Friday, 8 November 2013

Cuenca: Bounty, Beauty and Bureaucracy - Part IV (Signed in Triplicate)

In Spanish there is a word, 'trámite', which means 'an act or process of bureaucracy'.  There is also another, somewhat less formal, word, 'cagatintas', which translates literally as 'ínk-shitter' and whose closest equivalent in English is the somewhat less evocative 'penpusher', or perhaps 'jobsworth'.

It is with good reason that the Spanish language possesses these words, as the Imperial Spanish, and their Latin-american post-colonial successors have raised the process of form-filling, red-taping, nit-picking, signed-in-triplicate bureaucracy to a fine art. 

And it is towards the first fusillade of this monumental bombardment of paperwork that you find me heading, with a sheaf of passport and visa photocopies in hand, all ready to be notarised.

The lady at the notaries scrutinizes my photocopies, then my passport, then me, then my photocopies again and finally, apparently convinced that I am not a diabolical fraudster, stamps the documents with a satisfyingly large stamp, then another yet more grand stamp and then, just for good measure, with an even more elaborate, hardwood, cathedral-doorhandle of a stamp.  Satisfied with her work, she turns to me and says:

<<Okay, you are ready.  I will take you to see the doctor now.>>

This is a somewhat alarming turn of events.  ¿Is there a medical?  In my two and a bit months back in the UK over the summer I've been hitting the alcohol pretty hard with a succession of old friends and relatives. ¿Would my liver be deemed unfit for passport copy notarisation?

She ushers me through to an adjoining room, wherein sits a gentleman at least as austere and official as the hardwood stamp that preceded him.  Tweed suited and starch shirted, adorned with elaborate horn-rimmed spectacles and topped with a shock of tousled-grey hair.  It would not have surprised me in the slighest had he got up at that very moment and ushered his assistant into a TARDIS with a great burst of light and retro-synth effects, to save the universe from another dalek invasion

He opens his mouth, and out of it emanates a deep, sonorous, treacle-pudding voice with the gramophone-crackly hints of a long attachment to fine pipe tobacco:

<<¿These documents are yours?>>

<<Yes, doctor.>>  I reply, my voice unexpectedly husky.

He peers down at the documents appraisingly, and, with the full gravity of his officialdom, flourishes a signature. 

The lady gives me a the slightest of nods, and with a final genuflect to the doctor, we shuffle deferentially backwards out of the room: a pair of mere laymen in the presence of the law.

I wander, still shrouded in my own great humility, to the school I'm working for, in order to pass my documents across to the member of staff who has been assigned to babystep me through the registration process.

She sweeps a lazy glance over the notarised documents while informing me that I need to go to the local police station next in order to get something called a Movimiento Mirgratorio....

<<Oh, that's interesting.>>  She remarks with a tone of mild curioisity.

These are words I have come to truly dread, particularly when coming from someone with certificates hanging on their wall and letters after their names; lawyers, auditors, doctors and the like.  You don't want them to find your situation the remotest bit interesting; you want them to find it humdrum and run of the mill, worthy of the merest tick of the pen and not the slightest flicker of interest.

Interesting is a long, precedent-setting and above all expensive court case; interesting is an as yet incurable new strain of disease which will provide them with a much talked about research paper and you with a singularly excruciating death; interesting is an exhuastive and destitution inducing audit of your affairs which dredges up incriminating paper trails to all those offshore accounts you thought you'd hidden so well.  Interesting means complications, trouble and reams of paperwork.

It turned out that the border control at Quito had wrongly stamped the visa in my passport as a 12-iii and not a 12viii.  A 12iii stamp would technically make me a British diplomat.  After drifting briefly off into a daydream about what I could do with all that sweet impunity (swimming in a pool of forged banknotes with the coked-up ambassadors that I'd invited to shmooze at my on-the-hush-hush diplomatic speakeasy), I crash landed back on planet what-do-I-have-to-do-about-it with a resounding thud.

The problem, she said, was not one that could be handled at the Cuenca police headquarters.  The upshot of which was that I'd have to go to Guayaquil (a day trip away) the following Friday to get it sorted.  But it was alright, I could (1) take the three and a half hour bus-ride there, (2) find the polive headquarters, (3) jump through the necessary hoops and (4) hop the bus straight back in time to teach my evening lesson.  I made a mental note to (1) sort out asap another teacher to cover my lesson instead.

And I would have company too.  I wasn't the only one who had had their passports wrongly stamped, there were two other teachers from the school going.  Somehow the prospect of company didn't quite offset the gravity of the fact that more than a tenth of the new intake of teachers had had their passports mis-stamped: a whole gaggle of educators unintentionally posing as retirees, business-people and diplomats.

I've heard mixed reviews about Guayaquil, Ecuador's biggest city and apparently a somewhat characterless metropolis, but my trip has armed me with scant evidence to confirm or deny these rumours.

Some of the highlights of my trip included; the van station; the bus station food court; the sunbaked concrete pavement where I spent a jolly half hour sweating out a fair proportion of my body fluids in the midday sun waiting for the Jefatura Provincial de Migracion to re-open post-siesta; numerous minor brawls, which are apparently the Guayaquil equivalent of queuing; and an hour sat on the Jefatura's attractively vac-formed, primary-colours-only-please plastic seating awaiting the updating of my visa.

As well as being the highlights of my time in Guayaquil, these were also my only experiences during my time in Guayaquil.

As it was, we eventually got our Movimiento Migratorios, hopped the next van back to Cuenca and arrived back just in time to be an hour late for our classes. 

The following Monday I returned to the school to discover that my notarised copies had to be in colour not black and white so I would have to get more copies and have them notarised

I arrived at the familiar
city centre notaries to discover that they were closed for siesta.  Ah well, I figured, I could maybe squeeze a quick notarisation session in during my hour and a half between lessons this afternoon.

A few hours later, I am exiting the school with the intention of hunting out a nearby notary when I run into Oliver, another teacher from the school, coming the other way.   Formerly of London, England, he's been living in Cuenca for some time now and I've been told that he's a man in the know.  Perhaps now is the time to test his street-savvy.

<<¡Oliver!  ¿Do you happen to know where there is a notary near here?>>

<<Well the one the school uses is just over that way past the football stadium.>>

¿What road is it on?>>

<<You can't miss it.  Go past the stadium and it's on the big road, between a bunch of taco places and a sex shop.>>

<<¡¿Between a taco place and a sex shop?!>>

<<Yeah, it's called Sexta>>

<<¿What the sex shop?>>

<<No, the notaries.>>

Street-savvy tested and found not wanting.

It's interesting (at least for a language nerd such as myself) to note that the sexta I was now gong to is etymolgycially entangled with the siesta that had just caused me to miss the previous notary.

The siesta or midday repose of Spain derives ultimately from the latin 'hora sexta', that being the sixth hour from dawn.

There is a reason for this midday drowsiness.  From the point when one wakes, the homeostatic drive towards sleep begins to grow, in the mid-afternoon it becomes counterbalanced by the circadian signal for wakefulness.  The urge to siesta strikes when the homeostatic signal has had time to build but the circadian signal has not yet kicked in.

The sex of 'sex shop' however, most probably originated from a different etymological root (Australians - the pun is intended) altogether, connected to the latin 'secare' (to divide or cut) with the idea of the division of the two genders.  It wasn't until that filthy old toerag D.H.Lawrence put pen to paper in 1929 that we first have it written down in the sense of 'sexual intercourse'.

But its neither sexta nor sex shop that I stumble across first, but another notary's office entirely. 
I wander in through the door but not a step further.  The queue trundles back across the office and fills up all the seats around to the door.

I wait there for 15 minutes before someone wanders in and joins the queue about ten people in front of me.  I am bemused, then mildly peeved and finally realisation dawns.  I lean down to the lady in front of me

<<¿Excuse me.  Is this the queue?>>

She simply shakes her head, leaving me a little nonplussed to have been left standing in the doorway for 15 minutes like a numpty.

As it happens, it doesn't matter much as the queue hasn't moved one bit in the 15 minutes since I arrived.

So I move forward to join the queue proper and obediently wait in line.

Well, I say in line.  The word 'line', comes from the Latin 'linea' and originally referred to a thread of flax (linen) pulled taut for purposes of measurement.  Lines are, by definition, straight.

This was not a line.  

This was a squiggle.

A great, curving snake of a squiggle, thin at points, bulging plentifully at others, lazilly arcing its way towards the desks. 

There is an experiment in physics called the Double-slit Experiment in which photons of light are shot at a plate with two slits. The photons pass through the slits, interfering with each other to produce a pattern of light and dark.

But even when the rate of photons is slowed to the point where they are not able to interfere with each other, the pattern remains.  This leads to the mind-boggling conclusion that the photon must be going through both slits simultaneously and interfering with itself (oooh errrr misses, titter).  This is because of quantum.

Ecuadorian queuing is very quantum.  Sometimes you move on, sometimes you don’t, other times you both move on and yet get nowhere.  Nothing is certain, it's all a question of probability.

I remained in line for a solid hour of this directionless flux queuing before I ran out of time

The next day I took Oliver's sage advice and hunted out Sexta. 

You can tell this photo was taken on a Sunday as the sex shop
owner has shut up shop to go to church.
It turned out to be a rum tip-off as it took me less than 20 minutes to get my copies notarised.  Narrowly resisting the urge to pop in next door and buy a pair of edible knickers on the same trip, I made my way to the final stage of my bureauodyssey; registering with the Foreign Affairs Ministry,

<<I’m here to get my passport visa registered.>>

<<Is that your passport or your visa you want registered?>>  Asks the guard/official at the Ministry..

<<I want to register this visa in my passport.>>

<<So that’s the visa then?>>


<<Here’s a ticket.  Come back at 11:30.>>  

It was 9:30, which meant I now had two hours to kill with non-specified activities.

Cut to 11:30.

<<Good morning, I’m here to get my visa registered.  Here’s my ticket.>>

<<Who told you to come here?>>

<<You told me to come back at 11:30.>>

The guard/official recovers with some aplomb.

<<Yes, that does sound like the kind of thing I would say.   Take a seat please.>>

After 15 minutes of thumb-twiddling, I am called up to the front-desk where my documents are perused, a few forms are signed, stamps are given a ceremonious stamping and all appears to be well.

<<Ok all done.  Now all we need is 2 copies of the stamp and one copy each of the passport photo page and the visa.>>

The clerk at the front-desk points over to a room containing a giant photocopier.  I wander in, causing the guard/official to shout out in exasperation.

<<No, not there!   You need to go to the shop outside.>>

Advice noted, I wander out to the conveniently located copy shop outside and return to the desk with the requested copies.

<<Can you sign these please.>>

I sign them.

<<Ok. That’s everything.  Could you just go through to that room over there.>>

He points over to a room containing a giant photocopier.  I wander in, causing the guard/official to shout out in exasperation.

<<No, you can’t just go in there.  You have to take a ticket and wait in line first.>>

I get a ticket and wait for my number to come up.  When it does, I head into the room; taking the blessed lack of exasperated shouting as a good sign.

I sit at the nearest desk and hand my documents to a lady with a well practiced impression of government-sanctioned indifference.  She peers down at my papers. 

Un ange passe.

All around is frenetic activity, hustle and bustle, confering and signing and stamping and hubbub.  The giant photocopier however, sits resolutely unused.  Perhaps its just for display, a pleasant focal point.

She looks up <<Ok these all seem to be in order.  Can you go to the bank-teller at the end of the corridor and pay four dollars.>>

<<I’m sorry.  I thought that the registration process was free.>>

<<Oh it is.  This payment is for the registration of the registration.  That costs four dollars.>>

Hmmm, that all seems quite reasonable.

I direct myself towards the bank teller's stall and wait to be served.  The nearest guard/official approaches and tells me to queue the right way, despite the fact there is no one else in the queue and no visible indication of which direction I should be queuing in.

My queuing faux-pas rectified, the teller appears, I get my receipt, pay and return to the room of the photocopier.

<<Here you go, have a nice day.>> The lady says in a prozac-dead tone which clearly implies she couldn't care less what kind of day I have.  She passes me my documents. 

A few tentative steps towards the exit don't result in me being shouted at.  I figure this means I am okay to go... I go.

All my trámites over (until the next ones), I wander out into the crisp afternoon sunshine.

And so, with that, I bid you a fond farewell for now. 

I leave you with this final comforting thought:

                           Republics, confederations and empires may rise and fall,
                                               but bureaucracy is here to stay. 


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