08/24/2010 11:53 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dispatches From the Looney Front: Heart of Darkness - 1

The Pericardium of Darkness - or how US customs almost aborted my Congo trip

I haven't even left for Angola and the two Congos yet for a gander at Conrad's old stomping ground in the Heart of Darkness, and I'm already up to my neck in the benighted bowels of American bureaucracy. I rushed my passport to London by UPS for a visa for the second segment of my trip to lush and tranquil places - Somalia, or rather the self-proclaimed independent Somaliland part where one is less likely to get decapitated. Now on its return it's stuck at Newark airport in customs, and UPS says it is out of their hands - that is once I've breached their electronic firewall (what would you like to do? You can say prolapsed wombs, expedited coffins... to continue in Javanese press 9). As gentle encouragement, the human voice (HV) adds: Customs can hold it for 30 days.

Thirty days! I'm leaving in little over a week, and I'm not going to be able to get on a plane without my passport, am I?

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Four days pass. Still no news. Various bodily parts below the heart come to mind to describe UPS and US Customs. The latter is the purview of DHS (Department of Homeland Security), so I decide to phone aforesaid DHS. A number winks from the centre of the page. All I get is a new electronic carousel: Please note, the options on our main menu change periodically - if you have three heads and five feet, press 2; if you're over 92 and have halitosis, press 7; to hear this in Urdu press 9.

I see that I've just phoned the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration National Customer Service Centre. Higher up is a Citizen Line with an operator number. I might not be a US citizen, still being a Brit, and this clearly looks like a hot tip line for reporting terrorist suspects and dirty bombs, but then they're doing a dirty with my passport, even if I'm not a citizen. I get an HV in no time.

'Hold on a moment,' it replies, passing me on to another HV.

'I'm not doing anything with your passport,' says HV no: 2.

'I don't mean you personally, individually,' says I, 'but your department.'

'Well, it's not my department (how was I to know they put me through to the FBI?) and you need ice.'

'You bet I need ice, I'm burning...'

'No! ICE! I C E! Immigration and Customs Enforcement... And no, I don't have their number.' Click.

ICE too has a hot tip line to report immigration or customs violations.

'No, I don't mean you personally.' HV no: 3, just like his predecessor, takes my plea as a personal accusation. 'Anyway you don't need ICE, you need CBP.'

'Coronary bypass?'

'No! CBP! Customs and Border Protection... And no, I don't have their number.' Click.

Half way down CBP's web page is a number for Public Liaison Officer, Ports of Entry. I actually get straight through to him without any intermediary firewall. What's more, he wants details: 'Why didn't you seek a Somaliland visa in the US?'

'Because they ain't got no mission here, that's why, Guv.'

He says he'll look into it and phone back. This is too good to be true. It must just be the kinder, gentler fob-off. Six hours later the phone rings. He's not only kept his word, he announces the glad tidings: my passport has been freed. He'll get fired for such efficiency!

Not so UPS. It knows nothing about the newly announced freedom and must wait for its brokerage to deliver - and 'no, we can't get our brokerage to phone through to CBP.' Click.

It's now day 6. 'It could be today,' quoths the good UPS lady to one of my frantic calls. 'But then again, it also could be tomorrow.'

'It'll probably be tomorrow,' a later frantic call elicits. 'But then again, it could be today.'

'It'll be tomorrow because that's how the system works when an item is released from customs,' says a third interlocutor.

Day 7. I come back from breakfast at 7.45 a.m. UPS has been and gone, taking the packet back with them. They wanted $60.76 delivery charge, says the doorman. $60.76 on prepaid delivery?

'It's customs duty,' says a UPS official by phone. Duty on a passport?

'Oh,' says another minutes later, 'our computer doesn't show it was prepaid. We're bringing it back at 10.30, but you must pay $60.76.'

At 10.30 it's here, in its UPS envelope with lots of sticky tape attesting to its rape. I pay $60.76. At the UPS store where the whole saga began, the guy phones HQ and tells. It's customs duty again, but UPS agrees to pay. Now why would they do that if it was duty? He takes my credit card to refund - and deducts a further $60. With apologies he now refunds $120.76.

But with passport in hand - barely - I'm on a roll; I'm on my way Heart of Darkness-wards on Ethiopian Airlines from Washington, via Addis Ababa.

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