Customs & Foreign Travel as an American Family

Eric Rigney, Captain of Kandu, ready for Customs Entry.

The first contact when traveling into foreign countries as a tourist is most often with customs officials whether by plane or by boat. When dealing with maritime customs agents, we have a few technics: Eric shows up dressed in his Kandu uniform with all his papers organized in our ‘Important Papers’ enclosed documents case. This box holds our most recent US Coast Guard Vessel documentation, our four passports, and other important papers that may be needed, plus a writing pen. So far, our boat and crew clearances have been straightforward, although much of that ease was due to Eric’s advanced preparation and our being American.

Trent & Bryce Rigney in front of the Customs Clearance building in Ensenada, Mexico 2015.

In Mexico, our pre-contacted marina agent in Ensenada led the four of us through customs on a Saturday, and everything cleared within two hours. All the Mexican documents had been filled-out the afternoon before. We simply needed to show up in person, with those papers in hand and money in our pockets to pay for the fees in cash, US dollars (USD).

Isla Isabela agent JC chatting with Bill Kohut 2015.

Clearing into Isla Isabela, yacht agent extraordinaire, JC Desoto, with whom Eric had communicated months in advance, helped us in the Galapagos. Eric even handed JC a package from his wife, sent to us in Ventura prior to our departure: weed-eater cord. Once arrived, Eric dropped off to JC all our passports and documents who subsequently on our behalf presented them to the officials along with cash in USD (Ecuador’s national currency is American dollars). Until the process was complete, Kandu remained in quarantine. Only the captain was allowed to disembark until the vessel inspection was concluded. Expecting an inspection, having just sailed 18 days, the crew quickly passed through to tidy up as best we could. We put on some clean clothes, brushed our teeth and hair to look presentable before the five officials boarded our boat, delivered to us on a water taxi.

Hurry Up and wait Kandu crew!

It immediately felt congested aboard our 42-foot sailboat. Three officials left the cockpit to poke around – one in particular asked about our toilets and the size of our holding tank. Another official asked what fresh foods, if any, were on board. I had purposefully cooked almost all of the fresh items prior to arrival. The only fresh items left were some garlic and a couple limes sitting out in the open. They didn’t mind those items, letting us keep them. They did not ask whether the underside of our boat had been cleaned of all animal life 40 miles from land, one of many unusual entry requirements some other boats had to address. After 45 minutes, they departed. Five minutes after that, the captain and crew were on shore in search of our first Galapagos experiences and some cold treat to consume.

Hoisting the Q (quarantine flag) and the country courtesy flags 2015

From the Galapagos, 24 days later, we arrived soundly in Taiohae Bay on Nuku Hiva, the administrative capital of the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia. Again, much of the requirements had been handled ahead of time before leaving California; we went through the arduous process of obtaining a long-stay visa through the Los Angeles French consulate six months prior. Our wonderful agent, Tehani Fiedler-Valenta of Tahiti Crew, located in Papeete, Tahiti, facilitated other important requirements. Just as with JC, prior to leaving California, Eric pre-arranged with Tehani all paperwork and fees to be ready for processing.

Tehani Fiedler-Valenta of Tahiti Crew with Leslie Rigney.

Being a small archipelago, the Marquesas did not house a customs office. Instead, the gendarmerie handled all clearance procedures. They did not search us, nor were we quarantined. Eric simply met up with an associate of Tehani, based in Nuku Hiva, Kevin of Yacht Services Nuku Hiva, an expat from Southern California with whom Eric had also been in contact prior to leaving California. Eric had asked Kevin if he wanted anything from the US. Kevin asked for a couple of garden hose nozzles and bottles of Bacardi dark rum (French Polynesia places a 300% import tax on alcohol), which we gifted him.

Similarly, when entering a foreign country by plane, as we recently did in New Zealand, Australia, and Easter Island, it’s important to have completed all customs and personal documents before approaching the official (preferably prior to the plane landing while you can comfortably spread out your passport and flight information). We always approach officials calmly, as a foursome, presenting Eric’s and my passport first. Traveling with kids and/or teenagers tends to have a positive effect on officials as we are all smiling. With families, one parent represents the group. Eric usually plays this role as seemingly unnecessary bureaucratic requirements too easily frustrate me. During this time, the rest of us remain silent and respectful, not questioning or volunteering information, giving rise to a glare from Eric. When passing through customs with our bags, we never bring fresh fruit, vegetables, honey, or meat. I did declare some pre-packaged cookies and dried fruit and nuts. They were not concerned about those items. The American bee malady has reached the South Pacific and customs wishes to protect their honey beekeepers from its spread.

New Zealand Maori carving at the airport with Bryce Rigney.

One incident occurred that likely caused subsequent inspections to occur. The four of us were waiting for our baggage after landing in New Zealand when an official approached asking if I would be willing to help in the training of a new inspection dog. He asked me to put a specially treated cloth in my pants pocket. In Los Angeles through a specially arranged event with the cub scouts, the boys and I had gotten a chance to tour the LA airport police division with specially trained dogs. The dog master explained that these special dogs are not treated as pets. They are extremely intelligent and almost ADD in their emotional make-up – having lots of energy. They are trained to locate specific substances, drugs, explosives, or food products. When they pick up their scent, they are not to bark, but to sit quietly next to the targeted smell, pointing with their snout. Getting back to my experience in NZ, about 5 minutes after placing the aromatic sample in my pants pocket, we saw a different police official with the trainee dog scouting around the baggage claim area.

Airport Sniffer in the baggage claim area of Auckland airport 2016.

The dog was calmly in the lead. He strolled around smelling everything, approaching people and their bags, nosing close to peoples’ clothing, pockets, and around bags. At some point, the two approached us. The dog smelled our luggage and then got close to my backside pants pocket. I could see in his eyes that he detected the target. He sat down next to me, alerting the officer of his discovery. The officer rewarded the dog with a chance to play with his toy. The boys and I enjoyed the experience having been previously educated on the subject. We had followed along closely to see if the dog was trained the same way as in Los Angeles. Immediately afterwards, I visited the bathroom and washed my hands, but didn’t think to clean the scent from my clothes and backpack.Two weeks later, I had since washed my jeans, but when we were getting ready to fly to Auckland, as usual, we all passed through the human scanner; our carry-on luggage was independently scanned next to us. The guys all went through no problem, but a lady official picked up my backpack and asked me to follow her over to a machine. She rubbed a piece of material over the handles of my backpack and inside then inserted the material into a machine. Evidently, the machine detected something. She made a phone call, looked at me closely, and told me to wait. Unfortunately, our flight was getting ready to board and our luggage was checked in. The boys and Eric quickly left me behind to find the gate. They would board without me if necessary. I waited and waited somewhat patiently for more than ½ hour until an airport dog and official finally showed. The dog casually approached, sniffed inside and outside of my bag, sniffed all around me and especially my hands, then just as casually walked away. Evidently, they had been on the other side of the airport when called. In any case, I was free to go and hurriedly ran quite a distance to locate the gate just in time to board. Sigh! It was an unpleasant experience to be wrongfully suspected. I couldn’t help but think that having been a willing participant in the dog training two weeks prior had contributed to what could have been a very expensive delay had I not caught the plane in time. “No good deed goes unpunished,” as the saying goes. After that, we always made sure to pass the carry-on baggage clearance into the boarding area before looking for bathrooms, food or refreshments.

Gandalf and Eagle from “Lord of the Rings” in Wellington Airport designed and created by Weta Cave Workshop.

Soon, we will be heading out to visit more countries . . . many more, of all shapes, sizes, and bureaucracies. Traveling as we had recently done by plane, the boys and I are much more aware of the process and the importance of Eric’s customs clearance preparations. All these countries will require clearance in their own fashion, cultural and bureaucratic. I can’t help but wonder how President Trump’s recent international travel and trade restrictions might impact how we are treated upon arrival. Hopefully these soon-to-be visited foreign lands will not impose more paperwork, added restrictions or financial impositions on American visitors. We don’t plan to visit the Middle East, but who knows what role unexpected winds or repairs may play on us, especially as we cross the Gulf of Aden or cross over to Turkey. Yemen borders the gulf and Syria sits between Israel and Turkey. Since Eric is our front-man, his uniform and charming smile may simply not be enough.

Vision of French Polynesia.

By Leslie Rigney

5 thoughts on “Customs & Foreign Travel as an American Family”

  1. O how I miss the boat and its crew. I’ll see you in Thailand, if not sooner. So many exciting stops before you get to the Med. The fun is about to start. No more long passages.

    1. We are looking forward to you joining us in Thailand. Much will transpire before then. We’ll have stories to share. Hugs to you and Annie, Leslie.

  2. I had several bureaucratic experiences during my career at Point Mugu, California. I learned that many low-level employees simply “follow the book” and many value highly their limited authority. Whenever I deviated from the norm in any way (and my job required it several times), I learned to expect trouble. All such worked out in the end, but left me with chuckles and astonishment at how the game was played. Yes, Eric, you are doing well to give them what they expect.

  3. Thank god I don’t travel much. All of the rules and regulations per each country would really drive me nuts. But reading about your “on the ground” experiences from place to place is actually really educational. Thanks for sharing this unusual family adventure!

    1. Roger – so great to hear from you. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. We are about ready to sail off on the big blue. I’m a bit nervous of the unknown, yet game to get going. It’s time to move on. Hugs to you and Shari, Leslie.

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