Guest spot: the $1,100 salad

One year ago, I joined my sister in Australia for a vacation. After 13 hours of flying, I was so exhilarated to be back on terra firma that I could have kissed the none-too-sanitary carpet in the arrivals area, and it’s too bad I didn’t. 

I might have spotted the sealed jar in my canvas tote bag that still contained a wilted salad purchased at Los Angeles International Airport from a vending machine during a tight connection. 

It would have saved me $1,100.

The tote was on my shoulder, as I grasped phone, landing card, passport and boarding pass in one hand and suitcase in the other. I rolled at top speed through Passport Control and into Customs, first in line for the agricultural inspection. Soon a very polite agent asked me if I was comfortable being inspected by a dog, and I said I’d love it.

I may have dozed, standing up (I had not experienced REM sleep in almost 34 hours) while I waited. My eyes opened when a frisky yellow Labrador retriever trotted up. She was young and very merry. She checked everyone in line, starting with me, sniffing and wagging, down one side and up the other until she returned to me, sniffed my tote and sat.

Delighted to attract the attention of such a sweet dog, I leaned over to pet her, stopping when I remembered the sign saying not to touch the canine agents. A uniformed agent (human) waved me over to a bench. She looked pretty grim, and it began to dawn on me that I was not being directed toward ground transportation.

She asked to look in my bags. I said of course. 

From my backpack she pulled a half-inch long twig stuck in the seam and asked, “Could this be a grapevine?”

I peered at the tiny brown stick. “It could be. I ate some grapes on the way to JFK.”

“What’s this?” said the agriculture agent, holding up the jar of lettuce, corn and chickpeas that I bought from at LAX before boarding the flight to Brisbane. 

“A salad. It’s a 13-hour flight and I wasn’t sure there would be good food.” 

“Why didn’t you declare it?”

“I forgot about it.”

She pointed to a cherry tomato nestled amongst the wilted greens.

“What this?” she said.

“A tomato?”

“It’s a whole fruit. And you did not declare it.”

I got the sense that a whole fruit was a problem. 

She put the salad back in my tote, handed it to another agent, and I watched as the yellow dog went up and down the line of incoming passengers once more. She stopped short in front of my bag, sat, and was given a treat for her work, having proven that her sense of smell was a heck of a lot better than mine.

While the agent disappeared in the back for a few minutes to consult with her supervisor, I carefully re-read the landing card that I had filled out and signed during the flight. I learned that not only was it forbidden to bring a whole fruit into this country, dirty boots could also get you in trouble, and that the trouble that I was in included the possibility of deportation.

The agricultural agent returned looking even grimmer. “My supervisor says I have to write you up for bringing agricultural products into the country and not declaring them on your incoming passenger card.”

I felt like crying. “Are you going to deport me?”

“No, but there will be a fine.”

How much?

The answer, about $1,100, caused my mouth to drop open like a feeding whale.

“You had a whole fruit,” she explained, helpfully pointing out the phone number and email address for appeals.

I arrived back in the U.S. with the threat of a large fine hanging over me, and a case of COVID-19. For the next nine months, I languished in the bureaucratic hell of the Infringement Unit of the Australian Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. I appealed, my case was considered, and, in the end, the fine was not waived or reduced. 

I guess I deserved the fine. But maybe not so much, and I could have done without the case of COVID-19. 

This year, I went to Portugal with my sister, and before I left, my husband inquired about the presence of vegetable matter in my tote bag. But I’m a better person now! I know from sad experience that if I travel to places that take invasive pests and plant disease seriously, I must purge my belongings of shells, feathers and dirty shoes. 

And if I buy a salad before boarding my flight, I won’t forget to eat it.

Charity Robey is a longtime contributor and guest columnist for the Times Review Media Group.

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