Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Lima escondida - part 1

Lima has been called the "concrete city".  Walk down any street, and your constant companion is a brick and cement wall, interrupted occasionally by a door, gate or window.  There is no space -- none -- between one house or business and the next.  No grassy buffer -- nothing.  In fact, if your neighbor was very poor at the time he built his house, he may have used one of your walls as part of his own house.  And for the most part, there are no zoning restrictions.  So your neighbor might be a bakery or a hairdresser or a ceramics factory.

Perhaps the very fact that everything is walled off makes me want to know what's behind that wall.  As I walk down a street, I can't resist a quick glance through any open door or gate.  Often a door opens onto a long walkway with many other doors, where a landowner has divided his property into small apartments.  Sometimes there's a beautiful house with a well-kept garden hiding just a few feet behind the wall, completely invisible from the street.  Sometimes there's a business with huge metalworking machines, or a fascinating collection of objects waiting to be recycled.  And all of these can occur together on the same block.

I know this isn't just a personal obsession or voyeurism, because other people (including my wife and my daughter) have confirmed that they share this fascination.  I've held off publishing this post because I didn't have any pictures to accompany it.  And without seeing the variety of things that are hiding behind the wall, it's difficult to appreciate how fascinating it can be.  I thought about buying one of those tiny cameras that you can strap to your head and walking around for awhile, peeking into any openings in the wall.  I'll get some pictures somehow, and include them in future posts, so that you readers can share my fascination.


Trámites are the formal procedures that must be followed in order to get anything done -- especially anything involving the government.  Everyone in Peru complains about the time and expense involved in trámites.  And it's easy to understand why.  Most procedures involve a personal appearance at one or more agencies, usually involving a long wait in line.  My recent experience in applying for permanent residency in Peru is pretty typical.

My first step was to consult the web page of the Superintendencia Nacional de Migraciones, also known as DIGEMIN.  It lists the following requirements for changing my status from tourist to rentista, a visa category for people who plan to live here indefinitely, have a fixed income such as a pension, and do not plan to work:
  • Complete form F-0004.
  • Make a payment of 117.60 Peruvian soles at the Bank of the Nation and provide the receipt.
  • Provide a copy of your current passport.
  • Provide a signed declaration that you have no criminal record.
  • Provide an "apostille" copy of an original document from the country from which your income is derived, which shows a permanent income of no less than $1000 per month, plus $500 per month for each dependent.  Also provide a translation made by a certified translator, if the original document is not in Spanish.
  • Obtain an official "international exchange card" from Interpol that indicates you have no criminal record -- only after having presented all of the other documents at DIGEMIN.
I was still in the U.S. at this point, so I mailed my Social Security benefits letter to the U.S. State Department to obtain their apostille.  It took about a month for them to return it with their stamp of approval to the mail forwarding service that I use in Michigan.  By then I was in Peru, so I had the service forward the documents to me in Peru.  I went to my local branch of the Bank of the Nation and stood in line for half an hour to pay the processing fee (about $35).  It took only half an hour because I was able to use the "preferential" line -- for people over 60, disabled people, and pregnant women.  I made a copy of my passport and printed a copy of a "declaration of no criminal record" that I found on the internet.  On the day that I took all of these documents to the immigration department, their system for issuing ticket numbers to people as they arrived was not working, so there was a security guard who was ushering people into seats, attempting to maintain the queue in order of arrival and direct people to the service windows as agents became available.

When it was my turn, the agent received all of my documents, reshuffled them into what seemed to me a random order, and then stapled all of them together.  She gave me a case number that I could refer to if I wanted to inquire about the status of my application, and told me to go to the Interpol office to complete the last step of the process.  She provided this list of requirements for my visit to Interpol:

  • Make a payment of 80 Peruvian soles at the Bank of the Nation and provide the receipt.
  • Provide a copy of my passport.
  • Provide a recent photo.
  • Provide a large manila envelope.
She told me I should go there as early as possible, since they only accepted a limited number of applicants each day.  They opened at 8:00, so at 7:00 the next morning I was in a taxi on my way to Interpol.  There were a couple of guys from Ecuador and Colombia already waiting in line when I arrived.  By 8:00 there were about 15 people in line.  When I presented my documents to the agent, he asked me "Where is the check for the US Treasury Department?" I had no idea what he was referring to.  He handed me a small photocopied piece of paper and said "here is the list of requirements for U.S. citizens".  The list was similar to the one that I had received in the migration office, but included one additional step: 

 "Go to Banco de Credito or Scotiabank and obtain an international money order for US $18, payable to the U.S. Treasury".  

He said that without this money order he could not process my request, because part of the process involved sending my fingerprints to the FBI to see if they matched any known criminals in their database.  And he cautioned me that I should only go to the bank branch on Caminos del Inca street, because any other branch would probably not know how to generate an international money order.  So I took a taxi to the bank and waited for it to open at 9:00.  Having arrived at 8:20, I was of course the first person in line, so at least I didn't have a long wait once the bank opened.  The bank charged me a "commission" of US $12 for the money order, which was just a cashier's check drawn on their Miami branch.

I returned to Interpol, worried that they might turn me away because they had reached their limit for the day, but the agent signaled for me to sit beside his desk while he finished up with another client. When it was my turn, he explained that I would mail the check to the FBI in the large manila envelope along with a form on which my fingerprints were to be recorded, and the FBI would send the results directly to me, which I would then take to the migration office.   He then told me to go across the hall for a dental exam first, then around the corner to have my fingerprints taken.  The dental exam consisted of someone shining a flashlight into my mouth and taking notes about the condition of my teeth, while I sat across a desk in front of him.

After I was fingerprinted, I was told that I could return in five business days with my passport to retrieve the results of their "investigation".  When I returned at the appointed time, I noticed that the "issue date" of their letter was the same day that I had made my application.

The last step was to take my letter from Interpol to the migration office.  I showed the lady the manila envelope addressed to the FBI that contained my fingerprints and the check for $18, and asked whether I really needed to send it to the FBI.  She said that there must have been some misunderstanding at Interpol because the migration office doesn't require a separate FBI background check.  

Needless to say, I was unable to get the bank to refund my $30.  Now I just have to wait "up to 60 days" for my application to be accepted.

A letter to my daughter ... and anyone else trying to learn a new language

(My daughter moved to Medellín, Colombia, just a few weeks before I moved to Peru.  She had little time to learn any Spanish before she left.)

Dear Marta,

It's been four months since you left the States, and I remember very well what it was like for me trying to use Spanish in Guatemala after I'd been there for four months.  There were some days when I would have a headache after a two-hour conversation -- not because I didn't enjoy the conversation, but because it took so much mental effort to do the translation in my head at a fast enough speed to keep up with the conversation.  I wondered every day if I would ever get to the point where I could just think in Spanish, instead of having to think about how to translate the next thing I wanted to say into Spanish.

My experiences in high school (with Latin) and college (with German) had taught me that I was capable of memorizing a large number of words in another language and of learning a grammar that was completely different from English, well enough to be able to read and write in a different language.  But they left me with the impression that conversation would always be difficult because my brain just couldn't perform the "lookups" in my mental dictionary at the pace necessary to sustain an ordinary conversation.  I'm sure your experience with French in high school was similar.

I don't know how long it will take you to get through this torturous period of mental gymnastics, but I do know that you'll soon start to see signs that something in your brain is changing.  The first sign might be a dream, like it was for me, where the dialog is in Spanish.  Or you might suddenly remember that you need to do something, but remember it in Spanish.  Or you'll want to say a word in English but only be able to remember how to say it in Spanish.

There's an awful lot of circuitry up there that needs to be rewired before your brain can process Spanish the same way that it processes English.  You have to reach a certain threshold of neurons all working together before Spanish will start to seem as natural as English.  But I can promise you that it will happen!  You'll know that it's starting to happen when your "bad Spanish detector" starts working.  You'll be saying something, and as soon as you hear what you've said you'll know that it just "sounds wrong".  It may seem like you're regressing because you're noticing a lot of errors, but you're not. Mostly they're the same errors you've always been making, but now your brain is tuned to recognize Spanish grammar, so you notice all those mistakes.

You'll continue to have days where you doubt that it's really possible to become fluent, where you think that "maybe you're just not one of those people who can do it".  But then you'll remember a conversation you had with a little old lady at the bakery, or an encounter with a child in the park, that you know you could never have had if you didn't speak their language.  And you'll want more of those experiences, and that's what will sustain you through this period of frustration.

And when you have children, you'll be able to give them the enormous gift of bilingualism.  They won't have to struggle as you did, because they'll learn both languages at the same time.

So hang in there, and get lots of sleep.  Your brain does most of its reconstruction work while you're sleeping.  I know that you won't believe this right now, but you're even going to get to the point where all of those "fancy" tenses that you're afraid to touch right now will come rolling right off your tongue without any effort.