The Hour When the Ship Comes In, September 10, 2006

Our ship came in!

Just a tad short of a year after packing them up, our personal effects finally reached Kandy. It's been an instructive journey, and we've learned a few lessons the hard way.

Of course, we'd accumulated too much stuff. With a huge three-story house, for us and the Burmese family upstairs, we had lots of furniture. We'd also brought our library and belongings from Japan when we moved back to the States after thirty years away. After Mother died, we inherited a lot of her things too, some sentimental, some useful, all with memories attached. Deciding to sell that wonderful old house on Woodlawn Park Drive meant deciding what to do with possessions galore! Ken played e-bay. We had garage sales; Marsha took a lot of furniture; extra Buddhist books went for prisons; some Buddhist items went to Detroit temples; we sold or gave stuff to friends; we even stored a little on Dort Hwy.

Not knowing how we would be living in Sri Lanka we decided to ship what we thought would be useful. No winter clothes, obviously, but jackets? What about the cool season in Kandy? Dhamma books? Of course! Fiction. Not so much. Filing cabinets -- useful anywhere. Printers, scanner, laptop stands? Sure! Kitchen stuff? Good thought. Mother's cherished silver and dishes from Japan? Let's use 'em.

We found a shipping company on-line, with a good website, a reasonable quote, recommendations from satisfied customers. Despite all that they were crooks. We didn't know we'd been scammed until our stuff didn't come. E-mails flew back and forth. They had a million excuses, but they never even paid for the original packing job. Even the insurance we'd got through them was bogus.

Sadly there is no easy recourse for victims like us. The hard reality is "Let the buyer beware!" If you got stung, tough luck. We couldn't spend more money on a lawyer so we've just chalked it up to experience. Ouch.

For months and months, we supposed that our books, Buddha images, photographs, dishes, clothes, office equipment, and business papers--everything except what we carried here in our suitcases--was lost and gone forever. Dreadful sorry, Clementine!

We'd reconciled ourselves. (We remembered Dorothy losing all her belongings when the boat from Turkey sank! How many refugees have we known who lost possessions, family, and country, too!)

Then, out of the blue, news! Clever sleuthing by dear Shawna located our shipment -- still sitting in a warehouse near Detroit. Joe found honest agents to take over. Jean went down and actually eyeballed our crates. We paid once more to get everything loaded onto a real ship headed this way.

It left from New York in June. It didn't get sunk by the Tigers, in spite of an attempted an attack on the port just as it was arriving. Why did our stuff sit in Colombo for more than two months?

Good question. We don't really know. Two different Sri Lankan companies were involved and kept putting out different stories. The paperwork showed everything was our personal household effects, that we had religious worker residence visas. BPS even sent a letter to the Finance Ministry, with a copy to the agents in Colombo. All to no avail.

Weeks passed. Then we were called to Colombo. Those two days at various Customs offices have already been reported on.

Ever the optimists, we returned to Kandy thinking our problems solved. Not so fast, folks! Nothing happened. We expected the truck to come in any day, any hour, any minute. Fools that we were. (We're smarter now.)

The people we talked to in Colombo kept making excuses. Nobody called when they said they would. We were starting to get anxious. Our underwear was wearing out. Lily got lots of laughs as the holes grew. Visakha remembered Mother's perennial question--would her underwear pass the accident test? Our shoes were falling apart. We wanted to take a short trip to Bangkok on wonderfully cheap tickets. Everything was on hold.

Then Visakha called the office and asked to speak to the manager. Only then did we learn about the storage charges for the first month and a half that our stuff had been wrongly considered "Commercial." Not small change, either. $1500. The people who made the mistake should pay, right? Nobody would admit an error. Finally, the manager sent a serious letter by e-mail to the companies involved Stateside. In the end, the US office agreed to pay the storage fees. So, the crates should be arriving now, right?

Wrong. Nothing happened.

Suddenly a call. We would have to present, when the boxes were opened for Customs. We would have to be ready to pay the duty. (We thought that had already been taken care of.) After that, the crates would be immediately loaded on a truck and leave for Kandy The agent was pushing to have the crates moved to Peliyagoda the next day, Friday. We agreed to go anytime. We called Chanda and put him on alert with the van. The agent was supposed to call Friday morning at ten o'clock. We arranged to cut our class a little short. He didn't call. We called him. The crates had not yet been moved, but they would be VERY SOON. The time was set for 2 PM on Monday. Lily's husband, Raja, would go along to ride back with the crates to make sure nothing went astray en route. Lily wanted to come along for moral support.

On the way down, we stopped at the "cane-factory village" to buy a few bookcases. It's hot at this season in Kandy, but it got hotter as we approached Colombo. With gas prices being what they are, we held off using the air conditioning as long as we could. When the traffic got heavy, and we had to slow down near the city, we decided we had to start.

It was tricky finding Customs in Peliyagoda, but after a few cell phone calls, we finally found the right place. The time? Five minutes to two. Not bad! We looked and asked for the agent, but no one from the company was there. After several more phone calls, someone showed up on a red motorcycle, very late. He didn't speak much English and didn't inspire much confidence, but we accompanied him inside with a modicum of hope.

Finally, the truth was out. Our goods were not in Peliyagoda. They were still being held at Colombo Port! We had to go to the Customs Office downtown (half a block from where, the week before, a bomb had been discovered in a box strapped to the back of a parked push bike, under a bunch of vegetables. Fortunately, it was safely disarmed by the bomb squad.)

It was 4 o'clock by the time we reach the Customs Office. For security reasons there was no street parking, so Chanda dropped us off with the agent, and we went up to the fourth floor. Near the elevator there was a sign saying "No Cell Phones!" but everyone had a cell phone to his ear. Nobody talked to the person next to them, only to people who weren't there. The agent disappeared for a few minutes and then reappeared to summon Ken inside. When he returned, he announced that ha had been told that we needn't have come. Where had we heard that before? We simply had to write a letter authorizing the current agent to clear the goods through customs, which could be done the following day. Great! It was already 5 o'clock. We called Chanda. He picked us up and found a shady spot place to park while Ken wrote the letter. Unfortunately, a call to the office nixed that easy solution.

The manager implored us to stay in Colombo and to be present at the inspection.

"Impossible. We have to go back to Kandy tonight."

"You may have to pay Customs duties."

"But we just wrote this letter?"

"What if there are customs duties?"

Then we realized that he was right. We could trust neither the agent we were talking with nor the guy with us to negotiate. They were all incompetent, and no one was on our side. We had no choice. We sadly agreed to be at Customs at eleven the next morning.

Hungry, thirsty, and tired (we'd had no lunch), we stopped for a basic meal of SL roti and dahl. The three and a half hour drive is hardly relaxing at any time, but at night it was positively nerve wracking--invisible people walking on the edge of the roadway suddenly materialized, bicycles without lights, trucks without lights, three-wheelers without lights. Chanda is a good driver, but it was not a very enjoyable trip. Frankly, we were worn out and discouraged, knowing we had to do it all again the next day, without any guarantee of results.

We left at 7:30 the next morning, again with Raja, in hopes that the truck with out stuff would actually be heading back to Kandy. Lily stayed in Kandy to prepare food for the next day's dana for Ven. Nyanatusita and a visiting monk from Australia.

The route was becoming familiar and we were learning the names of some of the towns along the route. As we were passing Yakkala, Ken asked Chanda what it was famous for. Chanda gave a word in Sinhala, but we did not understand. He tried to explain, but could not. "Wait!" he said. "I'll show you." About one minute later he pointed to a courtyard and said, "Look! There it is!" Propped up in front of an official-looking building was a huge hoe. Yakkala is the center for the manufacture of the hoes farmers use to form rice paddies.

We were a little early, but a call to the office revealed that the agent from the day before had been replaced. (Good thing we had not handed over the letter authorizing him to take care of it!) We were to call the same man who had accompanied us to the port the month before. He was still in Colombo. It seems there was a hang-up, but no one could explain what it was. It took several phone calls to find out that the crates were not yet in Peliyagoda. They were on the truck, and would be arriving there soon, but . . .

It was about noon when our man finally appeared. "Do you have your passports?"

Of course we had our passports.

The three of us went inside. The police, customs officials, and work crews were friendly. Ken looked Pakistani to them, but his pendant prompted the question, "Are you Buddhist?" "Yes, we are." The inevitable, "Your country?" "The United States, but we live in Kandy now." "What part of Kandy?" "Anniwatte." "Oh, nice!"

The same exchange occurred over and over. The agent left us in an overly air-conditioned office with a TV showing dubbed cartoons in the corner. One man slept at a desk. Another read a newspaper. A telephone rang and rang, but nobody answered it. Other petitioners sat in the row of seats, waiting. Throughout the day, we saw the same people over and over, going from desk to desk, with files of papers in their hands. Forms, documents, applications, explanations. We recalled Dickens' account of the "Circumlocution Office," and it fit!

About one o'clock, we were approached by a man with a pass dangling from his button. "Lunch?" "No thank you," we said politely. Then we noticed the sign on the wall, "Lunch--12:45 - 1:45," and we understood that he was instructing us to leave.

We called the agent and told him we were in the canteen, which we had chosen over the walk back to the van. We bought a bottle of water, not cooled, which means hot, and sat watching men--all men--eat plates of rice and curry. Visakha wondered whether there was a women's restroom. There was indeed and she was impressed at how clean it was--probably unused for days?

From the stifling heat, we returned to the ice cold office, and watched the same men submit papers to the officials in a game of musical desks. The TV played on, with news of a Tamil journalist kidnaped in Colombo. (He was released the next day, blindfolded, with bus fare from his captors in his pocket.)

Our agent ran around, disappeared, reappeared, circulated papers, and took our passports once more. About three o'clock, he rushed breathlessly into the office and said, "Come with me! They are going to open the crates!" Back into the blazing sun, to the open doors of the huge warehouse. We were fascinated by an enormous hydraulic crane. It was designed specifically for moving containers, with prongs to fit the holes at the corners. A truck pulled up and stopped right in front of the crane. The crane's fork latched onto the container and neatly lifted it up. The truck pulled away, and the crane moved the container to the side, placing it neatly on top of another one. The crane backed up to its original position, and another truck pulled up. Awesome. Small forklifts zipped here and there like bees.

We occupied a bench and waited, waited, and waited. The work crew and customs police asked the questions. " Buddhist?" "Country?" "Kandy?" We responded patiently. Sometimes we feigned not to understand, just to get a rest. One of the laborers tested us by asking us to recite some Paritta. He was satisfied, pleased even, when we recited some of the Stanzas of Victory.

About three-thirty, a forklift brought a big wooden crate. The crew sprang into action, removing the large metal fasteners to open one side. Sure enough, there were some of our boxes. Strangely, this crate was only half full, with the boxes rattling around. We wondered why we had paid (twice) to ship that empty space across the ocean.

Eventually, the other two crates arrived and were opened. They were packed full. The boxes were still marked "PBO," "CP," and "DBO,"* and labeled "Kitchen," "Dining room," "Living room," "Books," "Office supplies," etc. The crew pulled out several boxes and slit them open. Visakha picked up a pillow and sniffed. Not musty. Hurray! More waiting, but nothing happened for quite a while. When the laborers learned that we had a lot of Buddha images and pictures, they asked for some small ones. We had expected to be asked for bribes, but this was unusual.. Leaving Visakha to keep the crew entertained, Ken disappeared and wandered through the boxes. A few minutes later he returned with 5 copies of one of the Buddhist cards with the image from Pegu that we had printed in Japan. He presented one to each of the team. They carefully put the cards away.

Two different Customs officials inspected the boxes. The second used the list we had provided and asked to see several specific items: the three-wheel vehicle, some books, a printer, the laptop computers (which he let go because Ken had no idea where that box was), and a Buddha image. He pointed out that the total declared value was $10,000, which equaled one million rupees. They could adjust the figures to reduce that, but there were some items, such as the printer, which were not allowed into Sri Lanka duty-free because they had to be "registered." He mumbled a little more, and then indicated that he might get the fees down to five lakhs--500,000 rupees or $5000! Deaf to our objections, he moved on to look at other shipments. As he left, he instructed the crew to close the boxes (We had to pay for tape!), repack the crates, and reseal them. Earlier, our agent had asked us for 2500 rupees. Out of this, he gave only 500 rupees to this crew, who, it seemed to us, had done all the work. They complained to us that this ($1 each) was not enough, we agreed, and he gave begrudgingly doubled it.

When that was all done, we were called back into the air-conditioned office. The TV was still going. All the men, who earlier had been doing little, now huddled together, sometimes with our agent, and discussed the case. Again we overheard the figure of five lakhs being bandied about while we waited. At four-thirty, one of the men called us to a desk and repeated that there would be Customs charges but that they would adjust the figures to make the fee as small as possible. "Is that OK?" he asked. We replied that we could not say it was OK until we knew how much it was. We had to wait again while they worked it out.

There was no question who was the big man in the department. He had the largest office, with a sign on the door that said, Assistant Customs Officer, and a notice, "Turn off cell phones before entering." He had gold rimed glasses.

Visakha took the bull by the horns and poked her head into his office. "Excuse me, sir. If I don't speak up now, you'll be going home and I'll be going back to Kandy." He motioned for her to take a seat. "We are not going to come back here." she continued. "We've already spent four days going from office to office. I'm 63 years old. We're retired . We've sold our house in the US to come here as religious workers, as volunteers, with residence visas. We are not allowed to work for pay in your country, so we are not going to pay your government for our own, used, property. If you charge Customs fees, we will not pay, and we will not get our own personal effects. That is not fair! Thank you for your time." She went back to her chair.

He immediately called for another meeting in his office. Our agent came out and asked once more for our passports. Yes, there it was: "religious worker" visa.

Suddenly, they all emerged from the office . "What about that three-wheel vehicle?" the Director asked. "Is it a three-wheeler or a bicycle?" We knew that tuk-tuks are often called "three-wheelers," so it was difficult to answer. "It's a three-wheel bicycle," Ken answered. "Bicycles have two wheels," the directors retorted sarcastically. Ken tried to explain why Visakha used it to commute to work in Japan, but he was annoyed since one of the Customs men there had seen the tricycle with his own eyes but didn't speak up. The Director marched out the door, leading the way to go and see this mysterious animal, which had been resealed in one (which one?) of the three crates. Halfway down the hall, he finally heard Ken, but remonstrated with him for raising his voice. He accepted that it was not a tuk-tuk, and we all trooped back into the office.

The Customs officer who had originally given the figure of five lakhs returned to his desk and began serious calculations. After a while, he summoned us to his desk and showed us a piece of paper on which he had scrawled some numbers. Instead of 500,000 rupees the bill would be 5280 rupees, $52! We could live with that. Why the experience alone was worth that much!

Ken pulled out his wallet to pay so that the crates could be loaded on the truck. "No, no!" the official said. "You have to pay at the bank tomorrow morning."

Ken's gasp could have been heard around the world. It was going on six o'clock by the time everyone finally agreed that our agent could pay for us and send the shipment to Kandy.

Visakha politely apologized to the Assistant Director for keeping him after office hours. He asked if we were happy, and we confessed that we were. Then he said, "Madam, we are public servants. We must sacrifice sometimes for the job." We followed him out, and watched as he climbed into his SUV and be driven away.

We told the agent that we didn't want the crates delivered in the morning because we were offering dana to two monks at home. Not to worry. They would, he assured us, arrive between one and three. Perfect! The next morning Ken called him (No one ever called us!) at eleven. He had not gone to the bank yet because some paperwork had suddenly arisen. At one o'clock, the crates still had not left Peliyagoda, but he promised that they would be in Kandy by six. Ken corrected him, pointing out that eight was more realistic. He laughed at the absurdity of that. To make a very long story a little shorter, the truck did not arrive until midnight. The Colombo office had originally said that they would find some Kandy locals to unload. We offered to find workers if Colombo would pay. They accepted that, but, then, at five o'clock, we were told that there would be three men on the truck. No need for local hire. Like everything else they told us, that was wrong. The driver, who had been kept waiting the whole day in Colombo before the cargo was released and loaded, was hired only to transport. The cleaner, his assistant, was also not told to unload the goods. Also, they had no tools whatsoever. After one half-hearted attempt to back up the driveway, the flatbed truck was parked in the street, between two feeble street lights. The driver and helper untied the crates and stood looking at them, perhaps expecting them to magically float up and into our house.

With a little foresight, we had arranged for Lily, her husband, her son-in-law, and two boys working in their little potato chip factory, to be on hand, with their small truck in case the big one couldn't make it up to the house. Amazingly that's exactly how it turned out.

An urgent call after midnight to the manager in Colombo (Thank goodness for cell phones!), guaranteed that we would be reimbursed for paying for unloading. Once they understood our situation, the driver and helper pitched in. All seven people worked like troopers, unloading from the crates, packing the boxes into the bed of the small truck, which drove up to the house, and carrying the boxes (more than one hundred!) into the house. The small truck had to make three or four trips. Everything was done in the dead of night, by flashlight. With only a very short break for coffee and biscuits, they did not finish until four o'clock. We paid each person a thousand rupees for their hard work. Lily took the wood from the crates home to make cupboards, and we all crashed.

Click either photo to see more photos of unloading.

Now, a week later, almost everything is unpacked. The altar is beautiful. The bookcases are full. All's well that ends well. Nothing broken. Nothing missing.

We appreciated Ven. Nyanatusita's message: "I am happy that your belongings finally arrived, albeit at midnight. It certainly has been a good opportunity for you to reflect on the suffering of having belongings."

Our new altar; now it is clear why we had the carpenter build it so large
The main room of the library; most of the Buddhist books
The Library Annex; the first time the ABSDF silk painting has been hung
The CD case becomes a mantel
At last, the glass case at the front door can be filled; Welcome!
Lily cleaning the ceiling with an impromptu palm-frond broom; Getting ready for the celebration

The other day, Savithri's dog, Scamper, began barking excitedly--a monkey on the roof next door! If a monkey came in over the fishpond, what havoc he could create, especially at the open Buddhist altar! No stuff, no worries!

We just learned from the agent in Colombo that the driver had asked him for two thousand rupees for unloading, reporting that we had not paid him anything. Doesn't that beat everything?

* PBO - Packed by Owner
CP - Company Packed
DBO - Disassembled by Owner

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