Tuesday 22nd turned out to be a dummy run when the tuk-tuk driver took me to the domestic baggage handling terminal on the wrong side of Mumbai. It took me another hour to get taken to the international cargo terminal at the Sahar Complex on Sahar road. The Sahar Complex is the perfect name for this sprawl of warehouses and offices and shipping containers and the occasional loose goat. The complexity of the Complex is enough to give the uninitiated a serious complex! By the time I arrived it was mid-afternoon, it took another hour to obtain a temporary security pass by presenting photocopies of my passport, India travel visa, Air Way Bill for the bike, and shipping company contact. Of course I didn’t have all of them, so I had to find an internet café and get stuff printed on a steam powered PC running Windows 98 with a dial-up internet connection which seemed to rely on carrier pigeon (or goat; they have lots of goats in this part of Mumbai). By the time I had pushed through the throngs of traders, hawkers and goats to get back to the security office, the cargo handling office told me there would not be enough time to do this today and I should return at 8am tomorrow. At least I knew how to get a security pass in the morning!
I duly arrived at 8am armed with copious copies of every document I could imagine I may need, having been seriously ripped off by a taxi driver. Note to self – if you want to haggle a taxi driver down from 500 Rupee rip-off to the 100 Rupee actual price, you must have a 100 Rupee note as he is not going to give you change for your 500 note!
To start with everything went swimmingly. After wandering around only three other warehouses and offices none of which bore any signage as to what wonders they held within, I found the Jet Cargo handling office on the 2nd floor of the Domino building (but there’s no sign to say as much). A very nice front desk lady got all my paperwork together, made some more copies of my passport and presented me with a bundle of documents, charged me only £35 and instructed me to go to the Heavy Cargo warehouse on the other side of the Complex and they will give me my bike … “simples” … not!
The Heavy Cargo warehouse doesn’t open until 10am. I had anticipated a wait so I sat in the morning sun on an old ox cart and wrote up some diary entries. Patience is clearly an Indian virtue, as is pushing in, queue jumping and elbow barging, but there’s a time and a place for everything and this is no time to be engaging in French Ski Lift etiquette so I’m going to do patient. I’m not good at patient but this is a good time to start, I need my bike and they have it behind their locked gates, be patient!
At 10am an austere security guard arrived and told me that the customs offices in this warehouse do not open until 11am. There didn’t seem to be anyone else around so I had no reason to doubt him. He showed me to a waiting room with an asthmatic air-con unit and I engaged in some more waiting.
After nearly an hour more people turned up and started feverishly filling in forms. On further investigation it seems that the customs office had opened shortly after 10am. An earnest man with gold rings asked in accented Indi-lish “What are you doing sitting? Who could have told you to wait here? You should have come much earlier, there is much to be done, it is very complex to clear a motorcycle don’t you know sir?” … Sigh!
At this point it became completely impossible to distinguish the customs officers who work for the government / airport (but wear no uniform and carry no ID) from the private agents and chancers who are working hand-in-glove with the customs officers but are generally trying to “help” … for a fee.
Kalpesh, a small wiry guy sporting a 1980s green tracksuit jacket and gold medallion, hurries to assist. He rifles through my paperwork and in a panicked voice announces that the helpful lady in the Jet Airways cargo office has not given me the Delivery Notification form, and without this vital document we cannot proceed. I am bustled back to the Domino building by Francis, the owner of the gold rings and compadre of Kalpesh, to right this dreadful wrong.
On our return all of Kalpesh’s friends and relations descend upon me. One short, sweaty guy who appears to be in charge of most of these men, but I doubt whether he actually works for the customs office, is ordering people around with that air of self-importance that only short men seem to possess. Kalpesh, the short self-important guy, Francis and a tall skinny man with a large forehead who looks like Freddy Corleone from The Godfather III all start sifting through my documents, my Carnet (worth £7000) and my passport, hurrying between offices and causing me heart failure as they appear to be trying to separate me from my belongings. The short self-important guy tells me in broken Indi-lish “My friend, it is very difficult to clear a motorbike, we all try to help you. You must get bike today, tomorrow is public holiday for 4 days, it is very difficult to clear a motorbike in one day, but we will help you. Agent fees only 9000 Rupees”. I’m feeling the urgency of getting the bike out today but I also get the feeling I’m being duped and kept away from the actual customs official, so I go hunting through offices to find someone in charge. I find a well dress man in a dingy office at the back of warehouse who assures me that he is the only person who can clear my bike but I must present him with all the paperwork by 3:30pm, but he is not willing to tell me exactly which documents I am going to need to present, I smell a scam. I go back out and am ushered into another office by Kalpesh and Mr sweaty self-important who find another Customs official to show me a file of a Portuguese guy who came through last month with a BMW 650F. This is actually quite helpful, I can see copies of all the documents which I have, then they triumphantly show me something I haven’t seen before. I am reliably informed that we need a letter from the Honourable Secretary of the Federation of Indian Automobile Associations to the Asst. Commissioner of Customs to agree to allow my bike onto Indian roads and to honour the Carnet document which the RAC issued for a snip at £7000. For this we need to go to his office on the other side of Mumbai, ninety minutes away by taxi. The time is nearly midday. Kalpesh ushers me urgently into a taxi and jumps in too, he says I will need his help. I can see Kalpesh’s fee going up exponentially, there are cartoon dollar signs in his eyes, I swear!
Ninety minutes across Mumbai in a taxi whose driver has been informed that we are in “double quick hurry” is an interesting sequence of near-death experiences.
The Federation of Indian Automobile Association offices is a totally different affair. It looks like it was built during the Raj and hasn’t changed its door furniture since. There is even a pre-war typewriter sitting on a desk surrounded by papers. I ask if it’s still in use and get a very confused look. “Not at the moment sir, the secretary is not here at the moment sir.”
I lugubrious man in his 50’s is mooching slowly between the large offices, carefully taking his time to open and close the big wood panel doors as quietly as possible. Kalpesh explains our request in urgent tones. The large man sits, sighs and tells me in excellent Indi-lish that this is possible, everything is possible, but these things take time. He wants to contact the issuer of my Carnet to confirm its validity. He wants me to call the RAC in London. I politely explain that it is currently 7:30am in London and the RAC offices will not be open for at least another hour and a half, and I have to get this letter back to the Customs commissioner inside two hours. He kindly orders tea for all of us and assures me that these things must be done properly; there is much at stake. No shit!
Another large man arrives and the whole procedure is explained to him. He appears to be the head honcho of this outfit and sits down to inspect my Carnet, my letters on headed paper confirming the Carnet, my Air Way Bill, my shipping invoice, my bike ownership documents, my passport, my visa, my inside leg measurement and my religion. After an eternity of reading the same piece of paper for over thirty minutes he shrugs and agrees to write the letter. But first I have to pay £25 at the finance office down the corridor (who have gone for lunch) and get a receipt of payment before he can put pen to paper. I am becoming a thoroughly patient person.
Out of the Automobile offices and back into the mayhem of Mumbai traffic. Our taxi driver has sat eating Dhal since we left him, but now leaps into life and we make hay back to the cargo terminal. Fifteen pounds seems reasonable for three hours driving and an hour sitting around waiting. A London black cab would be 20 times that amount.
The cargo terminal has an air of Friday afternoon about it now. It’s 2 hours before it closes for a four-day holiday. Everyone looks like they want to get off early, but I want them to get on with getting my bike out. Francis hurries me into an office to inspect the new paperwork. We have everything we need now; we just need to hope that the Customs Commissioner is still here, he says. And you need to go and pay £70 for container storage at the cash office over there. And then you need to photocopy all of your documents again. Come to the Xerox office quickly. And now you need to give your £7000 Carnet and all the other documents which you have nearly broken your neck to find to a man who you have never met who is going to put it in an old plastic carrier bag with a Reindeer on it and he will soon take it to the Airport head office to have is stamped and authorised by the Customs Commissioner. My scepticism has taken on a new level of disbelief, my patience has worn to a thin veneer, but I’m inside the airport secure zone with the only people I can find who might be able to do get this completed. What choice do I have? As if sensing my frustration Kalpesh arrives on cue to announce that my bike is here! Where? Right outside, sir, in the cargo bay, come …
I can see a wooden crate of motorbike proportions and lots of guys hanging around it expectantly. It’s like Christmas except they want to unwrap my present with a bloody crowbar. I relieve a man of his claw hammer and crack the case open. It’s my bike! The unknown man who has my Carnet in his Reindeer bag insists on checking the chassis and engine number. Fair enough, the chassis number is easy, but the engine number is stamped on a plate which is completely obscured by the exhaust manifold and sump guard. And there is no way that I’m taking them off. Checking the numbers seems to be a logical request (one of the first I’ve heard today) but no-one can read the engine plate. They start suggesting tipping the bike on its side … No! They talk about removing bits to get to the plate … No! While they are all fussing around the bottom of the bike I dig out a copy of the V5 registration document from my bag and memorise the 10 digit engine number. Then I root out the super-bright torch from my pannier, bend down with the torch and pretend to read the number off the bottom of the bike whilst lying on the floor looking up at the exhaust manifold. Success! The unknown man seems pleased and scoots off, I’m left alone in the cargo bay putting the panniers and accessories back on the bike.
At about 6:30pm the unknown man returns with my signed Carnet and import documents. Mr short-but-important announces that I couldn’t have done this without his son. He senses my confusion and announces that Kalpesh is his son, Francis is his nephew and the guy who looks like Freddy Corleone is his brother. And they all work together as agents in the cargo warehouse to help people like me. It turns out it’s their job … I think. I’m not too sure whether they get paid by the airport or the customs office or just by the uninitiated general public like me. But it’s true to say that I really couldn’t have done it in 10.5 hours without Kalpesh, so I gave him £45 (4000Rs) which seemed to make him very happy. “Sir, if you need any help in Mumbai, or with the airport you just have to call my number”.
On arrival in Goa and talking to some other overland adventure bikers about the trial of getting my bike out of Mumbai airport, Phil, a fun Swiss guy with an ancient BMW R100 said “Ten and a half hours?! … Fuck man, I dream of ten and a half hours, it took us two and a half fucking weeks to get our bikes out of Mumbai docks after we shipped them from Dubai. That fucking shipyard wanted so many bits of paper …”