ARROGANT CUSTOMS OFFICER
© 1989 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!"
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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