"No, you’re a dog!"
In the round of insults, the security guard at the door of the immigration office had the upper hand. A hand that clinged to a big wooden baton that he used alternatively to block the door or brandish menacingly. His opponent decided to leave shouting more abuse.
The cause of conflict was the fact that the security guard would not let him in because he was wearing shorts. Unfortunately on a hot, sweltering day in Santa Cruz, I too was wearing shorts.
"Come back tomorrow in trousers. This is a public building," the guard barked at me.
I decided to take the conciliatory approach explaining that I didn’t know this, that I was a poor ignorant tourist, had to leave town early the next day and of course if I had known would have come in my suit.
I am not sure it melted his heart, but eventually it won me an entry into the building. I was pointed to the office for visas on the ground floor.
After waiting patiently for the well-coiffeured woman to finish a chat with a friend on her mobile phone, I explained that I had not got a visa at the border with Brazil because there wasn’t anyone at the border. She said she didn’t have the authority to deal with this, and I should talk to the secretary for the Secretary of International affairs on the first floor.
A surprisingly casually dressed man in jeans and T-shirt (who must have a back entrance to sneak past the clothes police) listened to my request. "Aaah", he said "What you need is a Statement of Fact explaining your situation which you can get from a lawyer."
He seemed surprised when I asked why, and explained that it was not enough to give me a visa based on my word. They needed a legal account to be sure it was a true representation of what had happened.
I decided it wise not to ask why a lawyer saying what I had just said to him would make it any more truthful and headed out to find one. Fortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, there was one in the stationers next door who very quickly printed out a letter repeating what I had said which she got me to photocopy lots of times (on the stationer’s photocopier of course), charging me a substantial sum for the pleasure.
I smiled sweetly at the security guard and headed back to the first floor with my legally-credited account of the truth. The secretary to the secretary of International affairs told me he couldn’t deal with it, and I would need to head to the Directorate on the second floor.
I was starting to get the impression that there was a hierarchy based on floors. Perhaps I would find a man who ran everything in a hidden room full of dials, knobs and gadgets at the top like the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz.
But instead I came to a room with an impeccably dressed woman whose job seemed to be a mixture of chatting to two companions who sat alongside and in front of her, talking on her mobile phone and moving paper from one side of the desk to the other.
Behind her were shelves and shelves overflowing with stacks of folders numbered 30001089/76, 30001089/77 and so on. I had visions of my passport disappearing into one of the piles and not being discovered until an archeological dig in the 29th Century.
After hovering in as obvious way as I could and making polite "excuse mes", she eventually noticed me and looked through the legal documents and my passport. "Oh no, you’ve just missed the time for visas. You’ll have to come back tomorrow." Deaf to my pleas, I nervously left my passport and decided to return the next day.
Returning the next day, her office was even more full of people crammed into chairs. They seemed a bit like the annoying gangs of hanger-ons that some radio DJs in the UK use to crack bad jokes with and make themselves feel popular. I interrupted the banter to be told that it was approved but I would need to get the passport stamped by the Secretary of International Affairs.
The door to the Secretary of International Affairs had a stern notice on it saying only the Secretary to the Secretary of International Affairs could knock on it, but I was given some special dispensation to knock.
Sadly, there was no wizard inside, but a well-fed man in a suit surviving in air-conditioned arctic conditions. For some reason in Latin America, overpowering air-conditioning seems to be a virility symbol for the rich and powerful.
He read the legal document and stamped my passport. I now have a visa for 90 days. I can’t wait until I have to renew it.