Confessions of an expat – the art of paying the bills

For those who don’t know where Suriname is, that’s it in the middle, the white shape. French Guiana to the right, Guyana to the left. The mall where you pay for water in the north of Paramaribo is somewhere in that star

Paying the bills is probably nobody’s favourite pastime, but it has to be done. However, it helps if you understand the system. Many citizens of the world are accustomed to either paying by Direct Debit or getting the bill through the mail.

And that is why it was a shock when I was first in Suriname to find a man on a small motorbike waiting at my garden gate, saying he had come to disconnect the water because we hadn’t paid the bill for three months. Now, apart from anything else, we haven’t been living in that house for three months – we only moved in six weeks earlier. And for another thing, I had been checking the mailbox every day with the intention of paying the bills as they arrived.

Obviously I misunderstood when people told me I could pay at the mall. I didn’t realize you had to go there uninvited, find out how much you owed and pay there and then.

There followed the standard conversation between the customer and the man who has been sent to do the deed. (By the way, congratulations to this man for his knowledge of idiomatic English.)

“See? I didn’t understand. I’ll go and pay it immediately.”

“I’ll still have to cut you off.”

“Can’t you just tell your boss I didn’t understand but I do now and I’ll rectify the situation right away?”

“Why should I do that? I’ll cut it off and come back at three o’clock to put it back on.”

“But you’re a reasonable man and you can see I’m not trying to avoid paying it.”

“You’re putting me in a very awkward position.”

He came into the garden, looked at the meter, wrote something down and got back on his bike, obviously fearful of the consequences if his boss, Meneer or Mevrouw Inflexible, hadn’t been fed recently and was in a bad mood.

As for me, I filled the kettle and used the toilet, just in case, then headed for one of the rare ATMs that accept Visa (because Suriname is in love with Mastercard) and went up to Maretraite Mall.

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There were two kassas. One for water and one for electricity. Which means, as I would soon discover, that you queue for 20 minutes for one and then a further 20 minutes for the other.

Here’s a wild idea: how about enabling both of the cashiers to do both water and electricity?

No? Too radical? Of course: I should shut up and mind my own business. Who the hell do I think I am, anyway?

However, paying a bill you have not received is not the best story in the litany of cash settlements. Many years ago in the UK, in a time before mobile phones (so younger readers may find this far-fetched) I was having a dispute with the Income Tax department, who suddenly claimed I owed them this much from a previous year and that much for the year before that. I employed an accountant but he couldn’t prove I didn’t owe it.

Eventually I decided to go along with it. Having phoned them several times and been quoted various figures, I went to the office to find out once and for all and to write them a cheque.

The girl behind the counter said she couldn’t give me a final figure. I said “People do when I phone up,” and she agreed. So I went downstairs, into the phone box across the street and called them. A perfectly pleasant young woman gave me the settlement figure, so I went back in and paid them.

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Suriname has two rainy seasons – a short one and a long one – so you can’t say there is not enough water

Bureaucracy is an international phenomenon. I once had trouble cashing a cheque in Tobago when the young man in the bank said “Why is it made out to Chris when on your driving licence it says your name is Christopher?” Smart kid – he’ll go far. I just hope that when he dies and goes to heaven he’s got his papers in order. I hear St Peter can be very strict about that sort of thing. And with all the scams, electronic and otherwise, that go on down here on earth, there is bound to be someone between here and heaven selling false credentials and hacking the ever-changing code of the electronic pearly gates.

But of course that bank clerk will. He’s the kind of person who wakes up in the middle of the night to make sure he’s asleep. Heaven must be full of administrators, because they’ve spent their lives doing things by the book.

But what if St Peter is Surinamese? A big, burly man in a khaki uniform with a pistol in his holster, a rifle slung over his shoulder and the weary look of someone who has to work all hours of the day and night. He won’t let you in unless you pay $50 for a tourist visa.