A Shining City upon a Hill … in Lima

Posted on 12. Jul, 2017 by in peru

Alternate Title: Yet Another Glowing Review of the US Embassy in Lima

This is Part II to Peruvian Customer Service, Documented, in which I tried and failed to obtain a certificate of live birth for my newborn daughter. I did get formal-looking rejection letters from both Peru’s RENIEC and the hospital, which I hoped would suffice to get my third child approved for American citizenship and a U.S. passport.

As you know if you read my first or second glowing reviews of the U.S. embassy in Lima, the customer service is not like the DMV or whatever government office you hate to visit in the States. The Lima embassy gives phenomenal service, which you appreciate even more because you live in Peru, where customer service is provided by Peruvians who look for ways to say “no.”

So the “shining city” is the American embassy, which is American soil, but it’s in front of a big hill, not on top of it.

Like many trips to the embassy, this one came with some pressure. We really want to visit my family this year, and to do that we need to get the baby a U.S. passport so she’ll be allowed into the country. Everybody else in the family is good. But no baby, no trip.

And I have no certificate of live birth …

While the stakes are high, I have the will to step up to the plate and get the job done. I’m eager to meet the challenge. Because for the embassy to give such great service, they have good people on staff and I have gotten into the habit of going beyond the mere transactional relationship between citizen and state. I try to strike up conversations with anybody and everybody at the embassy, the shining city, and try to connect on a human level.

Maybe because I’m approaching middle-age, I have come to respect people who work at places like the state department. These people have criminal records that are clean as a whistle. They aren’t just free of convictions for violent felonies, they’re also free of petty felonies like drug charges and DUIs. They don’t even have misdemeanors like public intoxication or minor possession.

While the young-and-dumb me from 20 years ago would scoff at thinking that, I realize now how much sacrifice it must have taken not to be drinking and driving every night between your favorite neighborhood dope spots and the houses of future teen pregnancies.

Even if, like me, you learn from your mistakes and come to admire those who followed the straight-and-narrow path, it’s too late. I mean, there’s nothing I could possibly say to get a job at the embassy. This would be the guy looking over my application.

So I like to be friendly with the people of the embassy, without getting my hopes up that I’ll ever have embassy staff friends with no criminal records who come over for burgers, wings or some other American food which I cook very well. I just try to have friendly conversations with people who have no criminal records while on embassy business such as getting daughter’s American citizenship. Baby steps.

I would never wear jeans or t-shirts to deal with the professionals at the embassy. At a minimum it’s a dress shirt and slacks, and that’s for the most routine business. For something like the presentation of my new baby, which entails conversation attempts with at least three embassy employees (more if I’m lucky), I wear a suit. The suit not only allows me to convey the respect the shining city deserves, but it also allows me to wear my USA-Peru lapel pin.

The lapel pin, which I would assume all government employees notice given how elected politicians seem to have a rule requiring them to wear American flag pins, is my way of showing that I’m in Peru but I’m totally on Team America. Not officially on the team like an actual government employee with no criminal record, but I’m on the team in spirit, you know. Hearts and minds. I fully support of the mission, whatever it is.

I have my shoes shined in the neighborhood and get dressed up before coming back to check on wife. Amor, that skirt may be a little too high. Change into something else. We’re not going out dancing, this isn’t Esto es Guerra. This is the American embassy, on American soil. I love you, but let’s try to be professional and make a good impression.

My only complaint about the embassy, which I’m ashamed to voice because the service is so good, is the location. It is further east than you would ever want to go if not for the embassy, in the foothills of the Andes Mountains. If you’re not familiar with Lima, civilized people don’t live anywhere near any fuckin mountains, and the embassy has a mountain right behind it. But maybe that’s for security reasons.

I take wife and baby for the 30-minute taxi ride to the embassy and we line up for American Citizen Services. There are never more than one or two people in this line, unlike the “visa services” line, which always has a few dozen people trying to go to Disneyland or wherever. But we’ve been through that line too and, even though it looks long, the service is excellent.

On this day there isn’t anybody in the ACS line, so we march right to the front. The security guards are all Peruvian, I don’t think they speak much English. But the company is contracted by the embassy, so certainly no criminal records. I don’t try too hard to strike up a conversation, but it doesn’t hurt to start warming up your conversational skills. So I always have my appointment sheet and passport in hand and a smile on my face. I volunteer that we don’t have any phones or devices as per the new policy, no electronics whatsoever. And I made the wife switch purses to her smallest one before we left, so everything is allowed inside.

We’re through security and into the shining city.

Turn right and walk the 50 yards of sidewalk while admiring the sprawling green lawn, maybe the cleanest lawn in Lima. I note the Inca-style design in the building. I wonder if the architect was American.

Through the giant door to face another security checkpoint, just as the freezing blast of air conditioning engulfs you from all sides. Actually it wasn’t freezing this time since it’s winter in Lima, but in the summer the air conditioning is something to be proud of, just like in the United States. The air conditioning has allowed me to wear my suit and lapel pin when I have embassy business in the summer months.

We pass security and into American Citizen Services. We don’t have to take a number for baby presentation, for this we have an appointment. They’ll call our names. I’ve been smiling and conversational up until now, but this is where I start to feel a little pressure because the first thing they ask for is all the documentation. I have everything except a certificate of live birth, so I start preparing to explain these Peruvian rejection letters instead.

I look around at the other American citizens. I’ve chatted other citizens up once or twice, but not like the embassy staff.

The embassy people are separated from us in this room by plexiglass, so it makes friendly conversation difficult. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. In previous chats I’ve learned that the first round of embassy staff who attend these windows aren’t all American citizens. As I understand, they’re half and half Peruvian and American, but definitely no criminal records from any of them. And the ones who are Peruvian speak fluent English and certainly have valid tourist visas. And unlike the security guards, they have a direct influence on the desired outcome of your visit.

Smiling, I hand in everything I have as I explain the lack of a certificate of live birth. I do have these Peruvian rejection letters, which my agent said were good enough. We were 20 seconds into the interview and the main obstacle, the only obstacle, was overcome. I tried to point out that RENIEC has a 20-business-day processing time, so I didn’t want to apply again because they could just say no again and I’d lose another month waiting, but the agent wasn’t listening.

Should I have shut up? Was I annoying or suspicious going on about RENIEC? Oh well, I turn my left shoulder toward the glass. Let her check out the USA-Peru pin. Look back to smile at wife and baby, so she sees I’m a good dad.

As we’re signing the stuff I ask her what her favorite city in the States is. She almost exclusively visits New York, where she has family. And what is her favorite food? Oh, can I make a recommendation, have you ever had slow-smoked ribs? They’re my wife’s favorite. You can get them anywhere in America, just find a barbecue restaurant. I recommend ribs, but any smoked pork item or beef brisket will be amazing.

The agent tells me to go into the side office with my wife and prospective citizen baby and close the door, and my inspecting officer will be with me soon. OK, thank you very much and remember that, write it down, BBQ ribs. She wrote it down.

I wondered if she would go for barbecue the next time she is in New York as I moved the wife and baby into the office. We were here in this same office just last year with my second baby. I wonder if we’ll have the same inspecting officer.

I remember the inspecting officer last year had a son at Cornell University. I wonder if she’ll be our officer this time. I would like to see her again. I would like to ask how her son is doing, how are his grades? What does he want to do after school?

I had asked her what the secret was to raise the kind of child who gets accepted into a school like Cornell. I didn’t say “so he’s not like me” or anything like that, but I was legitimately curious. What did she say was the secret? Shit, I have no idea. It probably won’t come up, but I make a mental note not to ask that question again, if it’s her again.

I’m not worried about the baby being approved at this point. We’re totally out of the woods now that the Peruvian rejection letters were accepted as a certificate of live birth, and the customer service here is really phenomenal. I’m just trying to be nice in gratitude, and possibly make friends with the kind of Americans who don’t have criminal records and whose children go to Cornell.

I bet there is some kind of policy against embassy staff exchanging contact info or anything with citizen clients, but maybe if you make a friendly connection and later bump into them on the weekend at the Malecon or wherever, then maybe …

A man comes in. It’s not the same woman.

He asks the usual “How did you meet?” questions to see if our stories add up. But the baby starts screaming bloody murder for milk. In Peru you can breastfeed your baby wherever you damn well please: in line at the store, on the bus, at the bar or even while riding on the back of a motorcycle. But during our time in the States wife got the hint that it’s not so cool with gringos, so she asked permission to feed the baby.

Of course, he kindly replied.

The breastfeeding may have sucked the suspicion out of the meeting, but this wasn’t going to be difficult anyway. We already got citizenship for one of our children born in Peru, and the boy was born in the States. All the same, the officer plodded on with the required questions and we gave him the truth.

Then I began changing the baby’s diaper. I didn’t do this to emphasize that I am the father and we are a real family, or even that I am a good father. I just did it out of habit, and while I was doing it I realized how much of a natural I must look like. I’ve been changing diapers nonstop for four years. I know the baby will be accepted into the United States, but I hope me changing this diaper makes the officer feel good about the work he’s doing in Peru.

I worked in some small talk about all the places he has visited. But I don’t think I made enough of an impression for us to connect if, say, we bumped into each other at the Malecon. Unless maybe he sees me and the wife wearing suits, me changing diapers and her breastfeeding.

He disappears for a few minutes and returns with a stamp on my receipt for when we can pick up the baby’s passport and birth certificate. We thank him kindly, I wish him luck with his career and with his own children, who I asked all about during our meeting, and we take leave.

On this day I also had to notarize some documents and the appointment was for 11:30, an hour away. The officer arranged for me to see the notary immediately (excellent customer service!), and I was finished with that in another five minutes.

I led wife to the embassy coffee shop which sells embassy-branded gifts. The last time I had the pleasure of having embassy business I bought the coffee mug pictured below, which I always make a point of serving to gringos who visit for the first time. And if they ask about it, I always say how good the service is at the embassy. Isn’t it so nice to visit?

Things went so well on this particular day that I decided to buy another gift. Wife pointed out the glossy silver coffee mug, saying it was more beautiful than the white one I had chosen. But we already have too many coffee mugs, I thought as I spotted the pisco sour glasses. I bought them.

So here we are, finished with everything at like 10:30 a.m. Thinking we would be caught up at the embassy for at least a couple hours, I had set up a business appointment in Surco for 1:30 p.m. Now I would have to go all the way home, stay in my suit and take a taxi all the way back. So I dropped in on the office two hours early and they received us, and wife and I were ultimately home in time for lunch.

A day or so later, I published the Peruvian customer service piece about the rejection letters, which I didn’t want public before presenting baby before the embassy. And I booked flights for the States.

But in the days after presenting the baby but BEFORE picking up her passport, a nervous doubt set in. What if some embassy functionary sees that blog post and decides to cancel her American citizenship and demand I provide the certificate of live birth? Then I’d have to go back to goddamn RENIEC, and we might not be able to go to the United States as planned, not to mention the nonrefundable plane tickets.

I wasn’t really worried, but it was a nagging doubt as I suited up (business casual actually) to pick up the documents two weeks later.

I hit the ACS line without wife or baby, again an empty line. I showed my receipt and waved me through. I had only brought a book to read while I wait, so I was through security even faster with no briefcase of supporting evidence or family members to get through. I ran through the beautiful lawn and neo-Inca architecture into the air-conditioned ACS. I took a number, 37, and noticed the woman at a window under the number 36 finishing up and leaving. Before I could even sit down and open my book, an empty window dinged with 37 above.

“I didn’t even get to open my book,” I joked to the agent behind the glass. It wasn’t the same one I recommended barbecue. She smiled and took my receipt. She fetched the passport and birth certificate, I confirmed the details and it was finished. There was no way to start a conversation (What’s your favorite American city? What’s your favorite food?), but I had my daughter’s citizenship!

As I left ACS, I realized that I just arrived 10 minutes ago. I don’t really want to leave the shining city yet, so I went to the coffee shop which also sells gifts.

I looked over the mugs and glasses. I thought about the shiny silver mug. Then I took a closer look at the items I didn’t have any of – shirts and hats. I wouldn’t get a baseball cap, but the polo shirts with the embassy logo were very nice. And only 50 soles for 100% Pima cotton. But do they have XXL? They do, in gray and black!

I’m tempted, but I decide against the shirt. Where would I wear it? Even if there were a perfect gringo-networking event, everybody I meet would ask if I work at the embassy. And I’d bow my head and say “No, I’m just a big fan.” I would be “perpin’,” as they used to say in the 90s.

Instead of gifts I ordered a coffee, Americano of course, and sat down at a table to read my book. Maybe a nice embassy employee with no criminal record would come in and sit down for a coffee too.

As I was looking over the gifts a guy was speaking to the café employees. He was a Latino American with a good bit of muscle on his frame. Not the last guy to be picked on the football field. Real football, that is. You know what that means … law enforcement. Or military. Plenty of both in this part of the world, at least in ally countries. His native Spanish was native, but you know he’s a gringo because he’s talking to the café employees. Non-gringo Latinos don’t notice people below their station, and certainly don’t talk to them. And the LE gringo spoke an international-ish Spanish, not a distinct country.

I wonder how I’d get on with a law-enforcement gringo down here. I would have been to spooked to open up and be friendly if I had met one in Bogota during the Expat Chronicles dark ages. Even today I’d be a little concerned that some in that community may know who I am, but probably not. It’s been years. Still, I’d have to try not to blurt out something stupid like, “I’d pass a drug test right now, for anything, even a hair test.”

That’s true by the way, but it’s not something you say to international law enforcement agents.

As I drank my coffee and read my book a gringa came in and greeted the café employees by name. She spoke an academic Spanish, which is to say fluent but lacking the quirks gained over years fighting with nosy in-laws, negotiating Latin customer service, smacking people, paying off cops, whatever.

She ordered a coffee and started to tell them about her recent trip to Huaraz. If she sits down and a conversation happens, I can ask about Huaraz. I would love to visit, but not until they get proper plane service. I’m not a 20-year-old backpacker, so no buses in the fuckin mountains for me. Of course I wouldn’t say any of that.

I finished my coffee and thought about leaving, but it still seems a little early. As I stand up I feel the calling, and I’m delighted for the reason to stick around: I need to have a pony!

I had gone number 1 at the embassy, but how could it have never occurred to me to have a pony? I wonder if it’s like back home, or is it like in Latin America?

I turn the corner outside the coffee shop and into the bathroom, it’s immaculate as always. Not even a drop on the sink surface.

How will I know if I can flush the shit paper? I’m trying to devise an objective test just as I open the stall door and I see it … there’s no bin! You don’t even have the option to throw the shit paper in the trash!

I drop my pants and sit down, ecstatic. I noticed the Kohler brand toilet.

I have the pony and wipe a few times, discarding in the toilet as on American soil, when doubt sets in. Maybe they don’t have a bin but the toilet’s the same. I decide to give it a mercy flush, and the whole toilet vibrates with powerful plumbing. WOW! I may have been a little splashed down under.

It’s just like the ones at my old university, or maybe an American airport but without the heavy traffic. I may be the first one to have a pony in this toilet all day.

What a great finish to this visit, the Shining City upon a Hill!

Below is a shot of how the lapel pin looks on a suit. Be one of the cool kids and get one for your country of residence!

U.S. Embassy in Peru
Av. La Encalada, cuadra 17
Santiago De Surco, Lima
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