Sunday, October 30, 2011

Customs and The Peruvian Mail System

October 30, 2011 – The Peruvian Mail System

I distrust the Peruvian mail system. I have this worry that nothing will get past customs, that all the things I really want or need, and that people take the time and money to send me will be confiscated and thrown out. This distrust, formed around past experiences with Central American mailings and a generalized stereotype of South American corruption and third worldness, was unfounded until a month ago. Of course, Walter hadn’t helped my unsubstantiated assumptions when he painted a horrible and dark picture of the system for me when I first arrived to Peru.

“Nothing is ever delivered. If anyone sends you anything, you’ll never get it. I’m lucky if I get my bills.” All this was, according to Walter, due to the ineptness of the TPMS (as I’ve just awfully acronymed it) and to the lurking thieves who snuck furtively around in the street outside Casa del Gringo just waiting to steal anything and everything that wasn’t locked down or gated in. “No Peruvian,” Walter intoned, “is to be trusted.”

With that in mind and having no reason not to believe him (this was most likely before I knew Walter was born in Peru), I warned most everyone against sending me things. And except for a few daring souls, no one did. During my three month stint in Cieneguilla I received two things by post. My friend Tim--brave enough to chance it--sent me his book The Wild Air, and my sister--heedless of my advice--sent me a birthday letter. My friend S--throwing caution to the wind--sent me a birthday card which I never received, thus proving that a two out of three success record was not enough to redeem an unfavorable supposition, although my doubts were rattled.   

When I moved into Lima to a place with a more stable address and front deskmen to receive and guard the post, I gave my address out to those who asked for it.
Almost instantly, one of my Colorado writer friends sent me four paperbacks stuffed rather haphazardly in a large manila envelope. It arrived in record time and was seemingly unmolested by the customs officers. I began to think I’d have to change my mind about the TPMS.

Word starved, I devoured those four books and started to worry about what I’d read next.

Heeding his superb writer’s sense that told him I was in dire need, Tim once again shook his fist in the face of my delivery distrust and put together a care package of six (6!) books, two CDs and a letter. “I’m sending it through DHL,” he told me. “It’s cheaper that way, but it’ll take it longer to get to you.” Tim had needed my phone number to send the package and I’d thought that a little odd, but gave it to him when he asked.
With the beautiful anticipation of new books looming over me I crawled through the days.

I told myself to practice patience, to not get my hopes up, to not hold my breath, to pretend there was nothing making its way over the miles to me. Literature no less! But none of my self-talk worked. I masked a calm exterior while anxiously anticipating the arrival of that box.

One day, while I was slowly murdering time between classes I received a phone call. “Señorita Amanda White?” the voice asked. Before I could answer, my deceptive phone shut off. The battery dead. I powered it up long enough to see I’d missed two calls and that the calling number was unknown. So much for calling them back. “If it’s important enough, they’ll call me again,” I said out loud and then went on with my day.

The next week, while I waited in a park for the start time of my class with a four year old, my phone rang again.
“Hallo,” I said.

“Señorita Amanda White?”


Whereupon followed a strange and incomprehensible conversation in Spanish. I finally caught on to her end of things when the lady told me she had a package with six books and two CDs and asked if it was mine. I claimed it with hope and joy. When she asked for my passport number and email, I hesitated, paranoid about giving information like that over the phone. “Who are you with again?” I asked her. She told me rapidly and I didn’t understand a thing. Since she didn’t ask for my Social Security number, my bank account, or my mother’s maiden name, I decided to go for it. I gave her the information and cursed my email address for being hard to say in another language. “It’s A as in…” I scoured my memory for an A starting Spanish word and came up with águila which means eagle. “R as in rana (frog).” And finally after many repetitions and corrections, “No, T as in tigre (tiger). No, Tigre, grrrrr (I don’t think I actually growled, but it might have helped if I had), she said she’d send me an email with instructions on where to come get my package. At least that’s what I thought she said.

That evening when I got home to my computer there was no email from her. “Dang it,” I said aloud, “I think I missed a Tigre in my email address.”

I was saved however, because the number the lady called from was on my caller ID. I resolved to call it the next day during business hours. And I did. No one ever answered, there was no answering machine and I began to expect that the Deportation Police would show up any minute at my door and arrest me for passport fraud and then ship me back in chains to the United States.
Days pass and that mysterious female caller never called again.

After consultation with Tim, who told me the package was in Clearance Delay and gave me the tracking information, I called DHL.
“It’s in Clearance Delay,” the Rep told me. “You’ll need to call the Peru DHL division at this number to find out what that means.”

Those were the words I was dreading. Making phone calls in Peru is tricky. Not only do the prepaid minutes (called saldo) I buy never seem to be enough to actually complete a call, but with this situation, I also doubted that my Spanish speaking abilities would make the using of said minutes worthwhile.
In a fit of insecurity I talked my roommate into calling Peru DHL for me.

I stood nearby biting my nails while she talked with the representative. Several times she started to give him my number so he could call back if my saldo expired, but he kept talking, preventing her from completing her sentences. And, sure enough, my prepaid minutes got used up and the call ended. For whatever reason (probably because I was having a sudden and unnecessary cash flow crisis in my head brought on because Katrina had just returned from the States and I’d become unemployed again), I didn’t just go to the store to buy more minutes. However, the call wasn’t a complete loss, Katrina told me that the DHL guy said customs had the box and they’d get in touch with me.
That was the problem to start with! I knew that already. Customs had gotten in touch with me and I had no way to correct the email address I’d given them so I could figure out what they were trying to tell me. I raised my hands imaginarily in exasperation and wished for the ease of unlimited phone plans like I had when I lived in the States.

Aargh, as my dad says.
I imagined that poor lonely box sitting in a dark warehouse forgotten forever in some dank corner, the lost books getting moldy in the moist ocean air never to be read again. I wept.

I envisioned a long line of wicked customs officials pawing my six books with malicious glee and then selling them on the black market in exchange for cocaine. I cursed.
I saw in my mind’s eye the whole customs office dancing to the music on the CDs and having a ripping good time. I shook my fist in the air.

Blast them all!
I just wanted my care package.

The next day I got a call. Incoming calls don’t count against my saldo (or lack thereof) and I snatched the phone up eagerly. I held my ancient phone with extreme care so as not to squeeze the battery and inadvertently hang up. “Hallo,” I said.
“Señorita Amanda White?”

The Spanish speaking DHL rep informed me that customs had cleared my package and DHL would deliver it that evening between four and seven. I was overjoyed. He also told me that I’d have to pay the courier and then he said how much. I fainted.

After I came to, I asked him to repeat the amount.
Yep, I’d heard him right the first time. I multiplied in my head with a rounded up and approximate conversion rate. Then I carried, divided, added a little more, subtracted a couple unneeded numbers, converted it to a fraction and then started over because math had never been my strong point.  

I had to have misunderstood him. “I had to have misunderstood him,” I told Katrina later. “Right?”
“You can argue with the guy who delivers it,” she said.  

The courier came around 5:30 that evening. I’d been poised and waiting for the call from the front desk. I took a fistful of soles and went down the stairs two at a time. The courier placed the package on the counter and pulled out a thick wad of papers. He asked me to verify the information, checked my passport and then showed me the amount to pay. I wanted to ask him if I could give customs my first born child instead of cash money, but I was afraid that he’d volunteer to be the child’s father. I decided not to risk it.
“This was a gift,” I told him. “I shouldn’t have to pay for a gift.” While I was doing my best to throw a fit in a second tongue and trying to get out of handing over the dinero, I remembered this old adage that said something about not shooting the messenger. The poor messenger told me the amount was for storage and processing and international fees and coffee, ceviche, and Pisco sours for the customs office holiday parties and also for the delivery.

“Does this look right to you?” I asked the deskman handing him the sheaf.
He shrugged. “You can call the DHL office and talk with them about it,” he said. “But if you don’t accept the package now you might never get it back.”

I wanted that box more than anything in the world. So I paid the courier, thanked him grudgingly and carried my box upstairs.
I have to say, the contents of that box were absolutely worth every last centimo I paid to get it. I mean that. But when, a week later, my mom told me she’d mailed me a care package I shuddered as if someone had stepped over my bank account’s grave and wondered if I should ditch my phone and move to an undisclosed address.


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