Living in Costa Rica – In order to become a temporary or permanent resident here, it is necessary to first register with the CCSS (Social Security System) or ‘Caja’ as it is popularly known. Thus states the helpful Immigration department’s website, amongst a number of other pre-requisites on the long road to residency. So, off I trot to my local Ebais (Social Security Clinic) to register. “Oh, no”, they said, “you’re a foreigner- you have to go to the CCSS main office in downtown San José”.
The Caja headquarters building on Avenida Segundo is something straight out of soviet Russia. Grey, austere, soulless and the perfect nesting ground for the faceless bureaucrat and hapless petitioners. Women cradling wailing children; campesinos clutching dog-eared photocopies; smart young men with leather portfolios and cellphones; impatient shopworkers anxious not to be docked pay. All of grim humanity is here. The hallway is dim, large and filled with cashier-like windows, but this is no bank. No friendly posters showing the perfect nuclear family who took out a home loan, all smiles and white teeth. This is hell.
Every seat is taken; miserable and frustrated citizens wait their turn to be served or not. ‘Take the ticket for an appointment’ states the sign. I take number 71; the red LED counter flickers on 23. People mill around looking baffled, others press forward and crowd around the windows, only to be sent back by the clerks for not having a ticket. Twenty minutes pass and the electronic counter stubbornly refuses to pass 25. The windows are almost obscured by the throng of people, so the clerk finally loses his rag, comes out of his booth and shouts at all the world. ‘You won’t get served without a ticket. Move away from the windows and wait your turn’. The crowd accedes, but only for another twenty minutes until it all happens again.
A newcomer arrives and seems to shuffle straight to window. Anarchy erupts.
“Take the ticket!”, “Wait your turn!”, “There’s a line!”, “We’ve been waiting two hours!”
The poor woman did not see the sign or ticket machine- hidden behind the mass of bodies huddling towards the windows. She is clearly a mass murderer in the eyes of the crowd. Sheepishly she takes the ticket and withdraws.
An hour passes. The ticket machine runs out of numbers, so the clerk abandons his customer and fixes the machine with a new set of numbers. Now serving 54.
More time. 63 shows on the screen and somehow two people come forward at the same time. They both have the same ticket and both insist they are 63. I have seen this on airplanes. Somebody screwed up and double booked?
‘No, no. You have green 63 and this one is black 63. We are serving green numbers first’.
The queue has got so long that that new black numbers have caught up with the old green numbers. There are now 100 people in the line. New arrivals breezing into the hall, collect their tickets thinking they are but a few moments away from being served. Little do the poor sods realize they have about a two and a half hour wait. Bless them, those people at the Caja have laid on snack kiosks and drinks machines in the hall. A news stand would be a great addition. I’ll tell them next time.
Finally, I make it to the front, just ahead of Mrs black 71, who is sent away by the clerk for not being green. I grin inwardly. I explain my case to the funcionario. He nods. He sighs. He shakes his head. What I ask for cannot be done. I do not have the critical piece of paper to be processed.
‘You must come back with your granny’s swimming certificates’.
Or roughly, in words to the same effect, go to Immigration and bring me back the head of a Namibian Antlion before you are worthy of an audience in the great Caja.
My advice if you have to go to the Caja– bring a book to read. And as for Immigration, that is another tale…
By Drew Harttis