One day, I’m going to set up a Facebook group called Survivors of Island Government Bureaucracy and invite all my islander friends to join. Because no one knows the pain of waiting for government officials to do their job quite like island dwellers.
Whether it’s your driver’s license, vehicle tax, immigration papers, marriage license, or National Insurance card – it’s all part of the Circle of Hell that Dante conveniently overlooked.
Having done more than my fair share of waiting over the years, I’ve developed a few coping mechanisms. Follow the below tips and you might not end up trading your sanity for the correct documentation.
1. Contemplate the nature of existence
Nothing encourages spiritual reflection like being 97th in the queue at the Driver Licensing Department. Here, in a cramped hot room that is surely a metaphor for Hell, there’s plenty of time to reflect on the nature of the soul.
You’ll find yourself ruminating on whether Socrates was right about its immortal nature or if, like Epicurus, you think it ends at death. You wonder if your soul will survive the issuing of your permit, or whether it will become untethered and stuck behind the water cooler which holds no water, and isn’t very cool.
Socrates did his best thinking in line to pay his property tax
2. Incite Small Children to Riot
If you’re a parent waiting in a queue with an unruly child, what could be better than a stranger getting your child more hyped up than a sugar rush? I like to make friends with small, noisy children and encourage them to play games like Scream At Nothing, Slap a Stranger, and (best of all) Smash Mummy’s Handbag Repeatedly Against the Seat.
3. Take up space
It’s a well known tactic in the animal kingdom to make yourself appear bigger to warn off possible predators. This works beautifully in a small waiting room where you have a captive audience with a sensitive prey response.
Take large, deep breaths and puff yourself up to a maximum size, spread your knees and elbows wide, and hunch your shoulders. Maintain eye contact while doing all that to really hammer the message home.
Imagine you’re a bear… Be the bear.
4. Make a will
Inching forward in the queue can lead to the sensation that you are shuffling off your mortal coil. Make the most of these last, precious moments by drawing up your will. You could even use this as a means of procuring your escape – promising the lady behind the desk that she can have your pearl earrings if she lets you jump the line.
5. Fake a faint
This is not for the faint-hearted, but rather those with a talent for fainting. Right around the time the A/C unit gives out with a final, wheezing shudder, slide off your seat with ladylike grace and collapse onto the floor. Pro: You might get to the front of the line. Con: You may have to lie there among the dust, dirt, and bug carcasses for a bit before anyone notices.
For those of us who carry a travel mug around, this one is a breeze. Just empty out the coffee and replace it with rum. Lift it to your lips every so often and loudly say: “Damn, that’s good coffee,” just in case anyone is suspicious. The more frequently you do this, the more believable it will appear.
This is my preferred brand for secret rum drinking (©2013 AShapiro Studios – AShapiroStudios.com)
7. Write letters
Writing long, detailed letters home will help the time pass. Especially if you use a quill and parchment to perfect the old-timey look. Start them with the words: Dear beloved, it has been so long since I left my home shores, I despair of ever returning and sign off with: I pray we will meet again in the life after this, yours in peril and consternation.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat next to someone in a government waiting area only for them to pull out a KFC bargain bucket and shovel it into the hole in their face. There’s obviously something about the interminable wait for your National Insurance card that gets the digestive juices flowing.
Just because you’re eating in public like an animal doesn’t mean you can’t be classy about it. Pack a picnic and set the scene with a lace tablecloth over your lap, candles around your chair, and dainty, crustless cucumber sandwiches.
9. Ride the rollercoaster of emotions
The five stages of queueing are remarkably similar to the five stages of grief:
Anger (“How can it take this LONG?!”)
Grief (“I’ve lost a whole day to this!”)
Denial (“They cannot possibly have lost my form for the sixth time in two days.”)
Depression (“I’m going to be in this queue forever, until my knees give out and my youth is gone”)
Acceptance (“I’ll just have to live in this waiting room now. I should really buy some curtains to brighten the place up.”)
Only true queue professionals can pull this one off. If you’re new to the game, bring an eye mask and some earplugs to help you nod off. Bonus points if you can persuade your local health clinic to give you some Valium. Combine the meds with tip #6 and you have yourself a party.
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What’s your favorite way to pass the time while waiting for island bureaucracy?
Do not ever, ever lose your passport.
It’s the most important document we expats own – the one that lets us fly back and forth from our rocks to our home countries.
When I “reach,” as the Bahamians say, I immediately put my passport in a particular drawer; same routine when I return to the States. And when I travel, it’s always zipped inside a pocket of my purse.
I travel to and from Eleuthera every few months, sometimes leaving my husband Dave on the island.
On one trip back from the States, I followed my usual routine once my American flight landed at Nassau’s US terminal: I showed my passport and entry form to Immigration, picked up my luggage from baggage claim, presented my papers to Bahamian Customs, and strolled over to the domestic terminal and the Southern Air counter for its 4pm flight to Governor’s Harbour (GHB). It’s an exercise I do so often that the folks at Southern Air recognize me. One of the baggage agents, a husky Bahamian with a gold tooth and a big smile, hugs and greets me like an old friend.
This time, my flight arrived very early. At the desk, I pulled out my passport and reservation, but the agent said it was too soon for me to check in and that she was still processing passengers for a full noon flight. I walked briefly around the domestic terminal and waited on a chair until I saw passengers checking in for the 4pm flight, the last flight of the day.
When the agent asked for my passport, I couldn’t find it in my purse. My baggage buddy offered to go through my purse and carry-on while I watched. He couldn’t find it either. What followed was a drawn-out series of surreal events that had me frustrated, frightened, but ultimately, forming an unlikely friendship:
The Southern agent said that because US passports were valuable for resale, she and her supervisor suspected that a pickpocket may have taken mine. She called Airport Security, and an officer arrived. He asked me to retrace my steps inside the terminal. He checked video from the limited number of security cameras, but the video didn’t even show me.
By then, I was upset. I borrowed a phone to call Dave, but I got no answer at the house. I figured that he has already left to pick me up. I saw a man in the Southern Air line who was going to Eleuthera. I asked him to look for Dave and tell him that I was okay, but that might not be back on the island until the next day.
Airport Security called the Nassau police, who said they didn’t have anyone available to come interview me. They asked if I would come to the station. The thought of getting a cab to the police station, finding a hotel for the night, and getting back to the airport the next day was more than I could handle emotionally at this point. So I did what any desperate woman would do: I cried.
The Southern Air agents took pity on me and said they’d let me on the 4pm flight, provided I went straight to the Governor’s Harbour police station upon arrival to file a complaint about my stolen passport. Like a criminal, I was escorted through Security and onto the plane.
As instructed, Dave and I stopped at the GHB police station, but the sergeant who needed to take my report had left for the day. The corporal told me to come back the next day. Once home, I called the US Embassy in Nassau, reached the night duty officer, told her what had happened, and asked that she cancel my passport. Thankfully, I had all of the information she needed, since Dave and I keep copies of all our important documents at the house.
The next day, I drove back to the police station. The sergeant still wasn’t in. I asked what his schedule was for the following day, then returned the third day, and he was out responding to a call. On the fourth day, I called to make sure he was in, and I quickly drove the 6 miles to the station. He was there! He questioned me and typed the report on an ancient computer. I left quickly, with a copy of the report in hand.
The following day, Dave got a phone call from Tracy, one of the GHB airport baggage handlers who knows us well.
“Did your wife lose her passport?” Tracy asked.
“Yes,” Dave said excitedly. “How do you know about it?”
Apparently, an American tourist had picked up both hers and my blue US passports at the Southern Air counter in Nassau when I first had tried to check in. She didn’t realize until several days later that she had my passport. Rather than turn it into the police or try to reach me, she simply dropped it off at the airport counter on her way home, not even leaving her name.
I was ecstatic to have my passport back – until I realized that it had been cancelled. I called the US Embassy again, and the official there said they could not reinstate it, that I would have to fly to Nassau to apply for a new one, bringing with me the old passport, the police report about its loss, and a second police report explaining how I got it back. It would then take several weeks for a new one to be mailed to me on the island.
I was not looking forward to returning to the police station to file yet another report. This time, though, it took only one trip. I thought maybe my luck was changing.
The officer said the second report, clearing the incident, had to be sent to Police Headquarters, several miles away, and that the Assistant Superintendent of Police for Eleuthera would have to review it, sign it, and send it back to the local police station, where I could pick it up in a few days.
Based on that, Dave and I made plans to fly to Nassau so I could apply for a new passport. Not knowing what was involved, we figured the cost would include at least two round-trip air tickets, a night’s stay at a hotel, 3 meals, and a rental car. A lot of trouble and expense for something that wasn’t my fault. Darn the US Embassy and I for both being so efficient!
I waited several days, then went to the police station. The sergeant said he hadn’t sent the report to Headquarters yet because their only printer wasn’t working and he couldn’t make a copy. (Don’t ask me why the reports could not be sent electronically.)
I’m no computer whiz, but I was so frustrated that I finally asked, “Do you mind if I take a look at your computer?” I fiddled with it for a while and somehow got the computer talking to the printer, which finally spit out a copy of my report. Hurray!!
“Can you drive it to Headquarters today?” I asked. “We’re leaving in a few days to go to Nassau, and I need this second report.”
“No, ma’am,” he said. “All of our cars are out on calls.”
Emboldened by my computer success, I asked, “Well, can I just drive it to Headquarters myself?”
This obviously was not typical accepted procedure, but, with a little pleading, he finally agreed.
I took my report and drove to Headquarters. The receptionist said Assistant Superintendent Armbrister was busy and I should leave the report with her. I told her I needed it soon.
After several more calls to the local police station, I was told that Lucas Armbrister had not sent the report back to the station. I groaned. Then it got worse. Armbrister wanted to see me in person.
Would he refuse to sign it? Would he deport me? Would he ban me from the island? Would he scold me? Would he fine me?
Queasy and sweating, I drove back to Police Headquarters. The receptionist pointed to Assistant Superintendent Armbrister’s office at the end of a long hall. I dragged my feet, feeling like a condemned woman walking the Green Mile. I knocked on the door and entered cautiously. Behind the desk sat a tall, handsome man wearing the impressive uniform of the Royal Bahamas Police Force – white shirt and navy suit, with his red-and-braid-trimmed hat sitting in front of him.
I sat down. He was very quiet for a few minutes, studying my report. Then he looked up. In words drawn out excruciatingly slow, he began:
“Never… in… all… my… years….”
My mind was reeling. Next would come the harsh words, the scolding.
“…have I met someone with the same birthday as me.”
It took a minute for his words to register. I wasn’t being lectured. I wasn’t being punished. He just wanted to meet a person who shared a birthday with him! Relief set in.
The next summer, I was back in the states when Dave got a call on the island.
“This is Assistant Superintendent Armbrister. Is Mrs. Addis home?”
Now what kind of trouble has Kay gotten into? Dave wondered.
No trouble, actually, just my new friend calling to wish me a happy birthday.
Our plates are designed and changed annually on St. Maarten. In the Daily Herald, one of our two local newspapers, you will find an advertisement for companies to bid on the design for the year. This is when you realize IT has started again.
When the paper announces, “The new license plates have arrived!” the stampede begins. A few facts about our license plates:
- They are an awesome and unique part of living in paradise.
- Every year features a new vibrant color. This year was green (my favorite), last year yellow, before that orange, then there was purple.
- The license plate numbers are also unique. Mine is: M5163. The lower the number on your plate, the longer you have been on island. If you pay your road tax on time, you get to keep your number.
- It really ups your island coolness factor to be one of the first cars with the new plates.
- Our license plates are divided into the following categories: G is for governor; then you have M1, M2, etc., which are reserved for the ministers (never quite figured out how many of them there are); L is for law enforcement; V is for vendors, vans, and pick-up trucks; Z is for Zwaar, probably one of the only Dutch words surviving in the government language which means heavy and is used for large trucks; B for bus; T for taxi; and an M or a P before a number is reserved for us regular folk.
- Every number is unique which means if you are a regular at Bada Bing, El Capitan, or Casa Blanca (our island’s adult night clubs), you might want to deliberately not pay your road tax on time so you can get a new (read: unrecognizable) number.
In theory, once the plates have arrived, you can go to the Federal Receiver’s Office to pay your road tax and pick up your new plates. Ah, how I wish it were that simple. Reality is just a bit more involved…
To start the process, you go to the FRO and pay your road tax. Then you wait in line at another window for your plates after submitting proof of payment. The lovely new pieces of colored metal are all stacked up on wooden shelves waiting to be admired or despised by their new owners. If you are island savvy, you will have already pre-paid your road tax so that you can smugly walk towards the back of the room to the window behind which you can see all those gleaming stacked license plates. The people standing in line to pay their road tax are left looking at your back and you can almost feel the daggers and hear the drooling as you pick up your plates. If you have not paid your road tax in advance (which most islanders do not do, of course), well, you’d better bring a book, lunch, wear comfortable shoes, and bring a scarf! Be sure your Patience Meter has been fully recharged to handle this day.
The security guard at the FRO has been there since he left school. He is in his 50s now and is like a little dictator. Although you are not allowed to wear sunglasses, flip flops, too short shorts/skirts, indecent clothing, etc. (you get what I mean – island government propriety rules of which I’m sure you’re familiar with on your rock), this does not seem to apply to the little dictator. He wears very dark, wrap around shades and a thick gold chain. Let’s just say, if he was not in uniform, you’d run the other way. It is best to go into the office wearing a nice big smile, greet him, state your business, and allow him to assign you your place in line.
Do not think you can hang back in line to stay out of the path of the blasting air conditioner. No, no, no. The little dictator will come over and tell you to move up those 6ft – coldness be damned. If you have forgotten your scarf, coat, or wrap, you can guarantee that you’ll be calling in for sick leave the next day – it’s frigid.
In the past, you were allowed to pay for as many cars as you wanted. This resulted in you thinking that you were #9 in line when you were really #46 because everyone ahead of you was paying for all of their brothers from another mother. Thankfully, rules have tightened up a bit on this front, and you may now only pay for two brothers from another mother in addition to your own license plate needs.
It is quite an experience to stand in this line if you are new to the island. You can always pick out the newbies. They are all business, properly dressed to a T, and are looking around as if lost in a bad film without a director. Also, they are constantly looking at their watches. The Federal Receiver line is a place of social cohesion. You want to be amused or hear gossip? This is the place to be. Of course, the main topic is how illogical this whole process is and everyone’s varying opinions on the color and design of the new plates. As soon as the first car on the island is spotted with a new plate, this discussion opens and is very entertaining every year without fail. This usually lasts up to three months, because that is how long you have to change your plates.
After receiving your prized new plates, you are once again in possession of two old plates. What to do with them? Send them to the poor, freezing people in other parts of the world, of course! You can even sell them. They have become a favorite souvenir of St. Maarten lovers worldwide.
And so begins another year to enjoy your new plates, brightly colored with a background of a location on St. Maarten stating, “St. Maarten, The Friendly Island.”
When you think back and want to bitch about the ridiculous amount of time spent on the new plates every year, STOP! Think the following instead: your beautiful, discarded plates are hanging in a horse barn somewhere in Edmonton where it is -40°C – and those people would love to be waiting in line in St. Maarten for a chance to rock their plates in the sunshine.
I cannot wait to see what color we have in store for us in 2017… oh, wait – looks like it has already made news:
The VISA requirements on Roatan state that you can only stay for 90 days. You can extend your stay for an additional 30 days for $20 but after that, you must leave for at least 72 hours (and going to any of the C4 countries such as Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador or mainland Honduras – ie. the close, convenient ones – does not count).
We decided that since we have built a house here, this is now our home and we should apply for residency so that we aren’t required to leave the country every 3 – 4 months. We contacted a lawyer and determined that the only residency we would be able to get was the one for forming a corporation. And so a corporation it was and on December 9, 2013, we became legal residents of Honduras. We even have residency cards that must be renewed every year to prove it!
On this island, everyone is required to have a valid ID on them AT ALL TIMES. A copy of your passport does not suffice. You MUST carry your passport so they are able to determine if you are on the island legally or not. (Note: if you come on a banana boat or a fishing boat under the cover of darkness and hide in the bowels of the island only to wreak havoc and commit petty theft, then you’re probably chill. ID not required.)
I know all of this ID stuff. I am a banker and an OCD, ADHD, Type A personality and I NEVER lose anything. Ever.
I’m sure you can guess what’s coming…
I volunteer at the Roatan Airport as a greeter in Immigration. We smile and welcome people to the island. In order to be allowed access to the Immigration room, we have to give them our ID (I use my residency card) and they in turn give you a pass for Immigration. Once done with your shift, you return the pass and get your ID back. The last time I volunteered, I got to the grocery store and realized my RESIDENCY CARD was MISSING. Damn, I must have dropped it in the parking lot! Honestly though, I didn’t worry too much, assuming someone would find it and turn it in. I’d get it the next day.
The next day we were going to the beach, so we stopped at the airport to look for the card. No card. The night that I lost it, we had had a crazy hard thunderstorm and I remembered I was parked next to a drainage ditch. Not seeing it anywhere, I assumed my card must have got blown into the ditch and was gone. Although I still looked again the day I took my son back to the airport to leave with a last sliver of hope, sadly, no card was there.
Luckily an Immigration office had opened recently on the island, so I was relieved in knowing that no trip to the mainland would be required. It takes me 45 minutes to drive through the kamikaze traffic from my house to the Immigration office, which is open on Tuesdays and Wednesdays only. So the first free Tuesday I had, I was there 30 minutes before they opened and was 3rd in line.
I happen to know a few of the people there because they too work (in a paying job, though) at the airport in Immigration with me. I told the manager what happened while the girl I needed to see helped those before me. He said I needed to file a form stating that I lost it and they could do that there. I sat back down to wait. Shortly after that, there was a discussion about me and I was told I needed to go file a denuncia first. This is what you file if one of the guys that came over on the banana boat breaks into your home and steals your iPhone, laptop, or Uncle Herman’s Sperry Top-Siders. Knowing that I had nothing stolen – I simply lost my card – I was skeptical. But, like so much on an island, it wasn’t up to me. I still had to go file a denuncia. Which means I had to drive back to within 10 minutes of my house.
Upon arriving, the guy at the Transito desk didn’t speak English and attempted to get me to leave or speak Spanish. I did neither and was polite but persistent. He gave me the “wait a minute” signal and went upstairs.
Once he returned, he took me upstairs to see a really sweet girl who asked me all the questions for the denuncia, wrote my answers on a paper in Spanish, and gave them to the guy who typed up the denuncia. He filled the form in on the computer, printed it, we signed it, and he handed it to me. Then back I went to the Immigration office (35 minute drive) in Plaza Mar and waited my turn once again.
More forms were filled out and I was told to take them to the bank in the Plaza Mar lot and pay to get the card re-issued. When I got to the bank, I had to take a number.
After waiting 40 minutes, my turn came only to be told they only accepted Lempiras, no US dollars. As Murphy’s Law would have it, I only had USD – and I usually never have USD. Sigh. Sure, I could have gone to the grocery store nearby and gotten enough Lempiras to pay, but that would have meant another 40 minute wait. At this point, I wanted to scream or cry – I was not entirely sure which, but the frustrations of island bureaucracy were starting to bubble up inside of me.
I went back to the Immigration office and told them the story, hoping they’d take pity on me and just make this all go away. Instead, they looked at me like, duh! And I was like, Why the hell didn’t you say it had to be in LEMPIRAS? They said there was nothing they could do, I had to pay it today since the paperwork was filled out and dated today, and ended it all with a shrug.
Pissed, I left and went to my car which was parked near the front of the lot. When I got in and started it, my car sounded like I was in a Formula 1 car and driving at the Grand Prix. WTH?? I called my husband and said there was something wrong with my car. I revved it, holding my phone outside. He didn’t hear anything so I floored it. His response? Look under the hood. WTF am I looking for under the hood? Is there an engine and a battery and some other shit? Yep. Do I know why it sounds like a souped up Ferrari? Nope. He asked if I could drive it, I said I would try. I could barely get the car up the first hill so I called him back and said I was parking it. During my 30 minute wait for him to arrive, I looked at the back of my car and realized that while I was inside one of the offices waiting, I had been hit – HARD. Dammit to hell, 4th time in 6 months.
I still didn’t have my residency card and my car was in the shop until Saturday. I went back the following Tuesday with my paid receipt and all the paperwork they gave me only to find out my file had not been sent over with the all the other Roatan files from Tegucigalpa. Of course it hadn’t. They had to get my file before they could issue me a temporary card. The problem was, I was leaving in 2 weeks and if I couldn’t prove I was a resident (no, it’s NOT in the system, go figure), I would have to pay a substantial fine for overstaying my 90 or 120 day VISA. No freaking way.
That night, in a last ditch effort, I called my friend who is the head of Immigration at the airport and explained what happened. He made some phone calls the next morning. I dug out all my residency legal paperwork and was at Immigration at 8:15 the next morning and oh, how the tables had turned. I was greeted by the agents like I was Shakira. Once I helped them change the toner cartridge in the printer, my papers were printed, I had my temporary card (good for 60 days in my hand), and I was out of there.
In times like these, I’m reminded that you should never take the ease of doing things in the states or more developed countries for granted, and – something that seems to apply everywhere in the world – it’s all about who you know.
I’m not complaining – I realize that I chose to live here and this is all a part of the deal – but sometimes, just sometimes, it all feels like a little much. And that’s when we have some wine, look at the sunset, and try to forget this part of the deal until next time.