Friday, November 20, 2009

Regarding the Network...

This is one of those countries where the expression “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” rings true. In order to get things done efficiently, you just have to have the right relationships set up. Just last week I was in a situation in which this “network” of people ended up being extremely helpful.

It was Wednesday morning, and we were leaving Kim’s community. We had a mountain of luggage, and the plan was to take a pick up truck to the big town near her, and then buy as many seats as necessary to fit her stuff on the bus that would get us to the Capital. We would arrive around midday. I was scheduled to take to the GRE the next day, so we had planned enough time into the schedule to be able to relax in the 24 hours before I took the test.

Everything went much more smoothly than expected. The pick up truck arrived on time, the bus driver was friendly and cooperative, and we got into the Peace Corps office feeling pretty good about life. I logged into my email to double check everything I needed for the test the next day. Everything seemed to be in order...except for one little thing. There was a tiny note at the bottom of the page saying that people taking the test outside their country of origin ABSOLUTELY MUST present an original copy of their passport in order to take it. My passport was sitting in my house, a couple hundred miles away.

At first I thought it was no big deal. I’ve gotten used to living in a place where just about everything can be negotiated. I had three forms of photo ID with me, plus a photo copy of my passport. I called up the 800 number to make sure I would be alright without the passport. They informed me in the cold, semi-polite way of American customer service that no, there was absolutely no way that I would be able to take the test without my passport. And no, I could not postpone my appointment in the last 24 hours. I asked if there was anything at all that anyone could do for me. They said no. We argued for half an hour, then I hung up.

Now I was worried. The money I paid to be able to take this test is roughly equivalent to what I make in a month here. What was I going to do? There was only one thing I could do. I ran for the bus, hoping to get the passport and be back before the test started. Then I got on the phone. This is the part where the “network” kicks in.

First I called my project partner at his office, in the town down the mountain from my house. I explained the situation to him, and he said he would send someone up to my house to get the passport, to save me time. “DON’T WORRY!” he yelled. “We will take care of you.”

Then I called my host mother, to tell her that some random guy would be showing up asking to get into my house to look for my passport, and also to tell her that this was okay. Fortunately she had cell phone signal. We had to shout a little bit to hear each other, but the basic gist of the message got across. Before I hung up she said “I don’t exactly understand what is going on, but I can tell from your voice, Timo, that this is important. So I will do everything I can to make it happen.”

Now I hide my passport very well so that any potential burglar would not be able to find it and make a pretty penny selling it on the black market. It took my host mother an hour of meticulously sorting through my things to find it, but find it she did. She handed it to the motorcycle driver, and he took off for the bus station (an hour away).

They had told me that the guy would be waiting for me at the bus, so that I could just turn around and ride back that same night. I had my doubts, but hoped for the best. Yet when my bus pulled in, after the three hour ride, there the guy was. He handed me the passport, and I gave him a big hug (even though I’d never met him before). Then I bought another ticket, and got back on the bus for another three hour ride back to Santo Domingo.

It was a long day and I was very tired at the end of it. Fortunately I got plenty of sleep and did alright on the test. But none of it would have happened had it not been for my Dominican friends and family who were perfectly willing to drop what they were doing and help me out. Some Americans say that this country is inefficient, because not everything has American quality standards of service. I don’t know about that. I dealt with both “American customer service” and the Dominican system on that day, and the Dominicans were the ones who helped me. It’s probably because they know me, and care about me. That’s why they were willing to make sacrifices. The lady I talked to for half an hour on the 800 number didn’t care two hoots about what happened to me, because she didn’t know me. I was just another caller. Which system is better?


Jason said...

Which system is better? The one that got you your passport :)

Seriously, you've laid out the distinction between bureaucratic impartiality and a kinship society in a nutshell. You got the worst of U.S. "service" and the best of D.R. service, but there's a good side to the U.S. way too. ETS is just never attuned to test-takers' needs; it's worse than the banks in my eyes.

Congratulations on raising the funds for your library! I'm glad for your sake and for your community.

~ Jason

Annemarie said...

Hey Tim! Long time no see! You've been doing some amazing things lately; congratulations on all your success.

As to your post, I am glad that you have good friends and family that will help you out. However, I'm pulling a Tim and playing devil's advocate. I have seen plenty of incidences like yours in the US, all ending up in people coming together to help each other out. I have been on both the receiving and the giving ends and am always grateful for everyone involved.
Human kindness is not unique in the DR!

Also, you need to take into account who you spoke with from ETS. Chances are, they are a receptionist of some sort and deal with calls like yours 20 times a day (trust me, i used to have a job like that; it sucks). That person has no power can literally cannot make an exception to you. the "coolness" you experienced is, pathetically enough, the only defense mechanism the receptionist had against their natural feelings of empathy. Thank goodness you had so many good friends to help you out. Would the same result have occurred if such friends were not present?

Ok, I'm done playing Tim. Despite all the bureaucracy, not all people in the US are meanies. I believe that had you been in the same situation here the results would have been the same. I'm glad God is watching over you so well these past years. I cannot wait to see you and Kim again!

God bless!

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