We’ve been lost without our Spot Messenger. It’s become a ritual for us whenever we move to a new place to hit the button and update our location on the blog or especially to track our progress on passages. So when ours died without warning a few weeks ago we were pretty happy that the company said they would replace it for a nominal fee even though we were out of warranty. We were advised to have packages sent via the Post Office and we’d have an easier time getting them through customs right there. Unfortunately the Spot people sent our replacement unit through UPS which went to the airport. Big difference. They also declared a customs value of the cost of a new unit instead of what we actually paid for the replacement. This matters, too.
We planned an early start to the day knowing it could take a couple of hours to navigate the bureaucracy and collect the package. We were on the bus out of Woburn Bay before 9 am, changed buses in the lagoon in St. George’s and arrived at the airport about 9:45. We asked at the information desk where we should go and the lady looked at our papers and pointed to the Liat Airlines check-in counter.
We showed our papers at the counter and waited while the clerk fetched a supervisor who looked at our papers and said, “Why did they send you here? You need to go to customs.” And he pointed toward the other end of the building.
By the way, there are barely any signs in this airport. No signs for customs, no signs for baggage or ground transportation or any of the other useful signs you find in other airports. We kept asking people who kept pointing this way and that until we found a security guard who told us the customs office was beyond a security fence and that we’d need a pass to get there. We found the security office and learned that only one of us could go. Who was the package addressed to? Me. Ok then, you can go, the guard told us and he pointed to Jack. “You go sit down.” I was on my own.
I walked to the gatehouse where the sleepy guard pulled a large handwritten logbook off a dusty shelf and paged through to the last entry. I wrote my name and signed it and he pointed to a low building where I was to go. There were two doors, one marked Customs and the sign said I should knock before entering, which I did. It was the smallest office I have ever been in. Squeezed into the tiny space was a desk, a filing cabinet, two chairs and a uniformed officer.
I said hello and gave him my papers. And then came the bad news.
As a vessel in transit we can receive “ship’s stores” for the minimum customs duty but we have to have a C-14 form which we can only get at a yacht entry port and must be signed by the customs officer at the port. The nearest port with a customs officer is two more bus rides away, then two more bus rides back to the airport plus the duty — I was starting to add this up in my head.
“How much is the duty without the C-14?” I asked. Mr. James took out his calculator and starting figuring the duty based on the full price indicated on the declaration form. I pointed out that what was in the box was a replacement unit for which I hadn’t paid full price. I pointed at the fine print at the bottom of the waybill where it said “warranty replacement no charge.” I pulled the old dead Spot out of my bag and explained that this was a dead one and what was in the box was to replace it. I was ready with a printout of the email from the Spot people telling me how much they were charging for the new unit.
Mr. James held up his hand and said sheepishly, “I feel your pain. But I have to go by what the form says” and he tapped the total key. $137 EC. Crap.
“And how much with the C-14?”
Tap, tap, tap, total. $13 EC. Plus the cost of an agent. Agent? Yes, apparently I can’t do this on my own because the information must be entered into The System and only agents can access The System.
I was starting to hear the theme from the movie “Brazil” in my head.
As I was mulling all of this over Mr. James waved to someone passing his office door. In came another uniformed Customs officer and Mr. James explained my dilemma. There was a little back and forth, most of which I couldn’t understand because my ears haven’t yet gotten used to the local dialect. After a few minutes I got the sense that something good happened, I shook the new man’s hand and he left.
“What just happened?” I asked.
Turns out that was the boss and he was on his way to the port of entry and would get me a C-14 and bring it back. It wouldn’t take long. Ah, how nice! I thought, and sat down to enjoy the air conditioning. Mr. James was friendly and interesting and I didn’t mind the wait at all, but as time went on I thought maybe I should give Jack an update.
I walked back across the gravel lot to the gatehouse and woke up the guard to tell him I’d be right back. He didn’t seem to mind. Jack was in that happy zen place he goes to when he has to wait somewhere and he brightened as I walked up.
“Don’t get excited,” I said, “we’re not even close” and I brought him up to speed on the process. By the time I got back to Mr. James he had the C-14 form and we filled it out and I signed it. Then he told me to go across the hall and talk to the agent. That office was just as small and jam packed with three clerks behind a narrow counter with a pile of computer equipment, printers and fax machines at one end. I gave them my papers and one of the men dialed a number on his cellphone, spoke briefly into it then handed me the phone.
“Hello?” I said. The voice on the other end was rapid and incomprehensible. I hate when I can’t understand people, especially when they’re speaking English. I asked him to repeat things several times, then shook my head apologetically and hand the phone back to the clerk.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, “but I can’t understand him.” Eventually between the agent on the phone and the clerk I understood that the agent’s fee was $150 EC. What!?! This is a tiny package, I told them, not a big shipment. They seemed unmoved. I told them I had to think about it because the fee was more than the customs duty for using no C-14 and no agent.
I walked across the hall and reported the fee to Mr. James. He was shocked but said they had no control over the agents because they are private enterprises. He went over to talk to the clerk, and before I knew it, both Mr. James and the clerk were squeezed into the Customs office with me and the cellphone was again thrust into my hand.
“Hello?” I said. Again I listened to the agent and tried to comprehend what he was saying. Apparently he was offering to lower his fee to a somewhat less extortionist $87 EC. I told him that was still too much and I repeated that it was a tiny thing for which I paid nothing and I shouldn’t have to pay this much to get it out of customs.
Finally he asked how much I thought I should pay.
“Fifty,” I said. And he agreed. I handed the phone back to the clerk who conferred for another minute or two and told me the agent would be there about 11:30. It was nearly 11:00. I went back out through the gatehouse without waking up the guard and updated Jack.
Back in the customs office Mr. James shared his thoughts on Grenadians, IT, marketing, and a host of other topics and before long it was nearly noon. I ran across the hall to the agent’s office and asked the clerk for an update. He made a few calls and tracked down the agent, then told me they were waiting for a code from St. George’s and did I know that the office closed from noon to one for lunch?
“What code?” Mr. James asked when I reported back to him. But it was noon and nothing could be done until one so I went back through the gatehouse to Jack and we had lunch at one of the food kiosks outside the terminal building. I was back a little before one o’clock and resumed my conversation with Mr. James. Finally the agent arrived with the receipt for the $13 EC customs duty, papers were passed back and forth, I gave the agent his $50 EC fee and the $13 for the duty and we all shook hands.
“That’s it, you’re done!” said Mr. James.
“But where’s my package?”
The agent pointed to one of the papers in my hand, then to a man dozing in the corridor. I handed him the paper and he disappeared into a warehouse and came back with our little package.
Meanwhile I asked the agent for a receipt for his fee. He pointed toward the terminal building and Mr. James said to go down where you check in for flights. We went back to where we started, to the Liat Airline check-in counter and talked to the supervisor again.
“Why do they keep sending you here?” he asked. We gave up and went out to the bus stop.
We were home by three o’clock. It only took six hours.