A couple of days ago...
Another interesting experience at the Customs Office in Dammam. Not nearly as horrific as it could have been, thanks to Mr. F! What a cluster-f^ck of paper pushers, though... Job security for many men who do nothing but create AND maintain continuous mashed pulp havoc.
It is an interesting place, the Customs clearing area. A humongous warehouse with rows and rows of boxes and shipping containers stacked to the ceiling on what looks like scaffolding - or maybe the kind of shelves that Home Depot uses. I had the opportunity to observe the inner workings of this warehouse for about an hour - just watching what was going on around me and it was mesmerizing in a very odd, strange way. [Like an accident that you have to look at?]
DH couldn't go with me to clear our shipment at Customs because he had to work. I didn't want to have to wait until Wednesday - his day off - when our "stuff" was soooo close - yet sooo far away. If women could drive, here, it wouldn't have been a problem. But noooo. [It is my opinon that they will never drive in the Sandbox!] A good friend of DH's said he would take me. Ahh. Thank you! So, at 8:30 Monday morning he came to our house to drive our truck so that I could go and be there for the ceremonial opening of the boxes by an "official" Customs man. Mr. F., who works there and facilitates the process for those of us who want to do our own "clearance," set a meeting time for 9:30. The man is a Saint. Truly. The rigamarole that he is forced to have to comply with day in and day out would give any other person ulcers - to say the least. [The rules and regulations at the Customs Office are pretty much designed to be at the whim of whoever you need to deal with and are subject to change - every other minute.]
It isn't enough that we had to go downtown to a separate office to pay in cash for our shipment - and take special papers which had been authorized by personnel of DH's company - to prove that we are who we say we are [copies of DH's passport, his company I.D., and a copy of his Iqama - working permit - are required as proof], that we live where we say we do, that DH is an employee of the company he says he is an employee of, and that we are using all the "stuff" in the 24 boxes for our own personal consumption and that the goods are not going to be sold to a third party, that the goods were not manufactured in countries that Saudi Arabia does not have trade agreements with [I guess, so - who knows? the statement says that the goods were manufactured and produced in the U.S.A. - but come on, now, what is actually manufactured or produced there any more?], and that the goods contained in the boxes were only lawful and allowable items [i.e., no booze, no ammunition, no p0rn0graffy, etc.].
From that office the documents are couriered to the Customs Office at the airport where they are put into some kind of system that would be almost impossible for me to adequately describe and do justice... Truly it has to be seen to be believed. My inventory [I have to document every single item that is placed in the boxes - include the price I paid for whatever it was that I packed - then measure and weigh each individual box - it is a pain in the butt is what it is] for our "stuff" consisted of eight pages. The shipping documents from DHL consisted of about four pages. The authorized paperwork consisted of a few more pages. But the file that Mr. F. had in his hand when we met him yesterday morning was at least an inch thick. Good grief. The trees! And what happens to all of that paperwork after the shipment is cleared and we drive off with it? You might think that it would get filed somewhere - and perhaps it does, but from what I could see in various offices, paperwork is just randomly stacked anywhere. You need a document from Customs that is two years old? Yeah. Good luck with that.
I called Mr. F's cell phone as soon as we got to the Customs office and Mr. F. said he would come find me. Not hard. The ONLY woman in the entire facility. The ONLY one. With uncovered long blonde hair, no less, and a bit of ankle showing where my stupid black bag is opened at the bottom [the snaps don't go ALL the way down]. Mr. F. walked DH's friend and me to an office where there are bank-teller like windows and a bunch of men behind glass doing a little bit of absolutely nothing that I could see. We were told to take a seat. Mr. F. was walking the papers back to arrange to have an official come and do our inspection. However, somehow this requires even more paperwork to be generated and several trips back and forth between various offices and teller windows. DH's friend and I sat in this particular area of the Customs facility for about fifteen or twenty minutes. No biggie.
It certainly was interesting to just sit and people watch. Men with their thobes and ghutras strutting about - one man played with his ghutra no less than a half dozen times - pulling it down, then flipping the triangular sections back up over the top of his head, one at a time. I so wanted to tell him that he still didn't have it right - there was a fold in the fabric that just refused to lay down properly. I was amused. Imported men in various uniforms, scurrying back and forth with reams of paper and folders, all vying for the necessary approvals and authorizations from various officials. One of these imported workers came through holding a box that had a "disco light," in it. I kid you not. And he was holding it up in both arms as though it was something highly dangerous - like he was carrying liquid nitrogen, or something. I mention it because for the entire time that I was there, this poor worker was going back and forth between various offices and the warehouse carrying this light. He is probably still doing so...
We finally got all the necessary documentation and authorizations and went to the warehouse. We were led to the pallet, all shrink-wrapped, with my boxes, where we stood and waited. And stood and waited. Mr. F. wandered off to find the official that was supposed to be doing our inspection. There were two imported men with us, both in blue cover-alls, ready and waiting with their box-cutter-openers. After some fifteen minutes of waiting, Mr. F. came back with the "official." The official muttered something to one of the men in blue, an "okay" of some sort, for the shrink-wrapping to be sliced open, and then pointed to two boxes. Each worker grabbed a box and sliced the tape open. The Customs "official" lifed up a set of sheets that was in one box, and opened a shoe-box and nodded his head. Then he went to the second box, where he didn't even pulling anything out, he just rummaged through it, and again, nodded his head. That's it. That is all he had opened and that is all he inspected. He signed off on some document and gave it to Mr. F.
At that point, Mr. F. said, "We will go get the vehicle pass." So, friend walked off with Mr. F. to go and get the pass that allows us to bring our vehicle to the warehouse so that we can load our stuff into the truck. I stayed with our pallet in the warehouse. One of the men in the blue cover-alls came over with a chair for me. How sweet. Told him thank you, I was all set. Who knows where the chair came from - it seemingly appeared from out of nowhere.
These men - several dozen of them - in the blue cover-alls spend their entire day opening boxes. That is all they do. Slice open boxes and pull the contents out while an official hoovers over them, watching, just waiting for there to be some kind of contraband in a container or a box. A team of four "blue" men spent the entire time I was in the warehouse opening boxes from a pallet that had little boxes inside of them. Little boxes about the size - say, 2" X 6 or 8" - that had some sort of electrical type apparatus in them - I could see the gray metal, and I could see wires hanging out. In the time I was watching, they had to have opened several hundred of them - the little boxes - from each of the big boxes - and pulled out each piece - individually - while a Customs "official" stood by with his clip-board, nodding. My gosh. Imagine a job that entailed opening small boxes for eight or ten hours every day!
Another group of box-openers was obviously inspecting a personal shipment of someone who chose not to be present for the clearance process. Each item was removed from a pallet of boxes and inspected. A stack of school books was set aside. One of the books said "MATH" in big letters on the cover - an elementary school book, judging by the pictures - but a Customs official looked at every single page in the book. He was still leafing through the stack of books when we finally left, so I have no idea if the books were put back in their respective boxes. What was he hoping to find in the "MATH" book? Did he really think someone would go to the trouble of putting pages that contained something other than elementary school math between the covers of that book? Probably. Apparently every man in this country thinks that all we want to do is corrupt this society by bringing "bad" things in. I digress...
As I stood waiting for Mr. F. and DH's friend to return so that we could load our truck, and watched the workers in cover-alls work, and the Custom's men all hoovering over the workers, another Custom's official approached me and asked me if I had the approval. Yes. Thank you. He went to sit down in the chair I had been offered previously and pulled out his mid-morning snack, along with two cans of Pepsi and a lime soda - Miranda, maybe? A minute later he came up to me from behind and said, "Excuse me," and I turned around - he was offering me one of his soda's. I accepted the lime soda. It would have been rude not to. I thought it was very generous of him and thanked him. And, I very much appreciate that he was willing to sign the papers for our shipment, or do the inspection, without having to be cajoled to do so by Mr. F. How much palm greasing takes place in this facility, I wonder?
Finally Mr. F. and DH's friend came back - DH's friend said that getting the vehicle pass was just another hassle - one man said they needed X-document, another said they didn't - it was a half hour of back and forth to various offices and officials. DH's friend pulled the truck around and Mr. F. found us a fork-lift driver [there were a half dozen of them moments prior, but when we needed one? nowhere to be seen], who delivered our pallet to the back of our truck - and the two "blue" men who had earlier each opened a box of our shipment were right there to load the boxes into the truck for us. I was prepared this year with tip money. [Last year, I wasn't - I handed the fork-lift guy 50 riyals anticipating that he owuld share it with the guys who did the physical moving of the boxes and he didn't he drove off with the 50 riyals and the other workers told me that he works for a different company. The companies do not share tip money. Good to know.] Everyone involved got their money, DH's friend and I got in the truck and we drove off.
Approaching our house, DH's friend said, "How are you going to get this stuff out of the truck?" He couldn't do it - he has a bad back. No problem. I am simply going to find a couple of gardeners or street cleaners to help me. And I did. Three of them. Had the truck unloaded to the patio, right in front of the sliding doors in a matter of minutes. Thanked the three men who helped us - with cash - and that was that.
Most of our stuff is unpacked and put away, but I do have I have a few more boxes to take care of. First I need to clean out a couple of closets. Some purging is going to be required to make room...
See last year's "Field trip to Customs" for some pictures of the front of the warehouse, here.