Where We Going? A Passport Office Tale

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If there’s one characteristic that defines the Third World, it’s the bureaucracy that plagues government-related services. From the Licensing Office to my recent experience at the Passport Office, all Trinbagonians know that accomplishing anything requires first-person, platform video game skill for concise form completion, endurance to duck miles of red tape, and having a ‘sweet tongue’ to mamaguy front-desk drones to get them to do more than push a pencil.

Whether it’s renewing your driver’s licence or applying for the new machine-readable passport, the average citizen understands that it requires a day off from work, as the timeline, since success in said mission is anything but predictable.

Getting assistance is also a pull at the slot machine… a game of chance. More often that not, unless you’re related to upper management or have a link on the inside, asking to speak to a manager is a sure death sentence to your mission. The higher up you go, the less helpful public serv… ahem, I mean managers become. That is, if they’re at work that day, not on the other line, in a meeting, having lunch or not in a bad mood. Since this is common knowledge amongst our nation’s citizens, it’s little wonder why there is so much trepidation to apply for something as simple as a passport.

First off, the form itself isn’t simple. It comes with a four-page instruction booklet with “ands/ors”, which in America means either/or but in Trini means bring everything. Being assigned a date a year from said appointment gave me enough time to make copies of everything; so thanks for that appointment person!

Yup, in case you were vacaying in the sister isle, you’ll have to wait a year (and three weeks to be exact) to have a passport to go further, and sometimes, even longer. But I digress. After checking and rechecking that my documents were photocopied and originals were present, and counting the $250 renewal fee, I headed to my 8 a.m. appointment at San Fernando’s Passport Office.

After ‘buffing’ a man for not paying attention to the silently changing, digital sign indicating which numbers were being served, the sweet, yet clearly effeminate desk clerk checked my documents, and gave me a number. I waited ten minutes before I was called. A good sign I thought; I’d be out of here in no time.

The passport clerk took my forms and using a red pen, began ticking off the required fields. We finished the first page without a hitch, and then she turned it over. Checking off the Republic Bank stamp, she asked, “How do you know the recommender?”

“She’s my aunt,” I replied.

She abruptly looked up.

“Sorry, no relatives, if you can come back before 1…” she started.

Being college educated, with a degree in writing, I prize myself on reading comprehension, even if my grammar can be shaky.

“Where does it say that?” I said, bristling, while her face began to harden with my challenge.

“It’s in the instruction booklet,” she said, while reaching for a copy.

I pulled out mine and placed it on the desk. On the inside cover of the booklet, under the headline of recommender, it clearly stated, “Recommender cannot be immediate relative of applicant”. “Immediate” underlined. When did immediate relations become aunts and uncles?

I asked to speak to someone in charge. Well since that person wasn’t at work (really? thanks Mr. Manager), I was told to wait for a senior clerk. Her face was set in a resistant scowl, as I approached, but I tried my sweetest voice with a tinge of Yankee.

“Umm…I was told that my aunt is considered an immediate relative but…” I started.

“No relatives,” she deadpanned.

But wha de… I took a deep breath. I had posted the night before on Facebook: “pls don’t let me have to slap anyone at the passport office”.

“Where does it state that”, I questioned.

Where was the signage? The form said no immediate…

“No relatives,” she repeated.

The conversation had ended. I had to deal with it. And although I took down the number for the Head Office in town, what good was that going to do? Who could I speak to in order to explain the absurdity in my dismissal? While they were certified passport officers, they clearly were not versed in comprehension.

“F*cking drones,” I muttered under my breath counting the four hours I had to find a new recommender, before I would be reassigned a new appointment date.

Drones is what the typical public servant is. Underpaid, unmotivated and under-managed, most Trinbagonians working in public service will NOT go above and beyond their basic job requirements. When the one in a million decides to process your form five minutes before closing, we breathe a sigh of relief and decide to play Lotto. While we have upgraded to basic politeness and attentiveness, the average public servant is still a sheep and like sheep… not the most independent thinker. Is this why as a society we remain rife with problems? InI  I stead of empowering our workers to solve arising issues, rewarding them when they do, and motivating them to set higher professional standards, we only want basically educated people, motivated enough to get out of bed most mornings to earn a pay cheque.

While I hold onto my receipt and count the days until this nightmare is behind me (for five years at least), it is my anger at the injustice of this situation, and how it affects our evolution as a society that motivated me to write this piece. As the holder of a US passport, I have options. But what about Ramsingh who wants to visit his daughter in Texas, and who has yet to see his grandkids in the flesh? His own country makes him wait a few years to be able to travel (you’re basically grounded until your appointment), jump through hoops, and then he has to tackle the US Embassy for a visa? Even Ramsingh knows the ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ story, that is – requiring magic and slaying a giant.

Instead of trying to stretch our throats to swallow this big pill that is shitty public service, Trinbagonians need to exercise their rights as tax paying citizens to helpful, courteous, quick results. Not only does every man, woman and child deserve it, despite their socioeconomic background or level of education, but as a recently celebrated republic, don’t we believe that, “Together we Aspire, Together We Achieve”?

Only when citizens of T&T can hold one another to a level of accountability, can we dream of moving past this Third World status, and collect our own passport to a better daily existence.


Quilin Achat

Quilin Achat is an avid lover of reading, so it's no surprise that she runs a small, unconventional bookstore called The Fire is Lit, in San Fernando. Check out the Fire is Lit at http://facebook.com/theFireisLit.

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