Thursday, June 24, 2010

Living Here: Surviving Paperwork

People might wonder, after reading the many positive posts on this blog, if anything not-so-good ever occurs around here. Of course it does. As happens anywhere, life in Yucatán has its ups and downs and occasional frustrations, but the point of this blog is to talk about interesting and positive things I observe or find myself thinking about.

Bureaucracy is one thing in Mexico that could get on your nerves. There is lots of paperwork and there are lots of people with "date received" stamps behind desks and counters who need copies of all kinds of documents if you want just about anything having to do with a large organization, utility company, or that requires official assistance or permission.
I have speculated that the Mexican bureaucracy is another legacy from the Spanish. Perhaps the colonial elite created a cumbersome system on purpose to keep the poor and the natives down, and by the time of the revolution it was so ingrained that it has remained in place and continued to function ever since.

Actually I am not complaining. Every system has its greater and lesser attributes. I often have felt extremely frustrated, for one thing, by the litigious nature of the culture in the United States. Refreshingly, this does not exist in Mexico. And the vast percentage of my time in Mexico is so much less stressful and more relaxing than it ever was up north, that the price I pay by waiting in a few lines to work with the system seems well worth it to me.

And often it turns out to be a much more pleasant experience that you might think. Mexicans have a pretty casual attitude about lines and bureaucracy. They don't let it bother them. People make the best of the situation by getting to know the strangers around them, talking, sharing anecdotes, and often helping each other with forms or advice based upon their past experiences. Once I spent several hours in various lines and waiting rooms in order to title, register and get license plates for an imported car I had just purchased. I ended up with three or four temporary buddies among the people near me in the queue, including a man who reviewed my paperwork for me, explained the ins and outs of registering a car, and told me what to expect when it was my turn up at the counter. Later in the process after we'd split up, I and my new friends would raise eyebrows or wryly shrug and smile back and forth as we stood across rooms from each other in different lines, and would check with each other like conspirators as we crossed paths in various parts of the building. "Did you get the crabby one with glasses and big arms? When she pounded the stapler, I thought it was an earthquake! Watch out for her!" We laughed a lot. Why not?

It really helps to speak Spanish and be friendly. I have heard lots of horror stories from expats about how difficult it is to get things done in Mexico, the long waits and indifferent officials and how many times they have to go back with more paperwork. I have come to the conclusion that often their problems result from a poor understanding of Spanish or a demanding attitude. I always emphasize to foreigners who are considering living here that for many reasons it is very important to become proficient in Spanish. And a smile and sense of humor always works wonders. At the very least, it doesn't hurt.

All foreigners legally in Mexico get to know the officials at El Instituto Nacional de Migración, or INM. I recall one time watching as a foreigner from the U.S. sat fuming in a waiting room. He finally grabbed an INM official who was passing by and started complaining, in English, about how long he had been made to wait. Apparently these were not the first words the official had heard from the foreigner. The official politely but firmly replied, "Sir, we cannot help you unless you calm down. I will be able help you as soon as you are ready." I gathered that perhaps the man had mistakenly waited for some time in the wrong line, and then in frustration at the delay raised his voice to someone. He was no longer there when I finished my business and left. I saw him a few months later at the beach. I guess he eventually calmed down and got what he needed.

I have been to INM yearly since I moved to Mexico. Applying for and then annually renewing residency visas has taken up from one and a half to three hours of my time each year, distributed among three visits to the office over a period of ten days to two weeks. Normally on the first visit you present your letter of request and supporting documents, and a week or so later when these are approved you return, provide additional information or ID photos if necessary, and go to a bank to make a payment of the necessary fees. If all is in order, on the third visit normally you sign for and receive your new or renewed immigration document.

I followed these procedures in February to renew my visa. I had the system down pat, so I doubt the total time involved was more than an hour and a half. This week I returned to INM to request a change of immigration status, called a change of activity, that would allow me to work. Upon arriving, I discovered that since the end of April, all procedures have been changed in order to streamline service, and that now the preliminary application is handled online. I had all of my paperwork ready, according to the pre-April 30 procedures, but wasn't sure if I had everything I needed since I didn't have the new online application completed. I was already there and had a low number -- third in line -- so I decided to wait and ask in person what I needed to do.

When I got inside and was directed to a desk, I smiled and explained that I had thought I was ready for my change of activity request, but just that morning learned that they had streamlined procedures. The official, who was the same woman who had given me an instruction sheet containing the old procedures back in February, looked a little serious (my heart sank) and asked for my paperwork. After a couple of minutes sorting my documents, she smiled and said, "Don't worry, I'll do the online application for you." and proceeded to complete the form, print it out, and had me sign it.

She then frowned at my letter of request, and indicated that it needed to be redone. Again I felt a pang of doubt, until she made eye contact, smiled again and said, "this will just take a few minutes," and then proceeded to draft my new letter of request, print it out, and present it to me for my signature. She then handed me a receipt with a user ID and PIN and explained how I could check online next week on the status of my request, smiled again, and told me to have a nice day. "Muy amable," very kind, I expressed my profuse thanks.

Not counting waiting time outside before the office opened, I was in and out in about twenty minutes.

On the way out I exchanged waves with the Cuban man who'd been number one in line and had informed me about the new application procedures as we chatted before the office doors opened. I greeted a neighbor, a Scottish expat who lives several blocks over, and waved to an acquaintance I'd made some other time, in some other place. I smiled at an American college student who had lost her tourist visa and who had been explaining the problem to two officials at the next desk while I was waiting for my letter to be drafted. She smiled back and nodded while the security guard made a phone call in Spanish for her.

That wasn't bad at all. I guess I've gotten the hang of it.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Living Here: Between Generations

Tuesday night dance in Parque Santiago

I just got back to Mèrida after five and a half weeks in Washington and Alaska with my parents. I was there to help them out while my Mom underwent therapy in Seattle. She's doing fine. We're all back home now, they in Alaska and I in Mexico.

It was an interesting time for several reasons, in part because I have not lived with my parents since my teens except for some between-job transitions and summers off from school in my early twenties, and shorter visits and vacations since then. I have not lived with my mother and father as intensively as I just did, week after week, 24 - 7, since I entered kindergarten, because after that time school, jobs and social activities usually kept me away from home for parts of each day.

When you are in your fifties and have been living on your own for thirty-some years, you've changed a lot, and so have your parents. During this recent period together Mom, Dad and I got along fine, but there were days when it seemed we might fall back into the old patterns of my adolescence, the time when most of us begin chipping little chinks of independence out of the structure that parents impose upon their children to help them organize their lives, teach responsibility and to keep them safe. One difference I notice now is that although retired many years my folks still like to plan their day and keep to a schedule for going out, being home, meals and other daily activities, while I live in Mexico and do not wear a watch, no longer have to be at a job, make few appointments, and live my life according to my own rhythm.

As I ruminated about these things, I began to consider some of the differences I notice between family dynamics in the U. S. and in Mexico. The culture in Mexico is more conservative, religious and family-oriented, and this is a complex topic way beyond the scope of a blog post. However if you live in Mexico as a foreigner, it's hard not to notice that children still tend to stay closer to their parents than do offspring in the United States. In Mexico, grown children often live with their parents even after marrying and having families, or live close by and spend lots of time together. Very often elderly parents live with their children.

One thing I notice here is the normalness of adolescents and young adults going out and being affectionate with their parents in public. It is not unusual at all to see adolescent girls holding hands with their mothers while shopping at a mall, or middle-aged fathers and their teenage or young-adult sons walking down the street with arms across each others' shoulders. This is something that we don't see much in the States.

And this respect by young adults for the older generations often is not limited to parents and grandparents. It seems that while friendships among the younger generations in the north tend to be with people close to their own age, here it is more common for young people to have genuine and respectful friendships across a wider range of age groups.

I witnessed an interesting example of Yucatecan inter-generational respect a couple of years ago as I walked one evening in Mèrida centro. On weekends many of the streets around the central square, the zocalo, are closed to traffic so that people can stroll and enjoy the evening. Restaurants put their tables outside, often in the streets, and music fills the air. On these days, families, groups of young people, and couples walk, eat, socialize, and dance in the streets or parks.

On this evening I was walking past a group of people dancing when I noticed an elderly couple moving with a panache that attracted attention. What first caught my eye was their charisma. They both smiled happily, twirling and stepping energetically with the music, and they danced well. They locked gazes as they moved. This attractiveness was in spite of the fact that their smiles revealed missing teeth, and their clothes, although well cared for were visibly worn. He was grey and thin with a prominent paunch; she was a big woman with jet-black hair curled in a manner that suggested to me that she styled it herself by putting it in rollers. She stepped gingerly due to her weight but twirled gracefully under her partner's extended arm. These looked to me like people who had worked hard all their long lives and who struggled with finances at their advanced age. Whatever the trials and tribulations of their lives, there still existed a spark between these two individuals that had persisted through it all. But who knows? Maybe they were on a first date. They sure acted like it. But that's not important in this story.

This couple did not appear well-to-do, but one of the nice things about many evenings in Mèrida is that the spectacle and music are free. Even people without the money to eat and drink in the restaurants can buy a taco or panucho at one of the food stands and enjoy the scene along the streets or in the parks. This elderly couple was making an occasion of the evening and having a great time.

As I watched, a group of eight or ten teenagers, fashion-conscious and obviously well-heeled, approached, laughing loudly and talking on cell phones. When they neared the elderly couple they slowed, lowered their voices, and then stopped to watch. Frankly, a group of teens in the United States might have taken this opportunity to point and snicker, but most likely would have passed right by, the old people dancing to old-fashioned music completely beneath notice. These folks were old enough to be the great-grandparents of the young people, they had big bellies, and they were shabby and definitely not stylish or sexy in terms that most youth would appreciate. But the kids watched and began to smile. Then they started to clap their hands in rhythm with the music as they watched the elders dance.

When the old couple realized what was happening, they smiled more broadly, and began to pour on the juice. The audience responded, and the dancing became even more energetic. The kids clapped louder, and continued doing so until the end of the song. At this point everyone in the crowd that had gathered began to applaud and cheer. The couple giggled and bowed. The teens began to chant, "OTRA! OTRA! OTRA!" -- "another, another, another" -- as the next song began, and the couple complied. The kids stayed until the end of the next number, applauded again politely, and then amidst smiles and calls of "buenas noches," went on their way.

I cannot imagine a scene such as this taking place on a public street in the United States. Something about the U. S. and its youth-, fashion- and sex-obsessed culture makes it improbable. I am glad that occurrences like this are still possible somewhere. And I am glad that particular somewhere is where I live.