Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Waiting at government offices is stressful and frustrating. Especially when you have to do it twice over.

I hear that sharing frustrations with people can help you diminish your stress level. To that end, I've decided to write about what was a stressful and highly frustrating two days of waiting at government offices.

I spent much of Tuesday standing in a line at one government office, only to find out that I actually had to first stand all day in a different line in a different office before I could stand all day in the line in which I was initially standing. Why? Because I didn't file my paperwork on time, and so I needed to get a piece of paper from that office to give to the person at this office in order for this clerk to process the papers as normal. *Sigh.* It's really hard not to let frustration turn to anger, even though many people might interpret my state of frustration as a state of anger. (Nope: they are not the same; I actively avoid getting angry.) Since it was already past 2pm - and since Chilean government offices (just like Chilean banks) close at 2pm - I would have to try again the next day. On the plus side, she said that I could come directly to her station when I did get the paper, which would (at least) save waiting in line again at this office. (Ah, the small blessings that come from not getting angry at clerks, who can't change the rules that govern their actions, but can either cut you a break if you're nice to them or make things even more difficult for you if they feel like you're being overly bitchy and/or assholey.)

Side note: The need to go to a different government office in order to pay a fine for not doing a particular piece of paperwork in time was due to a misunderstanding and lack of communications due to presumed knowledge and expected actions due to that fundamental misunderstanding of how the Chilean governmental bureaucracy works. Every bureaucracy has its annoyances, but these can be minimized (at least for people like me) if I understand the internal logic of the particular system. Of course, being a foreigner, I don't know the things that I don't know to ask about (and being nationals, the people I talk to don't know that I don't know until it's way too late). Of course, one of the main annoyances about Chilean government is that some offices are grossly understaffed (i.e., the ones I had to go to), of which I had an inkling on this day, but which I would find out when I went to the other government building.

After returning to my apartment (frustrated, fatigued, and trying to figure out explanations to questions that I was pretty sure I was not formulating correctly), I decided that I should probably figure out what my visit would likely entail, and after a lot of figuring and guessing and asking and trying to figure out yet again what the heck is meant by certain legal phrases (because government websites - even those aimed at foreigners - are written by people who implicitly understand the bureaucracy, which means that there's a lot of assumed knowledge that requires additional searching and additional frustration), I finally started to pull together an idea of what I had to do. People - like me - who have to pay a fine to this government agency, need to first wait in line to get a piece of paper from a clerk that says how much is owed. Then I would have to go to the government-run bank and wait in line to pay that amount (I suppose this might be to minimize petty bribes, which is a good thing, I guess, but why you can't just pay directly with a credit card or debit card - which also would minimize petty bribery - is beyond me), from which you will receive a receipt of payment. (Why the automated banking system of the government-run bank couldn't tell the government clerks the same thing as the piece of paper, I don't know; I'm guessing that it's just an anachronism that has remained from pre-cmoputerized banking days.) Then I would have to go back to the same office, and wait in line (again!) in order present the receipt of payment from the government-run bank to the government clerk in order to get the piece of paper that the original government clerk said I needed to have before she could process my paperwork.

Or, to put it more basically, I would need to go to a government office, get a number, wait in line, get a piece of paper from a clerk that says how much I need to pay, go the the bank, get a number, wait in line, pay the amount listed on the paper, get a piece of paper that said I paid, go back to the government office, get a number, wait in line, get piece of paper that confirms that I payed the fine, go back to the original government office (where I was the day before), and go see the clerk I originally saw there in order to get the business done for which I had originally waited in line.

*Sigh* Don't get angry. Don't get angry. Don't get angry. After all, all bureaucracies have really frustrating aspects. The only thing that getting angry would do is to (directly or indirectly) hurt me. Better just wake up early. (Yeah, I suppose this is turning into a mantra.)

Today, I woke up at 6am after a stressful night. *Grogginess.* I left the apartment at 7am, and got to the correct government office at 7:50am. As I pulled up to the main entrance, I noticed that there was no line, and my spirits were buoyed; perhaps this wouldn't take so long after all. But no. When I went in, I was greeted by a line stretching out a side entrance. Following that line, I exited the lobby and found that it literally was already stretched almost to the end of the block. I got in line far closer to the corner of the next street than the entrance to the building and proceeded to wait for the doors to open. Starting at 8:30, the line slowly started to shuffle forward, and at about 9am, I got my waiting-room number: R122 (the monitors were showing R008, alongside three other sets of numbers, against which I would - apparently - be competing). Well, at least I would definitely have enough time to go and get a coffee. This option was far more tempting than waiting in an already-crammed waiting room; so I left in search of an open coffee shop.

Coffee shops in Santiago don't always open early. In fact, many small cafes don't open until 10 or 10:30, but I was able to find one in the main downtown plaza, had a coffee, and forced myself to try and relax. (Forced leisure is difficult, especially when you are in my head space.) During that time, I tried to channel my stress and frustration into something (somewhat) constructive, and I came up with an idea about how to minimize crowding in government waiting rooms that are obviously waaaaay too small to adequately handle the numbers of people waiting in them. I'll talk with the Office of Technology Transfer at the university to see if it might be of use or interest. Fingers crossed.

After stretching out a relatively small and quite expensive coffee for an hour, I went back to the waiting room, only to find that the number had gone up to R018. *Argh!* Well, off again outside I go! I found a couple of Indian textile importers down the street from the government office, some electronics stores, a whole gallery of handbag shops, another gallery of barbers and hairdressers, and yet another gallery of various levels of jewelry. I also noticed scantily dressed women who "just happened" to be standing at regular intervals along the street, doing nothing much more than stand and look at people. Apparently there were many goods and services on sale around the area.

I returned to the waiting room at 11:30 to find that the number had risen to D025. *Sigh.* Well, off again outside I go! Since I was near the old central plaza, the main cathedral, and a couple of old churches, I decided that I'd play tourist for a bit. To that end, I checked out the cathedral (lots of school kids on field trips, very few worshippers, and renovation work going on all around), as well as another stonking big church nearby (a nearly empty mass presided over by a priest who literally mumbled and stumbled through his holy litany) and then decided to get lunch (arroz con pollo at a small eatery tucked between two government buildings and looking out on a fountain).

Back to the waiting room at noon. In the intervening 30-ish minutes (yes, it was a very quick lunch, and a very quick look around the churches), the number had "rapidly" climbed to D055. Well, considering that the offices would close their doors at 2pm, I decided to stay (with the hope that things would continue along at the rate of the previous 1/2 hour, instead of at the rate of the initial 2 hours). However, at the back of my head, I knew that I had to *still* go the bank, wait there and then return to this same waiting room before going back to where I was yesterday.


During the next 1/2 hour, I played sudoku, and after one (somewhat) tough game, I looked up to see: D107! Well, I'd best get ready, then! My number was thrown up on the board at 1pm. Forward I stepped, and just as I looked for which clerk I needed to see, the D123 was called, and I was left in the lurch, not knowing where I was supposed to go. Luckily, the guard helped me out and one of the clerks said that I could see her after she was done with the person she was helping at the time. *Phew.* I was already having images of having to wait in line all over again, but luckily that didn't happen.

I then proceeded to wait nervously in front of the withering gaze of the hundreds of people stacked in the waiting room, with me seeming like I jumped the queue. Ah, well, screw 'em. I was supposed to be here, and anyway the clerk was finishing up.

I was called forward, and the clerk went through the papers and told me perhaps the best news of my predicament that I could have heard: there would be no charge for the paperwork I needed. This mean that that she would issue me the paper immediately. I therefore wouldn't need to stand in line at the bank, and I therefore wouldn't need to stand in line again at this same office. However, there was one catch. The paper she would issue me was an extension for only this day, which meant that I needed to go back to the first government office within the next hour (since they would close at 2pm), or else I'd have to come back tomorrow to get another copy of the piece of paper she was handing to me.

Three things went through my mind: "Yay!" "Crap." and "Fuck that." There was no chance that I would stand in line yet again, so back I biked to the offices I was at yesterday, and, there, I skipped the queue and went directly to the clerk who I met with the day before. (Hello, do you remember me? Yeah, I was the guy who did this, and who you told that, and I've come back with all the appropriate papers. Oh, and do you remember that you told me to come to see you directly? Yeah, I'm back. Hello again.) Luckily she did remember me, and after about 10 minutes, I was done.

Yeah, I know that I will likely have to wait at government offices again. But at least it won't be for a while yet.

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