Confessions of an expat – Exotic bureaucracy

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Former British colonies have a way of hanging on to bureaucratic procedures that existed in the bad old days. When officers from Great Britain were out there showing the world how it was done, it was all about doing things in triplicate, using hand-written forms and that technological marvel, carbon paper, and although that has largely disappeared in the UK now, places such as India and certain Caribbean islands cling onto it. It’s as though if you don’t follow strict rules the world will fall apart.

What also has to be overcome in certain parts of the world is the need of people in positions of even minimal authority to be obeyed without question. So it was that when I wanted to cancel my car insurance in Tobago I was confronted with Miss Bureaucracy. I went into the insurance broker’s office and explained what I wanted to do. She was in her 20s physically but in her dealings with the public she was a grumpy old woman.

“You’ll have to bring in the certificate,” she said.

I fished it out of my pocket.

“That’s a copy,” she said flatly. “It has to be the original.”

I explained that I didn’t have the original because I had already sold the car and the certificate was in it.

“You will have to bring in the original,” she repeated. It was like dealing with a primitive android whose circuitry was faulty and couldn’t get past this little stage.

Then I had a brainwave. There was only a short time till it expired anyway. What if I didn’t cancel the policy at all? What would happen?

She didn’t like this idea.

What would happen?

“Nothing,” she admitted, as her colleagues looked up from their desks and stared at the preposterous foreigner who was challenging the very fabric of their world.

“Okay, then, we’ll just forget about it,” I said, and left the office.

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This business of selling the car was to prove more problematic than I had expected. I had found a buyer with ridiculous ease, and as an added bonus he was a mechanic. He didn’t even check the thing over before he bought it, because he spent his life sorting these things out. You can never tell with an old car, but he had been for a trip in it, it seemed okay and if something went wrong, he could fix it anyway.

He was a remarkable man: many in his position would have used their superior knowledge to haggle with me.

Never before had I sold a car without someone lifting the bonnet and saying “There’s an oil leak”.

As it was, he offered about 10% less than I was asking, which was an arbitrary figure anyway, and so he’d got himself a bargain of sorts.

He even gave me the money in cash, which I thought would be the easiest way. But that was where the process ceased to be easy, because it is where bureaucracy entered the scene.

The bank didn’t like it. I had offered them a wodge of TT dollars which I wanted to pay in (not take out, mind, but pay in). They wanted to know where I got the money. Sold my car, I said. Get a receipt, they said. I pointed out that that wasn’t the way it worked. The buyer had the car, I had the money.

I went to see my buyer, got him to write out a little note explaining the transaction, and went back to the bank with it.

Not good enough. Now they wanted to know where he got the money.

After another trip to the buyer and the bank, I got him to come in with me. He had withdrawn the money from his own account at that very branch a few hours before I took it back and tried to put it in.

Yes, I know, it’s a big bad world out there and money-laundering is a real phenomenon, not just something you hear about on TV. And if I wasn’t laundering money, I must have got the money from selling drugs, mustn’t I?

It gets up everyone’s nose to be treated with suspicion. If this had happened to a black Tobagonian in England he’d have been screaming ‘racism’ and the bank would have had to issue a full apology and give an assurance that no such prejudice would be tolerated.

So to all those people out there who like to do things by the book: respect. May your death be as well-ordered as your life. But there are a couple of words I would like to share with you. Flexibility is one. Sometimes things don’t go as you expect and you have to adapt to the new circumstances.

The other word is negotiation. Particularly in a situation where there is no actual winner and loser, talking and trying to smooth the way can save everyone a lot of aggravation. Being dogmatic can cause wars. Negotiation is what ends arguments.

Saying “I am the boss and you will do it my way” only puts you on a ladder one rung below a bigger boss. I know that’s how it works in the army, but in everyday life? We’re more civilized than that, aren’t we?




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