Monday, September 29, 2008

Field Trip to Customs

I had an incredibly interesting morning yesterday. And what I had to do both shocked and amazed me with the degree of difficulty supposedly involved - but was instead almost the complete opposite and was a most satisfyingly and not at all unpleasant experience.

Before we left the States I did our yea
rly packing of a shipment - that we send here - for items that either cannot be found in this part of the world, or just "stuff" I want... This year's shipment was smaller than those in the past and contained only 24 boxes. The shipment included various items - forty cartons of Kool Super Long cigarettes [can't get them, here], 160 pounds of dog food from The Honest Kitchen, four 2.65 gallon containers of Tide liquid detergent, new towels, shower curtains and bath mats, several pairs of new shoes, sewing supplies, books, golf "stuff" and "stuff" for DH's new golf cart [wheel covers, seat covers...], a case of canned potatoes and two cases of canned crab meat, shampoo and conditioner, a new crock pot, a new electric skillet, some specific cleaning supplies I use in the kitchen, toys for the Kids - lots of toys for the Kids! - and various other items. Our shipment weighed 526 pounds, total.

We have been quite lucky in the past in that all of the items we ship over in the big shipment have made it through Customs with virtually no damage - and no theft - only a pack or two of cigarettes have gone missing - but considering I ship over so many cartons, that someone has decided they needed to try a pack of my cigarettes is fine by me. Doing a big shipment is much less risky than just having a box of shoes sent over. The guys who do the mail customs inspection seem to have the mindset that it is okay for them to remove items that they either want or think that they need more than we need - and they have little regard, if any, to whether or not they are damaging items they inspect - and this irks me to no end. The guys that do the big shipments for customs inspection seem to be more concerned with just getting the job done - and not of the mindset that they want or need MY stuff.

Out shipment leaves the States via DHL and gets put on space available air freight. It only takes a few weeks for it to get here. Once it arrives, Namma Cargo contacts us to make arrangements for the shipment to be cleared through Customs and for payment. This year, the man that contacted me from Namma Cargo asked me if I wanted to be present for the Customs inspection. Huh? I didn't know I was allowed to be present. Heck, yah, I want to be there! I was afraid of what "they" were going to do to the food from The Honest Kitchen [it really does look like some illicit substance that one might smoke - or something - I don't really know...]. There is quite a bit of paperwork associated with the shipment on both ends - beginning in the States - and then, here. Paperwork that has to have certain "stamps" and "approvals." One of the documents we have to sign is a declaration that the goods being shipped are "for my own and family use and not for resale and that the goods do not include any items banned by Saudi Arabian law." I am blonde, but I am not stupid. I know what the penalties and punishments are for bringing in banned goods and I am NOT about to even try it!

It is Ramadan. Work hours are shorte
ned for many - and with Ramadan coming to an end, immediately followed by Eid, a lot of people are not working at all - but are on "holiday." The man at Namma Cargo was quite concerned that he would not be able to get the completed paperwork to Customs in a way that he could coordinate my being present for our shipment's inspection. Whoa, whoa, whoa! You asked me last week if I wanted to be present - and I told you that I most certainly did want to be there - and now you are trying to tell me that you can't get it worked out. Not acceptable. You WILL make it happen. And, after several fairly "heated" conversations, he made it happen. So, DH and I headed to the airport to go for the customs inspection. I had my cell phone and the cell phone number of the man we were to contact once we arrived.

As soon as we got to the airport cargo/customs area I called Mr. F. and asked him where we needed to go. Mr. F. gave me directions and told me he would meet us out front. As we approached the massive warehouse there were a lot of men - a lot of men - milling about and as I had no idea what Mr. F. looked like I dialed his cell number to say that we were there - he happened to be outside and as he was talking to me on the phone he said, "I see you" and he held up his hand - we were pretty much right in front of him - and as I was the ONLY female anywhere within ten kilometers of the place it was not difficult for him to figure out it was us approaching him.

Mr. F. then proceeded to take us to the variou
s windows [picture bank teller windows] to get the various signatures required for the shipment to be released to us [after the requisite inspection] and then took us into the warehouse - directly to where our pallet was in the midst of this massive hangar-converted-storage facility. There were a hundred men moving boxes and a couple very, very borderline dangerous fork-lift drivers who came way too close to the workers and to us - at breakneck speeds - just a bit discomforting! The two guys driving the fork-lifts drove them like they were race cars. I guess when you have a certain amount of freight that has to be moved from one area to the next then "safe" driving - or even "cautious" driving - is out. [I wonder how many feet these two drivers have run over in the past...] Mr. F. said that the Inspector was on his way. Hovering over our shrink-wrapped box laden pallet were two little "imported" workers with razor-cutter-openers. No one was allowed to touch ANYTHING until the Inspector was present. I asked if I could take a picture. OH NO, MADAM! MUST WAIT! Okay. Fine. I'll wait. So when the official Inspector finally came over I asked him if I could take a picture. He looked at me suspiciously and I explained that I would not take a picture of anything but our pallet and that I would not get anyone in the picture. He reluctantly allowed me to take a picture - and after I took the first one, he said, "You not want charge?" What? "No charge?" DH explained to me that he was asking me if I needed the flash for the picture - so I turned the flash on and took another picture.

[That is Mr. F. is in the photo, above. His left elbow and forearm...]

That done, the Inspector stood right next to the shipment and pointed to a couple of random boxes, which the two "imported" workers immediately sliced and opened so that Mr. Inspector could see the contents of the boxes. Of course one of the boxes - chosen randomly - was the dog food that I was so concerned about. Mr. Inspector didn't even ask to have it removed from the box - just casually glanced at it, glanced into the box that was opened containing clothing, and one box that was opened that contained cigarettes and various other innocuous items. That was it. Simple as that! Amazing. Mr. Inspector signed off on the paperwork that Mr. F. was holding and I thought, okay, now we just load this into our truck and off we go. Wrong. Even though Mr. Inspector had approved the shipment for release and "inspected" it, we needed to wait for Mr. Saudi Official to sign off on Mr. Inspector's signature. There are more signatures on the paperwork that is associated with out shipment than you can even possibly imagine. I have NO idea why so many are required or necessary, but obviously, like any government agency, much of it is just bureaucratic bullshit, no doubt, which does nothing but serves as a justifiable excuse to keep a lot of men employed in high-level desk jobs whose functions are questionably unnecessary. But, hey, what do I know about the Customs industry...

After standing and waiting for several minutes - it probably seemed like it was taking longer than it actually did - Mr. Saudi Official finally sauntered over - dressed in a thobe and gutra - and signed the paperwork Mr. Inspector was holding. And then Mr. F. said that we needed to get the gate pass so that we could drive away with our belongings. Back to the inside offices to another couple of windows for several more various signatures and a document written completely in Arabic which DH was required to sign. Neither of us have any clue what it said, but Mr. F. told DH to sign and showed him where - and then Mr. F. said that DH could go get our truck and that he would go and get the invoice for payment. Fine. I stood outside - in front of the warehouse - waiting for DH to get the truck and for Mr. F. to get the invoice. DH drove the truck to the designated "bay," and we waited for Mr. F. who was still in the maze of offices and "windows" getting our invoice.

Finally, Mr. F. reappeared and said, "You owe 6631." What? I don't think so. I have my copy of the invoice that Namma Cargo provided - and you are right - it does say 6631, but that also includes 543 of insurance from the "airport to our house," and a 290 delivery fee. Well, we don't need the 543 of insurance - we taking the shipment ourselves - and I am not paying the 290 delivery fee since we're not having Namma deliver it. "Oh, no, Madam. You owe 6631." "No. I do not." So, poor Mr. F. ended up in the middle of Namma Cargo's representative and me - going back and forth on our cell phones - for a good fifteen or twenty minutes. The man at Namma Cargo was not all to happy about us taking some of the money off the invoice - but there was no way I was going to pay for services that I, obviously, was not needing or requiring. It was an interesting exchange - between the three of us - and I was still trying to maintain being "sweeter than punch" for the benefit of Mr. F. because we will need his services for our next shipment - and there is NO WAY I could possibly ever figure out the bureaucratic red tape of "required signatures" but I was getting increasingly frustrated with Mr. Namma Cargo representative and was not being "sweet as punch" at all. We did finally get everything sorted out - and I suspect Mr. F. will not forget me. Neither will Mr. Namma Cargo Representative.

One of dangerous fork-lift drivers "raced" our pallet out to our truck and three other "imported" workers set to freeing the boxes from the shrink-wrap and quickly unloading everything into the back of our Tahoe [yes, I refer to it as a truck, even though it is not really a truck]. I grabbed a bunch of 10 Riyal bills out of my wallet and tipped the guys that were unloading the boxes. As I was standing there, the fork-lift driver got off his "race car" and came over to me and put his hand out and said, "different company." Huh? You mean that wad of bills I just gave to the unloaders is not going to be shared with you? Apparently not. So, I opened my wallet and grabbed some more money and tipped Speed Racer, too. And, of course, Mr. F. got tipped handsomely for getting us through the entire process. Start to finish: 50 minutes! Amazingly and incredibly easy!!! Yes. There were a gazillion signatures and stamps needed - but the whole process was so much simpler than I ever anticipated - and the inspection went so smooth I couldn't possibly imagine that I had such doubts about what I was sure was going to be a living nightmare.

I'm pretty sure that by our attending the actual inspection - even though Mr. Saudi Official was not all to pleased with "my" presence [the look on his face said it all!] - Mr. Inspector must have accurately presumed that whatever the contents of our shipment contained that there was no "contraband" or items that are not allowed, because after all, why would we place ourselves in the position of being immediately hauled off to jail somewhere by knowingly sending something into this country that is not allowed? Exactly. And, by our being there, the inspection was much more "gentle" in that the box of clothing did not get emptied on the floor and the razor knife did not slash open the box of dog food. I wish I knew all the ins and outs of the procedures for obtaining the necessary signatures and stamps, daunting as it may be, so that I could just handle everything. No matter. I've got Mr. F.'s mobile number now, and I can contact him directly to take care of our shipment next year!


  1. I couldn't wait to read this - the build up was awesome! Here's to good food for the kids, smoking your own brand, and nice laundry detergent! You'll enjoy it so much more since you didn't have to fight for it!

  2. Aw, thanks, Laura! You are most kind. I don't know about the build up being awesome, but thank you just the same. And, yes, the Kids will eat well for six month, I will be happy with my Kool's and not have to resort to Hope's or Benson Hedges, and I've been doing laundry for two solid days now - I have my Tide AND bleach. Life is good.

  3. Had to look up "Eid", but i recognize The Honest Kitchen from Rachael of Texas. This aversion to photography, is it a religious or a security matter?

  4. great story....and it was great to talk to you as well,


  5. That's how I found The Honest Kitchen, Vermindust, through the multi-talented, charming and lovely Rachel Lucas!

    The photography issue is some of both - mostly religious insofar as photographing people, and although you are "allowed" to photograph things here, now [you weren't allowed up until a couple years ago] there are certain things that are off-limits - no photos allowed - due to security issues.

  6. Thanks, Gill. It was great chatting with you, as well. And thanks again, so much, for the lettuce seeds!


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