This is the time of year when many expats from Bermuda travel abroad to see their families and then return with thousands of visitors eager to see the place we now call home.
My first glimpse of Bermuda from the air is always an alluring one. Blue skies and turquoise seas paint the picture of a welcoming land. And I like disembarking directly onto the tarmac instead of onto a jetway, because you can only do that in places that promise sunshine. As I open the terminal door, I am greeted, unexpectedly and delightfully, by live music. And these guys are good. But before the true gifts of the island finally unfold, complete with pink sand, warm breezes and stunning blue water, I’ve got to pass through customs and immigration.
There is no time that I pass through this governmental processing zone without feeling I am perceived as a potential criminal. It’s not their fault. It’s my Catholic upbringing. We feel guilty just to stay in practice. That said, I always have this Midnight Express premonition that the officers will inexplicably uncover 17 brand-new yet undeclared computers in my parcels and lock me away forever. It’s much like the apprehension I feel whenever I see a police officer driving behind me. Even when I’m adhering to the speed limit, there’s a worry that my blinker is broken, my license has expired, or worse, that I am about to be mistaken for someone on a wanted poster. Again, it must be the Catholic guilt, which is, clearly, ever present.
Whenever I fill out the customs form, I swear on my stepsons’ lives that this is a full and complete accounting of all my off-island purchases. My sales slips are at the ready and my signature is legible, which is a feat in itself. But as I hand over the document in question, I am still asked by the customs officer if I’m sure this is everything I have to declare. “Yes,” I say, simply and politely. But the silence that follows as the officer considers my response is nerve-wracking. My mind always goes into overdrive, and I’m on the verge of blurting out, “Yes, yes, yes ! Of course it’s everything I have bought overseas ! I swear. Search me if you don’t believe me. Go ahead!”
They never have, but I happen to know that they could, because I have read the regulation. “H. M. Customs has a duty to protect Bermuda from drugs, firearms and other harmful goods, and to stop smugglers evading taxes that fund vital public services. To do this Customs carries out searches of some passengers.”
My internal dramas with immigration predate my arrival in Bermuda. I remember when I was dating my husband and flying from the U.S. to London with great regularity. At some point, an immigration officer questioned the frequency of my U.K. visits. I explained that I was dating an Englishman. “Are you getting married?” he demanded. “Well, no,” I stammered. Then in a whisper, I added, “We have just been dating for a few months.”
I kept my voice low, as there were hundreds of people behind me. I was convinced they were all wondering just what kind of risk I was posing to the United Kingdom that would justify this very public one-hour interrogation. I had done nothing wrong but was so jet-lagged and unsettled over the whole experience that I actually started to cry. But then I pulled myself together and actually chastised the officer for embarrassing me in front of a sea of onlookers. I don’t know what got into me, but he finally signed my travel documents and let me through but not before he warned that I’d better get a visa of some sort as soon as possible. “What kind?” I asked eagerly. “A fiancé visa,” he answered. Though I appreciated his romantic assumption, I was not yet engaged, so I asked, “Well, do they have girlfriend visas?” For the record, they do not. I did subsequently get a fiancé visa and then a spousal visa and finally a resident’s visa.
Unlike my experience in England, I have never had a Bermuda customs or immigration officer make me cry. In fact, they have all been very professional and pleasant. But their job is to be suspicious and make sure everybody is adhering to the rules. I know someone who did not and was promptly paid a visit by a customs officer early one Sunday morning and is now many thousands of dollars worse off in fines. The lesson here: Don’t fool with them. They pay attention.
A Bermudian friend of mine has an admirable view of the customs policy here. She travels out of the country every month, and she always brings back interesting things for herself, her husband or her house. And she declares it all. “Listen, I earn tax free here,” she says. “If the payback for a tax-free life is that I have to pay duty on new things, so be it. I don’t mind,” she says.
I don’t either! But still, the nicest thing about customs is finally clearing it and hearing these two, sweet words: “Welcome back!”