My grandmother used to have gauzy curtains that I would wrap myself up in and look out the window. I could see the outlines of things and tell where she was in the back yard, but reality was fuzzy. I could see what was out there, but not make out all the details. Those dreamy, impressionistic moments shifted my balance a little and clarity was lost.
That’s what my experience with accomplishing day to day tasks in Costa Rica has been like. I know what I did, I’m not sure what happened.
For a reason that I read about and that was explained to me, but of which I am still unclear, my new school opened a bank account for me because I was not able to. I believe it has to do with residency, which is complicated here. On my first day of school, all of the new teachers went to see Manuel, our accountant–a charming, patient, Spanish-only-speaking man who will do anything for his crew of teachers. He asked for my passport.
(I think he asked for it? Maybe somebody already had it? Did i send that information earlier? I wasn’t sure why I was in the office…it’s all behind that gauzy curtain and I was already in a cloud because I had to fill out a life insurance form that was entirely in Spanish. When I accidentally switched the date and the month, Manuel said I had to start over–no scratch outs allowed. I didn’t have a telephone number and I wasn’t sure if my address would change, so left entire swaths blank, which wasn’t acceptable. I left it all in my school mailbox for when things are more sure, hoping that I don’t die before then.)
For the bank, Manuel wrote up a letter in Spanish that says something to the lines of I work there and make a little bit of money and need an account. I do not know if this means the account is in the school’s name or my name, but I do understand that my paycheck will be directly deposited into it and I will have a debit card to access those funds.
We were told we had to bring that official letter to the bank. Plan on about 45 minutes, the woman next to me whispered. They don’t move quickly over there. And I had read that the bank operated much the way the ones in Budapest did–you take a ticket like at a deli counter and wait until your number is called.
We found BAC Credomatic in the upstairs of a giant mall about a 20 minute walk from the school. A very large, bald guard stood at the door, opened it for us, and gestured for me to use the touch screen pad on a standalone kiosk. There were about 9 options to choose, and none of them were in English. I picked the one that looked like it made the most sense, but it then asked me for a PIN number. I looked helplessly at the guard. “No entiendo,” I said. He asked me what I needed to do–or something like that–and I showed him the official school letter. He hit the “Mostrador” button and a deli ticket for GO61 spit out. We took a seat with fifteen other people. GO57 was at Mostrador 10. Numbers that started with A and NO were at the Cajas (I think those are teller desks that do simpler banking, not official work) and the other 3 Mostradors.
When a new Caja or Mostrador was available, a lovely voice would announce which bank teller the next number in line should report to. I had nothing with me to do, so as a Spanish lesson in recognizing higher numbers when spoken, I watched the screen mounted on the wall, listened, and repeated in my head. After 45 minutes, a woman came out from the back room and said a number that didn’t show up on the screen. She said it twice. Nobody responded. Shit! Is that us? I whispered to Elliot. But an older woman raised her hand and disappeared with the woman. Another woman came out and asked for cinquenta y ocho. On the screen different numbers appeared. I pulled out our Spanish book, looked up “61” and kept muttering sesenta y uno under my breath, and kept watching the screen, paralyzed that I now didn’t know where our number would be announced. After an hour’s wait, a woman came out and said our number.
What happened next is all guazy. Over the course of another hour, the woman took my letter and read it very slowly. She then took my passport and closely examined every stamp in it and disappeared into a back room.
She returned and asked us to sit at a desk with her while she silently typed things into a computer screen. Eventually she asked for my address. “Calle Brisas, en Atenas,” I told her. I then wrote it on the back of a piece of paper. “And the color of your house?” she asked. I told her, wondering how they would know which of the 50 orange stucco houses on Calle Brisas it would be.
There was more typing, more passport examining, more going into the back room and then coming out again. She asked me to type in my email, but the keyboard was different and I couldn’t find the @ sign. Nor could she.
I gave her my landlord’s phone number. I told her I was married. But mostly, we sat there in complete silence while she stared at a screen seriously, typed, and then went into the back room. After an hour of this, she looked up, handed my a copy of the letter and my passport, and said, “3-5 days. All finished.”
I have no idea where my debit card will be sent, but after sitting in a bank for two hours, I didn’t care.
We then decided to go to the cell phone store to see if we could get our phones finally set up. In the store, a woman stood at a desk and helped another man change his SIM card. At another desk, another woman put on her makeup and a man rummaged through a bin of new SIM cards, organizing them. I smiled and said hello. Nobody responded. We waited for ten minutes while the other transaction wrapped up, and then I stepped forward. “Hablamos Ingles,” I told her. She stared back at me. “No.”
“Y…dos SIM tarjetas para dos telephones?” She stared back at me. “No.” She started pointing at her computer screen and rapidly firing off information. I didn’t understand. The man she was helping looked over his shoulder. “You are too late. They are closing at 7,” he said. It was 6:50.
Nothing gets done in ten minutes here.
While we found the bus stop we need to take home, we still cannot find a way to get to it, as it is under an overpass on a very busy highway. We are discovering that if people speak English, they do not know the buses. And if they know the buses, they do not speak English. A guard told me how to get to the bus stop, but all I understood was “difficult” ” fast-moving cars” “it is necessary to be very careful.”
Everything seems harder than it needs to be here–setting up a bank account, setting up a phone, and just getting home at the end of the day. I take one step forward at a time and go where people tell me to go and do things they tell me I need to do, but it never quite turns out the way they say it was supposed to. I am perpetually wrapped in gauze curtains, incompetently fumbling my way through my days.
“It’s going to get easier,” people are telling me here and from home with a confidence I’ve lost in myself. And the logical part of my brain says yes, it will. I know this. But my heart, ridden with anxiety and frustration isn’t banking on it.