I stood in the street peering into the cavernous darkness of the second container. One of the roofers from down the street spoke English and had agreed to help finish loading the container.
There were no packing materials so I rushed to Lowe’s and bought every variety on the shelf: boxes, bubble wrap, shrink-wrap, tape. There were bags of rope and although I couldn’t imagine why it might be needed, I bought it.
The guys came over around 8pm. I had been throwing things into boxes, scribbling something on the outside to serve as inventory and taping them as fast as I could move.
We had paid extra for a crate to be built for the antler chandelier that would go in our new family room, but this had not been done before the calamity started. It was the last thing to be packed.
We all debated it for a minute – the roofers in Spanish, my neighbor, the driver and I in English. One of the roofers jumped in and wrapped it in bubble wrap and then shrink wrapped it a gazillion times. We all nodded approval. It took four of them to walk it to the container. We situated it on a big bed of bubble wrap and tied it to the sides of the container with the rope.
It was a little after midnight. I was holding what was left of the rope. The driver standing beside me, waiting. He was such a good man. I threw the rope into the blackness of the container as far as I could. He handed me an extra roll of bubble wrap and I threw it in too. We laughed and he closed the doors. He set the seal and told me to check the doors in Ecuador. They should still be sealed shut when it reached my house.
By the time I arrived in Ecuador with the dogs, the containers had already been in customs for weeks. My husband was quite sure they would be delivered to the house just one week later.
I had sent a suitcase with him months ago with enough clothes to get me through a few days until we could get unpacked. He found outdoor furniture and had moved it into the family room so we had somewhere to sit. Then he bought an air mattress, pillows and sheets for sleeping, towels and a bath mat. Staying at a hotel wasn’t an option with the four dogs and I wouldn’t consider boarding them.
We brought our own appliances but they were in the containers, of course, so we went out to eat for every meal.
Every three or four days we dropped our clothes off at the laundromat on the way in to town. My clothes were beginning to look like they had been chewed up but they were clean.
We waited for word that the containers had been cleared by customs. There was a penalty fee for every day they sat in customs and this was threatening to overwhelm me. Every day I asked my husband, “Isn’t there something we can do?!”
He called the attorney. She said she would call the broker the next day. She would sue her. She knew somebody that knew somebody…or she had gone to school with somebody… that could help.
He called Gloria, the broker in Quito. One night he was begging her to release the containers. I heard him say, “Gloria, I have already given you more money!” I couldn’t breathe. My heart was racing, my head spinning.
I took the phone out of his hand mid-sentence. “What more do you want from us? All of our belongings, my son’s baby pictures, the music box my parents gave me as a child…our very life is being held hostage in those containers! What more do you want from us?!” I started to cry and handed the phone back to my husband. Still, the containers would not be released.
The New York Agent contracted with a Broker/Freight Expeditor in Quito to coördinate entry of our containers into Ecuador. We had already applied for our Residency Visa but the containers had arrived so quickly, the Visa had not come through. Without this stamp on my passport, our household belongings would be claimed commercial rather than personal and taxed as much as 60% of their determined value. This was when I jumped on a plane for Ecuador.
Our attorney agreed to fly with me to Quito for a meeting with Gloria, the Broker. We would also visit Immigration and Customs to get my Visa approved and have the containers released duty-free. We met with Gloria on a Sunday.
She was a whirling dervish. Maybe 5 feet tall, looked like a sweet little grandma, talked like a sailor. She had been in this business for 50 years and seemed to know everything there was to know.
She made it very clear she had not been paid by our New York Agent and there was little she could do until she was paid. I knew why she hadn’t been paid. I had refused to make the final payment to the Agent because the packers had walked off the job and left Marcia to finish packing and loading the second container. Obviously, they kept their portion and didn’t pay Gloria. I assured Gloria I would pay her directly and we went to Customs where they demanded I surrender my passport.
My passport would be the assurance that if the Visa was not approved, I wouldn’t leave the country without paying those 60% taxes. Before I left, Gloria and I agreed on her fee and she committed to getting our containers through customs no matter what. She told us she had insiders that would help.
Gloria’s fee was still less than what I would have paid the New York Agent so everything seemed ok. The attorney wasn’t quite so sure everything was ok.
On the flight back to Cuenca, she told me she had never met anyone quite like Gloria. She said, “I will make sure she lives up to her agreement.” This would prove to be as big a job as she feared.
There were delays. Halfway through the process changes were made to the immigration laws. Months went by. Gloria was getting anxious. She wanted to be paid.
Our attorney’s sister was a friend of the wife of the new Director of Immigration so a meeting was arranged. I had only intended to be in Ecuador for a few weeks and had only packed casual clothes. I bought a pair of slacks, a white shirt and a tie. We put together a list of friends and associates from the states and every person I had met in Ecuador to use as references for this guy. I even called in some favors from a few Ecuadorian officials that I had done business with in the past. We went to the meeting. He showed up in jeans and a t-shirt.
Nice guy but he said there was nothing he could do for us. “You’ve done everything right but the rules have changed and you’re caught in the middle,” he said. “I can’t change the rules for you a week after the new rules have gone into effect.” Gloria took advantage of these changes. She wanted more money.
Meanwhile we were being charged $125/day per container in overage fees for every day the containers sat on the dock past two weeks. We were long past two weeks.
Finally, Gloria called and said the containers had been scheduled for inspection. We were allowed to be present for the inspection but Gloria emphatically insisted we shouldn’t. We were nervous.
The second container inventory wasn’t complete. If things didn’t match up to their satisfaction, they could confiscate – but, it was all about money. There would be more fees.
We had heard they would randomly open boxes, compare that box to the inventory and move on. Worst case was that they would unload the entire container onto the dock, inspect everything and reload. We waited for Gloria’s call.