A Tale of Red Tape

With my visa set to expire in just a few days, Daniel and I drove 1 1/2 hours to the immigration office in Mar del Plata last Monday to obtain an extension. Let the games begin.

Dirección Nacional de Migraciones, Mar del Plata, Argentina by katiemetz, on Flickr [Welcome to your friendly neighborhood maximum security detention center immigration office.]

We arrive at Migraciones at 8:30am and find that virtually no one is in the office. We're called upon immediately, and I explain the purpose of my visit. The immigration employee tells me I must make photocopies of each and every page of my passport and then return to the office with the copies. Thankfully there's a kiosk on the corner, and we file down the stairs and out the building to complete our first task. We're back in 15 minutes or less, and we hand over the photocopies and take a seat.

The immigration office is bleaker than bleak. My eyes wander over the flimsy, black, molded plastic chairs and dingy white walls, while the fluorescent fixtures overhead cast a cold, harsh light over everyone and everything. In the middle of the wall hangs a faded portrait of Mother Theresa, since no Argentine public office can be without a figure of the Virgin or a saint of some sort.

After waiting for about 45 minutes or so, the immigration employee calls us up to the desk. He says there's a problem. With a great flourish, he produces a printout that lists my exits from and entries into the country. Although I have a stamp in my passport that clearly shows my last entry into Argentina, there is no record of it in the computer. The employee explains that he'll have to call Buenos Aires to get this sorted out, and he recommends that we take a walk for an hour or so in the meantime.

Fortunately, we do have an errand to run, so we head out and take a long walk down Avenida Independencia to our destination. With time to spare before the magic hour when my problem will be fixed, we stop at a sidewalk café for coffee and a medialuna, knowing full well that there's no real hurry to return.

We head back to Migraciones at 10:30am, and I'm trying to be optimistic. The office is bustling now, with a new face turning up every few minutes. We wade through the sea of people, and we manage to nab a place to sit. A few minutes later, the employee informs us that he's still waiting on an answer from Buenos Aires.

Over the course of the next two hours, we manage to make occasional eye contact with the employee, but he does nothing more than mumble for us to hang tight un segundito (a quick second) before turning away. Finally, after quite a few segunditos, he calls us up to the counter to tell us, with the gravest of expressions, that my situation is "very complicated," and he urges us to wait while he gathers reinforcements. He returns with another employee who informs me that I have unwittingly become a participant in what amounts to "an absolutely unheard-of situation." I assure you that these are the last words you want to hear while standing in a government office – anywhere.

Apparently, back in October when I visited Uruguay with Daniel and my parents, we returned to Argentina on some sort of ghost ship, or perhaps it was the Good Ship Lollipop. Either way, the boat I took from Colonia to Buenos Aires is nowhere to be found in the computer system. There is no record of that boat, and according to the system, none of the passengers that left Buenos Aires that morning returned to Argentina. As it turns out, not only is the Buquebus record MIA, but it seems that Migraciones has also misplaced my tarjeta de ingreso, a little piece of paper that serves as physical proof of one's entry into the country.

The second employee states that he is waiting for approval from Buenos Aires to manually enter my arrival data into the computer. He tells me not to worry; he assures me that everything will get straightened out – that it has to get straightened out. Just sit tight. I make an about-face and trudge to the back row of seats with Daniel.

A steady stream of Bolivians, a pack of Senegalese, a Russian couple, a young German woman, a pair of Asians, a smattering of Argentines and goodness knows how many other nationalities file past us as we await word from some pencil pusher in Capital Federal.

Migraciones, Mar del Plata by katiemetz, on Flickr

Bonus: there are no Colombian ex-convicts chatting me up this time 'round.

A family of Bolivians entertains a baby with spiky, jet-black hair using a toy in the shape of a silver banana, while a porteño tries to keep his rambunctious little girl occupied by pointing to a political poster plastered to the wall. The father tells us he took advantage of the fact that he was in Mar del Plata on vacation to come to Migraciones here instead of back home in the capital. He describes the immigration office in Buenos Aires as a "nightmare" with people "pissing themselves" as they wait in line. Fortunately, no one here is suffering from incontinence, and it it's all very orderly and civil, just slow as molasses (in January? No, make that July).

At one point I glance up at the portrait of Mother Theresa hanging to my right – even she looks bored. I ask her to help me; I'm not Catholic, but I figure it can't hurt. I then have a sudden revelation about the rationale for religious iconography in Argentine government offices.

With the office virtually empty, the doors about to close at 3pm and nothing yet resolved, the second employee beckons us over to deliver the news: my problem will have to be revisited tomorrow. He jots down our phone number and promises to call when he gets word from the powers that be.

Three days and 12 phone calls later (every single one initiated by us), the data finally shows up in the computer. We pop across the bridge to Quequén, and with the assistance of the immigration officer at the Prefectura Naval, I have everything taken care of in just 45 minutes. Well, four days and 45 minutes.

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