The procedure seemed simple enough. Show your ticket and your passport and through customs you go, on your way to your destination. For me, it was Southeast Florida, to visit my brother and his family for Christmas, and for the first time I had quite an experience with this obligatory routine.
This is what I was thinking about as I passed through the airport this month for another trip to my brother’s house. I was going there to sell my car, give away unneeded clothes (but very nice clothes) to the Salvation Army, to do my taxes.
But none of that was on my mind, not after what happened on Dec. 6, 2011. I was randomly picked to have my bag checked and to be x-rayed, to make sure I was not a drug mule. Half-asleep and bleary-eyed from waking up early to pack, I ambled to the customs office where I would pass through the fancy machine to confirm that, no, I am not carrying drugs in my stomach. I’m not stupid. I don’t want to go to jail, especially not a Colombian jail, but more than that, I don’t want to pack a bunch of packets in my intestine, any one of which could burst and kill me.
The procedure didn’t go as easily as I expected. Consider this another tip, a supplement to past posts on traveling in and out of Colombia, because this was never mentioned. I wouldn’t expect it to be included. I don’t think anyone would, unless you’re a drug trafficker.
I passed through the x-ray machine once, twice, three times, again. It wasn’t enough. The x-rays were inconclusive. The customs agents asked if I had eaten before I passed through security. I nodded. Soup at home, a sandwich at the airport, I said, but they still had questions.
“Que tipo de sandwich,” he said, wanting to know exactly what I had.
“Pavo.” I smiled a little too, because I actually remembered the word for turkey.
“Cuanto cuesta?” he said.
That, I could not remember, but I had kept the receipt so I handed it to him.
“Muy caro,” he said after seeing the price, 10,000 pesos (about $5).
“Sí, claro.” I was happy that we found something on which we agreed.
The customs agents seemed more at ease now, but they weren’t finished interrogating me. I was told to follow an agent to a back room, to lie on a couch so he could press on my stomach. It tickled and I started laughing, and I was afraid he was going to get mad, that he would think I was not taking this seriously, but he just laughed too. He understood and apologized.
“Tranquilo,” I said
He led me back to the x-ray room, where I would pass through the machine a couple more times. I felt like a character from the movie Maria Full of Grace, the film about the Colombian girl who works as a drug mule to earn more money. Come to think of it, a couple of the women sitting in the x-ray room with me reminded me of a couple of characters in the movie.
My turn finally came and I passed through twice, again drawing a reaction of raised eyebrows. I told the agents that next time, I promise I won’t eat at the airport until I have already passed through customs. They chuckled and asked me why I was in Colombia. I said it’s a beautiful place, that I’m hoping to find a teaching job at the end of the spring, either at an English language school or one of the universities. They wished me luck, told me I could leave and apologized once again.
So three tips:
1. Try not to eat at the airport until you pass through customs.
2. If you are so hungry you have to eat, keep the receipt.
3. If you get picked to pass through the x-ray machine, be friendly and cooperative. The customs agents are sincerely nice and will feel bad for any inconvenience they cause.
Three hours later, I landed in Fort Lauderdale and prepared to pass through American customs. They didn’t make me go through an x-ray machine, didn’t search my bag. But the agent I talked to was terse, rude even. Maybe American customs was quicker, I thought to myself, but Colombian customs was friendlier.
I prefer friendlier.
On this past trip, passing through Colombian customs was easier. They they didn’t x-ray me. They only checked my bag, smiled, and told me to have a good time.