Tuesday, June 16, 2009

bureaucrats, bottles, and blotto bolivian bobbies

I have been meaning to write something about bureaucracy in Bolivia for a while. Bureaucracy, in general, pretty much tops the list of Things I Hate. I can’t think of a place I’ve been where I didn’t have some rage-inducing experience with bureaucrats. I just happen to be in Bolivia now, so Bolivian bureaucracy – government bureaucracy in particular – is the particular brand of dehumanizing, organized chaos I deal with nowadays.

I’ve been dealing with a particularly substantial amount of bureaucratic paperwork the last couple of years as, in addition to buying land and a car, I’ve gone through the process of becoming a dual (US-Bolivian) citizen. I have technically achieved that, but of course the paperwork has not ended. Not even close.

I have learned to expect that, however simple the request, transaction, or other bureaucratic process I need to complete may be, there will be a twist, things will become increasingly and illogically complicated, and I will fail to get what I need in the manner and time I was led to believe I would get it.

And one of the many maddening elements of this phenomenon is that I do fully expect to be thwarted in my attempts to accomplish anything involving bureaucracy, and yet the endless new and absurd ways bureaucrats invent to be stupid always, ALWAYS leave me completely exasperated. I tell myself to expect it. I prepare mentally, even spiritually, to accept my fate with stoicism. But in the end this only serves to double my angst, because I inevitably do get upset, and then I get upset with myself for getting upset with the situation.

The challenge in writing about my encounters with the monster Bureaucracy is that they are often so convoluted that recounting them tends to bore rather than communicating my own sense of Lewis-Carroll-meets-Franz-Kafka-and-Albert-Camus-in-a-film-by-Terry-Gilliam awe at just how poetically inhuman a human construct can be. That’s probably why the phrase “Kafka-esque” is so overused: because everyone can deeply relate to the nightmarish absurdities common bureaucratic systems can create, but so few people have ever been able to do them real justice when recreating them in art. And it does seem to require art. A blog post is unlikely to capture what great minds have required science fiction to express.

One of the few good, straight tellings of a horrid encounter with bureaucracy I’ve heard was on Ira Glass’ PRI show, This American Life. It involved one of the most evil bureaucracies commonly encountered in the U.S.: the phone company. And it had an element of fantasy to it, as the power of the radio was actually harnessed to hold the bureaucrats accountable – the very feat that bureaucracies exist to make impossible – and get at least a little bit of justice.

But my most recent encounter with bureaucracy in Bolivia struck me for a few reasons. It isn’t over yet, but so far it does not stand out based on duration – usually a key factor. This one was more, well, cinematic. Also, it partly became remarkable precisely when the bureaucracy ceased to exist, sweeping away the labyrinthine façade that normally serves to keep warm-blooded creatures at a safe, befuddled distance, and revealing the quotidian human funk that necessarily undergirds “the system.” Also, I got pictures.

My wife, Rocío, and I are in the process of getting our Bolivian driver’s licenses. There are several factors that make this a recipe for bureaucratic absurdist drama. First, there is something ridiculous from the get-go about having to embark upon what will presumably be a process overwrought with rules, formalities, and the repressive imposition of order for order’s sake, so as to participate in a process – driving in Bolivia – that is characterized by its absolute lack of rules, formality, and order. Interestingly, though, the end result of both processes is basically the same: a clusterf#&$. Because in getting a license, rules are indeed presumed to exist, but don’t seem to be written anywhere. Formality, as you’ll see, superimposes itself over the proceedings in fits and starts, like the light from a loose neon tube. And while some order is imposed, it is shifting and arbitrary.

It’s taken us a few months to even begin this process, mainly because we’ve been undecided about whether to follow instead the process so many friends have recommended of spending twice as much to get the whole thing done in a day or two via bribes. (Even yesterday, just before finally taking and passing a written driving test, Rocío was told in the Transit Police building by the man who teaches the official driver’s ed courses and administers the normal written tests – but not the test we are being asked to take – that she was going to a lot of unnecessary trouble, and for about US$120 he could get her license for her with no additional effort on her part). In deciding, we’ve tried to find out exactly what going the official, legal route would entail, and we’ve gotten different, equally confident answers from almost everyone we’ve asked, including lawyers, police officers, and professional drivers. Finally, though, two weeks ago, Rocío went to the Transit Police building across town and asked them directly, and was told that because we had foreign (US) licenses already, we could skip the weeklong driving instruction course and go right to the exams. “Come back this Friday, 6:30pm, upstairs classroom.” We decided to go the legal route. Rocío signed us up for the written exam.

Friday came along, and we headed back to Transito, arriving about 25 minutes early. The first thing that struck me was the weird, abandoned feel of the big block building itself. There were a handful of police officers in uniform walking around on the first floor, none of whom really paid us any attention. Rocío pointed me to the cement stairs and we started up. The second floor had a meeting area with plastic seats bolted to the floor, surrounded by doors to offices. On the next floor, there was a large open area like a hospital waiting room/lobby. Nobody seemed to be around, but there was a television set suspended from the ceiling facing the empty room, turned on and tuned to static, with the volume all the way up. A man in a tie walked out of one of the surrounding offices and disappeared down a hall without acknowledging us or the TV. The fourth floor had a huge empty auditorium to the right of the landing, with wooden floors bereft of any furniture, picture windows with views of the city around two sides, and a wall at one end with a giant seal of the Transit Police that I assume is used as a backdrop for academy commencements and other official ceremonies. A silent tedium seemed to hang in the air, the ghost of speeches past. To our left was the door to what looked vaguely like a classroom with a light on, but Rocío was fairly sure they had told her the exam was on the top floor, so we kept climbing the stairs. The next floor was still under construction. Pigeons squawked from darkened corners as a cold wind blew through the pane-less windows and bounced off the unpainted cinderblock walls. We headed back down in search of someone who could tell us where we were supposed to be.

We went down to the second floor, where we saw someone official-looking in civilian clothes, and he told us the test was on the top floor, which we now assumed to be the top constructed floor, and we climbed once again to the classroom door we’d seen next to the auditorium. The room was trashed. Empty 2-liter coke bottles littered the floor, and an empty wine bottle sat on a table. We were early, but it was hard to imagine a test taking place in this room twenty minutes later.

We walked back down to the first floor, and noticed three policemen in olive-drab uniforms lounging behind an information desk. The oldest of the three, a man in his fifties who was leaning back in his chair against the wall, sat upright but did not stand as we approached. “¿Si?” We told him we were there for the test. “Oh, there won’t be a test today. It’s our anniversary.” Well, that accounted for the emptiness of the place, and the empty bottles. But Rocío explained that she had just signed up a few days earlier and been told to come that very Friday. “I don’t think so. You can ask, but I don’t think so,” he said, pointing toward the back of the building with his chin, and went back to his conversation with his colleagues.

We walked to the back door, which opened onto a large, empty parking lot/soccer court. At the far end of the court, some people were eating under a tarp. A couple of cops were near the door, and Rocío asked one of them about the exam. “Oh, sure. Fourth floor. It’s at 6:30.” We took a walk around the block, came back at 6:30, and once again climbed the stairs. There were two other young men, about 19 or 20 years old, waiting outside the classroom. We asked if they were there for the test, and they said yes, but that they weren’t sure there would be a test because it was the Transit Police’s anniversary. We all went into the classroom to wait.

This time I got a better look around. There was a bag of ice on one of the student desks that had barely begun to melt. I looked back toward the table at the front of the room, with the wine bottle and the soda bottles scattered around it on the floor. Beyond it, on the floor in a corner behind a low table with more soda bottles, were 40 or 50 liquor bottles: Ballantines Scotch, cheap rum, and singani – a Bolivian distilled grape liquor similar to Peru’s more-famous pisco. They were all empty; judging from the still-frozen ice, they had likely been emptied quite recently.

It suddenly occurred to me that I was surrounded by drunk cops. Then I remembered how empty the place was, and I realized that most of them had probably left already. Then I wondered how many of them had driven. Indicating the bottles, I asked the two other guys waiting for the test, “I wonder how many questions they’re going to ask us about the dangerous effects of alcohol.” I thought back to this page in the booklet we’d been given to study for that night’s exam:

No unit of measurement is given to explain the 0.0, 0.5, 1.0, etc. listed in the table. But the drawings and descriptions are instructive. I wondered how many of the traffic cops who’d recently abandoned the premises were “alegres” (happy), how many were “mareados” (dizzy), and how many were “totalmente borrachos” (direct translation: totally drunk; interpreter’s translations: wasted? ¿Cómo se dice s#@*faced?).

After a few minutes of standing around, the two young guys decided there would be no test, and left. The clock in the room, as if it, too, had played a part in emptying the bottles on the floor beneath it, was about ten minutes slow. We waited until it said 6:30, pretty much knowing nobody would show up, and when nobody did, we trudged downstairs again. Before leaving, though, I took out my phone and snapped the above photos.

Downstairs, we walked past the three officers chatting behind the information counter, into a room where one male and one female officer seemed to be doing some actual work at desks. We explained our situation and they told us that there would be no exam that night, due to the anniversary, but that we should come back the following morning at 6 a.m. with our car for the practical (driving) exam. They said the theoretical exam (meaning written exam, although I was beginning to wonder if it didn’t also exist merely in theory) would be given immediately after the practical exam, since it wasn't being administered the night before, due to the anniversary (they kept repeating the fact that it was their anniversary, as if to say, “of course you understand”).

I tried hard to imagine all the law officers who had just polished off 10 gallons of booze and had no doubt now moved the party to a more festive location, all showing up crisp and bright-eyed at 6am Saturday ready for a morning of repeated parallel parking and weaving through traffic cones with strangers. Rocío and I decided to wait and come back the following Friday.

One week later, we arrived at 6:30pm and climbed again to the classroom. It was full of people, and a teacher was standing outside. He explained that the driving class was at 6:30, and the exam would be given afterward, at 8 o'clock. At this point, we had little fight left in us, so we thanked him and stepped away, prepared to wait. Rocío said she had to pay my registration fee, as she hadn’t had the money when she’d signed up the first time, so we crossed the hall to a tiny office tucked into a corner. Rocío told the two officers sitting inside what we were there for, and handed them my ID card. Seeing that it was a foreigner’s ID, they said, “Oh, he can’t take this exam. He’s foreign. That test is Monday at 2:30 pm.” After some discussion about my immigration status and the fact that both of us actually had U.S. licenses already, they said that we could both come back Monday afternoon, and would be given a separate, longer written exam (3 pages instead of 1) administered by “the Colonel himself,” and would not be required to take the practical test. “New administrative order,” they explained.

I had a work appointment Monday at 2:30, but Rocío took the test and passed. Now the license is hers. Kind of. All she needs to do is go back to Transito with an ID card, a letter from a lawyer requesting the license, a copy of her high school diploma, a letter from the National Police saying she has a clean record, and a copy of a recently issued birth certificate.

The only snag: a recent clerical error changed her date of birth in the Civil Registry’s computer records, so she is in the midst of compiling documents with the old date, in order to appeal to the Registry to change it back. Until then, she can’t get a birth certificate. We were hoping to get the driver’s license as one more document to present in her appeal.

UPDATE: We both finally got our licenses, mine after only 5 trips across town to the Transit Police building. Makes the DMV look like a trip to, well, someplace that's pleasant and efficient. I'd like to end with this:


El Gav said...

That was a great story. The empty bottles of singani were particularly evocative.
I have to say, though: For Bolivia, it doesn't seem too hellish of a bureaucratic nightmare.

rachel said...

and I thought the Denver DMV was annoying....maybe i'll reconsider. :P

William Devorick said...

Thank you. Your story helps to put things in perspective! I recently made 3 trips to the DMV interspersed with two visits to the SS Office in order to get a driver's permit for my son. My sort-of mantra was, "don't give up." I was sort of shocked when it all finally came together. We are amazing animals.