- My car permit is expired, I need to renew it.
- You have to pay a fine at the customs office first.
- How much is the fine?
- $1000 per day of delay...
Time and water heal. Two months of therapy in the pool of la Guitarra quickened my recovery. I had only one crutch now and most importantly, I could drive. The pending item on the shit-to-do list was to renew the car permit. La Chichona and I went to the customs office HQ, in San Bartolo, El Salvador.
The huge white metal gates were intimidating. Two military men with automatic weapons stood on each side. I passed two checkpoints and parked next to the main building. It looked all nice and modern, until I stepped inside. There were people everywhere. Some standing, some sitting, some sleeping. Mothers dragging kids, kids crying for treats. People selling treats. All shouting in a hive of chaotic activity. An authentic third-world public administration.
I hustled my way to the office of an old gentleman. He looked at all the paperwork and said that I could not leave the country with the van. To do so, I had to pay a fine or write a claim to the customs director. I tried to justify my delay but he didn't care. The fine was $ 8000.
I walked to the customer care office to make my claim and waited. An hour later, a fat agent took my papers. He was sweating profusely and stained my paper with greasy fingers. His puffy pink face reminded me of Majin Buu from Dragon Ball Z. The agent pointed to the form and shoved me away with his hand, not even speaking. Helped by a nice gentleman, I managed to fill the claim form properly. The fat agent, again with the same disdain, accepted my document. I asked.
- How long before I get an answer?
- You have to wait for the director's answer. Usually three weeks.
- Okay, so I come back in three weeks?
- Yes. But your car stays here until then.
- WHAT!? My car is my house. I can't leave it here. If it takes three weeks then I'm staying here for three weeks.
- No you can't do that.
- YOU ARE NOT TAKING MY CAR! IF YOU CANNOT SOLVE THIS PROBLEM I WILL FIND SOMEONE WHO CAN. YOU ARE NOT TAKING MY CAR !!!
I made a scene, fuck protocols! That fatso's attitude was getting on my nerves. I kept yelling this was unacceptable until a woman came out from a back office. She was in her late forties, wore glasses and a marine blue suit. The lady invited me to follow her. We walked to her office where she closed the door behind me. Her name was Beatriz Gimenez. She was the head of the customer care department.
Madam Beatriz asked me to start over. I told her the whole story, from the robbery on my first day to the refugee status. I even showed her the contact of the immigration office lady who helped me with the visa issue. My reason for being late was legit, and I had all the documents to prove it. She understood.
A few phone calls later, Madam Beatriz found a loophole in the legislation. My case fell under a disability exception in the Central American customs code. Before she could use the loophole, she had to cancel the previous claim.
She picked up the phone and the fat agent came huffing and puffing. Madam Beatriz asked him to cancel the claim but he said it was too late. She argued it was possible but he denied, this time topping his rejection with attitude. She rubbed her temple, put down her glasses, and slowly looked up to him. Her faced had changed.
- I am not asking you for a favour. I am your superior and this is a direct order. You will cancel the claim and bring me the confirmation . . . NOW!
I shrank in my seat. Her authority filled the room. So oppressive and scary I could almost taste it. The fat agent mumbled something, then left, mumbling in his breath. He returned five minutes later with the confirmation and put it on her desk. ''Thank you. You can leave now" , she said coldly.
Madam Beatriz told me to come back after lunch. At 2pm, we walked together to the director's office. She spoke on my behalf while I waited outside, full of hope. Madam Beatriz left but said the director got the memo. Three hours later, I had the car permit extension and paid no fine. Mission accomplished.
I went back to express my gratitude. She was the last one in the building, still working. We chatted for a while and she was fascinated by my trip. I, by her work ethics. Madam Beatriz understood that behind every case number there was a person with a problem. She said that every person should be treated with dignity.
For the past three years, Madam Beatriz had been pushing to improve customer care at customs. She admitted it was difficult. That most government officials in San Bartolo did not care. Despite encouraging results, they still had a long way to go. I thanked her again, grateful to have met another angel.
After all my issues in this trip, one thing became clear. When facing a hopeless situation, empathy is often one's best shot. So when in trouble, I look for empathy. I look for women, they are the ones who care.