On The Typewriter and Waiting

The typewriter is an instrument of the tropics. I remember my initial jaunts through Guatemala and my surprise at hearing the steady, uniform clacking in a soothing percussive riff at the local Typewriter School. It is a sound that accompanies me to virtually all trips to Central American government offices. You dreadfully stand in a dank, cramped office where manila folders bulge from sagging bookshelves; everything is furnished from a 1970s catalogue called “Government Cubicles,” stained with decades of abuse and disrepair. At a desk sits either 1) A sweaty, mustachioed bureaucrat, his stomach pushing the thin fabric of his short-sleeve button-up shirt to the limits, his lethargic hands pecking deliberately at the strange machine on his desk, pushing his aviator-style eyeglasses up every now and again, or 2) an overly made up, dumpy middle-age woman in a polyester suit that, when combined with her hairstyle, makes her look like a horribly warped picture from a Latin disco circa 1982. She is slightly better at typing than her male counterpart, but shoots off barbs of sharp words in the form of poor jokes or obvious observations to her slumping, dying coworkers. The lighting is the flickering florescence of governmental madness that breeds inefficiency, corruption and contempt. The typewriter indeed forms an integral part in the orchestra that plays Latin America in my brain.

Costa Rica, being ahead of the curve down here, has been gradually phasing out the typewriter. Most transactions are done with computers, and the song of dot-matrix printers fills government institutions. The computer has been a boon to getting things done here: most ID cards are machine produced; your bank passbook is automatically updated; and a few keystrokes will call up all your businesses registry information. The only disadvantage is that, when the power goes out, which is often, the computers do not work. Whereas I can imagine our Nicaraguan colleagues diligently typing away by candlelight, my Tico brethren can only sit, arms crossed, and declare their impotence due to the power outage. The same happens when the “system” goes down. This also happens frequently. All of us down here are used to going to the bank to pay bills, paying with a credit card at a gas station or trying to get a copy of the deed to one’s house, only to hear the dreaded phrase “no hay sistema.” The system is down. You’ll have to wait.

What does one do in such a situation? I used to feel my blood pressure rise until I began to sweat through my shirt. I used to clench my teeth and curse the system. I used to curl into a ball, rock back and forth, look to the heavens and cry, why? Why?

Eventually, I got used to it. And I learned. Now, I don’t go anywhere without a backup plan, something to read, a journal, anything to take advantage of the system’s down time. Because once you learn how to deal with it, you do as the locals do. You wait. And you find out that you’re no worse for the wear. You might even get something accomplished. 

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