February 16, 2010 GMT
Indian shipping agents

This is the gripe post.

Let me try to describe the frustration of dealing with customs clearing agents in Mumbai. This post chronicles the events of a single day.

After two weeks of talking with people who were completely clueless and excruciatingly slow in their responses, I got a tip from a friend about this guy Mr. Ramdas who ships Royal Enfield bikes abroad. So he must know what he's doing, right? Last Thursday (5 days ago) I had visited his office and we've had a long chat. I had asked for his help to send my bike from Mumbai to Athens by air cargo. He had said "no problem", we had gone over all the details (rates of airlines, size of the bike, crating method, insurance, timings, total cost) and had fixed an appointment for Monday (yesterday, which was 4 days after that discussion was taking place) to crate the bike. We had agreed on a total cost of 1100 EUR, which was slightly higher than the (arbitrary) 1000 EUR that I had decided was the maximum I would spend to return the bike to Europe. But, the man seemed to know what he was talking about, he seemingly had the experience, so I thought I was in good hands. 100 EUR extra would not be the end of the world, and I had already spent almost two weeks unable to find anyone decent to handle this!

Monday arrived. We hadn't fixed a time to do the crating, so I call Mr Ramdas in the morning. He has news for me: "Only Turkish Airlines will accept your bike, ON THE CONDITION that the gross (total) weight of the box is less than 250kg. All others are charging too much, and your bike is already 250kg without the crate, so it seems we're going for sea freight. Also the packers need to buy the material for the crate, so they can do the crating tomorrow."

All this in one breath. So everything we had agreed and shaken hands on last Thursday was already out of the window. Pack Monday - nope. Airfreight - nope. 1100 EUR for bike to be in Athens by end of week - nope.

Extremely pissed off with this, I resumed my search for other customs clearing agents who could handle this. How could I trust this man when EVERYTHING we had agreed on 4 days ago turned out to be impossible?

I got an expensive quote from another company, and arranged a meeting with ANOTHER company (Eastern Cargo) for the next day (that is, today, Tuesday the 16th of February 2010).

Ramdas was pushing me to agree on a new deal (we crate the bike the next day - today - and THEN we weigh it and see whether it leaves by Turkish Airlines (improbable) or by some sea shipment to be figured out...), so I told him "OK, let's do the packing tomorrow and we'll see", so that even if everything else fell through, at least one step would have been done.

Monday night I went to bed extremely pissed off and with no hope of ever getting out of Mumbai.


I go to Eastern Cargo late the morning, expecting the usual let-down, but I am received and treated very professionally. They look good. I've told them my budget (1000 EUR) and they still talk to me about air shipment. There appears to be hope! Packagers come to their premises, measure the bike, give quotes. We discuss packing, insurance, loading, costs, DGR regulations etc etc etc and they seem very aware of it all. Good. They feed me two chais and two glasses of water in the 3 hours I'm there. Good. They only get slightly irritated and patronising when I repeatedly ask for an explanation about why is the airline charging me for 1,000kg when my bike is only 250kg heavy and all volumetric calculations I've heard so far (for other travelers and agents alike) resulted in circa 450kg chargeable. Good.

In the end they give me a quote of 149,000 Rs (Indian Rupees). Forty five days ago, when I entered India, I had looked up the exchange rate between Rupees and the Euro. Back then it was roughly 67 Rupees to the Euro, so I had told my mobile phone's currency convertor that this was the exchange rate to be used. It's not accurate, but gives me a ballpark to get a feel of the money we're talking about. So when I punched in 149,000 Rs I got the answer that it was 2,223 EUR.

I told the big boss of Eastern Cargo (now remember this, it will matter later in our story) "Excuse me, but **this is two thousand two hundred Euros!** It's more than double the budget I gave you!", after which he scolded his assistants for wasting everybody's time and wished me farewell. Fair enough, I expected such prices from such a boutique-looking place, so I left in peace. Not surprised, not depressed. Just a bit tired from another effort that didn't bear fruit.

I met Mr Ramdas at 3 as agreed. He takes me to the packer's premises as agreed. Predictably, it's in a shantytown of sorts and I don't feel comfortable even taking off my jacket with all my papers and valuables in there. There are way too many layabouts and in typical Indian fashion they're too close, too intrusive, are messing with the bike, checking out my panniers, stick their heads over the bike when I take off the seat to disconnect the battery etc.

Uneasy as I am, I also want to get this damn thing over with, so I take off the panniers, ride the bike on a wooden pallet base (which presumably would become the base of the crate), disconnect the 12V sockets from the battery and take off the top case from the bike... in the meantime a heated discussion ensues, in which Ramdas is merely repeating to me what the packers tell him: "Bike on centre stand..." "wood plies under tyres..." "no straps..." "bubble wrap..." Once more I realise that the guys think they're packaging a bloody sofa. Every time the packer says something in Hindi (or Maharashtri, can't really be sure as I understand neither), Mr Ramdas translates and I despair more and more, every single time repeating to him "No, AS WE DISCUSSED, this has to happen like THIS for XYZ reasons." I was describing a bike free-standing on its tyres, with straps holding it from both sides, the rear suspension fully compressed, no stand or hard surface used to stabilise it. This is what conventional biker wisdom seems to suggest via the HU community and other shipping/crating websites.

The packers were having none of that. They wanted to stabilise the bike on its stand, with wooden planks under the tyres, and then one plank somehow pushing down on the seat... which they told me would not hurt the seat because they'd use bubble-wrap! ARGH!

At that point I was desperate enough to seriously entertain the crap they were feeding me. It was contrary to everything I had learned through research and talking to experienced bikers. Contrary to everything we had discussed and agreed on with Ramdas in advance. Contrary to my understanding of the laws of nature. But I was desperate, so I told Ramdas "OK, I am willing to go ahead with this ONLY if I'm confident the bike will be insured against any damages. Can I see the insurance documents please?"

Of course, he had no insurance documents. Of course, he told me not to worry about it, we had insurance. Mind you, all this is now taking place in a tiny "office", a room in which I cannot stand up (too low ceiling) which is accessed only from a semi-fixed metal ladder from the warehouse level...

So I insist and they look at me like a spoiled child. "I want to know about the insurance!" Mr Ramdas throws up the proverbial arms and says "OK, here, talk to the insurance agent directly, he will explain everything to you." and rings the insurers. I tell him "I don't care what some agent tells me on the phone, I want to see a signed document", but the agent is already on the phone and Mr. Ramdas passed him on.

It turns out to be a woman. It also turns out that they can't insure me, because the bike is not registered in India.

This is surreal.

Didn't the customs clearing agent (Mr Ramdas) that I was willing to trust to orchestrate the sending of my bike from Mumbai to Athens just give me the phone to dispel my doubts, triumphantly shutting me up once and for all?

Didn't the insurance agent that this very person put me in touch with, just tell me that they cannot insure me? Didn't the agent actually have THE NERVE to say "We do all this for procedure purposes. If anything breaks with your bike, we don't pay you" ?

Are these people for real?

I was tired. Real tired. Sick of it all actually. It's the details that get you. The insurance agent on the phone who was bored and abusive and couldn't be bothered to speak clearly and was telling me off for asking such stupid questions like "what will happen if the shipment is damaged?". The packagers who were frantically pointing at the computer screen which displayed a bike with a German number plate just having ridden onto a pallet. In their view, this proved their worldview about crating my bike beyond any reasonable doubt. Mr Ramdas who was staring at me with a blank expression in his face, like the parent of a kid that will never be good at anything, silently thinking "what am I gonna do with you...?" in despair.

I told them I was sorry but without insurance I was not willing to go any further, and made a move to leave (I can't say "got up to leave" because it was physically impossible to "get up" with that damn ceiling at 1,50m...). Mr Ramdas said "Well Alex I need you to tell me if you're going to use these people because you understand they have purchased the material for your crate already, and I need to pay them!" Unfathomable, but he was asking me for money. For that sorry-ass pallet they had built (or just had lying around) BEFORE even seeing my bike. From wooden planks that seemed reused at best...

I was too tired to get angry. I just ignored them and their insistent stares. I muttered something to get out of there peacefully (to the effect of "let's sort out the insurance first and then we'll see"), and got the hell out of there.

Right after I had gotten off the phone with the insurance agent I had sent a text (SMS) to Eastern Cargo, saying I'm willing to double my budget to 2,000 EUR if they can come down to that. By the time I was out of the "office" of the packers I got a phonecall from Eastern Cargo saying "the boss agrees, please come by our office to do this".

So I went straight back to Eastern Cargo. It was after 4 in the afternoon and I was tired. I had given in. I would pay the damn 2,000 EUR just to get it over with. It was a ridiculous amount - I felt I was being penalised for having a bike, as all the DGR (Dangerous Goods Regulations) and volumetric formulas were working against me. But I had spent two weeks idling in a big dirty city and my best hope so far (Mr Ramdas) had just gone down in a huge fireball...

So I go back into the nice air-conditioned office, with the smiley polite educated people who seem to be trustworthy and efficient... they offer me tea (the 3rd of the day), and even get me sandwitches, which makes me worry about my external appearance. When the clearing agent is getting you food without asking, you know you don't look too hot...

They crunch the numbers again and it all comes down to 140,000 Rs. I check with xe.com and say "wait a minute, this is 2,200 EUR! I thought we agreed on 2,000 EUR!"

The manager managing my case explains that the boss told her to give me a 9,000 Rs discount and the previous quote was 149,000 Rs so there you have it. I insisted, politely of course, that in the goddamn written TEXT I had sent her I wrote with very little room for interpretation 2,000 EUR. And you called me to say you agreed. So what gives?

We go back to the boss' office. He gives me the "now what my child?" look. I say this is not what I offered to pay. He takes me through his reasoning:

"You told me earlier that we were quoting you 2,200 EUR, correct?"
"That was 149,000 Rs. Making the calculation that works as 67,7 Rs to the Euro."
"Now multiply that by 2,000 EUR that you want to pay: ta-da! 135,000 Rs"

...and with that, he looked at me as if to say "satisfied?"

Am I mental?

So, why were they charging 5,000 Rs more? And why did I need to explain to the boss of such a large and seemingly successful company that his method of currency conversion is not exactly scientific, and he could not POSSIBLY base the bloody quote on a comment I made about the ROUGH amount I was being quoted earlier in the day? Checking it on the spot with xe.com revealed that I was now in fact being quoted 2,130 EUR, and not the 2,000 EUR that I had written in the SMS. But the boss was adamant. "This is what you told me. This is what I offered you." And then the "you trying to get more discount you greedy little child?" look.

Did I mention I was exhausted?

I agreed. I agreed to this ridiculous treatment, to this theatre of the absurd, to this blatant ripoff, to this "oh we didn't realise we reeled you in by lying" behaviour because once more, someone gave me the hope that they can actually pull this off and load my bike on a plane and get me out of this country. And that, after having spent two weeks littered with days like today, is worth 2,130 EUR to me.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at February 16, 2010 06:54 PM GMT

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