Translation: Lines, Signatures and Dates. Or Things a Costa Rican Bureaucracy Can’t Do Without. I left out estampilla [s-tom-PEE-jah, stamp] because it doesn’t start with an f. But this is actually the critical item. If at least one (and usually all) of your Important Documents don’t get pounded by a rubber stamp, you aren’t done. Wait for further instructions. The Stamp of the Final Bureaucrat is Costa Rica’s Holy Grail.
Last month we got a double dose of CRB (Costa Rican Bureaucracy). First, we renewed our passports at the American Embassy, as entrenched in CRB as any CRB. Then we received our cedulas [SAY-do-loss, i.d. cards] identifying us as rentistas [wren-TEE-stahce]. It doesn’t have an actual definition but it means we are officially renting residency from the Costa Rica government. Mainly this gives us the right to not have to leave every 90 days for 72 hours, like those on a tourist visa have to do. We still can’t work, can’t vote, some say we can’t even whine, but you know what I think about that policy.
The entire cedula process is chock-a-block full of filas, firmas, fechas y estampillas. After, of course, getting a number. If you speak Spanish, you could try to get your residency without paid assistance. If you don’t speak Spanish, forget that. Eventually, you will beg for someone to help you and the cost will seem pitiful compared to the detail required.
When the guidebooks say, "You can get around fine in Costa Rica without knowing Spanish," they mean while visiting, doing things visitors do. Like paying entry fees in tourist attractions, finding out where the bathroom is, ordering a coke. They don’t mean doing anything requiring a fila, firma, fecha y/o una estampilla. Nobody speaks English inside those damp gray buildings. Nobody that we ever heard anyway and we’ve been in them all.
My advice is to hire someone (this is a link to the service I wish I’d hired) and git ‘er done. For the four of us, it cost $1,600 in fees. Plus $1,300 on deposit at Migración to pay for one-way tickets outta here if we are deported. Plus $600 to have the required documents overnighted from various bureaucracies in the states (marriage/birth certificates, letters from local police, Interpol fingerprint cards) to the state’s Secretary of State, then to that state’s Costa Rican consulate, then back to Costa Rica.
At each stop, our identifying documents received numerous firmas, fechas y estampillas all verifying we are who we say we are. Even though we weren’t there to eyeball. I could’ve just told them and saved $600, but that wasn’t good enough. What do those bureaucrats know about me I don’t know? Today’s question: what do they know about me I don’t know they know?
Once your basic paperwork has made the rounds, been submitted to Migración and you have the famous en trámite letter, all stamped, saying you’ve applied and giving you permission not to leave the country every 90 days, forget you applied. You will hear nothing for months. Six months after we applied, Costa Rica said it would keep us and to expect a cedula cita [SEE-tah, appointment] momentito. A year later, we actually had that appointment. In the meantime, we carried our en trámite letters and copies of our passports to prove we were legally here.
Gotcha Day (this time) was a Friday. I was afraid Fridays at Migración would be a nightmare, but au contraire, everyone is itching to get to the beach so no one was slacking. We were told to be prepared for at least a six hours wait. It was three! Lucky us. To while away your hours, you sit in a soda on the premises, drink coffee, eat comida tipica, and read or play games. In our case, hangman in Spanish. We play the Everyone Wins version where you just keep adding clothing, hair, plants and accessories until the word is discovered. Our hangpersons are pretty and smiling, hanging there in the sunshine.
When we tired of hangman, the three little boys tried to think of all the words they know for penis in Spanish. They could only come up with two: pene [PAY-nay, like the pasta] and some other word I’ve blocked out. So they took all the English slang words for penis, like One Eyed Trouser Snake, and translated those to Spanish. The raucous laughter and using-the-word-in-a-sentence exercise took up quite a bit of wait time. They are so easily amused.
When I went to pay for the food, the soda clerk tried to rob me. She’s used to gringos in there all day everyday who speak little to no Spanish. I’m not one of ’em. She looked at all the items on my tray, added them up and said, in español muy rapido, "Dos mil quinientos." That’s two thousand 500 colones.
When anyone says a money figure to me, I repeat it to myself, sometimes out loud. And I don’t give my payment until I know what I heard. Not because I think I’ll be cheated; that’s only happened once (now twice) in over two years. But so I get used to hearing and understanding the numbers. I gave her a 5,000 colon note. She gave me change, I start to walk away without counting. But my inside voice demands a re-count. I find I’m short a mil. I go back and ask her, "Cuanto cuesta?" and show her my change. She doesn’t miss a beat: does a "hmmm" (which is the same in Spanish), asks to see my tray again. I show it, she makes a big deal recounting my items, looks quizzical, states that she overcharged me a mil and hands me one. OK, however she gets there, I don’t care. I got my $2, I walk.
Just before I do, we exchange looks. I try to keep mine neutral – I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt, I got my money, no need to be righteous. But hers is respectful. Like I passed a test. I probably imagined this but now I feel like I really belong.
Renewing passports was uneventful, except for two events. First, when we arrived at the room where you wait in line, we sat in the available chairs. Which were red. The guard, who is armed, marches over and demands we move from the sillas rojas [SEE-jahce ROW-hahce, red chairs] and sit in the sillas azules [ah-ZOOL-ace, blues]. Of which there are none empty. I point that out, he shrugs and demands we get up. All the blue chairs are full, most of the red ones are empty, they are inches from each other, but we can’t sit there. THIS is perfect Costa Rican bureaucratic hoo-ha. He’s got the gun, we stand.
The other event was when the Embassy worker, a U.S. citizen, demanded to see Ryan’s birth certificate. He’s 15 and to renew his passport, you have to present his birth certificate. This requires a trip home. OK. I go, get it, come back the next day, get a number, sit in the blue chairs until my turn and hand it over. But she doesn’t want to accept the one I have because it’s not official enough. This is the birth certificate from the hospital with his baby footprints on it signed by the doctor with a solid gold raised seal on it and it’s not official enough? THIS is perfect U.S. bureaucratic hoo-ha. I do not raise hell because I know better and she does eventually take it, bless her bureaucratic heart.
So here we are. All legal, signed in, carrying cards and booklets to prove we exist. In only 1.5 years, we can get permanent residency which will allow us to work. Can’t vote until we become citizens which requires a high degree of fluency and the ability to sing the Costa Rican national anthem. Since Hal is not going to let me marry a tico, I better get to working on that.