In the fall of 2008, I joined a team of six whitewater kayakers on an expedition down the Lower Congo River. The National Geographic Society, which was filming and sponsoring the descent, gave each of us a copy of a three-paragraph letter from the Democratic Republic of the Congo's minister of public information. Basically, it read, "We're here on official government business." I had zero faith in its value, but I packed it with my toothbrush.
Eight days into the trip, two soldiers with AK-47's made us lie facedown on a beach while villagers rifled through our bags. After 30 minutes, our expedition leader, Trip Jennings, was finally able to hand over his letter. When it was read aloud, the soldiers laughed then took $50 and a pair of socks and let us go.
Turns out simple documents can go a long way in many developing countries. According to Jennings, a veteran international adventurer, the idea is to convey that you have connections to important people. If you're on a focused trip, like a serious expedition or research project, you want authentic letters from government (or maybe rebel) leaders. Contact the country's consulate in the States and they'll usually direct you to the appropriate official. The ideal document is written on letterhead and clearly outlines who you are and what you're doing.
Even if you're just traveling in a rough area, a confidently presented document can get you out of jam and it doesn't have to be real. "Any official-looking scrap of paper works fine," says contributing editor Patrick Symmes, who's reported stories in crisis areas around the world and once dodged a potential hostage situation in Colombia by showing an illiterate guerrilla guard a photocopy of his passport. Veteran war correspondent Scott Anderson sometimes packs a "to whom it may concern" letter. "They come in handy with low-level officials who might be impressed by gold lettering," he says. The trick is to give the documents gravitas heavy paper adorned with your picture, a stamp or seal, and a fancy signature and know when and how to wield them. Anderson would present them with levity in sub-Saharan Africa, where, he thinks, it's best to treat confrontations like funny mishaps. "Understanding the culture is the key to making shiny documents work," he says.