So there’s this shipment.
It’s an experiment, but a rather important one.
When I tell people I’m going to Uganda to teach people how to use computers because it will change their lives, the number one thing they say is.. “I got old computers for you.”
Of course they do. Everyone has old computers. But from day one, I’ve had no flipping idea how exactly to get old computers to Uganda. Some computer are so old they’re even boat anchors on Zanzibar (the island, not the Halo map). But those good, old computers… Yeah, I could use them. But how?
Well because I know nothing about cargo shipping, the answer was to carry them over in suitcases, which isn’t bad except for the $2,000 per person plane ticket, and the 16+ hours in the air, and the excess baggage fees, and the chiropractic bills.
But, hey it worked for the short haul. We built a nice classroom for AOET in ’07 on a family trip, thanks to Jethro’s laptop donation. But I’m tired of lugging computers that way. Back to cargo shipping.
I met this guy Chris. Well, I didn’t exactly meet Chris. I was e-introduced to Chris by a guy named Kevin who I met for a few minutes at a conference once. Kevin was a pastor. So that counts for a lot in the honest category, and Kevin said that Chris was a guy that could “ship stuff when others couldn’t”. That got me thinking.
I had two problems before I left for Uganda, and Chris held the solution to both. The first was that Tim and Dwight (Whitewolf) were coming with 50 laptops as checkin luggage. The batteries had to be removed (cuz they can asplode or sumpin) and I needed to get them to Uganda. That was problem one.
Problem two revolved around the 50 Compaq Evo N610c laptops (hey! don’t laugh! They aren’t Alienware, but they’re perfect for us. And besides, what have YOU donated to us? Where was I? Ah yes..) to our cause like RIGHT before we were leaving for Uganda. That was problem two.
The solution was to have Chris cargo ship both shipments and have them meet our team on the ground on August 5th.
So thanks to amazing logistical work by my friend Nathan, we got Chris the batteries and the laptops to ship to Uganda for us.
So that’s over 50 brand new laptop batteries (18 Dell Vostro 1000’s, 32 Acer Aspire One’s) and 50 donated laptops sent blindly to an unknown person on the recommendation of another kinda unknown person. Sent to an underdeveloped country to be driven about as far away from civilization as you can get in an unarmed vehicle so the machines can be put in a school and used by people who just might possibly learn some life-changing skills to help pull them out of poverty.
You heard right. A long shot. That’s how we roll, baby. My pastor calls this “faith”. My lawyer calls this “a liability”.
So after all this insanity, I’ve certainly set you up for a happy ending, right? Hrmm… well…
The laptops were set to arrive on August 5th with Tim and Dwight, but the shipment was bumped because… wait for it… some produce took precedence. PRODUCE. Stupid vegetables. Took precedence over COMPUTER HARDWARE!?!?!?
The indignity. I know.
But I’m a realist. I understand that produce spoils slightly faster than computer hardware, and that’s fine. (Vegetables still suck).
So the first shipment gets bullied by a bunch of bananas and is now set to arrive August 10th, then busted by some broccoli and bumped back again to the 17th, but (vegetable hatred aside) I’m still not pissed off or anything because this was the exact day Jenny was supposed to arrive. The second shipment (the batteries for the AOET computers) was due in on the 18th, so maybe just maybe we hit the trifecta and score a 3-for-1 when we go to pick up Jenny at Entebbe. She flies in, we take two steps over to the cargo area (which I picture as having a super-huge help-yourself luggage belt just like the ones the passengers flock to after a flight) and just like that we’ve shrunk 18 hours of driving down to six, and life is good. The happy ending. I know you can feel it.
Not quite. I met this nice young guy named Robert. Or was it Ronnie? He saw my confused Mzungu mug groping the cargo gate and asked, “do you have an agent?”
I explained that even though I was a best-selling (computer book) author and a massive rock star (on the Internet) and that I had lots of groupies (the ones I pay well) and I’ve been on TV a lot (didn’t mention that they were boring news programs) that I did not in fact have an agent.
After a few back-and-forths, I somehow had hired Ronnie (Robert?) to be my cargo agent. The guard at the gate seemed nonplussed. So, cool. My man. My agent. Welcome to the Hackers for Charity adventure.
After walking around to like ten different offices and getting this thing called an airbill and filling out customs forms, I decided that Ronnert knew what he was doing and I could never in a million years EVER figure out all this on my own.
So I flexed the world traveller Mr. Cargo Shipping ego muscle a little bit and explained that I was going to be doing quite a bit of shipping if this whole thing worked out. Robnniert seemed impressed and asked me for my passport so he could “have a copy to help me expedite future shipments”.
I politely refused, mentioning something about how the Embassy forbade (even dumb) Americans to give out copies of their passports (let alone paranoid security super-freaks like me).
After about an hour of mind-numbing paperwork, Ronn-bert asked me to sign the copy of my passport (it was for customs) and to write on it that I authorized customs to release the shipment to his company. I was still sketchy about the whole thing, and felt like I was signing a blank check for this guy to snag every single one of my cargo shipments from now until the Apocalypse so I got tricky.
I signed the copy of the passport, authorizing his company to access one shipment (by number) on today’s date. I intended, after all, to shadow Ronbnert all day until I had those laptops in-hand, but a phone call from my family said that it was time to head to the arrival gate to pick up Jenny.
At this point, Robbnniebert explained that we were still several hours away from getting the goods. He used words like “customs” and “inspection” and “valuation” and it was this last word that made me feel like it was a really good idea to leave him with the paperwork to run with this process. I mean after all, a guy in a country like this that uses the word “valuation” in proper context must be on the up and up, right?
But I still had a bad feeling about what this was going to cost me. Agents rob people. All the time. So I asked him what this all was gonna cost me. His answer was VERY exacting. He multiplied the weight of the shipment times 3 then times 1.8% (VAT), added a bank fee and a photocopying fee and his agent fee, and the bill came to like $150,000 UGX (like $75) which seemed pretty reasonable (FOR FIFTY LAPTOPS) except for the fact that half that was his agent fee. Still, this was it. No more hidden costs. No free gifts for calling in the next ten minutes, and no operators standing by.
“This is the final price,” I asked. Very specific.
“That is all,” he said, waving his hands in a convincing way. “No hidden costs.”
A light at the end of the tunnel.
I felt good about this, so I left him, and we got Jenny (yay! rejoicing! The family together again! I’m not meaning to minimize the joy of the event by putting it in parenthesis, but I’m focussed on the shipment in this post. Another Yay! for good measure before we continue, then.)
I called Robnnieobert (got his cell, I’m smart) and asked for a status. “Tomorrow,” he said. “By ten A.M. We’ll have both packages cleared for you. No problem.”
At this point, I was tired, confused and ready to tackle the three-hour trek back to Jinja. It was 3:00, and we needed to get home before dark because the only thing more insane than driving in Uganda is driving in Uganda at night. So we left.
Now, back at the house, basking in the glow of my laptop, I’m fully exhausted after 7 hours of driving (traffic, inches from me in every direction, psycho moped drivers and suicidal pedestrians that take certain joy in riding the wave of air my speeding aerodynamically challenged truck makes) and facing another return trip tomorrow, and my brain’s playing tricks on me.
Did I really just hand a complete stranger a copy of my passport, and sign away the shipment to his company? Well, yes. I did, but it’s not like that.
Look, this cargo thing is complex. There’s a lot to it. I mean I’ve heard lots of horror stories. Gangs, pirates, crooked agents..
That’s not helping my case. Let me put it this way. In a country where corruption is rampant, and is compounded by abject poverty, things happen a certain way….
No, that’s not the angle I’m going for either.
I just called Robnnieobert. He picked up on the first half ring.
“Hello, Jon,” he said in about the most difficult tone to analyze I’ve ever heard a human use. He’s either an honest guy or he’s stunned that the guy that he just robbed is actually calling him with second thoughts.
“Hi,” I began. I skipped the name and continued, because I’m net really even sure his name starts with an R. “So is everything still OK? Will we be able to get both shipments tomorrow? What time does the second shipment land? What time should I come to the airport?”
My interrogation skills suck. Man. That’s horrible. When I’m on a gig and I need to social engineer a help desk droid out of their social security number and underpants, I don’t break a sweat. But this guy… this guy’s got midichlorians up to there or something. My chi is all chumbled. My mojo’s all mangled. And just like that, I fire off twenty questions.
He answers only one; the last one. “Tomorrow you come at eleven.”
Stone cold. No flubs. This guy’s got confidence man. His game is solid.
I’ve got a really bad feeling about this. I’m pretty sure I’m driving to the airport tomorrow to pick up a super-size package of 100% pure owned.