Robin Hemley’s latest Dispatch from Manila, “The Great Book Blockade of 2009,” over at the McSweeney’s website gives the lowdown on the latest custom-made concoction for corruption of Customs, targeting that thing we can’t live without–books. Highlights of the essay include a mind-boggling grammar-based reinterpretation by Department of Finance Undersecretary Espele Sales of RA 8047 and the Florence Agreement, both of which specify that imported books should be tax-free. While the controversy drags on, we can expect imported books to be costlier and harder to find, two things that, to begin with, are already the case sans Customs corruption.

I’ve heard way too many horror stories of people trying to claim books sent by friends from abroad, only to be discouraged by customs fees that are often more expensive than the books themselves. My latest run-in of the sort happened when I claimed my Amazon shipment of books at the neighborhood post office. I don’t really like hassling friends (no matter how willing and able) going to the US to buy and bring home books for me (I also have an all-or-nothing attitude when it comes to buying books–that is, buy everything I want in one go or buy nothing at all and suffer in silence–which means that if I do ask friends to get books for me, I’ll most probably ask for a truckload’s worth, kaya nga huwag na lang), and while Booktopia’s proven reliable, it can be a pain waiting for the books to come in, so I finally decided to cut to the chase and just swipe my credit card (or more accurately, punch in my digits) and do an Amazon purchase.

This led to one of my most infuriating experiences in recent history. At the post office to claim my goods, the clerk handed me a tiny piece of paper indicating the tax I needed to pay. Not only was the amount pretty steep, but there was also no breakdown of payment, no explanation for the cost. Which prompted me to ask, “Kapag binayaran ko ba ito, may resibo?” Apparently, that question and the subsequent hemming and hawing by the gaggle of clerks, compounded by my impatience (my truckload of books was right in front of me and I couldn’t even touch the stuff just yet because I had to deal with corruption in the post office!), were all the right ingredients to send the Customs Director out of his cave. CD clearly didn’t appreciate that I was making a big stink about the shady dealing (at some point, I turned to the customer beside me and asked if he was seriously going to go with the tiny piece of paper the clerk handed him and not bother to ask WTF was going on). CD proceeded to toss a stack of papers in a highly dramatic manner on the counter, telling me that if I wanted to avail of my privilege as an educator to have books shipped to me tax-free, I had to study all those documents, follow the painfully complicated procedure, get all the necessary papers in order, and then claim my shipment. Otherwise, I would have to pay the tax (he did clarify that book purchases totaling fifty dollars and below, including shipping fee, were tax-exempt), which he then computed for me using an official-looking form. The tax amounted to more than double the original amount I was given in the tiny sheet of paper. It was also practically half the cost of my purchase.

I’d heard that books were tax-exempt but didn’t know enough to have any conviction in making that argument, and so all I really wanted to do then was pay the right amount, official receipt and all. As I was fishing my hard-earned thousands of pesos out my wallet, I told CD that he made it very hard for people like me not to be corrupt. That his dramatic tossing of documents and convoluted explanations to my questions made it clear that he was discouraging me from doing the right thing. (When I asked him to please explain why his clerks were handing out tiny pieces of paper with the wrong tax amount for cheaper, resibo-less claiming of packages, he said he wasn’t at liberty to talk about such things. WTF?) Of course, he had nothing to say to all this. The only time he had something to say was when I mentioned that maybe next time I should keep my purchases to fifty dollars or less so I wouldn’t be charged taxes. “Ikaw bahala,” he said. “Kung may paraan ba lumusot sa rules, e, di ba’t di gamitin?” To which I quickly pointed out, short of biting his head off, that no, I wouldn’t be breaking any rule to begin with if I did my theoretical fifty-dollars-or-below purchase, and so no, I wouldn’t be getting away with anything.

As he was preparing my receipt, CD saw from my ID that I was a UP professor, and so he told me he went to UP Law School. “Sa Malcolm,” he said. (WTF? Who calls UP Law Malcolm?) I asked which batch, and unfortunately, he picked the batch of some friends of mine, and so the small talk was small yet disastrous. What a weirdo. Finally, receipt in hand, I was able to walk away with my precious (literally!) books.