I’ve now traveled to El Salvador and back again 3 times. Each trip I have played the role of cheese smuggler. When news spreads that you’re traveling to the US you start to hear things like, “vas muy encargada?” or “do you have a little space in your suitcase that I could send something small to my family?” I literally told ONE person in the US that I MIGHT be coming home for a short visit and people in El Salvador the next day would say, “I’ve heard you’re going to Estados Unidos…” How in the world…I haven’t even DECIDED yet! Anyway, it is hard to say no. These are family members or family members of people who live with your family members. All year long they receive their remesas and they really want to send something in return. It is ALWAYS CHEESE. I get it, there’s nearly nothing they can send from El Salvador that one can’t buy in the US. I would even say that, one can buy Salvadoran cheese in the US. It doesn’t taste EXACTLY the same, but neither does the cheddar I bought from Super Selectos, so we’re even.
So they show up, the day before you’re scheduled to leave with a small package, wrapped in foil and black plastic bags and masking tape all around declaring PARA LUIS or quien sea. It is 5 lbs of cheese. Plus a few marquesotes and quesadillas (another 5 lbs) and after 5 people do this, you have eaten up your entire 50 lb baggage allowance on cheese. You also must thoroughly interrogate them on what’s in the bags because they will not tell you unless you ask and they will slip other things in. This is important because a) if it’s a liquid it can’t go in carry-on luggage, b) you can face penalties and fines for not declaring stuff at customs, and c) some things are not allowed in.
For example, someone wanted to send eye drops to their loved one in the US. Regardless of the fact that we have eye drops in the US, these weren’t some special eye drops, literally just visine, they need to go in checked luggage. Someone else wanted to send some dried fish. You know those small tilapias they farm everywhere in El Salvador…dried was the only way to describe them. Now, I don’t know if this fish is allowed in or not but it’s going to get questioned. Last time I brought a bunch of little bags of pepitas (roasted pumpkin seeds). In general seeds are not allowed and specifically pumpkin seeds because of some beetle. Customs has all kinds of reasons why you’re not allowed to bring stuff in. You aren’t allowed to bring ANY citrus in because of possible citrus diseases. You actually are allowed to bring cheese in, the drier the better. If it’s runny though, it’s probably a no go. So I know I’m allowed to bring in the cheese. I’m not exactly smuggling it. The problem is, if you declare it, they WILL search you. If you say you have cheese, well they need to SEE the cheese and make sure it’s not the kind that’s prohibited. That takes TIME that you might not have when you’re running to make a too tight connection and don’t want to get stuck in Miami, Houston, or Dallas. So, I’ve heard, many many people take their chances and don’t declare their food items. Either one, because they know they’re not supposed to bring them in or two, because they don’t want the hassle and are trying to make a connecting flight.
The other thing is the weight. Cheese is heavy. I thought I had found a great deal on a flight from San Salvador to DC on Spirit Airlines, $65 plus taxes, so $165. I was only going for a short trip so I just brought a few t-shirts and one pair of jeans. I could’ve packed it all in a tote bag as a “personal item” which is the only free bag Spirit allows. Instead I ended up paying $38 to check a suitcase that was literally filled with 70lbs of cheese, marquesotes & quesadillas (dense sweet breads), and tamales de elote (again HEAVY). Since it was over 40lbs I also got hit with an overweight charge of $50 which brings my ticket price closer to $250. Which is not really a deal. The only deal part of it is that it’s a one way ticket and I didn’t know exactly when I was going to return so I wanted a one way.
SO knowing all that, my American friends inevitably ask, why don’t I charge them a fee? I knew the Spirit fees upfront and I thought, well I’m bringing some clothes anyway and a carry-on bag costs nearly the same as a much bigger checked bag so it’s no big deal. The big deal is when they bring 20 lbs vs. 5 and move me into the overweight category. At Spirit it may be $50 but American charges $100 for each overweight bag. Also, I did sorta suggest it once and the look I got was incredulous. It said you are a greedy heartless woman to charge someone for such a *small* package.
All this ranting to say, yes I’ll still smuggle your cheese for you. But I’m going to bitch about it on the internets every step of the way.