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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Overland Expo 2014: International Relations

We recently returned from our annual trek to Overland Expo, held this year (once again) in Mormon Lake AZ. This year it was more crowded than ever; I heard there were about 7,000 participants attending the classes, working on driving skills and checking out the vendor booths. We had a great time meeting up with our friends from previous years, and added a number of new ones as well. Our little group is growing at the same pace as the expo itself.

Practicing on the driving course, Overland Expo 2011

The first year we attended Overland we were a bit astounded by the number of people who, like us, enjoy adventures off the beaten path. We took classes on tire repair, wilderness medicine, and driving on 4WD roads with the intention of making it safer and easier to explore the back country here in the US. We had avoided some of the rougher roads on our trips in the past because we travel alone, and getting stuck in the middle of nowhere with help miles away is a little scary. After practicing some techniques and getting some clear guidelines on what exactly our truck is capable of, we've tackled some of the more technical trails in the last few years and I'm happy to report, come out of it without a scratch.

This year, with our upcoming self-guided trip to Africa in mind, we concentrated on the international side of things. Our classes were geared toward dealing with things like required paperwork, border crossings, cultural differences/culture shock, clean drinking water, and keeping healthy in foreign lands. While all the classes were helpful, I think the most dramatic was the one entitled "How to Cross International Borders--An Interactive Simulation Experience." The instructors did their best to scare the crap out of us.
The 1st world border between Yukon Canada and Alaska

The main instructor, Pete Sweetser, has worked as a border agent in the UK and had a few interesting stories to tell from his days on the job. The other three instructors all had extensive experience crossing borders, and the scenarios we played out were taken from actual experiences they had suffered through.

We learned there is a huge difference between crossing between first world borders (US and Canada, say) and third world countries (pretty much all of the ones in Africa.) I like to joke with Mark about his German heritage--"Zer are rules!"--but honestly, rules that are written down somewhere and followed are much easier to understand than the "soft" nature of some of the third world transactions. Trying to read a border guard's intentions when you don't speak their language is tough under any circumstance, but when you throw in a possible shakedown for a bribe, and a possible not-so-empty-threat to throw you in jail, it ratchets up the stress level.

Here's the first scenario we were given: we (the class) were loaded into an imaginary brand new SUV and were driving a little too fast approaching the border of Mexico and Guatemala. As we got to the checkpoint, the "agents" were waving AK-47s and screaming at us to "Get out of the car! Go stand over there! Now! Now!" One of my traveling mates was a bit too slow and was kicked in the butt to get him moving.

After presenting our papers (which we had picked out of a binder containing copies of a variety of documents you might need depending on the situation) the officials grilled us about the new car, our intentions once we entered Mexico, and our whereabouts before we arrived. Even though we knew we were actually in the US, the guns were pretend and we hadn't done anything wrong, it still felt scary and dangerous.

Turns out the latest fad in drug smuggling areas of Central and South America is to buy a new car and leave it as payment. Large amounts of cash will always trigger a search, so smugglers use the vehicle itself to pay for the contraband.

Lesson one: always drive (at or below the speed limit) an older model and have all the necessary paperwork in order, in triplicate.

Lesson two: take off your sunglasses, be respectful, and never offer more information than asked. Note: This is probably a good idea for any exchange, anywhere in the world, including (perhaps especially) with your own family members.

We had a few more scenarios, each a bewildering departure from the "I have my rights!" interactions we are used to here in the US. The truth is, it doesn't matter where you're from, in some countries you don't have rights. The rules are made by those in power. And not just the reigning government's either; you're at the mercy of the border guards themselves. In certain areas of the world they control your destiny and you have to play nice or go home. If they let you.


It was a relief to have that class finished, but I was happy we took part. In the end we learned that the most important skills we need to arm ourselves with for our trip are ones we learned as kids: respect authority, speak when you're spoken to, and treat others the way you'd like to be treated. Nine times out of ten that will do the trick.

We're saving our pennies for that tenth instance.