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We interrupt our overly-long and involved description of what was actually a very short trip to Ouarzazate to discuss confiscated goods. Eileen over at Bearshapedsphere started a group post inviting anyone who wants to participate to share their best customs stories. I’m sure between us, we can add some good ones to her collection. Also, you’ll want to go read the ones she’s posted, especially some very funny ones about a hot-sauce sampling customs official and a guy who accidentally gave his wife a foot-long serrated knife to take though customs. Here are a couple of mine:

Many years ago now, Donn and I and our friends Ed and Jeanni planned an extensive backpacking trip into the wilderness north of Jasper, Alberta. It’s an area known for bears, and we were going in late September, so as part of our preparations we invested in some fairly-expensive bear mace, which our research told us was not available in Canada.
The four of us and all our packs, bags, food, etc. crammed uncomfortably into our Nissan Sentra and set off. We spent the night with friends in Mount Vernon and hit the border about 10 the following day. The customs agent rattled off his normal “alcoholfirearmsdrugs?” (the effectiveness of which I’ve always wondered about. I mean, who is going to respond, “Yes, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to come clean.”) But, for the first time ever, he added “or mace?” to the end of his question.
We admitted that we had mace. It’s not for people, we explained, it’s for bears. We told our story. The customs official was not sympathetic. Neither were we. We were not prepared to give up our mace.
We were taken into a small office, manned by a sharp-faced woman with faded blonde hair and no hint of a smile. We pleaded our case. She told us that mace was illegal in Canada, and that she would have allowed us to bring guns across the border if we wanted real protection from bears.
“If a bear attacks you, you can shout at it,” she told us. “You can bang pots and pans or blow whistles to frighten it. You can shoot and kill it. But you may not mace it.”
“You mean I’m allowed to shoot a bear and kill it, but not just stop it from harming me?” Donn said in disbelief. “That doesn’t make any sense. That’s just ridiculous!”
“Is it not my business to make sport of the crown,” she snapped back, which we had to admit was the best line we’d ever heard from a customs official.
We lost, of course. We actually, stubborn as we are, got back in the car and drove to the Sandpoint, Idaho, border crossing, where we had the same problems. Before that day, we had never been asked about mace; since that day, we have never been asked about mace. But they won. They kept our illegal and expensive mace. And the first thing we saw when we walked into a backpacking supply store in Jasper was a huge display of…you know what’s coming…bear mace.

When we were moving from Mauritania and on our way back to the US, we really got hassled. In the Casa airport here in Morocco, the customs official confiscated Abel’s lego swords, claiming “It’s your government that makes us do this.” Yeah. Way to take out your dislike of Bush on the 10-year-old, who was in tears as we boarded the bus to take us out to our plane. Best of all? Lego has discontinued the “Knight‘s Kingdom“ line, so they couldn’t be replaced. And, as I pointed out to Donn, one could do a LOT more damage with the flimsy plastic knife we were given with our meal than with the tiny dull plastic “sword.”
It just wasn’t a good trip for the twins. In JFK, our family was “randomly” picked for a special search, the whole family. The zip on Ilsa’s beloved new-to-her boots got stuck, and the customs woman, growing impatient with my efforts to unstick it, brusquely broke it and yanked it off. Ilsa shuffled off in tears carrying her broken boot. They made her unpack her carry on and rifled through her stack of books (she had about 10 with her, I think). Because naturally, that would be where we’d hide the…what exactly? “Welcome to your home country,” I muttered grumpily at my distraught children.

Probably my fondest customs memory, though, is of my mother trying to smuggle Welsh butter into the country. My mother is about 5’1” and has never had so much as a parking ticket in her life. The summer that I was 17, she and I went to my cousin’s wedding in Wales, and on the way back she decided to bring Welsh butter and bacon with us. Of course we got asked about it. Mum feigned innocence. She would have been about 60 at that point, but I swear she fluttered her eyelashes at the customs official, and her voice went up about an octave in range. To no avail, of course. The customs official had specifically asked about dairy products, so she surrendered her beloved butter. He didn’t mention meat though, so we didn’t mention it either, and managed to bring home the bacon after all.

May 2009

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