19 February 2013

Customs is Evil

Since I am in Turkey for work I managed to insist on a shipping allowance. So while I was packing up my apartment in DC I organized everything into 'things my parents get to send me' and 'things my parents get to store'. Lucky them.

Unfortunately my allowance only got six of the eight boxes I wanted shipped to me; but at least those last two I had labeled 'send only if there's enough money'. The six that made it to me were the boxes I really needed: my clothes, shoes, DVDs, hair products, etc. FedEx assured my parents that all was good with the shipment and that they had taken care of all customs details and forms.

Big fat liars.

Last Monday I got a call from FedEx cargo here in Istanbul saying there was a problem with my shipment and I needed to contact their customs office. Over the next two days I called the customer service number and asked to be connected to customs; where no one ever picked up. Then customer service gave me the direct line to customs, which was an invalid number. I finally called customer service US, explained my problem, and asked if they had a directory of numbers for global offices. It didn't help, btw, that three of the six tracking numbers I was given in the original call were incorrect. 

I finally got hold of the FedEx customs office (through no help of FedEx US) and was told I needed to go to their office to sort out the shipment. So on Friday I grabbed a cab and got to the office at 8:45 AM. I did not leave until 4:30 PM.

When I got there they explained that the problem was the hair products, lotions, and makeup I had packed. Apparently these are restricted items and even though some of the things had clearly been used and were definitely not for resale, they were still prohibited. Okay, that's fine. I should have read the customs regulations more closely (although I still blame FedEx US because they have a handbook outlining restricted items in every country to which they ship). Let's toss the stuff and get everything else delivered.

Nope. I had to wait for the customs guy to show up. When he finally did around 11:30 the very helpful FedEx guy, Cihan, explained the situation to him. I was all set to go to the warehouse and dig through my boxes, cry a little as I saw my Curls Rock being trashed (oh the future bad hair days!) and go home.

Still no. Apparently customs guy had to leave abruptly for some important meeting and would be back around 2. Sigh. I was so glad I brought my Kindle. I managed to finish the less than thrilling book club book I'd been slogging my way through.

Around 1:30 Cihan said customs guy was back so we hurried to the freezing warehouse. Where I waited, shivering, for another half an hour. Suddenly there were like six people gathered around my boxes digging through my clothes, underwear, cosmetics, and random other things. I managed to rescue my contacts and, oddly I thought, contact solution but everything else was purged. I was proud of the stoicism I maintained while watching my conditioner and hair product be tossed. It's hard to find that stuff in the US and I have no hope of finding it here. I was a little nervous when they opened up the CD storage books in which were packed all my DVDs. I was prepared to fight for the death for my movies. Taking away my hair product is one thing; leaving me with only Turkish TV to watch is a crime. Thankfully customs guy just grinned at me when he saw the roughly 600 DVDs and put them back in the box.

Sigh of relief and now we're done. But no.

Next I got to go to the main customs office at the airport and fill out some forms. Cihan didn't think anyone there spoke English so he wrote a note for me and told me to just show it to anyone and I'd be directed to the correct person. Happily the first person I gave it to was not only the person I needed, but he also spoke English. He sat me down to wait while his colleague filled out the paperwork for me. Once that was done I had to take it to someone else to get signed, then brought it back to the original guy. They did some more signing and stamping, took the original copy and gave me two copies and sent me back to the manager to get yet more stamps and signatures.

I then rushed back to FedEx hoping to take care of everything in that one day. While the customs forms were done I still had to pay FedEx a surprise ransom for "storing" my boxes. The fee was about $250...and of course they didn't take credit cards.

Monday morning I got yet another cab to go back to FedEx with all the necessary cash to ransom everything. Cihan took me back to the payment office where three different people shuffled through my paperwork for like 15 minutes. They gave me the new ransom price (about $280) and I was just handing it over when the office boss noticed a mistake on the customs paperwork...the paperwork the head customs office filled out for me.

I thought I was going to scream when they said I'd have to wait for the customs guy again. Thankfully I once again had remembered to bring my Kindle.

An hour or so later Cihan, I think at his manager's prompting, said that he'd just take me to the customs office rather than waiting for the guy. Once we fought through the ridiculous Istanbul traffic and got to the airport we were in and out of the office in under five minutes. As soon as we got back to FedEx we went to the payment office where I expected them to note the correction on the paperwork and take my money so I could leave.

Oh poor naive me.

I think we were in the payment office for another 30-45 minutes while several more people shuffled through the paperwork, signed and stamped it all some more, and then created five separate invoices (which also had to be signed and stamped by several people). I made the payment and then Cihan, after making copies of everything, took me to another office where yet someone else signed and stamped all the originals and copies. Then we went back to the warehouse where I stood around in the cold for no reason I could figure, then it was back to the main office; where I sat some more while Cihan ran around.

Finally at, what was surprisingly only about 11:30, Cihan handed me the papers that I got to keep and told me that everything would be delivered that day. Which it was at about 5 PM.

Lessons learned:
  • Thoroughly read all customs regulations to wherever you might be shipping something. 
  • Do not assume that your shipment carrier will know anything; even if they have all the information available to them.
  • Live in the same three shirts and pack everything that might be prohibited in your suitcase.
  • I am sooo glad I left my alcohol collection with my parents.
  • Screw it and buy everything new when you get to your destination.
I'm just so glad that this over now and I finally got all the things that survived the customs purge. I'm still bummed about all my future bad hair days but have decided that the fee for staying with me will be to bring me Curls Rock-so as long as I can make what I have last until my first visitor comes I should be okay. I'd also like to thank Cihan and the staff of FedEx cargo in Istanbul for making the process less horrible for me.

Also-before I leave Turkey I'm just going to burn anything that doesn't fit in my suitcases.

06 February 2013

Learning the Ropes in Istanbul

Since Lauren just moved back to DC from Baghdad it seemed a good time for me to abandon DC for a change of my own. So, as of two weeks ago I am a resident in Turkey! Well technically right now I'm a visitor because I don't have my resident permit yet but hoping the application for that will go smoothly and I don't get kicked out after 90 days. That would be pretty inconvenient in light of my new lease and all.

Only two weeks and already it's so completely different from my move to Taipei. That was supposed to be for four months and ended up being a year and I easily found an apartment on the school bulletin board. And it came, not only furnished, but with everything an apartment needs, like dishes and cutlery. Thankfully my apartment hunt here was not nearly as painful as I feared, in fact it was easier than finding a place in DC. The difficult is trying to figure out how to live in it!

My place came fully furnished and I'm even borrowing (with permission no less!) WiFi from a neighbor. But it didn't have any kitchen or bathroom things. I got dishes, silverware, good knives, and one pot and one pan...but still need to find things like a cutting board and kitchen utensils. And while my apartment in Taipei may have already had those...at least here I just put my trash out in the hall and someone gets it. I don't have to chase the garbage and recylcing trucks down the street and toss in the bags as they drive by (totally true story-also why I can't listen to Fur Elise anymore).

Kitchen. No oven = me sad
Dining/living room

Guest bedroom

Half bath

Hallway leading to my room

Full bath-with washing machine!

My room
Not really imaginatively decorated but I'm hoping to rectify that soon. And speaking of imaginative...that's what my cooking attempts are going to be like for a while! One pot, one pan, no cooking utensils, and random ingredients purchased from the nearby market... I can't seem to find the salt in the market. I found random other spices but salt, flour, and sugar continue to elude me. I suspect they may be bulk items and will use Google Translate to find out what those words are and hopefully, by repeating them several times to people in the store, will figure out where they are.

However, one of my few Turkish words is the one for 'cheese' (peynir) and where there's halloumi, all is well!

My first attempts are making dinner with a two burner stove I have to start with a lighter and hope my hand isn't engulfed in flames in the process was simple-because I'm not capable of more than that right now. Pesto and sauteed mushroom pasta.

And I'm glad I cooked way more pasta than necessary because one of those little items I don't have yet is a drainer so I'm afraid I lost half the pasta to the sink while trying to pour off the water. I hate scooping noodles out of the sink. They feel so icky.

However a few bumps and bruises later I managed. Mushrooms sauteed with butter, fresh garlic, and pesto sauce over the noodles that didn't fall in the sink. I'm not sure if it tasted so good because it was good (other than being a little flat because of  salt issue I'm having) or if it was just the triumph.

Speaking of food in the market though. One thing that I don't think I will ever get used to, is milk that's not refrigerated pre opening. How is that possible?

And while the water in Turkey won't kill you, it doesn't taste especially good. Kind of like DC water to the 10th power. Which arguably may actually kill you. 10 liters of water is really freaking heavy, doesn't fit in the fridge, and is a little difficult to pour.

My kingdom for a Brita
And while I am happy to discover that I will not have to do without my fourth favorite food (cereal), I was a little bummed to see that all I could really get at this market was Special K and the European version of Cocoa Puffs. I don't really like Cocoa Puffs, never have. I'm a Cocoa Krispies girl. But this seems to be one of the most internationally available cereals. Better than nothing I suppose.

Also apparently here you're not obligated to leave a place in good condition when you leave. Good to know. My point though is that you do not want to see the inside of my microwave. I'm wondering how long it'll take me to clean it. In fact, I'll probably warm up my pasta dinner in the frying pan tonight.