Island Customs

While the cultures of the various islands we visit are diverse, what  seems consistent throughout the Caribbean are their customs. I am not referring to cultural traditions. I am talking about the administrative  process of ingress or egress from these nations. You think of the customs process as waiting in line and approaching an officer in a booth to hand him your passport and to tell him the purpose of your visit. The process of clearing customs when you are sailing the Caribbean is a vastly different, and  remarkably patience-testing experience. 

When you arrive in a Caribbean country by boat,  you have to go to customs to check in. Let me offer you some  flavor for the process  as it exists universally throughout these islands. First, as you drop anchor, you must raise a yellow flag on your yardarm. This signifies that your boat is under quarantine:  no member of your crew may leave the boat except the captain. The captain must take the dinghy to shore and find the customs office. If the captain is lucky, the office is open. If the captain is luckier still, the customs officer speaks English. Without exception, however, this officer is cantankerous. He is  annoyed that you deign to enter his  country, and is  quick to inform you that the  paperwork evidencing your departure from the previous country (a country a  few miles away across the sea, but which might as well be on the opposite side of the planet) is defective.

 Eventually, he ushers you away  from the counter instructing you to fill out forms or to complete them  on  non-user friendly software glowing from a computer that went out of vogue in the late 1980’s. In Antigua, the customs officer walks around with a two foot long bamboo stick and if you are not moving through the application quickly enough for his tastes, he taps your screen with this stick and admonishes you how to answer the questions.   Assuming his printer works and he can slowly dot matrix his approval form, he  stamps the form with annoyed fanfare and directs  you to Immigration.
Custom, Immigration and Port Authority are all located in the same little building in Jolly Harbour, Antigua...a rarity in the Caribbean

If you are lucky, Immigration is somewhere in the geographic vicinity of  Customs. This is rare. For example, in Union Island in the Grenadines, it is a mile away down   a rugged road. At Immigration, they look at your passport  and  interview you about your crew and the contents of your boat. They also check your indentity against their database; a database  on a computer that makes the customs computer look like HAL 9000.  Assuming you are not on their list of offenders (anyone you might have pissed off on your last visit is probably related to the immigration agent ), you are given clearance…to go to the Port Authority. Again, an office that may or not be within shouting distance, and may or may not be open. Here is where you pay for a permit to anchor in their fair waters and tread upon their sacred ground. Only with this permit  in hand may you return to the customs office, where Mr. Bamboo Stick will now give you and your crew an entrance visa. For an additional fee of course.

All the while, your crew remains imprisoned on the boat wondering if and when they will ever see their captain, or touch dirt,  again. The customs process ends with the mandatory raising of the flag of the host island on your mainstay, signifying that from wherever you have come, you are now a conquest of this beautiful  island off your bow.
You are in fact so much a part of this island, you may not  now leave the island until you check out,  a process no less entertaining than the arrival routine. In between, you get to play in paradise, so when it comes to customs, you simply learn to stay island calm.