Monday, May 2, 2011

El Salvador visa renewal time

Monday, 5-2-11

The application
Over the past several days I’ve been gathering and filling out paperwork so I can get an extension on my visa. I will have been here 90 days this coming Saturday. That means I’d either have to leave the country for 3 days or get a 90-day extension on my visa. I choose to try to get an extension on my visa. Now, I usually enjoy filling out forms. I know that sounds peculiar, but it’s true. As a child I used to create forms for myself to fill out. Well, that was not the case in this situation.

I tried searching online to find the forms I needed but to no avail. Thankfully, Kathy had filled out the forms before so she was able to give me the website of where I needed to go to find the forms. Good. Once I got to the website I eventually found where I needed to download the forms. But there were about 50 forms there and they weren’t labeled well so I had to look closely to be sure I got the right one. Alright, got that done.

Now the forms themselves. In order to get an extension on my visa I needed a copy of my passport and any pages inside that have been used. This was easy because I had to renew my passport in December. Check!

The second thing I needed was a passport size photograph that they would glue to the form. I wasn’t for sure how that was going to be done but Kathy had a plan. She’d take close up pictures of me and could print them off on special photo paper she has that she uses for really special occasions. She took several pictures yesterday and we picked two that we thought were good. I adjusted them on the computer to make them the right size. We printed off two just in case. Check, check.

The third thing I needed was proof of income or financial solvency. What? I guess they needed some proof that I was planning to return back to wherever I came from and that I wasn’t going to be bumming around in El Salvador looking for jobs that are already scarce to come by. But I wasn’t for sure what I should use and had easy access to. So I called my dad, who is a securities lawyer, to get his opinion. He said I could use this year’s federal income tax form as long as I took off our social security numbers. Triple check.

Part of the application had to be filled out by another person. This shows that I am who I say I am and the reason that I’m here. Kind of like a character reference. I had Cecilia fill out that for me. We also had to make a copy of her DUI (Documento Único de Identidad) which is like unique governmental identification card. We got that copied and taken care off last night. Check x 4.

Then came the paperwork itself. They needed my name, birth date, country of origin, passport number, and when I got to the country. All easy. They wanted my address here and wanted to know if I was ever a resident in another country. Nope, only the US. They also wanted my parent’s full names and where they lived. Not sure why but I was able to comply. They did not, however, ask for my husband’s name which I thought was weird. You’d think it’d be more important to get Matt’s name than my parents’ name.

They also wanted a brief description of what I was doing here. Since I’m here on a tourist visa (the only kind I can get) they wanted to know what I am doing because they want to make sure I’m not trying to get a job or have a job offer from someone here. Like the US, I’m sure they don’t want foreigners taking the jobs of the people here. I think this is a completely different situation than in the US but I will save that tirade for another blog. Now, I’m sure I could have had a different visa, a work visa, if I worked at a private, fancy school in San Salvador but that’s not for me. So I am here as a tourist to learn about the culture, life, and language of El Salvador.

They wanted a brief explanation about my financial solvency. Ummm, I have no paying job so what do I put? My husband and family are financially supporting me. That works. They needed the names of two people in the country who were supporting me and could give good references about my conduct. Finally, they wanted to know how much longer I’d like to remain in the country. The maximum I could have is 90 days so that’s what I wanted. I had to sign the form and give them my thumbprints as well but that would have to wait until we were in San Salvador.

My major problems came with understanding some of the language and the way the questions were worded. I had to ask Cecilia and Blanca to read it and explain it to me several times. We misunderstood a big section and had to redo it. They’d also changed several things on the form since the time Kathy filled it out. So we all had to read it very closely to make sure we were giving the correct information. But after several tries the four of us figured it all out. Yay!

I shouldn’t complain. I’m sure it’s easier for me to get an extension here than for visitors in the US from El Salvador to get an extension. But again, that’s another blog for another day. So Sunday night I gathered my paperwork and the $25 application fee to be ready for today.

The trip
Today was the day that I needed to go to San Salvador to submit my application. It was good timing because Kathy and Cecilia also needed to go to get a wheelchair for someone. Since gas has been getting even more expensive we decided to go by bus. In order to fill the tank in the pickup to get to San Salvador it’d cost around $80. Gas is up to over $4.50 a gallon here. And remember, that’s for people making a whole lot LESS than most people in the US. Plus parking is a major issue in San Salvador.

So I woke up this morning at 6:00am to make sure we could catch the bus by 6:30am. This bus wouldn’t be taking us directly to San Salvador. That bus leaves at 5am and none of us wanted to get up that early. At 6:30am we were outside waiting for the bus. It drives right by the house and buses basically stop wherever you want them to so we got on right outside the house. We also got seats right away. Woo hoo! This bus was taking us to Mercedes Umaña where we’d be switching buses. The person collecting change was helping the women who were getting on with their large tubs of food. I thought it was very courteous of him. The bus filled up quickly but a half hour later we were in Mercedes.

We were not so lucky with the bus from Mercedes to San Salvador. There was room on the bus but it was standing room only. This may not seem like a big deal. But when you’re on a packed-full bus for almost two hours in over 90 degree heat with no air-conditioning and no open windows you get hot and cranky very quickly. And remember, you’ve also got the person coming around collecting change that has to somehow squeeze by all the people stuffed into the aisle of the bus. This is not an experience for people who are claustrophobic or don’t like to be touched. But hey, for us it was a whole lot better than the $80 we’d pay to get to San Salvador.

I asked the guy collecting change if we could open a window and he opened one for me. Even at 7:00am I was already sweating. Of course, then more people boarded the bus and we ended up getting pushed toward the back, away from the fresh air. Bummer. I just had to suck it up. Around 7:45 we reached an area close to San Vicente called the Desvio where Kathy said some people would probably get off thus leaving empty seats. Well, today was not our day. Only one seat opened up. Kathy sat down and said we could rotate sitting down. We could each have about 15 minutes. Yay!

I got my 15 minutes and savored the time. But soon it was Cecilia’s turn. Then something unpleasant happened. A large woman needed to get off the bus. She was sitting by the window and had to get past two people just to get to the aisle. From there a series of us were smooshed up against the people sitting in the seats while she passed. Nope: no personal space. She wasn’t very large by American standards but it was still uncomfortable. I should note here that calling someone “fat” or giving them a nickname like “gordito” (little, fat one) is not considered offensive here. For example, Kathy was sitting in between two women on the way from Berlín to Mercedes. One of them leaned over to the other one who she didn’t know and said something like, “It’s a good thing we (she and Kathy) are so small because you are fat.”

Eventually we all got seats for a short while and reached the bus terminal in San Salvador at 8:45am. From there we took a taxi to the immigration office. Well, that’s what we thought we were doing. When we reached the office we went up to the door but it turned out that they’d moved. Lovely. So we had to hail another cab. I guess we’ll know in the future where it is! We got to the next place within 10 minutes.

Stickers in the taxi:
Jesus lives in my heart
Christ takes care of you and me

Once inside I handed them my paperwork. I was told to go to another building adjoined to that one. So we walked over and I handed the lady there my paper work. She had me sign my application and gave me ink to give them my thumbprints. Then I had to go back to the first building to pay my $25. So I did that and got a receipt. Then I went back to the second building to give the other lady my receipt. She told us to come back at 11:30am because all she needed was a signature from her boss. Hey, this is a good sign!

We then drove to a store we’d passed that was selling wheelchairs. We went inside to have a look around. One of the partner churches in the US is buying a wheelchair for someone in their sister community. We found a great wheelchair at a good price. Another good sign. That’s what we need! And it was only 10:00am so we had time to get some breakfast.

That's the one!

We walked a couple blocks to a Pollo Campero (kind of like a KFC) to have some breakfast. I ordered scrambled eggs, beans, plantains, and orange juice. The most exciting part? It was REAL orange juice! OJ like we have in the states is not easy to come by in El Salvador. Most of it is orange pop or orange drink, neither of which I like very much. So this was a special treat. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast.

Mmm, breakfast cream for our rolls
What is breakfast cream?

After breakfast I suggested we find a grocery store like Super Selectos. I admit that I wanted to look for chocolate but what I really wanted was to find some really orange juice. Cecilia asked a woman at Pollo Campero who told us there was a store only three blocks away. So we browsed through the store for a while. I did get some chocolate but I also found orange juice. It said it was made from 25% juice. Not great, but it was the best I could find. I bought it and hoped for the best.

We caught another cab and headed back to immigration, making it there right at 11:30am. “Just in time,” Kathy said. I secretly thought to myself, “Or a half hour early.” You see, things in this country move at a different pace. The government is a good example of that. We arrived there on time but the woman said it would be at least another 30 minutes. So we waited and waited and waited. Soon she came out to tell us that it was going to be another half hour so we could go over to the other building where they had air-conditioning. Kathy and I went inside (at 12:05) but Ceci doesn’t like AC so she sat outside. A little more than a half hour later we joined Cecilia outside.

Then the women from the non-AC building told us we could again wait inside the building (12:50pm). In we went. We were starting to get concerned. One person came in with the paperwork filled out for an extension. The woman told him that he could return tomorrow afternoon to pick it up. Or he could come in the late morning and wait. Huh?? That’s just the way things work around here. I decided to fill my time by trying to learn the “Our Father” in Spanish. I sang a little of “Lovin’ You is Easy Cause You’re Beautiful” but was quickly told to put a put a cork in it (my words, not Kathy’s).

I put on my sunglasses and laid my head against the wall. Kathy told me I wasn’t fooling anyone, she knew that this is what I do when I want to fall asleep without anyone knowing. Oh, man! I said the people from immigration wouldn’t know I was sleeping. She gave me a questioning look. I decided to close my eyes anyways. The next thing I knew it was 1:30pm and the immigration lady had just walked through the doors. I signed a paper and that was it! I had my 90-day extension. Yay!! (Note that: two hours after the time we were told to return we got the paperwork signed. But at least I got my extension!)

We walked outside to hail a taxi. We were a little uncertain about finding one. Thankfully, I take after my parents and quickly flagged one down. Being from Iowa and not usually needing to hail cabs I was pretty proud of myself. We stopped off at the store to pick up the wheelchair we’d purchased and were off. Everything was going smooth and then the car started to make an odd noise. Hmmm. It sounds like we’re running out of gas. Oh! We are out of gas! Look, there’s a gas station! We almost didn’t make it up the slide incline into the gas station but the cab driver got out and pushed the car the rest of the way there. Victory, once again, is ours! He filled up and on we went to the bus terminal.

I think I can, I think I can

At the bus terminal we found the bus to Mercedes Umaña and boarded. It was a really nice bus. It had proper seats and air-conditioning. What luck! You don’t come by these buses often and when you do they usually cost more. This one was $3.00 from San Salvador to Mercedes; 50¢ more than Mercedes to San Salvador. But it was worth every penny. Several vendors boarded the bus to sell various things to the passengers. You can buy almost anything from the assorted vendors who board the bus. Today, I bought a pretty headband, Kathy got some candy, and Cecilia bought strawberries. We also get some “healthy” candy that someone made an announcement about.

The bus took off at 2:30pm. It was so comfortable. Kathy was soon asleep and I followed suit. We woke up shortly before crossing over the Río Lempa which meant we were close to Mercedes. But the adventure was not over yet. When we reached Mercedes at 4:10pm and got off the bus we found that the bus to Berlín was full. Another one soon arrived but it didn’t leave until 5:00pm. So we sat on the bus in order to get good seats and waited until it left at 5:00pm.

The ride to Berlín was uneventful and the bus drove fast. When we were only a couple blocks away from the house in Berlín when the bus pulled over to get gas. Kathy asked Cecilia if we should get off here. She said no. I decided I didn’t want to be sitting on a bus any longer and that I could walk the couple blocks to the house. I made it home and about 8 minutes later so did Kathy and Cecilia. It was a long but productive day

I hope you enjoyed this blog. For other exciting bus stories go to the “Bus” category. P.S. How was the orange juice? It turned out to be more like orange drink. Too bad.


Anonymous said...

What an effort to get your visa extension. All the complected paper work and the endless waiting in the buildings. I guess government bureaucracy is similar wherever you go. I'm so glad that you finally got your 90 day extension.

Anonymous said...

Alisha, congratulations on making it thru the immigration merry-go-round. Good thing you didn't have to come back the next day to pick up your passport like they often do. If one day you ever must apply for Residency, Oh, you don't want to know... (El Salvador would behoove itself to dump the CA-4 agreement they have with tourist Visas and let you hop the border every 90 days for 24hrs like Costa Rica does - maybe they'd have lots more long term tourists/residents that way)

Alisha Lundberg said...

As much trouble as it was for me I did get lucky only being there a day. And I agree: they need to get rid of the CA-4 agreement with tourist visas!! What a pain.

Kelsey said...

Did you really have to fill out the 50 pages of paperwork?? The first time I extended my visa here in ES, I just went to the office, filled out a couple forms, paid and went on. It was actually the easiest thing we've ever done in El Salvador! As you know, it's very complicated to do ANYTHING here.

I'm glad I found your blog!

Anonymous said...

Can you give me the link for the paperwork and which ones on the link that i need, please? I'm in the same predicament, weighing my options of renewing it onsite, or hopping a bust to Costa Rica for 3 days.