DEAR TSA: This Is Why We Lie To You

This doesn’t only apply to just the TSA but also the various immigration agencies around the world. Most people want to avoid problems.  The general populace wants to be honest with the government especially since now even citizens of the United States can be detained.

Detained without question indefinitely without trial.

As I continue to travel around the world I have found that an unusual situation normally means a bad situation.  There have been many funny circumstances and also annoying ones when the truth has been told.

I certainly didn’t appreciate being detained at 11:45 at night when I first arrived in London just a few months ago.

It’s hard nowadays because the general public want to be honest to make sure there are no problems. At the same time the TSA doesn’t take kindly to unusual situations.

One such a situation of a young man living overseas for the majority of the year certainly doesn’t arouse any suspicions.  Every time my passport is handed to a customs official it is  always inspected because of how big it is.

It normally starts with a simple question, “So you travel a lot huh?”.

The Drugged Pink Onyx Elephant

The case of the drugged pink Onyx elephant is actually my own fault.  The normal procedure is to fill out customs forms before a snooze on a comfortable economy seat is attempted. What can be called sleep anyway.

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Salar De Uyuni in Bolivia

The event all started with a tour leading to the amazing salt flats at the Atacama Desert.  The official name in Spanish is Salar De Uyuni, the salt flats at the city of Uyuni, Bolivia.

During the rainy season there is a mesmerizing whiteout effect that occurs at the salt flat. The rain creates a small film of water just above the salt which creates a mirror effect.  With the cloudy skies above being reflected on the shallow pool of water it seems as if walking on water is actually possible.

There are a variety of precious stones and other metals that can be found in Bolivia at very reasonable prices. Thanks to the dire economy in the country many deals can be found very easily.

A massive pink Onyx elephant was purchased that must have weighed roughly 20 pounds. To put this into perspective it was roughly the size of a bowling ball.

The challenge is always carrying the newfound items wherever I am traveling.

While I made some changes to traveling last year I typically travel with a backpack and one checked piece of luggage. The checked piece of luggage is a large Nike duffel bag.

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At the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia

I decided to travel with less luggage when my luggage exploded on a trip to Iceland. Everyone at the luggage carousel saw even my underwear.

New items that are purchased around the world usually play musical chairs inside of my luggage. New items are constantly rearranged as there is less and less space left for tourist “artifacts”.  There lied the problem with the customs form.

Instead of writing tourist souvenir, trinket, or thing, I wrote tourist artifact on the customs form.

BIG mistake.  Artifact implies a historical object that may or may not have a relatively high value.  Upon the last check with the TSA I was asked to step aside so my luggage could be reviewed. The gentleman asked for my passport and began to pass the elephant through the x-ray machine over, and over, and over again.

The first question he asked after confiscating my passport was if I knew the definition of artifact.  Playing it cool I replied with banter and said yes I know what it means.

He continued to berate me until I snapped.

I promptly stated since he was smart enough to not graduate college and work at an airport he should be educated enough to advise me what artifact meant.

There was a pause, a very long pause, and he returned the elephant and my passport and I was on my way.  This probably could have ended up very differently but it’s not necessary to berate someone just because a TSA agent feels like it.

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Lemaire Channel in Antarctica

Antarctica Is A Country

One of my busiest travel itineraries was when I was living in Chile.   From spending Christmas in Antarctica to experiencing Carnival in Brazil, I must have visited at least five or six countries before returning to the United States.

There wasn’t enough room on the customs form to write all the countries that were visited.

Since Antarctica technically is in a country I didn’t write it on the customs form.  The TSA officer asked me why it wasn’t written and I promptly replied that Antarctica isn’t a country.

There was again a pause, a very long pause, and she seemed very confused.

She reiterated that I should have placed Antarctica on the customs form because it is indeed a country. I promptly replied that Antarctica is not owned by anyone and is not a country.

This chitchat ensued for roughly 20 or 30 minutes before she decided it wasn’t that important.

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The Tower Bridge in London

Getting Detained In London

Getting detained in London was when I actually tried to tell the truth to a customs agent.  I arrived in London after living in Brazil for six months and was planning on staying in the city for two months.

When the customs agent asked me where I lived I decided to be honest.  I stated that since I travel for a living I do not stay in a fixed location, I live wherever I am currently traveling to.  After several follow up questions it was clear they wanted a name of a city or country.

It was made clear I was a citizen of the United States but was living in Brazil for six months. I only planned on being in London for two months before starting a new life in India.

A supervisor came over and asked where I was actually living.

I told him since I travel for a living I technically was living in London for two months and then move to India.

This is when the agents went fanatical.

They asked what I did for a living and I repeated for the fourth time that I was a travel writer. Then they asked how I could afford to travel so much and I told them that I was a day trader.

I was attending a travel conference called the world travel market and hosting a day trading seminar for students that take my day trading course.


The room we rented for our seminar in London

They asked how much money I currently possess in cash and I told them a few hundred dollars. The supervisor at the customs office asked how I was planning to live in London with just a few hundred dollars.

I let him know that there was a new invention called an ATM machine where money can be withdrawn from anywhere around the world.   I made it clear it was quite a cool little invention.  Quite a cool little invention were the exact words used.

They didn’t appreciate that they had me sit down and verified my travel blog, my day trading course, the world travel market conference, and any other parts of my story that may have been a lie.

The easiest thing would have been to tell them that I live in the United States, I reside in the United States, United States, United States, United States.

Most times when I travel to foreign countries and it is asked what I am doing the response is simply tourism.

Being in a country for any other reason than tourism raises a red flag unless proper documents are presented.

My last entry into the United States was extremely complicated as I was carrying around two massive pieces of work I purchased in India.  There were two busts I purchased that filled an entire carryon bag.  This is one of the below, I call her Nefertiti.

Indian craftsmanship

Incredible Indian craftsmanship.

I not only would have to go through United States customs but also Indian customs, Finish customs, and customs in Britain. Surprisingly I didn’t have any problems.

It isn’t recommend that any traveler does not lie to the TSA or any other customs organization.  When one is speaking to customs agents ensure that you have the story is straight.

In principle, telling half of the truth is not lying.

I’ve found that when someone tries to tell the truth a can of worms is opened which is very hard to close again.  I’ve had other run-ins with customs officials in Ethiopia, Rwanda, and even Colombia, for trying just being honest.

It would be interesting to hear what others think about this….


  1. Couldn’t agree more… had something similar happen with UKBA leaving Paris. I didn’t have my UK work Visa in my new passport because I had lost it and gotten a new passport at the US Embassy in London. I was honest about that… and even though they have my work visa on file (and I couldn’t get an appt to get a new Visa stamped in my passport for months) they put a huge W warning in my passport so I wouldn’t be able to get back in again. Had to bail on two scheduled trips to Croatia and Amsterdam as not to get deported… should have just said I was a tourist and it would have been fine! UGH! The price of honesty!

  2. First off, those are the best Salar De Uyuni pics ever! I’ve never seen pics from when it was wet!

    Second, I can’t believe how uneducated some of the TSA people are. They don’t make any sense. They stole my makeup out of my bag, ALL of it, including brushes. They said it was contraband and basically called me a drug smuggler… I brought the makeup TO Latin America from the U.S and crossed several South American borders. No one thought my makeup was drugs until some jerk decided they wanted free makeup in Texas. grrr. Next time I carried it with me and no one said anything. Stupid. They’re stupid!

    Also, I found myself embarrassed on more than one occasion by the way the US TSA treated Canadians and other travelers. There is just no defense. They are more dangerous because while they are hassling people about stupid things, they are wasting time they could be spending investigating real threats.

      1. I am so happy with this blog and you Marcello. However, lying by omission is to many still lying.
        I had passport seizure in Hong Kong and had to go to court for what they thought was weed (famous horse manure) . Ended up dating Prosecuting Attorney.
        Morocco, being a single woman alone all my belongings torn apart and my wood carvings confiscated. Seven men surrounding me…no way to even bribe my way out. They have a lot of power.

  3. Thanx for what you do! You have found a way to step off this tread mill we call America.. Sounds like you stepped off with a sure foot… You are a hero to us all..

  4. I can understand where you’re coming from, and it’s definitely frustrating. Customs security make you feel like a criminal for absolutely nothing. I don’t think it was very nice to make fun of the agent’s education level, though.

  5. Marcello,
    I totally hear you…I used to travel a LOT for work, including a 2 year stint in Switzerland. It has gotten to the point where I would rather drive 30 hours than deal with TSA, airports, tiny seats, baggies with liquid, taking shoes off, only one bag to bring with me, and worst of all, those DNA-damaging scanners that make you look naked.
    That being said, I love your lifestyle!

  6. Frustrated to hear that the agencies working with and around ‘travel’ the most, are those who seem to be the most narrowminded about it

  7. I think you sound like you’re arrogant and exactly why the rest of us have to put up with the TSA. You, being a travel blogger should KNOW and PRACTICE what the fastest way is to get through the TSA and not try “work arounds” imo. If you’ve travelled as much as you claim you are then you know that trying to do something outside the normal expectations is going to delay you in a way. Unfortunately, the TSA is what it is at the current time. Not sure why you trying to get around the requirements makes you anything special. I hope that when you are in other countries and are acting as a US citizen you follow their customs/rules so that you’re not reinforcing the “ugly American” thought that so many people have about us. (And FYI – I have been and travelled/lived on 6 continents thus far so I’m not writing from a couch that has never been left before).

    1. I dont think you read the article properly.. I tried to follow the rules and I had problems. Read the article again I don’t think you understood it properly.

  8. Great post and I hear you about what happens when you tell the truth. I had a hard time at the Tel Aviv airport several years ago. I was asked what I’d been doing in Jordan. I could have said, “Tourism.” I said I’d been staying with a family there. They didn’t care for that. “What kind of family? Why? Etc.” It led to more questions. And when I said I’d been studying Arabic in Syria, that led to more questions and cost me even more time. I was rated a high risk (I think because I was a female traveling solo). I wonder if it is better to ‘white lie’ in some of these situations.

    “A new invention called an ATM machine where money can be withdrawn from anywhere around the world’? Ha ha. Love that.

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