Not Quite Legal Souvenirs

Food seized at Washington Dulles
USDA /Ken Hammond

Somewhere in a small town in an unnamed country is the complete skull of a crocodile and a small box of teeth that belong to that skull. The crocodile, who wasn’t using her teeth anymore, was not supposed to make this trip but did so anyway, without a passport, packed in the insulation of T-shirts stained with the red dust of the Australian Outback. The person who checked this partial crocodile knew there’d be some risk of having the bones and teeth seized at the border. Plus, hey, it was free, scooped up at a swampy turn out somewhere. No money changed hands in the acquisition of the croc skull.

What was to lose? Seizure at the border, a protestation of ignorance and slap on the wrist. “Sir, you can not import animal bones without proper documentation.” “I had NO idea, I am sorry, yes, of course, take it.”

It’s a risk. And make no mistake. You may very well be breaking the law. Travelers take it on because what’s the worst that can happen? Well, a lot. Best case? You’ll have your goods seized or maybe get tagged with an expensive fine. Consider yourself lucky if that’s the case.

Here are a handful of questionable souvenirs that seasoned anonymous travelers decided they’d try to get through customs.

Three kilos of flour: “…for culinary purity. When my friend asked me to bring corn flour, I didn’t think much about it, and then suddenly I found myself with two big bags of white powder in my checked luggage. Not only was I bringing in an unlabeled agricultural product, but it resembled something else entirely.”

The USDA allows you to bring in baking mixes and the like, but requirements are that it’s commercially packaged and properly labeled. Certainly, flour won’t set off the drug sniffer dogs, but explaining those bags of white powder isn’t something you want to find yourself doing in any airport.

Ten pounds of cheese: Cheese is tricky. Hard cheese is okay, soft cheese isn’t, and the USDA guidelines on what a hard cheese is or isn’t aren’t exactly clear – they say “like Parmesan or cheddar.” Brie is probably out, as is Camembert, but what about a blue cheese? Unlcear. Good luck.

Italian olives: “They are officially not okay to bring back, but I found some that were vacuum packed and decided to give it a go. I listed foodstuff on my customs form, and when the officer asked what kind I started off with all the things that I knew it was okay to bring back (wine, hard cheese, olive oil, etc.). By the time I mentioned the olives he had already tuned me out.”

It’s fresh fruit and veg where the trouble lies, packaged, processed products are less likely to raise eyebrows. But if you don’t declare your fruit or veg, it could potentially set you back a $300 fine, plus, oops, there go your olives.

Various kinds of meat: “I packed the salami wrapped in socks and tucked inside my shoes, and sailed past saying not one word.” Meat products are strictly regulated, with a mind towards preventing the spread of disease. Multiple travelers fessed up to squirreling all kinds of fancy product past the border, not just salami, but pate, rillette, prosciutto and more.

Bones, bones, more bones: “A llama vertebrae.” (Taste in souvenirs does vary.) The crocodile skull. A handful of seashells. Ivory and tortoise shells are especially tricky and require special documentation to prove their antiquity. This stuff is all governed by Fish and Wildlife in the US and, in some cases, can only come in through certain airports. To complicate things, there are additional guidelines for “Individuals Wishing to Import Non-Human Primate Trophies, Skins or Skulls” meaning should do your homework before tossing that monkey brain bucket into your bag.

Antiquities of any kind: “I snitched a tiny black and white marble mosaic tile from a heap that looked destined for Ostia Antica’s dump. I feel guilty, but 30 years on still love cradling in my palm something an ancient Roman once touched. It’s like holding hands across time.” Stolen cultural artifacts – that’s a big one.

There’s a useful page of information on the US Customs and Border Patrol site, including a Know Before You Go sheet that will send you into a rabbit warren of other places. What about that machete – is it legal? Probably, but you won’t get it past security in your carry-on. Plus, security, that’s a whole different can of worms.

Worms, by the way, will never make it past customs. Don’t even try.

Retail therapy: Istanbul ShoppingFest begins March 18

Istanbul shoppingfestEvery year, many people visit Istanbul to shop in the historic Grand Bazaar to haggle over carpets, Turkish tea glasses, and souvenir t-shirts. But most locals do their shopping in Istanbul’s many malls, markets, high streets like Istiklal near Taksim Square and Bağdat on the Asian side, and neighborhoods such as posh Nişantaşı and funky Çukurcuma. This year, from March 18 to April 26, travelers can take advantage of the best of all worlds with the first Istanbul ShoppingFest, also celebrating the 550th birthday of the Grand Bazaar. For 40 days, shoppers can get special discounts and win prizes, shop late into the night (with bigger discounts after 10pm), and be entertained with performances and events. Each Saturday, one mall each on the European and Asian sides will stay open until 2am, and all malls will be open until 11pm daily during the fest. In addition to sale prices, foreign travelers can get tax back on purchases at various malls around the city and enter raffles with each 40 TL (about $25 USD) spent.

Already established in India, Singapore, and Dubai in usual sale seasons, Istanbul’s promotion will hold a special draw as discounts will apply to new season merchandise and take place over several major holidays including Easter, Passover, and Iranian Nowruz. With this festival, Turkey hopes to carry over some of the momentum from last year’s European Capital of Culture designation, and become the destination of choice for travelers from nearby countries such as Russia, Iran, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Rumania, Syria and Iraq.

Check out more details and events at www.istshopfest.com and follow their Facebook page and Twitter @istshopfest. See also the March issue of Time Out Istanbul in English for feature guides to the fest and the Grand Bazaar.

[Photo courtesy Flickr user antonystanley]

Ciudad del Este – South America’s black market hotspot

The tiny country of Paraguay doesn’t often pop up on the “must-see” list for those traveling to South America. Sitting landlocked between Argentina to the south, Bolivia to the west and Brazil to the north and east, Paraguay has been described as “the forgotten country of Latin America.” But Paraguay has nevertheless attracted quite a bit of attention lately, less for tourism than because it is an important hub in the global smuggling trade.

A vast bazaar of illegal weapons, counterfeit goods and illicit substances is spread out for sale in the markets of Ciudad del Este, Paraguay’s smuggling capital. The city is conveniently located at the convergence of the borders of three countries (Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay), making it the ideal transit point for tax free and often illegal goods headed to all points beyond. GOOD magazine has an interesting profile on Ciudad del Este in its most recent issue. Author Sacha Feinman dives into the city’s back alleys and sidestreets, where he discovers everything from AK-47’s to Montblanc pens to bricks of marijuana can be easily obtained for purchase. Feinman also befriends some of Ciudad del Este’s many porters-for-hire, who package illicit goods and carry them over the city’s 1,600-foot “Friendship Bridge” to neighboring Brazil. Instead of crossing through customs, the men drop their packages off the side to the riverbank below, where waiting teenagers sort through the packages for distribution. So much for filling out that customs form…

As long as the Paraguayan and Brazilian authorities continue to turn a blind eye to the thriving smuggling practice, Paraguay’s black markets will continue to thrive. For a country that doesn’t see much tourism (or other industry for that matter) it seems to be as much an economic necessity as it is a fact of life. Do exercise caution if you’re even considering a visit. Aside from all the petty lawlessness, Wikitravel warns that Paraguay is currently experiencing its worst outbreak of Yellow Fever in over 60 years. Yikes.