Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Legal in Argentina - a tale of the Visa


Its Monday. On Wednesday Stephanie and I will have been in Buenos Aires for 90 days - which is the duration of our entry visa. So, to remain legal, we must renew.

Most longer-stay visitors will combine, or break their stay here in Argentina with trips to other Latin American countries, meaning that on each re-entry, they receive a further 90 days. Others who are not intent on travelling will simply take the Buquebus ferry to Uruguay - a short return trip across the Plata that can be undertaken in a day.

Having chatted to those that have taken the ferry, we are not convinced the journey is for us. Our North American friends love its novelty, but for British Islanders, the ferry holds no such delight. So, we are to seek our renewal at the ‘Direccion Nacional de Migraciones’.

We board colectivo 130 in Paseo Colon, joining late morning city travellers. At Av de Mayo, heat soars whilst traffic freezes due to construction of a new bus route causing traffic chaos. The remainder of our journey is at walking pace as we pass pedestrians only to be re-passed by them en route.

Just short of Av Cordoba, we exit into Av Leandro Arlem, pass the Buquebus offices at the head of the docks and on to the ‘Migraciones’ building. 

Stephanie and I sense we are criticised when we speak of Argentina being ‘third world’ - for it is the most ‘Westernised’ of all Latin countries. Walk in barrios Recoleta or Palermo and you will find everything that Westerners covet and prize. Sales assistants will have a university degree in law, philosophy or psychology. But when it comes to government - and especially administration - here in Argentina you must replace ‘efficiency’ with the queue. Yes, the Portenos of Buenos Aires with saintly patience are world experts on queuing.

So with technology. USA currency and credit embargos imposed on Argentina at the turn of the century following their international debt default made the purchase of modern computer equipment by many Argentines, expensive, if not impossible. Enter shops or offices and you will still see old computer monitors, and a dearth of digital equipment such as card readers. Until 2016 and the election of civil engineer, President Macri, Argentina had largely a ‘cash economy’, with heavy disincentives for the use of credit or debit cards.

And so it is at the ‘Direccion Nacional de Migraciones’. Systems analysis knows no place here. After answering the questions of the ‘man on the door’ who directs us and tens of thousands to our destination, and navigating the milling crowds, we arrive at Edificio 6, Zona K. The desk is immediately recognisable by a long queue snaking to one side, whilst the desk itself is bereft of visitors, its occupant flipping a passport nonchalantly between his fingers then gazing into the near distance. Underneath, an old desk-top processor struggles in the heat, with a mess of wires that bundle into the waiting hall. 

Our reception officer looks stressed as he manipulates his neck from side to side and rubs his eyes. Returning to his desk he grabs a few sheets of paper, folds them firmly and inserts them into the workings of a large fan to cushion the rattles and vibration. The effect is momentary, for soon the papers are whipped on a current of air, and the rattles resume. He looks at us kindly as he hands us a sheet of paper with our arrival number top right, perhaps anticipating that our next encounter will be with his surly colleague at an adjacent desk, who then commands our presence with a peremptory hand movement. His is the ultimate economy of speech, words being replaced with grunts, sighs interspersed with disconcerting silence. He flips over the visas, returning as if he is willing there to be a problem.  Should our applications have been knowingly flawed his demeanor would have broken our nerve and sent us rushing from his desk. Instead, after some consideration, he utters two reassuring words “noventa pesos”, by which we understand that we are to proceed to the cash desk distant in Edificion 4. 

He is still waiting when we return, the unmoving queue now trailing out of the doors into the courtyard. He leans back in his chair and examines the receipts with suspicion, then waves us back to his stressed colleague take our photographs and ten finger marks. Stephanie recalls that I looked terrified when pressing too hard on the finger-reader causing the operator to pull it from its mounting, bash it twice on the desk “Basil Fawlty’ style to demonstrate his displeasure before resuming the operation. Then we are sent to sit like naughty children and wait, our passports disappearing into hidden offices for checks, and more photocopying with medieval machines. Stephanie and I look at each other, then into space, around us the hum of frustrated humanity. Had we slipped unknowingly into hell, or is this just another aspect of Argentine administration misrule?

Twenty minutes pass. A handful of visitors arrive with their personal agents who, with plastic folders of papers, negotiate the process successfully by nods and the flapping of arms. We sip our now-tepid bottles of water and Stephanie searches her bag for a mint to steady her breathing.

Suddenly and without warning, the surly colleague waves our passports towards us from behind the glass screen of his counter. We approach wondering how tight the handcuffs will be fastened. And then, the almost-smile: not quite a smile as you would know it, but something less than a grimace - and our visa stamped passports are returned to our care. “Let’s get out of here before they change their minds”, says Stephanie with her usual humour. “Yes, ordeal over...and we are now legal for another three months”, I rejoin as we depart into the sunshine and make our way back into the city. 

How it's done:

1. Travel to Migraciones building Av Antartida https://g.co/kgs/lHtvgb. 
2. Take with you:
     *Your passport
     *Printed confirmation of home flight
     *Proof of accommodation in CABA
     *Other paperwork if relevant
     *Bottle of water
     *Book or Kindle to read during the wait
3. Enter the yellow building, Edificio 3 (‘Entrada’).
4. At the door, if asked, say “Edificio 6, Zona K”.
5. Enter, turn immediately right, walk up the ramp, and exit through the door on the right wall to the courtyard/garden.
6. Take the path straight ahead through the garden to Edificio 6.
7. Enter Edificio 6 and go to ‘Zona K’.
8. To the left of ‘Zona K’ (marked D) join the queue to obtain a ‘time of admission’ sheet bearing your log-in number.
9. Sit and wait for your number to be called by one of two officers at ‘Zona K’. 
10. Hand over:
     *Your admission sheet
     *Your passport
The renewal process now starts, involving a series of lengthy checks of your visas.
11. ‘Zona K’ prints out a payment slip, retaining your passport. Take this immediately to the CAJA in Edificio 4 at the very far end and pay 900 pesos per traveller.
12. Return to ‘Zona K’ and pass receipt papers back to the waiting officer.
13. The officer will direct you to stand to your left at desk D to await photograph and 10 fingerprints (starting with right thumb).
14. Once completed, take a seat and wait...and wait.
15. Officer at ‘Zona K’ will wave to you when he receives your passports from the back office with renewed visa.
16. Check the visa date. If correct, now you may leave. 
On our visit (arriving at 11 am) total time - 2 hours

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