Let me first start out by saying that this story happened 25+ years ago, so it may be that my recollection of how this actually played out is perhaps not completely accurate. Coupled by the fact that I was only 19 and this was the first time in my adult life that I was going through immigration and customs, it’s possible that my memory is not grounded in reality. So if you feel like this is a clickbait story / title, then I apologize :-). In any case, I’ll lay out the story as I remember it, and then you can be the judge if I actually broke into a country.
Heading to the Dominican Republic
When I was 19, I decided to serve a 2-year mission for my church. I was assigned to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Before I went to the Dominican Republic, I spent 2 months out in Utah at the church’s Missionary Training Center. I spent 2 months there, learning things about being a missionary as well as getting intensive Spanish-language training. I had had 5 years of Spanish in middle and high school, so after the 2 months there, I was feeling pretty good about my ability to communicate in Spanish.
After the 2 months, 6 of us flew from Utah out to Santo Domingo.
Flying From Miami to Santo Domingo
We flew on Delta and connected in Atlanta to Miami. We had a bit of a layover in the Miami airport (MIA) before connecting on to Santo Domingo (SDQ). It was there at the Miami airport that I realized how much trouble I was in. If you’ve ever been to the Miami airport, you know that they repeat all of the airport announcements in English as well as Spanish. This is common in airports in the US where there is a high concentration of Spanish speakers, but nothing that I had ever encountered in Ohio. As they repeated the airport announcements in Spanish, I realized “I am so…. screwed.” I could barely understand anything that they were saying. I thought to myself — this does not bode well!
It was late at night after our short hop from Miami to Santo Domingo. The 6 of us moved toward immigration into the Dominican Republic. None of us spoke much Spanish (despite the 2 months of training), and one of the other missionaries had been assigned as the “leader.” I’m sure the other 4 felt the same as me in being glad we weren’t in charge! We made our way to immigration in a group. The first missionary started talking with the immigration officer, and it became apparent that there was a bit of a language barrier. The other 5 of us were just nervously waiting our turn. After the first guy went through, the rest of us went up in turn. The officer just waved us all through without talking to us. You could almost hear him thinking “just get out of here.”
In the Airport
After we cleared through immigration, we went to baggage claim to pick up our bags. We had instructions to wait for our mission president at the baggage claim area. After a short wait, he arrived with a few of the missionaries who were already there. The mission president was a large Mexican-American guy who was bilingual and had an amazingly imposing presence. He gave us very strict and specific instructions:
- Keep our hands on our bags at all time
- Don’t let anybody else touch your bags
- Walk in a straight line
- Do exactly what the person in front of you does
When we were all ready, he led us in a line towards the exit of the airport. We were approaching another inspection station, which I think maybe was the customs area? I remember thinking that we were about to stop to have our bags inspected, but he just led us around all the inspectors and right out the airport exit doors. A big white van pulled up, we loaded our luggage and sped out of the airport.
Is This What Really Happened?
At the time, I remember thinking “What … just happened here?!?” It truly felt like we had completely bypassed all sort of border controls and gone on an “end run” around customs. With a bit of hindsight, an adult perspective and also the perspective of someone who has traveled quite a bit more, I know that in many cases you don’t have your bags searched at customs. I know many times when I’ve arrived in different countries, I’ve just gone through the “Nothing to declare” line and walked out of the airport. So maybe that’s what happened here as well.
This was a time in my life when I kept a daily journal, so I recently went downstairs and looked at my journal for that day. It said that when we got to customs, someone was arguing in the customs line and we were told to just go around her and out the door. I also noted that the mission president was possibly not supposed to be back where he met us. This seems to jive even with my adult brain, since normally on an international flight, I think that the waiting area is AFTER both immigration and customs. Now this was pre 9/11, so perhaps the airport security was a bit more lax than it is currently. Still, even to this day, I look back with a bit of incredulity on what happened that night in the Santo Domingo airport.
What’s your best airport story? Leave it in the comments.
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