We caught the flight from NY to Santiago via Atlanta and reached Santiago on time at 715am. Immigration was a breeze and while i was waiting for the baggage to arrive, Pooja went to the arrival hall to check on the prices available for the ride into town from the various taxi services. She came back and reported that before we could move out to the arrival hall there was the customs check happening where the entire baggage of passengers was being x-rayed. There were specific boards put up before entry into the customs area about not carrying fruits, plant or animal products into the country.
We had a couple of bananas that we had picked up on the flight for hunger pangs later in the day. We decided to wisely eat the bananas before approaching the customs counter. As our baggage passed through the X-Ray machine it was flagged by the customs official for a detailed check. During the detailed search by another customs officer, an apple that we had bought in NY [damn the hunger pangs] and had forgotten about, was found. We graciously told the officers to throw it in the dustbin as we could buy another apple from the Santiago market if they so desired. We obviously did not get a chance to say that as we were shown to a separate area where others with banned items [stuff like fruits, almonds, packed basil, oregano bottles, other spices etc] were also present.
The thing is that the apple had been found in Pooja's bag and she had volunteered her passport during the initial check so i was playing the role of a glorified extra as the officals were not even looking at me. Needless to say i found this pretty funny so i continued playing the joker with silly wisecracks. The gravity of the situation had not really hit us then as we continued to joke about whether we would be put in jail with the official while she filled out a challan like sheet called the certificado de denuncia or some such in spanish. The official very sweetly replied 'no not as all' which put us further at ease as Pooja and I continued to joke about how she would be made to stand in the corner with others and asked to put on dunce [certificadi de denuncia??] caps while we threw apples, almond and other stuff that had been found at them.
After filling out the form we were asked to wait outside a room by the side and told that we would be called. Outside the room while talking to others we came to know that we would be fined $210 for each item that we had not declared. The joke the entire while had been on us.
Anyway having to shell out $210 for a single apple wasnt something we were prepared to do so we devised the errrr 'impressive' strategy of acting as poor Indians who would have to sleep in the park if they made us pay the $210. By then Pooja was completely in the mood about not paying on principle and was prepared to cry and beg to ensure we did not pay [she had realised that she packed the apple and she wasnt going to hear the end of this from me for a few years if we had to pay up :)]
While we waited outside we made friends with this lady from Atlanta who had been caught for carring almonds and a pack of some spices. She went in before us and had been a part of our strategy discussion about showing a complete lack of funds. After about 10 min of going in she was accompanied by one of the officals to an ATM in the vicinity as she withdrew the 220,000 Chilean Pesos [$420]. I wasnt allowed to go in with Pooja when it was our chance and for 20 min was witness to the most virtuoso performance of a lady in distress [remember IIMActs anyone??] as she shed helpless tears and cajoled the officer about our inability to pay the fine.
As she came out maintaining the dead pan sad expression she told me that she had maintained that it was a mistake while they kept showing her the signed declaration that we had filled along with the fine print that we could be fined if found with any such products. Anyway to cut a long story short the officer had asked her to wait outside while he consulted with other senior officials and we were let go after having to wait there for another hour or so, without having to pay a fine.
All said and done while we got away, there was a german couple and an American girl who paid $210 for carrying a single apple like us. There were at least 10 people per flight who were caught for carrying such harmless stuff that you would not think twice about carrying into another country. I mean if Chile were to become popular with Gujju tourists they would just double their GDP from the amount that they would collect in food related fine. The whole thing smelled of a money making mechanism for everyone concerned [except the caught tourists]. There was an American couple who paid a bribe of $250 to an official to reduce their fine from in excess of $4000 to $500 for carrying spices that she planned to cook for her family whom they were visiting in Santiago.
Anyway the excitement of the entry aside, it has been raining in Santiago since morning and is yet to stop. We had just about enough time to go to the Bolivian Embassy in the rain and are now in possession of our Bolivian visa. Yippppeeeee. The entire process was extremely painless and we got done in less than 15 min as our passport was stamped on the spot.
I think we also recouped our investment in Spanish classes within 4 hours of landing in Santiago. The entire conversations that Pooja had with the customs officials was in spanish as were the conversations with the taxi drivers and the Bolivian Embassy officials. The pleasure that these people showed while conversing with a gringo [spanish slang for foreigner, similar to firangs in hindi] trying to talk to them with broken Spanish in their own tongue had to be seen. The Embassy official was impressed enough to enquire from Pooja about how long she had been learning spanish and from whom. While it would be simplistic to assume that we got away from the customs officials without paying a fine, got a fair deal from the taxi drivers who did not try and rip us off, or got our visa instantaneously at the embassy simply because Pooja could converse with them in their language, i think in some measure it did contribute to things working out.