Because we weren’t legal residents of Nicaragua until recently, we spent the first 16-months here on 90-day tourist visas. We were allowed to request an additional 90-day extension, but only once in a six-month period (and it wasn’t guaranteed to be granted). So, there were several days when we ventured to the immigration office to file that extension.
We’d been warned about long lines and picky clerks who will force you to get out of line and start over (with all new paperwork) if you make a mistake and cross it out, or sign outside of the designated box, or just do something they don’t like. (Seriously.) We researched which office to visit, considered whether to take the kids, and spent way too much time discussing the ideal day and hour to make our attempt. It was with some trepidation that we finally bought copies of the required paperwork (for the equivalent of $.20 each) and got to work.
The main immigration office in Managua reminds me of the department of motor vehicles back home. Lots of lines and chairs and confused/frustrated people waiting to wait some more. We followed the other gringos to the non-resident line. One friend who went with us was the first to reach the front of the line. He was immediately shot down for having the aforementioned pen mistakes and signatures outside of the designated boxes. (Doh!) This meant he had to get in another line to purchase new paperwork, then start the whole process over again.
At each different window, I felt like I was in line in front of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, who at any moment might tell me, “No extension for you!”
It’s all very surreal because there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to who gets their paperwork approved. We met a German girl who was unsuccessfully attempting to acquire a one-year residency permit. The process can be quite complex, especially since the list of necessary paperwork changes depending on who you ask and which clerk you receive (as this disheartened girl found out).
With lots of time to sit and wait, I found myself considering what our responses would be if we encountered such struggles at a government office Stateside. Perhaps we might argue with them in person, or humiliate them (and ourselves) in front of their coworkers, demanding to speak to a superior. Others might go the route of doing it behind the person’s back, by slamming him on Facebook or Twitter. I know plenty of people who would threaten legal action, contact the media, or even call the police if they didn’t get what they wanted.
Maybe it’s that Spanish isn’t our first language, or simply the desperate humility that comes from living amongst a completely different culture, but we didn’t do any of those things. Our friend redid his paperwork (which took an extra 30 minutes), and the rest of us just sat there waiting.
Growing up in the U.S., it can be tempting to create all sorts of arguments about our rights and fairness and what not. Even here in Nicaragua, I’ve heard Americans complain — quite passionately, in fact — about how long certain processes take and how unfair it all is. “I can’t believe they make us pay for the forms and get our own photocopies!” (Well, someone has to pay for the paper and ink…)
I’ve noticed there seems to be a whole lot more emphasis on personal responsibility in many places outside of the United States. I can’t help but wonder if, in all of our rush to be all-inclusive and ever-so-politically-correct, we’ve forgotten about our right — no, responsibility — to take care of ourselves?
When my parents visited recently, the guys went to check out the brand new close-as-we-can-get-to-Home-Depot-but-double-the-cost home improvement store that had just opened. They were looking for a specific item we needed to fix one of our sinks, and had trouble locating it in the expansive store. The two of them walked from aisle to aisle, trying to read the signs, until my dad commented, “You know, they could probably generate a lot more business if they made sure to have English-speaking service reps available…”
“Ah,” my astute husband replied, “just like all Home Depots should have Spanish-speaking services in the U.S., right?”
Funny how our perspective changes when we’re on the other side… [Which reminds me… I wrote about how hard it’s been for us to learn Spanish in another post called: Processing Transition.]
I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing the whole world operates a certain way (like the U.S., for example) and that we’re all entitled to certain unalienable rights, no matter where we live. Maybe the world would be a better place if that were true. Maybe not.
For some reason only known to our Creator, I was born into a middle-class home in the great United States, instead of in a shack with a dirt floor in Central America. Does that make me more entitled to shorter lines, free photocopies, customer service in my native language, and rules that just make sense?
Who knows, but it sure does make me want to cry foul when I don’t get those things. And, if I’m honest, I’ll tell you that leaves me feeling all jumbled up inside.
I’ve always said I would use my blog to write about the lessons I’m learning in Nicaragua. So many of these lessons seem to apply to life in general, as opposed to only my time spent here. These past months have helped me recognize how close I might walk toward this dangerous spirit of it’s-not-my-fault-now-where-is-my-reward entitlement, and how far away from it I need to stay in order to fulfill God’s purpose for my life.
Perhaps it is somewhere in between blindly accepting those ambiguous rules and threatening legal action that I must navigate to be successful. Perhaps it is in that murky middle ground where priorities are revealed, relationships are built, and goals met.
What do you think? How do you navigate the line between rights and responsibilities?