I can remember Madeline's first birthday well. Her mom brought her all the way from their home in New Jersey to visit us on the big occasion. We took her to the toy store and bought her a musical top. We went to the zoo. And we fed her cupcakes with loads of frosting on them. After all, that's what grandmas and grandpas are for.
It was tough this year knowing we wouldn't be seeing her on her birthday, since she and her family are spending nine months in India while her dad studies East Indian music as part of a Fulbright Scholarship. Since they arrived there in July, we've been able to visit only occasionally by cell phone, and only once were we successful in getting a good enough Internet connection to do a live web chat on Skype.
As Madeline's sixth birthday draws nearer this fall, it is even tougher knowing how difficult it is to get a present to her. Her other grandma tried sending the family a care package back in July that cost a lot of money to send and never got through to them. She said from then on she would be holding all of their gifts until they return next spring and give them to them then....
I decided that was probably a good idea, given the difficulty of shipping to the small rural village where they are staying. But as Madeline's big day draws nearer and nearer, I found I couldn't imagine how it would be with no gifts from grandma and grandpa. I decided to do a little more investigating.
I called one delivery company that assured me they could get a package to most anywhere in the world in only two days, with tracking guaranteed.
"That sounds wonderful!" I exclaimed. "Is it terribly expensive to ship to India?"
"Let's just put it this way," said the voice on the other end of the line. "You might as well buy it a seat on the plane, because that's about how much it's going to cost you!"
I thanked him politely, and hung up. And gulped.
After a few more days of indecision, I did an Internet search on shipping to India and was directed by another delivery company to their "International Inquires" number -- in Dallas, Texas. The very businesslike woman on the other end of the line immediately asked me lots of questions about how much my package weighed and how big the box was. I told her I hadn't even decided whether to send one yet. She proceeded to rattle off a whole host of paperwork that would have to be filled out, including an account application, an international air waybill and something mysteriously referred to as a uniform straight bill of lading. I blanched at the thought, but went to the company's website and began downloading forms and filling them out online.
I got as far as the part about declaring the contents of the package for customs and had a question I didn't know the answer to, so I packaged up the little smattering of birthday gifts in as small a box as I could manage and headed for the local office of the delivery company.
When I got there, I explained my predicament and the man at the counter told me I'd have to fill all of the forms out by hand since I hadn't completed the online version in its entirety. And so, I started all over again.
When I got to the declaration page for customs, I held my breath as I scanned the lengthy list of things that were not allowed to be shipped into India, hoping that birthday candles, horse movies, and plastic beads weren't among them.... One by one, I checked off the list of forbidden substances -- no wild animal meat, no baby gender test kits, no passive night vision goggles, no maps of India showing inaccurate borders, no pig fat, no human body parts and no explosives (I hoped birthday candles didn't fall into that category!). I finally decided my package was "legal" and put my signature on the final page with a flourish.
I squeezed my eyes shut as I handed over my credit card to pay for it all (several times what the contents were worth!), and tried hard not to think about it. As I walked out the door, I felt a curious sense of relief at having navigated the system and actually getting the birthday delivery under way.
The man at the desk had given me a tracking number, which set my thoughts a bit more at ease, and predicted the package would arrive in India around 8 p.m. the following Wednesday. That was last Friday. By that night my tracking number told me the package was in Memphis, Tenn., and by Monday it had just departed from France.
I know I will be holding my breath until our kids call or email and tell us it's actually arrived in their village. In the meantime, I'm wondering what to do about Christmas....