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Mistake Monday: A Chile Reception

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Every travel site will tell you how to do things the right way. But as every traveler knows, sometimes things go wrong. In his first piece for a new bimonthly series, TPG Contributor J. Keith van Straaten invites you to learn from his mistakes—his many, many mistakes.  (All photos by the writer except as noted.)

As a certifiable cheapskate, I’m not only allergic to checking bags, but I’ll also do anything to avoid paying for food at the airport. Bringing my own snacks on board makes me feel like a winner; let the losers have their sustenance served hot and fresh rather than smushed in their carry-on—I’m saving money!

Thumbs-up to South American fruit markets!
The writer gives his thumbs-up to South American fruit markets! (Photo by Mollie Rudnick)

Before I left Peru (where I’d been visiting Machu Picchu) for Santiago, Chile (enroute to Easter Island), I took advantage of a literally fruitful local market in Lima, gathering up some apples and oranges before hopping on a bus to Jorge Chávez Airport (LIM). My subsequent flight to Santiago was happily uneventful, and upon landing at Arturo Merino Benítez Airport (SCL), I watched my travel companion breeze through customs and immigration.

It all happened so fast. One minute I was standing next to a big luggage X-ray machine, in mid-conversation with my pal, and the next I was swiftly escorted by guards to a nearby holding area—only to sit patiently under the watchful gaze of a submachine gun. The weapon’s holder was a young man in a crisp uniform; the patch on his chest read: CHILE – ADUANO/CUSTOMS.

Minutes later, another customs officer—this one with a necktie and small mustache—wheeled my bag over, placed it on a countertop, unzipped the middle compartment, and pulled out a clear plastic bag containing three apples and two oranges.

My heart and head sank as I realized I was being busted for illegally importing fruit.

The contraband.
The contraband and the paperwork to come.

Joining the officer at the counter, I watched as he methodically placed each piece of contraband on a digital scale and noted its weight on an official form that I translated from Spanish as, “ACT OF DENUNCIATION AND CITATION.” I wondered if my Gold Passport Platinum status—which I’d hoped would get me free WiFi at the Grand Hyatt Santiago—would get me the same perk in a Santiago prison.

Manzanas y Naranjas = Denuncia y Citacion.
Manzanas y Naranjas = Denuncia y Citacion.

I was brought into a small office for interrogation, wherein I promptly threw myself on the mercy of the court (aka the mustachioed customs official).

The author in trouble.
The look of a man in international trouble. (Photo by Mollie Rudnick)

The gentleman couldn’t have been nicer, explaining to me how Chile takes its agriculture very seriously and can’t risk contaminating such a huge part of its economy. I went from being frightened to being genuinely curious, and we proceeded to have a wide-ranging chat covering topics from travel to regulations to where the best grapes grow. Ultimately, he told me that I would be issued a warning that would stay on file in case I got caught again. I assured him that wouldn’t happen, and I was so impressed with his professionalism and courtesy, I asked if I could let his boss know.

Though he was touched by my gesture, my good deed required a lot of paperwork. Now I was the one filling out a triplicate form, explaining what had happened and how pleased I was with their treatment of me. However, it felt right to leave something positive on file in Chile…rather than just evidence of being the kingpin of an international fruit cartel.

May all your future interactions with customs bear positive fruit. Photo courtesy fo Shutterstock.
May all your future interactions with customs bear positive fruit. (Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

The whole drama added about two hours to my trip and provided two important takeaways:

  1. Don’t pack contraband or you’ll likely get in trouble
  2. There’s tremendous value in being a humble traveler

While it may seem silly to be detained over some apples and oranges, it’s a serious matter to the people who grow them. Showing respect for a culture’s laws and values makes me feel respected as a visitor—and being unexpectedly treated with kindness and mercy causes me to change what I expect of myself.

That said, I’m still not paying for food at the airport.

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