Thursday, April 24, 2014

Bolivian Immigration 101

I am very happy to report that as of 5pm this evening, all of my documentation for my 1 year temporary residency visa has been offically accepted by the Bolivian ministry of immigration!  This means that roughly two trees worth of paperwork, various 4x4 headshots of me in front of red backgrounds, and my passport will now spend the next 2-6 months in La Paz (Bolivia's capital) being reviewed and processed.  And sadly, although this whole process took way longer than it should have, out of the group of us 5, I'm the lucky one...  But more on that later.  First, let's take a quick walk down "memory lane" to see all the steps that went into submitting this very official application.

Step 1: Medical check-up

As many of you read on facebook, this step was definitely not my favorite.  For those without facebook or who don't check your "feed" frequently, I had the wonderful experience of almost fainting during the blood draw portion of my check-up.  Despite my immense fear of needles (yes I realize I'm a nurse), I'd somehow managed to hold it together through 2 pokes in my arms before almost eating it when they started digging their needle around in my hand.  Luckily for everyone envolved, they were finally able to find some blood with this third poke and as I watched their test tube fill up, I also got to experience my world turing more and more white :)  Thankfully, a couple of "love pats" to the face and roughly 20 minutes of resting on a medical exam table left me in good enough shape to continue on with the rest of my exam.  The other components included a dental check-up, a urine sample, a medical interview regarding past and present health conditions, and a chest x-ray.  They were very thorough. We even got to keep the chest x-ray as a souvenir.  Below is a picture of mine:

Step 2: Narcotics screening (??)

I *think* that's what we did during this second step.  I should pause for a second and explain that throughout this whole process, my regional coordinator (Joe) literally held our hands and led us from one step to the next.  There were multiple times that if he hadn't been with us, we would have no doubt been completely and uttery lost.  So here's my big thank you to Joe for all of his patience and knowledge throughout the process.  Now back to drugs.  All I know is that for this step we had to turn some paperwork in, get questioned about exactly where we lived, and get fingerprinted.  Luckily the turn around for this step wasn't bad and we picked up our completed forms within 2 days or so.

Step 3: Interpol (aka the gift that kept on giving...)

First let me admit that I do not fully understand the exact difference between Interpol and the Police Department in Bolivia...  However, I know they're different in some way, because we had the pleasure of going to both places during this process.  At Interpol we had to submit an enormous amount of paperwork to prove that we had no criminal background outside of Bolivia.  These documents included a *newly required* FBI background check that needed to go through the apostille process (look it up if you don't know what that is) in the US and be further certified by the Bolivian consulate in the US and then again by the Bolivian government in Bolivia, AND had to be translated by an offical translator into Spanish.  I explain this all to you because although you may find this process quite thorough and adequate, about 2 weeks ago, the people at Interpol decided it wasn't.  And sadly, because Nate and Mary were gone during the time when the rest of us submitted our paperwork PRE-new-rules, they now have to wait about 2 months for Interpol to fax the US government with a request to have their background checks faxed directly back to Interpol...  Goodness.  I won't get into the rest of the documentation that was required during this step (or exactly how many times we had to go back with more *newly required* documents, or how many pictures I had to submit), but let's just say that Interpol may now know roughly as much about me as God and/or my mother.  Below is my victory picture taken after all of my paperwork was finally accepted and I was fingerprinted for the trillionth time.  Many of you may recognize this picture from a previous celebratory facebook post :)


Step 4: The Police Station

More stacks of paperwork were required for this step along with a whole lot of patience for ridiculous miscommunication between some police officers.  There was one point during our visit where for what seemed like an eternity the "secretary" police officer kept refusing to give us a number for a table in the processing room and the police officers in the processing room kept refusing to serve us without us first getting a number for a table from the secretary police officer...  I kid you not.  This is the only time during this *entire* process that I witnessed Joe even the slightest bit frustrated.  However, any other person would have started tearing his/her hair out and yelling obscenities at this point, so he is still a saint in my book.  Other highlights of this step included having a second set of headshots taken in front of a red background (because the ones we already had were not accepted here) and having Val and Hady's paperwork rejected due to them lacking a very specific tax document from their place of residence (something they are still working on obtaining).  


The FINAL step!  It was a very exciting day when I finally took all of my paperwork obtained painstakingly from all of the previous 4 steps, added a few other documents, and yes, of course, included yet another new set of 4x4 headshots in front of a red background (despite the fact that I had plenty of leftovers from previous steps that could have been used...) and spent the morning waiting in the immigration office with none other than my immigration-process-savior Joe.  Once my number was finally called, the actual review of my paperwork was quick and painless.  However, we then had to wait around for our second number to be called so we could pay my fine for not having this process done within 30 days of my arrival to Bolivia...  Yup.  There is someone out there who thinks this process can and *should* be done within 3.0.d.a.y.s.  And for every day over this time allotment, there is a fine of 20Bs, which translates to a little less than $3.00.  My fine turned out to be 1460Bs or about $211.00, which all things considered, isn't all that bad.  Below is a picture of all of my "left over" headshots from this entire process.  As you can see, I wanted to change it up each time (clearly a very intentional thought...) and went with multiple hairdues just to keep everyone on their toes.  For those interested (ie no one), the far upper left pic was for the police department, the pic second from the right in the upper row was for immigration, and the rest were for interpol.  I would be happy if I never again had to see a picture of myself with a red background.

And now all I have to do is pateintly wait and hope to goodness that I don't need to travel anywhere unexpectedly for the next couple months as my passport sits somewhere in an office in La Paz.  I've been told it's possible to get your passport back during this processing time, but it can prove to be quite difficult and frustrating.  I hope it is not necessary :)  

Now after all the complaining and sarcastic comments have been made, I want to take a minute to state that although this process was super frustrating and patience-testing at times, I do very much realize how lucky I was to 1) have someone accompany me throughout the process who knew the language and the system, 2) not have to work during this time and thus have ample time to complete all of the required visits, 3) have an organization pay for my visa fees, 4) not have children I needed to take with me wherever I went, and 5) not be in fear of being deported if I didn't get all things done by a certain date.  There are many people around the world (I'm especially thinking of non-English speaking immigrants--both legal and illegal--trying to obtain US visas) who don't have any of these points going for them.  I cannot even IMAGINE the amount of frustration, hopelessness, fear, anger, etc that some people experience every step of what I'm sure feels liike a seemingly endless process.  My heart goes out to all of them and I pray that they will be able to find the strength and patience to continue along their road to visahood.  

Lastly, please keep Hady and Val in your prayers as they try and move their way past Step 4, and Mary and Nate as well, as they patiently wait for the day when they can finally "graduate" from Step 3.  Let's just say that our celebratory party for everyone completing Step 5 is going to be one for the history books :)

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

El Día del Peatón

This past Sunday I got to experience my first ever "el día del peatón" which translates into "the day of the pedestrian." It's an awesome day where no one is allowed to drive anything motorized between the hours of 9am and 6pm ANYWHERE in the entire department of Cochabamba.  And although this is not a huge area, it's definitely large enough to make this accomplishment quite impressive (see orange section in map below--sorry for the blurriness, but this is the best one I could find).

There are three of these days throughout the year, all of them falling on a Sunday, which for most Cochabambinos is a day off of work.  The days were created as a way to help ameliorate Cochabamba's increasing air pollution problem.  However, although my host mother *swears* that these three days every year have lead to a substantial increase in air quality in the region, most of the other Bolivians and Maryknoll Lay Missioners I've talked to say they haven't really noticed any difference.  That said, I don't want to diminish its awesomeness.  It is most definitely a great start, and a feat few American cities, let alone counties (that's pretty much what I gather the American equivalent to a Bolivian department is) could pull off.  

So what actually goes down on these days without cars?  It's pretty much nothing short of an all city (and I'm sure department) block party.  You can find food venders lining most of the major streets in Cochabamba and the downtown is full of food, dancing, free outside concerts, a multitude of inflatable bouncy houses, and TONS of people riding more bikes than I ever could imagine existed in all of South America.  Ooh, and let's not forget about the numerous horse riding opportunities or the free public work-out sessions that can be found being led throughout the day be various work-out instructors.  I sadly did not bring my camera down with me to the festivities (and Nate wasn't around to take awesome pictures for me...), but below are some pictures I got from the internet that best capture what I was lucky enough to experience:

Let's start off strong with a great example at what the work-out classes  looked like.  You can see the instructors and participants really going for it as passers by stop to check out the action.  However this picture is missing the aerobic steppers that were present in many of the classes I witnessed to help the instructors and participants get their "sweat on" during this day of fun. 

And below we have the horses.  And what comes with many horses in the streets? That would be a whoooooooooole lotta horse poop :)  Awesome.  Happy trails everyone!

And below are a few good looks at what the streets actually looked like on this day.  Below is a great shot of the main street located about a 20 minute walk from my house on the way to the downtown area.  You can see all the food venders' umbrellas set up on the right side of the photo.

And below is a picture of the downtown area.  Please take note that the umbrellas are not being used for protection from the rain, but instead for protection from the sun.  I have found it to be quite rare that a Bolivian will actually use an umbrella when it is raining out, however, as you can see, it is quite a different story when it is sunny out.  Do not take this information as criticism though.  I for one have *jumped* on the sun-umbrella bandwagon and use one pretty much every single day on my walk home from language school so as not to get scorched by the sun's strong rays. #whitegirlproblems

And finally below we have a picture of the bikes.  I think this photo highlights nicely the number of bikes that can be found on the streets (ie a TON).  In fact, one of my Franciscan Lay Missioner friends wanted to re-name the day as "the day of the bikes," since they clearly had way more run of the street than the pedestrians did :)  This photo also shows how non-existent helmets are (sorry Mom).  However, in a country that never uses seat belts, I wasn't all that surprised.

So there you go.  To all you Americans reading this blog (as opposed to by *extensive* international following...), I think a day without motorized vehicles is a great idea to bring to your local/state/national representatives.  I know Madison already has a couple "Ride the Drive" days throughout the year where one of the major roads in Madison is closed to motorized traffic and has activities for bikers and other people on wheels.  Maybe that could be turned into a city-wide event?  (That is of course only if there are special allowances for nurses and other lucky workers who have the opportunity to work on the weekends :) ).  Let me know if you have any luck pushing this great idea!