When we lived here six years ago, I learned Spanish by talking to people. I felt like the village idiot, leaving a trail of doubt and misunderstanding wherever I went. The shopkeepers at the places I frequented learned to speak slowly, use simple words, and not be offended when I responded inappropriately. And I had the reassurance that, since we were staying for a year, I would at some future time be able to converse and understand, and people would see that I was not, in fact, and idiot. So it happened, mostly, and people could congratulate me on how far I had come.
Worst of all, though, were logistical questions. Whereas in most of life I could get by understanding 50 to 75% of what was happening, logistics left little room for error. Was someone meeting me sometime before 2:30, or sometime after 2:30? I’m not sure, but I’ll just get there early and stay late. Unless, I would think as 2:30 came and went, they really meant that this was going to happen tomorrow. At a store, I could bail out and not buy what I was trying to buy, go ask Patricia for advise, and go back later, but occasionally, this didn’t work. At the immigration office, for instance, when the man asked for something from the efabayee, I could only look at him blankly, until I realized that what he wanted was documentation of my good behavior from the FBI. I knew that the kind of visa I was applying for did NOT require documentation from the FBI, and I wondered later if that was the moment when some people would slip a bribe his way. I did not, and we didn’t get the visa, and we (technically) lived as illegal residents for about 5 months, a crime punished by a fine of about $16 each as we left the country.
With years more of managing my way in Spanish, conversation is much easier, but logistics – when you need to know exactly (or nearly exactly) what is happening, still trip me up. Take this morning’s trip to the bank.
Leticia and I are planning to spend a few nights in San Marcos de las Sierras, and the only hotel we found with vacancy wants a deposit to secure our reservation. We can’t do this with a credit card, and trying to do it with a bank card (if that is even possible) gives us the much less favorable official exchange rate. So we learn that what we need to do is go to the bank and transfer funds to a certain account, with names and numbers provided by the hotel. We also learn that since the bank that the account lies in doesn’t have a branch here, we need to go to the national bank in town. And so I do.
There is a line of about 20 people outside, but I have learned that this line is just for the ATM, so I pass through that to the interior, past the guard with the big gun to the place where the lines begin. There seem to be about four choices: a single desk to the left, with a person occasionally there, a sign that says “Plazo Fijo”, with tickets to take, and about 20 chairs, currently half filled, and in the middle, two lines (Fila 1 and Fila 2), with a long list of the sort of transactions each line can take care of. “Transferencia” is listed under Fila 2, so I get in that line, though there are also four numbered cubicles to the right, which seem to be attending people. In front of us is a red sign with “caja” and “turno”, and numbers below each. Fila 2 goes to Caja 3 and 4, and I notice that every time a certain tone sounds, the number below “turno” goes up by one, and the person at the head of the line that pertains to the caja indicated heads behind the opaque walls to the teller windows (or cajas). I wonder if I should have taken a ticket – if that connects to the number indicated by “turno”, but it seems that no one else in my line has one, so I stay put. It seems that the number of people coming out is less than the number going in, and I wonder where the excess people end up. I also wonder if I went to a bank in the United States in a drunken stupor if it would feel approximately like this.
Near the caja/turno sign is a television silently showing up to date news. The pope visiting the Holy Land seems to be the only news of substance, wedged in between soccer stories – 10000 fans showing up to welcome River Plate to the start of the season, the possibility of Beckham coming to play in Argentina – and a sad story of a 23 year old killed in a club (“He went to dance and they killed him” says the subtitle). I can’t let myself get hypnotized by this, though, as the line keeps moving forward. Occasionally, without explanation, people saying “perdon” come right through the line and go behind the opaque wall; this doesn’t seem to bother those in line. People wait with a patience unknown in the United States; I am grateful that I am not in Fila 1, as it seems not to have moved in the 20 minutes I have been waiting, even though it is listed as the line for handicapped people and pregnant women, neither of whom seem to be in attendance.
I am happy to see that I am not the only one slightly bewildered by the process; near me, an older woman sits down in one of the “plazo fijo” chairs, waits for 15 minutes, and leaves. The older man at the head of our line keeps stepping forward, poking his head around the opaque wall, then returning. At some point, the sign changes for Caja 0, which isn’t mentioned in any of the lists of lines. The man at the head of Fila 1, which still hasn’t moved, looks around, shrugs, and heads behind the wall. He doesn’t come out, so it looks like he did the right thing. As I get closer to the front of the line, I fell the adrenaline surge that used to come with the approach of my turn in college speech class. I also realize that I seriously need to go to the bathroom, and I wonder if it is possible to leave the line and come back, and I wonder how far I would need to go to the nearest bathroom.
I hold it all together, though, and after about 35 minutes I find myself at the caja. “I need to make a transference”, I say, and push my paper with the information through the slot. The teller asks if I have something that sounds like “cuy”, the word used in Ecuador and Peru for a guinea pig. Of course I don’t have a cuy, though the idea of returning with one is briefly amusing. I feel like I have heard the term before, enough to know that I don’t have one. He asks again how it can be that I don’t have a cuy. “I am not from here,” I say, “I only have this,” pushing a copy of my passport through the slot. He looks at both pieces of paper, says “Give me a second,” and goes back to talk to an older man who is talking on a telephone. I hear the words for “foreigner” and “passport”, and see the older man sizing me up. I try to look aboveboard. The teller returns, telling me that I need to go to the chica in cubicle 4. “With the ticket and everything?” I ask, and he says, no, just go directly to her. And so I go past all the people sitting in the plazo fijo seats to the seat just outside cubicle 4.
The chica in cubicle 4 is young, pretty, and friendly as she talks to two guys in front of me. Their business seemingly concluded, they chat pleasantly for a few minutes, before parting with the customary (among friends, at least) kiss on the cheek. “How can I help you?” she asks, and I say “I need to make a transfer, but I don’t have a cuy.” “Oh,” she says, “then you need to go to caja 4.” “I just was at caja 4,” I reply, “and he sent me to you.” At this point I wonder how the 2007 incarnation of me would have handled this. Would I be back in Fila 2, watching the ponderous advance of the caja/turno sign? “OK,” she says, and taking my papers, starts to insert data into the computer.
“Do you have your passport?”
“I have this copy.”
“You don’t have the original document?”
“Yes, at the house, but I always operate this way, with the copy,” I say, with false confidence. It seems to work.
“OK, that’s not important.”
Soon she is stuck, and calls the woman from the adjacent cubicle over. Together after some explaining and looking at me, they figure things out. For a short time they are looking at Leticia’s passport, which is copied next to mine, until I redirect them. “This is me, over here,” I say, helpfully. At some point they need my address, which I provide, and not much later I have a piece of paper that says “Formulario de Alta de Persona Fisica” – as far as I can tell, this means “document of high of physical person” – but more importantly, it has my name, and also C.U.I.L followed by a number. Never mind that the passport number listed is missing a digit – it seems I now have a CUIL.
“You need to go to the woman who helped you before,” she says. “Really? The guy in Caja 4, with the line and all?” I ask. “No, go directly to Caja 4.” And so I go through the line, wondering if the people in Fila 2 all hate me, but also remembering the earlier indifference to line-jumpers. “I am back,” I say, “and I seem to have a CUIL.”
The rest is relatively understandable and straightforward. I give him the money for the transfer, plus about $1 worth of fees, and he gives me a long ticket that I ask him to explain. Lastly, he notes that since the account is in a different bank, it will take 24 to 48 hours for the transfer to be processed. As I walk out past the lines, the guy who shruggingly went in for the sign that said caja 0 is back in Fila 1, looking unperturbed. I leave the bank triumphantly, saying farewell to the armed guard, 57 minutes after entering.
Back at home, I email the hotel to tell them the numbers and the news that it will take 24 to 48 hours to process. Only time will tell if all is fine.