When traveling in or out of the country, the first thing to remember is: Do Not Argue With Customs.
So, when I found myself confronted with a problem going through customs in an as yet unnamed South American Country, I stayed calm in the face of apparent imbecility.
It seems an overly officious armed officer asked me, after I’d snaked my way through a long line, if I had my liquids in a plastic bag. I replied I do, and proudly pulled out a plastic one gallon kitchen bag containing travel-sized mouthwash, toothpaste, deodorant and eye wash. Afterall, I’m a seasoned traveler with hundreds of thousands of miles on that bag. I was prepared.
He held the plastic bag up disparagingly and motioned for another officer to show me a “proper” bag – a zip-lock plastic bag! Apparently the zip-lock feature keeps passengers safer than a twist-tie. There was nothing I could do about it. They would not give me the bag they had. I could not go through with the one I had. I was instructed to go back out through the long line and get a proper zip-lock plastic bag.
I’d already made my first mistake, but didn’t know it yet. Before going through the metal detector I always empty my pockets into the zippered pocket of my carryon. I left my carryons on the counter and struggled through the throng to the exit. Near where the Departing Tax gets paid is a small kiosk that sells candies and plastic bags. My money was in my suitcase on the other side of that mob! So was my passport, airline ticket – everything!
After waiting on line, I convinced the lady running the booth to give me a bag, assuring her I would return with money. Trust is a beautiful thing. Also, I was a silver-haired, pleasant-looking gentleman in a sport jacket and slacks. I know how to represent. I raced back through the by-now-impatient-with-me crowd and handed the zip-lock plastic bag to the guard. He dropped it on my open suitcase and told me to put my liquids in it. Before I did that, to his consternation and the total disbelief of everyone waiting behind me, I rummaged through the bag, grabbed some bills and raced back out through that restive line.
The plastic bags were 50 centavos (about 25 cents) each. I had no change, the wrong currency and no time to spare – there was a mob to face and a plane to catch, not to mention a cross customs agent. I gave her a dollar bill and told her to keep the change. When I got back to my carryons everything had been taken out and left on the table, but a quick check showed me it was all still there. I repacked, and just as I was ready to walk through the metal detector, the poor bastard behind me got the same run around!
I quickly explained to him what he had to do, reminded him to take money, and pointed him in the right direction. I regretted not taking more zip-lock plastic bags instead of leaving the change, so that my fellow travelers could be spared what I’d just gone through.
Oddly enough, after I didn’t set off the metal detector, I was wanded anyway, and frisked, and my suitcase was emptied and searched again. That happened again at the gate. I don’t know if I was being profiled, or they had a tip, or just a hair out of place, but – now that I think about it – the fellow behind me was a silver-haired, pleasant-looking gentleman in a sport jacket and slacks, too. Next time I travel – it’s as a tourist – in flipflops, a gimme cap, and a statement T-shirt!
And I’ll remember to use a zip-lock plastic bag!