Saturday, March 31, 2007
T Minus One And Counting.
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So, things proceed apace with the boat, but I'm exhausted each night when I collapse into bed. I'd like to have been better about writing more of what happens each day, but when I think about it I begin to tremble and I need to go sit down somewhere quiet. What follows is a quick summary on the experiences I've had since I last wrote about doing business in Trinidad, or as I call it "Sticking my head up my ass to get a better view of my navel." I'm pictured here, out of sheer desperation and frustration, trying to pull my brains out through my nostrils.
In case anyone was worried that Soviet style bureaucracy had faded away with the fall of the Berlin wall, take heart, and know that you are only a short plane ride away from some of the most delightful aspects of the tax authorities of the late Byzantine administration, with features you haven't seen since the East German phone company collapsed.
When I arrived I was unable to get onto the boat (see previous email) so I booked a hotel room at the local swank marina for the first two days before moving onto Triton, which is "up on the hard" (thats sailor speak for up on blocks on the land) at a local boat yard about 1/2 mile away. The boat yard is called "Aikane's", which adds to an odd series of naming coincidences there: the boat was made by Robertson & Caine, my dad's name is also Robert Kane making me "Robert's son", and the yard is called "Aikanes", which is French for "We Have Your Money, Now Go Home".
The boat yard specializes only in catamarans, they build, refurbish and store them and have been in business for years. It is run by a very tall, very thin, French ex patriot named Philip who looks as if he has a couple of extra elbows and knees. His accent is that delightful French cadence that is wonderful to listen to even if what he is telling you means its costing you more money. I think this must be a job requirement. Probably an American yard owner couldn't express such constant bad news without some yachtie caving in their skull with an oar. After having dealt with him for six months, first in person, then on the phone, then via email, and at times via faxes, I'm glad to report just how great a job he had done. Everything he has told me to expect has been spot on (which has mostly been "It will take longer than is at all reasonable", "It will cost more than you think it should", "You can't get that part here" and "That can't be done here, you would need to go to the US or Europe to make that happen". What work his company has done (mostly minor maintenance and winterizing the boat), however, has been excellent and his construction staff are very, very skilled, efficient, knowledgeable and courteous. I think they might be violating Trinidad's laws by being so, but I'm grateful for it. The one hiccup I've had with the yard has been communication through the front office. The secretary leaves something to be desired - more on that later.
I was a bit worried on Monday when I first got to the yard. The small part in the back of your mind that always imagines the worst (and there is a lot than can go wrong where boats are concerned) was having a field day. When I arrived I discovered that not only was my boat still there, it hadn't burned down, wasn't vandalized, or being lived in by gypsies. Philip and his crew not only kept it air conditioned as they had promised, but they discovered a few leaks in the large salon windows, and a leak in the port head hatch. As I was flying into Trinidad, thinking about all the things that could go wrong, I remembered that I had wanted to put a tarp over everything before I left, but ran out of time and forgot about it in the bustle before leaving.
Without asking them to do so, they covered the leaking hatches with tarps and checked up on them regularly. In fact, much to my amazement, the boat had been maintained quite well, despite the God awful humidity and heat that is Trinidad. There was some mildew in the forward cabins and heads, which required only wiping down with mild bleach. Oh, and a number of pillows got moldy. This was actually kind of funny given that I had gone to such great measures to seal them in giant Ziplock bags, sucking out all the air, and packing them with desiccants. There were several other bags of sheets, blankets, etc. that I'd done very little to protect, yet they resisted the urge to go over to the dark side. I'm not sure what it is about pillows that make them so susceptible. Perhaps they haven't learned the Jedi mind trick yet.
So, as I mentioned, I'd arrived in Chaguaramas relatively crash free, the boat was intact, I had found a hotel for a few days, life was starting to look good. Then began my indoctrination into the culture of the islands. No, let me rephrase that: The Culture Of The Islands, Yah Man, Please Wait Over There And We'll Ignore You. Let me explain: So, imagine you wanted to buy a cheap folding chair. What would you do? Well, first off, you'd probably already have three dozen ratty folding chairs in your garage (see, you are well on your way to becoming a sailor already) but if you were really lazy you'd just grab one the next time you were at Safeway and probably pay $1.87 more than if you shopped around. They would either be propped up by the cash register, or in the isle they reserve for season stuff like Halloween costumes or July 4th picnic supplies. If not, then you'd find them on top of the food isles, next to the coolers with all that odd wicker furniture.
But, lets say the Safeway union cashiers are on strike, and because you once had a part time job stocking shelves for UPS and are still technically a union member, you don't want to cross the picket lines. Well, then you'd probably go to a hardware store, or Target, or Home Depot, or if you really wanted something over-designed to death, Ikea. You might even check the Internet, find exactly the brand you wanted, compare prices, then order it and have it delivered to your door exactly at the time the shipping company said it would.
Well, forget all that. You in the third world now chum. Pretend you never heard of customer service, inventory on hand, back stock, work ethic, scheduling or price competition. In Trinidad, if it isn't on the shelf in front of you, don't even think about getting it soon. Most likely what you want isn't going to be in stock. And even if it was in stock somewhere, you'd have to find an employee willing to actually get it for you. It is a little know law that all Trinidadian workers are allowed to perform only one complete and satisfactory customer transaction per day. If you happen to be second in line, they are required, by law, to fuck with you. Ah, I hear you say "Oh, come on now, Robb, it isn't that bad" to which I reply HAH! Come down here and try to buy a Ricoh Diesel Filter port O-Ring to 3/8" brass compression fitting in under three days! BTW, you are probably saying, well yeah, that might take three days here as well. Yes, that might be true, but only if it didn't actually exist anywhere in the state and had to be shipped in. In reality, there are at least twenty stores within a radius of as many miles that could supply it - I know because I needed one before I left but didn't have the forty five minutes of time to run to the store to buy it. Oh how I regret that decision.
"Okay", you ask, "so why don't you just ship everything you need?" Oh ho what fun! I had AnnMarie do just that. I needed a piece of equipment to finish installing the radio. She shipped it to me on Monday. On Tuesday I got a note from DHL saying my package had arrived, but was at the airport, a two hour drive away. "No way, the airport is only twenty miles away! It can't take that long" you reply. Well, in a country of 1.2 million people, there are 600,000 cars and seven roads, all built during the dark ages and maintained by those employees that were fired from Cal Trans for ineptitude. Try to imagine just how inept you'd need to be to get fired from Cal Trans. Double it, and you have the minister of road work for Trinidad. He's the most talented person in his organization, and he's probably not actually on the island most days because he works from home in LA were the traffic isn't as bad.
We now return to you to our regularly scheduled rant. So, I'm told by the yard that a DHL notice has arrived, and my package is at the airport. But it isn't supposed to be at the airport, its supposed to be here at the port captain's office in the Customs Depot. That is the entire reason for using the more expensive shipping companies in the first place - they will deliver it to you within some reasonable time frame. I patiently explain this to the sweet, kind, polite imbecile at DHL, who assured me that "No, you must come to the airport, there was a problem with your package and we can not deliver it." So, I drive through two hours of traffic and get to the airport, where the sweet, kind, polite manager explains that "No, actually, we sent it to the port after we spoke with you". Why didn't you call me? You had my phone number, you knew I was slogging my way through traffic. You figured this out almost immediately after we spoke. How much effort would it have been to follow through?
That is the crux of the third world attitude. We might, if at home, scream and yell about customer service so inconsiderate. We'd tell all our friends, and complain to the company. Down here, there is no one to complain to, no one can ever be fired for incompetence, and there is no expectation that anyone will ever do anything but the minimum required effort. Ah dear reader, I see your expression, hold that thought. Okay, simple mistake, it could have happened to anyone, right? No reason to get upset - just an unusual mix up, right? Wrong. This is the standard business model. I've spoken to over twenty other cruisers down here, at least twice as many locals, and numerous business owners, and every single one of them has five, ten, twenty or more examples of this kind of experience. It has all happened to them, and they're locals. Fine, its the islands, deal with it.
I drive to the port captain's office. It is a room about ten by twenty, located right next to the docks, and painted at least once since the Spaniards first came to the islands. There are four desks and a counter. Each desk is manned by a Customs Chief Inspector General Manager Director, [all Trinidad Customs officials have this title - its like calling the janitor the Senior Vice President Of Sanitary Conformation] who are all either sleeping, reading a newspaper or playing Sudoku on the computer. I walk up to the counter and wait for the Customs Chief Inspector General Manager Director to finish reading the Daily Star Globe's article about "Why Brad Might Be Gay". I stand politely at the counter, about two feet away from her, waiting for any acknowledgment that I'm there, which takes about five minutes, speed reading not being a required skill for a Customs Chief Inspector General Manager Director.
Eventually, she looks up and says "Ya?" with as much "why are you interrupting my day?" attitude as one could jam into those two letters. I explain that I've received word from DHL, and that I'm here to pick up the package. She doesn't even respond, she just points to one of the other Customs Chief Inspector General Manager Directors and nods. I walk over to his desk. He was not four feet away from the prior conversation and was watching and listening to the entire exchange. He looks at me for a while without saying a word. Eventually, it becomes apparent he isn't going to say anything. I say "Excuse me, but are you the person I should see about picking up a package?" Long pause, no response. Perhaps he's deaf, I think - it wouldn't surprise me at all if he was. After a minute of just staring at me, he says "And what is it you want?" Every bone in my body wants to scream out "Oh, nothing, I just fought my way through four hours of traffic to find out what your job is, thank you so much for confirming that for me". But I don't. In the islands, sarcasm only delays the process of fucking with you.
Thinking that perhaps the lack of sleep has started to affect my ability to perceive reality, I repeat that DHL has delivered a package, that, yes, I'm here to pick up that package. "Boat name?" he asks, I tell him. He looks in a very, very large ledger book where each column and heading has been drawn in by hand. Now, this form hasn't changed in about three hundred years, but they are still drawing the column separators in by hand using a ruler. The thought of having it printed by a professional printer is beyond the scope of their training, and would also reduce the justification for having four members on staff at all times. There are maybe ten boats that come through here a day. Maybe. yet you will always wait at least a few minutes (regardless of whether there is anyone else in the Customs building) before you will be allowed to speak to someone.
Well, he looks up in his ledger and finds my entry. "Okay, that will be one hundred and thirty seven dollars" he says. I explain that this is a "boat in transit" and there isn't supposed to be a duty or import tax. He says there isn't, but it is 12:57 and there is a service charge for picking up packages during their lunch hour, which occurs between noon and one. I look at the clock. "How much will it be if I stand here and wait three minutes?" I ask. "Oh, then it will be free." he says without any trace of irony, humor or spite. There is a long moment where we just look at each other. I nod. We continue to stand there for three more minutes, just looking at each other. Try to imagine this. Just for grins, ask a coworker to participate in an experiment. Tell them it will take exactly three minutes of thier time, that they should look at you without looking away for three minutes. See if you can do it. It was a surreal experience, just standing there starring at him. Go ahead, try it sometime.
So we stood there starring at each other, motionless, while the rest of the Customs Chief Inspector General Manager Directors read the newspaper, played computer games, and snored. Slowly, painfully, the clock struck one. He then shrugs, gets ups, and hands me my package. I leave. I would not be sure if I hadn't just hallucinated the entire experience due to lack of sleep were it not for the numerous testimonials of others, as well as the abundance of similar experiences I've had myself at Customs since then.
So, I go back to the boat and continue to work on getting it ready for a Monday launch into the water. Philip is concerned about the tides and weather, and suggests that we launch on Friday instead. Okay, that means cramming three days worth of work into one, but I'd rather avoid an unnecessary risk, and getting the boat into the water sooner is better. I ask AnnMarie to please take off work to handle the final invoice payment which requires going to the bank to do a wire funds transfer. She does, and sends a follow up email with the details. I continue to work all day, and at 5am this morning I had everything ready for launch. The yard crew doesn't start until six, I'm unbelievably exhausted, but I figure that the crew will wake me up when they arrive (they've done so every morning for the last week - showing up at dawn and then banging away around my boat), so I put my head down for a quick and much needed nap.
I wake up at 9am, still on land. I go find Philip who tells me that since they never received the documentation of the wire funds transfer they didn't put the boat in, and it will have to wait until Monday. Don't even think about getting anything done on a Saturday or, God forbid, a Sunday. I ask him why he didn't just wake me up and ask? He shrugs, says Karen, his secretary never got the fax so he assumed it hadn't happened. We go up to his office, I call Ann, she refaxes the documents while Philip looks in Karen's in box. There is the letter - she just didn't bother opening it up yesterday or mentioning that anything had gone amiss, and the fact that the fax was lost or never arrived didn't seem to mean anything to her. So what if I'm paying for slip fees and it means more charge to me. Shrug. No worries man. Its not like anyone would ever get fired for doing the minimum.
So, that is how things have been. If you want to get something done, expect to do it yourself. If you need anything, expect to "manage" it every step of the way, and expect that everything you are told is wrong. Oh, and expect to pay about thirty percent more for that privilege. Its funny for me, having been deeply involved in so many fast paced, highly efficient startup companies. Had the dot com boom started down here instead, we'd all still be working trying to get email working and wondering if graphics were possible. Welcome to Trinidad. I hope you aren't in any hurry.
p.s. Firearms are strictly prohibited in this country. At first I thought it was because they were worried about criminals having easy access to guns. Then I realized that their real concern is a population capable of expressing their dissatisfaction with the bureaucracy and red tape that passes for civil service. Any reasonably well armed society would have shot every customer service rep and government official by now. But I'm not bitter.
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