BAKSHEESH! The word seems to be on the tip of every tongue from Marrakech to Jakarta, and the fact that it has no precise equivalent in English says a lot about cultural differences.

In different contexts "baksheesh" may mean a tip, a bribe, a kickback, a charitable contribution or an extortion. In many cases it means simply, "Give me money for no particular reason." We place strong moral connotations on the difference between, say, a tip and a bribe, but baksheesh knows no such subtleties.This can be a real eye-opener in many parts of the world. Some of us may have encountered it in Mexico, where the practice goes under the name of la mordida, "the little bite." As travelers we can protest, but the simple fact is that it is an accepted practice in many cultures.

Often it's transparent. You may not notice, for example, that your tour guide receives baksheesh from the local guide she hires, who in turn collects baksheesh from the carpet shop he steers you to.

Eventually you may discover that a little baksheesh is necessary to turn on the lights inside Egyptian tombs, to ensure that a mailed parcel is not tampered with or to help a Tanzania border guard understand that your visa really is in order. It may offend your sensibilities, but in many cases it has become institutionalized to the point where these people count on baksheesh to supplement their miserable paychecks.

You may balk at paying, but often the alternative is to fume for hours outside a government official's office, only to be told to come back tomorrow.

If this makes you uneasy, think about distributing a little preemptive baksheesh as a goodwill gesture. It doesn't even have to be cash. Writer Tim Cahill likes to hand out commemorative lapel pins. Traveling in Russia during the final days of the Soviet Union, I found that a pack of Marlboro cigarettes could open just about any door.

Subtlety counts. If you're thinking of paying baksheesh in cash to someone in an official position, it helps to lower your voice and inquire about a "service charge" to expedite things. It's bad form to speak so loudly that his colleagues can overhear.

I received a lesson in the dynamics of baksheesh during a trip to Asia six years ago. I arrived in Bangkok to find that my confirmed, ticketed reservation on a flight to a certain Asian kingdom was no longer good. At the office of this country's national airline I was told the flight didn't exist.

"But I have a ticket!" I protested.

"I'm terribly sorry, but your travel agent must have made a mistake," the office manager told me.

"I saw the flight in the computer myself!"

"Your computer must have made a mistake. I'm awfully sorry."

Since then a number of travelers have told me that the king of this particular country treated the airline's only long-haul jet as his personal Air Force One. If he needed to go someplace - a state visit to Beijing, say, or a shopping spree in New Delhi - he commandeered the plane. Ticketed passengers were told that the flight was canceled - or, in my case, that it never existed in the first place - and received no compensation. I was informed that I was free to make a reservation for the next available seat, which was six weeks hence.

I patiently explained to the airline manager what a big shot I was, shamelessly dropping the name of every famous person I could recall from his country. This did not a bit of good. After 45 minutes of this and two cups of tea the official asked to see my passport. He took it and disappeared into another room. When he returned his face was glum.

"I'm afraid there's nothing I can do for you at this moment," he said, handing back the document. "But if you come back tomorrow I will do my best to help you."

That evening I was relating the incident to my wife, Jeri, who thought it over and said, "Maybe the guy just wants a little bribe."

Up to that point in my life I had never greased a single palm, never even slipped a fiver to a maitre d' for a good table. I had no idea how to go about it. How much should I offer? What if he took offense? What if I was arrested?

Finally I tucked a $20 bill into the pages of my passport. The next day, as soon as I sat down at his desk, the manager asked to see the document again. Once again he stepped into the next room, but this time when he emerged he had good news.

"Come to the airport tomorrow," he told me, handing me back my passport. "I think maybe I'll be able to help you."

Out on the sidewalk I opened my passport. Sure enough, the $20 bill was gone.

At the Bangkok airport the next day the space in front of the airline's check-in counter was a madhouse. Dozens of furious travelers crowded the counter, demanding to get on a flight.

At last my newfound friend appeared behind the counter. He stood on a chair and surveyed the mob until his eyes met mine. He gestured to me to push my way up to the front and then pressed a precious boarding pass into my hand.

A check-in clerk came out to take my backpack, but before he put it on the scale he looked at me, lowered his eyes and rubbed his thumb against his middle finger. I understood immediately and reached for my wallet.