Some decisions have unwelcome consequences when cycling around the world. The road divides unexpectedly, I opt for the left hand turn, I'm wrong. I spend an hour backtracking. It's a bummer, I'll get over it. But when I arranged for a parcel to be sent from the UK to a town in northern Chile the road I took led to a financial mess and almost a month long stay in a small, dusty town, a place I had planned to be for just two days. My hope is that anyone reading this farcical and horrible tale of woe will give these cowboys, namely DHL, a wide birth in the future.
My mum packed a box of gear I needed for the next stage of the trip and posted it with DHL in Oxford. The box contained two bike tyres, a camera lens and a few small items such as a reading book and a bottle of mosquito repellent. The staff at DHL assured my mum the package would be with me in five days, making the member of staff concerned The World's Greatest Optimist. Over the next few weeks DHL would break several other world records.
- I arrived in San Pedro, checked the tracking number and noted a huge string of "clearance delays" meaning there was some hold up getting it through customs. I wondered if DHL had done anything to resolve this other than type "clearance delay" into a computer. I would soon learn that typing constitutes an ambitious task for DHL.
- I called them up to be told they had emailed me and that they required more information before it could clear customs. I received no such email. There was nothing in my spam filter and I checked DHL had the right email address. There are three possibilities - either this was an oversight (one of around a thousand over the next month), or a barefaced lie, or DHL has not trained it's staff how to send emails. Perhaps they wrote the email but didn't know they had to hit the send button afterwards. Perhaps the computer wouldn't function because of trouble locating the 'on' switch. Perhaps the staff couldn't access the computer room because they spent half an hour pushing a door with a pull sign above it and then gave up. All very realistic possibilities.
- DHL informed me they didn't have all the information they required to clear it through customs. So I re-sent the information that my mum had already provided when she sent the parcel. I then sent an email to NASA informing them that black holes do actually exist on earth. One resides in DHL's main office in Santiago, just behind the water filter. It sucks in email addresses, phone numbers, staff motivation, respect for customers, any sense of corporate responsibility and cute looking puppies and kittens.
- I called day after day to be told that my parcel is being processed but that DHL were powerless to speed it up. They refused to contact customs to move it through.
- Long, boring days passed by with no progress. I checked the tracking number - to my surprise the computer screen told me the box had been delivered. Strange, I had no box. Another oversight or another red and yellow lie? Perhaps it's en route. I called DHL - the information on the computer was wrong they told me. The box remains in customs. Probably safer there than anywhere near the black hole though.
- A week later DHL sent me an email explaining that if I wanted to receive the box I would have to cover the costs. The bill was totalled up and came to a mind boggling 480 US dollars. Understandably I freaked out. This was more than the value of the items in the box and around twice the amount my mum had paid to post it!
- After another two days of pestering I finally got a breakdown. DHL and customs were charging me for -
- Duties and taxes - not much I can do about that
- A sanitary authorisation and certificate. This was required for the one bottle of mosquito repellent my mum had packed, they were asking for over 100 US dollars for this procedure. My mum had unwittingly posted The Most Expensive Bottle Of Mosquito Repellent On Earth. It better be good stuff. I asked if they or customs could simply remove the item, thereby forfeiting the need for the sanitary inspection and certificate.
"That's not possible" I was told "But we can get an outside agency to do that".
"Great" I said. "Let's do that"
"But it will cost 250 US dollars."
Amazingly The Most Expensive Bottle Of Mosquito Repellent On Earth was getting more expensive.
- Storage charges. Seeing as though I was desperate to get it posted and they were fucking around for days it seemed slightly unjust, to put it mildly, that I now had to pay them rent for refusing to deliver what I needed. I wondered what it cost them to keep a box in a corner whilst staff occasionally stared at it and shrugged. Perhaps they provided a nice chill out area for my package, made sure the room was well heated and played some ambient music so that my box didn't stress out too much whilst it was waiting to meet me.
- The icing on the cake - A DHL service charge was the final expense expected of me. Wow. If I had received good service would they be charging even more?
- So I debated, reasoned, argued and eventually a supervisor agreed to remove the service charge and bill me 313 US dollars. Still extortionate but they had me over a barrel. Refuse and I'm not going to get anything and I couldn't bring myself to walk away. I had already been waiting now for two weeks in San Pedro and my box had been listening to a Best of the Eighties compilation for three. I asked them to bill me immediately.
- Three days later the bill had still not been emailed despite my frequent phone calls to the DHL office in Santiago. When it did arrive they had upped the cost again to 398 US dollars citing extra storage charges since our agreement about the bill, an agreement in which they had assured me the bill would be the final amount I would have to pay. Apparently my box wasn't comfortable with eighties music and they had to buy in some trip-hop CDs.
- By this stage the DHL staff in Santiago had begun avoiding my calls and they were going straight to voice mail. Was I being paranoid? Perhaps. But when I called through the main line and asked to speak to a specific member of staff, amazingly they were suddenly free. They would often of course leave me on hold for long periods. The on hold message, translated from Spanish, boasted about how choosing DHL is the right choice because they are fast and easy. FAST AND EASY! At this stage I felt like Michel Douglas' character in the film Falling Down. Perhaps I should stroll into a branch of DHL with a rocket launcher?
- I made complaints through the UK DHL website. They haven't contacted me since I lodged those complaints despite assuring that they deal with all such matters promptly. But, as I have learnt, DHL live in an alternative reality in which time as we know it does not constitute the fourth dimension of the universe, it has been replaced by money.
- At this stage I considered praying to Fed Ex instead "please Fed Ex, deliver me from evil..."
- I am still waiting for my package
I admit a small portion of the blame lies at my door. In hindsight I should have had the parcel posted to a capital city. I should also have had it sent to any country other than Chile which has notoriously strict customs controls. I also know that DHL don't have jurisdiction over Chile's Health Authority or Customs but they did virtually nothing to speed up the process, they made mistake after mistake, they never apologised, they were incompetent, unsympathetic, neglectful, slow and expensive.
I live on less than ten dollars a day. Financially this was a minor catastrophe for me and I started to seriously wonder if it would jeopardise my entire journey. The camera lens and tyres were the only expensive items in the box and if I walked away without them that would cost me dearly as well. Add in the cost of staying for three weeks in an expensive tourist town and all the phone calls to DHL. I felt like I had been viciously mugged and was helpless to act. Well this is my only reprieve....
I am not setting out to damage DHL's reputation for my own petty ends, I just wanted to tell my story and explain to those that follow my journey why I have been held up for so long. However, so that others don't fall into the same trap this blog post will be travelling far and wide, from consumer forums to travel websites and blogs. After all, I have nothing better to do, I'm still waiting for my box. As an international courier service I'm sure DHL understand the power of the Internet to build their brand and market their services. I think they should also taste some of the destructive power of negative publicity on line. I only have three requests for DHL -
- A full and unreserved apology
- An explanation as to why these string of mistakes were made
- A refund - of at least the charges by the sender
Sorry about the rant, but it was cathartic. If you actually got to the end then here's a present to cheer you up... the funniest complaint letter in the world which made headlines a few years back and was actually written by a friend of a friend. Enjoy.