I landed in Sao Paulo around 5.30pm, 20 minutes behind schedule. Charlys, one of our Brazilian collaborators had kindly offered to pick me up and I was worried that he would be already waiting.
That would soon be the least of my problems.
I passed immigration telling them I was visiting the University of Sao Paulo for a week but not to study, reclaimed my baggage which I was relieved to see had not been lost although it was upside-down on the carousel. On leaving I was ushered into a customs area to them to scan my bags. This was not particularly bad luck it seemed like a lot of people were getting the same treatment, unlike Birmingham International where I don’t think I’ve ever seen a customs officer even on duty. They X-rayed the bags and said they needed to search it. They carried the bag over to a stainless bench and started unpacking the bag.
Out come 25 racks of tips, Eppendorfs, PCR tubes, a magnetic rack, and my lab notebook.
The customs officer decides this is out of his jurisdiction so phones someone from ANVISA - which he describes as being like the Brazilian FDA - who arrives shortly after. They were very friendly but I could tell this wasn’t going to be a quick in and out. She started by asking me if I had invoices for any of this stuff, most of it was sealed packets of consumables and there was even a new boxed Qubit. I said that this was for my personal use and I wasn’t importing it to sell in Brazil. She then asked if I had a letter of invitation from the University of Sao Paulo that she could see. I showed her some emails to that effect.
Next she asked if I could show here any previous examples of my research, presumably to corroberate my story that I was here to sequence Zika. Well I’m very glad you asked I think as I produce our recent Nature paper from my bag. She seemed convinced that I telling the truth but she had a kind of ‘it’s too late now anyway’ look on her face.
It’s at this point I realise I need top cover so I turn on data roaming for a few costly seconds to send an email to Charlys, and I see that he has already sent me a message telling me he is waiting and his phone number. I give the phone number to the ANSIVA lady and she calls him. The fact that I had a Portuguese speaker on my team did seem to temporarily grease the wheels but after speaking to him she tells me that I can’t bring cold-chain items into Brazil without paper work from the receiving institution and it was too late now to let me off because she had already told her boss. They start enquiring about the storage temperature of the items in the polystyrene box because they will need to stay at the airport until the necessary approvals are in place.
Soon, Charlys appears in the customs area after finding his way back from arrivals area. Lengthly conversations in Portuguese ensue with many officials getting involved. Lots of people come over and want to chat to me about who I am and what is my interest in Zika. I’m starting to feel tired and am feeling very frustrated that even though they are keeping the boxes I don’t seem to be able to leave myself. Then a breakthrough - they have decided that we should hold on to the reagents but not use them until the approvals come through - whatever you say I think, lets get out of here. We just have to give her the details to complete the paperwork. There are two long report templates each painstaking filled out on a computer then printed and signed and there are multiple interruptions while she takes phone calls.
It passes the 3 hour mark and I am losing the will to live, it has gone dark outside. Finally we are free to go, just one last thing - she wants to take a picture of the MinION on her iPhone - I’m not sure if this is even for inclusion in the report or just that Charyls has just done a really good job at selling it to her and she wants to show her friends.