Saturday, July 9, 2011

bank adventures (written June 16)

Last week I went to the bank.

It’s not the first time I’ve been to the bank, of course, but usually I only go to the ATM outside; surprisingly, I don’t care to stand in the long Saturday morning lines of people waiting to cash in their paycheck. But last week I wasn’t taking the equivalent of a few dollars out of my own tiny account: we were withdrawing a significant amount of the USAID funds we had received to finish the community-based birthing center we started planning last August. More money, more problems, and less chance that the ATM would have what we needed; my counterpart and I decided to stand in line inside the bank and wait for a teller.

Going to the bank here is different than going to a bank in the States. In some ways it’s the same—air conditioning, a blue water bubbler with plastic cups, potted plants which look too shiny to have anything resembling real chlorophyll, the peculiar inky smell of paper bills—but in the US I’ve never been patted down before being allowed entrance to my local bank, nor have two security guards armed with semi-automatics looked through my purse to make sure I’m not carrying anything untoward. (The stack of condom-promotion pamphlets left over from an HIV prevention campaign raised eyebrows, but fortunately didn’t prove to be sufficient cause to keep me out.)

Once inside, we joined the line. Standing patiently in line is something which I have learned to do very well over the years, and which is a completely useless skill here. But inside the white walls of the bank, within the view of the guards, the line was quiet, clearly defined—and absolutely stationary. All three windows were open: at one, a woman was arguing with three bank employees; at another, a mustachioed man and the teller gravely passed bits of paper back and forth through the small hole in the glass between them, each signing and re-signing on the proper lines; at the last, a man in a pink Oxford waited as the teller stacked up bundles of twenty dollar bills to be counted. None of the three customers appeared to be in any hurry to move along. My counterpart fidgeted.

“Get in the other line,” she hissed. The other line had two other people in it instead of thirteen, and was clearly marked with two separate signs as the line for senior citizens and pregnant women only.

Afraid of losing the spot I had when we were inevitably kicked out of the special line, I refused. She went to stand in it anyway, motioning for me to join her every time I looked over.

Busy ignoring her, I nearly missed my cell phone ringing—a friend trying to confirm the details for a class she was arranging to give.

“Hold on,” I said, digging for my agenda; someone tapped my elbow.

“Cell phones off,” one of the guards informed me, frowning. I looked at my planner, looked at the gun hanging off his back, and meekly hung up the phone. The line moved forward—not because more people were being seen by the tellers, but because everyone waiting had pressed together more closely, giving the illusion of movement.

My counterpart had reached the front of the other line. “Get over here!” she said, and over I got—to be faced with a confused teller who looked at me suspiciously and asked if I had authorization to be in the line.


“Authorization,” she repeated. “To be in this line.”

“Er...” I turned to my counterpart, since she had gotten me into the situation to begin with, but she had disappeared—I barely caught a glimpse of her shirt as she ducked outside to take a call herself. Without a native speaker to vouch for me, I put on my best little-lost-foreigner expression, and managed to negotiate until the teller agreed that I could do one transaction in her line.

I handed over my ID card, and immediately ran into another problem. I needed my passport—which I didn’t have, since the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had not yet finished processing my new visa. The only thing I had to hand was copies of all my documentation, which had been acceptable to immigration officials all three times I had been stopped on the roads.

This, according to the teller’s expression, was unacceptable.

“But I’ve never needed my passport at the bank before,” I protested. “My passport number is even on my ID, look!” She frowned, and went to confer with her supervisor, leaving me with the line backing up behind me, everyone in the bank staring at me, the weird foreigner who didn’t understand she was in the wrong line. My counterpart returned, and demanded to know what was happening. I explained. She laughed, scolded me for not having my passport, and went to sit down to wait.

Eventually, the teller returned. The ID had checked out. We proceeded onward.

I slid the paper with the total amount through the window. “Can I get some of that in smaller bills?” I asked. “Not very much, just a little bit of it.”

Of course I could, she said, and sent someone else to the back with a sheet of paper with the amount needed while we took care of the paperwork. She handed me the receipt to sign. Once I’d written my name and signature, she held it up to the computer screen and frowned.

“This isn’t your signature.”

What do you mean, it’s not my signature, I thought. I’m standing right here signing the paper, aren’t I?

After a struggle, the truth came out: “My signature has to be exactly the way I signed it in your files?”

Of course it did. I took the new receipt she handed me, thought about how I had probably, maybe, signed my name a year and a half ago on the initial form: jetlagged, exhausted, and signing sixteen different forms in a language I didn’t understand in order to start my new life in a new country. I took a breath, channeled my frustration, and scribbled something which must have checked out, because she didn’t say anything about the new signature.

Honestly, I thought, all of this jumping through hoops had better be worth it, and as I thought that, the bank employee who had gone through the back returned with an armful of cash, which the teller began to count.

Fifty thousand of anything is a lot, whether it’s córdobas or dollar bills or Tic-Tacs. Fifty thousand córdobas, all in small bills, is a multicolored nightmare. Finally, when it was counted and stacked neatly in front of me, the teller smiled, told me to have a nice day, and handed me a paper bag to put it all in. My counterpart was in absolute stitches beside me. Somehow, I managed a smile in return, the money heavy in my hand in its conspicuous paper bag, and walked out the door to hail a taxi, hoping desperately no one would put two and two together and pick me as an easy mugging target.

We got the money to the people it needed to go to—and had another laugh about it when the cashier said she’d needed small change anyway—and now we have a fence going up with a small roofed area for an outdoor woodstove. It will be worth the trouble, in the end, when we open the center with all the fanfare it deserves; in the end the story will become just another in the repertoire I’m accumulating here.

But even so, when I went back later to get the money we needed to pay for the mattresses we’d ordered, I used the ATM.

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