The first time I
visited a certain African country, I bought travellers’ cheques. The
process of getting them was relatively stress-free; it was sitting in
traffic to get to and from the bank that was so inconvenient. The next
few times I travelled to that country, I took along dollars in cash.
Last week I arrived at their international airport with a fistful of
dollars and an armful of local currency.
immigration control and retrieving my bags, I was heading towards the
exit when a Customs official standing by asked, as I walked past, if I
had anything to declare.
“Do you have
hairpieces in your bag?” He asked. I was indignant, though I didn’t
voice it – did I look like the sort of person who would stuff her
suitcase with hair extensions? Yet my indignation was wasted as I,
along with two other young Nigerian women from my flight, was ushered
into the Customs office for closer inspection of my bags. I smiled to
myself – were they working on a hairpiece raid based on a tip off?
In the Customs
office I was beyond co-operative, opening all my luggage compartments
and pointing out my perfectly legal belongings. See? No hairpieces
there – or anywhere. The official slid a Customs Declaration form
across the table towards me: “Please fill this”. I took the form and
quickly ticked ‘No’ to every item indicated as contraband. What a waste
of time, I thought, but hey he’s just doing his job. I’ll be out of
here in no time. I innocently and honestly filled out the section about
how much cash I had on me and bang, I shot myself in the foot.
official picked up the form, looked at it and then looked at me. “Are
you aware that you have exceeded the cash limit for local currency?” He
asked. “You have to show me documentation to prove how you obtained the
cash in your possession otherwise you will have to forfeit half of it.”
He then read out their National Act that supported his statement.
It was like a bad
dream. I thought of the guy with the calculator who sorts out my Forex
requirements and cursed my carelessness. “I had no idea there was a
cash limit,” I said to the officer. He ignored my lame excuse, slid the
form back at me and asked me to sign and date it. I took my time;
inspecting the pen, arranging the form this way and that, testing
different ways of positioning my hand; all the while feeling sick to my
stomach at the thought of losing half of my money. The Customs Officer
noticed my hesitation and calmly informed me that if I didn’t sign the
form I could forfeit all of my money. I signed.
I was furious with
myself. For someone who writes checklists, checks and crosschecks
information and generally likes to keep herself updated on requirements
for every situation, I had clearly slipped up. But there are lessons to
be learnt in every situation and I’d like to share mine with you.
Don’t take things
for granted. Yes, you’re a world traveller; you spend less than a
minute at Immigration Control desks around the world, but are you 100%
certain that there is nothing in your luggage or on your person that
could earn you a fine, a jail sentence or, at the extreme, a death
sentence in another country? I advise you to research to find out what
items are considered illegal in the countries you will visit. It
doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been there, you could be stopped
randomly – look what hairpieces did to me.
Things change, so constantly update the information you have. One incident could result in a change in a country’s regulations.