Although we were having all kinds of fun with family reunions, seeing our friends, eating stuff, and drinking alcoholic beverages, it had come down to game time. We were home for a reason, and we couldn’t avoid it any longer. We needed to pick up a transmission, put it in a suitcase, check it onto a plane, and somehow get it through Customs in Colombia without being caught. Since being home, we had also managed to acquire an eighth grade girl’s weight in other car parts, fishing equipment, clothing, and more car parts. We knew it would require a great deal of savvy and luck to pull it off, so we trained for it in the only way we knew how; we played horseshoes to hone our precision, and we rode our bikes to build our endurance. We saw a sign that told us that guns were the source of freedom, which we were going to need, so we got some guns and shot some little clay disks. We were willing to try anything.
Next, we had to pack it up. We needed to make it as small as possible so as to fly under the radar of the Colombian Customs agents, and we needed it to be light. The maximum weight allowed for a checked bag, regardless of how many crisp Benjamins you flash in front of the ticket agent’s face, is 100 pounds. I decided to remove the bell housing to make it sleek like supermodel, and then build a slim wooden box in its place to protect the input shaft. With any luck the box would survive a fall from the airplane’s cargo door. Just to be sure, I wrapped the thing in a whole bunch of bubble wrap. We didn’t want to sneak through Customs only to discover that we had a trashed transmission again, so we used wood and plastic. Nature and science.
My original idea had been to try and carry the transmission in my carry-on bag. Everyone said I was crazy, but it made good sense to me. First of all, it would save us $350 in overweight baggage fees. I mean seriously, who has ever had to weigh their carry-on? All I would have to do is put the transmission in a backpack, and then pretend that the backpack weighed less than 20 pounds so that no official types would think anything was fishy. Then, I would have to ensure that I could lift the transmission over my head and place it in the overhead compartment, while not leading on that it weighed more than 20 pounds. And lastly, I would have to hope that the overhead compartment didn’t come crashing down, killing someone’s child. That would make all of my sneaky heavy lifting effort null and void. In the end I decided against it, but only for the children.
Finally the day had come. Sheena went on her merry way to United Airlines carrying two checked bags. In those bags were many illicit objects, including a transmission bell housing, a new starter, some new LED interior puck lights, new spark plug wires, a clutch master and slave cylinder, a new flyfishing rod, a spare alternator regulator, some new brake lines, and a few other odds and ends. Her bags were, in short, Customs lightning rods.
In my bags, things were looking no better. I went off to the Aeromexico counter carrying a transmission, two salvaged rear hub housings made of rusty cast iron, a slightly modified and very rusty catalytic converter, two stub axles, a fancy air filter, a timing light that looked just like a gun, and some corrosive/explosive fluids. All very used, and all very illegal. Well, the fluids weren’t used, but they were surely illegal. My bag containing the transmission ended up weighing 94.5 pounds. Just under the legal limit. When the nice Aeromexico ticket agent weighed my bag, she looked rather shocked. She told me, pity in her eyes, that I owed her $350. I nicely asked her in her native tongue if she would give me another 20 pounds for free, and she instantly obliged, knocking $100 off of my fee. Things were going great so far! Good thing we shot those guns!
The trip to Colombia went off uneventfully. My stopover in Hermosillo was too short to dart out to the taco stand like last time, but I did manage to gorge myself on tacos on my second stopover in Mexico City. Poor Sheena ate at an American chain restaurant in Houston, and nothing more.
When I stepped off the plane in Bogota, Sheena was waiting for me at baggage claim. She already had her bags full of illegal contraband, and waited patiently while I recovered mine. I found a note on my bag saying that US Customs had seized something from my bag. I unzipped it in a panic, and quickly found that they had only stolen my brake fluid and the cleaning agent for my new washable K&N air filter. I zipped it back up, swallowed hard, and Sheena and I coolly walked toward the exit.
“Don’t worry, Sheena,” I said, “I shot a gun before we left. We will have freedom.”
Everything was going great and soon enough we could see the exit doors; the rays of light streamed through the plate glass like bullets from a freedom gun. As we approached the Customs agents, a mere 50 feet from the exit doors, I whispered for Sheena to look straight ahead and be cool. I casually checked my watch, sighed, and pretended to see someone I knew outside. This gave me a reason not to make eye contact with the agents. And then, all at once, we were accosted. An agent stepped in front of us and pointed to the x-ray machine. His gaze said it all; “I know you’re smugglers, you sons of bitches!”
We pretended it was no big deal, and walked to the x-ray machine with our 244.5 pounds of illegal imports. Sheena put her bags on the conveyor first, and I helped her stand them on their sides in just such a way, so that the bell housing would be less obvious, and the starter would look less like a bomb. I hefted my transmission onto the belt next, followed by my hubs, axles, catalytic converter, and gun-like timing light. I stared at the agent behind the computer, trying to avert her gaze from the screen using extra sensory perception.
Look away … look away … look away … look-
“We have something here! We have something here!” She looked around, hand in the air, calling for backup. Sheena and I looked at each other; we had seen Broke Down Castle, and knew that these situations usually ended up with the smugglers spending the rest of their lives in an all-women’s Thai jail. The agent spun the screen around so I could see it. Sheena’s bags were still in view, but she was pointing at mine.
“What is this!?” She seemed angry, pointing directly at the transmission. I tried to think of something quickly that would make her believe that indeed this was not a car part. Anything but a car part. If she knew it was a car part, it would be all over. Our illusion of freedom would disintegrate like the crumbling walls of an all-women’s Thai jail.
“Uh…it’s a car part.” Doh! “It’s … um … it’s a transmission for a car.” Doh! Doh!
She moved the conveyor, burping Sheena’s illegal contraband out the end. “These are car parts TOO!”, she said, pointing at my next bag containing a whole gaggle of car parts. As the woman continued to call for backup, I gave Sheena the nod. She quickly snatched her bags and speed walked out the door and into the street. It had only been a few seconds, but I could no longer remember what freedom tasted like. Whoever made that gun sign was a liar and a moron.
A woman named Alicia, someone I would come to know all too well over the course of my Customs incarceration, led me across the linoleum floor to the DIAN office. “Everyone fears the DIAN,” Constanza would later tell us. “They are the IRS of Colombia. Everybody must pay the DIAN.”
I sat in an uncomfortable chair against the wall while I watched a young man being humiliated by a DIAN agent as he pulled illegal electric motors from his suitcase. “They are for my father’s business,” he said. “Your father can’t save you! You’re in DIAN now, son!” They didn’t say that, but we all knew it was true. I waited my turn, what seemed like hours. I would have to get used to waiting, as I was now a common criminal in the Colombian DIAN justice system. Just another scumbag smuggler, trying to outsmart The Man.
“Car part smuggler? DIAN will deal with you now.”