The Expat Tribe and the Visa Process

Ecuador offers an enchanting beauty. It has beaches, mountains, and Amazon rain forest. The people are relaxed and welcoming, and they vary from fauxhawked teens to wizened indigenous matriarchs wearing Panama hats (not actually from Panama, incidentally, but rather a traditional Ecuadorian product), velvet embroidered skirts, and woolen shawls.

Traditional and modern dress in the cathedral
Traditional and modern dress in the cathedral

Family is still primary here, and the warmth and affection of families together and the joy and laughter of the children nourishes the heart. Sleek modern buildings stand side-by-side with the intricate carving and iron work of Spanish Colonial structures, some hundreds of years old. The US dollar is the national currency, rent and food are cheap, public transportation varies from inexpensive private taxis to ridiculously cheap pubic buses. Thus, it is not surprising that it has become a popular retirement destination for North Americans and Europeans seeking a better lifestyle.

Cathedral doors hand-carved and gold-leaved
Cathedral doors hand-carved and gold-leaved

There are a few locales in Ecuador where expats, most retired, have gravitated; smaller towns with perfect climates, cities with rich culture, and beaches with tropical appeal. The best-known, and possibly the most selected by expatriates, is my new home of Cuenca, Azuay. The city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and so white-skinned tourists towering over the shorter, mostly brown-skinned locals are a common sight in the streets, parks, and squares. For the most part, Ecuadorians are warm and welcoming (though, like locals in tourist destinations everywhere, they may take advantage of neophytes who don’t know how much things cost).

Some of the expats won’t or can’t adapt, and remain perpetual tourists, wearing North American style baggy, casual clothing and learning little or no Spanish. There are areas of town known as “Gringolandia,” where the US-style supermarkets do a bustling business and McDonald’s offers a taste of home amidst the condominium towers which cater to retirees. There are those who live in a bubble of English. They attend parties with other gringos, patronize businesses owned by other gringos, spend lots of time on English-language social media where they often complain about things they can’t seem to buy here, stream TV shows and movies from their home countries, and generally stay within their cultural comfort zone. For unavoidable interactions with local people, they employ a bilingual driver/facilitator.  In my mind, I call these people “Gringoland Mice” because they scurry about, timid, in the city but not of it. I am determined not to be one of these people; I moved to a foreign country to experience its life, language, and culture, and so I try to dive in and sink or swim whenever I can.

Poet's Eyes in Central Cuenca by the river Tomembamba
Poet’s Eyes in Central Cuenca by the river Tomembamba

However, given that my Spanish is only intermediate, and my husband is a beginner, there are times when it is just refreshing to have a conversation not punctuated by corrections, blank looks, slow speech, and pauses to look at a translator app (SpanishDict, by the way, is very good). One night, we got an e-mail newsletter saying that a local gringo café/sports bar was having live, American rock and roll music, and dancing. We arrived and settled in to a table, and ordered our first cheeseburgers in a month.  The band was supposed to start at 8:00, but the Americas Cup (soccer, or futból) went on until 8:45, so they started late. I had my doubts about the band, even though the lead singer, Brian Gary, was said by other Americans we’d met to be very good. He is very Latino looking, with dark skin, almond-shaped brown eyes, and long black hair; so when he started to belt out cover after cover of American rock-and-roll and classic rock songs with brilliant professionalism, I was pleasantly surprised.  My feet couldn’t stay still and there was a dance floor, so up Steve and I went and cut loose! An American acquaintance who arrived too late to get a table had joined us, and so we all went up and danced. “This is my first time dancing since my hip replacement!” he said, obviously having a wonderful time.

A head count of the 50 or so occupants would have come up with a lot of grey heads, and a lot of blue eyes. Most of the resident expats are there on retirement visas, after all. Yet, this was a far livelier crowd than you’d find back home, given the average age of 60 or so.  I reflected (while bouncing and gyrating to a Rolling Stones song) that these were older people who were not ready to settle into a static endgame of lawn care and doctor visits.  These were retirees who wanted more out of life, who wanted to expand their horizons. Even the Gringoland Mice had taken a bold step, simply in order to be here.

Besides the desire to speak one’s native tongue and bond with those who are sharing your experience, there are certain processes and procedures which require full and fluent understanding as they unfold in real time. First and foremost among these processes is:

The Residency Visa

When we came to Ecuador on our check-out trip in January-February this year, we attended a weekend seminar in Quito given by a company which specializes in publishing and teaching advice to English speakers interested in relocating abroad. They make money from seminar and magazine subscription fees, but also by selling tables and booths in the seminar venues to companies and people who cater to expats.  These companies vary from people selling native jewelry and handicrafts, to brokers selling investment ideas for retirement accounts, to attorney-facilitators who teamed up with movers, offering a one-stop turnkey relocation.

We met on one of the breaks with an attorney-facilitator. He told us our first step was to open an Ecuadorian bank account, which was very complicated for foreigners, but he could handle it for us if we would just give him two checks made out to his firm, one for $250, to deposit, and one for $1,000, to retain his services and cover the expenses of international shipping of documents, bank fees, and so forth.  He honestly seemed to expect us to cheerfully hand over this money based on his very elegant tailored suit, his charming Ecuadorian accent, his $500 fountain pen, and the association with the seminar we were attending to explore international living. He brandished the fountain pen over a document written in dense legal Spanish, and of course we asked for a translation before signing. He asked us to wait a few minutes and disappeared. And didn’t come back. We checked back with him at each break in the seminar, and each time he did not have the English translation ready.  I looked to the right and to the left of me and saw quite elderly people, who obviously spoke not a word of Spanish, handing him checks and signing the Spanish document!  Finally, on the last day, he turned his laptop around to show us the “translation” of the document. Plainly, he’d had someone cut and paste it into Google translate, because what we saw was English in only the vaguest sense. Of course, when we asked for a printed copy, his printer was suddenly out of order.

I tell this story, first to caution anyone who is interested in international living to be skeptical about any group which promotes itself and its affiliates aggressively, and second to illustrate how there is an industry that has sprung up to service the steady stream of North Americans expatriating to Ecuador.  Some of these lawyers and facilitators provide value for money, and I’ve met a few expats who didn’t begrudge them the extra thousands of dollars they paid in order to get things done right the first time with minimal effort and hassle. Others are unsavory; I’ve heard sad stories of people fleeced out of sizable portions of their nest eggs, tens of thousands of dollars, only to learn that they needed to start the process from scratch when their “facilitator” disappeared.

I thought about my 28 years of experience in the ever-more-regulated healthcare industry, running my own small business and dealing with the ever-more-regulated issues of employees and business taxation and licensing. I went online to the Ecuadorian immigration website, and what I saw convinced me at least to try to get my visa documents underway myself. For each type of visa, there was a list of the documents required, and there was also an online chat link. I typed out several chats entirely in Spanish before I learned that all the chat representatives were bilingual! Unfortunately, I also learned that the rules and procedures were something that they seemed to make up as they went along, and different chat representatives gave different answers. Later, someone explained this as a feature of Andean culture in general: they prefer to make up an answer rather than lose face by admitting they don’t know. My thinking is that this is human nature the world over, not confined to the Andes!

There are a number of different types of resident immigrant visas in Ecuador, but the type I was applying for was what is called a “pensioners” visa. If an immigrant can prove a steady source of income of at least $800 monthly ($900 for a couple), they are eligible for this visa. For many US expats, this income is their Social Security check.  I am still way too young to take Social Security retirement. In fact, I am in that post-boomer, pre-GenX cohort who are condemned to age towards the horizon of retirement just as the Social Security Administration keeps pushing the retirement age back and away from us. Even though I can’t work as a chiropractor any longer, I still have enough abilities remaining that I could switch occupations, so I wouldn’t qualify for Social Security Disability. However, I was prudent enough, many years ago, to buy a private disability income insurance policy, which I’d kept up the premiums on my entire career, and which covered me for disability from my own occupation, so now that my wrist joints have essentially crumbled on the inside and I cannot open jars, much less adjust patients, I do at least have a monthly income.

The all-important Apostille
The all-important Apostille

The two months between selling my home in April and our planned departure date in June were spent largely in obtaining and preparing documents.  I needed my US passport, of course, plus two additional passport photos. I needed my birth certificate, certified. I needed a criminal background check from my state of residence and a national criminal background check from the FBI. I needed a letter from my disability insurer showing that I was entitled to the monthly disability payment.  I learned a new word: apostilled. Apparently, a bunch of nations signed a treaty known as the Hague convention in 1963, and one of the components of this treaty decrees that when one of the countries validates a document via a magical spell known as an apostille, any of the other countries in the treaty are obliged to accept the validity of that document. Documents can be apostilled by the US Federal Government, if that’s who issued them, or by the government of the state in which the document was issued.  Government documents (like birth certificates) have to be certified first; private documents (like my income letter) have to be notarized.

I actually had in my possession the original copy of my birth certificate which my parents had received more than half a century ago, signed by the Army doctor who delivered me, and certified with a raised stamp by the county clerk in the Colorado county where I was born.  I cheerfully filled out an apostille request form and packaged my birth certificate and a check for $5 in an overnight envelope with a return overnight envelope. To my surprise, a week or two later I got the birth certificate back, stating that it could not be apostilled because that county clerk was not in their computerized system any longer. I had to fill out an application for a NEW, computer-generated birth certificate from the department of vital records, for a fee of course, plus a fee for certifying it! In order to receive it, I had to submit a color copy of my passport. Here was the true irony of the situation: I had obtained my passport by using the now-invalid, original birth certificate!

The disability letter had to have an additional step done to it: after being notarized and then apostilled (both in Massachusetts, where the letter was written), it had to be sent to an Ecuadorian consulate to be “validated.” Establishing which consulate was to validate it was a complex process, involving much bad Spanish on my part and a lot of contradictory information on the various consulates’ parts: the Miami consulate, because I was in Florida? The Atlanta consulate, because it was the closest? The letter was from Massachusetts but the Boston consulate was closed and the New York consulate was handling their work, but they sometimes refused to. Finally, a kind woman at the Atlanta consulate made a call to her friend at the Ecuadorian Embassy in Washington, DC, and had me overnight it to his particular attention, and I received it back, validated, three days later.

This process was not only irritating; it was expensive. Between me, my husband, and my cat Tapioca (no apostilles necessary for the cat, but a trip to the USDA office in Gainesville for a stamp was necessary) we spent hundreds of dollars in document fees, notary fees, overnight and return overnight envelopes, and apostille fees.

One person I turned to for advice while still in the US was a woman I’ll just call J, from a non-profit group called Visa Angels. I e-mailed her several times to make sure I was interpreting the requirements correctly, and once we were here in Ecuador, she made plans to meet.

We’d been acclimating to the bustle and Spanish-speaking crowds of Cuenca’s historic center for two weeks, so when we got out of the taxi at Mall del Rio and walked inside, a sense of unreality hit us: it was a gleaming modern shopping mall. If the signs hadn’t all been in Spanish, we could have been in any mall in any town in North America.  We took a seat at a plastic table in front of the Subway, our agreed-upon meeting point, and J joined us. She reviewed our documents and took them to be translated into Spanish by the Ecuadorian-government-certified translator she works with. Our only fees, she explained, would be $25 per document to the translator and a small hourly wage for J during the hours she was actually shepherding us through the visa office.  J is a no-nonsense, very organized, take-control type of woman, and before we parted ways, she all but commanded us to join her that Saturday at the local gringo supper club, Joe’s Secret Garden, so we made our reservations by e-mail on the spot.

We arrived that Saturday to find a very large gated house with a beautiful courtyard and an outdoor kitchen as well as an indoor kitchen, with elegant rugs and artwork and beautiful tables set for about 70 people. Tuxedoed young waiters and waitresses greeted us in accented English and pointed out our seats, but then directed us to the courtyard for hors d’oeuvres and drinks.
It’s funny how it happens when you are in a place where you are a foreigner: all at once, people you might never have spoken to back home are instantly your friend.  People 20 years older, 20 years younger, from different walks of life and different regions and nations: we greeted each other without inhibition, introduced ourselves, and before long we were all laughing and comparing notes.  The experience of leaving our homelands and transplanting ourselves as aliens was a common bond. The host’s culinary skills were extraordinary, and the magic he worked on the abundance of fresh and wholesome ingredients available in Ecuador made a meal to remember. We queued up at the end for the taxi cabs which would take us to our Cuenca homes all over the city, satisfied physically and emotionally, and feeling that we had found a community.

The next Friday, we met J shortly after dawn at the MacDonald’s a block from the Visa office (no, we didn’t go inside. I don’t eat at MacDonald’s when I’m back home, so I certainly have no intention of eating there, here!). There were six of us: a retired couple, a single retired woman, a single retired man, and Steve and me. J had each of our documents, clipped into the specific type of manila folder the visa office demanded. The documents were translated, the translations notarized, and she had filled out each of our applications for us (to avoid common mistakes like using the American date format of 12/31/1950 instead of the Ecuadorian format of 31/12/1950, for example).  We lined up outside, on the extranjeros side of the office, and we were the second group in the door when it opened at 8:00 am.  Well, 8:20… the workers had to get situated and greet one another with handshakes and air-kisses before they could open the doors; this is Latin America, after all. We were each assigned an appointment time later in the morning. Ours was last; good thing, too, as we had forgotten our extra passport photos and had to dash on foot back to los Balcones and then by taxi back to the office! First, the couple: it turned out they were challenged by the fact that they were both previously divorced, but never married to each other; that required some additional documents, but J had made sure they came prepared. The single woman was next, and she had a problem with her background check:  apparently she did not fingerprint well and the FBI could not run a check on her. Her application was not accepted, and she was instructed to return with three notarized letters from Ecuadorians who knew her personally and would vouch for her good character. The single man’s application was accepted without comment, and then it was our turn.  We stood at the counter under J’s watchful eye while the lovely and courteous clerk went over every document with an eye for detail. She finally pronounced them acceptable and we were directed to the cashier window, where a man sat behind a computer in a closet-sized locked room and one person at a time was allowed to approach the bullet-proof glass. We paid our $30 application fees, took the receipt back to the first clerk, and our application was accepted!

After reaching this point, J told us, the vast majority of visas will be approved with no further difficulties. We shook hands and air-kissed (when in Rome…) all around and wandered to a nearby taxi stand where we caught a cab for our apartment. Not so fast! As we approached los Balcones, my phone rang; it was J.  Apparently, there was one more form to sign! I fortunately remembered the Spanish words for “Please go back to where you picked us up,” and we hopped out of the taxi and marched right up to the clerk again. She handed me the form…but it had the printed name of the single man instead of mine!  The clerk blushed bright red, apologized, and printed the one with my name on it, which I signed with a shared laugh. Good to know these bureaucrats don’t take themselves too seriously.

Now, we wait.  We’ve met immigrants whose visas came through in only three days, and others who waited as long as six weeks. We are supposed to get an e-mail when it’s ready, with an appointment time to come in and get our visas! Once that’s done, we can find a permanent place and sign a lease. We are going on four months of living out of suitcases, and it is getting old. We are looking forward to having a home to make our own.  I’ve already been eyeing rugs and vases in the shops we pass.

This post may not have been the most interesting post ever, unless you’re thinking of expatriating yourself. I promise next time to make it up to you with a topic near and dear to everyone’s heart.

Next Post: Food and Shopping

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One thought on “The Expat Tribe and the Visa Process

  1. Excellent counsel! These sales people are always involved in these seminars, and are rarely, if ever the best way to go! You’re doing a great job in this blog, and refreshing a lot of old memories for me! We began our quest almost 23 years ago. Now happy campers in Honduras!

    Liked by 1 person

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