Thursday, March 21, 2013

5 Lessons in Brazilian Bureaucracy

In case you haven’t heard, Brazilian bureaucracy is a pain in the ass. This can be exemplified by my most recent experience in obtaining my CPF, the equivalent of a social security number here in Brazil.

Let’s start with the information on the Recita Federal  website saying the office opens at 7AM. I figure, any place where you have to process paperwork in Brazil, the earlier the better. I show up at 7:30 only to find out the department for CPF doesn’t open til 9. A burly security guard with glasses palms my shoulder as I arrive and points to a set of chairs behind the barrier separating the lobby from the waiting area.

“Sit there,” he tells me.

I’m tempted to say “fuck it” and leave it for another day, but I stay since I’m seated next to a cute French girl so of course I stay. Her name is Karine, a 23-yr old intern at the Brazilian Chamber of Commerce. She speaks four languages and I manage to keep the conversation not awkward in one of them. 

9AM hits and the four-eyed security guard directs us like cattle. At first the process is like it is at any other overly regulated government building. Get in this line. Take a number. Get in that line. Take another number. Sit down. Wait. Watch government adverts playing over shitty elevator music. Wait.

My number is RA003. Karine’s is RA002. She gets called in. Ok, cool. I’m looking at maybe 5 minutes. The screen beeps and the next number flashes. It’s A016. What the hell? Ok sure. They have different codes for different services. Then TAF005 comes up. Then GHR004. CHM002. FH004. There is no rhythm to this coded madness; it’s like they’ve managed to use every amalgamation of letters and numbers just to fuck with you. Now I’m starting to lose my patience.

Karine comes back out through the doors. “It’s easy,” she tells me. “No problem.” She gives me a double kiss on the cheeks and says goodbye. I hope I see her again. 

RA003 flashes. Table 16. Ok, let’s do this. I walk pass the television screen and turn to my right. I go through a door into a giant office space spread with tables numbered with folded placards. I find my guy. Table 16.

I sit down and hand him my papers. The website said that all I had to do was hand over the small yellow receipt showing payment of the CPF fee. The man behind the desk seems nice enough, a typical government employee. He types with one finger, slouches over his monitor like an exiled village hunchback reduced to a baby grand as his only outlet of maintaining his sanity. Something beeps on the screen. It’s not a friendly beep. It’s more like a "something-is-fucked-up" beep. He tries again. The system is locked. He speaks his first words to me.

“N-n-no. Th-this f-for-form is not e-e-enougghhh.”

Great. The guy is a stutterer. Out of all the fucking tables in this room, I get the one guy that stutters. In Portuguese.

I try to clarify the problem. I explain to him that the website said the only thing I needed was the receipt. Hell, I still had the original application form. He tells me he needs a different form. One that has the same information, just a different header. I ask what difference it makes if the information is the same. His voice begins to raise and he starts speaking faster. His stutter just makes it a complete clusterfuck. He begins to stand and leads me to the door as he continues on his stammered explanation. I keep arguing until we’re outside the office. I’m making a scene and drawing a crowd. The security guard creeps up and watches closely with his hand rested on the sidearm sheathed in his holster. I tell the stutterer that he's not making sense.

“I-I-I’m sp-speak-speaking Po-port-portu-guese!” he manages to eek out with a sarcastic tone. He arches back with both hands on his chest and has an expression on his face like a woman in a white dress that just got pegged with a waterballon. 

I wanna say, I mean I really  wanna say, “Motherfucker, it’s not because I don’t speak Portuguese, it’s because your stuttering-ass don’t know how to fucking speak!” but I bite my tongue. Plus I don’t know the words for “motherfucker”,  “fucking” or even “stutter” in Portuguese, so it would have sounded way lamer out loud than it sounded in my head. Maybe his assessment of my language skills isn’t too far off. 

I guess I forgot to fill out the correct form at the bank so I stand there for fifteen minutes arguing like a fucking idiot making everyone in the Recita Federal  hate me. Even the one woman who came out behind her windowed office arguing my case ended up despising me. She gave me a look like I ate her cat and shit on her family tombstone before I left. 

I go back to the woman at the front desk who handed me my first ticketed number, an Afro-Brazilian woman who probably had to wade through a sea of racist bullshit to get to this minimum wage position and puts on a forced smile everyday in order to not get fired.

I end with saying to her, “Well you guys need to fix the information that’s put on the internet.” She mutters a “Sim senhor” and rolls her eyes. It wasn’t until I left that I remembered I read the instructions off some site and not the official government site. Fucking gringos. 

I go back to the bank where I paid my fee and wait in a crowd huddled around the one single information desk. Even though there is no line, people manage to remember and respect the order. Just remember the person who is in front of you. I guess it isn't that difficult when I stop and think about it.  

The teller starts processing my request until he asks for proof of residence. “Wait, but the website said…” Oh, it’s that fucking gringo site again. I shut my mouth and think of a solution. 

My couchsurfing host Elvis lives in the building next door. I walk up four flights of stairs to knock on his door unannounced to where he greets me with a smile and says, “Was I supposed to be expecting you?” 

I explain to him the situation and he’s kind enough to accompany me next door with an electricity bill and a copy of his property title. 

“You really need that?” I ask him.

“Listen, here in Brazil you need every document. One time I tried paying my light bill with my credit card. Same name on both documents. They said they needed to see my ID. I told them it’s the same name. Even if I stole them, I would be paying the bill of the person I stole them from.”

I shake my head in disbelief.

“Welcome to Brazil!” he smiles.

We get back to the bank and I’m thinking that this is going to work. I brought the cavalry. A Brazilian resident who speaks fluent English and Portuguese. Bring it on you motherfuckers.

Everything goes smoothly. Proof of payment. Check. Original passport. Check. Proof of residence. (I look over at Elvis). Check. Document with mother’s full name. What? 

“It’s not on your passport,” he tells me. 

I try to explain that the mother’s name is never printed on any form of ID in the States. He stares at me blankly. I suddenly remember that for some reason I’m carrying a copy of my birth certificate.

I pull it out with confidence, maybe even borderline arrogance. I mean this shit is laminated.
L-A-M-I-N-A-T-E-D. I proudly smack it down on the counter. He says he needs an original. Huh? C’mon, really? Who the fuck carries around their original birth certificate? Who the fuck carries around a laminated copy of their birth certificate for that matter? 

I try to say this to him without the explicatives or sarcasm. He says he can’t do anything. He prints a piece of paper that has the large words “NÃO-CONCLUSIVO” stamped on the top. He tells me I need to go back to the Receita Federal  to resolve the issue.

You mean the place where everyone wants to pelt me with rotten tomatoes and see me publicly castrated? Great. 

I look at Elvis for help. He shrugs his shoulders. I’m defeated. I go home and leave it for another day. 

I rant to my friend Rich about everything that happened. I already feel stupid at the way I acted. “Don’t fuck with the people behind the desk,” Rich tells me. “They can make your life a living hell.”

I go back next week wearing jeans and a dress shirt. I’m carrying a box of assorted Brazilian chocolates. I see the same Afro-Brazilian woman at the front desk. The same woman who turned sides on me at the end. The same guard directing the cattle traffic. Everyone is giggling when I come back. I accept it with my head tilted low.

I wait in the seats, again. My number is RA003, again. RA002 is called. Then A004. Then TAF034. Then A005, A006, all the way up to A015. This time I laugh. This shit is almost comical. I sit back calmly and put in my headphones. RA003. Table 16. 

When I enter the office the stutterer exclaims, “Oh! Yo-you a-again!” I sit down without a word and slide over my new documents. He’s chuckling the entire time as he pecks in the information from the NÃO-CONCLUSIVO  form. Turns out, this was the form he mentioned before and quickly prints out my CPF. But before he hands it to me, he dangles it like a scolding parent trying to prove a point to a misbehaving child. He gives me a broken “I told you so” lecture, to which I simply nod my head. I offer him a chocolate and he takes it with much delight. We shake hands. 

I notice the woman who turned sides sitting at the desk next to me. I ask if she remembers me. She nods with a smile. I tell her I’m sorry for my behavior, ready to offer my olive branch of manufactured sweets, but before I even pull one out, she flicks her hand and says, “already forgotten.”  I give her two. 

I go back out and give the same speech and chocolate to the four eyed security guard. He stares at me coldly with an open palm to receive his chocolaty payment. He continues to pet his holstered sidearm with the other hand.

I walk back to the Afro-Brazilian woman at the front desk. She is slumped over with her chin rested on her hands looking bored and reflective.

“I need to apologize for my behavior last week,” I say to her.

She smirks, not raising her head off the table.

“Do you want a chocolate?”

She raises one eyebrow and takes a moment to cautiously choose. She says “thank you,” more in “yeah, chocolate is the least you could do” kinda way, but a “thank you” nonetheless. She puts her chin back onto her folded hands and returns to her thoughts. Sometimes I forget what it must be like to work in a depressing building for the entire day and have piece of shit foreigners tell you how to do your job.

Morals of the story: 

1. It’s good to have friends. 
2. Don’t be an asshole to people who don't deserve it.  
3. Learn how to apologize when you are one. 
4. No matter your situation, someone probably has it worse than you do.
And 5. When things don't go your way and keep getting worse, carry a smile through it all. 


helvecio said...

Great article! Just a small correction: it's Receita Federal.

Ivan S. Klyuzhin said...

I felt sorry for the stuttering person... Not for you - he has to live and deal with this every day!
Also, this reminded me of the time when I first came to the US. Getting the documents was much easier - probably because unlike you, I knew the words "motherfucker", "fucking" and "stutter" in English.

Anonymous said...

The Lion King's speech?

I like to find links between posts.

Andrea - fuck it, I don't want to use my Google account and be harassed by vacation advertisements "New Year's Eve in Rio?" I already receive the ads "Sex Tourism in Rio?" for some reason. Mickey receives those about "Gay Clubs" in Ibiza all the time.

Anonymous said...

By the way, the morals of the story are such that you deserve the same ads that Mickey receives. What's that hippie c***? ;)