Waking up early just to stand in line with 30 other morning-challenged individuals was not Walter’s idea of a good time, but it was one of those necessary evils required for any foreigner that wanted to live in Merida or Mexico in general. It was just before opening hours at the Immigration office in Merida and Walter was renewing his visa.
Ahead of him, Walter tried, in an effort to make the wait a little more interesting, to guess at the different types of nationalities and occupations of the various people ahead of him in the lineup. There were several what appeared to be Cubans judging from their complexion and who spoke in the rapid fire Spanish unique to them, almost unintelligible to Walter seeing as his Spanish was at the primary-school level and the fact that these people had an aversion to clear pronunciation and zero tolerance for the letter “s”. It’s as if they have marbles in their mouth when they talk, thought Walter bemusedly.
Several older couples, probably Americans or Canadians like him, waiting patiently and with a slightly amused expression on their faces, exchanged glances and soft greetings, unlike their more rambunctious Latino counterparts who either spoke loudly or not at all, the latter not making even the slightest eye contact with those around them. A young Chinese – or perhaps Korean, Walter couldn’t tell – woman stood out among the other nationalities, poking at her smart phone.
It was 8 AM and the office was about to open.
A scruffy young security guard with a LavaGuard uniform finally came out to where the lineup began and opened the gate of what was once a stately colonial home on the Avenida Colon, now a government office. Most of the houses in the area were now offices or banks; none or at least very few, had regular citizens living in them anymore, what with property taxes being what they were and the fact that corporations and wealthy folks from other parts of the country and world were snapping up anything that looked remotely colonial. Sensually round arches, colorful plaster tile floors, hammock hooks in the walls, stately columns; these were all selling points for smooth-talking real estate agents who breathlessly described even the lowliest of the old homes as dream homes for their hopelessly romantic and innocent newly arrived victims.
The line moved abruptly into the driveway and up the stairs to the entrance of the immigration office where each person proceeded to sign in and was then given a number, written in felt pen on a little square of what had once been a more dignified manila folder; the number indicated that persons’ position in the process to follow. A single digit number meant you were first up and was your reward for skipping that second cup of coffee at home. Everyone shuffled off to a place in the driveway area: the bird excrement-splashed broken plastic chairs under a giant ramon tree were the first choice for those who wanted to sit, followed by standing room only in any place that offered shade from the morning sun. Those people with small children succumbed to the persistent urgings of their offspring who insisted that they were hungry and the only thing that would make them happy was a processed food snack from the vending machine conveniently placed at the foot of the stairs of the former residence.
While waiting, one could admire the large fenced in area near the back of the property, complete with a security guard and barbed wire, where it was rumored that an illegal Cuban was being held in true Guantanamo style. However, unlike his Arab Guantanamo counterparts, this Cuban was waiting for deportation, and not being held indefinitely in a hellish limbo that held no predictable future, indicating that Mexico was, at least in this particular case, more concerned with a semblance of lawful procedure than its neighbor to the north.
When Walters’ number was called, he again climbed the stairs and gave the receptionist a quick overview of what he was doing, which was then confirmed on the computer and a second, colored bit of paper was handed to him and he was waved inside. There, another waiting room, already packed with the people that had been ahead of him in the morning lineup, awaited him complete with the relief of cool air conditioning and a television showing the most inane of Televisas’ programming. Walter gritted his teeth and found an empty spot next to the Asian woman, who didn’t look up as he sat next to her, completely absorbed as she was in her phone, paper-filled folder and backpack at her feet.
Every few minutes, an official in khaki pants and navy blue polo shirt with the white embroidered logo of the INM (Instituto Nacional de Migracion) would come in through a second door and everyone would look up hopefully like a group of puppies in a pet store kennel. A number was called and another foreigner disappeared with the official into an interior office.
Walter watched the television, frustrated that he didn’t have his iPhone or at least something to read with him. Televisa’s morning show was on and several European looking Barbie & Ken-like television hosts played off each other and did silly dance moves to some norteño music, while a secondary character, dark-skinned, dressed in mismatched clothing, sporting several blacked out teeth and unkempt hair provided the humor quotient – he represented the indigenous Mexican man on the street. His ridiculous slang and apparent ignorance made him the butt of any and all jokes from the rest of the cast.
In any case, even with the inane television, it was a good thing to be in this air conditioned waiting room and not out in the heat of a Merida summer looking for yet another comprobante of some sort. On a previous attempt the week before, Walter had shown up at the office with all the papers requested on the photocopied list given to him by the receptionist, only to be told that there was a document missing.
“But it’s not even on the list” said Walter in his best Tarzan Spanish, trying somewhat successfully to control his frustration and knowing he was utterly powerless before the whims of Mexican officialdom.
“Si, pero es necesario que lo tenga” replied the receptionist curtly and, with a shrug and a dismissive wave, motioned for the next person in line to come forward, an indication to Walter that the discussion had come to an end.
So he endured the pseudo-comedy on the television and was grateful for the air conditioning. It could be worse. The oficina de migracion had been in a building downtown before, which was a pain as far as parking went and there certainly was no air-conditioned room with a TV to distract him as he waited.
Again the door to the interior office opened and an older, resigned-looking female immigration official stood there, looking at a number in her hand.
“Treinta y cuatro” she called out, and looked up to see who would be next.
Walter looked at his number – 41. “Just a little bit longer” he thought. The Asian woman next to him gathered her things from the floor and stood up, giving Walter a quick smile before heading into the office behind the blue-clad woman.
Will Walter get his paperwork sorted out? Will the Asian woman show up in a future installment? Will that colonial ever get sold and the immigration office moved somewhere with actual parking and a real filing system? Stay tuned!