Wednesday, September 5, 2012
The Secret Weapon
If you’ve ever traveled to Central America by boat, you’ll notice an ever-present device in officialdom - the stamp. Every immigration, customs or port authority official who comes to your boat brandishes this inky sword and merrily stamps every single piece of paper put in front of them. We’ve even heard of cruisers getting a piece of paper stamped by one office, then having to take that piece of paper to another office where they receive a stamp to show that the paper had been stamped by the first office and then returning to the first office for a final stamp upon a stamp upon a stamp. Stamps, if you haven’t guessed by now, wield a surprising amount of power.
After a while of watching all this stamping, we developed a running joke that if you had a stamp entering and exiting a country would become a mere formality. They would take one look at your beautifully stamped crew list and boat documentation and just wave you on through - no illicit hedgehog smuggling discussions necessary.
When Vlad went back to the U.S., he picked up quite a bit of stuff for Bettie, and as a vessel in transit, we should have no problems bringing in items for our boat and should not be charged import tariffs. However, we heard too many horror stories about horrendous fights boaters had with customs officials in Panama City to be complacent, so Vlad decided to test our stamp theory. He purchased a stamp from Office Depot that allows you to change both the date and the wording and stamped the heck out of our vessel in transit letter with the phrases “Vessel in transit, Panama no tariff” just as a reminder that we shouldn’t be charged import duties. And no one asked him a single question. Of course, we can’t be sure that it was the stamp that led to the downright magical ease with which he brought in various boat items and $70 worth of batteries, but it’s a fun thought.
Also, I would like to say that I’m not making fun of Central American bureaucracy, per se. It’s just that when you can’t speak the language and are not used to the patterns of a particular government all of a sudden you see just how funny this paperwork really is. Where does it go? What is it used for? Does anyone ever look at it? It has opened our eyes to how much of this stuff happens everywhere, including in the U.S., from voting to taxes to registering a boat. We just don’t notice it because it’s the background of daily life. Too bad they don’t have a stamp for that.