Sunday, March 10, 2013

Off the Beaten Path: My Week in the Aduanas

This story begins on a Monday, the first day of the Mission of Healing North, which took place in Nejapa.  The back-story featured frustration.  This story is a lesson in patience.

Opening devotional at the Mission of Healing North
We arrived in Nejapa just after 7 am, and quickly dispersed our resources and people.  Doctors divided up among two exam areas.  Nurses set up triage stations close by.  A big kids' activity table was set up under the trees.  The dental charla (teaching chat), dental treatment area, reading glasses table and gynecology area were in one big room -- odd but true, and requiring creative curtain use.  Inside the church we set up the spiritual area (which this year included a mini-orchestra), the HIV-STD charla, the pharmacy, and the reflexology massage area.  As soon as we were set up, we gathered for the opening devotion.  It was beautiful - set up to include the 2 truckloads of patients/participants who had arrived early and were seated in their plastic chair queue.

The group dispersed - off to examine, massage, chat and pray.  Pastor Conchi and I headed off to try to get the franquicia (permission for the medications to enter the country as tax-exempt).  I had suggested we go to the Presidential House in person to try to get the signed document.  We called and made an appointment.  We arrived on time and explained our appointment status to the GWG's (Guys With Guns - they will appear often in this tale.)  We made it through Door #1.  We explained ourselves to the officials behind the desk.  They made a call and handed the phone to Pastor Conchi.  It did not look good for making it through Door #2.  Conchi said a few things and then handed the phone to me:  
  "Buenos días," I say. 
  "Good morning, to whom am I speaking?"   "My name is Linda, I am the North American Coordinator for the Mission of Healing of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church.  We are waiting for a signature on the franquicia. "
   "The franquicia will be ready today."
   "I am sorry, I do not understand Spanish very well.  Can you repeat that?"
   "The franquicia will be ready today."
   "The document will be signed today?  This very day.  At what time?"

We got a time.  As we walked back to the vehicle, Conchi asked why I said I did not understand Spanish.  "Because I wanted her to repeat her promise," I said.  "You are our good luck angel," she said.

So, we had made an appointment to drive across town to receive a phone call and were given a promise that if we came back later we would get the document with the President's signature.

Next we drove to the airport to claim the lost luggage.  With multiple passports and some convincing I made it inside, only to find no one at the Delta office.  They told us to go back outside and walk all the way around to the ticket counter.  More convincing to get inside.  The ticket counter told us to go all the way back through aduanas security and wait at the office there.  Eventually we claimed the suitcases so that customs could seize them.  At least I came prepared with a big bag and yanked all the toothbrushes and first aid stuff out of the bags and took it with me.

The next morning, the Mission of Healing Team went to heal people.  Pastor Conchi arrived at the hotel with the documents signed by the President, so she and I were off to Ilopango. This is where all of customs offices are, on the site of the old airport.  We jostled our way in between container trucks and  parked by the big yellow gate.  Pastor Conchi went to make copies of the franquicia.  (Making copies, like the GWG's will be a recurring theme.) We explained to the guy in the first little room at the guard house which is guarded by a boatload of GWG's that we were there with a franquicia.  After a bit of arm-twisting, he agreed I could go with Conchi to the next little room in the guard house where we turned over our ID's (passport for me) and got badges for entry.  Once inside the office inside the aduanas compound, we entered data into a computer to get a number in order to sit in the plastic chair queue and wait for the next available window. We waited and waited and waited. We were wearing our Lutheran Church t-shirts, and we stared at the officials. We finally got a turn.  The woman talked to Pastor Conchi for a long time, rearranging and stapling and unstapling our papers.  Finally, the documents passed to the inner office, but the person who needed to sign them was out to lunch.  Then she was just out.  Finally, as the office was about to close, a woman from in the inner office helped us to make a plan for the next day.  (This woman might be called the expediter -- I call her the "Julia of the Aduanas" because she looked and behaved so much like my friend Julia in our sister church community.)

Waiting to enter before the aduanas are open.
The next day we arrived at the yellow gate before it opened.  I waved at the GWG's, signed us in with guard guy #1, gave my passport and the two ID's for Conchi and the driver to the woman in guard house #2.  No questions asked - by this time they knew us.  We sat in the office for 2.5 hours waiting for the signature.  We wondered:  Why are there 4 staffed service windows, each with a sign which says "Pass on to the following window" and only one person is actually working?  We recognized all the other people who were back, like us, for another day in the aduanas.  There was even a guy there from the Unidad de Salud with whom we had chatted back on Monday-- even the government's own health ministry can't get donated medications into the country.  We exited the office before he did with the signed franquicia, just 3 hours after our arrival.  We took a victory photo of ourselves with the document, and headed off to the airport to go get our suitcases out of hock.

We drove to the cargo terminal and convinced the GWG that we had a legitimate franquicia.  We signed in at the secretary window and entered an air-conditioned waiting room.  We waited in plastic chair queue number one until they called us.  We paid a small fee to get some receipts for the luggage.  We waited in plastic chair queue number two until they called us.  We had to make more copies of the franquicia and the receipts and waited until they called us.  We made more copies of our identification documents, then waited in chair queue #3.  We made it to the final window and the woman at the window has the final paperwork in hand and then she says:  "Your franquicia says 16 suitcases were to enter, but you only have receipts for 15 suitcases."  We explained that the group member who was to carry that suitcase had a family emergency and cancelled one day before her flight.  "This is a problem."

We waited to talk to her boss.  In his office, from the other side of a big desk, he explained to us that we could not violate the law.  We could not take in a different number of suitcases than what the document said.  "What if the franquicia had been ready when we arrived ?  The officials at the airport would have let us in with the suitcases from the first flights," I offered.
"No."
"What do we need to do?"
"You need to get a new franquicia.  Go back to the Presidential House and get a signature for the right number or suitcases."
Conchi calmly says, "That is not possible.  There is a campaign going on right now."

I feel like crying.  Instead, I say, "We have a team of doctors and nurses treating sick people in Nejapa.  Yesterday, people were diagnosed with serious conditions.  Sick people are suffering because they do not have their medications."  I am glad that I have chosen to wear scrubs.  The boss says if we can get a letter signed by the Salvadoran Lutheran Church Bishop, which explains that he expects to receive 15 suitcases and not 16, we can get our luggage.

We hit the road.  We made it to the Bishop's office and wrote the letter.  The Bishop was in a meeting but finally showed up at 2:50 pm.  We got the signature, made extra copies and ran down to the van.  Thanks to great feats of passing at elevated speed, we made it from the center of San Salvador to the yellow aduanas gate in Ilopango by 3:18 pm.  Conchi and I said "Hi" to guard house guy #1, got ID's from the lady in guard house #2, ran around the yellow gate waving the badges at the GWG's, ran up the stairs and down the stairs to the office, landed in the plastic seats with 5 minutes to closing time.  The women behind the windows showed no mercy.  They closed.  Then, Julia of the Aduanas came out of her office.  I gave her a sad look and she invited us inside.  She got us into her boss's office, and we explained the whole story to another kind woman.  She said she would arrange to have her boss sign the document if we came back first thing in the morning.

Pastor Conchi and I walked out past the yellow gate, waved at the GWG's, returned our badges, and climbed back into the van.  "See you tomorrow."

Stay tuned for the conclusion of My Week in the Aduanas...


1 comment:

  1. I'm speechless with wonder at the level of patience and persistence you and Pastor Conchi showed during this administrative nightmare. I'm not sure I could have kept 'banging my head against a stone wall' and withstood it until the satisfying ending. Kudos to both of you for your faith, courage, and persistence!

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