October 15, 2014
Told in the collective first person, jointly from Stu and Janell Clarke's perspective.
Narrated Audio Blog
Stuart sat in the back of a taxi travelling four hours across the country, having now spent a total of three months in Venezuela. His hope was that this little adventure would allow The Pack Track to continue their journey exploring more of South America.
So where was he going? The city of Bolivar Ciudad, capital of the state of Bolívar. Over 2 months ago we had a brilliant idea, we'd had a lot of faulty electronics (which admittedly were old at the start of our trip and included laptop, camera, GPS and bluetooth comms) and needed a few motorcycle parts which were not easy to obtain in South America. So we decided to place an order online and have it shipped to Venezuela. The plan was sound. International shipping "guaranteed" 3-5 days delivery, we had an address we trusted with our amigo Carlos in El Callao and a plan of how to spend the time constructively while waiting for the delivery to arrive.
So why were we still waiting 2 months later? Well, it all started when we first placed the order. We chose Amazon.com as the most suitable shopping service online and went through the order process. We ran into problems entering an address in Venezuela for delivery, although some sellers do ship to Venezuela most don't and this quickly became apparent. So a new plan needed to be devised. We decided to find someone reliable outside Venezuela to ship to and have them forward to our address here. We quickly learned that a lot of Amazon sellers also don't ship to Australia, so we needed a friend in the USA. This was fine, we had made some very good friends in Texas when we started our trip and our good friend Richard happily accepted our request (I'm not sure he was aware of the nightmare it would turn into). So through the order process we went again, this time using Richards address in Texas. Everything seemed fine, credit card payment accepted, confirmation email received and we felt confident everything would be on its way. The following day however, we received another email from Amazon saying an order had come from a suspicious source (Venezuela!!) and was cancelled along with all related purchase history. WTF??
We could work around this too, so we went through the order again and saved the cart for Stuart's brother Greg in Canada to login to our account and finalise the order. It seemed fail proof, however, every time Greg logged in the cart was empty, something to do with the order being created in Venezuela no doubt (Greg is a database developer for Shopify, so his credentials for shopping online and having the correct account are pretty good). The number of items on the order had grown to 36 by this time, mainly made up of small things we had realised would be handy. We didn't want Greg to have to go through and find each item and place the order as its a timely process. We discussed the problem with Greg who came up with a much better plan. Greg set up a Virtual Private Network (VPN) server in Canada for us to use to mask our location and trick Amazon into thinking the order had come from Ottawa. This worked perfectly, the order went through with nothing suspicious for Amazon to get concerned about. We checked our email the next day anxiously expecting Amazon to figure out our cunning plan and cancel the order but only confirmations from the sellers. Yay!!
So now to wait for everything to be delivered. Some sellers had their items delivered very quickly, while others weren't completely honest about the processing time and although we only selected items that would be delivered within 5 days it wasn't until 2 weeks later that all the items were with Richard and ready to be forwarded (Richard said it felt like Christmas had arrived early at his house). Further delays came about due to issues with package size accepted by the courier and required repacking by Richard (sorry Richard) but eventually all items were shipped in 2 separate boxes through USPS as International Priority 3-5 days. By the time the packages were shipped it had been 5 weeks since conception, including deciding what we wanted, ordering, reordering and reordering again with all the delays associated with email communications and the delivery from Amazon. No problemo, everything was on its way, nothing could go wrong now!
It wasn't long before we realised why Amazon has such an issue with shipping to Venezuela. The specified 5 business days passed and online tracking still had the package listed in the US, surely just an issue with tracking information from Venezuela we thought. Now 2 weeks went by and still no change to the online tracking. While we used the time to explore Venezuela we stayed in contact with Carlos in El Callao, who checked daily with the post office, but never any news. 3 weeks passed and we started to get very worried, our order had turned out to be quite valuable and the thought that it could have been stolen was very real. After 4 weeks we returned to El Callao, very worried the shipment had been lost, this was made worse by the knowledge the shipment was only insured to $200, a fraction of the contents value.
On arrival in El Callao, Carlos informed us of a strike in the postal service which may be partly to blame. This was a huge relief as it meant there was still hope. The following day Carlos travelled to Guayana Ciudad on business, while there he checked at the regional post office which was still operating. Unfortunately still nothing, the post office had no information of a package addressed to him either waiting or in transit. Again we started to believe we were out of luck and began planning our next move. Most of the items were luxuries that, although expensive, we could forego and would not be reordered. All the motorcycle parts could be obtained in Brazil, albeit at inflated prices. So we would move on very disappointed but not allowing the situation to hold us up any longer.
While preparing to depart, we continued to press Carlos for information (sorry Carlos). He had more ideas and spoke to the post office manager about our missing package. Even though on strike and not working in the office, the manager was very helpful and got in touch with customs to see if the packages were waiting clearance. After a few days of investigating he came back with good news. OMG, this was it!!! How do we get our hands on it we asked. The manager had to organise some paperwork for us and we would travel to the customs office in Cuidad Bolivar to collect the packages in person (an 8 hour round trip). Unfortunately for Carlos he had to attend as the packages were addressed to him.
Carlos recommended taking a taxi as the most economical means of travel. The system in Venezuela for intercity taxi travel is similar to bus travel in most countries. Each city has a taxi terminal. Passengers purchase a ticket and jump in the next available taxi going to their destination. Taxi's leave from the terminal regularly and wait times of over 30 minutes are uncommon. These taxi's go flat out, we were travelling at 170km/hr once on good roads; not entirely safe considering the lack of seat belts, multitude of concealed potholes and poor vehicle maintenance and regulations.
So just Stuart and Carlos went, Carlos making all the arrangements and Stuart enjoying the ride. They reached the Aduana (customs office) and everything was looking up, maybe a little too easy. The packages were there waiting, Stuart could see them and even had a look through the contents. What a relief! Carlos was asked to provide the purchase invoice for the contents. Stuart explained that the package was sent from a friend in Texas but they insisted on seeing an original purchase invoice before it could be cleared. This was a minor problem, Stuart had the invoice in his email but nothing with him. The staff allowed him to use their office computer to login to his email and print off the invoices. The staff then explained that all items required an import tax of between 5-15% (mostly 15%) of the purchase price. This was not expected! We'd already paid sales tax in the US and had proof of this on the invoices. However, it turned out this did not count and in fact the tax we'd already paid would also be taxed. Again WTF!! We're talking hundreds of dollars which had to be paid in Venezuelan Boilvars at the black market rate (they can use the black market rate when it's convenient for them). Stuart certainly didn't have that much money on him, so after getting so close he was sent packing with nothing to show.
Carlos and Stuart slid into a taxi again for the four hour return trip to El Callao. As Stuart looked out the window of the taxi at people living a truly hard life, it occurred to him just how good life was for him. He thought about just how minuscule our problem was in the scheme of life and that paying tax twice was the only way people in Venezuela could get just about anything from the outside world. For us, having to pay tax twice just this once and being in a position to be able to afford these items made us extremely lucky, and yet we worry about such trivial problems.
The next day with the required money in hand and prearranged permission from Carlos to pick up goods addressed to him, Stuart rode his motorcycle back to Ciudad Bolivar. We still wanted to leave that day, and so Stu was up and out at 4am. He'd be at the customs office before they opened at 9 and with luck he'd be back by lunch. It all went mostly to plan. Stu had to pay the import fee's at the bank but a staff member walked him over and thankfully they did, as the queue in the bank was horrendous but we were accelerated through and seen to straight away. back at the customs office and having made the payment the items were handed over. Luckily it all fit within the panniers. Now for Stu to ride the 4 hours back to his pack.
Stu gunned it the whole way, the roads were good and there wasn't much traffic. He was able to maintain a steady 120km/hr for the most part. With about an hour to go, Stu found himself tearing along a straight approaching a slight bend. He was exhausted and starting to drift. The bend approached quickly and he didn't adjust his position or speed for the bend. Before he knew it he rode straight of the road at over 120km/hr...Luckily what he rode into was a field of tall crops and there was no damage to the bike or himself. The bike was held up by the long stalks, even as Stu pulled the bike backwards to the road. What a close call.
Back with Janell we could all relax. This saw the end of 10 weeks of planning, headaches and stress; the packages were finally in our hot little hands, just in time for early Christmas presents.
This now allowed us to make our way to the Brazilian border according to our new schedule with plans to get to Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina by Christmas.
If there is a lesson to learn from our experience, it's think very carefully about shipping anything to a country with such instabilities as Venezuela and allow time.
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