Chennai Customs and Contraband CDs

Reading this story from The Guardian this morning reminded me of an incident.

In 2000 through 2001, I travelled to India as a part of my job. I love India: the food, the experience and mostly the people. Adobe’s sales team in India were the most gracious of hosts, and ensured that I sailed through an enjoyed a great business trip.

However, and this is the big however, I have vowed never to travel through International via Chennai. Here is why.

First error I made was accepting to bring in 200 custom pressed CDs from Australia in a brown box. These Adobe CDs were free handouts for the seminars that I was presenting, and due to time constraints could not be freight forwarded in the weeks prior to my presentations. I think they were InDesign Printing CDs with trial software. Cannot quite remember.

The rules for a business traveller landing in India is to get your travel agent to arrange a “hotel car” to collect you from the airport. Supply your Flight arrival details, and once through customs and immigration: there is a friendly face holding your hotel’s logo on a sign, and your name “Mr Nick” or “Mr Hodge” – and you are safely escorted to an air-conditioned car which will navigate the streets to your hotel. The cost is added to your hotel bill; tip the driver a R100-R200 or so, and life is good. A hotel car was arranged for this trip.

Let me be blunt: traveling outside your own country does have a significant risk of bringing on culture shock. In my first trip to the US in 1989, 21 years of American TV immersion from Sesame Street to LA Law could not insulate me from severe culture shock for a few days. Same for my first trip to Tiajuana. This particular trip to India was my third (and a fourth followed) – so I knew what was coming.

India, for all its IT brilliance, English-speaking and modernity still has poverty, smells and sights that are unfamiliar in Australia. This is initially a shock, but eventually you absorb what you see and respect the country for what it is – large, with a deep culture and history.

So, Landing at Chennai International Airport at around 10:00pm on a flight connection via Singapore. Immigration OK’d my Visa – purchased from great expense from the local consulate, collected my bag and brown box and started to walk through customs to the hotel car that was waiting. That was the plan. The Customs inspector took a deep interest in that box.

Importing the box of CDs from Australia was my error. There is a significant duty for importing pre-recorded CDs. Blank CDs at that time had no duty; but pre-recorded CDs could have been duty-able items.

At various times whilst talking to the Customs agents, I was told the duty on the items was something around US$1 per CD. On 200 CDs, that equates to US$200. The cost of the CDs and duplication was way less than this, and I didn’t have US$200 in cash on me. I told the Customs agent that they were just promotional CDs, and not worth US$200. More arguments, both ways. Eventually, I was jack of the arguing – and knew that the hotel car was not going to hang around – and would leave without me. The prospect of traveling through Chennai late at night was not a good thing.

Eventually, I was handed off to a more senior customs agent. I told him he could keep the CDs (or confiscate them) and I would do without them. This caused more consternation. Eventually, I was escorted under armed guard to an “ATM” to withdraw money to pay for the duty. Thankfully, my card did not work. Attempting to explain this as an expenses claim to my manager was going to tke days, many emails and the risk of being “stiffed” as I was paying a bribe.

As I found out later, based on the words and methods used, the duty asked was a pure bribe. No paperwork or entry to any log was made to this point, and the transaction could only be cash. At one point a senior customs agent asked “what would you pay to fix this issue.” We were negotiating the “customs duty” amount on the 200 CDs. I had already decided that I didn’t need the CDs that badly, and could do without them.

As per the Guardian article, small-level bribery is something that is common in countries where officials are not paid much money. It greases the wheels. US corporations have very strict laws against bribery, and employees – even nationals of other countries and jurisdictions – must abide by these laws. Australians, and Europeans and Asians have to respect both their local laws and the laws of their parent company.

I am a pretty straight-up fellow, and follow the rules. I was paying no bribe. I was the last person in the customs hall at this point, and as far as I could tell, the last westerner in the building at Chennai International Airport at midnight.

The customs officers had given up on the Australian by this point. I may have left sooner if I had said I had shared a hotel with the cricketing god Dennis Keith Lillee the last time I was in Chennai.

So, paperwork as drafted. I signed the document, and all I could remember was that I had to appear before some local court in a week’s time. My CDs remained in the custody of the customs agents (although I am sure they were “confiscated”)So, you are the last non-Indian at Chennai airport at midnight. Your hotel car has left. What do you do? I couldn’t call my Indian colleagues as they were not flying in until the next day from New Delhi. Thankfully, I had learnt some rules from my previous trips. Never accept taxi rides from touts. I had read how westerners were found dead and robbed near airports as they have accepted rides with unscrupulous taxi drivers, never reaching their destinations. I did have visions of my family hearing about me from the Australian consulate: so I was a little scared.

At airports in India, there is usually a “State Taxi Booth”. Here, you can register, and get a taxi that is registered, with a licensed driver. I gave my name, some money, to the tired booth agent – was walked to the taxi rank; gave the name of my hotel in the city. Jumped in the back, sans 200 CDs, and crossed my fingers.

Chennai is not like other Indian cities. Firstly, signs are written in Tamil, not Hindi script. And the railway stations have names like the “Joseph Stalin Railway Station”. There are not as many people out after dark as compared to Bangalore or Mumbai, but it is a pretty city. At about 12:30am, I arrived at the hotel. I tipped the taxi driver R200. This is a massive tip for a taxi, but I was highly thankful. They had been concerned that I had not arrived, nor was collected by the hotel car.

I never told my wife about this experience, as I felt that the fear was unwarranted. And traveling to India was a part of the job; and all these edgy stories add to your ability to deal with stressful situations. I am probably a felon in Chennai as I failed to attend to the court paperwork and pay for fines – although I am not sure. Understand the customs rules when you travel overseas? Paying bribes eases your way through?

The lesson here is, well, there is no lesson. Just a great story.