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Friday, March 15, 2019

Tales of Customs and Immigration: Trinidad and Curacao

Naturally, whenever we enter a foreign country there is the matter of satisfying Customs and Immigration. Arriving by air, all of those details are handled rather efficiently at the airport. 
Before landing, the stewardesses hand out cards to complete for the Customs Official. If you are like us when we fly, it’s quite simple. Anything of value to declare? No? Off you go then.
Import regulations:

For passengers over 17 years: free import of:
- 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars or 250 grams of tobacco;
- 1,5 litres of wine or spirits;
- a reasonable quantity of perfume;
- personal effects;
- gifts up to a value of USD 200.- or TTD 1,200.-.

Arms and Ammunition regulations:
Passenger must carry import permit from the commissioner of police in Trinidad and Tobago and a firearms users license. The transporting airline's station manager must be informed prior to arrival. Non-compliance could result in a fine for the carrier.
Wild Fauna and Flora:
The import of certain endangered species of plant, live animals and their products is prohibited or restricted under CITES.

For further details please refer to CITES:
Arriving by personal watercraft is a different matter altogether. Every country has their own take on the level of seriousness that need be applied to the process. The level ranges from “good-natured howdy-do-ing” to the “somber evaluation of the sailor’s right to exist anywhere on the planet, let alone this particular sovereign shore.” Most countries fall reasonably somewhere in between. 

Trinidad has earned highest marks from me for its’ serious as a heart attack attitude about entering their country by water. Whereas many Caribbean nations forbid any but the Captain of the vessel to set foot on land until after the clearing in process has been completed and the quarantine flag has been replaced by the country’s courtesy flag, Trinidad is not one of those nations.  

Fortunately, we had been warned in advance and were prepared with not only the appropriate attire, but the appropriate personages. Both of us were present and properly dressed.

this is how to say "Curacao" --Korsow
Carl was wearing his long pants and a button-down shirt. (No hairy bare-legged men need apply). We had each found our one pair of closed-toed shoes and there were no bare shoulders to be seen between us. Neither were there any see-through (gasp!) items of clothing. We were afraid to perspire for fear we’d offend the Immigration Officer Lady, whose position was protected by the tall and muscular Immigrations Officer Man sporting the requisite firearms collection. 

Behind him, in full color hung the fully illustrated poster of camouflage paraphernalia that sailors need to be aware are illegal in the country of Trinidad/Tobago.  Neither pants, nor boots, shirts (even with shoulders covered), hats, dresses, swimsuits, diapers (yes, diapers, but why?), shawls, raincoats, flip flops, lingerie, (not even the pink, purple and gray variations), auto and motorcycle upholstery, drapery (I don’t understand the desire for camouflage home decor), backpacks, tents and bed linens.
That last one gave me pause—if there was even a chance that a person in authority would be examining my bedding aboard Northern Star—was this the country for me?

And then, there is Customs and Immigration in Curacao.  We had heard no scary stories about Customs and Immigration in advance of arriving in Curacao. We’d heard only that it could be a bit time-consuming. But no cautionary tales about attire, etc.  So, like good little sailors, we docked our boat at the marina where we planned to leave it during our absence in Colombia.  We hitched a ride with a marina staff person out to the main road where we could catch a bus.  The bus found, we enjoyed a pleasant 20 minute ride into the city of Willemstad. 
St. Anne Bay
Willemstad, one should be aware, could actually be described as a pair of cities across the St. Anna Bay from one another. The first city (from our southern approach) is called “Punda” in the Papiamentu language. Punda means “Point.” The city on the other side of the harbor is called Otrabanda, whose meaning the reader has probably ferreted out faster than I can spell it out—the “Other Side.” 

Papiamentu or Papiamento is the native language of the ABC Islands: Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao.  The three islands are part of the Netherlands and were once referred to simply as the Netherlands Antilles. As such, their official language is Dutch which is learned by every child in school.

The other official language is Papiamentu.  (To hear it spoken, see video above). It is a language that originated in Curacao about 300 years ago, and is spoken only in the ABC’s, and now also in the Netherlands and St. Maarten. It is a blending of pidgin African Creole with much influence from Portuguese and Spanish.  With so many unfamiliar languages being spoken in Curacao, the African transplants did the only reasonable thing that could be done. They formed a new language so that they could communicate with one another. “Brilliant!” 
Many people in Curacao actually speak four languages: Dutch, Papiamentu, English and Spanish. English is spoken by all young people, whether taught in school or not ,because of the influence of American music and movies.  
The Mega Wharf

And so, our bus disgorged us in Punda with a little lagoon on our right, a city of charming Dutch Colonial architecture on our left, the St. Anna Bay straight ahead (which appears to be a river until one follows it to its’ origin) and above that, a very tall bridge shaped like an enormous stretched-out inverted U. Make that more like a big rounded haystack. My point is that the traffic is seen climbing the bridge at an astonishing degree of angle, soaring across the zenith of the bridge and then plunging down the other side into Otrabunda. An amazing bridge!
But I digress.

Our strategy in finding Customs and Immigration is quite simple and has worked well for Carl in many countries.  Once one has reached a point not too distant from where one would expect Customs and Immigrations to be located, one just asks a passerby—a passerby that gives some indication of having been in the islands for a while. The clue that a passerby is a newly arrived tourist and therefore won’t know anything useful for us? It’s the skin color.  White, white skin.  Possible sunburn on the neck and ears. Camera dangling.

Setting the usual plan in motion, I asked a slow-moving older woman, “Excuse me, do you know where Customs and Immigration is located?” Apparently not a devotee of American pop culture, she spoke Dutch and apparently Papiamentu, neither of which helped me a lick. Carl asked a dapper-looking gentleman walking as if he had a purpose. He spoke English but had no idea about Customs and Immigration. “You’d think it’d be in a big government-looking building like this one,” I pointed out.  There was no signage whatsoever and the building at hand had nothing to say for itself. 
not a very accurate map

I tried out my question next with a younger woman walking by. Bingo, she spoke English, as a second, or third language. “It’s down that way——keep going and then turn to the right.  It’s on your left.”  We followed her instructions to the letter, while I for one, had the distinct feeling that she was making this up as she went along. Who knows what some people find to be worth a chuckle? Sure enough—we found no building as she described. Not yet having lost faith in the next generation Carl asked this time—another younger professionally dressed woman  She was quite confident and pointed us back the way we had come, toward the buses.  The next man we asked said, “Immigration is closed today, they are on strike.” By that time we were skeptical of what anyone had to say. When we returned to the Bushalte (Dutch for “bus stop”) we felt that we were getting warmer, or at least thirstier.  
Having reached what I felt was my tolerance for fal-de-ral, I suggested a stop for some water or fruit smoothie, or both. I love it when Carl follows my lead.  Willemstad has the most charming streets with colorful buildings and cobblestones and trees tucked into alleyway that open up into patio restaurants. Delightful. 
Fort Rif

Back near the Bushalte, we found a business-like glass building with Security guards seated inside. The doors were padlocked. Hmph.  Maybe Immigration was closed that day.  Never one to call it quits, Carl asked one more man.  He seemed to be trilingual or qua trilingual And he claimed to know where Customs was housed.  Said it had been temporarily relocated over along the St. Anna’s Bay. “Take the footbridge across the little waterway, walk until you see an iron gate that opens up toward the water.  Go through—its on your right.”  Uh huh.  After consulting with two more people along the way, Customs was found. Up an external wooden staircase that hugged the wall of a long white concrete building. No signage. Naturally.

Are we getting any closer?
The properly uniformed and well-armed young man who helped us was clearly in a great deal of pain. “Where is Immigration?” we asked, when we were finished at Customs. He had that tentative movement of someone whose back was playing nice at the moment but he knew it wouldn’t last. He gingerly splayed his hand across the river saying, “Over there, under the bridge.” We didn’t want to bother him for more details. How hard could it be? There’s the waterfront. There’s the bridge.
floating Venezuelan market
 So, back over the little footbridge we went.  Several boats from Venezuela were stacked closely together along the narrow waterway selling their fruits and vegetables. It was a whole floating market! Charming! 
Queen Emma bridge

We walked to the waterfront lined with bright blue and yellow and pink buildings trimmed in white. This beautiful strip of land along St. Anna’s Bay is called Handelskade and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  How very Dutch-like! There were several boats that had been ferrying people back and forth from Punda to Otrabanda.  Just as we got to the ferry entrance, however, its gates closed and the ferry pulled away from the shore.  My next plan involved crying. The man onboard pointed. There was another bridge.  Oooooh, a floating bridge. 

What a fantastic invention.  The floating Queen Emma Bridge replaced the original stationery bridge in 1888.  It is a lovely wide floating walkway that opens up a few times each day to accommodate ocean going ships as well as smaller traffic like our boat, as needed.  The rest of the time, foot traffic pours across the wide bridge.  On a sunny day with a bright blue sky, a person could forget that they had yet to find the Immigration Office somewhere on the other side, in the vicinity of the base of the tall bridge. 
are we closer now?

So, we walked and we walked. Not much foot traffic going that direction. But the walk was pleasant enough—more Dutch Colonial architecture. No complaints there. It’s a long way to the base of the tall bridge. Still no foot traffic to speak of. Came across an interesting community art project honoring a poor gentleman who has lived in a second floor hovel (I could call it by another name, but it wouldn’t be as accurate) for the past 30+ years?  Apparently he had quite a following. But as far as I could tell, no one liked him well enough to fix up the hovel.

Here’s where things started getting tricky. The waterway was guarded by tall iron fences and the gate that opened down to the water was controlled by a large, well-armed Security Officer in a skirt. (Gender appropriate).  In order to pass, we were obligated to give her our passports! She gave us more than enough time to dig around for our passports and boat paperwork while she futzed around establishing a new zippered waistline for her ample girth.

see bridge, far to the right
Having been allowed entrance to the inner sanctum of the working waterfront, we continue walking.  The base of the bridge was still distant. No foot traffic, or motorized traffic either for that matter. There we were, traversing this wide length of concrete extending from the rocky bank extending high above on our left to the rows of warehouses lining the waterway on our right. All was silent but for the remote sound of bridge traffic high above in the distance.  
the "movie set"  Where murder occurs

This “movie set” was familiar to me. This is where the poor schlub of a victim finds himself walking all alone in the evening while the audience bites their nails. Only moments later, the schmuck’s life is snuffed out and the body summarily dumped into the river, cement overshoes and all.  And still we kept walking. What else can a victim do? It’s in the script. 
rocky headland ahead

Surprise, ships ahead
Surprisingly enough, a high wall of rock was just ahead and once we’d rounded that, a few buildings that appeared to be occupied for less than nefarious purposes presented themselves. There were people, not many, just a few extras. They pointed us to one particular building. No signage but once inside a small sign labeled the window as Douane (Customs in Dutch). 

Immigration found!

Once we’d accomplished our tasks indoors and exited the building, there were taxis waiting, to schlepp people like us past the movie set and and back to civilization. We thought, “Pffft, we already did all the hard work. Let’s enjoy the long walk back.”

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