Indian Freight Forwarding


NEW DELHI — Getting myself to to the Indian subcontinent was tricky enough; my main concern after that was the fate of the Hamburglar, which I’d last seen in Dubai as it disappeared within a wooden crate, destined to wing its own way to Delhi via Emirates Air Cargo. In the meantime I holed up in the West Inn, with its bloodstained bedsheets, its many falling fixtures and appurtenances, and its medium-voltage electrocuting shower, which, oddly, wasn’t all that unpleasant to use. (It was actually pretty invigorating.) Outside my little smudged window there was India, with its crowds, honking horns, and, increasingly, explosions from thousands of Diwali firecrackers set off by little boys at all hours, and I’d routinely peer out from behind the curtain and wince at all the confusion. Of all the countries I’d been to since rolling eastwards out of the European Union last July, India was among the most well-known and well-touristed, and yet there I was, huddled in my hotel room and cringing at the prospect of dealing with any of it. I kept myself fed via room service, starting with the tamest Indian standards I recognized (butter chicken and lots of naan, which I was surprised to discover tastes just like the butter chicken and naan back home) before getting a little adventurous and picking dishes from the menu at random, one of which eventually made me sick. A mad dash to the can in the pitch darkness of a power outage — the lights went out three, four, five times a night — isn’t nearly as fun as it sounds. For the first time in this trip, I felt like I was in over my head.

The mean streets of West Patel Nagar

I ventured outside, once, to have coffee with Deboshree, the cousin of a friend of mine from Budapest, and the ten-minute walk to the Coffee Day Café to meet her took some real effort. There are no real sidewalks in that part of Patel Nagar, just broken clumps of half-hearted attempts at them, nor is there much light on the street at night, and being a successful pedestrian — in other words, not being sideswiped by a wildly careening autorickshaw, or falling into a very deep hole — required a surefootedness and vigilance I’d never had to summon when going for a stroll. Just being out in public in Delhi brought its own little dramas at every step. I shuffled down the dusty road, stubbing my toes on the rubble while my head, swivelling idiotically, scanned for incoming obstacles, and where my fellow pedestrians somehow managed to gracefully slalom through the chaos, my own route was more Frogger-style, all right angles and jerky movements. The Coffee Day Café, meanwhile, turned out to be nothing at all like what’s out on the street. It’s a haven for India’s rising middle class, and could be a clean, sterile, chain coffee shop just about anywhere. Their coffee is decent, their brownies are delicious, and it was great having a chat with a local resident who had a pretty good handle on how things worked thereabouts. Listening to her, I was reminded of my Indian friends in Canada, all of whom suffered (or thrived, depending on who you ask) under the grim tutelage of parents concerned with education above all else. As I spent more and more time in India, this stereotype — of the Indian mom and dad who will not rest until their son or daughter has become a successful doctor or lawyer or engineer or some other respectable, stolid kind of professional — just got more and more ingrained. They really can be like that.

Meanwhile, word came in that my Vespa’s shipping had been delayed, which was just as well, because I’d just learned that an International Driving Permit was required not only to ride a motorbike in India, but also to import one there as well. I’d last had one of these IDPs back in 2001. It’s a sort of passport-sized, handwritten document issued by your local automobile association, and after not one of at least a dozen traffic cops all over Europe even knew what it was, I concluded the IDP was bullshit. Alas, not so where I was. What I’d heard of Indian bureaucracy seemed to jibe with this; basically, if there exists a photocopied document, blessed by some flimsy international agency with an oblong wireframe globe and Futura Bold in its logo, the Indians will be all over that like a dirty shirt. And so, I took a picture of myself, Photoshopped it to look like a proper passport photo, emailed it to my parents along with a scan of my driver’s licence, and kindly asked them to fill out the online form and forge my signature and bring $15 and the printed passport photo to the CAA office back home in Chatham, Ontario. They balked at this, and I don’t blame them, but to their credit, Mr. and Mrs. J had the hot document in their hands later that day and immediately UPS’d it over to me in Delhi. Thanks again, folks. I still can’t believe that went off without a hitch.

MY VESPA ARRIVED IN TOWN around the same time, and all I had to do was go to the Indira Gandhi International Airport and clear it through customs. Easy! I hopped in an autorickshaw and told the driver to head to the cargo terminal, about an hour’s drive across this town of 23 million people. The driver cranked the tunes and off we went.

The driver didn’t want to take me where I wanted to go — I think he thought I was confused, for why would a tourist need to go to the cargo terminal? — and despite my protests, he dropped me off at a bus stop where shuttles ferried passengers to international departures. Quite a while later I found myself waiting in a very long taxi line, hoping to take a taxi to the cargo terminal, but when my turn came, the driver refused to take me such a short distance. He suggested I take his taxi all the way back into town, and then take another taxi back to the cargo terminal. Obviously that wasn’t going to cut it; I could see the cargo terminal on the horizon, and according to the CRM-114 it was only a few kilometres away, and so I decided to hoof it. I walked down the shoulder of the highway, beat-up 1960s-era taxis whizzing past, and waved at the confused-looking airport cops in their checkpoint huts. An hour or so later, I made it to the cargo terminal entrance, barged my way into the throng of people clamoring for a gate pass, paid my entry fee, and entered the world of Indian freight forwarding.

The scene inside the Emirates Air Cargo office was festive, to say the least, and it took a while to get anything done in there; nearly everybody coming and going was there to deliver Diwali presents to their coworkers, friends, and bosses — especially bosses — and each gift-delivery held up business for a few minutes. But soon I had my waybill in my hands, and was told to go find something called the Unaccompanied Baggage Warehouse. I gathered up my papers and wandered out through a sea of people, people who were also clutching papers but with a look of stern resolve on their faces, like they knew exactly what they were doing. (I wore no such look on my face.) It was a riot of lovingly hand-painted signage over at Unaccompanied Baggage, with complicated importation procedures spelled out in flowchart form, but there were also placards that said NO TIPS and NO SPITTING. The latter was being routinely ignored: most everybody had a mouthful of paan, the red chewing tobacco sold at every street kiosk, and they gave the walls and floors a sort of group Jackson Pollack treatment, leaving bright, angry splashes on top of the ancient, faded efforts from tobacco-juice artists of yesteryear. The stains were in surprising places, too, like eight feet up on a wall, or even the ceiling. (As for the no-tipping thing, I took that to be a gentle euphemism for bribery, and I’d have to wait and see if that sign was routinely ignored.) I probed around into a half-dozen different offices in that warehouse, like a particularly stupid but insistent bee, and eventually I found an official who would start the importation process. Documents were examined and signed, rubber stamps were brought down with authority, and after a few hours of this I was told I had to go to the New Customs House.

The New Customs House, it turned out, was a nondescript building a ten-minute walk down a dirt road lined with piles of garbage and what looked like an abandoned sewage project. Back there at the warehouse, that was where all the dirty business of moving goods and supplies actually took place; here at the New Customs house, it was all about the paperwork. The word “labyrinthine” is about the only word that comes close to doing justice to the layout of the place. It’s several floors of narrow, filthy hallways, all exposed wiring and yet more paan stains. The halls are lined with a hundred closed doors, some marked with helpful signs like HEAD CUSTOMS SUB-COMMISSIONER, and others with no markings at all. Somehow I found my guy, who then passed me off to another guy in another room, who then passed me off to another guy in another unmarked room, who took my file and told me to sit and wait. Every desk had a computer on it, but they were all being used to play Windows Solitaire. Customs officials sat there slack-jawed, clicking away at the cards, not ever bothering to minimize the window when their superiors wandered around behind them. The real work was being done the old-fashioned way by a handful of drones in the corner, with pens and paper. Enormous dusty ledgers covered half their desks, and piles of file folders teetered precariously over every other available surface. I leaned back in my chair and dozed off.

Four hours later, at quitting time, the guy handling my file returned. “Sorry,” he said, executing a combination shrug and head bobble. “It is not finished. Come back tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow,” I said, too tired to really care.

I returned the next day, early in the morning, and found my customs agent and delicately applied as much pressure as I could to get him moving on my case. Lately I’ve found that playing up the helpless-foreigner angle can accelerate things, but this guy seemed unmoved by my plight. I sat in the same chair and waited a few more hours. Around lunchtime, he returned with a small bundle of papers and told me to go back to the Unaccompanied Baggage warehouse to claim my bike. Success!

The cargo warehouse at the Delhi airport: not the best place to spend a few days

But not so fast. Back at the warehouse, there were more hoops to jump through. An agent appeared out of nowhere to help me through the remaining procedures. People experienced in clearing vehicles through customs around the world, many of whom can be found on the Horizons Unlimited forums, all recommend that you try and perform all the steps yourself. If you’re assigned an agent, or so the advice goes, you’ll of course have to pay him, and possibly everybody else he comes in contact with. The guy I ended up with — I couldn’t refuse his services, I was told — was a shifty-eyed sort of smooth operator, and he led me to a half-dozen more offices and we made three separate trips back to the on-site bank to pay more fees. His own price, though, was 1500 rupees, or about $30, which seemed reasonable. I forked over his fee, and things started happening at an incredible speed. Wheels were turning. My bike’s crate appeared on a forklift, a three-wheeled truck backed up to the warehouse, and the crate was wheeled to the cusp of freedom. (My Vespa couldn’t be uncrated and ridden out of the customs terminal; it wasn’t running after my breakdown in Dubai, and the warehouse people said I couldn’t use some secluded corner of their property do any work on it, to fix the clutch or the brake drum or whatever was wrong with it.)

“Wait,” said my agent, stopping the forklift driver mid-lift. He gave me a not-so-subtle “give-me-a-bribe” sign with his index finger and thumb down at waist level. My bike wasn’t yet on the truck. He had me by the balls.

My word, it was hot out there in the beating sun of the loading bay. I was in a foul mood and just wanted to get out of there, but I thought I might as well have some fun in the meantime. I made a big show of pulling out the bribin’ wallet, and pried it open. It was stuffed with 500-rupee bills. Dozens of people milled around us.

“How much?” I said, loud enough for passers-by to hear.

My agent blanched and gestured as if to say put that away, you jackass! He led me around a corner, out of view of the main entrance, and asked me for a shocking 6000 rupees, or about $140. I gave him 4000 rupees instead. He was pissed off at my stinginess, but I was firm and he relented. The pair of us emerged from around the corner and he hilariously over-acted a show of handing me all my papers and my gate pass, saying in a too-loud voice “Here you go, Mr. Jordan, your papers all check out!” as though all we were doing back there in the shadows was going over the finer points of my documentation. That unpleasant business out of the way, the bike then resumed being loaded onto the truck, albeit painfully slowly. It kept getting stuck halfway aboard.

And then more people on the take appeared. As the forklift driver struggled with my precious cargo, one of the guys we’d dealt with inside sidled up and asked for his cut. He was less circumspect than my agent, and had no problem with doing it out in the open. He wanted 3000. I flipped him 1500. He, too, was unhappy with that sum, but slunk off with his winnings. Another guy I remembered from inside asked for his share, and got his 1500. Once that hardworking fellow was paid, the forklift driver was given the signal to fully load the bike. As I stood there counting what little cash remained, the forklift driver stepped off his rig, walked over, reached over for my wallet — the wallet in my hands — and tried to fish out some money. I snapped the wallet shut, stunned that the forklift guy could be so brazen, and told him to get bent. He’d gotten cocky, and he lost.

My wallet considerably lighter, I now had my gate pass and could sail on out of there, but there remained one more critical step. My bike’s carnet was still back at the New Customs house, and I really, really, really needed that document back — it’s worth as much as the bike itself, and in theory, the deposit gets refunded by the Automobile Club of Serbia once I return. While my truck and driver waited outside, running up a bill, the customs guy handling my file somehow managed to lose the carnet, find the carnet, lose it again, and disappear three times to “make photocopies.” Now and then he’d return to his desk, fold his hands, and stare insistently at me while an uncomfortable silence stretched between us. He gave me chance after chance to slip him some cash, and I’m proud to say I didn’t crack; I was fed up with bribing for the day, and more to the point, I was nearly tapped out. This not-so-elegant kabuki went on for a while until he gave up and referred me to his boss, the Chief Customs Commissioner.

I was led into an office with a single enormous desk and an elegant, bespectacled gentleman reclining in his chair behind it. The serene look he wore on his face was totally at odds with the mountains of paperwork on his desk: there must’ve been a hundred kilograms of paper stacked before him.

“Would you like some tea?” the Customs Commissioner asked.

“No, thank you,” I said. “I would like my carnet back.”

“Ah,” he said, drumming his fingertips together. “Your carnet. Are you sure you would not like some tea?” This was followed by silence.

I didn’t think that dancing to his tune would get me anywhere, not after two days of unsuccessfully dicking around at the New Customs House for a single stamp. I guessed that he, or his underlings, wanted something in the same neighbourhood as the guys back at the warehouse, about two hundred bucks — a pretty generous Diwali gift, if you ask me. I didn’t have two hundred bucks in rupees on me. I remembered the advice of the irate guy back at the Bombay airport, that to get things done in India, sometimes you have to dispense with civility. And so I raised my voice and said: “Give me back my carnet.”

His face darkened, and he sat there looking at me with a mixture of resentment and pity.

“I want my carnet back,” I said, a bit louder this time. “Now.”

He considered me for a few more moments, still drumming his fingertips together, then wordlessly got up and led me back to the guy who was originally handing the processing of my carnet. He said a few Hindi words to his underling, and disappeared back into his grubby little sanctum of soul-curdling busywork and graft.

The underling pulled out his stamp, stamped the entry field in the carnet, signed it, and held the big orange document out at me.

“Hold on,” I said, feeling like something was missing. “Isn’t there some receipt that Customs issues, saying the bike has been imported?”

“No,” he said. “The carnet stamp is all you need.”

(It wasn’t. Two months later, when leaving India, I learned that he’d screwed me, and I had to scramble, and pay dearly, to sort out the problem of that missing document.)

At the time, though, I didn’t care about that seemingly minor detail. I fled the New Customs House, hopped back in the three-wheeled truck, and told the driver to head to the Vespabretta garage way out at the western edge of Delhi. Joern, the Vespa360 Project’s remote support technician back at his home office in Hamburg, had found these guys, a vintage Lambretta and Vespa restoration shop that was slated to give my bruised and battered P200 a complete overhaul.

As we lurched down Delhi’s severely potholed roads, my still-crated Vespa clanging around on the flatbed, I struggled to comprehend the gall of the officials and employees at the cargo terminal. It’s no secret that India is rife with corruption, and I wasn’t shocked at having to pay for the privilege of experiencing it in action. But the folks at the cargo terminal made little effort to hide what they were up to; their means of augmenting their income was so overt, so business-as-usual, so shameless, that my imagination ran away with ideas of just how corrupt India is. (It ranks 87th on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, meaning at least 86 countries are seen as less corrupt, including Columbia, Rwanda and China. In the same survey in 2006, India ranked 70th, so the problem is only getting worse.) India’s current state of endemic institutional corruption goes back to the late ’50s, with the rise of what they termed the “Permit Raj.” The once-bright and well-meaning civil service, charged with managing the creation of a tightly controlled command economy, found that issuing permits and licenses could also be highly lucrative. Before long, getting anything done in India — including, among other things, getting your hands on a death certificate for a recently-expired relative — required some pretty heavy greasing of the wheels.

India, the world’s largest democracy and home to one-fifth of humanity, is a fast-rising force to be reckoned with. It has nuclear weapons, a gargantuan and youthful population, and a record of breakneck economic growth, year-on-year, over the last decade. And yet, within days of getting there, it was clear to me that so much of it is stuck somewhere in the 19th century. The Indians are well aware of this. The next time I hear an Indian bemoan the backwardness and poverty afflicting so much of his country, and he casts around for someone or something to blame — the iniquities of foreign capital, the legacy of British colonialism, the Indian ruling class, the Chinese — I’ll have a pretty solid guess ready to go: it’s people like the sticky-fingered clowns running the Delhi cargo terminal, and the mentality they represent, that hold India behind the most.


543 Responses to “Indian Freight Forwarding”

  • Ron Fletcher Says:

    Sean, amazing. I think I’ll go with GAP tours and not take my VESPA.
    Cousin Ron

  • Chris Says:

    Hey Sean,
    Your companion from KL to Doha checking in! I got photos of Vespas in Spain and found myself checking the model number but don’t think I found a GX200, have you corrupted me into a geeky Vespaspotter? Funny someone else has posted up a near breakdown/crisis in India, sounds like a barrel of laughs that place. Update your blog man it’s excellent! Hope all is well in Rio and your sister hasn’t persuaded you into ditching the old one and buying new, somehow i doubt it. Can you tell me some way to get photos to you? I’ll send some of the fallas festival…you need to go! I suppose i shouldn’t talk as i’ve yet to ride a Vespa round the world. Keep it up dude, best bit (south america) yet to come! Take care, Chris

  • Diego Says:

    Hi Sean. We met last friday with the RVA guys in Buenos Aires.

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