Sunday, August 28, 2005

Core business for U.S. Customs

The "Three Musketeers" drove out of Vancouver, as soon as the rush hour had subsided. Crammed into the front cab of our Series 2, we were excited and upbeat. Sardines on happy pills. A row of New Zealand apples had also hitched a ride. Like rotund red soldiers, they were lined up on what passes for a dashboard in the Land Rover.

It had been sad saying good bye to Eric and Linda. They had been such a great support and so positive about the expedition. They hoped they would visit New Zealand in about three years. At that point, three years seemed liked a million years away. But, with the email problem fixed, we would be able to keep in touch. And, we still do today. (Hey, Eric, if you’re reading this it’s now been SEVEN years since you promised to visit. Come on over!)

F2 took the bus, as there was no room in our Series 2 Land Rover. We would meet in Seattle, where F1 would collect his Series One Land Rover.

We saw some amazing signs on the entire expedition. Many were in North America as, from our point of view, they have a curious way with words. Just north of the US/Canada border we spotted a sign: "Respect slow moving agricultural vehicles". Maybe this was meant to be a warning about possible encounters with tractors crawling along the country lanes. I suppose they couldn’t say, "This is a country area. Slow down you impatient city slickers". As Land Rovers are considered to be an agricultural vehicle in New Zealand, especially older ones, we took this as a good omen for the expedition.

In fact, I thought they were giving us a special welcome at the border. As we slowed to join the queue of cars I could see a large sign. From the distance I could just make out the letters on the first word "RESPECT", but the rest was a blur. TH has very good eyesight. "Uh oh", he groaned, and then, "How fast can you eat those apples?"

The sign said: RESPECT OUR FRUIT MARKET – DO NOT IMPORT FRUIT AND VEGETABLES. I had been munching on the apples almost as soon as we left Vancouver. From the battalion that we set off with, a small squad of four remained. Food lover I might be, but scoffing this lot in a few minutes was beyond even me.

A tall, rangy looking border guard was slouched at his post, on the American side of the border. He looked bored, giving each vehicle and its number plate (licence plate) a desultory glance, before waving it through. All the cars in front of us had either Canadian or USA licence plates. In less than a minute we were at the front of the line.

Our appearance had a galvanising effect. Lazarus rising from the dead! He sprang out into the road in front of us, raising his hand into a "HALT" position. He inspected our Land Rover, walking completely around it. He stopped at my window, which was the passenger side in our right-hand-drive vehicle. I saw his look of astonishment when he realised I didn’t have a steering wheel in front of me. However, as I was sitting in what he considered was the driving seat, he addressed all of his questions to me.

Unfortunately, I could barely understand him. He had a thick, southern state American accent and spoke with what was probably his local jargon, "Y’all got a licence for this here buggy?" (He pronounced "this" as "they-is" and "here" as "hay – er").

TH has a real talent for language and accents. I gave him a frantic look. TH translated, "He wants to know if we have a road registration." I gave the border guard a wide smiling yes and pointed to our New Zealand registration sticker on the windscreen.

Like most countries, we pay a tax (registration) to our government to drive on the roads, which is linked to the number (licence) plate on the car. On payment each year, stickers are issued to show that the vehicle’s registration is current. Our stickers are rather dull. They are small, white and rectangular, with the vehicle’s identification (number (licence) plate) printed in black computer-generated ink, which includes a bar code. It all makes sense if you are familiar with how the numbers work. Understandably, Americans are not used to our system. Adding to the confusion, New Zealand records the date as dd/mm/yyyy, whereas Americans work in the format of mm/dd/yyyy.

The sticker was on the top left hand corner of the windscreen, facing outwards. From my position in the seat directly behind it, I could see the confused expression of the border guard, as he stared at our registration sticker. He could not make head or tail of it.

I started rifling through our official papers folder for our "Carnet de Passages en Douane", (a sort of passport for a vehicle). As long as a vehicle is registered in its own country, having a Carnet (pronounced car-nay) means it is exempt road tax/charges in most other countries it is driven through. We had purchased a Carnet before leaving New Zealand, as we knew it was essential for many countries, although it is not usually required for foreign vehicles passing through USA or Canada. For more information about a Carnet check out:

I flapped the Carnet triumphantly out of the window. However, the guard waved this aside. I think he’d decided the vehicle was all too hard. Instead, I think he probably thought we were illegal immigrants, especially as we didn’t seem understand English very well. He asked for our passports.

Although New Zealanders don’t need a visa for USA, I had visited the US Embassy in Auckland to obtain one for each of us. I knew we’d be driving across the Canadian and possibly the Mexican border a couple of times and, as we would be in "funny looking Jeeps", I knew visas would smooth our way. Thank goodness, they worked. Our guard diligently inspected our passports and visas, lifting his eyes to scrutinise each one of us in turn. This was something he really understood.

He took his time. I reached out for one of the apples, thinking I could eat my way through the wait. They looked so inviting with their polished red skins gleaming in the sunlight. And then it hit me. With all of the fuss over vehicle registration, I had forgotten to declare the apples. It was true that he hadn’t asked, either. But, that was probably not going to count in our favour. "Here comes trouble", I thought.

I sat there turning over excuses and explanations in my head. The guard seemed to be taking an absolute age. Finally, he nodded and handed the passports back. Despite all the convincing phrases I had silently practised, I blurted out "We’ve got these" and pointed to the apples.

He barely glanced at them. "They-er are ray-ed", he drawled, "grain (green) ay-ples are bay-inned". I peered desperately at TH for another translation. He’s wicked, you know. He smiled up at the guard and said, "Ma wy-ife is a bay-it de-af."

The guard returned the smile sympathetically. He turned back to me and shouted "Ray-ed ay-ples OK."

We all thanked the guard and scooted out of there. I gave TH a hard dig in the ribs for his cheekiness. He grinned back at me, "have another apple, sweet-hayart."

© Eventful Woman, 2005

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