Maybe it’s because when I first started travelling I had a tendency to wear cordoury bell-bottoms, and vintage flowered shirts—but I used to have a hell of a time crossing borders (alright, it was definitely the groovy get-ups). After grueling interrogations, and all too often being ‘randomly selected’ for additional search, I finally learned to leave the outlandish outfits in the suitcase. But it left me with a bit of paranoia—I’m now very careful about what I bring across country lines. Here are five things I’ve had, or almost had, confiscated—crossing borders.
Never bring loose vitamins or medication with you, particularly to countries known for drug trade, or where control on drugs is extremely tight. I used to take all my vitamins and put them in those little day-of-the-week pill minders, being sure to have all my B12 dosed out. Alas, it can be hard to convince a border control agent that those little white unlabelled pills aren’t ecstasy, and I lost my B12 stash in South Asia; after being subjected to a physical search I wont soon forget (seriously, I’m still blushing).
This one is pretty easily avoided by bringing vitamins in their original packaging. Just keep in mind that many countries still rely on manual search, and your stash may be opened, hand inspected, or still refused entry.
2) Protein Powder
Like the vitamin fiasco above, it’s a matter of bringing something that can resemble a controlled substance. I had a pack of Vega protein powder removed from my pack by border control into Honduras. I didn’t speak enough Spanish, and the crossing agent didn’t really speak enough English to give me a good sense of why it was a problem—but the general gist was: there could be drugs in there. Unlike vitamins, I just recommend leaving this behind. Even when it’s labelled, it seems to just be too suspicious. And, if they do elect to physically inspect it, you’re probably not going to want to drink it anyway.
This may be a matter of quantity, I was going out for a three week trip and going to be doing a lot of SCUBA diving, so I brought a giant container. A friend of mine had a similar problem bringing a dozen sealed packs of Gautemalan coffee home, they opened each one for physical inspection, ruining his plan for Christmas gifts to coworkers. Obviously you have to tailor your plan to where you’re going—I wouldn’t hesitate to take my beloved Vega to the US or the UK.
3) Soup Packets
I used to drag ramen with me all around the world. The truth—multiple sealed packages of anything are likely to attract additional attention. Especially ramen with all the packets inside packets. After being stopped and having to explain the presenct of a dozen instant soups in my pack to bordergaurds in 3 countries in SE Asia, I finally gave up on the idea crossing back from Singapore to Malaysia. I still shove ramen into my suitcase, but I wouldn’t take it everywhere—and I now avoid the packets with little packets of liquid or oil in them, as I can’t stop forgetting to put them in my carry-on, and aparrently, a 1/4 t of oil in a ramen packet ought to be included in your 3-1-1 bag.
4) Refried Beans
Just before going through security at the airport in San Pedro Sula, there is a large glass case full of confiscated and prohibited items. The top had things not to be included in your carry on, garottes, knives, machetes, et cetera. The second tier was nixed period. Drugs, explosives—and refried beans. I’m not sure why exactly they were singled out, but they were there—and I happened to have some in my pack. Into the bin they went—sad because the VGML meal on the plane was disgusting (and not even vegetarian, I couldn’t eat more than a third of it).
5) Soy Tamales
One of my favourite things to do when I travel is find a good local grocery store and look for cool stuff. I love coming back with a few cans of huitzlacoche or some hand cut pasta—of all the food products I’ve gone to take back home the only one I’ve ever had taken away from me was a packet of vacuum packed tamales. I was so excited to find them I took a picture of them—though to be honest, they looked fucking disgusting. I blame it on the strange smile on the pig-in-the-logo’s face. He looks pretty shifty.
Speaking of shifty—I recently got some good advice on crossing the border from a globe-trotting friend who’s always on the road for business: Keep your mouth shut, and your face straight (don’t smile too much).
I think it’s something I get from my Dad, but I’m one of those guys that tends towards smiles and small talk. Apparently, good old-fashioned manners are suspicous in this day and age and I’ve recently made a conscious effort to be less friendly to border guards. It’s made border crossing a lot easier. Of course, it’s not a matter of being rude, but it is a matter of not volunteering a tonne of extra information, or talking about the weather.
If you do need to bring something at all unusual with you—give yourself plenty of extra time at the airport.
Airlines aren’t responsible for flights missed to border delays, and while it’s likely they’ll make some arrangements for you to get to your destination, it’s not guaranteed, and it’s sure to be inconvenient. I remember once being in the selected search area with a guy heading to a martial arts competition. He insisted at the top of his lungs that he was perfectly within his rights to bring a katana, rapier, and broadsword in his checked in luggage—he was right. But his attitude wasn’t and he was denied permission to fly based on his aggression. Check the TSA rules before you go! Certain rules have recently relaxed (nail-clippers in carry on again at last!). But, there are still more prohibited items than you can shake a fist at.