Van Day!

Thursday morning I woke up feeling nervous. It was the day we were to pick up our van and, theoretically, start the trip that we thought we would have started a month ago.

Since deciding to take this trip we’ve learned a lot about how to ship a vehicle overseas. First we had to decide whether to do a Roll-On Roll-Off (or RORO), which means we hand over our vehicle and our keys at the dock, and then our vehicle takes a glorified ferry ride to our destination and we pick it up and hope that the person we handed our keys to didn’t call his cousins to come down and strip our vehicle of everything down to the copper wiring. Since we had hoped to load the van up with everything from camping equipment, to a spare tire, dishes, tools… we weren’t all that keen on providing the shipping company employees with complimentary access to all our worldly belongings. So, we decided against a RORO shipping option and instead chose to send our precious cargo in a 20 foot shipping container which would allow us to lock up the van and hold onto the keys until it reached Chile, presumably with all our stuff inside. A bit more expensive, but we thought it would be well worth it to arrive somewhat self-sufficient and with a few comforts from home.

With that decision made, we found a broker who helped us evaluate the various shipping lines with departures in our timeframe. Ultimately we booked with the NYK line and chose a departure from Long Beach because it allowed us to visit friends and family in Southern California before leaving and because the route and schedule meant it would arrive about 12 days faster than the any other option. The good news is, the time spent in Southern California was absolutely well worth it and I wouldn’t change that for anything. Having a week at home was priceless for me. The bad news, as you know, is that while our boat’s scheduled journey to Chile should have taken 16 days, the time between parking her in a shipping container in California and picking her up in Chile actually spanned 50 days.

We’ve had an amazing time during those 50 days, but it’s still a little painful to remember how deflated we were to have planned our lives around the boat’s schedule, only to hear that labor disputes at the port of Long Beach, combined with a chassis shortage, meant there was no telling when our cargo would leave the port. So, lesson learned. I can’t control everything and I need to learn to roll with the punches. I get it, Universe. I hear you :)

In the days leading up to V-Day (I’m pretty sure that works for Van Day), we emailed back and forth with our broker about where to go, what to expect, and how to navigate customs and the like. So we expected that Thursday we would meet our broker’s Chilean counterpart who had set up an appointment with Chilean Agricultural authorities who would watch as we unsealed the container and inspect the contents to ensure we weren’t bringing any foreign flora or fauna with us. After that we were told we would have to wait until the following day to bring the importation paperwork, along with approval from the Agricultural authorities, to the Aduana (or Customs) office we had scouted out the day before in order to get the proper documentation in order to prove our van had been brought here legally and received authorization to remain in the country for the next 90 days.

Since we thought this process would take place over two days, we checked out of our apartment and into a cheap hotel by the port. We stashed our bags there Thursday afternoon and caught a taxi out to SITRANS, on the outskirts of Valparaiso. We had left much later than we intended, and since we had been told to arrive promptly at 3pm to meet our agent before our 3:30 appointment with the Agriculture guys, stress levels were high as we tried to tell the taxi driver where we wanted to go and the route we wanted to take. Wolf’s stress level increased quite a bit when the confident driver, trying to reassure us, looked Wolf in the eye and said gently, “Tranquilo”. Telling Wolf to calm down of course had the opposite of the desired effect, so he smoldered with annoyance for the rest of the ride, annoyed that we weren’t taking the tunnel route he had planned for.

SITRANS (I haven’t figured out what the abbreviation stands for yet) is full of warehouses, shipping containers, and big machinery. I’m pretty sure all my nephews would love it.

When we arrived at the address we’d given the taxi driver, the security guard at the gate had a difficult time figuring out what to do with us. We didn’t really know where we were trying to go, the agent we were meeting dind’t work there so we didn’t have a name to reference, and I had no clue how to describe what we were doing in Spanish. After a few phone calls he finally let us through the gate, and the taxi driver dropped us off, asking (in Spanish of course) if we were really at the right place, and did we know what we were doing, and did we want him to wait for us. Naively confident, we told him we were fine and he didn’t need to wait. So off we went to find Sergio, only to find what seemed to be a dead-end, a building with a bunch of young dudes in hard hats and safety vests laughing at us. Hmm. Not ideal. We found someone to ask about the address, and he didn’t really understand what we were doing but suggested we might want the building down the street and on top of the hill. Not what we wanted to hear since we were already 10 minutes late…

And then our taxi driver walked around the corner. I could have hugged him. Since we were obviously clueless he had parked and walked back to make sure we were ok. He heard the man give us directions and told us to jump back in so he could drive us to what we hoped would be the right location. He asked if we had a phone number for Sergio, which we did, so our taxi hero called Sergio, who was also running about 20 minutes late, clarified where we should be and we raced off in the right direction. Arriving at another security gate, this time they seemed to understand what we were doing, and showed us into an attractive office to wait for Sergio’s arrival.

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While we waited, we suited up in safety gear and watched the huge machines moving containers around.

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A few minutes later Sergio showed up. In a mix of Spanish and English and Spanglish, we chatted about what would happen next, and he started to walk us through the documents we needed when the Agriculture agents showed up. He told us to sit tight while he went to get the process started with them. Eventually, he came back and walked us over to a second office where he introduced us to Peter, and Aduana (customs) agent. We were surprised to be meeting with customs but Sergio told us that Peter thought he could get everything processed which meant we might be able to complete the process and drive our van away the same day. Awesome news! Between Peter and his buddy in customs, they started shuffling paper around and typing away furiously. Sergio asked me to stay and complete the paperwork while he brought Wolf out to the container to open up the car.

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I hung out with Peter and his buddy, who chatted with me about what we were doing and where we planned to travel. He also messed with me a bit, asking if Wolf and I were married, and then warning me about how hard marriage can be, explaining that he was on his third marriage and relationships are too hard now with so many distractions… He assured me that he was working on special paperwork for me because I was pretty, which obviously made me more comfortable. Harmless teasing aside, I had expected the customs process would be a bit daunting. In reality, it was fairly quick and easy, and not particularly intimidating.

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Meanwhile, outside, Wolf and Sergio went back to our open container. The Agriculture team had already signed off on opening up the container and now wanted to watch Wolf open up the car and inspect the contents. With the car still inside the container, the poked around as best they could, asked to see the inside of the roof storage bin, and left satisfied that we weren’t smuggling in puppies or palm trees.

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Once I had signed on a few dotted lines, Peter walked me out to the container where Wolf and Sergio had finished with the Agriculture agents.

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We watched as the forklift brought over a ramp that attached to our container, and then Wolf climbed in, shifted into neutral, and a few of the warehouse personnel helped push the car out. Then it was time for the Aduana inspection.

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Peter took a look at the packing list we had provided before shipping, snooped around in the car, and then walked off to finalize the paperwork, leaving us to assess our vehicle.

The first thing Wolf wanted to address was the oil that had leaked on the floor of the shipping container. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to caused concern since we had never noticed an oil leak before.

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We hoped it just meant that the kids at the Jiffy Lube in Santa Barbara failed to tighten a bolt after our last oil change. Wolf checked the oil which seemed just a tiny bit low, so he rummaged around inside the van for the oil and funnel we had stashed away while one of the warehouse guys helped me move the roof container and chatted to me about the USA women’s soccer team.

After adding fresh oil we felt ready to try starting her up. She’d been sitting for 7 weeks, a long time for our 1987 vehicle. And since we had only expected a 16 day transit, we hadn’t disconnected the battery so we were worried that it might be completely drained by now. Wolf climbed in, crossed our fingers, and… she started like a charm. No hesitation, no problem. Relief.

And then, just as we were celebrating our good fortune, the guy loading a truck next to us pointed to the back of the car and yelled something in Spanish. Thinking he was commenting on the body damage to our rear panel (a story for another day), we laughed and tried to explain that it had happened a while back. He shook his head end pointed again, this time we realized he was pointing underneath the car, to show us a mysterious liquid leaking rapidly…

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Wolf quickly shut off the car crawled underneath to figure out what could be leaking, and where it could be coming from. With the car off we could tell it was gasoline but we couldn’t tell where it was coming from or what the problem could be, but we knew we couldn’t drive away with a car leaking gas – we didn’t ship it this far to set the thing on fire our first day out.

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We opened up the engine, Wolf poked around, and eventually after a few iterations of crawling underneath, tooling around with anything that seemed loose, and turning the car back on to check, he figured it out. It seemed a clamp joining two hoses in the fuel line (I’m probably getting this wrong since my mechanic skills are a bit rusty) had come loose. Wolf tightened it up and magically, the leak stopped. We celebrated again, relieved we weren’t starting our trip with a tow truck to a mechanic, or worse yet, a fire. I was so thankful someone had pointed out the problem and amazed that Wolf figured out how to fix it. I drove off feeling pretty darn lucky and hoping our luck would last.

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Finally, we made our way towards the exit where security checked out documents and let us out the gate where we met Sergio and squared everything away before forcing him to pose for a picture with us. And that was it. We were done. We were in Chile and we had our van.
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We drove back to Valparaiso in shock. We had a hotel for one more night since we had been assured that this process would take two days. So we celebrated with beers at a neighborhood bar, followed by a great meal, and then one last wander through the streets of Valparaiso.

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