Today I had to go down to the cargo terminal at Zvartnots International Airport to pick up a package that it turned out I had no right to. It was sent to me by FedEx and intercepted by customs.
Every month my mother ships a package to me containing medication via regular air mail. This month, however, she got off to a slow start and was not able to ship the package until about five days ago. She figured she would overnight it, although there isn't such a service to Armenia, even though I told her that it wasn't necessary. In any case, the US Post Office apparently has some kind of new arrangement with FedEx where they pawn off all express shipments to them, notwithstanding they were once bitter rivals. So the medication was shipped in a FexEx envelope but with USPS paperwork.
So what's the big deal, USPS or FedEx? What matters is that I received the package, right? Of course yes. However, it doesn't quite work that way in good ol' Armenia. Seems all packages that are considered "suspicious" (a.k.a., anything that arrives wrapped in FedEx shipping packaging) wind up at the customs department in the cargo terminal. Apparently a law was passed recently by the Armenian National Assembly that all inbound mail is subject to be scanned by the customs department if deemed necessary, which is why the place contains a gigantic warehouse full of goods flown in from overseas that are in transit limbo until someone responsible for receiving the stuff goes down there to sort out all the related paperwork. As a result FedEx's business suffers as well as that of other worldwide delivery services doing business in Armenia. None of these shipping companies are registered as being official service centers for the corporations they supposedly represent in Armenia, which is why FedEx does not have its own flights arriving in Armenia as well as their own quality control--goods shipped with FedEx often are sent here via Vienna using Austrian Airlines. In other words a limited liabilities company is doing business as FedEx in Armenia, using its packaging materials, logos and so forth. But somehow it is all legitimate.
Anyway, yesterday a voice message was left on my answering machine with a request in broken English that I call the FedEx office to inquire about a package that I supposedly received, and that I should ask for Artak or Vartan. I called Artak this morning to find out what was up, and he told me that I had to go down to the FedEx office on Mashdots Street to receive some paperwork with which I would most likely not be able to pick up the package containing the medication. Customs opened the envelope and nabbed the meds from within it. At the office I asked whether customs wanted a bribe and he said that there was no need to give one since the law clearly stipulates that no medications can be mailed into the country. Then I told him a bit of my history, when about three years ago I received a call from FedEx stating that I was to go down to the central post office of Armenia in Yerevan to inquire about a package intercepted there, which also contained medication, and which I ended up receiving after a brief show put on by the officials there when handing over 15,000 dram. Artak told me that there was no such luck this time around. Vartan backed this up but said he would give me directions to the cargo terminal at least--he would have gone with me in my car but he said he had to spend a couple of hours there and was on his own.
To get to the airport cargo terminal, you have to use a special access road that runs off the Yerevan-Ejmiadzin highway in the casino district located on the fringes of the city, also known as "Las Vegas," just outside of "Bangladesh." But in order to reach the road you have to drive about a kilometer past the turning point since it is a left-hand turn and the only way to get to it is by making a U-turn at a designated, lawful spot market with a sign. I miraculously found the access road which had a couple of twists along the way but it led directly to the cargo terminal, which seems to be a fairly new building at no more than a few years old, although I noticed that the front concrete steps leading into it were already crumbling.
I was told by Vartan beforehand to go to the second floor, which you can access from the lobby. But there was no one to speak to in the one office that had an open door, yet luckily someone came around to point me in the direction, but on the first floor. Turns out I had to talk to the customs officer first, who examined the paperwork, listened to my explanations, and sent me to the second floor. I went up the same way via the lobby, only to be sent down again and instructed to walk down a short corridor, at the end of which was a narrow flight of stairs that I had to climb to reach the area I needed to be in. The floor was lined with closed doors, all except for the first one with a spectacular view of the immense warehouse. After a three-minute wait the woman there sent me a few rooms down.
When I opened the door I found a typical service center lobby with teller windows. Dubious looking men wearing faux leather jackets and pointy-toed shoes were staring through the glass awaiting their papers to be processed while the innocent and meek sat on benches pondering their own fate. I approached one window in the middle of the room and the guy there without looking up told me to go to the first one, which I did and where I waited for about 10 minutes not understanding why or whether I was in the right line. All the workers behind the glass were men wearing white, short-sleeved pilling shirts with unassuming epaulettes to propose a regal appearance. Then Vartan stepped in seemingly to my rescue and guided me to the window beside the one where I was originally. The guy was away from his desk but when he arrived he paid not attention to me, instead delving into paperwork, which was not a good sign. Vartan asked him to check my papers, that there was medication to be received, and he muttered something about going to the Minister of Health first. Apparently as Vartan explained to me I had to file a form there which if issued I would show the cargo terminal official who he had just spoken to, the same who would not acknowledge my existence. But he said that the ministry would never do such a thing. I double-checked with him inquiring about whether proposing a donation/bribe would help matters and he assured me that there was no way I could get out of my situation. The medication was lying on a shelf somewhere in the warehouse and I had no access to it whatsoever. Vsyo.
So I left the terminal wondering what this experience was supposed to signify. Is the law starting to work in this country, since there was no way of receiving a package that was considered illegal in the eyes of the Customs Department of the Republic of Armenia, which happens to be regarded as being the most corrupt governmental institution in the country? Perhaps the example made of me was a smokescreen meant to demonstrate that they are indeed doing their jobs quite honestly, even though they are known to assign arbitrary customs taxes on goods being driven over the border, for example on motor vehicles. I would like to be consoled by the fact that the law is being enforced in this case, if it weren't for the absurd logic behind it, especially considering my case.
The point of this story is to make obvious one clear point--if you need to have anything shipped to you while you happen to be in Armenia, be sure to have it sent via regular state-controlled post. Unfortunately, the reliability of prestigious worldwide delivery services like FedEx is invalid in Armenia.
Labels: Personal Experiences, Social and Cultural