First, let me explain you the state I was in just before it happened. After two months in Nicaragua, I had to make my way to Guatemala City to pick up my boyfriend who would come join me on my travels. Excited as I was, this trip would take me two full days on public transport. I had already survived day one, a 12-hour taxi-plane-taxi-bus-taxi journey, and was now halfway a very slow day two (taxi-bus-bus-taxi, 15 hours). My state? Tired and bored to the bone.
The bus arrived at the Honduras – El Salvador border. As the last border crossing went as smooth as a baby’s bottom, I was not really paying attention. So when the customs officer arrived at my seat I just handed him my passport and customs declaration form and continued reading. “Where are you going?” he asked, and I told him about the boyfriend pick-up. I am not sure whether it was this answer that triggered him (“She must be smuggling drugs for this dude!”), or that it was me being the only foreigner… but I dryly got told that I had to leave the bus and bring both my bags.
Oops… I lied on a form
Slightly annoyed I got up. Then it struck me: on the form I stated I had nothing to declare. But I had. My food supplies for the road… some of them were fresh produce. Dammit, I thought, not sure what to do. Luckily another passenger had to unpack his bag first, so I had some time to think. Thoughts were racing through my head:
- “If it’s my turn, I’ll just tell them about the food.”
- “No, that is pleading guilty right away, you stupid!”
- “Can I sneakily throw it away now?”
- “Why on earth did you lie on that form, woman?!”
In the end, I decided: if the food proves to be an issue, I play dumb and apologize. Was it the heat or my nerves that made me sweat so much?
By the time it was my turn, I had slightly changed my mindset. There was nothing I could do, really, to change what was going to happen. Wasn’t this an adventure? An interesting experience…? The officer beckoned me and optimistically I walked up to the desk. Wrong choice. For me, there was no unpacking in public. I followed the man into a tiny office. In it was a table and room for about five people – the exact amount that was there. Me and four (!) male officers. In a tiny, tiny room. I remember thinking: this would make a great opening scene for a horrible movie.
Using smile-and-wave tactics, I greeted the men friendly. A surly looking officer asked me if I spoke any Spanish. Slightly nervous I said I did. And… a sigh of relief swept through the room. Somehow, the ambience felt lighter already. That’s why when an officer read out my full name, I took a chance. I applied an age-old strategy: sports talk. “From my surname, you could tell that I’m Dutch”, I said. “Do you know something about soccer, gentlemen?” They rolled their eyes. Of course, they did. “Then you might know some Dutch soccer players whose surname also start with ‘van’…”, I challenged them. A short silence. Then one officer took the lead: “Van Basten!” Soon the rest followed: “Van Persie!” “Van Nistelrooij!” “Van der Sar!” The ice was broken.
“We call the Dutch national team the orange machine”, one of the officers said. “The best Dutch team is Ajax Amsterdam”, another continued. Perfect, I thought. I told them I support Ajax and how I excited I was they might win the Dutch league this year. To impress them even more with my supposed soccer knowledge, I added: “And did you know that one of Ajax’ youngest pupils has recently scored a hat-trick?!” (This was mainly bluff, although I did remember reading something along those lines…) The officers loved it and wondered if I played soccer myself. I smiled. “Not at all. In fact, I’m a ballerina”, I admitted. In reply, the funniest of the bunch got up on his tippy toes with his hands above his head.
It was clear: there would be no more serious interrogation. What did follow was a half-sided bag inspection and some more jokes. And just like that, I was sent back to the bus…
The fields of a customs form in Central America
- Apellidos (surnames): most Latin Americans have two last names. If your name is hyphenated, you can split to two parts over the two printed fields.
- Nombre (first name): same as with surname. If you have two first names, write them both down.
- Documento de viaje (travel document): you’re asked to fill out the type of travel document you have (passport or different) and the corresponding number. If you have a passport, there’s another box you must tick. You can choose from ORD, OFIC, DIPL and OTRO. Most of you will choose ‘ORD’, as this stands for ‘ordinario’ – normal. The others are for (government) officials, diplomats etc.
- Profesión u oficio (profession or trade): fill out your job title. ‘Student’ is fine too. As far as I know, right now there are no negative feelings towards journalists. However, ask around about the current sentiments and make something up if you’re in doubt. ‘Marketing’ is what I normally put down.
- Motivo de viaje (travel purpose): choose either tourism, transit, official, business, residence or other.
- Dirección prevista (foreseen address): the (first) address you’re planning to stay in the country you enter. If you don’t know yet, ‘Hotel [name city]’ will do.
- Número de vuelo (flight number): even if you’re not entering the country by plane, this field is still required. Online I found that you can also put bus or boat number, rental car license plate or even ‘caminar’ (walking).
- Entrada/salida (entry/exit): this can be confusing since technically you’re both leaving and entering a country. When you receive two forms it’s easy: one is for the country you’re leaving, and one for the one you’re entering. If you only have one form, check which country’s name is printed on it. Then choose what applies to you: entry or exit.
- País de procedencia/destino (departure/destination country): note, this does not include flight transfers. If you fly from The Netherlands to El Salvador via Costa Rica, your departure country is The Netherlands, always.
I assumed you can work out the rest of the fields by yourself:
- Nacionalidad (nationality)
- Fecha de nacimiento (date of birth)
- Sexo (sex)
- País de nacimiento (country of birth)
- País de residencia (country of residence)
Good luck and… enjoy the ride!