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Papers Please

Just say the words, “clearing in” or “clearing out” around any Caribbean sailor and you’re sure to get a reaction. You might hear a long-winded rant, a blow by blow of too-much-information, or an entertaining, unbelievable tale. Everyone has a story he or she just has to tell.

No doubt about it, bureaucratic hoop jumping has issues that often involve some combination of tricky questions, deeply-layered forms or rules that just changed…yesterday. But some countries understand the importance of a first impression and they greet their sailing tourists with friendliness and courtesy.

From my experience, no one does it better than the officials on the island of Anguilla. All visiting yachts begin and end the process at the port of Sandy Ground in Road Bay in the two story block building, well marked and painted bright blue.  The customs and immigrations officers sit in the same office downstairs, just one desk apart. The place is clean and quiet with helpful visitor information on the walls, giving those in line something to read.

The immigration official, usually a woman, asks for passports and last clearance papers before handing what possibly might be the Caribbean’s shortest form. When done she always asks, “Have you been here before?”  An answer of no will earn, “Welcome to Anguilla,” and yes will get you, “Welcome back.”  On their island, everyone‘s a winner.

Customs, just as friendly and efficient, finished the formalities so quickly on my first visit that I had to ask, “That’s it?  We’re done?”

“Yes mam. That’s all. Enjoy your stay.”

I thought it couldn’t get much better until I went into that office one morning last spring to get a clearance.  Arriving just as the doors opened I took my place in line behind five noisy Americans, each of them holding a tower of passports.  They were part of a group of over 100 from a Manhattan sailing club having way too much fun on twelve charter boats. They were the talk of the town, the love of every bar on the beach.

Like a teacher’s pet in school, I stood quietly behind them, tying to ignore their raucous behavior, fearful I’d be blamed. Unlike me they’d entered with sandy, un-shoed feet and clothing that didn’t meet in the middle despite proper dress directions posted on the door. The guy in front of me turned and asked in a loud voice, “How long you think this’ll take, five minutes?”

I shrugged and gave him an I-don’t-have-a-clue look, but thought to myself, “in your dreams.”  I figured an hour at least. The immigration officer was busy stamping papers but customs had yet to show up. Outside the office the other ninety-five plus New Yorkers were loudly gathering for a group photo. The five waiting impatiently inside paced, anxious to join the fun.

At 9:20 the immigration officer flew through the door, jumped in her chair and got right to work. Papers and stamps were jumping from the desk. She cut through their clearance forms and mine in a record-breaking five minutes and shot back out the door. I’d never seen anything like it!

By the time I put my paperwork away and stepped onto the beach she was poised in front of the scantily-dressed crowd, a camera in hand, taking seriously the job they’d given her as official photographer. She snapped picture after picture as a string of cameras passed through her hands. Suddenly the crowd began to chant her name, “ANITA, ANITA, ANITA!”  Someone shouted, “Come on, get in the picture with us!  Please!”

Smiling, she shook her head but despite her polite protests and the fact that she was held in place by a male co-worker, several men ran forward, scooped her up, skirt and all, and carried her toward the posed crowd. They placed her in the middle on someone’s bent knee for the final shot. That last CLICK was followed by hoots, hugs and high fives.

I stood watching from the side, shaking my head in disbelief. Somehow they had shanghaied the customs officer and she was still smiling.

A few weeks later when we returned to Anguilla, I explained to Anita that I‘d taken photos and a video of the NY event on the beach.

“I would like to see that,” she said, so I returned the next day with the evidence on a disc.

Some time later I visited the office to clear out, met, as always, by her smiling face. We chatted about the island, finished the formalities and she handed me my paperwork.  Folded into it was a petit-point bookmark she had made just for me. On a background of tiny beige stitches, red thread spelled out my name, Anguilla stitched on the other side. How long it had taken her to make, I cannot imagine. I only know that it was an act of friendship and the happiest story of clearing in-clearing out you will ever hear.

Jan Hein divides her time between Washington State and a small wooden boat in the Caribbean. 

Enjoy Anguilla’s exceptional hospitality during next month’s Anguilla Regatta presented by the Anguilla Sailing Association May 8, 9, and 10.

Visit www.anguillaregatta.com or email regatta@sailanguilla.com for details.

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