Country: Antigua & Barbuda, Ghana

Administration, Business Development

Really, Really Important Peanut Butter: Adventures In Customs

September 17, 2012

“Mr. Lee? Sir, we can escort your item for you to the plane.”

I noticed that the tone of the woman’s voice was kind as it interrupted my thoughts. I managed a soft, courteous, but extremely confused “I’m sorry…” leaving my mouth half-open.

My forehead was slightly drawn down to eyes which, just before, had been openly engrossed in my novel, but were now squinting, not in concentration at some far-off interest, but in simple incomprehension of some flagrantly foreign object inexplicably present in my living room or on the street that I take for my morning coffee.

JIF Peanut Butter - Volunteer Global

I was sitting in the waiting area to board American Airlines flight 849 to fly from the small Caribbean island of Antigua to Managua, Nicaragua by route of San Juan and Miami. I had already passed through customs and security where they had confiscated the second of my two, five-pound double containers of JIF creamy peanut butter.

I had been forced to transfer them to my carry-on from my single checked bag, in hopeless, resigned acceptance that it would of course be seized as one of the more blatant examples of liquids (or liquid-esque substances)…just…*slightly* exceeding the 100 ml limit. I was bringing the four 2.5-pound plastic jars, totaling a grand 10 pounds of George Washington Carver’s finest, to our volunteer partners in Masaya, Nicaragua who had no convenient means available to acquire the stuff.

I was well under the weight limit on the first leg of our journey to Jamaica, but at my first attempt to check my suitcase to leave Antigua I was overweight by more than 10 pounds, and even after moving almost four pounds of Twizzlers and candy, and the doomed double-pack of JIF, I was still over by three. But there was nothing practical left to remove—Chinese mosquito-zapper racquets and Batman boxers wouldn’t do it—and I was not giving up any of my five-year rum.

The lady handling my check-in who had recommended I move some items around once again looked at the reading on the scale. She then looked at me for a few considering moments, weighing an appraisal much more involved than the simple gravitational measurements of the scale, and then threaded the tag through the handle with rolling eyes that hadn’t actually moved at all and a half-smile, that conveyed the sense of finding me both hopeless and worthy.

I then paid the $28 US exit fee, almost stealing the man’s pen and leaving my $22 of change in compensation, had my passport stamped, took the wrong way to security and then found the right one, and disassembled myself—shoes, phone, wallet, laptop, and bag—to be scanned.

“Sir, can you step back through the scanner?”Masaya, Nicaragua - Volunteer Global

“Oh? What could this possibly be?” I thought. “Surely you’re not confused by the two ginormous jars of gooey deliciousness I’m packing…doesn’t everyone carry two of these with them to balance the weight of their bag or in case of emergency?” I was allowed to open my bag and pull out the five pounds of ridiculousness. They then very patiently explained the only option, if I wished to keep said deliciousness, was to place it in my already 53-pound checked luggage.

I smiled gently, acceptingly, and easily replied without any trace of frustration or argument in my voice, “Yeah…I’m not going to pay $100 for two jars of peanut butter.” I thought, as they placed them in the box of confiscated items, that they looked ludicrous next to the much smaller tubes of toothpaste and mouthwash, coke cans and juice boxes.

There were only about twenty minutes left to board the plane when the woman startled me, and asked me to follow her, with a knowing twinkle in her eye as if we were age-old friendly conspirators. We met two gentlemen I had briefly interacted with at security and the one on my left, older with a whitish-grey, sagely halo of hair, smiled at me and then began to explain how I would need to put the peanut butter in my bag and then follow him down through the last checkpoint before walking across the tarmac to board the plane. Then I would need to collect my checked bag at customs in San Juan and transfer the peanut butter to it before checking it in again for the next leg—that it would not be weighed again and I would be able to continue to Miami and Managua assured that my very important cargo would be secure and arrive with me. The man on the right just smiled at me, and continued to smile through the explanation.

At this point I’d reached a level of bewilderment and the type of accepting curiosity that one usually reserves only for dreams or catastrophes. So after stuffing the five-pound item I had relinquished only two chapters of Ayn Rand earlier, I followed after my benefactor as he walked off with a relaxing aura of confidence.

We walked through the waiting area, down the ramp in the next room to the final security check area, and around and past the line—bypassing the other passengers who were watching with bemused inquisition; wondering as to the privileged nature of my special, VIP escort.

Informing the last guard to let me pass, my mysterious patrons stopped to bid me farewell. I looked slowly from one smiling face to the other, first to the lady who had interrupted my reading and then the sagely looking scanner man who had provided me with instructions as to how to ensure my items’ safe arrival, and said, “…thank you.”

“We’ve all got to help each other,” the man said. And I noticed the unspoken “Don’t we?” he asked as much with his eyes as with his voice.

I replied with an acknowledging smile, which I kept and lingered with me for I don’t know how long. But it was definitely still there through lift-off as I watched the small island shrink slowly back to the scribbles of winding roads, toy buildings and cars, surrounded by beautiful Caribbean blue water and scattered, lapping, white wavecrests I’d met only two weeks before.

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.