in. The DRC. We climb into the back of a couple of utes waiting by the border and we're off into the jungle, on the hunt for gorillas; not really in the DRC, but not back in Uganda either. No one knows we're here. Officially, we're not.
This was maybe 15 years ago. At the time it felt great. It felt edgy to do what we were doing, it felt adventurous. Bribing a border guard to enter a dangerous country: that's the sort of thing a backpacker should have on their CV. I wasn't scared or worried, I was thrilled.
When I look back on it now though, it makes me a bit queasy. It's such an obvious abuse of white privilege, to pass on a bribe to save a bit of hassle and some money, the sort of thing so many millions of people around us at that exact time – people caught in the middle of a bloody civil war between the Hutus and Tutsis – would have given anything to be able to do, and yet wouldn't have had the chance.
Serious fighting broke out just nearby, in the DRC city of Goma, a few days after we left. I checked the news from an internet café in Kampala: that border crossing where we slipped those guards a cheeky $20 was inundated with refugees attempting to stream into Uganda to take shelter, to find safety. Life and death stuff. And yet there we were having a bit of fun, looking at gorillas, playing our part in supporting a corrupt system that should never have been in place.
Some friends of mine who used to live in Papua New Guinea referred to their privilege there as the "white wave" – the fact that they could turn up at any security checkpoint around Port Moresby and just sail through, unmolested, because they were white. They'd just give a little wave from inside their car and the guards would usher them through.
No ID check. No questions. Just a wave.
They weren't proud of their privilege – "it is what it is", seemed to be the attitude. Who would court extra trouble at a PNG security check? It makes you feel uncomfortable at the unfairness of it all, but you still don't argue.
And it never even occurred to us to argue in the DRC. We paid our bribes – low-level stuff in the grand scheme of things – and went off on our adventure. We spent six hours tramping through the thick jungle of the Virunga National Park and were able to view the mountain gorillas up close, to stare into the dark, intelligent eyes of a whole family of primates as they checked us out with just as much intensity.
And then we climbed back into those utes and bumped over dirt roads, through modest villages, past kids who waved and called out to us, on our way back to the border.
The guards handed back our passports, each a little lighter with the $20 removed. We walked back into Uganda, where we were supposed to be, where we should have been that whole time. And we got back to our holiday.
What's the scariest border crossing you've been through? Have you ever been denied entry into a country? Have you ever done something on your travels that you now see was pretty dodgy?