By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 4/22/2008 12:11:38 PM ET 2008-04-22T16:11:38

How many times have you returned from your trip abroad to find a smiling group of officials at customs and immigration, greeting you with open arms? Never, you say? Me either. Generally what I encounter are grumpy people with extended palms, demanding my passport and customs declaration.

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Who are these men and women who ask you personal questions about your recent trip, paw through your bags and search your person? Well, you may be surprised to learn that they aren’t employed by the airlines or the airport, but by the government. That means they don’t have to be nice, yet will always have a pension.

If custom officials weren’t doing this job, I wonder what they would be doing. Not greeting customers at Wal-Mart, that’s for sure. I seldom see them happy, but hey, they’re not hired to be social directors. They’re hired to give you the once-over. They check out thousands of people a day, and in the seconds of interaction they have with each passenger, they have to decide if that person is entering the country illegally or is bringing in something verboten. No wonder they look so sour.

Re-entry to the U.S. comes in several stages. First stage is Immigration and Passport Control, followed by Customs, where you also get Agricultural Inspection and, if necessary, Secondary Screening. If anything illegal is found at the secondary stage, get ready for the personal searches and, yep — the rubber gloves. I have been strip-searched by customs agents in Thailand, and believe me, it happens here as well.

Have you ever seen a customs official walking a small dog through the baggage area? No, it’s not for the exercise. That dog is there looking, or I should say smelling, for any forbidden fruits or produce. I know this for a fact because a dog once caught me with an apple in my bag. He got all excited when he got to my suitcase. He got his Scooby snack and it cost me $100. I hear that I got off lightly.

Here are some tips for getting through customs and immigration without too much fuss and aggravation.

1. If you know you will have a tight connection when you land in the States, leave the flowers and produce behind. Agriculture inspection can add an hour to your re-entry time.

2. Always carry a photocopy of your passport, and keep it separate from your passport. Some officials will accept the copy or at least give you an easier time if you misplace the original.

3. Turn off your cell phone. Customs and immigration officials are strict on that rule; in fact, they will confiscate your phone and not return it if they catch you using it. The reasons for this are unclear, but can you imagine the sound of 500 people on their cell phones at the same time? What a nightmare.

4. Don’t make wisecracks or jokes to the officials; it makes you look like you are trying to hide something.

5. Read your customs forms carefully, and fill them out as soon as you get them. There is a complete guide to filling out your forms along with a list of contraband items in the back of your in-flight magazine.

6. If you are unsure about whether to declare something, declare it. The “Gee, I didn’t know ...” excuse won’t work.

7. Don’t make a scene if the wait gets long or your bags get a thorough going-over. You definitely won’t make your connecting flight if you are sent to secondary screening.

8. If you are uncomfortable with an agent of the opposite sex searching through your luggage, ask for an official of the same sex. It’s a standard request and perfectly legitimate.

9. Don’t put any fruit in your bag during your vacation if you can help it. You may have eaten that sack of mangos a week ago, but the persistent aroma will have the fruit dog all over your bag and you will be delayed in the agriculture inspection.

10. Leave any compromising photos or videos of you and a partner at home. They could be confiscated as pornography and wind up on a “wall of shame” in some back office.

Customs and immigration officials must have enough stories to fill a book. During my own years as a flight attendant, I have witnessed the following incidents and items being seized: a full-grown rose bush, an extensive sex toy collection, an Indian lady with 18 suitcases, a satanic knife collection, a middle-aged Asian man with 24 bottles of cognac, a young man whose leg flask broke and created a “peed-his-pants” effect, an Iranian woman with stacks of cash equaling $210,000, a passenger with 300 fake Rolex watches, and a man dressed all in yellow carrying a collection of inflatable female dolls (we named him the Banana Harem).

Passengers aren’t the only ones to get caught red-handed trying to bring something illegal through customs. Crew members have been apprehended smuggling everything from computer chips to fake Gucci bags. But no story equals that of the infamous “Monkey Stew,” a male flight attendant who worked a regular route from the U.S. to South America.

Monkey Stew discovered that a certain species of monkey that cost $500 in Brazil fetched up to $10,000 in the States. Seeing an entrepreneurial opportunity, he developed a system for getting baby monkeys into the country one at a time. He would give the animal a 12-hour sedative, bribe an agent to get his bag past security, deliver his package to a person on the other side, and collect a tidy sum each trip. It was animal smuggling and highly illegal, but with four trips a month, Monkey Stew was raking in the cash.

One day Monkey Stew’s intended destination was closed due to fog. With the delay, the flight was close to 12 hours long. The sedated monkey, he hoped, would remain sleeping. In fact, Monkey Stew made it past immigration, but felt a rustling coming from his specially designed monkey carrier soon after. He started to panic and began sweating profusely.

The monkey gave out an initial yelp and the flight attendant started to walk faster. Soon the no-longer-sleeping monkey was making muffled screeches every two strides. Our smuggler approached the oldest customs agent, hoping he was hard of hearing. But just as he cleared through the final stage, the monkey screamed at the top of his lungs.

Apparently, it was the funniest sight: a grown man in uniform in the prone position, five customs officials surrounding him, and a baby monkey sitting on top of the carrier, seemingly laughing his head off. The flight attendant lost his job, was sent to prison, and had his picture in the newspapers, branded with the nickname “Monkey Stew.”

Monkey Stew is now out of prison and paying off his fine by working in an exotic pets store. The story is a well known and documented case. It wasn’t the first case of animal smuggling and I am sure it won’t be the last because, as we all know, “Monkey see, monkey do!”

James Wysong is a veteran flight attendant who has worked with two major international carriers. James recently released a new book, “Flying High With A Frank Steward: More Air Travel Tales From the Flight Crew.” For more information about James, visit his Web site or send him an e-mail.

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