Friday, June 3, 2011

The iPad saga, part IV: Dante's Inferno

So. Dante and I return to EZ-E and head to the customs area, where we are greeted by the local staff like old friends. Everyone’s all like “Otra vez?” or “De vuelta?” (kinda like, “you guys again???”) and we’re all like, “Yeah.” So we park, with the aim of meeting with Sr Rinaldi, and as we’re navigating the maze back to his office, I really do believe that somehow the mysterious lawyer who’s been working on this issue for me (and who I’ve never seen or met, except via email, making him sort of like the modern equivalent of the boss in Charlie’s Angels) will have sorted it all out, so that we’ll get to Rinaldi’s office and he’ll be there waiting, full of “lo siento, senor” and will hand me my iPad, perhaps even with a few extra Argentine pesos to compensate me for the trouble.

At the risk of insulting your literary-interpretive capacities, dear broad readership, and by way of explaining this truly distended part-deux blogpost, I will mention that things did not unfold this way. This time, when we show up again, Rinaldi recognizes us, which is an improvement on last time, but he explains (slowly and carefully, and to me, in Spanish) that what he said last time remains true. (Here is the first time I can recall understanding a sentence in primarily Argentine Spanish, when he says to me “Vos sos el Americano quien….”; “vos sos” means “you are” in a casual sense, which the rest of the Castellano speaking world renders as “tú eres”) We’ve gotta go to the main customs bldg., and we’ve gotta talk to Viviana Constanza, and we’ve gotta do whatever she says.

My fantasies of being able to throw my Americano influence around and bypass the whole dilatory process having duly been shattered, I proceed with Dante in tow to re-visit Sra Viviana. This time, when we enter her room, she recognizes us with the iciest stare a dead-eyed bureaucrat can muster, and even when there’s clearly no one waiting to talk to her anymore, she doesn’t beckon us over, but conspicuously sorts some mail, then chats with a friend, then plays some Argentine solitaire on the old computer, all just to make it clear that she wants to make us wait. Finally, we are seated in her presence, and the same story emerges. This wasn’t a shakedown, she explains, but the awful, awful truth. DHL really does charge US$72 for the Guía Aerea, and without the GA, she can’t help us.

At this point, I’m at the stage of grieving commonly known as acceptance, and this makes it easier to swallow the fact that I’m going to have to pay hundreds of pesos for a form that proves only that I am who I am and that the iPad-containing package is mine (which, of course, could just as easily be proved by my showing a passport, but you know—acceptance). What makes it harder for me to deal with paying the US$72 is the much more salient fact that I do not have US$72 on my person. I explain this to Dante, who in a move that I’m told later is somehow very Argentine, immediately offers to loan me the outstanding amount. (I suppose that in the US, a driver would have simply said, “Tough luck pal, it’s not my problem.” For that matter, a driver in the US wouldn’t likely have gotten out of his car, asserting some mythic concern about liability.)

So after arranging the loan from Dante, we arrive at DHL HQ to find … nobody. There isn’t a soul at the front desk as there was last time. So we sit and wait for a while, watching the DHL employees behind a glass wall laugh and grab-ass and do everything but pay attention to us waiting for them, presumably because this would have required them to do some actual work. Dante and I then discuss whether I should get all American on their asses and bang on the window and demand service, and we hit on a medium measure: I should go up to the window, wave at them in a friendly manner (to the limited extent that “friendly” is a state of mind that DF is capable of mustering). I do this, waving my passport with the idiot notion that this will somehow help inspire the workers to pay attention to me, and miraculously, it does!

The DHL guy comes out, and after acting temporarily pissy that we first told him that we didn’t want a GA and now do want one, he proceeds to return to his office and create the form in a miraculously shot time (miraculously short by local standards, which is actually like twenty minutes). He emerges, I sign something I can’t read and don’t care to understand, get my passport, am given the Guía Aerea, and charge back across the hangars, with Dante trailing, and barge into Viviana’s office, brandishing the papers and expecting, again with really baffling naivete, that at this point she’ll accept them and magically produce the iPad.

This does not, to say the least, happen. After making us wait outside for a few punitive minutes, Sra Constanza beckons us into her chamber, and explains after shuffling through the papers for a bit that we’ll have to go to Room 1. We do this, wait briefly in a line, receive another stamp, and are then told that we are to go to Room 3. At this point I’m not entirely sure that we’re not in some kind of Argentine candid-camera show, where someone is going to pop out and tell us that the whole administrative merry-go-round is a rich and hilarious joke at my American expense, at which point we’ll all laugh heartily and I’ll get the em-effing iPad.

Nope. Turns out that we not only have to go to Room 3, but we have to wait in line with many of the same sad-sacks I recall from our first visit to the customs building what seems like a million years ago, esp the enormously obese gentleman, whose plight is particularly sad because he cannot stand in line for room 3 with the rest of us, and instead needs to sit in a nearby chair and yell at people to constantly remind them of his advancing status in the line.

Speaking of which line, as we’re waiting, Dante becomes increasingly antsy because as time ticks on, it becomes more and more clear that he’s going to need to leave soon if he’s going to get to his next client. Moreover, there’s no US-style sense of strict line management to push this very long queue along. Most people waiting don’t appear to have any real sense of urgency (in the US they’d be fuming and constantly needling the people in the office to hurry up). Some people seem to simply drift into Room 3 without waiting in line, and the people at the front of the line don’t seem to mind, and certainly don’t threaten to disembowel their grandmothers, as would be pro forma in America. And now the zapato’s on the other pie, as Dante is the one urging me to skip the line. We confer in hushed tones and hatch a plan that I’ve since come to think of as the ignorant, sad American.

I breathe a few deep breaths to screw up my courage, then walk past the waiting folks in queue, and barge straight into Room 3, where I immediately say “lo siento” several hundred times to the assembled three functionaries (who, btw, were totally not doing any work despite massive line outside). I’m ignorant! I’m sad! I’m American! Help! (It should come as no surprise to readers that presenting myself in this undignified manner is no treat, and that it’s an indication of my increasing desperation to escape customs as soon as possible.) Two of them are kind of pissed that I’ve walked in uninvited, but one takes pity on me as I explain my plight in broken Spanish, emphasizing that if I can’t get the iPad soon, my driver will leave and I’ll be stranded at EZE, etc.

So the sad-ignoramus act works for this one guy, who signs my forms, and ushers me into a mailroom where, from behind a gate, a man retrieves a package, and sets it in front of us. It is the iPad. I salivate so much that the tears I’m inclined to cry don’t end up happening, thanks to head-related dehydration. And just when I think it’s all about to come to a conclusion, the nice functionary who led me over to the mail area picks up the iPad and hands it … back to the guy working in the mail room. Apparently this was, in addition to being a truly, cruelly world-class tease, merely another step in the increasingly bizarre process of getting a package out of the hands of Argentine customs.

So my next step is not to return home with the long-awaited, much-maligned iPad, but rather at the direction of the nice functionary, to return yet again to room 2 and Sra Constanza. I barge in again, and this time Viviana lets me barge, and even beckons me over to her desk with a smile. For a moment, I suspect that I’ve somehow worked my way into her good graces, and that at long last she’s going to do me a favor or at least not be a total bitch this time.

Any guesses, readers? You got it--total, evil bitch. The reason she was smirking at me, it turns out, is that at this stage I get assessed an additional importation tax for the package. Amount: some hefty percentage of the actual value of the goods, more or less in the discretion of whatever mean government agent happens to be working on the issue. I explain to Sra V truthfully that this isn’t an “importation” as such, since the iPad is a personal item and not something I am going to use in the country. She pauses, and then responds that even so, I still need to pay an equal fee for “initializing” the iPad in Argentina. (Btw, this convo was entirely in Spanish—as the man says, desperately trying to avoid hefty foreign import taxes is the mother of fluency.)

I was reminded at this point of the scene in a Simpsons when a movie is going to be filmed in Springfield and the residents there tax and exploit the poor production studios so much that the studios have to leave. Final parting shot: Mayor says to producer, “There’s one last thing! A $5000 wearing- puffy-pants tax!” Producer, “But I’m not wearing puffy pants.” Mayor: “I meant, a not-wearing-puffy-pants tax.” In this scenario, obvs., I am the Producer and Sra Constanza is the Mayor. So I more or less accept that she is going to bleed me dry. The tax is usually around half the value of the goods, she says, so in this case? Two-thirds the value! That’s right, she charges me a US$200 importation tax, which I think is also plausibly construed as an “I just kinda hate DF’s ass” tax.

Of course, I do not have US$200 on my person, so at this point Dante and I have to hoof it over to a nearby Banco ATM and withdraw enough dolares to cover the tax, which we do, and then pay the quasi-bribe at the customs window thoughtfully located in the bank. I’ll say this about Argentina: while they bleed you dry with ridiculous, arbitrary fines, they at least have the decency to do so in a way that’s convenient. Argentine travel bureau, consider this as a possible ad campaign: “Argentina: where getting fined has never been easier!”

Now armed with a receipt proving that I’ve paid the blood money as requested, I return to Sra Constanza, who stamps my papers with lustful glee (at this stage, after rotating between all the rooms, I’ve got a staggering sheaf of papeles, most of which bear my signature, none of which I’ve read), and then pauses before … telling me I should move on to room 1 again. I proceed to room 1, where more papers are stamped, and then I’m told to go back to room 3 for another signature. A nice old Argentine lady is heading over there at the same time, and I use her presence to again skip the endless line and instead escort the abuela straight into room 3, where the nice functionary (somewhat confusedly) signs our papers, and then tells me to go back to room 1.

Room 1 it is, and now I’m told that there is one last, additional, very special charge. I have to pay them a fee for every day the iPad’s been in the customs building. It’s sort of like someone kidnapping your loved one, and then finally returning them after you pay the ransom and demanding rent for all the trouble they went to house the victim during the kidnapping. At this point, though, my approach is total acceptance, led by the instinct that it’s not going to change anything to make a scene (by contrast, Dante is livid and is denouncing the process as a theft and an outrage as I stoically hand over the required fees and sign the relevant papers). So I fork over $150 or so Argentine pesos (about $37 given the roughly 4:1 exchange rate), and am one last time told to head to the mail room.

At this point, it’s almost 5pm, and the mailroom’s about to close. I elbow my way to the front and present the relevant papers to the guy working there, who reaches under the desk and produces the iPad. I grab it and give him the receipt, then rush out with Dante back to the car before anyone can assess another fee (Running through the customs bldg—US$45! Speaking crappy Spanish—US$230! Wanting an iPad—US$568!). I show some receipt or other to a guy at the customs gate, he doesn’t object and in
moments we’re speeding back along the carreterra to Bs As.

You might expect that this was a moment of triumph, and that I was feeling enormous relief and joy that the whole experience was over and had actually resulted in my acquiring the iPad. Maybe I should have felt that way, but I didn’t. If anything, I felt pretty ridiculous. I’d long resisted the siren song of Apple products on the theory that however fun and cool they are, they’re not necessary and are hence an unwise use of money. Hence when I was offered a free iPad as compensation for a project, it seemed like the fates were saying, “Way to be frugal and not compulsively consumerist, DF. Here’s a reward for you.”

Then, instead of this iPad being the fun and cheap treat it was supposed to be, it turned into an absolute disaster of logistics and, worse, costs, that ended up making it seem not worth the trouble. This was, of course, largely my fault for being impatient. I didn’t need to have the iPad sent to me in Buenos Aires. I could have simply let it wait for me back in the US as a returning-to-the-States present. And if I’d known that having it sent to Argentina would be the disaster it turned out to be, I’d likely have done just that.

So on the way home, Dante asked me in Spanish if I was something-or-other. Pressed for an explanation, he indicated that the mystery adjective more or less meant “sad.” I tried to express in Spanish, “Shit yes I’m sad, guy. I just spent easily over US$500 in totally unnecessary and ridiculous fees and costs to get an iPad down to Argentina that was supposed to have been free. Not to mention that I burned a day of exploring the city and/or class prep waiting in em-effing lines in Ezeiza customs, and more or less got totally jobbed by the federales here in a way that makes me justifiably feel like a total bribe-victim dupe. So yeah, not exactly feeling tip-top, amigo.”

I actually tried to explain this in Spanish, and Dante was pretty sympathetic about the whole thing being a crap sandwich, of which he had to take a bite as well, because he had to spend so long waiting with me that he lost his late-afternoon client (and also in the annals of Dante being a standup guy, in addition to giving me a loan, is that at one point I was trying to figure out how to take a bus home in order to let him go make his appointment, and he refused and went ahead and missed his appointment so I wouldn’t be stranded at Ezeiza).

Then he said something like, “Pues, nada va a cambiar. Pasó todo. Es mejor olvidarlo.” Or that’s what I recall, and it means something like, “Well, nothing’s gonna change, and it already happened. Better to just forget about it.”
So, I more or less did, save for writing this long, two-part and not very interesting (DF said, having looked back over it all) cathartic story about the whole disastrous episode. I headed on up to my loud, loud Recoleta apt (after visiting an ATM one last time to pay Dante back for the loan, plus the price of the trips there and back, plus the time he spent waiting at the airport, plus a well-deserved tip), and powered up the iPad, which now exists and was not broken or damaged in any way, and has been enormously fun and useful.

I use it to play online poker (not for real cash) during my traditional lunches at a local pizza joint that has wi-fi. I use it to scroll through my notes when teaching class (in fact, was able to figure out a good way to do this the morning after the whole iPad customs fiasco went down). I use it to read the NYer, which is, somewhat surprisingly, even better than reading the actual magazine, as the tablet edition has much clearer richer images and an otherwise beautiful interface.

So in the interest of dark humor, let’s finish by toting up the costs, shall we? (All costs in US dollars.)

Mailing iPad from Sw to Argentina...........$143
Fee for Guía Aerea...........................$72
Possibly bogus “initiation” tax.............$200
Daily customs rental charge..................$45
Transport costs to/from EZE.................$125

[Actual value of this model iPad............$350]

Yes, readers, that actually happened.

Non, je ne regrette rien.