Wandering in America del Sur

Travel time: July 2005 - March 2006  |  by Allison Webb

Illegal Immigrant

Well, I've been delinquent in writing this between visitors and life, but am finally back at the keyboard and ready to fill you in on the past while. As I'm getting better adjusted to life here I am starting to become a better tour guide. And with those qualifications in mind, just before starting a year of French language training, Nadia decided to head down south, way south and hook up with me for a little reunion and shopping extraordinaire before her time was not her own.

After a quick adjustment to life here in Vina del Mar, we headed back to the airport and flew out to shopping mecca, Buenos Aires where I continued my love affair with the city getting to know it just that much better. We filled our stomachs with real coffee, loads and loads of steak and top notch meals for next to nothing and my appreciation of the quality and service increased exponentially. As Nadia commented, "Chile is not exactly known for its cuisine is it?" But Argentina, well, polar opposite.

The weather was perfect and we sat in outside restaurants and people watched before heading to the markets in San Telmo and Recoleta - thronged with people out and about - locals and tourists mixed in a riotous explosion of colour and languages with music in the background from the street performers. Milling about and soaking up the atmosphere, much more important than actually buying anything. But us, the ever consummate shoppers, could always find a bargain and when you divided the prices by the ever stronger Canadian dollar, things always seemed that much better. After a late night in a quaint tango club, we found ourselves nearly having to sit on our bags to close them - filled with the leather goods for which the country in famous.

Zipped through the airport, starting to feel like it's my second home, and stood confidently at Immigration to answer the questions in Spanish - well, at least a little more confidently than when I first arrived. Nadia cleared through and was waiting for me when they began to demand my national identity card which I didn't have. And not only did I not have it with me, I simply didn't have one at all! Nadia's eyes widened - and it wouldn't be the last time - as the woman explained that I might not be let into the country and she would have to speak to her supervisor.

Turns out that after 30 days in country I was to report to the police station and then go through various steps in order to ensure that I was legally in the country. Now I had some vague understanding of this, but no written instructions - apparently they were on a piece of paper that was taken from me when I entered the country. Ah, right, that makes sense! Then the Immigration officer had told me something in Spanish when I entered which I hadn't really been able to understand and there was absolutely no English. I had even tried to proceed after doing some research on the internet, but when I'd gone to one of the government buildings, I'd been told that I would have to have an appointment to enter and didn't have the slightest idea of how to get one. No one in my office seemed concerned about it even though I had asked them so I just continued on with the ignorance is bliss theory! Of course, I had now been caught and was given explicit instructions to appear at the Chilean Investigations Police, their version of the FBI - and pronto!

Skip ahead to the next morning when I tell my colleague what happened and that I need to go to the police office. A trip over there teaches me another expression in Spanish, the good old "white lie" when my office tells me to explain to the police that I did not understand the system and that I am sorry and that I had no knowledge of anything. And not only do I have to prostrate myself in front of several good natured men, but I also have to sign my name to this lie 5X! This is after we get to craft the document together and they print it out on their dot matrix printer right in front of me!

Then I am told that I have been reported as having "illegally entered" the country. Good to know! I am apparently in the system and with this they ask for my passport and are prepared to keep it until I pay a fine. Now this is very bad because Nadia and I are scheduled to fly to La Serena the next day and I need my passport for ID to fly. Eeks ...

I beg, I plead and look pathetic - hey, after lying to the police I decide I can stoop to anything and promise to return the morning after our trip and fortunately for me they take pity on me and tell me I can take my passport, but I need to come back first thing after the long weekend. I exhale outside the door and hurry home. I see more groveling in my future.

And such it is, Tues am when I return to Valparaiso I have an appointment with the Governor in his palatial office where I sit and sip coffee and have to re-explain the story. This meeting has been arranged by the head of the Fisheries Department after a phone call has been made, in order to try to reduce the fine that I have to pay. But, apparently they are not as good friends as he thinks because I still have to pay, but only half of the original amount ...

But how to pay this? I head out with my friend, Maria Paz who has been stuck helping me with all of this. We head to the Bank Estado (The State Bank) with a note to deposit money into the account of this department, but guess what? In Chile you can't deposit money into another account unless you have an account in a bank in Chile which I don't! Makes a lot of sense for foreigners to pay fines in a bank when they can't deposit money! So Maria Paz pays the fee and I pay her back, only after being charged a $15 handling fee - almost as much as the fine - which is, apparently, because nothing is free in Chile! Unbelievable!

Back to the Governor's office to sort out the payment and back to the police station who has been calling for me only to find out that I have to go to the station in Vina del Mar because that's where I live not in Valparaiso where I work! And since the office is closing in 45 minutes I decide it's time to experience the collectivo (shared taxi) because the bus is too slow. I jump in the back seat where I am squished between two others who look at me with surprise. I tell the driver where I want to go and in typical Chilean style he doesn't say much, but when we get to the centre of Vina he tells me to wait and flags down another collectivo who waits for me as I change cars in the middle of the street holding up traffic. The other driver tells me that he is going right by the police station and will take me there and the other passengers smile in amusement as we talk. It's a little unusual for foreigners to take collectivos and even more so to go to the area where the police station is because it's in a very poor neighbourhood.

I chat along with everyone while they complement my Chilean Spanish and then near the station, they pull off the road telling me that it's too dangerous to stop in the road and make sure I'm fine and with a barrage of good byes and smiles of kindness I head off to the station. After 15 minutes of questions which challenge the limits of my Spanish knowledge, I pay more money and am officially registered as in the country, but there is another step - of course. I still have to stand in line to get my registration card, but that seems easy after all of this.

And as I walk outside in the bright sunshine, I realise that I have done it - something that I could not have done 3 months ago - I have resolved my own problem and made my way in broken Spanish and with that I have reached survival level from where everything will only get easier and better.

Propping up the Argentian economy

Propping up the Argentian economy

Giving new meaning to "dancing in the streets"

In the famous Recoleta Hippie Market (note bags already in hand only 5 minutes into market time)

In the famous Recoleta Hippie Market (note bags already in hand only 5 minutes into market time)

Drinks anyone? In the San Telmo Market on a sunny Sunday

Enjoying the street life in San Telmo

Enjoying the street life in San Telmo

© Allison Webb, 2005
You are here : Overview The Americas Chile Illegal Immigrant
The trip
My trip through Peru before heading to Chile to work for 6 months and then travels afterward in South America
Start of journey: Jul 05, 2005
Duration: 8 months
End of journey: Mar 02, 2006
Travelled countries: Peru
The Author
Allison Webb is an active author on break-fresh-ground. since 19 years.