Discover more from An Ordinary Disaster
Learning how to do good magic in Chile
An Ordinary Disaster — chapter 20 — Yate in Transito
By the time I had that daydream about my work being “sexy,” I was just about to give up on the whole thing. Much of the world was still feeling the effects of the so-called Global Financial Crisis of the late aughts. Time were tough for my little business too, and for a while there I was thinking about just walking away, but after ten years of hard work, I really wanted to have something to show for myself. Thanks in part to EO, I was coming to know an increasing number of other people who had managed to sell their own small companies, and so I began to see that that could at least be possible for me too.
Getting OPS off the ground with this new theme gave me some encouragement, and even though I had no idea of exactly how to get there, I decided to set myself the clear goal of selling the business. I didn’t know for sure whether or not I could actually get it done, or how long it would take, but from there on out, that was what I was aiming for.
Three things became clear. For one, I had to clean up my accounting, so I hired a real accounting firm to replace the stripper who’d been doing my bookkeeping on the side. Second, I had to start spreading the word that I was interested in selling, and trying to meet potential buyers. To that end, I started taking meetings with everyone I could find—but the thing that made the big difference in the end was coming across a conference that was in many ways much like my own, but instead of being about online advertising, it was about the business of conferences.
The most important, and least obvious thing was coming to understand that I needed to show that the business didn’t need me. If someone was going to buy the company, they’d most likely not want to take me along with it—I wouldn’t want to keep working on it anyhow—and in taking me out of the picture, they’d convert whatever I was paying myself as the owner into profit. This contradicted the conventional wisdom that as a business owner you need to be showing everyone how much time you’re putting in making a superhuman effort, but it made sense to me right away.
I began to offload work from myself to others, and to focus more and more of my energy on finding a possible buyer. It took some time, but by 2013 I’d found someone who was interested in buying the company—and who had the money. I’d cleaned things up, and the business was running well enough that I was able to start taking time off—which was exactly what they wanted to see—everything running smoothly, without the owner’s close involvement.
By the end of 2013, things were really heating up. I was getting into real negotiations with this potential acquirer, and at the same time I’d been elected as the next president of the San Francisco chapter of EO, a board position that I’d been working towards for some time.
I’d also just signed up for a five-year membership on my friend Gavin’s boat Discovery, which he had set up with a crew and an itinerary hitting some of the best—and most remote—kitesurfing spots in the entire world.
Just as the new year rolled around, I got a last-minute message from Gavin saying that he had a piece of communications equipment that he needed to get to the boat, which was currently in Chile. He offered up a spare crew berth for a ten day trip in the Chiloé Archipelago in exchange for someone to courier the package down to Puerto Montt, nearly two hours by air south of Santiago.
I didn’t take me more than thirty seconds to shoot him a quick reply saying, “I’m your guy,” and then I jumped on the computer see how I could get there. I had to be in Oahu by the 14th of January for a meeting related to my upcoming board position with EO, but the boat was due to return to port the morning of the 13th. If I made all my connections, I could fly from there to Santiago, Dallas, and San Francisco, swap my bags, and then onwards to Honolulu—and make it to the hotel there in time for dinner on the 14th. Game on! I booked the flights.
Two days later, a large box arrived at my flat, just in time for me to jump in a cab to SFO. I checked it in along with my kite gear for the long haul down to Santiago, arriving early the morning of January 3. The whole thing had come together pretty quickly, and so it wasn’t until I walked off the plane in Santiago that I remembered that I’d have to go through customs coming into Chile—and that I didn’t even know exactly what was in that box.
There wasn’t much else to do. I just got in line, and when my turn came up, the friendly customs guy glanced at my bags and was about to wave me on…but then saw the conspicuously heavy-duty box roll down the conveyor towards me. Now I was starting to sweat. The box was at least two feet on a side, and still bearing the manufacturer’s markings,
“¿Es suyo?” Was it mine?
It sure was.
Looking at the box, and then back at me, the official asked, “¿Y esto, que es?”
“Equipo de comunicaciones,” I replied. “Usado. Por un barco.”
I was thinking that “used communications equipment” would be enough to get me through.
The customs official’s eyes twinkled.
He and another guy lifted the box up on the table there and sliced it open. As they went through the carefully-packed contents, I saw that it was a small system that provides an internet connection via satellite link, of the sort that’s often used on small yachts. Gavin’s boat was a deluxe operation, and some of the guests were used to being able to stay in touch at all times. My guess was that the existing system must have gone on the blink and needed replacement, stat, for one of the clients on the upcoming trip.
The equipment in the box looked expensive, and it certainly didn’t look “used.”
We had a bit more of a conversation, at the end of which the official explained very politely that I would have to pay something close to three thousand dollars in import duty unless, well, it wasn’t quite clear.
I couldn’t reach Gavin, nor the skipper on board Discovery, and so the box disappeared into the impound cage, and I was handed a little paper receipt.
The guy was just doing his job. In fact, they had been super cool with me and my makeshift Spanish, which was about sixty percent there, but also enough to tell that they weren’t trying to rip me off. In fact, it was one of those cases where, as has often been the case, I got along with random strangers in foreign languages better than Americans speaking English. It was an unfortunate situation, but everyone was in a good mood.
“OK amigos,” I said, “Yo vuelvo hasta poco”—“yo” still coming out pronounced as “sho” because I’d learned a lot of my Spanish from an Argentine who was living in Madrid.
I had the sense that the customs guy had hinted at what would get me out of the jam, but the language barrier and my own lack of preparedness left me mostly in the dark. Momentarily at loose ends, I went upstairs to find out how long I had before the last flight to Puerto Montt. I’d already missed the morning flight I had been scheduled to catch, but I could see that there were at least three more over the course of the day, and that the last one was at something like 5pm. I had several hours to solve the puzzle.
I went off to the side of the check-in hall and sat down on the floor, momentarily at loose ends. Gavin hadn’t given me any further details before leaving. Both of us were in a hurry, and I figured part of the deal was that he trusted me to sort it out—and I wanted to meet the challenge.
Sitting there staring at the white walls of Arturo Merino Benítez Airport, halfway around the world from anywhere, on my way to meet a boat I’d never been on and a bunch of people I’d never met, and stuck in customs limbo, help from outside didn’t seem to be forthcoming.
I was alone—and I was hungry. Leaving my bags were they lay for a few minutes, I grabbed a sandwich from a nearby counter, and sat back down to eat. Once I had something in my stomach, I went back to mulling over the problem. I could have been dejected, frustrated, and stressed but instead, I felt relaxed and confident that I would find a way to get that box out of customs though sheer force of will. What could have been problem became an opportunity.
The weight on my chest lifted, and I stood up and looked around, away from the main hall. I could see down a long white hallway full of administrative offices. I thought, maybe there’s something in here—and within a couple of minutes I came across a paper sign on one of the doors that said something about shipping and invoicing… aha! perhaps a freight forwarder? Another term I remembered from my mother’s work.
I knocked on the door, and, minor miracle, I heard someone stand up inside, and then open the door. Sure enough, it was some sort of shipping agency! Excited, I made my case as well as I could to the kind gentleman who’d opened up for me, and he was curious—and perhaps bored—enough to be willing to lend a hand.
At first it seemed like all he could do was confirm that I’d have to pay the duty to import the satellite gear, but over the course of the next few hours, I kept at it, insisting that there must be some other way. Although he hadn’t given me any guidance about how to get it through customs, the one thing Gavin had made clear was that he wasn’t going to pay to get this thing in the country.
“Es un barco de vela,” I said—a sailboat. The equipment was for the boat—and the boat wasn’t staying in Chile. “El barco no se queda en Chile.”
“Se va después de unas semanas.” I was trying to tell him that the boat was just passing through—that it was going to leave Chile, and I wasn’t really importing the equipment, because it would leave the country with the boat.
The shipping-office guy’s face lit up a bit. “¿El barco no se queda in Chile?” He was asking me to confirm that the boat wasn’t staying in Chile.
“Exactamente,” I said.
He squinted back at me.
“¿El barco… Es un yate?”
I felt my temperature rise. Now were were getting closer. It wasn’t just a “boat…”
“Claro que si! Un yate, preciso.”
He opened his eyes wide for emphasis, and said back to me something to the effect of, “why didn’t you tell me it was a yacht?”
Apparently, the subtle difference between a “boat” and a “yacht,” was very meaningful in this case, but I hadn’t known the Spanish word for yacht until that I’d learned it from him, right then.
“ok ok ok!” he said, very excited now. “Todo bien—es un yate in transito!”
And there were the magic words: Yacht in transit.
Now, as my new friend explained, I just had to prove it to customs.
After another hour or two hanging out with Miguel Yanez in his little office, doing my best to stay cool, I finally managed to get ahold of the captain, who had been running around doing last-minute provisioning. Once he understood what I needed, within half an hour a fax rolled off of Miguel’s machine. I piled my surfboard and kite bags back on a trolley and rolled back down to the customs office again, feeling triumphant. I was relieved to see that my guy from the morning shift was still there. He waved and smiled a happy welcome, asking me if I had any news.
The words came tumbling out of my mouth. “Es un yate in transito, amigo! Yate in transito! Perfecto, no?”
I handed him the sheet of paper. He gave it a once-over, and then, looked up, smiled, and nodded. He’d been on my side from the start, but I had to solve the riddle myself—and I did, all in a foreign language, and thanks to a sense of confidence that was still settling into my bones. It certainly wasn’t a life-or-death situation, but this small victory—and the fact that I’d ended up there in the first place, and was about to embark upon a once-in-a-lifetime bit of adventure sailing—felt like a real validation.
The friendly official reached for one of his stamps, inked it up, and ka-chunk—I was cleared! The whole crew was there watching, and they laughed and clapped for me as they retrieved my box and lifted it back up onto the stainless-steel customs desk.
An hour later, the sun was already low over the Pacific, casting a golden light on the conical volcanic peak of Villarrica as I flew south to meet the boat in Puerto Montt. I’ll never forget how I felt on that plane. It wasn’t just the accomplishment of solving the problem, but the warm glow that came from following the voice within. I was finally starting to feel like I was making the right moves for me.
Thanks for reading, and for being part of this journey.
This is part of AN ORDINARY DISASTER, one man's proof that despite what may seem like our inability to hear it, and all of our attempts to avoid it, we can all learn to listen to ourselves, and to act upon the inner voice of our self, our sanity and our soul.
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