Import-Export: Clearing Customs

Like most expats, I run my own private black market.  Every time I go home or someone comes to Buenos Aires, there is always a wish list and a Target shopping spree involved.   Everything I need, I can buy in Buenos Aires.  But there are products from the United States that I simply cannot live without. Some items are unavailable or scarce in Argentina (such as contact solution, peanut butter, and decent chewing gum) while others are higher priced and of lower quality here (such as any electronic devise).  (Once, at the Apple store in Buenos Aires, I overheard a salesclerk ask a young girl who wanted to purchase a new iPod, “Do any of your friends or family members fly to the States often?”)

With my mom coming to visit tomorrow, I’ve been compiling a new set of demands. Unfortunately for me but luckily for my mother’s bank account, I’ve been limited this time by the fact that I’m soon leaving for New Zealand.  But past lists have included everything from York Peppermint Patties to underwear from Victoria’s Secret to Oprah’s magazine to running shoes. Thanks to a recent accident involving headphones hitting me in the eye while I was running outside in the rain, I had to place a last minute order for a right contact lens. (Seriously, how does this kind of thing always happen to me?)

For the most part, the goods that I request are strictly for personal consumption, but I have been known to import occasionally on a friend’s behalf.  Always with the understanding that I am not responsible for lost, theft, damage, or confiscation.  Most people don’t travel frequently and buying online is rarely an option, as most places won’t ship abroad and only accept internationally recognized credit cards.  Plus, Argentines are only allowed to bring back $300 worth of items.  If they are caught with more, they are forced to pay a “tax” of 50% of the excess value.  Americans, on the other hand, can bring as much as they want, as long as it’s for individual use (which explains why computers, cameras, and cell phones are delivered without the box).

Successfully clearing customs is neither an art nor a science.  It’s dumb luck.  Every time I cross a border, I am reminded of Mexico’s “Red Light-Green Light” system: if you have “nothing to declare,” you push a button.  If the light is green, you pass without inspection.  If the light is red, you spend the next hour trying to shove everything back into your suitcase.  When I first arrived in Buenos Aires, my mother and I were each carrying three pieces of luggage.  We pushed our baggage cart to the customs checkpoint like two drunken teenagers grocery shopping for midnight snacks.  The officials took one look at us, laughed, and waved us through.  On all subsequent trips, they have x-rayed my checked luggage, but never my carry-on.

There is just no telling when or where you will have a problem.  When I flew to Cartagena, Colombia via Bogotá, my bags were checked through to my final destination, and I never had to clear customs.  When I returned from Bolivia by foot (buses drop you off right before the border), there were dogs sniffing suitcases and officials searching handbags.  Even though I was not engaged in any suspicious behavior, I got nervous.  Before the woman could form her first question, I blurted out in Spanish, “I’m not carrying anything back from Bolivia.” “Nothing?” she asked, eyebrow cocked.  “Nada,” I repeated.  She let me pass without so much as unzipping my backpack.  Of course, I couldn’t help but mutter, “except for six kilos of coke in my bag.” Thankfully, I was well out of earshot.

More than any other country that I have visited, Chile takes livestock and agriculture seriously.  When a girl on my bus, who didn’t speak Spanish and didn’t understand the instructions to throw away food items, was caught with an orange, it was confiscated, and she was searched and made to pay a fine.  I never did understand the obsession with produce and petting farms until I read on the Department of Homeland Security website that “prohibited agricultural items can harbor foreign animal and plant pests and diseases that could seriously damage America’s crops, livestock, pets, and the environment – and a large sector of our country’s economy.”  Honestly, I don’t know how drug smugglers do it.  Having a banana in my bag is enough to make me sweat.

The mail is no safer or easier.  In Buenos Aires, all large packages must be retrieved from the international post office, located near the bus terminal.  The process goes something like this: a delivery notice arrives to your house days after the package arrives, always on a Friday.  You go the post office between the hours of 10am-5pm and draw a ticket with a letter-number combination, like C17. They are on A28.  After waiting to be called, you produce a photo ID and pay a storage fee.  You are then assigned a new, seven-digit number.  You pass to the next room where you sit on a plastic chair similar to those you had in elementary school and wait your turn.  Inevitably, you fail to recognize your number, and have to be summoned by name.  They bring out your package, possibly opening it, possibly not, you sign a form, possibly paying a customs tax, possibly not, and you leave two hours later with a cardboard box full of towels and cereal.

At least in those instances I always received my package.  A birthday present from a friend went missing for months, until one day I found a ransom note under my door.  It turns out that it had been delivered to my neighbor’s father’s house in a different province.  The following year, my mother mailed me a gift but decided against insurance.  Somewhere, there is an Argentine postal worker with a green iPod shuffle.

When you move abroad, you know that you have to sacrifice some of your prized possessions, adapt to local brands, styles, and flavors, and make do with what is available.  But in order to be fully comfortable and feel at home in your host country, it helps to have a few of your favorite things.  So, if you want to smuggle or send items abroad, just remember: whenever possible, ask an American girl to be your mule; remove electronics from their packaging; put contraband in your carry-on; avoid zoos and apple orchards before traveling; pay for a tracking number; act cool, and always carry extra cash.  Most importantly, don’t get too attached to your purchases, because they are likely going home with a customs agent.

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