Tuesday, March 10. A fateful day. Our long-awaited packages have arrived in Ecuador. I call the shipping company, but now they can't find them. They'll call me back. An hour later, they've found them — stuck in customs.
Customs. We've heard every horror story imaginable since making the decision to have replacement gear sent down. The deposed ex-President's son is in charge from what we heard. His father was charged with embezzlement.
We go to the shipping company who give us the waybill. They smile forlornly picturing the anguish awaiting us. They advise hiring a professional. "You'll be pushed from one room to the next. Tomorrow, they'll tell you, tomorrow."
Unable to bear the thought of waiting any longer we decide to go it alone. We work our way through the airport maze, eventually arriving in a hangar-like building teaming with bureaucrats. They rush past, spilling sheaves of paper barking into cell phones. It's Kafka's Castle in the digital age.
In the first room we explain our predicament to an uncaring face. "You need to fill out X, Y, and Z form and then ..." She mumbles on with unintelligible jargon without looking up. Seeing our lost-at-sea looks, a co-worker comes to our aid. We again explain our situation: We were robbed. We need to get our stuff. We are leaving the country. Please don't make us pay.
He listens carefully and, after we finish, begins a heated discussion with the nemesis. We don't understand it all, but we can tell he's fighting our fight, trying to find the right loop-hole for us to crawl through. She keeps spitting out the party line: There are forms; there are laws.
Finally they reach a resolve that will allow us to serve as "custodians" for our gear until the border. The solution seems acceptable to the audience that has gathered and we are herded off to another office to meet the administrator. We explain and gesture and plead while he reads a newspaper article describing our trip and the assault. He is moved. In a gesture of omnipotence he summons his secretary and tells her the plan.
In another room we watch as another secretary begins typing a form for us. Every now and then she calls me over and points for me to sign. Finally, form in hand, we are led through a series of rooms. In each, our form is stamped and initialed. Occasionally, people pull a form from the stack. Rushing between offices I get a chance to read our magic form. Essentially it states: We hereby honorably and humbly beseech the favor of releasing our shipment. In accordance with law 13-F-4, subsection XII, article 3c, we yield before the Supreme State and offer our earnest prayers for you to grant us mercy." Not surprisingly, it works.
In the end, we travel to 15 different offices (I counted) before being granted access to the "bodega." A guard allows us passage through the chain-link threshold and into a giant warehouse. The picture which greets us brings to mind the closing scene from The Raiders of the Lost Ark : an acre of cardboard boxes five stories high. Somewhere within the numbing anonymity is our Grail. We are so close.
Of course, we are sent away. Our paperwork is incomplete and we need to make more copies, and pay a storage fee, and copy our passports, and ... We've come too far to be so easily vanquished and we set off determined that we can brave a few more hours in line. When we return, our forms, copied in sextuplet, are dispersed among the crowd. We watch anxiously as collective eyes scan the pages and trace the signatures. At last a judgment is issued: Wait in the International Wing. You're boxes will be there.
We retrace our way through the maze and find ourselves at last in the International Wing. Our presence disrupts a group of fat cats ogling the morning's nudie tabloid. We go through the routine. We show the magic article. They nod appreciation.
"You'll have to wait until five until the customs agents return."
Will this cruel joke never end? The look that comes over our faces elicits a heartily laugh. Then, with an air of one who often plays with fate, the commander says, "Take your boxes. Don't get robbed again, okay?"
The group bursts out laughing. At this point we're not sure if they're impostors, but we take them at their word and gather up our long-awaited treasures. Shouting thank yous we hurry out the doors, not daring to look back.
Postscript: Many thanks to all who offered support to get us back on the road. Especially we'd like to thank Doreen Miranda at The North Face, Jeff Herr at ABCNEWS.com, George Wiswall at Jandd Mountaineering, Jeff Zinner at MSR, Madeline Melichar at Pentax, Jim Meyers at Outdoor Research, and Mr. and Mrs. Holmes for footing a massive phone bill.