Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Beating the odds

Awhile ago, I was at El Das, the Colombian security agency, to renew my visa once again. A British guy was at the window, frustrated because there had been some kind of miscommunication about his visa. He was going to have to pay a 300,000 peso (about $160) fine if it wasn't resolved that same day as the next day he would already be in the country illegally. Amigo..., he kept staying in an angry tone. The agent on the other side of the window was getting pissed off, too. It's not our problem

The next week we went to Popayán, and Felipe's mom had to do some paperwork for their car, which is registered in Popayán for some ridiculous bureaucratic reason. The official in city hall told her that she needed to get a special stamp from the bank, where we had just came from after waiting in a long line to pay the taxes due on the car. -Go back to the bank? That will take all afternoon. Or you can buy it from that guy, he said, indicating a man leaning against the wall behind us. The stamps cost 6,000 pesos at the bank. -How much? 8,000. (~$1 difference) They had the current date and everything. Ok. Stamps bought. Back to the guy, who told her the paperwork was going to take 3 days, after which time we would have to come back to pick it up. We live in Cali, she said in her friendliest voice. ¿Cómo hacemos? meaning, how can we work together so I don't have to come back in 3 days? Wait here, he said. 30 minutes later we walked out of the building, documents in hand.


I don't want to speak for all Americans, but I would say my first reaction has always been to get annoyed, ask to talk to the supervisor, and speak strongly. We assume that if you make enough noise and are insistent enough, someone will care, if only to get you out of their hair. Let me tell you this: nobody here cares. Not the attendant, not the supervisor, not the supervisor's supervisor. If you are American or European they may even be enjoying telling you no as retribution for the way Latinos are often treated by our government agencies (not the most noble reaction but pretty damn understandable). 

There are two exceptions to this rule. 

To absolutely no one's surprise, if you have money and are willing to spread it around, you can probably make just about any problem go away. My Argentine students taught me, unasked, how to bribe police officers, much to their own amusement. If you ever get stopped, immediately slip 20 pesos ($5) under your license when you hand it to the officer. If he's kind of a jerk he'll tell you it's not enough. But, you know, they don't make very much money, they explained sympathetically. I've never been very good at bribing but I'm going to take a wild guess and assume that $5 is at the very low end of the spectrum.

But, surprisingly enough, what I have learned works almost as well is just being nice. Nice, polite, humble, and not going away when they tell you no. Sorry, those are the rules, there's nothing to be done. -I understand. ::look distressed, stay there:: Wait here. Comes back, Look, that's the policy, I can't help you. -I understand, I was just wondering if there's anything that can be done. Please. Thank you so much. ::stay there:: Wait here.

Repeat as necessary. Sometimes the person you're talking to won't help, but someone else will. Even if you've overstayed your visa. Even if you've screwed up paperwork and need it today instead of next week. Not that I personally have ever been in either of those situations. (Cough.)

I'm not saying it will work 100% of the time, and a lot of it really is luck of the draw. But I do think it greatly increases the odds of success.

*photo, Popayán's city hall. Kinda cool, right? The sculpture is by Édgar Negret, a well-known sculpture artist born in Popayán.


  1. Algunas personas registran los automóviles en ciudades pequenas diferentes a las donde ellos viven para pagar menos impuestos, no por razones burocráticas ... si tus amigos desean pueden registrar el auto en Cali, pero claro los impuestos serán mucho más altos.

  2. Ah ya, no sabia eso, igual creo que en este caso fue porque habian comprado el auto ya registrado en Popayan y bueno tal vez decidieron no cambiarlo a Cali por lo que vos decis...de todas formas, complicado jaja. Gracias por el comentario!