The flight from Sydney to Santiago was mercifully short and uneventful. The first thing we learned on arrival was the entire Chilean public service was on strike over better pay and this immediately translated into a massive traffic gridlock downtown due to protest marches. It took an hour and a half to get the 13km to our hotel. Worse still, the Chilean Aduana or customs department had been on strike for 18 days creating a massive backlog of freight at the airport warehouse our bikes were sitting in. It was pure luck we arrived on the day they ended their strike and we only had to wait a day before picking up the bikes, otherwise- worst case scenario - we could have been sitting in Chile for almost three weeks!
Our shipping agent’s instructions to get the bikes released were disarmingly simple: get original paperwork from the shipping company; have customs to sign them off and issue temporary importation permit; take said permit back to the shipper; ride away. Should take a couple of hours. Yeah, right…
The freight company the bikes flew with was not the company that received them (que?) This was figured out after a one hour phone call – 99% on hold listening to droning Chilean pop music. Once we’d found out which warehouse the bikes were in we set off to the airport lugging helmets, jackets and 10 litres of petrol as rules require bikes to be completely purged of any flammable liquids. First stop was a tiny demountable surrounded by a gaggle of truckies waving paperwork trying to get into the international cargo terminal. I stuck my head into the window only to find the three people in there spoke not a word of English (our constant bane) but courtesy of Google Translate (our new best friend) we established we were NOT in a truck to pick the bikes up but were actually… walking. From this point it was all downhill.
We were directed from the international freight depot (where a thinking person would assume freight from overseas would arrive) to the domestic depot where the bikes had actually arrived. After wandering around a couple of buildings full of bored workers and getting much advice (in Spanish) on where to go we finally found the not-so-secure entrance to the warehouses. And all whilst lugging a bag full of petrol – would love to try THAT in Australia! After more sitting around watching more unproductivity in the warehouse, the charming English-speaking manager Javier said he had ‘good news’ and ‘bad news’. Uh oh. The good news is that it would cost only $60 to get the bikes out (patently wrong – it ended up being over $500). The bad news was that we couldn’t get the bikes today (after three and a half hours of buggering around) but we could get them tomorrow at 4.30 and that we should get there at 3.30 so we can get through customs. Disappointed, we accepted our fate, drank a beer in the aeropuerto and beat our way back to the hotel. I befriended the hotel chef in the lift and we ended up at a party with free booze and food by the pool. Ok, we can deal with that!
Lulled into a false sense of security by Javier we lolled around the pool all morning and set off back to the airport, now filled with a sense of purpose as we knew where to go, a clear schedule and we were confident we’d get our bikes. Things turned to crap almost immediately. Javier was not around and his ‘Flunky’ told us to pay for the release of our bikes before going to customs. We’d passed the customs office and we knew it closed in 15 minutes. After a bit of crazy gesticulation regarding the limited time we had to get to customs, the Flunky told us to run there as he didn’t know it closed at 4pm. Argh! We sprinted back down through the warehouses to the customs office arriving at 3.50pm to find the door locked – no way! Sonja hammered on the door and made pleading gestures jumping up and down whilst I looked outraged and waved papers around. This proved to be remarkably effective and they let us in. An indifferent woman looked at our paperwork and finally announced that we need to go the Porta 1 (Gate 1) to get the paperwork done. Another 500m sprint down the warehouses (we were experts at the route by now) to find – surprise surprise – an office full of indifferent customs officers.
And there we sat for three hours. They clearly had no idea what to do with us and studiously ignored us as officials can do with practiced expertise even though we were less than a metre away. After no less than eight different officials had looked at our paperwork, one fellow finally waddled away with it and disappeared. We had no idea what was going on as no one spoke English - or so we thought. One of the customs officers, who’s job appeared to be to look with great concern at computer screens but actually do nothing, suddenly said in perfectly passable English that they were currently inspecting our bikes and the paper work would be done ‘soon’. We were completely shocked that a) there were English speakers in the office and b) that something was happening.
The fellow who had wandered off with our papers reappeared, grabbed our passports, punched info into a computer, printed out a bunch of documents, handed us our permit and said goodbye. All in a space of 10 minutes! Bang!
From there it was our final 500m walk back down to the warehouse, pay a lot more money than Javier’s ‘good news’ had promised, drag the bikes out of the containers – so exciting to see them at last! – put screens, mirrors back on, reconnect the batteries, toss fuel in and ride out elated into the night. We arrived at the airport at 3.35 and rode out at 9.15. We were exhausted but elated that we were finally on the road.
Our experience at the airport taught us many lessons.
That you need persistence to wait out the officials.
Not to believe what people say as often they say things to please you but really they are trying to get you out of their hair.
That people don’t necessary lie but they don’t give you the full picture and on reflection they were being as helpful as they are capable in a system that doesn’t reward speed, efficiency or productivity (hence the strike and riots when the government tries to change this). People did help us in the end but it was bloody hard work.
A sign of things to come?