While Nicaragua is technically a democratic republic, it more resembles a socialist country, so my theory is that government run processes are so huge, bloated, slow, and inefficient here simply because it employs more people and consumes more resources – which in turn generates more employment somewhere. It’s also a little archaic in its practices. I can’t remember the last time I dealt solely with paper, carbon copies, and rubber ink stamps before my encounter with Nicaragua customs.
I’ve read a saying somewhere that America kills it’s citizens with taxes, while Nicaragua kills them with lines. I got in my first line around 2:15 and didn’t get out of there with my single package until about 5:30. Caveat: this was the day before Christmas Eve (Christmas Eve Eve?) so I’m sure that had some impact on the overall time, but that doesn’t diminish the significance of how bad the system is.
We asked the driver who picked us up from our hotel in Matagalpa if he could swing by airport customs so I could jump out and pick up a package. He agreed.
Luckily the place appeared to be open. The first time we went they had just closed, and the second time they were closed for a holiday. This place is not in the airport, but in a large cargo shipping/receiving area near the airport. There were about 60 people waiting around. A guard was opening and closing a large gate to let various cargo vehicles in and out. I slipped in when he opened it once and he said, “No!” I expected this, but needed to ask the guy where I should go. I showed him my papers and he told me to get in line “over there” and he pointed to a very long line. Keep in mind I BARELY SPEAK OR UNDERSTAND SPANISH so much of what unfolded was figured out on guesses.
I started walking to the end of a very long line, then heard a guy shout, “Senor!” I turned around and there was a guy selling cookies out of a bucket. He said I was walking too far down – this was not the line – and pointed at where I should go. Happily, the real line was only about 4 people long at that point. I went there and a cop who happened to be there asked for my shipping documents – which I had picked up from the DHL office on a completely different trip. He confirmed I was in the right place. Whew! This should be easy!
I waited outside this gate as trucks came and went. No one seemed to pay any attention to us non-vehicle bi-peds holding documents. Eventually our driver (with Roberta and Levi) had to move, because they had simply parked by the curb. They drove to a convenience store across the highway where they stayed for the next 2.5 hours or so.
Finally the guard who’d been letting vehicles in opened the gate I was waiting at and asked each of us for our documents and identification. He then disappeared across the parking lot and into a giant building. We waited.
Eventually he returned with our IDs and documents. My documents had now been stapled together with a number on them – the same kind of number you’d pull from a “Take a Number” dispenser. I was number 93. “Sweet!” I thought, “Now we’re getting somewhere!”
Then we waited more. I don’t know why they didn’t just let us in at that point, but they didn’t. We waited for about 10 minutes and THEN they let us in and pointed out where to go.
Before going in I bought a pack of cookies from the guy who had helped me find the correct place to stand.
Where to go was a giant warehouse. When I arrived I saw a waiting area behind a glass wall and door. It was packed with people. In the front half was a reception area and a few other official looking desks. Around these stood lots of people. In the other half of the waiting area were rows of chairs completely full of people. But I couldn’t go in…I had to wait in line before I could go inside.
Yes, I had to wait in line before I could wait in line. I’ve still not deciphered the logic of why they wouldn’t let us in. I guess just so that the waiting area wouldn’t get too over crowded…?
I also saw the digital number counter indicating where in the queue they were. Number 10. I was number 93.
Once we were allowed inside, guess what we did. We waited! It was pretty hard to tell what was going on. For one, the people at the reception desk were NOT calling out numbers, but people’s names. Also, the number counter was not changing. The importance of my number 93 was uncertain. Was I in the right spot? Is there some other place where numbers are called instead of names?
I stopped a DHL guy as he passed through the crowed on his way somewhere and he confirmed for me that I was in the right spot. I had to see reception when my number came up and then I could go into the cargo area. A simple two-step process. You can’t beat that!! Unless you add several more unnecessary steps to it, which they managed to do!
I figured out that the number counter did not change with each number being processed. They would simply set it somewhere within a 10 digit range to indicate where they were. For instance, when the counter changed to 63 everyone who had a number in the 60’s rushed the reception desk.
After an eon or two, the 90’s came up. I rushed the desk like a rabid howler monkey and shoved my papers into a woman’s face. She asked for my ID. I gave her my passport and TX driver license. She pushed it all back to me and said something in Spanish that dazzled my ear bones and made no sense.
A guy next to me just happened to speak English. He told me that I needed a copy of my passport. Naturally, instead of having a copy machine that the woman could have easily made a copy with RIGHT THERE the copy machine resided at the end of a…you got it…a line!
This line wasn’t technically long, but the old guy at the front was copying a lot of stuff and it was taking forever.
A couple of things to note about this copier: 1) It wasn’t a standalone where you go and make your own copies. No, it was manned by a human being whose sole purpose was to make copies of what you hand him. That is this guy’s job! 2) This copier was an old, single-sheet copier, not one that you could put a stack of papers in and hit “go”. Each paper had to be copied individually, which is why the old guy at the front (who must have been copying the King James Bible) was taking so long. 3) The copier had a floor fan pointed at it so it would melt from the inside out.
When my turn came up I figured it might be wise to go ahead and get copies of everything I had, not just my passport. I did and it cost me 10 Cordoba. With my copies I went and stood in…
Back at the reception desk I wormed my way to the front and presented my papers. She looked pleased. This, in turn, made me pleased. She then stapled a customs claim form to my papers and said, “You need fill this out and come back.”
If there is one thing the claims cargo area is sorely missing it’s an abundance of pens…or pencils…or quills. There’s NOTHING to write with there, and yet you must fill out a form. Sadly, I didn’t have anything to write with in my backpack.
There was one guy with a pen filling out a form who was nice enough to let me borrow his pen. I filled out my form and, well, you can guess what comes next…
After a bit of a wait I made it up to the reception desk again and presented my papers again. She seemed pleased. I was skeptical. But after peppering my forms with several smacks from a rubber stamp she said I could enter the cargo area to get my package!
This hell was almost over!
That’s the problem with hell. Its purpose is to excite you then crush your dreams, so I found myself at…
LINE #7 (This isn’t so much a line as an ordeal)
I entered the cargo area and was immediately confronted by a guard who rattled something unintelligible to me. What he meant was that I couldn’t take my backpack in there. He lead me out of the cargo area and back into the waiting area and said I need to leave it by the glass door…on the floor…unattended. My backpack with $300 USD worth of Cordobas in it and my laptop.
Needles to say, I was reluctant, but what was I to do? I took out the money and left it there. On my way back to the cargo area I passed the English speaking guy who had helped me understand that I needed copies. I asked him to PLEASE keep an eye on it for me, and he agreed.
Oh, I forgot to mention that the guard also said I needed packing tape. The English speaking guy gave me his. Why I needed tape to pick up a package I had no idea.
Back inside the cargo area I went down to the DHL area and gave them my papers. They scanned them, stamped them, wrote on them, and then dug my package out of the back and brought it up front.
Yes! My package!
They gave me my papers. But not my package. WTF?! It’s right there!
No, I had to go back down to the cargo entrance to get a customs agent to come back with me to the DHL area. She then opened my package and examined all of the contents, scribbling notes on my papers. Then she taped it up with DHL tape. I learned that some other shippers don’t provide tape, so you need to bring your own to re-close your packages, hence why I needed tape.
Okay, so surely now that my package had been found and inspected I could take it! Nope. Hell is not that easy.
The customs lady scooted off and motioned for me to follow. I looked at her confused and made a sad pantomime that asked “Can I take my package?” and she shook her head. So I left DHL without my package. And I didn’t even get my papers back! The customs lady kept them. Why? Because I had to visit…
You see, just because your package exists and has been inspected doesn’t mean you get to have it. Not just yet. Oh no, you have to exchange your papers for a voucher!
The customs lady told me to wait at the reception desk (ah the reception desk…it feels like home to me!) until they called my name. THIS is why they had been calling names and not numbers earlier. She kept my papers to be processed.
It was quite a relief that my backpack was still where I’d left it by the glass door! My English speaking friend assured me no one had touched it.
Employees would appear at the reception desk with stacks of papers like mine. The woman at the reception area would call names off from the papers and give those people their vouchers to receive their packages.
After about 20 minutes my name was called and I got my voucher! I was shocked that I didn’t have to get any copies, fill anything out, give blood, or construct a replica of the Eiffel Tower out of popsicle sticks for their amusement. They just gave me my voucher! So I went and stood in…
I had to go BACK to the DHL area to give them my voucher to get my package. This meant leaving my backpack at the glass door again. At this point my English speaking friend was not around, so I had no one to keep an eye on it. I just left it there.
They had a small group of other people retrieving their packages but after a short wait the package was IN MY HANDS! There was no stopping me now. Except for…
Once I had my package I had to go to yet another area where they created more paperwork about my package, stamped various things, and scribbled various notes. While in this area I could actually SEE THE EXIT!
Once the stamping and scribbling was done the guy who’d been stamping and scribbling said that I just needed to show my voucher receipt and package to the guard near the exit and I’d be free to go.
And I was! And my backpack was still there by the glass door!
When I exited the warehouse the sun stung my eyes, yet felt good on my skin. It was a sensation I’d long forgotten.
I saw Roberta, Levi and our driver at the convenience store across the street. I hoisted my package in the air and let out a victorious war cry then bounded across the highway. I’m sure it would have looked pretty awesome in slow motion.
MY TIPS ON PICKING UP A PACKAGE FROM NICARAGUAN CUSTOMS
1) Bring a pen. You may or may not need one.
2) Bring packing tape. You may or may not need it.
3) Do NOT bring a backpack full of valuables.