Tag Archives: customs

Chasing robbers

22 Jul

Quito, Ecuador
[by Paula]

In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been chasing two types of robbers.

The first, Ecuadorian customs, we are trying to outwit using the powers of logic, justice, and tenacity.

The second, an actual daylight robber, we chased off a bus, down the street, then pinned against a wall before handing her over to the police.

The latter may have been far less dignified, but it worked.

Latin American Monopoly

Let’s hope we don’t end up going directly to jail for not paying our customs fine.

The former – our fight with customs – was borne out of our attempts to make ourselves legal in Ecuador again, which we blogged about last time. Because of further delays with our van repairs we had run out of time on both our tourist visas and the permit for our van, which is issued by customs and only allows a foreign car to be in the country for three months.

At the 11th hour we’d been told by customs that we could not renew the car permit until we first had valid visas. So we made a plea to the director of migration to get a special 45-day visa to tide us over. It worked, and all the staff in migration were so helpful and understanding they even expedited the process and got us a super-fast one in two days.

We travelled back to customs, clutching our shiny new visas and feeling pretty chuffed about our success.

“Look Mr Customs officer!” we said, “we have new visas and got them really fast, just for you”.
“That’s great,” he said, “we can give you a new car permit. But now you are late, so all you have to do is pay the $1,000 (£650) fine that built up while you were sitting in the queue at the visa office for two days.”
“Erm, let’s think.” We thought for a moment. “No, we don’t think that’s fair, because we came here and applied for the permit extension SIX days ago, before it expired…”.

“The first I knew… was turning around to hear Jeremy going utterly berserk at the woman. They were wrestling over our iPad.”

This was the rather tense beginning of an excruciating eight-and-a-half hour day at the customs office – arguing, waiting, refusing to leave until we’d been heard. They just kept insisting we pay the fine, and that we sign a form to say we’d been notified of our transgression. We refused. Not only could we prove we’d informed them in plenty of time about our complete inability to take the car out of the country on time, one of their officers had actually travelled to the mechanic and inspected the broken van 3 days before our permit expired.

The useless manager who was dealing with us was in over his head. The fine was “on the computer” which made it irreversible, he said. The computer was apparently in charge. We felt sure they had made several errors with our case, but hell was going to freeze over before he admitted that and became responsible for wiping a potential $1,000 windfall off their books. He eventually agreed to bring us a letter explaining both the ‘transgression’ and our right to appeal.

Paula at customs office, Quito

Don’t think much of the customer service at the customs office.

After keeping us waiting for hours, at 5pm all the staff upped and left. We sat waiting alone. Useless Manager still hadn’t appeared. We waited. Then suddenly he shot out from behind us and bolted for the door – I mean, he was literally running like a hare. We shouted after him, and he gestured that he had to catch a bus. If we hadn’t been in such a foul mood, it would have been hilarious.

We waited another full hour before someone turned up with our letter and explained what we had to do.

We spent several days taking advice and composing a huge appeal letter, in Spanish, and all the documents for evidence.

Meanwhile we had a very welcome visit for a few days from Kiwi overlanders Will and Rochelle of Kiwi Panamericana who were passing through on their way north to Colombia. We enjoyed a few beers and some food while swapping travel tips and mechanical anecdotes, as they’ve also had their unfair share of things breaking on their car.

Monday morning we had one final chat with a lawyer we’d met, who also happens to be an exiled Chilean journalist living in Quito, and decided everything was ready to head off to customs with our appeal.

We jumped on a packed bus and stood in the aisle, rammed up against our fellow passengers. A man and woman next to us were behaving a bit oddly, and we exchanged some quiet words about whether they were up to something. We both had our bags clutched tightly to our chests, as everyone does on the buses here, and Jeremy was keeping a close eye on this woman who kept fiddling with her shawl and bumping into him.

As the bus pulled in at a stop, she pushed past him to get off. Amazingly, he caught a glimpse of our red iPad cover wrapped inside her shawl, and made a lunge for it.

The first I knew of anything going on was turning around to hear Jeremy going utterly berserk at the woman. They were wrestling over our iPad, and he was bellowing directly into her face. WTF?! He grabbed the computer off her and was shouting at the top of his voice as she tried to get out of the bus and away from him.

They both bundled off the bus, and I followed, grabbing the woman by the clothes.
It’s hard to remember every detail now, but there was loads of shouting. Jeremy then looked down and realised she had slashed through the side of his bag with a knife and – despite his being ultra-aware and holding on tight to it – had managed to take the iPad out without him realising.

Jeremy's slashed bag

Jeremy’s slashed bag.

In all the commotion outside the bus the robber slipped out the side of the platform, which in Quito are like covered train station stops. We suddenly realised she might have something else out of our bags – we were carrying our passports and documents because we needed everything for our trip to the customs office.

Jeremy was shouting for the platform guard to call the police as we quickly tried to check what else might be gone.

“She’s still there!” she shouted, pointing to the robber outside on the street. She opened the ticket gate for us and we catapulted out of there like greyhounds out of a trap. The woman saw us and started running like hell. Anyone who knows Jeremy knows that his loudest voice can be heard within about a 10-mile radius. He was continually yelling “call the police!” as we chased her down the busy road, and by the time we caught up with her a sizeable crowd had gathered.

I have always wondered how one might react in a situation like this. It’s amazing how fast you can run when you have adrenaline and indignation on your side. After the days we’d had, she picked the wrong time to rob us.

We caught her and got a firm hold, shouting god knows what, while she tried to deny doing anything. A bank security guard called the police and loads of people gathered round, making it impossible for her to escape. We established that nothing else had gone from our bags, but we still wanted to make a report to the police. A passerby came over with a mobile phone he’d seen her throwing under a car as we chased her – almost certainly stolen from someone else on the bus.

We really needed to get to the customs office – a two hour journey away – but didn’t want to let this drop.

After a few hours at the police station, they told us we could go, but that we would have to leave the iPad and bag behind for “a few hours” so they could be logged as evidence.

We did so and then headed off to customs to hand in the appeal, only having to make a minor fuss about some of our much-needed documents that Useless Manager had locked in his drawer before heading off on holiday. We left it in their hands, and were told we should hear the result of our plea in up to 10 days.

Will, Rochelle and Paula, Quito

Will and Rochelle come to stay!

What a day! It was a great novelty to have Will and Rochelle to come home to and tell the tale in our own language.

We currently have a large writing project to be getting on with, and were champing at the bit to get started. Just one last bit of bureaucracy to deal with the following morning, which was to collect the iPad from the police. Jeremy took the 45-minute walk there, only to be told property could only be collected after 2pm. He walked home, not a little annoyed.

We both returned there after 3pm, to be told we couldn’t collect our stuff because they had “lots of paperwork to do” and only certain people could sign the forms, blah blah. It all turned to white noise. Not for the first time that week, Jeremy went totally nuts. I was muttering “let’s try not get arrested….” but he’d gone. We were the victims, it was our property, we had volunteered it to them as our civic duty, and we wanted it back NOW please, he said, quite loudly.

Someone else came and explained that we should come back for the iPad “perhaps in a couple of days”. Whomever had told us something different was wrong, she said, adding that the police officers, in particular, had no idea how the system worked. That was the final straw.

How could we explain to them that we were now on something like our 13th day of dealing with incomprehensible bureaucracy?! We did not leave. We wanted our stuff back. We were promised a boss to speak to.

Eventually they sent one and, in all fairness, they sent the right guy. He was disarmingly camp, with a huge quiff. He spoke French-accented English, taught to him by his French grandmother. Basically he was an Ecuadorian version of ‘Franck’ the wedding planner from Father of the Bride.

Franck, Father of the Bride

Sending ‘Franck’ to help and calm us down was a stroke of genius.

“I hear you are very very angry,” he said.
We concurred.
“We have too much paperwork and not enough people to do it,” he explained, grabbing a mountain of files and desperately trying to find ours.

We understand this, we said. It is not exclusive to the Ecuadorian public services.  But it’s the time one wastes by being told a lot of bullshit that gets one’s blood pressure going through the roof. Why didn’t someone tell us at the beginning that this would take days?

“Oh, no one understands how it works,” said Franck, with a heavy sigh.

He typed furiously to get our paperwork done, frequently breaking off to talk to us about British accents, Scotland as depicted in Braveheart, and English stereotyping of the French.

“Just one thing”, he said. “Can you prove the iPad is yours? Do you have a receipt or something?”
“Are you (f*****)joking?” we asked. “Why would we be carrying a receipt? WE brought the iPad to you. WE caught the robber and gave her to the police. We left it here as evidence, only to help YOU.”
“I know. You were robbed yesterday, and now you feel like you are being robbed by the police!” said Franck… “So you don’t have a receipt or anything? We still have to prove that it belongs to you.”
***!!!!¥¥fcuuuuuuuuk^!
“Please don’t get angry. I believe you,” he said.
“Just BRING me my computer, and I will prove in 2 seconds that it belongs to me,” I said.

After several hours of form filling, stamping, signing and photocopying, at 7pm we retrieved our iPad from the vault.

“I hope we don’t get robbed on the way home,” I said, sending Franck into a renewed fit of giggles.

The project we’ve been working on for the rest of this week has been hard work but stimulating. It also makes a nice change, and is quite relaxing compared with chasing down robbers.

All we have to do now is wait to see whether it’s as easy to win victory over the Ecuadorian state as it is to chase down a slightly tubby bag slasher.

Days: 620
Miles: 17,551
Things we now know to be true: Sometimes you just have to make a scene.

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Colombia ahoy!

23 Nov

[We’ve fallen a bit behind with the blog. Tsk. And so much has happened recently. So for that reason we took half each and turned this next post into a two-parter. Fellow travellers who want more details about shipping and boat journeys from Panama to Colombia can email us or wait until we get round to posting a separate page of tips]

Taganga, Colombia
By Paula

Transporting a vehicle from Panama to Colombia is rarely trouble-free. Take two countries, two separate ports, two customs authorities, four shipping agent workers and two sets of independence celebrations, then sprinkle liberally with a bucket load of inexplicable bureaucracy and questionable language skills… and you’ve got a headache before you even begin.

Van enters the shipping container in Colon, Panama

Bye bye van. See you in Colombia!

However, even by the usual standards I think we did well to turn it into the epic it became. But my, what a journey. And here we are, finally, in South America.

Following a seven-day delay due to riots paralysing the port in Panama, we were relieved to get the go-ahead to load the cars onto the container ship the following week. In all, twelve overlanders were shipping on the same day with the same company – us with Zach and Jill, plus eight others, from Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica, Korea and Germany. For many reasons it was comforting to all be in the same boat, so to speak.

We met each other and our agent in Colon and set off in convoy across the city, which had been the scene of riots, gunfights and looting just days before. Even at the best of times Colon, a desperately deprived and run down place, is not a safe place to hang around. It’s fair to say we were all keen to get the day done and get out of there.

Jeremy with some local Kuna kids, San Blas

Jeremy shows off his colouring-in skills, San Blas, Panama

After a long sweaty day at the port and customs offices, two cars were driven into each 40ft container. The containers were locked up and we waved them goodbye, hoping we’d be reunited successfully in Colombia asap.

In the meantime, we were backpackers once more. All we had to do now was get ourselves to Colombia in time to meet the cars in one week.

Now, we could have flown in a few short hours, but that just sounded far too easy. We could have taken a sailboat direct to Cartagena, but it was pricey and we were worried about its route over open water and the risk of severe seasickness. Option three was a more basic motorboat to the Colombian border, with stops on the San Blas islands for some beach camping and a chance to meet the indigenous Kuna people who live there. After that we’d have to make our own way over the border and east to Cartagena, by means of various boats and buses.

Our boat to Colombia at its final stop, La Miel

Our transport to Colombia stopped off at several islands in the San Blas, and dropped us here at La Miel.

It sounded like a mixture of both adventure and unnecessary hassle. Perfect, we said, let’s book it!

Along with Zach and Jill – with whom we shared every step of the process – we took a bus to the scrappy Caribbean town of Portobelo, which was the departure point for the trip we had provisionally booked, but was not due to leave until three days later. It was a fairly miserable place to kill three days, and we had some doubts about whether our boat was definitely going to leave on Saturday. Arriving late to Cartagena was not an option for us, as this would incur storage charges at customs. We spent a day deciding whether to switch to a direct sailboat, but in the end plumped for our original plan and sat it out til Saturday.

On day one of the trip, we all wondered if we had done the right thing. It was clear from the start that our captain and his mate were nice enough blokes, but worryingly hapless. Shortly after setting off we broke down and stopped for over an hour in the water. As we bobbed about in the waves, inhaling engine fumes and trying to ignore the smell of burning, people started to go green and at least one vomited. I stared at the horizon for an hour, unable to talk, willing the contents of my stomach to stay put.

Finally it was established that they had forgotten to put any oil in the engine. In what was to become a recurring theme, they appeared to be blaming each other for the cock-up. Were we really going to put our safe passage across the sea to Colombia in the hands of this pair?

We’d had to change the island we’d be sleeping on that night, because it was a major holiday in Panama and the boat guys hadn’t realised that all the sleeping huts were booked out at their usual destination. Fine by us, we said, we are flexible and easygoing.

Roasting marshmallows

Roasting marshmallows for dessert on one of our overnight stops. Yum.

We felt less easygoing when we realised they couldn’t find the island. We drove from island to island, asking various Kuna people for directions. It didn’t inspire confidence. But things gradually began to look up. We pushed our anxieties to the back of our minds, and made light of little incidents like seeing the captain drinking at lunchtime and falling off his hammock, before taking to the helm again.

Over the four-day trip we stopped at truly deserted palm-fringed Caribbean islands, camped on the beach, snorkelled, made new friends, drank rum and roasted marshmallows on the bonfire. We slept in hammocks in a Kuna island community, and ate fresh lobster, crab and octopus. We slapped through the waves, got continually soaked, and (mostly) managed to avoid going green again.

On the final day we stamped out of Panama at a bizarre little border crossing town and arrived, tired and not a little hungover from the previous night’s rum festivities, at our final destination of La Miel. The inviting turquoise water cleared away the cobwebs and the four of us set about getting ready for stage two.

Despite having officially left Panama we were still in a Panamanian no-man’s land, and had to get to Colombia under our own steam. Although going by boat to the next door Colombian village was possible, we opted to go on foot, just a short hike over the hill and into South America.

Crossing the Panama-Colombia border with Zach and Jill

Yay! Crossing the Panama-Colombia border with Zach and Jill.

It seemed to us like a pretty cool way to arrive. It was unfeasibly hot as we climbed up to the top of the peak, to be greeted by two immigration officials. They looked at our passports and then kindly agreed to take a group photo, with both the Panamanian and Colombian flags fluttering above us.

The downward path into Sapzurro, Colombia, became increasing muddy and slippery. So our entrance into South America was not so much cool as downright undignified. The locals must surely enjoy watching foreigners sliding into their country, smeared with mud and sweat and trying to look nonchalant with it.

With one more boat ride we were in Capurganá, where we found a hostel with the only four things we wanted in life at that moment – a comfy bed, a shower, a seat that didn’t move, and a TV on which we could monitor US election night. Zach and Jill in particular were becoming increasingly nervous about a Romney win, which they and their compatriots were mercifully spared.

Early the next day we set off on the long journey to Cartagena. We’d thought long and hard about the trip, and how to make it work and get back to the port in time to collect the cars. We were on the home stretch and it felt good.

First, a final boat trip, to the town of Turbo. At times we almost flew through the waves and landed with such a thump I thought my bones would shatter. But the stunning scenery more than made up for it. At Turbo we jumped straight onto a bus, the first of two 5 or 6 hour journeys to Cartagena.

Lobster for dinner, San Blas islands

Lobster for dinner, San Blas islands, Panama.

After a long and stinking hot day we finally arrived in the beautiful colonial city late on the Wednesday night. We’d done it! We knew we’d have to hit the ground running the next morning to make sure we got the vans back before the weekend, so there was just one more thing to do – check our emails to see whether everything was on schedule…

—–

Colombia ahoy! Part two
By Jeremy

Kafka would not have dared make it up. It would have been too far-fetched even for those giants of Russian literature intent on exposing and ridiculing the dehumanising morass of a maze-like bureaucracy. But, I was there. It’s true.

After our gruelling 15-hour journey to Cartagena we arrived to be greeted with the wonderful news that the van had arrived safe and sound in Colombia. We also arrived to the devastating, and surprising news – news which our shipping agent had failed to mention – that a five-day public holiday was starting in the morning and all the ports, customs and government agencies would be closed or closing early. And so, after all that, it was unlikely we would be able to get the vans for another 6 days.

Carnaval time in Cartagena

Carnaval time in Cartagena provided a welcome distraction from the boring car stuff.

Oh, and all the hostels were filling up fast, in time for the fiesta.

Undeterred by such trifles we swore a bit [a loted] then set about finding a bed – surely I am too old now for sleeping with a dozen other fragrant backpackers in a dorm. Apparently not. With no choice we settled down in our bunks to a night of noisy sleeplessness and arose what seemed like just a few short hours later to begin the process of trying to beat the holiday half-day closing and get the van back.

We had just 25 steps to achieve – after 4 hours of form-filling, waiting, waiting a bit more and pacing up and down we were still on step 2. This was never gonna happen. But at least we learned how to conjugate the Spanish verb – esperar. (to wait, to hope).

There are great blogs (eg Life Remotely) which explain in detail (and without the ranting) the process, costs and address details of where to go to retrieve your imported vehicle so I’m not going to bother. Suffice it to say that in a 3-day epic, said steps required us to go – armed with forms, innumerable photocopies and endless patience (not one of my strong points) from the shipping agent’s office, to the port authorities, to the cashier’s office, to the customs office, to the port – where not one but two inspectors had to fill out separate reports – to the customs office again (where we were dealt with by a man with the slowest writing in the world), to the shipping agent again and back to the port authorities – which on day 2, with noon closing fast approaching, we arrived at with 7 minutes to spare. We’d already decided that if we hadn’t been seen before they tried to close, we’d have to occupy.

Carnaval in Cartagena

Everyone tried to out-wig and out-outlandish eachother during carnaval.

From there it was another trip to the cashier, to the container port, to the car park to be reunited with the van and another inspector who checked to see if we had an ashtray, fire extinguisher, windscreen wipers and various other vital parts of the van and duly noted them all down – in triplicate. I’ve no idea why he felt the need to check since no-one had noted any of this down at the Panama end.

From the car park we drove (after Zach had to jump-start their van from ours) 100 metres to the port office to get another stamp, then drove (after I had to jump-start our van from Thomas’s car) 100 metres further to the gate to hand in the stamped bits of paper, and then back to the port office to put a fingerprint on the stamped bit of paper and give it back to the man at the gate – in triplicate.

And then….freedom!
Except we couldn’t get insurance until we had actually left the port with all the necessary paperwork, and by this time it was Saturday afternoon of a holiday weekend. All we could do was drive to a car park, head back to our new and much-improved hotel and wait until the insurance office re-opened at 8am on Tuesday morning. It meant it had taken us 14 days to travel 80 miles or so. At this rate we’ll be in Argentina in 33 years time.

Celebrating getting the cars out of the port

When we finally got the cars back, beer was drunk.

As if all that were not surreal enough, Cartagena was in the midst of the biggest fiesta of the year – its independence celebrations. It’s a culture shock to emerge from the bowels of the bureaucracy onto the sun-drenched streets filled with beauty queens, exquisite carnaval costumes and grown men in diapers. Everywhere people painted themselves – and anyone else they could lay their hands – sprayed unsuspecting passers-by with foam, dressed to thrill and frankly just had a ball. What choice did we have but to join in?

Cartagena is beautiful. And the steaks at El Bistro are amazing. The ice-cream is heavenly. A cold Aguilar beer atop the city walls is a fantastic way to cool off and spend the evening.

Finally Tuesday arrived and we all marched down to the insurance office, paperwork in hand. Had we learned nothing from the past few days? How could we have been so naïve as to arrive without multiple photocopies of every document? So back out again we went, to the photocopy shop and eventually the scared piece of paper was handed over, meaning we were free to go.

It was a moment of joy tinged with the sadness of saying goodbye to new found friends who’d shared the tortuous process with us. But in particular to Zach and Jill, whom we had by then spent several weeks with, in a number of countries. We all meet interesting people on our travels, but it is rare to find friends who you can be truly at ease with; where you can be silly, grumpy, blunt, excited, drunk, serious, hysterical or smelly – and occasionally all at once.

Jill gets foamed at the carnaval

Jill got well and truly foamed during the parade, Cartagena.

It was only our livers that were glad to say goodbye. Hasta pronto comrades.

Ours is a journey from north to south. Not for the first time on this trip, though, we found ourselves heading in the wrong direction. This time deliberately. If we were going to make it to the southernmost tip of the continent it would seem rude not to have arrived there from the northernmost. So we headed for Punta Gallinas – a remote and rugged desert on the northern tip of Colombia.

On the way we stopped off at Palomino for a few days of fantastic tranquil beachside camping – and the chance to catch up on some reading. I think I might try Kafka next.

Days: 378
Miles: 12,667
Things we now know to be true: There’s nothing that can be done with a drunken sailor.