ISN'T IT STRANGE?


JUNE 10, 2008

Here we are coming off the plane to start our new life in Costa Rica.

Here is Emily's greeting:

Little did we know.

For the first several years we lived here, we had to leave the country for 72 hours every 90 days to keep our visas in order. We would either fly back to the U.S., or drive north to cross the border into Nicaragua, stay for a few nights, and return. It was expensive and a pain in the butt.

Once Bill started collecting social security to show a guaranteed monthly income, we were eligible to file for residency. We sent our birth certificates, marriage certificate, and police reports to Boston to be certified and returned, then to New York to be authenticated, then to an official translator in San Jose to be translated into Spanish, and finally on to Chan’s lawyer friend, Fabricio. Fabricio then met us in San Jose, where he drove us to various places we needed to go to file our application. We had no passport photos, so Fabricio found some guy with a camera who positioned us in front of the white wall of the police academy, the first stop on our quest, and did the deed for us.

The line to get inside snaked out the door but Fabricio hustled us to the front and we went right in. I felt guilty cutting in line but I guess the rule is if you have your lawyer with you, you’re supposed to cut. Fabricio elbowed his way through the throng and whisked us to a tiny back room crammed with ancient desks and outdated office equipment. We showed a woman our passports and answered a few questions as best we could in our faltering Spanish and then were ushered back into the first room for fingerprints. It felt more like being booked for a crime than applying for residency.

The next stop was a government building called The Yellow House. We trotted up the steps after Fabricio and stood behind him as he chatted with someone behind a window. At his cue, we showed our passports and looked upstanding. He then had more papers stamped and we were on our way to his car. Even though we had a mountain of paperwork high enough to ski down, we were still missing one form from the U.S. embassy, where the residency window closes at 11:00 AM. It was 10:36. The embassy is on the other side of town. Bummer. Another night in San Jose. But wait! Not if Fabricio could help it. We galloped to his car, squealed onto the road and sped off toward the embassy.

We knew where the embassy was and were certain there was no way we could make it there in time. Well, we couldn’t make it there in time, but Fabricio was determined to show us that he could. We hauled across town, whooshing through red lights and yelling “puta!” at every other car we passed. Well, Bill and I didn’t yell “puta!” but Fabricio did; I never call other drivers whores. We leapt from the car and raced to the entrance of the building. At the door I noted the time. It was 10:56. They let us in. Phew! We did our business and were back out on the sidewalk in no time. I stood there in a state of shock for a moment, stunned at having pulled that off in time without getting in an accident, arrested for speeding, or beaten up by any of those #%^!*ing putas.

In the interest of brevity, I condensed that story. It was actually quite a long, drawn out process, with glitches at every turn. When we finally got our residency cards we were ecstatic. All we had to do was renew them every two years and we'd be all set.

Well, the renewal date on our cards didn't match up with the actual period of two years. By the time we noticed that, our cards had expired. Yikes! I won't even go into the hours and hours of driving and waiting in lines and pleading involved in reactivating them. It was a paperwork nightmare!

We recently renewed our cards for the second time. Wishing to avoid another disaster, we began the process several months before our expiration date. We went here. We went there. Remember, here and there are always far away from where I live. As usual, each person we spoke to had something different to say. When we drove the hour and a half to pick up our new cards at the post office, we were dismayed to find instead notices that we were missing one piece of paperwork. Bill had tried to hand it in with our other papers but was told we didn't need it. Since we didn't file it with the other papers, we had to pay a lawyer a hundred dollars to have it translated and notarized. Thankfully, we got our new cards before we left the country the day after Christmas. Our friends, who started the renewal process before we did, still have not managed to get their new cards.

Getting our drivers' licenses was equally as trying.

Standing in all those long lines gave me plenty of time to sympathize with the plight of immigrants seeking refuge in the United States. Bill and I were fortunate enough to have been born into a safe country where we could get an education, and we still find keeping our Costa Rican paperwork up-to-date a daunting challenge. How can people born into poverty and lacking education, whose lives were under threat in their own countries, even begin to understand the legalities of living in a foreign country? If you've run from your homeland with fear chasing close behind, chances are you didn't grab a big bag of money on your way out to pay an American lawyer to help you get legal. Perhaps those who think all illegal immigrants should automatically be deported should try spending a bit of time in another country to see how it feels to be a stranger in a strange land.

It's so easy to criticize others from the comfort of your own home.