Bags for Bucks: The Pirates of ‘Aduana’

Borders, Harbors, and Airports; these are all portals through which people can reach new and foreign lands—usually with a sense of positive anticipation and wonderment. Unfortunately, it is also where countless crimes often take place.

About five years ago, when I was on my way to Germany, I had to make one stop at an airport in the Dominican Republic—where I would then grab a connecting flight to Düsseldorf. I recall having been excited for seeing one of the most popular spots of my neighbor country, the beautiful coast of Punta Cana. As we descended, I could already admire its white-sanded beaches and far-reaching green environments—all which made the whole Island look like a true jewel of the Caribbean.

Punta-Cana-airport-1

As soon as we got off the plane, all passengers walked in a straight line toward the unusual terminals. It was the first time I ever stepped directly on the aircraft stands, without walking through a crowded jet-way instead. Either way, I must admit the airport itself was rather exotic—a row of gigantic bungalows surrounded by palm-trees, bushes and plants of all types—giving the impression of having truly landed on a paradisiac Island. The halls were spacious, built with bamboo trunks and stone walls, and just like the ceiling layout of the entire airport, the shops within were embellished with roofs made of straw. Surely it couldn’t have been compared to some of the other airports I’d seen—Heathrow, Schiphol, or JFK—which are colossal and modern city-like structures. And yet, these lovely and somewhat aboriginal huts also possessed their share of charm.

But it was not until I had to check-in my luggage when all of my Island enchantment fell apart. Unexpectedly, I was told by the baggage handler that I could only take one suitcase on that trip. I laughed. But even when I showed him my ticket—as evidence that I had paid for both my bags—he still wouldn’t allow me to take it. I started to grow uneasy, and took the matter to the manager herself. She looked at me like she had no idea of what I was talking about. A moment later, I watched as she and the young employee spoke privately in a corner, glancing at me rather suspiciously. I was confused by the whole situation. But when they addressed me again, I could only stare at them in absolute disbelief. In exchange for my luggage, the cheeky couple demanded three-hundred American dollars.

My mouth went dry instantly, unable to utter another word for about a minute. I had my credit cards with me, some traveler checks, but merely two-hundred dollars in cash. I told them I only had $100—and I admit it, I made myself cry. I cried as though I was carrying a treasure inside those bags. I made a scene, a scandal, until all of the German tourists had their perplexed eyes fixated on me. Both the manager and employee became nervous themselves, but continued to demand money nonetheless.  And seeing that they still wouldn’t accept being left empty-handed, I ultimately gave them the hundred dollars.

I honestly can’t say that I regret my decision. I could have stayed behind, find my way into the  U.S. embassy or the nearest police station to report the crime—missing my flight in the process. So no, it wouldn’t have been worth it. Then again, while I was sitting in the next plane, I couldn’t judge them. Life ain’t exactly peachy for the locals. There’s a lot of need and poverty in the country, and for that reason I can somewhat understand when people are pushed to do such things—it’s survival.

But that was then.

Back on March of this year, part of the Missionary Ministry of my Church went to the Dominican Republic, on a charity mission toward a rural sector called Guaraguao. It is a highly-populated, impoverished area, and many of its inhabitants live inside ruined shacks one could hardly call a home.

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hoto credit: Jose Luis Santiago

Mrs. Gines, who’s a sister of the congregation—and who was also part of the mission—described the situation in the following manner;

“It’s hard to explain what I felt there. All I can say is that, despite having very scarce resources—no technology, no recreation, and little food or water—the children of Guaraguao are relatively happy. They wait for people like us, to arrive at any moment with a gift to share with them…”

In other words, the people of these villages are in great need, and they count solely on the kindness of strangers and donations.

Our ministry had arrived aboard the ferry from San Juan, carrying 20 boxes filled with donated clothes, shoes, and other essential items they would hand out to each of these families—many of them of Haitian descent. The local pastor—in charge of guiding the missionaries to the village—had already arranged for these boxes to be transported inside the Church’s own van. Every step taken had been legitimate, and the ministry had followed every rule regarding the allowance limit of the donations—in fact, they were even below the limited amount. That, however, did not prevent them from enduring the exact same distressing situation as I did years ago in Punta Cana.

This time, the awful incident occurred at the port of Santo Domingo.  Just as the group reached the Customs area, they were told by the agents that they could only carry five boxes into the country, thus being obligated to leave most of the donations behind—unless, of course, they were willing to pay for the rest. As it was mentioned earlier, everything was arranged and done according to the established rules. Even still, the Customs agents had the impudence to allege that the contents of the boxes appeared;

 “…too neatly classified, like they are goods intended for commerce.

Therefore, they could not be allowed past the gates.

When I first heard these news, I was brought back directly to the day I visited the Black Market of Bodrum. I was seventeen at the time, gone away on holiday with an old friend. We’d decided to check out the Turkish markets—which were full of designer clothing replicas—and were told by the tour guide that we could only carry about three items. Any more of them wouldn’t have been allowed through the airport Customs, for the exact same reason—intentions of commerce. Looking back and analyzing the whole setting, I can understand why the authorities would establish these rules. On the other hand, when they actually impose the same regulations to a Church ministry or a humanitarian organization that carries boxes with used clothes and shoes—all which are intended for their own people living under miserable circumstances—it doesn’t make much sense, does it? That is just plain abuse of power—it’s extortion of the worst kind.

As I’ve mentioned in the beginning, borders are common places of crime; contraband, drug smuggling, human trafficking, and so much more. But I wonder—why isn’t anyone speaking up against the ruthless mafia inside the airports and other places of transit? I believe this is a subject that deserves deep investigation,  and it has to be stopped.

Is it not enough that both locals and tourists continue to get stabbed and robbed by street muggers within our own lands? Must we now grow accustomed to the authorities stealing from us as well?

Either way, if not even Churches and humanitarian organizations are respected these days, then I don’t know what to expect anymore.

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