A Glimpse of the Country in the SAIME Line

I went to a sort of identity village in Guarenas to ask for a passport. The characters I met there were worthy of a story.

Photo: Valeria Pedicini / El Estimulo

I arrived at five in the morning and it was almost eleven o’clock when we were finally allowed to enter the SAIME office in Guarenas. The Servicio Administrativo de Identificación, Migración y Extranjería AKA SAIME, is the state service that provides cédulas de identidad (ID cards) and passports,  which are currently so difficult to obtain. My passport had expired, and there I was.

The Guarenas office is a sort of SAIME town, with stores and all, in what looked like a residential block protected by a black fence. As I entered, I could see shoes and garments in ugly improvised stands, peeled walls in need of a coat or two of fresh paint, products scattered resembling the bodegones that have spurred everywhere in the city and the classic place to make photocopies that also sells sodas and snacks.

While I waited to cross that fence, I stood in line among a very diverse crowd and started to take mental notes, and I mean “mental” because I didn’t dare to take my phone out while standing in the street. Those notes were mere observations on the citizens that, like me, stood there that day waiting for the State to graciously give us identity documents.

I stumbled on a sample of what Venezuelan society has become nowadays.

For example, that chatty woman, a fifty-something elementary school teacher who was next to me. She had to cross a river barefoot every day on her way to work, carrying her shoes in one hand and her backpack in the other, she crossed right where there used to be a bridge that was taken away by a flood and was now forgotten along with its twisted and rusty irons. On the other side of the river was a little shed that housed a rural school with a dirt floor that she had to inspect every morning looking for scorpions and snakes while her pupils brought water from the river to clean the dust out of their wooden desks. She was quite proud of herself and she visibly flourished as her story evolved, both the guy in front and I were impressed at that woman’s raw calling. I even felt like wanting to give her something back although I had nothing to give besides my appreciation for her work. There was something heroic in her story, that she managed to shuffle with heartfelt complaints, about the laughable pension that she received for her decades of teaching in such conditions. 

I also met this young guy in his early twenties, neatly dressed, with double tapa boca and face shield, who seemed to have all the answers to questions about the intricate SAIME mechanisms and spoke widely and surely about bitcoin as being a sort of new world order. “Do you trust math?” he said to the guy in front of him. “Well, If you trust math then you’ve got to trust bitcoin.” 

Such was his reasoning and, frankly, there was not much to argue about, I doubt that the man listening to him was knowledgeable of those topics but he still managed to provide a few opinions and nodded as if he really knew something about digital currencies. What else could he do? That young face shield fellow was so insistent and had this tendency to end every sentence with an unpleasant “Me entiendes” that he repeated again and again to the captive ears he had found in front of him. Although he wasn’t speaking to me I couldn’t help but mumble a little “Me explico”  every time. 

My collection of mental notes grew with the hours. I noticed a short woman that stood behind me in line from early on. At some point, she gave a speech about the treatment she received by the police on a night she was detained. I didn’t catch the reason why she got in that ordeal, perhaps she never said it, but her descriptions were so alive, painful, and stunning that it gave me the chills. I imagined that woman going through hell on earth and it wasn’t easy to imagine, she was small and thin and fragile, although there was rudeness in the way she moved and talked. I tried hard not to make eye contact with her but I must admit that I was totally absorbed by her story, which I luckily had to hear given the short distance between us. 

About a meter away on my right was another kind of line, it was for people requesting their cédulas. There was this guy who only needed a pulpit to call himself a preacher. He was the political kind, and told to the four winds everything we haven’t heard on the radio or read in the newspapers for more than a decade of censorship.

He was the personification of an angry Twitter account, elaborating on themes like rampant corruption; life before the revolution when one could find jobs with reasonable pay that allowed for buying a house and a car; the lack of people with technical abilities in key positions and the abundance of friends and family that had replaced them…

He went on and on and had a good number of followers among those who were in that line for cédulas. I found it brave that he didn’t lower his voice when a policeman or SAIME official passed nearby. As he spoke, the people nodded in sign of approval—but without wanting to call too much attention. I don’t blame them, we were all stuck there, waiting, with nothing to do besides observing, listening and taking in the hostile Guarenas sun without a hat or sunblock. 

My back was starting to itch from being in the same standing position, by that time we had been in lone for more than four hours, so I decided to try some stretching exercises without leaving my spot in line. It was funny that it proved to be somewhat viral because a few others started to mimic them along the line. It was around that time when I noticed this woman in the other line, after she proudly said: “Cuando yo bachaqueaba…” She repeated it before she started a new phrase. She must have been a bachaquera professional, I thought. Then I heard it again only that this time the elementary school teacher picked it up and looked squarely at me—as if I were a sound barrier between the two women—and said in a pretty loud way: “Mírala a ella, ‘cuando bachaqueaba’. ¿Ves? ¿Ves? Por eso estamos como estamos.” I didn’t turn to see but I could sense something building behind my back. I looked away at a ninety degree angle off the line and tried my best to ungroup from the bigmouth teacher until I heard a loud: “Qué te pasa, mijita, soy bachaquera ¿y qué?” 

I pretended I was invisible although I was right in the middle of the two. I looked around, the young bitcoiner could hide behind his face shield and had his eyes nailed to his phone; the preachy guy was silent and the chatty teacher luckily looked away.

Silence didn’t last long. A few minutes later I could hear again a melange of unsolicited bitcoin advice, complaints about the miserable pension salaries, truths unable to get to the papers and the occasional shouting of street vendors. At last, I was allowed to cross to the other side of that black fence where we joined another line without shade and then another line until we finally entered the Saime building. Once inside everyone had to slide and test drive every chair, even if it was broken,  in the same line fashion. 

Finally, after sliding my way to the top I got to sit in front of the camera and smile. I had my picture taken, my fingerprints scanned and could make it out of SAIME town before noon. At last!

Well, not quite. I´m still waiting, although not in line anymore, and I look forward to receiving that message saying: “Your passport is ready for pick up.” Once I receive that message, I’ll be back in the line and this time I’ll make sure to bring a hat, a small notepad, and a pen.

Alex Samsa

Alex Samsa is the pseudonym of someone who really wants to get his passport after publishing this piece.