Saturday, November 24, 2012

A Slight Hitch

A day in my new life.

I got to the immigration office at 7:40, 50 minutes before it opened, and there were already nine people ahead of me. We waited outside until 8:30, and then went in and sat.

I still don't know how they figure who's first, who's second, and so on. Most of us got numbered tickets. And they have an electronic sign that shows the numbers, but it's not used. It is switched on but is stuck on "00". All the time.

A female security guard seems to know who goes where, and when.

So here's typical: You go in, get a number and sit down. This is harder than it seems. Once the door opens, the line turns into a crowd. Everyone puckers up to the security guard, and if you don't get your hand out to request a ticket right away, any advantage of standing in line for an hour entirely vanishes.

You can be third in line and end up 27th, or worse.

Somehow the guard sort of knows the deal, but you have to get your hand out there all the same.

OK then, you sit.

After a long while someone is at the counter. There should be two staffers there but yesterday there was only one, which is why, when I came in around number 40 it was hopeless.

So now we have someone up front. And today there are two.

About the first thing that happens is that someone else waltzes in the door and immediately goes to the counter. And they stay there 10 minutes, 15 minutes, a half hour. A long time. This may also happen after someone's number is called.

Numbers don't matter so much. The new person seems to have some priority.

There is much jabbering. Everyone seems to be negotiating a deal, especially the native Spanish speakers, who won't take "no" or "maybe" or "fuck off" for an answer.

Those whose numbers are called stand there at the counter for several eternities. Then they are done, and leave, either deeper into the building or back out the front door.

Someone else is called. More eternities pass.

Then the people who left come back again, and immediately go to the counter and begin negotiating all over. Once you've been at the counter you get to go back. A lot. Usually two to four times on a given day.

It's like reincarnation.

The rest of us wait.

Today there was a young guy ahead of me. He was playing with stuff on his phone. Then he began digging through his pockets. Then through his knapsack. Then back to his pockets. Over and over.

He had lost his ticket. Too bad for him.

No, wait.

He talked to the security guard. She didn't care. She knew which place he was in and didn't really need the ticket. He settled down.

The other (male) security guard then comes around to all the fat old white gringo guys and tells them to take off their hats.

For some reason gringo guys always wear their hats indoors. I always take mine off when entering a building. It shows respect. I was brought up in that era, and haven't gotten over it, so even back in the States I did it this way.

People understand when you're trying to show respect, even if they think you're a dick. You know?

The fat, white-haired gringo guys never catch on. And most of them wear sloppy clothes. I try to dress up at least a bit. Jeans but no T-shirts. No baggy shorts, no sandals, nothing dirty or stained. Nothing hanging loose. Nothing says "I'm a dick" like a shirt that says "I'm with stupid."

Time passes.

The universe ages.

The mountains grow wrinkles, age, and die.

It is now 10:10. I have been waiting two and a half hours. My number is called. I go to the counter. Andrea is there, which I'm grateful for. I've seen her twice before and she won't forget me.

She knows I'm a dick, but a kind of amusing one in a road-kill sort of way.

The first day I went in she asked to see my passport to determine how long I could remain in the country. I told her it was hidden in an awkward place and would not be easy to present, while pointing downward at my crotch.

OK, she's been through a lot, but maybe this was a first.

I carry my bank cards, passport, and all my spare cash in plastic bags inside a pouch I made, and I wear the pouch inside my pants. If I wear a loose shirt you can't really tell anything strange is going on unless you watch my crotch for a while.

So far I haven't run into anyone like that.

Sometimes if I sit down I get an unusually large bulge in my pants. That one is hart to miss, so I cover myself with a jacket or arrange my arms to disguise my Mr Enormous look.

So I get to Andrea, finally, and tell her the story. I fucked up.

I took the documents to the language school where they were copied and the copies were then translated from English to Spanish.

I wasn't explicit enough in making sure that we all understood that these documents could not be altered in any way, including removing that one critical staple.

Which they did.

I show her my documents.

She looks at the documents.

She says that by having the staple pulled from my apostilled documents, I have invalidated everything.

"Exactly," I say.

She is 100% right, and I agree.

I don't beg, cajole, whine, wheedle, argue, or sob.

I ask for her thoughts. Just that. She is the expert. I at least want to see if she has any Option B, whatever it might amount to.

"Let me go ask Legal," she says.

I wait.

Time passes.

More time passes.

Andrea returns.

In the interim I have grown a long beard and all my hair is white, just like the other gringo guys here today.

I wait for the trapdoor to open, dropping me from the platform to hang from my neck on my own carelessness until deported back to the U.S.

"Legal says they will make a special exception this one time," she says.



The language school I went to for translation is where Andrea learned English. She is extremely good at it too.

Her teacher, Marcela, personally translated my documents. I have receipts.

Marcela said she and Andrea not only work together but they are personal friends. I think that all helps.

I showed Andrea one of the receipts, but only after she got me a reprieve.

Better that way. Less like trying to force things, and more like "Oh, yes, that's right, and here's some actual proof."

Both receipts show Marcela's signature.

I think I'm clear.

This afternoon I went to get the color copy of my passport notarized. That is another story. You really have to try this some day.

You really do.

It's better than any circus.

I may share it later. Come back and see.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Abogado Imaginario

Can you see me now?

"If you want help, see Tom Swiffer," they all said. "Tom is the best. I'd stake my life on him. Totally reliable."

Tomás is his real name. He's an attorney.

Also a plumber and pumpkin grower, and he drives a cab, as I found out.

But the law is his first love.

Show him a law and he'll cuddle right up to it. He'll swoon. He'll bellow. Or no, he would bellow if he weren't such a naturally tidy little fellow.

Being a tidy little fellow, with him it's more of a delicate trill.

Something. Definitely a sound though. Count on it.

Because why? Because one thing you can say about Tom is that he's tidy. Just look at his photo. Do it. What do you see?

You see Mr Tidypants, and that's Tom. Tom behind his desk, computer at the ready near his right elbow.

Tomás. Or Tom Swiffer as we gringos call him.

And Tom Swiffer does no bellowing, does he, only whinnying, or tootling or whatever that sound of his actually is.

So then - have a question? Just ask.

Ask anything, and see what you get.

Nothing, mostly, to be honest about it. Replying to questions is somewhat undignified. Especially if questions arrive by email.

Email is undignified. Tom answers some emails but not others.

A letter, perhaps, scratched out by quill on vellum, should be graced with a reply, inmediatamente, I bet, after Tom has a brief nap.

Because such a letter is dignified. It is traditional. It is normal, and proper, and is what attorneys are used to, in their self-regard.

Not so much for email. Electronic and all, arriving so swiftly as it does, as email does, in its brevity and insistence, through some kind of electronic tube that no one understands.

Perhaps, with email, thinks Tomás, thinks Tom, it is not so good to reply, being so swift and to the point and undignified, and brash and verifiable.

And so he doesn't.

Reply, that is. All the time.

Until the second request, at the least. Because it is what the attorney do, he thinks. What the expensive and important attorney do.

And then, to make a point, in reply, (his), he is brief. So brief. So brief that he says nothing.

And this is after I send him money. A retainer. A retainer because. A retainer because he is an attorney. An immigration attorney. Besides being a plumber and grower of pumpkins, and a driver of cabs, and a cat sitter.

Did I mention the cat sitting?

I do now.

He sits cats too.

Tomás. A man of so many talents, with cat hair on his tie, which proves his uniqueness and depth of talents.

Talents, one of which is not being an immigration attorney.

My fault I guess. I didn't read it right.

Because it's right there on his business card: "Imaginary Attorney".

Tomás Swiffer, Abogado Imaginario (y niñera de gato a tiempo parcial), Managua.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Flying Dry


People just love to x-ray laptops.

I had mine done four times while flying from Seattle to Guayaquil. (That's in Ecuador, as far as I remember.)

The first three times I had to take the laptops out and put them into trays.

The last time was the most fun. I left them in the pack and, well, let's back up a bit.

I left Lima, Peru at 6:10 yesterday morning. Not long after getting into the air an attendant came around passing out small forms, the size of a paperback book page. A pocket paperback book.

I thought it was a menu until I got mine. One was an immigration form. The other was a customs form.

For immigration they want to know who you are, where you're from, and give you several check boxes to indicate your purpose: tourism, student, business, etc. Pretty straight up.

The customs form goes into great length about what is allowed (and how many of each thing), what isn't allowed, and the penalties for deception.

About this time I was beginning to fill my pants. And not in a fun way.

I had seen the rules before, but heard from various people that they weren't checked, or that no one really cared, and if something looked obviously used and was not obviously a weapon or bag of drugs that there was no issue.

So I let my inventory slide, and did not look for old receipts, or price things on eBay.

But it's different when it comes up and hits you in the face. Like, where do you go if you are right there and want to back up a bit? Nowhere.

Time for truth, my friend.

The easy part was providing an exact count of how much money each person brings into the country.

If that amount is over $10.



I had to sit in my airplane seat and count it all. I had a wad of various bills plus some change stowed away, which I guessed at.

The fun part of this is that the plane was barely half full, so I was all alone in the back. I guess I was lucky overall, not having to count it all out under someone else's nose.

On the Seattle-to-LAX leg I had three seats to myself.

For the LAX to LIM leg they assigned me to sit on top of a woman.

The flight attendant pointed me to a seat one row ahead of the woman, insisting that row 38 (on my boarding pass, and where the woman was) was actually row 37 (as indicated on the overhead rail).

But who am I to argue?

I didn't like the woman anyway.

She promptly had herself sealed in with curtains enveloping two entire seats and stayed there for the duration, not coming out until we got to Lima.

OK, fine. I got two seats to myself and didn't have to sit on her.

Other than kicking the back of my seat a fair amount I have no clue about what the woman was doing inside her cocoon. I was hoping to see a large and colorful butterfly emerge, and give me magical gifts, but at the end of the trip it was still a cranky old bag complaining at length in Spanish who emerged.

And then again, LIM to GYE.

We had the same size plane (Boeing 767) as from LAX to LIM, but it was like watching death by attrition - only a few made it to the back third of the plane. I could have played handball along the row, bouncing the ball off the far side of the fuselage and no one would have known. Hardly, anyway.

I have no idea what came along and ate the other passengers. They were all up front somewhere.

So back to the fear in my pants.

After counting my money I got to the part that says you can bring in one new and one used computer, or any combination of electronic devices or fancy gizmos as long has you have a maximum of two, and one is new and the other isn't, and you have receipts, so they can tax you properly.

You get a maximum of six memory cards or portable memory devices, and so on. Good thing I counted my cash, because I wanted to know if I could cover the fees, and if not, then I would need to borrow a hammer and destroy a bunch of stuff at the checkpoint to avoid customs fees.

If they would let me. I don't know if they keep a hammer there.

Either one of those or prison, I was thinking.

Me with five memory cards and four USB sticks and two external hard drives, three cameras and five interchangeable lenses, plus two used but new-looking laptops, and a nest of power supplies, extra power cords, three mice, and three stand-alone keyboards that I bought between 1998 and 2000 but can't prove diddly about.

And there are other things.

I left the last two boxes on the customs form blank because I had no idea what to put in them. Better to negotiate, I thought, than to commit and be hung by my thumbs for a few weeks until they decided what my punishment for perjury was. Perjury and smuggling.

So at least my checked bags came through, zippers still unburst, locks in place, no note from TSA saying "Have a nice day and thanks for letting us steal some cool things." I put a plastic "zip tie" through each pair of zipper pulls to make it harder for anyone, including some TSA dandy with a magic key that opens all locks, to get in. Those were intact. The zip ties.

If anyone had a yearning to dig through my goods, those plastic ratcheted loops may have whispered that it really was a lot of extra bother so why not go for one of those nice, rectangular, hard cases that just pop open and can be shut easily, and let someone else have problems.

Anyway, I'm good there.

But picking up my duffels at baggage claims was just the final step before the customs review.

The "screener" there, who took our forms, didn't seem to give a corpulent rodent's posterior what was on the forms. I even pointed out that I had left two items blank on the customs form, and gave a giant shrug to show that I had no clue what to put in the boxes.

He waved me on.

Next stop, trial by ordeal: one more pass through the x-ray machine.

I plunked the two duffel bags up there, my jacket and travel vest, and my unopened knapsack (containing the contraband, dontcha know).

Then I walked to the far end of the x-ray machine, where the woman ahead of me was frantically ripping things out of her luggage so the posse could get a closer look at it all.

I grouped my stuff on the table at the end of the conveyor belt and waited for my head to be lopped off.

Then I heard an urgent voice somewhere to my left and finally looked over. The x-ray machine driver was waving at me. "OK, OK, go, go, you good."

He made a "shooing" gesture using both hands like he was trying to chase flies away from a turd. That would be me.

I got the hint.

I still don't know WTF that was all about.

I imagine that if they spot a case of grenades in your luggage, they'll stop to play, but otherwise, eh.

So I'm still on the loose.

Seattle was fun though.

I'll leave out the part about getting to the airport. It's a long story.

But once there, I showed my boarding pass and passport to a guy, then headed for the x-ray machines.

We took off our footwear (they do have an excessive interest in that too), laid out all our goods, emptied our pockets of anything that might cause a beep, and then.

That was it.

No "backscatter" x-ray machine, no "sub-millimeter" scanner. No pat-down. Just a walk through a metal detector, a wave and "Have a nice day and don't forget your shoes!" kind of deal.

The TSA people were really nice. It was almost a party atmosphere. Sure, 4:45 a.m., and like they'd just finished the punch, no one was looking, and they said "Screw it. Let's kick back for a while."


Leaving Seattle, the plane was only half full. Probably should have held a bunch who didn't make it from the East Coast and it's uppity hurricane. My gain.

LAX is still a sewer.

I haven't traveled much, but this is the worst airport I've seen. No way to get a clue about where you are and how you can get where you need to be. I ended up on a shuttle, missed my target terminal once, and almost missed it a second time because the announcement was so forked up.

The place is always full of grumpy, sweaty, stinky people, and the passengers are no better.

I will say that they were really obliging about giving me a pat-down rather than a dose of high-energy photons. The poor guy was standing there and trying to explain exactly what it was he had to do to me while I kept saying, "Hey. It's cool. Just do it. I really don't care. No, seriously, this is not a big deal, just do it."

Even then he was apologetic when he almost tipped my over while trying to feel inside my waist band. Eh.

The real pisser there was at the luggage x-ray machine, just before that.

See, I had my two laptops each wrapped in a T-shirt to prevent scuffing, and then all both of them inside a plastic bag, and the rest of the knapsack stuffed full with cameras, hard drives, lenses, and all that, on top of (toward the front of the pack).

So at every laptop x-ray fetish fest I had to halfway empty the pack just to get at the laptops, pull them out, and then stuff the other things into the pack for the x-ray machine, and then pull things out and get the laptops back in, and THEN get everything back to normal until the next x-ray machine came along.

And this woman hefted my pack after I had the two laptops out and was ready to go and she asked why it was so heavy, and did I have some more laptops in there, and just what WAS in there and so on. And on. And finally she just gave it all a shove and forgot about me.

Maybe it was me asking her if I could please have a pat-down-I-know-you're-really-busy-and-all-but-I-would-love-to-have-one-if-you-can, please. If it isn't too much trouble, please.

Once I did that her laptop-counting spree just stopped dead, she looked disconnected, and want back to drooling.

I managed to get away pretty much intact. The pat-down was another joke, if your sense of humor runs that way.

Guayaquil lies at sea level, has 800% humidity, and temps in the low to mid 200s (F). Not bad in the shade, with a mild breeze, if you have a decent knife to cut the dense air with, but once you step out into the sun your skin starts to bubble and smolder.

I need the vitamin D, so is OK for now.

No telling what might happen next.


LAX: Los Angeles
LIM: Lima
GYE: Guayaquil