Well I am finally the proud owner of a VI driver's license and plates for my car that I shipped down. If you have never had the pleasure of registering a car in the Virgin Islands, you are probably unimpressed. If you happen to live here, you are probably amazed that I am still sane (or am I?).
Before I begin, please understand that I tell this story not as someone complaining and fed-up with the process but as someone amused and bewildered by the inefficiencies of the system. Luckily for me I could see the humor in the whole process, so I had a smile on my face most of the time (and I still do).
It all started a few months ago when Gerald and I decided that we should probably get our driver's licenses. Should be easy, right? Well...
First, you have to go to the main police office, which is about a 20 minute drive from our house. There, you pay $2 and pick up an official photocopy of the driver's license application form. No, you can't download it off the Internet, and no you can't have it mailed or faxed to you, and no there's nowhere else on the island where you can get it. It's just a regular photocopy, but you're not allowed to make duplicates. Not too hard, and the woman at the police office was very friendly and helpful. (In fact, almost everyone I met during this process was friendly and helpful, but extremely rigid on the rules; no exceptions!)
Next, you have to go get two 2x2 passport photos. They don't actually use these photos for anything; they are just tossed in a filing cabinet with your paperwork and then they take a digital picture of you for the license. Getting the photos was easy. There's a popular photo shop in the main shopping plaza on the island, and they take 5 minutes to take your photos and have them ready in a half hour.
Next, you have to go to your doctor's office to get your application stamped, saying that you are not insane, have corrective lenses, etc. etc. When you go to the doctor's office here, there are almost always 4-5 walk-ins waiting to be seen. Luckily our doctor takes appointments, so we were sure to make one. But due to squeezing in the walk-ins, you always have to wait. And because our doctor is an honest sympathetic kind of guy, he didn't charge us for the appointment.
Now you have to go back to the police station. But wait! The driver's license application asks for your blood type (nobody knows why). What if you don't know your blood type? Well, you have to get a blood test and get it typed. So back to the doctor to order you a blood test. Then off to the Island Medical Center to have the test done. The waiting room is like most waiting rooms on St. Croix. You walk in and take a ticket from the ticket dispenser. Then you sit down and wait for your number to be called. Then you tell the receptionist why you are here. She then tells you to have a seat, and you wait for your name to be called. Once the blood is drawn, they inform you that the results will be ready in about a week. A week for a blood type test?! Yes, they have to send off for it. But the hospital is right next door, and they can do blood typing in minutes in the ER. Shrug...
So now the whole process has ground to a halt. I can't proceed until I get the blood type results. Oh well... Luckily my Massachusetts driver's license is still valid. Technically it's only valid for 90 days after moving here, but no one's called me on that yet...
So a week later, I was in Rhode Island with my car that I wanted to bring to St. Croix. In order to get it there, I had to drive it down to Tropical Shipping in West Palm Beach, Florida. So I'd planned my road trip to Florida and my flight back to St. Croix. The trip went well, and I enjoyed the drive in my car. When I got to West Palm Beach, I once again remembered what it felt like to be bewildered and bemused.
I drove to the container port. Straight in front of me were two guard gates with clear signs indicating that no one was to enter without a valid container port ID. To the right were 5 lanes of trucks next to a small unmarked trailer. Since I didn't have a container port ID, I parked next to the trucks and walked into the building. There were two other people waiting. After a few minutes, someone came in and started creating IDs for everyone. I got my finger prints (from both hands) taken for the first time in my life, and my photo taken and printed out on a small ID.
Tropical's shipping location was a small unmarked trailer (sound familiar?) sitting in a parking lot. I found my way there and entered and waited for the right person to show up. She came in and reviewed all my paperwork. They then checked my car, and I removed all my luggage. They then pointed across the street and said to go to Customs to get my documents stamped and then I could go.
Across the street was a huge warehouse and a parking lot, all behind a fence. With my 3 bags in tow, I trundled across the road, dodging trucks and cars entering the container port. There was no entrance door in the fence, so I had to go around. I saw someone behind the fence and asked him which way to walk around; he pointed right. So I walked about 100 yards, trying to keep from tripping over my luggage. I finally arrived 2 feet from where I started but behind the fence. I walked into the large warehouse to find no one there. I again asked the person where to go, and he shrugged his shoulders. Hmm, okay. Finally someone showed up and demanded, "What are you doing here?" I explained my plight, and he said, "You have to go all the way around the building and go to the unmarked door at the end for customs." He must have sensed my exhaustion at this point (maybe it was my sweat-drenched shirt that gave me away; did I mention that it was 100 degrees?), and he looked around conspiratorily and said, "Follow me".
He led me through a door marked "Authorized Personnel Only" and pointed to the unmarked customs door 30 feet away. I thanked him and walked into Customs. They stamped my paperwork and said I was ready to go.
This all went fairly quickly, and I had asked for a cab to show up before I started. Sure enough, the cab was waiting to pick me up, after I trundled back up to the container port entrance gate with my luggage. I had two options to get to the airport; I could take the Tri-Rail, which arrived only 1 hour before my flight. The cabbie told me that I wouldn't make the flight because you have to take a tram from the train station to the airport, and you need to check in 45 minutes prior to departure. The other option was to pay the cabbie $180 to drive me 65 miles to the Miami airport. After agreeing to this outrageous fee, I thought of a third option too late; it would have been cheaper to rent a car.
Back in St. Croix, I awaited for the arrival of my car. Thanks to a friend with connections, I found out that the car was ready to be picked up half a week earlier than estimated. The bad news was the list of TODOs looming ahead of me to get the car in my possession...
Knowing that I would need to have insurance on the car, I first drove to my insurance agent and got the car added to the policy. This was easy enough to do but took an hour to complete.
I then drove to the container port in St. Croix. The woman at the guard gate told me, "Just drive straight ahead and you'll see the signs for Tropical." Easy enough. I drove until I saw the signs for Tropical (only vaguely aware of the signs that said "Authorized Personnel Only"; I was authorized by the guard gate, right?) and parked in the rear of the trailer. There was my car! It must be the right place. I went to enter the building when someone waved frantically at me through the window. The security officer came out and told me, "You can't park back here. You have to park over there." She pointed to the parking lot 20 feet away from where I'd parked. "Do you want me to move my car?" "Yes."
After my scolding, I came back with my tail between my legs. She checked my ID and said I could go in. When I entered, no one was there, so I looked through my paperwork and waited. Someone came in and greeted me. When he saw that I was there to pick up the BMW, a huge grin appeared on his face, and he told me how much he liked my car. He then told me that unfortunately, I was in the wrong place. He then went down the list of tasks I needed to complete and said, "And then you can come see me! You've got a long day ahead of you." Indeed.
My first task was to go to the other Tropical building. The one before the "Authorized Personnel Only" sign. The one that you couldn't see unless you happened to have made a right turn at an unmarked parking lot. A very friendly woman checked my paperwork and gave me a form that listed all of the day's tasks. She then gave me a form that I had to fill out, where I hand-wrote my credit card number and name. "We don't have a swiper; we use the Internet," she explained. The woman next to me was less trusting than I. She refused to write down her credit card number and insisted on leaving and returning with a certified check instead. Her day was bound to be longer than mine...
Next I went to pay my excise tax in a trailer several doors down. The woman there went through my paperwork and asked me how much the car was worth. I gave her an estimate, and she said, "I need to have something in writing. You can go on the Internet and look it up. My blue book only goes up to 2001." I had no intention of going all the way home to go on the Internet, this early in the progress! So I asked her how else I could get her a price. She said that I could go to Customs next door and see if their blue book had the price. I checked my watch: 11:45am. Her sign said, "Closed for Lunch 12-1".
I hurried over to Customs and told him my story. He checked through my papers and told me I didn't need to pay any import fees because my car is made in South Carolina. But he had some paperwork for me to fill out. He then looked in his blue book, wrote down a price, and stamped it with his Customs seal. He then told me I'd better go next door before she closed. I made it with only a few minutes to spare. She took my official Post-It note and finished up my paperwork. I paid my excise tax with my Mastercard; I was relieved to see that she had a swiper. She tried to derail me one last time, "That's an expensive car, mon. Are you sure you don't want to look up the price on the Internet and get it cheaper?"
Next I headed over to the Virgin Islands Finance building. This is a white building hidden behind the loading docks near K-Mart. As usual, there were no signs about where to go, so I wandered through the building, trying to find the most-travelled paths. When I reached a receptionist, I showed her my paperwork, and she politely pointed to a cashier window. I filled out some paperwork that she gave to me. One of the fields was "Vehicle Weight". Oh crap, I hope they don't have to weigh it. I left it blank. I honestly expected that she would tell me I needed to go back to shippers and get a bill of lading to get the weight. Instead, she looked up the weight in a book and entered an estimated 3,000 lbs. Close call...
One final task remained before I could go home for lunch and get Gerald to help with the retrieval of my car. I drove to the main police station and walked in the building. I asked the woman there where to get a temporary moving permit. You need this to allow you to drive the car out of the container port and back to the police station to get it registered. She said, "Oh yes, I can help you with that. But first you need to go over to the cashier and pay for it. Then come back with your receipt." She gave me some paperwork and told me to go outside and look for "Cashier #3 or #4". I walked in the direction she indicated and found several unmarked trailers. There was no one around them so I assumed they were unused and kept walking. I finally came upon something that could not possibly be the cashier's station. It was an open-air building with several benches with a dozen people sitting on them. Next door were several student drivers apparently taking driving tests.
Uncertain, I walked up the bench area and looked around. There, I saw 4 windows: #1, #2, #3, and #4. This must be it afterall... There was one person each at windows #3 and #4, but no line. Were the people on the benches in line? If so, it must be some incomprehensible system. I lingered for a minute and someone finally queued up behind one of the people at the window. Aha, that's how it's done! I joined the line and suddenly someone sprang up from a bench and made it obvious that he was in line too. I guess I didn't completely understand the system yet.
Once at the head of the line, the cashier took my $5 and paperwork and gave me a receipt. I took this back up to the police station, and the woman signed the paper and said I was all set to go.
Now I needed Gerald to drive the truck back home while I drive my car. So I went home to meet him, and we headed back out to the container port, armed with an arsenal of mangled papers that looked more like a hairball than official import paperwork. We drove into the port and past the "Authorized Personnel Only" sign; this time we really were authorized. We parked in the correct parking lot, and I walked towards the building where I had started the day.
There's an interesting thing I've learned about Crucians. Once you get scolded by someone, you create a kind of rapport. Upon returning to the woman at the Tropical building, she gave me a huge smile and waved me in. "Do you need to see my ID?" "No," she waved her hand, "just pretend I checked it." I received a similar smile from the man in the building, and I smiled back just as big; I was about to finally get my car. He checked over all my paperwork and looked impressed. We then chatted about cars for a bit, and then we headed out to inspect mine. Everything looked fine, so I took the keys and drove off.
After 10 yards, I noticed that the flat tire light was on in the car. Oh no... The car has run-flat tires, so you can't tell if they're flat by looking at them. Instead, the computer monitors the rotation differential for all the wheels and notifies you if one of them is rotating at a different rate than the others, which indicates a drastic drop in pressure. Since I had purchased insurance on the car, I decided I'd better tell them about the problem. Luckily, they said they could air up the tires to the correct pressure to see if they had a leak. After 10 minutes, they showed up with a pickup truck with a huge engine mounted on the rear. The engine was attached to a compressor and a hose. Sure beats the car-battery-powered compressor I had.
The tires looked okay, so I reset the tire monitor computer, and headed off. It was 3:05, and the Tropical guys had told me that the car registration building closes at 3:30. It was only 10 minutes away, so I could make it, and then my journey would be complete! However, upon arriving, a friendly gentleman told me that they had closed at 2pm, and he handed me some "homework" and told me to come back tomorrow morning.
This morning, I resumed my expedition in earnest. I had my car, and the end was near; I could taste it! Feeling ambitious, I also retrieved the partially-completed paperwork for my driver's license. I would get that finished today as well. First, I needed to get my blood type.
I called the Island Medical Center and asked for my test results. "I can't give out results on the phone due to privacy issues, but I can tell you that it's ready." Not wanting to argue, I agreed to stop by in a few minutes. On arrival I repeated the usual steps (take a number, sit, wait your turn). Turns out my blood type is O+. So there! I have defeated the medical center's privacy measures by posting this publically on the Internet.
Next stop: the registry. I pulled in to find the parking lot nearly full. I found a spot and walked up to the gentleman who had given me my "homework". He looked it over, stapled a few things together and mumbled something about needing the original title. He then pointed me over to the receptionist. This time I walked up to Window #2 (having learned that this is the correct window by listening to what other people were asking the cashiers) and handed in all my paperwork. The young man took my paperwork and motioned for me to sit down.
After a minute, the young man came out of a door and waved to me. I got up, and he pointed to a line on the form where he had added an "X". The line read, "mailing address, if different from above". I had left it blank because it was the same address I had entered above. I tried to argue that but he stuffed the form in my hand and closed the door. Puzzled, I duplicated the information and handed the form back through the original window.
I sat for a minute and then a great idea occurred to me. I knew that I would have to pay for my driver's license eventually, so why not use this idle time to wait in line to pay it. I got up and entered the line for Window #3, which I guessed would be where I would pay for the license.
I was right! When I got to the cashier, she took all the paperwork and asked for my payment. I handed her the credit card I had used all along. She came back a few seconds later and pushed the card back to me, explaining, "It was declined." (The credit card company had called the previous evening to make sure that all these charges to various VI government offices were authorized. I told them they were. I can only assume that the credit card company did not believe me and has locked my card.) I handed her another card, and it worked. She told me to go back up to the police station to finish up.
Meanwhile, a woman handed me the certified copy of my title and explained, "Your registration is complete but we can't give you the plates until you give us the real title." I did not want to argue, so I said, "Okay."
Before leaving, I went to the police station and greeted the woman at the front, who had gotten to know me; this was afterall my 4th trip there. I obtained my driver's license (which entailed having my finger prints taken for the second time in my life) and walked down to my car to go home and get the title. While leaving the police station, a police officer waved me down. I opened up my window to see what he wanted. He pointed at my plates, still the Massachusetts ones, and asked why my car was not registered. I explained that I needed to get the title to complete the registration process. He looked dubious. I then said, "I have a mover's permit." That did the trick. Without asking to see it, he nodded and waved me off. The $5 mover's permit had come in handy afterall.
Finally arriving back at the registration office, I handed in my original title at Window #2 to the young man whom I had originally spoken with. He looked at me funny and said, "Who asked you to bring this?" I sighed and pointed to one of the women behind him, and he waved me off. I then sat down to wait for my name to be called. A few minutes later, I was summoned to Window #3. I paid my bill using my other credit card, and received my vehicle registration and plates. I'm done!, I thought. "Next, you will need to go to the police station to get a copy of your new title." But, but...
After my run-in with the cop, I decided that I'd better install my new license plates before leaving. So I asked the gentleman outside for a screwdriver and put them on. I then went back to the police station and greeted my friend for the 5th time. Getting my new title was effortless.
Easy, right? I'm off to our favorite restaurant for a rumrita...