By Travel columnist
updated 6/14/2005 8:33:34 PM ET 2005-06-15T00:33:34

How many times have you returned from your international trip and the first people you encounter are the smiling group at Customs and Immigration, greeting you with open arms? Okay, more likely you encounter somewhat grumpy personnel with extended palms, wanting your passport or customs declaration.

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Who are these men and women who ask you personal questions about your recent trip, have full permission to look through your bags and search your person? Well, they aren’t employed by the airlines or airport, but by the government. So they don’t have to be nice and will always have a pension.

If the Custom officials weren’t doing this job, I wonder what they would be doing. Let’s just say that I don’t think they would be greeters at Wal-Mart. They’re not there to be social directors, and very rarely do I see them happy. Maybe it’s because they see thousands of people a day, and in the seconds of interaction with each passenger, they have to decide if a person is entering the country illegally, or bringing in something they shouldn’t.

First stage is Immigration and Passport control, followed by Customs, where you find 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 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 it caught me with an apple in my bag. It got all excited when it got to my suitcase. So in the end, he got his Scooby snack and it cost me $100. I hear that I got off lightly.

Here are some of my tips for getting through Customs and Immigration a bit easier:

  1. If you know you will have a tight connection when you land in the states, leave the flowers or produce behind. Agriculture inspection sometimes adds up to one hour or more.
  2. Always carry a photocopy of your passport separately from your passport. Many officials will accept it if you misplace it.
  3. Turn your cell phones off. Customs and Immigration are strict on that rule and will confiscate and not return them.
  4. Don’t make wisecracks or jokes to the officials; it only makes you look like you are trying to hide something.
  5. Read your forms carefully, and fill them out as soon as you get them. There is a complete guide to filling out your form and a list of contraband items at the back of your in-flight magazine.
  6. If you are unsure, declare it. The “I didn’t know reply” won’t work.
  7. Don’t make a scene. If it’s a long wait and your connecting flight is soon, so is everyone else’s and you definitely won’t make your flight if you are sent to secondary screening.
  8. If you are uncomfortable with the opposite sex searching through your luggage, ask for an official of the same sex. Many don’t know that they can make such a request.
  9. Don’t put any fruit in your bag during your vacation. You may have carried around some mangos in a sack a week ago but the persistent aroma will have the fruit dog all over it and you will be delayed in agriculture.
  10. Leave any photos or videos of you and a partner in a compromising position at home. They could be considered pornography and when they are confiscated, they will probably go up on their “wall of shame” in some back office.

These officials must have enough stories to fill a book. During my own years as a flight attendant, I witnessed the following incidents and items being seized: a full grown hidden rose bush, 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 with a leg flask containing Bourbon that broke and created a “pissed-in-his-pants” effect, an Iranian woman with stacks of cash equaling $210,000, a passenger with 300 fake Rolex watches, and a man dressed in solid yellow attire with 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 through. Crewmembers have been apprehended smuggling everything from computer chips to fake Gucci bags. But no story equals that of the infamous “Monkey Stew.” He was a flight attendant who worked a regular route from the US to South America.

He’d discovered that a certain species of baby monkey that cost $500 in Brazil but fetched up to $10,000 in the states. He developed a system where he would drug an animal with a twelve-hour sedative, bribe an agent to get his bag past security, deliver his package to a person on the other side, and collect quite a mark-up each trip. It was considered animal smuggling and highly illegal, but with four trips a month, he was raking it in.

One day his intended destination was closed due to fog. With the delay, the flight was close to 12 hours long. The sedated monkey, hopefully, would remain sleeping. He made it past Immigration, but started to feel a rustling coming from his specially designed monkey carrier. He started to panic and began sweating profusely.

Almost in the clear, the monkey gave out an initial yell and the flight attendant started to walk faster. The monkey was waking up and was making muffled screeches every two strides. He approached the oldest custom agent, hoping he was hard of hearing. As the flight attendant was 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, 5 custom officials surrounding him, and a baby monkey sitting on top of the carrier sounding as if it were laughing at the man. The flight attendant lost his job, was sent to jail as an animal smuggler, and had his picture in the newspapers, branded with the nickname of “Monkey Stew.”

Monkey Stew is now out of jail and paying his fine by working in an exotic pet 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 you all know, “Monkey see, monkey do!”

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his website or e-mail him. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Wysong's forum.

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