Friday, 26 September 2008

Immigration Hell

Wednesday was my bi-monthly trek to Immigration to renew my visa. Usually this consists of obtaining an extension form, completing it, having select pages of my passport photocopied, standing in line to have the paperwork submitted, stand in line again to take that paperwork with a printout of charges to the window to the right to pay said charges, then stand back in line at the first window again to submit the paperwork with receipts from the second window. The workers all have the usual demeanor of a government employee: they'll get paid their crappy salary whether they do their job or not, so don't complain if they don't act promptly or in a courteous fashion. Anyway, then I have to wait 3-4 hours for my passport to be stamped with a new date, showing I am legal for another 2 months. Usually, while I wait, I leave and go take pictures, get lunch, and am approached by dozens of beggars and/or vultures looking to "help me" through immigration issues.

Everything seemed to go pretty well Wednesday morning. My friend Norman was going with me, as he needed me to take some pictures of him and I thought the nearby Spanish fort, Ft. Santiago, would be a good setting. So we arrived early, I entered the Immigration Extension office, found an extremely small crowd, and thought I'd be out in no time. No lines!

Wishful thinking.

At the first window I was told I needed to first go to the Main Immigration office a block away and go to Window 1 because I have been here more than 16 months. So I walk a block to the main office and the guy at Window 1 was more concerned with his newly-dyed hair falling out of place than doing his job. When he spoke I couldn't
hear anything he was saying, and the tiny slit in the glass protecting him from violent foreigners like me didn't help even when he spoke up.

So I made him write instructions for me: I had to write a letter to the Commissioner of the Bureau of Immigration, Marcelino C. Libanan requesting an extension of stay. I had to have that notarized and photocopied. Then I had to submit that at another building (the Aral building..wherever that is), pay a fee, and then return it to him at Window 1.

I was stupefied.

Did it look like I had planned to bring along stationery to write love letters to the Commissioner?

Where was I going to get the supplies to do this?

I walked out of the building and told Norman what had happened. Another Filipino man was waiting outside like a vulture and asked what I needed to do. I told him. He said he could help.

Uh huh.

I felt uneasy about his offer, but he said he'd take us to a notary who could do all of this for me, including writing the letter to the lovely Marcelino.

So from outside the Immigration Office we walked around a portion of the wall that surrounds Intramuros, down a street on it's other side and just kept walking. I was feeling more uneasy now, but I had been here before and knew my whereabouts. Suddenly he turned left and walked into an opening in the wall. The arches that make up this part of the wall form little caves where businesses have been set up. Starbucks and Mocha Blends occupy 2 spaces in the wall, and sit just outside the Immigration Office on the other side of the wall. Much lesser businesses operate on this side of the wall. This was one of them.

As we entered I could see several tiny desks with old, manual typewriters atop each. There was one computer in the center of the room and 2 fans to cool the entire area, which was perhaps as large as a 2 car garage. The 16th century floors and arched walls/ceiling were as hot and damp as the day. A stray cat walked around unnoticed by
the others.

Attorney Pedro D. Genato typed up my request (in duplicate) with quick, nimble fingers, as he's done thousands of times before, notarized it, and his fee was all of P300 (about $6).

Our vulture then escorted us to the Aral building. Without him I never, ever, ever, would have found it on my own.

Why?

Even though it is situated right next door to the Main Immigration Office:

1. The building is hidden behind a cinder block wall.
2. There is no name on the building or the wall, for that matter, to tell you it is the Aral building.
3. The entrance is through a metal gate in bad need of painting, with crumbling asphalt surface, and piles of debris along the insides of the wall. Not exactly the place you'd expect to go!
4. Once inside the gate did we enter through the front entrance to the building? No.
Did we enter through the side entrance? No.
The entrance we were to use is in the back basement of the building (and you have to walk the entire length of the building in the back just to get to the entryway!)

And why were we there? So I could get a payment ticket at one window and then go to another window to make the payment and receive a receipt.

Then it was back to the Main Office and say goodbye to our vulture after paying him P100.

Back at Window 1, Mr. Perfect Hair was nowhere to be found. A few minutes later he made his way back to his station, looked over my forms, and said to go to the 3rd floor to the VCR office or some such acronym.

In the CVG office there were, of course, another row of windows. I went to the window
numbered '1', as that seemed reasonable. There, a nice young fellow with a pleasant disposition (must be a newbie) looked at the paperwork, stamped a page and marked a circle within the stamp, handed it back to me, and said I was done. Go back to Window 1 downstairs.

So down the stairs I went.

Cheerful as ever, Mr. Perfect Hair took my forms and said to come back Friday.

Friday?

My visa was to expire Thursday. Would that be a problem when I went to the Extension Office?

Yes it would.

With a sigh, Mr. Perfect Hair got down from his stool and led me upstairs to the 2nd floor (I should note here that this building has neither air conditioning nor an elevator. Just thought it would help for you to know.) where he told me to sit and wait while he took my paperwork into an office with a frosted glass wall. He returned a moment later and glided back down the stairs to liven up someone else's day.

I texted poor Norman, who was waiting outside, saying I was waiting again.

A moment later a woman appeared with my paperwork. I was excited I wouldn't have to wait. Then she said the person who needed to stamp my forms was out of the office and wouldn't be back until after lunch.

It was 10:45. All the government buildings shut down from noon until 1 for lunch.

OK, I thought. I'll go take Norman's picture, eat, and come back after 1.

So we went to the fort and found an event was being hosted there until 1. They'd re-open to the public then.

Then it began to rain.

Lunch at 11:15, Norman? Sure. Why not?

We wandered around after lunch, wasting time until I could return at 1.

I arrived back at the Main Immigration Office at 1:15. The guy to stamp my paperwork was still out.

I texted Norman with the bad news. He said it was OK, and that he'd wait over at Starbucks.

At 2 he texted to see what was going on, and I replied that I was still waiting for the guy to get back from lunch.

A few minutes before 3 my paperwork was finally stamped and I was headed to the Extension Office. There was still no line at any of the windows, just the same, surly, dead-faced expressions I always encounter behind the windows. In less than 5 minutes I went from one window to the next, completing the process.

Now I just had to come back after 10 the next morning.

Delightful.

I raced back to Starbucks, fetched Norman, got to the fort, took pictures. He's not a shy type. We had to do a wardrobe change and he just slipped out of his clothes right there in the open. Good thing we were atop the fort wall and all the other tourists were below us. Of course, all the condominiums across the Pasig River overlooked us.
If there was anyone there with a telescope or binoculars, they got quite a view!

I hope the photos met his needs. As stressed-out as I was after the first 5 and-a-half hours that day, I wasn't in the most visually artistic mood (as for verbal creativity, on the other hand...).

I didn't feel much like fetching my passport yesterday, so I went down today to get it. Spent all of 3 minutes there, and was heading out when a camera crew from GMA television asked me how I found the Philippines.

For all you readers in the Philippines who saw me, you know I'm quite the diplomat.


Now, you didn't think I'd tell a story that long and not include any photos, did you?

This is a section of the wall around Intramuros. Today this part overlooks a golf course outside where the moat once was. The Americans found it to be nothing more than stagnant water that bred mosquitoes, and thus, malaria, and filled it in when we colonized the Philippines. This particular maze-like section makes me feel like I'm back at Immigration again.

Here's one of those pictures of Norman I told you about.

Here's another after a good bit of editing.

As I realize I'm in very few pictures, I had Norman shoot this one of me.
He doesn't do a bad job, does he?

1 comment:

Edik said...

"ENJOY" your stay in the Philippines Jay hehehehe...