A while ago I was rereading a section of Road Fever, Tim Cahill‘s account of driving from stem to stern of vertical boat that is the Americas, starting at the end of Argentina’s RN 3 in Lapatía Bay in Tierra del Fuego national park, not far from Ushuaia, that glittering port at the end of nearly everything, and ending up in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. The book is a vivid and hilarious account of every fight he had with his copilot, a tale of smashed strawberry tetrapack milkshakes, of an immersion heater that took eons to heat up water for them to mix their nescafe into a paste with, of containers too small to ship the extended-cab truck in, gunfire, going completely loco, helpful and not-so-helpful strangers, and also of bureaucracy.
Certainly traveling from country to country in a private vehicle in places where theft is rife, and where it may be illegal or controlled to sell a used car generates bureaucracy. It involves stamps and sums of money and letters of intent and photocopies of the same and possibly a baptismal certificate, depending on where you’re going. In Tim Cahill’s case, he and Garry Sowerby, who was, himself the brainchild of the operation, and also a professional driver, which is good, because at many points, they really needed one, they had a dossier, a binder of documents organized by country, and obtained weeks and months in advance.
When I first read the book it was reasonably current, and I had no inkling that I’d ever live anywhere where it was taking place. By now, the trip is almost 20 years old, and while still absolutely burgeoning with information (and hilarity), it seems almost historical. They were GPS-less, blackberry-free. They didn’t have a cell phone. Many of the rocky roads they traveled have since been paved, and I think now anyone would be wise enough to skip on the thousands of pounds of strawberry milkshakes, no matter who the sponsor.
The reason I was originally rereading the Lapatía section of the book was to see if the road had been extended between 1991 (when he wrote the book) and 2007, when I finally set foot at the same, having arrived by bicycle from… a point not very distant, and did I ever feel trumped by the motorcyclists who had just arrived, having traveled Cahill and Sowerby’s route in reverse, with considerably more stops, more sleeping, and more getting held-up at machete point. Ah, but this is a story for another time.
What I do feel I vaguely have in common with Tim Cahill and anyone else who has spent considerable time in Latin America is the need to engage in the papeleo (paperwork, bureaucracy). The whole jumping-through-hoops and tiny pictures and stamps and deposit slips and vaccinations and proof that you’re paying into your retirement account and that you have health insurance and whatever else has become almost second nature.
But then there are the letters. Occasionally I will be asked to complete my application (in this case, for definitive residency in Chile, and to travel to Bolivia overland, without round-trip reservations) with letters. What should the letter say? I ask, eager to follow instructions precisely, lest my application be rejected. In the case of the application for definitive residency in Chile, I was supposed to write a letter explaining why I wished to stay in the country. I was instructed by the woman at my former place of employment who was in charge of the gringos to write “because I love Chilean men and empanadas.” Clearly I had to invent something more clever. This is a part of my permanent record! I stressed and fretted over the letter, asked other people to see theirs, and ultimately wrote a letter which I saved as a word document entitled “let me stay.” I talked about culture and language and didn’t say anything about Chilean men or empanadas, the mainstay of quick eats in Chile, a (usually) meat turnover with a secreted olive (with pit!) and sometimes half of a hard-boiled egg. I also didn’t mention that I don’t eat meat. Whatever I wrote, it worked, as I’m still here, and I have all the trappings of a definitive resident, including my five-year carnet (national ID card), and a weird certificate that is too big to fit in my passport and which I had folded and laminated because everyone said I should, but then I had to slice it open to photocopy the backside one time.
When I was going to Bolivia, I wrote another letter, this time saved as “let me in,” in which I lamented not being able to spend more time in their delightful country and trotted out my best written Spanish. The whole getting-the-visa-for-Bolivia process was a bit of scene from a soap opera, complete with suspicious job offer and lots of eyelash batting (not mine). It also involved riding a bike up the street the wrong way and on sidewalks because the street that the Bolivian consulate in Santiago is on does not follow any normal street-numbering or direction convention that may exist here in Santiago.
What strikes me about these letters is not that I am occasionally asked to write them, considering that this is a minor inconvenience. What strikes me is that I suspect that somewhere in the breakroom at Extranjería (foreigner’s affairs) or the Bolivian consulate that there is a wall of shame with the funniest, most glib, tongue-in-cheek, suspicious, and worst of all, worst-written letters, highlighted in yellow ink for everyone to laugh at. And if my letters are funny, or glib or strange, it is by accident, and I hope I will be forgiven. And if they are held up as examples of poorly-written Spanish then I should just hang up my brain and apply for a new one. I wonder what kind of letter that would require?