In The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy the Vogons are described as being:
“one of the most unpleasant races in the galaxy. Not actually evil, but bad-tempered, bureaucratic, officious, and callous. They wouldn’t even lift a finger to save their own grandmothers from the ravenous Bug-Blatter Beast of Traal without orders signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, lost, found, queried, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighter.”
I often thought, having been frustrated by them both professionally and personally down the years, that this was an apt characterisation for the persistently inept UK Home Office*.
However, a ‘Google’ of Vogons and bureaucracy reveals that there are a lot of like-minded people around the world comparing their own governments to our poetically challenged friends from the planet Vogsphere. Clearly, the Guide needs to be updated.
And, of course, I wouldn’t be writing this unless Brazil warranted a mention. That’s because I’ve discovered first-hand that Brazil’s actually exceedingly good at making life difficult for its citizens – as well as us mere guests.
Apparently, Brazil’s behemoth bureaucracy has its roots in, “the monstrous, awkward and inept bureaucratic machine that was the colonial administration”^, and dates back to 1549 when the Portuguese appointed a central governor to rule the whole colony via the diktat of the Crown. Subsequent governments, rulers, dictators, puppets, etc (you get the idea) then did their best to complicate things even further (for a variety of reasons too long and complicated to go into here).
Anyway, enough of the history lesson. All you basically need to know is that red-tape has existed in Brazil for a long-time.
Oh, and that it can be exasperating.
So exasperating in fact that there is even a term, Jeitinho Brasiliero, that whilst not just about bureaucracy, certainly says a lot about how Brazilians have come to deal with many of the daily frustrations they encounter. It’s a little hard to define but it’s a cute little term that describes the Brazilian way of improvising to make the seemingly impossible possible.
In other words, it’s a way of getting round things, whether that be day-to-day occurrences or something a little more frustrating like red-tape. For example, you can apparently hire agents called despachantes who will help navigate you through Brazil’s addiction to paperwork.
Anyway, I’ve only been here two months but here are two examples of how I’ve experienced Brazil’s bureaucratic instincts myself – from the crucial to the trivial.
1) The Visa
Since my wife is Brazilian I’m able to apply for a more permanent form of residency in Brazil. Understandably, this was never going to be as straightforward as rocking up at the airport and getting your 90 day tourist. However, I didn’t think it would be as complicated as it eventually turned out to be either.
The process started in London whereby as requested we had our UK marriage certificate authenticated and translated. Given the stress of the move we then decided to do the rest in Brazil, so in February I entered the country as a tourist on a 90 day visa.
We then discovered that we’d need to go to the Federal Police to complete the process, so we downloaded the guidance from the government’s website and got all our documents ready. For some reason this included the need to get all our documents photocopied at a registry office – even the blank pages of my passport.
“Never mind” I thought, “just do it”.
Then we went to the Federal Police with what felt like every bit of paper I’ve ever been given in my life. After waiting about an hour it was our turn and at first it seemed as though everything was going well.
Well, I say ‘going well’ but I didn’t really understand anything that was going on, though seeing as the woman behind the counter was nodding at my wife and ticking some boxes I took this to be a good sign.
But then she went to speak to her manager.
And then they returned. Together.
The Manager: “You need more documents.”
My wife: “But we have everything on the list. We downloaded it from the website”.
TM: “That’s not our list”.
W: “What do you mean that’s not your list, we downloaded it from the website. Anyway, this is everything we have”.
TM: “No, this is the list the government requires. We have a list too and we require extra documents”.
W: “Why are there two lists? That doesn’t make sense”.
TM: “Don’t ask me, I don’t make the rules”.
W: “Rrrrright….But, we have original and authenticated copies of our passports, birth certificates and marriage certificate. What else do you need to prove who we are and that we are married?”
TM: “A photo is optional”.
W: “Excuse me?”
TM: “But you will definitely need two witness statements”.
W: “Sorry, why would we need that?”
TM: “A photo of your wedding can be used as proof you are married but you will also need two authenticated witness testaments”.
W: “A photo of our wedding? But you have our marriage certificate, authenticated in the embassy in London and in two languages. No-one in Brazil came to our wedding in London so do we need someone to come from the UK?”
TM: “No just two people in Brazil to witness that you are married. And they can’t be your relatives”.
W: “But we have a marriage certificate”.
TM: “Yes, but our list says you need witness statements and a photo”.
W: “But we’ve been married three years. And we had our marriage certificate authenticated by the Brazilian embassy. Also, anyone in Brazil giving a statement will hardly even know my husband as he’s only been here two weeks”.
TM: “Those are the rules”.
At this moment I think my wife did exceedingly well to hide her inner rage. I, on the other hand, didn’t really know what was going on though I got the impression it hadn’t gone well.
I awaited her debrief with baited breath.
“Bloody hell, that’s absurd”.
I think was what my response was once she had lit a cigarette, calmed down and given me the bad news.
Anyway, we’ve subsequently got two witness statements (thanks Thiago and Carla! No, they’re not despachantes) and we’re actually going today to get it all done.
2) Buying a beer
Ok, so a visa is a pretty big thing and perhaps we should have expected it to be a nightmare. However, sometimes even the most basic of human exchanges here can be made to feel like you’re punching yourself in the face.
For example, I went to the Lollapalooza festival here in São Paulo last weekend. After Cage The Elephant had finished their set my sister-in-law asked me what I thought of the festival so far.
“Pretty good, seems well organised” I said a little surprised.
Fair enough, there had been a long queue outside but this was because so many people had student tickets and they had to show their student IDs before they could get in. The queue I was in – the one for full price tickets – was empty. Lollapalooza was only attended by students it seems – a cynic would suggest some Jeitinho was at work here but no, not I!
Generally though everything seemed to be in good order. The bands were prompt, the sun was out and we had a great spot. The only thing left to do was to toast it with a beer.
“I’ll get them, back in a minute” I said.
Make that one hour.
This was because Lollapalooza Brasil had decided to go down the beer token route. I’ve never experienced this at a festival before but that’s mainly because I’ve never wanted to go anywhere near the knobfest that is a V Festival.
However, in some ways I can see the logic. You queue once, get your tokens and then there’s hardly any waiting time at the bar. Which is fine if everything’s well organised. But, well, you know. Hmm.
The first issue was that Lolla Brasil decided, in true Brazilian fashion, to add another layer of bureaucracy to the whole process. Instead of two queues (one for tokens, one for beer), let’s have three!
Queue 1: Get a wristband to prove that you are 18 so that you can buy tokens that will enable you to get a beer.
Queue 2: Use the wristband you’ve just been issued to buy the tokens that will enable you to buy beer.
Queue 3: Queue at the bar to use the tokens you bought with your wristband so that you can get a beer.
So how do you think that worked out when at 3pm:
1) Most of the 75,000 people had now arrived.
2) It’s a blistering 30c so everyone wants a drink.
3) The system for paying by card at the token booths goes down – well, it did at our one.
4) Only a handful of people were serving at each booth.
Well, here’s how it worked out.
Lollapalooza otherwise became know as Filapalooza (Fila being the word for queue in Portuguese) and it stayed like this until well into the evening.
Now, reading this back I can see it may feel like I’m complaining about something very trivial. And to be fair, it was better on the second day – though there were also 15,000 less people in attendance. And, as I said, the token thing is not unique to Brazil though their customisation definitely was.
No, the reason I am writing this is partly because I think it was the tipping point of a lot of little frustrating things that had accumulated since being in Brazil but which prior to then I had just shrugged off (Ok, apart from the bus thing) – I’m a pretty laid back kinda guy and it takes a lot to piss me off.
The other reason I’m forcing myself to write about it is because when I do it reminds of the pure rage I felt at the time. I was bloody hot, getting sunburnt and queueing three times to get a beer. THREE TIMES! FOR A BEER! FOR OVER AN HOUR!
Then you see the beer queue get held up because a confused 50 year old man with a beer belly and greying beard didn’t get a wristband so he’s refused beer at the bar.
JESUS CHRIST, HE’S A BALDING 50 YEAR OLD WITH A GREY BEARD! JUST BLOODY SERVE HIM!
My point is that if you’re going to end up making things worse why not just go back to basics? What’s wrong with the simple barman/customer interaction & money/beer exchange? It’s worked pretty well for a long-time. Don’t complicate things!
Ok, rant over.
*The government department dealing with immigration – amongst other things.
^Prado Jr, Caio (1969) The Colonial Background of Modern Brazil