Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Bootleg Beef

There I was. Sweating in a claustrophobic bathroom stall of Mexico’s Cancun airport. Fluorescent lights buzzing harshly overhead. My and Reece’s bags spread open on the dirty floor in front of me as I hastily searched for good hiding places. Having watched enough episodes of Locked Up Abroad, I reasoned that if we got caught, I might get into less trouble if I had fewer packages on me. So with sweaty palms, I rushed open each plastic baggie and condensed my contraband into fewer packages. Glancing up occasionally to make sure there weren’t any cameras on me. As a seasoned traveler, this is a position I never thought I’d find myself in. And I surely couldn’t have expected that the contents I’d be smuggling, would be beef jerky.

Not just any beef jerky, you see. My mom’s special, home made, better than any you’ve ever tasted beef jerky. The kind she lovingly prepares for me before every trip, for as long as I’ve been taking them. We’ve shared it with strangers at Burning Man. A mouse chewed through my backpack to get a taste of it in Paris. It’s held us over in between meals on the Inca Trail. No journey is complete without it.

While prepping for our most recent adventure, we were told that snacks are hard to come by in Cuba. To bring as many dry goods as you can squeeze into your bag, for nourishment in a land lacking convenience stores. For this uncharted territory, we’d need EXTRA beef jerky. And granola bars, dark chocolate and peanut butter. Our tiny carry on luggage was stuffed to the brim with rations for the next six weeks. For this trip, we would be prepared.

Imagine my horror as our flight from LA began its final descent, and the attendant announced, “Make sure to dispose of ALL FOOD before you de-plane. Eat everything you have now, as you CANNOT take food into Mexico. If you try, you WILL get in trouble. I repeat, DO NOT TAKE ANY FOOD OFF THE PLANE.”

Um. Excuse me? WHAT?! I shot a panicked look at Reece. What do we do??

“Well, I guess we’ll show it to the customs official and ask if we can keep it,” he suggested.


This stash was far too valuable. Visions of my mom’s hard work in the garbage flashed in my head. $20 worth of Cliff bars, trashed. It was too much to bear. Customs officials be damned. I wasn’t going to say a word.

Reece had already ticked the “no” box on the declaration form asking if we had any “animal products”. See, it’s easy to accidentally overlook some innocent snacks! I’m sorry officer! I thought it was referring to fresh meat, not dried! I was thinking of perishable food products! My bad! How many borders have I crossed in the world with food on me, I rationalized. Most of the time they just wave you through without even looking at your bag. I read that in Cancun you simply push a button as you pass – green light go ahead, red light stop for a search – what are they chances we’d even get stopped?? Reece was clearly less comfortable with this plan than I was, so I moved everything into my bag and was prepared to take the fall. Anyway, I’m better at playing dumb than he is.

So I’m confidently strolling up to the customs line. I got this. Until I notice… They are putting every single bag through an X-ray machine. This, I was not expecting. SHIT. I glance around for an exit strategy but we’ve come too far. Too many eyes are on us. We're surrounded. There is no way to go but ahead. I place my precious pack carefully on the conveyor belt, heart pounding as I watch it disappear into the dreaded machine. And then. It stops. Along with my heart. The customs agent leans into the screen to take a closer look. This is it. I’m sorry Reece. Tell my family I loved them!

We continue a few steps forward and I do my best impression of “calm” as time creeps by in slow motion. Then suddenly – whrrrr – the machine kicks back into gear. My bag reappears triumphantly out the other side. I avoid eye contact as I snatch it from the belt and keep walking, head down, towards freedom. And that’s when we met THE BUTTON. We’ve come this far. Good Lord don’t stop us now!

Each person in line gives it a whack. Green. Green. Green. Green. Green. I watch in agony as our changes of hitting a red grow stronger. Green. Green. Green. We approach, Reece hold his arm out and I hold my breath… GREEN! I couldn’t have gotten through those sliding glass doors quick enough. WE MADE IT.

Outside and securely in our hotel shuttle, the hunger kicked in, and Reece asked for a piece of the goods. “But wait,” he cautioned, “until we pull away.”

“Haha. What, do you think customs is gonna rush out and surround the car, guns drawn, and take our beef??” I laughed at his paranoia. Don’t worry my dear. You’re with a professional.

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