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Resupply Through The Brazilian Jungle of Red Tape

 

By Greg Altman

Planning an extensive trip to gather material for a photo essay in Brazil and other South American countries, I devoted some serious thought to the logistics. The first month would be spent traveling about the south of the country, and then up to Recife in the Northeast, before dropping into Salvador for an extended stay through Carnaval. Here I would be able to stay with a couple that were old friends of my parents from when we lived in Rio de Janeiro 25 years earlier. Since I could stay as long as I might need, and would have access to a computer and the Internet, Salvador would be ideal (once Carnaval was over) to spend some time and get some writing done before heading towards the jungle.

Having recently hiked a healthy section of the Appalacian Trail with 2 thru-hiking friends, I knew the value of a well planned re-supply.  Wanting to keep payload to a minimum, I devised to send a package to myself in Salvador, addressed to my father's friend Joćo to help ensure its safe arrival.  The contents of this package were as follows:

  • 20 rolls of 120 format black & white film

  • 20 rolls of 35 mm color film

  • A spare Holga camera

  • Software and cables to transfer digital photos to a computer

  • A 2 month supply of Malarone, the latest anti-malarial drug

  • A vial with Biaxin (a potent all-purpose anti-biotic), and Lomotil (anti-diarrheal)

  • A cannister of various vitamins, echinacea, and ginsing

  • Three pairs of contact lenses

  • 4 small bottles of bug repellent

  • A mosquito head net

  • 3 books and a refill of business cards

I was actually quite impressed with myself, as I would not need to carry around all this stuff the first month, which I would not need until Salvador or afterwards.  I would also mitigate the risks of not having many essential items for the remainder of my project if some of my belongings were stolen that first month. My main concern was that the package not be x-rayed and thus damage all the expensive film I had in there, to which I devoted significant attention and research.  One of the reasons for sending the film were the tightening security practices at the airports, and little clear information about what the new rules actually were. I did not feel 100% confident I could get my film through without being x- rayed, and didn't want all my eggs in one basket. The risk of the package never arriving was something I was willing to take on.

Arriving in Salvador a week before Carnaval, I was relieved to see an ‘Aviso de Chegada’ from the post office, indicating my package had arrived.  A box was checked, after which big hand written block letters noted ‘Impostd Sobre Importacao’, which I felt meant that a tax of some sort had to be paid.  ‘No problem’, as they like to say here in Brazil. I'm not sure I even noticed the other box that was checked, stating ‘Solicitar liberaēćo do Ministerio da Saude’.

Well, when Joćo returned after a weekend at the beach the next Monday, we went off together to the Salvador headquarters of the ‘Officina de Correios’.  When we arrived at the International Affairs gated window, I learned a number of things, in the following order:

My package was sitting on a shelf, with its Campmor.com sealing tape looking a bit ruffled.

The package had been opened and sifted through

An import tax of 60% of the value of new goods would need to be paid

The value of the new goods in the package was estimated at $150 

The Ministry of Health had impounded the package due to the various pills within

I had been terribly naive to think that getting all this stuff in the country would be ‘no problem’.

Thus began the saga of ‘Gregorio“s pacote’.  The frown on Joćo“s face as we drove back home belied the fact that this might not be too easy to resolve.  He probably was not very pleased that this was his problem too, as his name was on the package.  As I was a bit unsure exactly what drugs were in the package, Joćo convinced me to make a frantic trip back to the post office by myself to try to make an accurate listing of the goodies. I was ultimately successful (when in a tight spot, the prodigal use of ‘amigo’, ‘por favor’ and the thumbs up sign may well save you in this country), but found that the melange health supplements, and the fact that the Biaxin and Lomodil were in a vial with ‘Cipro’ hand written on it, would probably not be so easy to explain.  At a dinner that evening with Joćo“s family, they told the horror story an international package that had taken 6 months to wrest from the post office.  Taking this all into account, and seeking a swift solution, we derived our first strategy:  Barring an unexpected easy exit, we would sacrifice the drugs to get the essential film and digital equipment, hoping the contact lenses would go unnoticed.

Downtown at the Health Ministry Tuesday afternoon, we were told that without a doctors written prescription in hand that day for all the items in question, the package would not be liberated.  Asking if we could have just the Malarone, which was in two vials with my name printed on it (indicating a valid prescription, you would think), the health officials only shook their heads.  They were a bit more cooperative filling out the paperwork giving them permission to seize and destroy all the ‘medicines’.  We were told someone would go the following day to the post office to take out the offensive items.

Calling the International affairs office the next day, we learned there had been an emergency meeting while the health official was at the post office, and that he did not have time to get to my package. Thursday was the first night of Carnaval, but supposedly some people still worked on Friday. We were assured he would go back the next day to take care of my package.  I now knew better that to put much hope into that one.

So Carnaval came and went, and while the city bounced, caroused, and convulsed for nearly a week, my film cooked away in what was probably quite a hot room. The Wednesday after the finale of the celebration I decided to leave town, figuring not much progress would be made immediately.  Upon my return the following Monday, I was told that someone finally went down to the post office on Friday, and that we were to go there to pick it up.  So down we went, with over $100 dollars in Brazilian cash with the expectation of paying heavily for the liberation of my package. Instead we were handed a green and a white piece of paper, but the package was not going anywhere. 

The white one was a ‘Termo de Visita’ which indicated the package had insect repellent, and that we would need a prescription for the contacts, the Cipro, and the Malarone.  The other various pills were termed ‘Inutilizadas’, whose seizure and destruction were documented, stamped, and approved on the green piece of paper.  So much for the divide and conquer strategy.

Despite signing away our rights to the medication, I seemed that scripts would be needed for any progress to be made.  So while I tried to figure out who to contact at home to get the appropriate documents faxed down here, Joćo consulted his rolodex.  I had a momentary fit of frustration when I learned the doctor who had prescribed my malaria medication would be out until the following Monday, and that his office was closed and that time (and for how long?).  Joćo returned with the phone number of a friend of his who was a doctor at a hospital in town.  “Why don't you give him a call and perhaps he can help out”.  Given that Joćo“s schedule was starting to get rather crammed, leaving a smaller window to get this all resolved, I figured it was worth a shot.  I called the doctor, who agreed to meet with me at the hospital the next day.

So, Tuesday afternoon I meet him in the Emergency Room of the hospital, and I show him the white paper naming the items needing authorization, and a document detailing the Malarone medication.  I tell him where I will be traveling later, and he agrees to write a script for the Malarone. “What about the other things?”  he then asks. “Well, if you like, you can write me something for them”.  So he proceeds to write me scripts for the Cipro and my contact lenses on hospital stationary, which I happy accepted, but did not feel particularly confident in.

Later that afternoon, I was left to my own devices to deliver the 3 scripts downtown to the Ministry of Health.  Arriving shortly before the office was to close, the security men at the desk downstairs would not let me pass. I couldn't understand why, and was freaking out inside, but calmly asked them to repeat and repeat what they were saying until I figured out what was wrong. I wasn't allowed in with shorts (“bermudas”) on.  I almost threw a fit, then realized I was wearing my convertible travel pants, and had the bottoms in my bag.  A frantic minute of zipping and hopping on one foot resulted in 3 very amused guards and the freedom to enter.

On the elevator ride up I could only think about the prospect of them seeing the script for the contacts on hospital stationary from the same doctor being deemed illegal and throwing the whole situation into some sort of violation proceeding.  Walking in to the office, I told myself to smile, remember to close the door to conserve their air conditioning, and look like everything I was doing was completely legit. The inspector who was dealing with my case came out, and seemed perfectly happy that he now had three official slips of paper to go with the three outstanding items on my “termo de visita”. I was told that he would fax over a release authorization the next day to the post office.   

So, judgment day, do I really get to take my package home or not? We call in the morning, but the fax hasn’t arrived yet. By the afternoon it had come in, but the paperwork had been sent to another office to calculate the import tax.  Hmmm, was hoping they would forget about that. Going by their estimate, this could run close to 100 dollars.  At least we got the name and phone number of Pedro, the guy assigned to this part of the process.

Rather than calling the guy myself the next day to check to see if everything was ready (what would you do with a gringo tugging at you while compiling a bill?), I asked Joćo if he would call the guy.  This is where he really earned his stripes. After 10 minutes of convivial conversation in Portuguese, we were on our way to the post office. 

For someone who was almost out of an annoying predicament, Joćo did not look his normal jolly self during the ride. This time, while signing in for the usual 3rd floor, we rode to a different floor the meet the tax man. Joćo seemed nervous as I handed him some cash after checking the other passengers.  When we found Pedro, the two acted like old friends, and after Joćo signed a paper that had no numbers written on it, gave us a copy, and a quick exchange of cash, we were back on the elevator down to where my package was being held hostage.  This turned out to be the magic slip of paper I had been seeking for the last three weeks, and ‘shazaam!’, the package was pushed through the gate and into my arms. Without giving them time to think twice, we were out of the building. I felt like the guy who finally escapes the Turkish prison in the movie “Midnight Express”. The resulting ‘tax’ turned out to be less than half of what I had feared, and all of the contents were inside, except for my vitamins.  Hahleluya!

That night I treated Joćo and his wife to a well earned sushi dinner.  Some lessons to be learned when dealing with the bureaucracy here:

Don’t send pills in a package across borders, no matter how large your name is printed on the bottle. You might wake up a sleeping dog.

Once stuck, smile and persevere, and make sure you have a good ministry uniform.

Let everyone do their job, but always keep your eye out for a convenient “jeito” (way out).  Sooner or later one will pop up, and you better not miss it. 

    #  #  #

When Greg Altman is not in New York or Eastern Long Island, you’ll likely find him roaming any corner of the world. A self proclaimed Jack-of-all-trades on the cusp of thirtydom, his experience runs from writing to consulting, photography, tortilla manufacturing, and organic farming. Currently on assignment in Brazil, he has been soaking in the sights, sounds, and smells of Bahia.  The quest to experience and capture magic through the ear or camera lens will continue to inspire his feet and pen as long as world cultures remain alive.

Email:  gregaltman@yahoo.com (Greg Altman)

 

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