Because I Have a Brain
by Cristina C. Espina
Cristina C. Espina
All it takes
to convince one of the rightness of smuggling is coming face to
face with the wrongness of the legal alternative.
It's the same
principle all over the world, but every conversion story, as they
say, is unique. There may be a few "cradle smugglers" out there
who have been right in the head about free trade since birth – but
they were probably raised by the kind of impassioned convert I have
happened . . .
A nice American
lady I know heard that I was having trouble finding several books
by a certain author. She generously offered to send me her old copies
of those titles as a gift – and I was thrilled at her kindness.
I e-mailed her my home address and she packed up the books: not
much in the way of trade, but certainly free, yes?
The books arrived
in my city this week, but were not sent on to my house. This is
how it has been for at least the past seven years. The packages
I send to friends in other countries get delivered straight to their
doors; but anything they send me is held at the Customs department
of my city's central post office, so that I have to go across town
to pick it up. This is to make it easier for the post office to
shake me down for the "Customs Examination Fee" – something they
charge for the service of opening my parcel and rifling through
its contents before they finally hand it over to me.
It's like a
highwayman charging you extra because he had to go through your
stuff for your valuables – which takes so much more effort on his
part than if you simply handed everything over to him, neatly wrapped
and properly inventoried. It makes sense only if you think the highwayman
has the right to rob you.
as I have every time I've submitted to a Customs search, I wondered
what they were looking for and whether they ever found it. Just
today, when a man shuffled out of a back room to thumb through my
books, I ran the possibilities through my mind . . . Drugs?
(How would those fit between the pages?) Incriminating documents?
(How would Customs even know?) Money? (Wouldn't it be mine
and therefore none of their business?)
Then I noticed
the fellow showing some of the books to his superior, pointing to
something on the covers. As usual, they had opened the package in
front of me, but out of my reach, so I didn't have a clear view
. . . but I knew enough of books to guess that he was pointing at
price stickers my friend must have forgotten to peel off.
muttered something I did not catch and the man shuffled away to
punch some numbers into a computer.
A few seconds
later, I was presented with a bill.
I nearly had
a heart attack when I saw how much they were charging me. It was
thirty times the usual Customs Examination Fee and I was
an explanation and was quickly presented with a well-worn document
that they clearly kept handy for such moments.
the fine print, I am to be charged for the value of the contents
of the package plus the original cost of shipping them to me. So
that was why the price stickers were so important. My friend
had declared each book's value as one dollar, but the original retail
price told a different story. The post office didn't want to let
me get away with anything it could conceivably tax out of me. You
see, whatever the sender already paid for the books and for the
postal service, I would be paying again – as if I were buying
my gift from her, which is absurd.
No, make that:
as if I were buying my gift from the Philippine government,
for which there are no words.
If my friend
lived next door to me and literally handed me a dozen old books,
"smuggling" them into my house, it wouldn't be anyone's business
but ours. Some loser with no life might say it was not really
fair trade because I paid nothing for the books – and apparently,
the Philippine post office is run by such losers with no lives (and
even less logic), because they couldn't hustle fast enough to make
the exchange as "fair" as possible. Yet you won't see them sending
my friend a cut of what they've stolen – yes, stolen – from
were done computing my taxes, the bill was so high that I didn't
have enough cash with me to pay it; and since it was nearly closing
time, I knew I'd have to go back today. The only reason I'll do
that at all is the thought of how my friend will feel if the books
get shipped back to her. I don't throw gifts back in people's faces,
so I'll be damned if I let the Philippine government do that and
claim it's on my behalf.
taped the box up again, I asked for the letter I knew my friend
would have included with the books. The man who did the inspection
was about to pass it over, when the woman at the front desk suddenly
snatched it out of his hand so she could read it first. Apparently,
not even personal correspondence is private any longer.
Now, can anyone
please tell me where I can sign up for lifetime membership in the
International Smugglers Association? I'm sure they send everything
by private courier.
C. Espina [send her
mail] is a teacher and freelance writer. Visit
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