Thursday, January 22, 2009



It is a word that is uttered frequently in Chilean life, often in a knowing tone and with a sigh of resignation. Foreigners and nationals alike must deal with it in many ways, shapes, and forms. Almost without fail, it is time-consuming, frustrating and exhausting.

It is seemingly endless paperwork, through seemingly endless offices, with seemingly endless loopholes. And we are discovering that Iquique, with its "zona franca" (duty free zone) seems to be in a league all its own!

Our stories can't compare with the ones our teammates could tell this week. They have been from office to office to office, attempting to do everything from update a carnet (national ID card), change addresses on drivers licenses, and get the proper paperwork that will allow them to legally take the vehicle they purchased in Iquique out of Iquique for a maximum of 90 days annually (vehicles purchased in Iquique must stay in Iquique by law until a certain number of years have passed.) Although Iquique is a smaller town and thus it is easier to find the offices, they are understaffed for the number of people needing these services. Also, the communication between offices isn't the greatest and often one will send you to the other and the other back to the first and so on and so forth.

Allow me to share my week with you so far. On Monday, I accompanied Robyn to the International Police department. She had gone in the morning, only to be told that they had given out all the numbers and she needed to return after lunch at 2:30 and wait to receive a number for the afternoon group. Since I needed to know how to proceed with our residency paperwork now that we moved, I accompanied her at 2:30. Five people were already seated and waiting. Over the course of the next hour and half, the room filled with people. The vast majority were working class people from Chile's neighboring countries, some with children. The chairs were filled, people stood and waited, the air grew very stale. Everyone was tense and determined to maintain their place in the waiting order.

Shortly before 4 p.m., the lady finally arrived to pass out numbers. Immediately the crowd surged toward her but she sharply ordered everyone back into their seats. She then asked who was first, second, etc. but since she hadn't seen everyone arrive some lied to get earlier numbers and of course this escalated the tension. Robyn and I were fortunate to get numbers five and six. When my turn came, I presented my case of having recently moved to the area and needing to know what to do about our residency paperwork. I was told to go to another office - of course! Nothing else was done, so for two hours of my time all I got was an address.

The next morning, Robyn and I left around 9 a.m. for the department of motor vehicles. I needed information on obtaining our Chilean driver's licenses, and she needed to change the address on hers. Fortunately, I was able to speak with someone quickly about our situation - only to learn that in order to obtain our Chilean driver's licenses, we need a letter from the United States embassy in Santiago certifying our licenses from the States. After we obtain that letter, we can come in for the medical/eye exam and receive our Chilean licenses - but only after we have our permanent carnets, which we won't have until we receive our residency paperwork (back to that again!) I have never ever heard of an embassy letter certifying a driver's licenses and apparently the embassy hasn't either, since there's nothing listed on their website. (An e-mail is pending and hopefully we'll hear back before our February visit to Santiago since we'll only be in town for two full working days.)

Our next stop was the provincial government office, specifically the office for foreigners and immigration. What we found there was a huge line winding outside the gate and a sign stating that attention would be given until 1 p.m. and no later. It was already after noon and realizing that was a hopeless cause, we called it a day and went home!

This morning around 7 a.m., I called a taxi to take me back to the government office and found myself sixth in a line of people already waiting outside the building. An hour of standing facing the hot rising sun later, the gates finally opened and our line shuffled (now numbering 20 people or more) shuffled inside. "Inside" being inside the gates, nothing more - no seating and no shade. It turns out that there was only one desk designated for our line of people, so after almost another hour of standing I was finally able to speak to someone. He took my change of address information but told me I needed to write a formal letter and send it and copies of our "in process" paperwork to Santiago as well.

Our "in process" paperwork expires February 18 and I asked what we need to do after that. He told me to come back to this same building two days before the paperwork expires; deposit it in a certain box outside; and then return two days after the paperwork expires to receive either our residency documents (if they are ready, but that is doubtful) or another "in-process" paper giving with a six-month extension.

One other detail. He told me that the international police (where we waited 1 1/2 hours just to receive a number) should have registered our new address in Iquique. Since they didn't ... we need to go again.

And that, my friends, is what trámites in Chile are all about.

(Edited to add: The only saving grace to this is that it makes me a bit more empathetic and patient with our Haitian adoption paperwork process ...)

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