A Genuine Catch-22

Clark June 16th, 2007

June 15, 2007
Port of Iquique
20º12′ South, 70º09′ West

Catch-22 is a horrendously misused term. People often use it to mean ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t,’ but this is not what a Catch-22 is. I haven’t read the book in a long time, but I believe I’ve just had one that Joseph Heller would give his blessing.

My new passport was supposed to be sent from Santiago to the Chile Express office here in Iquique. The toils and frustrations to make this happen back in Santiago are too horrible to repeat in front of children, but suffice to say it actually worked and the passport was here waiting for me. After going to the wrong Chile Express office and waiting for the end of siesta, I finally got to the right place, paper in hand, and got in the right line. My turn came at the window, I presented my paper, and said I was there to pick up. The gentleman pulled my envelope from a cubbyhole, filled out some papers, and then asked me for something, which after asking him to repeat it several times I realized was a word for an ID card that I had never heard before (not ‘carnet’ or ‘cedula’ but some fascist Pinochet thing). When he figured out that I wasn’t Chilean (difficult because of my perfect accent) he asked for my passport. I told him that my passport was in the envelope. What a coincidence that the very thing he was asking for was the thing he was holding in his hand.

He repeated that I needed my passport or some such document to pick up such an important package. I told him again, ‘The passport is in the envelope you are holding.’ He got the girl from the next window, who looked at the paperwork and repeated that I needed to show identification…like my passport since I was a foreigner.

It isn’t so much that the rules or their interpretation are ridiculous, but when the person on the other side of the glass fails to see the ridiculousness and just stares listlessly it really makes me wonder.

I hadn’t slept in three days, I was a little slap happy, and I started to get the giggles. This happens to me sometimes after being extremely sleep deprived after a long passage and I just lose control, even when it’s totally inappropriate. This may be a little crazy, actually. I said, ‘Let’s take in steps: First, open the envelope. Second, look at the picture in the passport. Third, look at my face. If the picture looks like the face, I think we’re all done, no?’

‘We’re not allowed to open the packages.’

‘Then give me the package and I’ll open it and show you the picture.’

‘I can’t give you the package without your identification.’

Textbook Catch-22…put it in the Hall of Fame.

At this point the long line of people behind me were getting very antsy and starting to grumble. Usually when under pressure, like when in a fight, my Spanish fails me, but in this case I was able to get out fairly concisely, ‘He needs to see my passport to give me the package, but my passport is in the package and he won’t open it.’

‘Ahhh!’ The crowd was behind me and started saying the equivalent of, ‘Just open the stupid envelope, you bean counter!’

I was laughing out of control at this point. This must have been the funniest thing to happen in the Chile Express office all year, maybe ever. Ha ha. Me needed sleep. I thought the guy behind the window should have been laughing with me, and I think this is also an indicator of insanity, but we’ll leave that one for later. He wasn’t laughing, but was perplexed and deadpan.

I’ve had this nasty cough ever since Bariloche and my laugh soon turned into an uncontrollable coughing fit, so I had to keep giving him the sorry just a second hand signal over and over until I regained my composure.

I got it halfway together and told him to just look at the paper that I had brought from the Chile Express office inside the US Embassy. He looked at me like I might have stolen it from the real Clark Beek. ‘Compare the signatures!’ This seemed to work. I had to sign for the documents, he compared the signatures, but still wanted a higher-up to approve this horrible breach in protocol and the higher-ups were still out to lunch.

‘Look, slip it halfway through the window and we’ll open it together.’ (The gloves were off and the people in line were gasping and hissing and making wisecracks.)

He slipped it through and it wasn’t even an envelope. It was a plastic pouch with a little snap on it that he could have easily unsnapped just to take a little peek. All I had to do was undo the snap and out slid two passports, my good old one with a dozen visas and hundreds of stamps, now with several holes drilled through it, and my crisp new empty US passport. I showed him the picture of me at 9AM on a Monday morning in Santiago, sick and pissed off because I had to retake the photos because the photos I brought were 2mm too narrow.

The guy behind the window showed a moment of relief, then terror at coping with the angry mob.

My next Catch-22 will start tomorrow when my temporary import permit for Condesa expires, but the customs office doesn’t open until Monday. Do I stay and gamble they will renew it after it has expired, or run for Peru? There may be a man who can help me, but I have to meet him at 9AM at the end of the wharf. It will be foggy.
coast 067
Condesa with wharf rats in Iquiqu

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Comment by Maureen Cantrell
2007-06-17 22:56:51

Hilarious – not just in Chile though – never thought I would get my Aussie passport – , your signature not in box, next – guarantor signature not in box – everyday something else!! – teeth are showing in photo, you are smiling (geeze), signature of guarantor not the same on back of photo……… finally, have passport can travel!

Comment by RH
2008-01-24 22:13:35

I love your writing !

Regards Regina 43 owner

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