I MISS AMAZON.COM
I long for the days of ordering new stuff online, paying via Paypal and anxiously awaiting that delightful, cute, smiling, brown package on my front stoop. Those were indeed simpler times.
This is the month of my birthday, which means much anticipated care packages from home. Boxes delivering me little reminders from the good’ol US of A. Treats that haven’t touched my taste buds in over a year, and a few luxuries like toothpaste that isn’t lemon herb flavored or new underwear that still has the elastic in tact- I LOVE getting packages.
Mail in Swaziland hasn’t progressed to the modern age. Houses don’t have addresses, and you’ll be lucky to know the name of the street you live on… provided that street has a name at all. For example if we were to order a pizza to be delivered, we would say “ Top of the golf course. Eveni. 3rd house on the left. Regan’s old house.” This actually explains where we stay, despite the fact that we don’t live on Eveni, and I couldn’t tell you the name of our actual street. This is just how things work here. So when it comes to mail, everyone uses a PO Box. Since I moved to Mbabane, I share a box with my roommate Matthews family.
When a package arrives a the post office, a little fairy visits me in my sleep and I awake with a sense, I hope isn’t false, that I have mail. Sometimes I’m right… sometimes not. I get the key from down the street, go to the post in-town, winding through the blocks of post boxes that make up the Mbabane population and find my box 4177, whip out my old school skeleton key and cross my fingers a little white slip is inside. On this particular trip I had 3! my heart sings as I take them from the little box and start the hike back to the main post office building. However, half way to my destination I notice the charges… adding up to over 4,000 rand! WTF? When I was in the PC, customs charges were waived, but I never spent over 80 rand on a package; 4,000 was a tish excessive.
We would have to wait till monday to talk to the customs tax guy- and I was distract to say the least. I felt like I had just been robbed of the only small connection I had with my family. Stupid mail…
Monday came, and I couldn’t wait to go give SOMEONE a piece of my mind. We collected a number, and a friend of ours who knew the guy and set off to the post office ready for a fight. I wasn’t going to leave without those packages, and I refused to pay 4 x the cost of SENDING them to me in USD. We marched in, located the dude and the boys spat out some words of siswati (leaving me a bit in the dark). Before I knew it the man said, “why don’t we open them up and see?”. OH. I thought; that seems like a good plan… and easier than a screaming match.
So there I stood in the corner of this crowded mail room, surrounded by packages that have traveled half the world, watching my 3 little packages being ripped open by the 3 men kneeling on the concrete floor before me. It was like watching christmas morning with 3 excited children, except they were my presents… and I have to admit I felt a little robbed of my santa moment. When the tape was removed and the last box opened, the evaluating began. Each item was removed and piled up on the side. A list of values accumulated on a scrap paper nearby, and I patiently crossed my fingers behind my back that the value of the packages weren’t more than what was written on the box.
One by one, new t-shirts were removed $12.99, $15.99, shoes $20, shorts $24.99. then a small pile of new underwear and bras with no price tags. Each man held a delicate pair in their hands as they tried to weigh how much worth this new, eslastic-in-tact, panty could be worth… my guess was priceless, but I wasn’t about to open my mouth. I just stood and watched them fondle my new cute-booty, praying they would stop soon and trying to stay an unnoticeable shade of red.
After about an hour, we packed everything back up and the tax man gave us a new value of the boxes, which was 1/3 of the original price. It was still 3 x what I had paid in the PC, but I was happy to see a triple digit number to I jumped to accept it.
We learned a couple valuable lessons this day. 1. This isn’t amazon.com 2. nothing in packages should LOOK new, or have price tags on it, because I WILL get taxed on its value and USD converted to Rand is NOT a good deal. 3. although when you send a package from the states the “value” you write on the slip is insurance for you, it completely screws the receiver- so be nice and claim less.
After my bout with the post office last month, I realized for the first time in my life, I could be, maybe, possibly, be a little, tiny bit, homesick. This is a new feeling for me, and it hit me like a balloon with a teeny-weeny puncture… slowing weighing on me until there was nothing left but a deflated shell, empty containers of ice cream, and a pile of waded up kleenex. I wrote a depressing, self-loathing status update on facebook, and suddenly my inbox was full with messages for me to come home for a recharge. I was even more shocked with myself, when this sounded like the best idea in the world. So began mission impossible– the challenge that would finally make a patriot out of me.
George and I had been planning a trip to the states for a while, but balancing time with funds seemed to be a losing game for us lately. But when this happened, my family had offered to sponsor our trip, and George had the month of October completely open until his new job started, so why not? Well… let me tell you, on this side of the world, thats not the end of the story… no buying a ticket and jumping on a plane here- NO SIR.
First, we had to get George an international passport because so far he only had “travel documents” that are only good for travel across borders in southern Africa. We called his mother, who is master of this domain, and got the details. We needed a letter inviting him to the states for a spefici purpose (in this case a 3 week art course at eARTh studios in Detroit), 3 months of bank records, and a letter from his employer with a reason why he must return to Swaziland. Basically this whole processes is to ensure that the traveler doesn’t abandon ship and never return to SD- they are quite paranoid about this.
We go to the creepy, cement, dungeon-like immigration building (you may remember from previous blogs), we wander around in the damp, mildew halls, searching for the door with a makeshift “INTERNATIONAL PASSPORTS” sign. When we find it, its locked. Its 1:30 PM… lunch time- no one will be back until 2. We wait in the dark hallway, on a creaky small bench with our knees nearly touching the wall opposite us. When 2:15 rolls around a small, miserable woman squeezes by us without a word and opens the door, and closes it behind her. We exchange looks and then try our luck. As we enter, she is busy shuffling, in slow motion, a few papers and barely looks up as we explain we would like an application. She lists a few things she needs from us and we remove them one by one from our plastic folder. She then informs us we need 2 more letters addressed to the chief immigration officer- one from George that states where and when he is going (even though the “when” is still TBA pending the approval of his passport we are currently applying for…)and one from a sponsor of his trip, as well as their finical records. She turns us away without time for an argument- they close at 3PM, nothing more can be done today.
The following day, we collect the rest of the documents and return to the little, miserable woman. She still isn’t happy with, god only knows what, but she begrudgingly gives us the application and a list of new challenges to accomplish for the day. First it’s the police station for finger printing. I sit patiently on a bench in the lobby, watching the parade of interesting characters walk in and out. George returns about an hour later with tales of a nearly topless woman working in the back, doing the fingerprinting in traditional attire… which tends to be a little breezy. Only in Swaziland could you catch an all topless show by government employees working at the police station… these things really shouldn’t surprise me anymore.
Next is the Revenue Office to pay for the passport and collect a stamp for who-knows-what. The line is wrapped around the building at the main branch. There is nowhere to park, just a series of cars, backing up and slowly moving forward, turning around etc. It reminds me of one of the those mind-quiz puzzles, where only one car can move at a time, but they all have to make it out of the lot. We stand in the burning sun for 10 minutes without moving a millimeter in the right direction, only to avoid blocked in cars, trying to get out of their tight, confined spaces. We decide to check the other branch downtown.
This branch has a similar line, but the building is providing shade, so we stick it out. Turns out the line is moving pretty quickly for a line that stretches a city block. Within an hour we have our stamp, and receipt and can go back to the miserable woman in the depressing immigration building.
You can ALMOST detect a little amusement on her face as we enter her cramped, claustrophobic office with all of our paperwork in order. The last 24 hours have felt like an episode of “The Amazing Race” but instead of traveling the world, we just got to see every government building in Mbabane. We hand her ever document she requests, and we can’t help our smug expressions for being so awesome and efficient. And for our final amazing trick, George’s mom has given us a name to throw out, to expedite our passport; unfortunately the woman is out with her sick son today… so we are left with fading smiles as the little miserable one tells us to come back in 2 weeks. We leave feeling a little defeated, and I try to calm my mind from excited thoughts about visiting home.
The following day, we wake up early, with boundless energy ready for todays mission– but their isn’t one. We are stalled until we get the passport. Then the phone rings. It’s George’s mom, who has already called the immigration office this morning and organized his passport, it’s ready to be picked up! 100 points Mrs. GREEN! We don’t waste time as we sprint to the crumbling cement building, and we are even happy to seen the grumpy, miserable woman, who has a hint of amusement (or indigestion) on her face. We follow her around, from one office to the next, up stairs, down stairs, back upstairs and finally he is presented with his brand spank’n new, hot of the presses international passport. I nearly jump for joy right there on the spot, but restrain myself until we get to the car park. STEP ONE: CHECK!
Now we can apply for the VISA, which is all done online. We sit at the internet cafe answering a series of questions to ensure George has never participated in terrorism, the recruitment of child soldiers, money laundering, drugs, sex-slavery, or any other crazy outlandish thing you can think of. It takes over an hour and 3 beers to complete, but when we hit send we are excited. This MIGHT actually happen. Now we have to wait until next wednesday, because they only interview for visas on wednesdays.. Then 4 days from then, we will know for sure if this trip on a whim, will happen at all.
My stomach has been in knots all week. Holding back excitement, and trying to maintain a realistic mind set that nothing is in the bag yet. Its all too much to bear, and I NEED friday to get here so we know. I could be on a plane as soon as next week! The thought is too much for my brain to handle. It would be a shame if it didn’t work out, with all the hoops we had to jump through. I am left being thankful for my American passport though. After this process, I really don’t know how people outside of the western world go anywhere. What a blessing to be able to go wherever we want, whenever we want, and for how long we want… I’m realizing that this isn’t a luxury everyone has and really makes me passionate about getting other Americans outside our borders. Like our freedom of speech, freedom of press, so is our freedom to explore and learn from other places and we really mustn’t waste that privilege.