May 07, 2006

Beds & Bureaucracy

I have been looking around for an old fashioned iron bed for on the balcony for ages now. With a couple of pillows, it would make a fantastically relaxed seating. I’ve seen several at the Garden Show at the Race track in Beirut, but the prices they asked were in the range of $600, which I think is exorbitant for an iron bed.

So I’ve been around the southern suburbs to look around for the metalworkers, and see if they could fabricate me one. And although they were (just a little) cheaper, here you are dealing with people who are either not very professional (one leg shorter than the other three; “That’s okay Madame, why don’t you put a small piece of wood under the leg and the problem is solved?”), or they are not familiar with what you want, and even though you might give them a picture with the exact model you want, they’d fix it somehow differently (“That’s the same,” or “That’s how we do it here.”)
And then you’re stuck with a shitty bed for a not-so-good price.

But when I was in Holland, I saw this bed at IKEA. For people who do not know IKEA; it is a self-service furniture store: you basically have to drag your furniture out of the warehouse yourself and assemble it too. That does make it notoriously cheap.
So I see this iron bed for €75. That’s about 145,000 LBP! I find that cheap, because going around any furniture store in Lebanon will give you the feeling that you are living in a country where the average income is somewhere in the range of $6000, which it is not. More like a zero less.

And I bought two! (I’ve got a pretty big balcony). Now parts of the beds I could carry with me on the plane, so that saved me some money, but there were still 3 boxes, weighing 31 kilos, that had to be shipped. So I call a shipping company. I didn’t want the beds to arrive in 6 months, and I didn’t want to deal with the hassle at the port. I had done that before, when I moved most of my stuff to Lebanon, and apart from the long wait, people at customs – or whoever they were – nicked about half of the items from my boxes. So I figured I’d pay a little extra to have it flown in by plane.
Sure, they said, that would be €278. (532,000 LBP). I gulped. But by then I had already bought the beds, so shipped, they had to be. (And Yoda, I am not) Fine. Whatever, that would still be cheaper than buying them in Lebanon.

Shipping went fast indeed. I was barely back home (Beirut) when I got a call from the airport. “You’re stuff has arrived.” So Saturday morning, I went to the airport.

First I need to show my ID. First time of about a hundred times. I went into the customs building, car had to be parked outside. I go up and see a long hallway with about 27 little offices. My first hit was right on the target. Got to waybill for a mere 38,000 (although the paper said 33,000 LBP), but hey, who cares when it goes so fast? I was all hopeful for a quick and cheap ending of my customs adventure. (How come I do not learn?)
On to the next guy, who was not in yet. He came at 9. He places a stamp and a signature on my - now - two papers. ‘Go to Abu Ibrahim,” and he points to some window down the lane. You have to visualize this: only men walking around, all on their cell phones, slugging heavy dossiers under their arms, and all were looking at this one female foreigner (who had made the smart choice of wearing baggy stuff and no make-up). Abu Ibrahim is not in his office. “Will be back in ten minutes.” And indeed, he is back in ten minutes. He gives me another signature. And a paper. “Now go make a picture of your passport (meaning photocopy).” Back to the first office, then to Abu Ibrahim. He sends me down the stairs, to the cargo department. Millions and zillions of boxes and various states of decomposition. How can anyone ever hope to find anything in there? I pass by seven more guys, all asking the same “What is it?”, and giving a little scribble on my ever growing stack of papers with stamps and signatures.
In this cargo hall, and upstairs in the building, there are just hundreds of men milling about, in a variety of states of relaxation. Many in different kind of military uniforms. Some smoke, they hang on boxes, yawn and stretch their arms, drink coffee, or hang around in groups and tell each other jokes, judging from the laughter of it. There are some guys in blue overalls that do haul some boxes up and down, but other than that, you do not get the impression that anyone is doing any actual work.
My boxes get found. They are still in reasonable recognizable state. Now I have to wait for another guy, who will look into what I have got. “What do you have?” “A bed.” “Wood?” “No, iron.” “How much?” “€75.”

More signatures, more stamps. Back up to Abu Ibrahim, who makes a bill for me. A whopping 246,000 LBP? “That’s more than the beds!” I argue. He explains that the price is not related to the price of the beds, but to the price of the freight, i.e. the €278. You pay a little bit over a dollar per euro, and than 30% of that. At least, that is what he said. But hey, my boxes are in cargo, and without these three pieces, I cannot assemble my beds.

Then on to another four (!) stations to pay, with more paperwork. I am carrying around a dossier around now as well. Another 1,000 for a tax stamp. Back down again for more paperwork, back up for Abu Ibrahim’s final consent, and then to the paperwork office. Now this is a sight in itself. A puny little office, with stacks and stacks of paper up to the ceiling! This is almost movie material, as if they had staged ‘a scene which should indicate bureaucracy’. Here again are a couple of men in various uniforms, who – quite surprisingly – manage to find the accompanying papers within five minutes in all these stacks of paper. My amazement was obviously easy to read. “It’s all manual in Lebanon, Madame,” the soldier said after he had given another paper, a stamp and a signature. Then down for some more (three) guys, who gave their signatures, and I had to pay another 10,000 for the porter. That was just a tip.
Two hours later, and 295,000 LBP pounds lighter, I was out of the door with my three boxes.

I made my calculations. 290,000 for the beds. 532,000 for shipping. 295,000 for customs. That is a total of 1,117,000 LBP. That’s $742. Or €584. I don’t have much to say on this issue. They’d better be darned good beds, and last for twenty years or more. And anyone ever coming on my balcony better compliment me profusely on the excellent choice of furniture.

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