You know, folks: today is my birthday, and the thought of spending this day in Guayaquil while waiting for la bestia wasn’t particularly uplifting. But thankfully the souls of Ernie and Bert took pity on Harry and me, and I received a very special gift just in time: on January 9, I got her back. 25 long days after loading her into a container owned by what must be the world’s worst shipping company, and following a cumbersome and costly process of declaring, shipping, claiming, unloading, inspecting, reloading, transporting and releasing that container’s cargo, team Bestia Blanda is once again complete.
For those considering or facing a similar experience: Do not ship with the stunningly unreliable Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC). Do not work with utterly incompetent Transunion Freight Forwarders in San Jose, Costa Rica either. And better wait until the talented and committed Ms. Mosquera at overpriced INSA Shipping & Storing in Ecuador has changed employers.
Honestly, if I had anything positive to say about these companies, I’d say it here. But there really isn’t anything of note. Now is the time to forget and move on.
Scheduled for a December 31 arrival on the M/V Helene S, the MSC container carrying la bestia and my belongings actually arrived in Guayaquil on January 3 on a different vessel.However, no one had notified me about the change of ships in Panama, and so it took three days to trace the yellow metal box’s whereabouts.
On January 5 I received notice that the contents would be inspected by Ecuadorian customs on the following day. Harry and I left Cuenca at 2:30AM and made it to the port of Guayaquil by 8:45AM. A trip supposed to take four hours took over six because our cab driver decided to take a half-hour nap half-way to our destination and then struggled for an hour to find our hotel in Guayaquil. Once arrived, he also asked for $30 more than we had agreed on. That didn’t happen, though.
In the port, Ecuadorian customs officials used state-of-the-art techniques such as looking (involving half-second glances at massive bulk cargo), stepping-on-stuff (presumably to test consistency) and photographing (to an extent that one had to seriously wonder who would ever review the thousands of pictures taken). I was warned that “my” official–pictured above–was particularly unforgiving, and it was instantly noticeable that her looking, stepping-on-stuff and photographing skills were exemplary.
For the next two hours, nothing happened. Whereas the containers to the left and right of mine had been opened and their cargo partly unloaded for inspection, mine stayed closed. On top of that, INSA’s port agent suddenly vanished, and so I found myself in the blazing heat without a clue what to do.
After two hours, I spotted “my” customs official again — she was talking on her cell phone. I briefly considered slaying her with a steel rod lying on the ground nearby but quickly realized that my chances of fleeing the scene would have been minimal. So I slowly walked over and asked her in my nicest Spanish why the fuck she had not yet inspected my container. She seemed startled. “Your handler hasn’t requested that it be opened,” she replied. “Ah, right,” I thought — apparently my handler’s one functioning brain cell was still trying to figure out why his attempt to make me offer bribes to three of his “friends” had been in vain. I approached him, but before I could say anything he looked at the customs official and exclaimed, “Oh, wonderful! THERE you are! Please allow us to open this container…”
And there she was: la bestia. Shining Japanese sheet metal against the background of a dull orange MSC container. “Please go ahead and inspect,” I summoned the customs official. “You need to remove all contents from the container,” she replied. I was incredulous. “None of the other containers had to be emptied out completely for inspection,” I remarked in response, “then why this one?” She did not even look at me. “It’s a rule,” she mumbled.
Here was yet another moment in which a little hand-out, a $20 note stuck underneath a passport, a friendly monetary gesture of appreciation in support of a potentially starving Ecuadorian customs official would probably have gone a long way. “Of course, a rule,” I replied. “Then we should comply with that rule.”
Twenty minutes later, the container’s contents were baking in the mid-day heat. The rule-abiding customs official did not even verify la bestia‘s VIN (unique car identifier); she merely checked about three dozen boxes on a form, handed over the form to INSA’s corrupt sub-contractor (pictured above) and walked away. “Okay, we can now load everything back into the container,” he informed me.
And so the container was locked and sealed anew.
After three more hours of paperwork, signatures and counter-certified cash payments, I took a taxi back to the hotel in Guayaquil where I (semi-successfully) rinsed off nine hours of madness in the sweltering port with a long shower.
On January 7 I went to INSA’s downtown office to pay more bills: from the company (“Aktion Projects” — what an idiotic name) that had apparently transferred the container from one vessel to the other in Panama (a routing I had never been notified about, let alone approved) to the shipper–MSC–that suddenly invoiced all kinds of charges that had presumably already been included in Transunion Freight Forwarders’ quote. After settling all these bills, I was naive enough to assume that la bestia would be taken out of the port the same day. But, no: of course the port wants its slice of the pie, too, by seeking to maximize storage and transport fees while the container remains on its premises.
On January 8 I learned that Aktion Projects in Panama claimed that INSA Ecuador hadn’t paid them for some of its services (despite my cash payment the day prior), and even though INSA could credibly assure me that the payment had been made, they refused to have the container taken out of the port without first settling the issue with Aktion.
On January 9 I was then informed that the container had finally been transferred but that a payment I had made to Transunion in Costa Rica three weeks earlier had not been passed on as required — and would therefore had to be made again before the container could be released.
That’s when I had enough. “In the spirit of loving kindness and absolute forgiveness,” as my Washington, D.C. yoga instructor often puts it, I shall not provide details of what happened next. Suffice it to say that I left INSA’s premises an hour later in la bestia‘s driver’s seat and without having paid that final bill. I returned to the hotel, put my belongings back into the car, let Harry jump in as well, and took off toward the mountains.
I was hoping to make it back to Cuenca and to proceed from there to Peru the next day, but the (still) broken alternator forced me to stop at a small restaurant 100km east of Guayaquil. Thankfully we had made it far enough to get out of the coastal heat, and the restaurant owners generously allowed us to spend the night on their grounds while I would use the charger I had purchased from Paul (my guardian angel while crossing the border from Nicaragua to Costa Rica last month) to re-inject some energy into la bestia‘s engine compartment.
Beer in hand, it felt really good to return to the basic overlander setup. What I could not have foreseen was that around 11PM a group of adolescents arrived and started partying a few meters away from us. They kept going until 5AM, when I finally got some sleep. It was okay, though; I even had to snicker at the situation since it felt as if they were unknowingly celebrating my birthday.
On January 10 I got up early and, after circumnavigating about a dozen puddles of vomit, had a quick coffee in the restaurant before continuing our return to Cuenca. The route we are taking is different from the one chosen by the sleepy-greedy taxista a week ago: Harry and I are driving past the Inca ruins of Ingapirca, and we are looking forward to exploring them on foot.