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Article by Tor Pinney                                                                                                                                        Back to List of Tor's Tips

                  

THE ARROGANT CUSTOMS OFFICER
1989 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved

 

Every time a cruising sailboat enters or leaves a foreign country, the skipper must present his ship's papers to one or more government officials there. The vast majority of these agents with whom we "clear in" and "clear out" are courteous professionals intent on doing their job, tedious though it may be. The skipper who approaches them with orderly paperwork, a respectful attitude, and a smile is almost always repaid with relatively painless formalities.

Almost always.

Unfortunately, there are the rare exceptions. What should you do when you're confronted with a hostile, abusive, or dishonest customs or immigration officer in a foreign country? How should you behave? What are your rights? What can you do about it? I had to answer these questions for myself not long ago, on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia.

St. Lucians are a warm people by nature. It's evident, too, that they appreciate the contribution tourists make to their island economy - the locals go out of their way to treat visitors with genuine, friendly courtesy. I had been there previously, and knew from experience that St. Lucia is a cruiser's paradise; an easy place to feel welcomed. So I was really caught off guard the day I encountered the arrogant customs agent.

We arrived in Rodney Bay, St. Lucia after an exhilarating reach across the trade winds from Martinique. As soon as Sparrow was anchored and squared away, I dinghied in to the small customs and immigration office at the marina to clear in. As is my habit whenever clearing in or out, I entered the office with a friendly greeting. But apparently I interrupted the lone customs officer as he was talking to another skipper, because he suddenly started yelling at me - I mean really shouting - things like, "Who told you to speak? How dare you interrupt me when I'm speaking? Who the hell do you think you are? What do want here?" He went on like that for what seemed like a long minute or so.

I was stunned. This guy was showering me with verbal abuse in absurd contrast to my well-intentioned "G'day," even if I did inadvertently interrupt him. He was puffed up with self-importance and clearly enjoying my humiliation. He roughly shoved some forms at me and loudly ordered, "sit over there, fill these out, and keep your mouth shut! I'll tell you when I'm ready for you!"

A shocked silence gripped the room. The several other skippers in there averted their eyes and shook their heads in disbelief. The man's rudeness was unbelievable. But no one dared say so, least of all I, because he had the POWER. At his whim, this customs/immigration officer (he was performing the duties of both that afternoon) could refuse me or my vessel entry into his country, or heaven knows what else. So I did as I was told, but inside I was fuming!

When I completed my business there, I left without a word. Boy, was I angry! I had felt so helpless; so impotent. Yet as a guest in a foreign country, there seemed nothing I could do about it. So I decided I'd let it slide. Why let someone else's bad attitude spoil my day, right?

But a couple of days later, it still irked me. I mentioned the incident to some other sailors, and soon discovered that this particular customs agent habitually abused visitors that way. What had happened to me, happened often to others. Well, I decided then that I owed it to myself and to my fellow mariners to do something.

That the pen is mightier than the sword is a certified fact. So, I unsheathed my pen (my word processor, actually) and wrote a letter describing what had happened. I did this on letterhead stationary to lend an air of respectability to it. Then, I addressed one copy to St. Lucia's Minister of Tourism, one to the island nation's Prime Minister, and one to the local tourist periodical, the St. Lucia Star. As a footnote in each letter, I mentioned that copies were going to each of the other two recipients. I figured that would make it harder to ignore.

The letter was polite and to the point. I began by complimenting the very warm reception we were receiving from the people of St. Lucia in general, which was certainly true. I didn't embellish the encounter with the official, but simply described it verbatim. I concluded by suggesting that one hostile man representing (or, rather, misrepresenting) an otherwise friendly people was a sure way to discourage tourists from returning to St. Lucia or from recommending it to others, which would be everyone's mutual loss.

Having gotten that off my chest, I forgot about it and proceeded to spend a wonderful several weeks enjoying the harbors, the mountains, and the easy-going lifestyle of the island. After that one mishap, I never met a St. Lucian I didn't like!

Not long after departing, I received a reply from the Minister of Tourism, apologizing for the unfortunate incident and promising to look into it. Next, a friend sent me an issue of the St. Lucia Star, in which they had published my entire letter - an impressive tribute to the St. Lucia's sincere effort to confront problems and solve them. Finally, I learned that the offending Customs agent, who was clearly ill suited to deal with the public, had been transferred to a back office position that didn't require him to interact directly with foreign visitors. I was told that the transfer was, at least in part, a direct result of my letter.

I was glad that the unhappy individual didn't loose his job. But I was equally pleased that sailors arriving in St. Lucia no longer risked the kind of unwarranted abuse I had encountered. Since then I've visited a dozen foreign countries aboard Sparrow, and have never suffered a repeat of the experience.

Most problems with officials can be avoided by complying with local rules and regulations. Having all the required papers, declaring firearms and liquor stores where required, and respecting the time and geographic limitations of any cruising permit issued will keep you on the right side of the law. Governments take all this quite seriously; you'll be inviting trouble if you don't. Be sure to insist on receipts for any fees you're asked to pay, and for any items, such as firearms and ammunition, removed from your vessel.

If you ever do encounter abusive or threatening treatment from a foreign official, above all keep your cool while it's happening. Exhibitions of temper or indignation are only likely to make matters worse. Say as little as possible and, within reason, do what you're told. Your "rights" in a foreign country may be limited by practical considerations or by national policy, so be prudent about standing up for them.

Keep in mind, however, that you aren't totally helpless or without recourse if a government official in a foreign country oversteps the bounds of duty and civil conduct. If there's an opportunity to discuss your complaint with the offending officer's superiors, this may offer the most direct avenue for action. If your problem cannot be solved locally, remember that most countries welcome the economic boost that tourism brings, and they do not want the odd individual officer tarnishing their reputation unnecessarily. It is usually the job of the Ministry of Tourism, or an equivalent government agency, to investigate and rectify this sort of problem and it is very likely that they will at least look into it your behalf.

Of course, if you encounter really serious problems in a foreign country, contact your nearest embassy or consulate for assistance. Remember, too, that we are all ambassadors of good will when we visit foreign lands aboard our yachts. Always make sure the first smile and friendly hello comes from you!

The power of the pen is a valuable tool in responsible hands. You'll help no one by complaining regularly about minor inconveniences you experience while travelling. But if the occasion ever arises that demands a response, a few well placed letters can really make a difference. When you take the time and trouble to spotlight a culprit, you do a service to all the sailors who follow in your wake. 

~ End ~

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