Resupply Through The Brazilian Jungle of Red Tape
Planning an extensive trip to gather material
for a photo essay in Brazil and other South American countries, I devoted
some serious thought to the logistics. The first month would be spent traveling
about the south of the country, and then up to Recife in the Northeast,
before dropping into Salvador for an extended stay through Carnaval. Here I
would be able to stay with a couple that were old friends of my parents from
when we lived in Rio de Janeiro 25 years earlier. Since I could stay as long
as I might need, and would have access to a computer and the Internet,
Salvador would be ideal (once Carnaval was over) to spend some time and get
some writing done before heading towards the jungle.
Having recently hiked a healthy section of the
Appalacian Trail with 2 thru-hiking friends, I knew the value of a well
planned re-supply. Wanting to keep payload to a minimum, I devised to
send a package to myself in Salvador, addressed to my father's friend Joćo
to help ensure its safe arrival. The contents of this package were as
20 rolls of 120 format black & white
20 rolls of 35 mm color film
A spare Holga camera
Software and cables to transfer digital
photos to a computer
A 2 month supply of Malarone, the latest
A vial with Biaxin (a potent all-purpose
anti-biotic), and Lomotil (anti-diarrheal)
A cannister of various vitamins, echinacea,
Three pairs of contact lenses
4 small bottles of bug repellent
A mosquito head net
3 books and a refill of business cards
I was actually quite impressed with myself, as
I would not need to carry around all this stuff the first month, which I
would not need until Salvador or afterwards. I would also mitigate the
risks of not having many essential items for the remainder of my project if
some of my belongings were stolen that first month. My main concern was that
the package not be x-rayed and thus damage all the expensive film I had in
there, to which I devoted significant attention and research. One of
the reasons for sending the film were the tightening security practices at
the airports, and little clear information about what the new rules actually
were. I did not feel 100% confident I could get my film through without
being x- rayed, and didn't want all my eggs in one basket. The risk of the
package never arriving was something I was willing to take on.
Arriving in Salvador a week before Carnaval, I
was relieved to see an ‘Aviso de Chegada’ from the post office,
indicating my package had arrived. A box was checked, after which big
hand written block letters noted ‘Impostd Sobre Importacao’, which I
felt meant that a tax of some sort had to be paid. ‘No problem’,
as they like to say here in Brazil. I'm not sure I even noticed the other
box that was checked, stating ‘Solicitar liberaēćo do Ministerio da
Well, when Joćo returned after a weekend at
the beach the next Monday, we went off together to the Salvador headquarters
of the ‘Officina de Correios’. When we arrived at the
International Affairs gated window, I learned a number of things, in the
My package was sitting on a shelf, with its Campmor.com
sealing tape looking a bit ruffled.
The package had been opened and sifted through
An import tax of 60% of the value of new goods
would need to be paid
The value of the new goods in the package was
estimated at $150
The Ministry of Health had impounded the
package due to the various pills within
I had been terribly naive to think that
getting all this stuff in the country would be ‘no problem’.
Thus began the saga of ‘Gregorio“s pacote’.
The frown on Joćo“s face as we drove back home belied the fact that this
might not be too easy to resolve. He probably was not very pleased
that this was his problem too, as his name was on the package. As I
was a bit unsure exactly what drugs were in the package, Joćo convinced me
to make a frantic trip back to the post office by myself to try to make an
accurate listing of the goodies. I was ultimately successful (when in a
tight spot, the prodigal use of ‘amigo’, ‘por favor’ and the thumbs
up sign may well save you in this country), but found that the melange
health supplements, and the fact that the Biaxin and Lomodil were in a vial
with ‘Cipro’ hand written on it, would probably not be so easy to
explain. At a dinner that evening with Joćo“s family, they told the
horror story an international package that had taken 6 months to wrest from
the post office. Taking this all into account, and seeking a swift
solution, we derived our first strategy: Barring an unexpected easy
exit, we would sacrifice the drugs to get the essential film and digital
equipment, hoping the contact lenses would go unnoticed.
Downtown at the Health Ministry Tuesday
afternoon, we were told that without a doctors written prescription in hand
that day for all the items in question, the package would not be liberated.
Asking if we could have just the Malarone, which was in two vials with my
name printed on it (indicating a valid prescription, you would think), the
health officials only shook their heads. They were a bit more
cooperative filling out the paperwork giving them permission to seize and
destroy all the ‘medicines’. We were told someone would go the
following day to the post office to take out the offensive items.
Calling the International affairs office the
next day, we learned there had been an emergency meeting while the health official
was at the post office, and that he did not have time to get to my package.
Thursday was the first night of Carnaval, but supposedly some people still
worked on Friday. We were assured he would go back the next day to take care
of my package. I now knew better that to put much hope into that one.
So Carnaval came and went, and while the city
bounced, caroused, and convulsed for nearly a week, my film cooked away in
what was probably quite a hot room. The Wednesday after the finale of the
celebration I decided to leave town, figuring not much progress would be
made immediately. Upon my return the following Monday, I was told that
someone finally went down to the post office on Friday, and that we were to
go there to pick it up. So down we went, with over $100 dollars in
Brazilian cash with the expectation of paying heavily for the liberation of
my package. Instead we were handed a green and a white piece of paper, but
the package was not going anywhere.
The white one was a ‘Termo de Visita’ which indicated the package had
insect repellent, and that we would need a prescription for the contacts,
the Cipro, and the Malarone. The other various pills were termed ‘Inutilizadas’,
whose seizure and destruction were documented, stamped, and approved on the
green piece of paper. So much for the divide and conquer strategy.
Despite signing away our rights to the
medication, I seemed that scripts would be needed for any progress to be
made. So while I tried to figure out who to contact at home to get the
appropriate documents faxed down here, Joćo consulted his rolodex. I
had a momentary fit of frustration when I learned the doctor who had
prescribed my malaria medication would be out until the following Monday,
and that his office was closed and that time (and for how long?). Joćo
returned with the phone number of a friend of his who was a doctor at a
hospital in town. “Why don't you give him a call and perhaps he can
help out”. Given that Joćo“s schedule was starting to get rather
crammed, leaving a smaller window to get this all resolved, I figured it was
worth a shot. I called the doctor, who agreed to meet with me at the
hospital the next day.
So, Tuesday afternoon I meet him in the
Emergency Room of the hospital, and I show him the white paper naming the
items needing authorization, and a document detailing the Malarone
medication. I tell him where I will be traveling later, and he agrees
to write a script for the Malarone. “What about the other things?”
he then asks. “Well, if you like, you can write me something for them”.
So he proceeds to write me scripts for the Cipro and my contact lenses on
hospital stationary, which I happy accepted, but did not feel particularly
Later that afternoon, I was left to my own
devices to deliver the 3 scripts downtown to the Ministry of Health.
Arriving shortly before the office was to close, the security men at the
desk downstairs would not let me pass. I couldn't understand why, and was
freaking out inside, but calmly asked them to repeat and repeat what they
were saying until I figured out what was wrong. I wasn't allowed in with
shorts (“bermudas”) on. I almost threw a fit, then realized I was
wearing my convertible travel pants, and had the bottoms in my bag. A
frantic minute of zipping and hopping on one foot resulted in 3 very amused
guards and the freedom to enter.
On the elevator ride up I could only think
about the prospect of them seeing the script for the contacts on hospital
stationary from the same doctor being deemed illegal and throwing the whole
situation into some sort of violation proceeding. Walking in to the
office, I told myself to smile, remember to close the door to conserve their
air conditioning, and look like everything I was doing was completely legit.
The inspector who was dealing with my case came out, and seemed perfectly
happy that he now had three official slips of paper to go with the three
outstanding items on my “termo de visita”. I was told that he would fax
over a release authorization the next day to the post office.
So, judgment day, do I really get to take my
package home or not? We call in the morning, but the fax hasn’t arrived
yet. By the afternoon it had come in, but the paperwork had been sent to
another office to calculate the import tax. Hmmm, was hoping they
would forget about that. Going by their estimate, this could run close to
100 dollars. At least we got the name and phone number of Pedro, the
guy assigned to this part of the process.
Rather than calling the guy myself the next
day to check to see if everything was ready (what would you do with a gringo
tugging at you while compiling a bill?), I asked Joćo if he would call the
guy. This is where he really earned his stripes. After 10 minutes of
convivial conversation in Portuguese, we were on our way to the post office.
For someone who was almost out of an annoying
predicament, Joćo did not look his normal jolly self during the ride. This
time, while signing in for the usual 3rd floor, we rode to a different floor
the meet the tax man. Joćo seemed nervous as I handed him some cash after
checking the other passengers. When we found Pedro, the two acted like
old friends, and after Joćo signed a paper that had no numbers written on
it, gave us a copy, and a quick exchange of cash, we were back on the
elevator down to where my package was being held hostage. This turned
out to be the magic slip of paper I had been seeking for the last three
weeks, and ‘shazaam!’, the package was pushed through the gate and into
my arms. Without giving them time to think twice, we were out of the
building. I felt like the guy who finally escapes the Turkish prison in the
movie “Midnight Express”. The resulting ‘tax’ turned out to be less
than half of what I had feared, and all of the contents were inside, except
for my vitamins. Hahleluya!
That night I treated Joćo and his wife to a
well earned sushi dinner. Some lessons to be learned when dealing with
the bureaucracy here:
Don’t send pills in a package across
borders, no matter how large your name is printed on the bottle. You might
wake up a sleeping dog.
Once stuck, smile and persevere, and make sure
you have a good ministry uniform.
Let everyone do their job, but always keep
your eye out for a convenient “jeito” (way out). Sooner or later
one will pop up, and you better not miss it.
# # #
Altman is not in New York or Eastern Long Island, you’ll likely find
him roaming any corner of the world. A self proclaimed Jack-of-all-trades on
the cusp of thirtydom, his experience runs from writing to consulting,
photography, tortilla manufacturing, and organic farming. Currently on
assignment in Brazil, he has been soaking in the sights, sounds, and smells
of Bahia. The quest to
experience and capture magic through the ear or camera lens will continue to
inspire his feet and pen as long as world cultures remain alive.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org (Greg Altman)