Repat Returns to a Wake-Up Call

I had been gone for almost four years, the longest stretch away from Latin America since I moved there in 2008. Long enough to get used to Gringolandia. I didn’t think it’d be a shock coming back. But there was a notable wakeup call.

We flew into Lima around midnight and had to check in for our next flight to Arequipa. I hadn’t purchased checked baggage because the LATAM website does not enable buying only a couple checked bags. Its interface requires you buy baggage for each passenger. I only needed to buy two checked bags, not five.

The check-in desk in Lima informed us we would have to pay at the sales desk. They can’t take payments in ticketing. They took my suitcases and held my boarding passes until I came back with a receipt from the sales desk. I found the sales desk in the corner near the escalators. It was closed. Opens at 1 a.m., in about an hour.

I moved the family to the food court upstairs and ordered a spread of food. I went back down not long after 1 a.m., and the line was 10 people deep. I waited 45 minutes to pay for two bags. I had to listen to the miserable cheap bastards who show up to the airport without a flight booked haggling with the sales agent. It was a dreadful wait, and a reminder of how backwards this place can be. Making the payment itself took at least five minutes, maybe 10.

If I had a tight layover during rush hour, I might have missed my next flight. This is absurd. I wondered if there is a legitimate reason why ticketing can’t accept payments for a service they are rendering (checking my bags). I wondered if someone hadn’t thought about the inefficiency in making passengers wait through two queues. It’s tempting to assume, and many gringos do assume, that these people are morons. But that can’t be all. Can it? There must be a reason.

That reminded me of the biggest difference between Latin America and the States: time vs. money, a theory developed over the course of having a bicultural family of five. All of us require various degrees of legal documentation in both countries. That’s 10 entities’ worth of paperwork. When you do it all, the difference in processes emerges in stark relief.

Getting American papers processed is clear, straightforward and there are few surprises during the process. But it’s expensive. In Latin America (I was legal in Colombia too), documentation is murky. It’s subject to change. It’s subject to the whim of the functionary you deal with on any given day. More often than not, you will be jerked around. You will wait in long queues that don’t seem to move. But the final bill is cheap.

American papers are simple but expensive. Latin papers are complicated but cheap.

This phenomenon exists in business, government, shopping, across the board. It’s a metaphor for much in life between the two. I found myself asking in that second line, could I go back to this?

Once your time is worth more than your money, Latin America can be a pain.


  1. “I wondered if someone hadn’t thought about the inefficiency in making passengers wait through two queues. It’s tempting to assume, and many gringos do assume, that these people are morons. But that can’t be all. Can it? There must be a reason.”

    I really do think that is the legitimate reason in many — though maybe not all — of the cases.

    And, though locals might be more used to it, they clearly are not always happy with the lack of efficiency either in my opinion. When standing in one of those lines and you see the look of despair of the local standing in front of you on a hot day with the sun beating down on his face all the while he checks his phone for the time and shakes his head muttering something under his breath.

    I only say that because I’ve heard some expats claim that “it’s all just part of the culture” and “don’t complain, the locals are fine with it.”

    While maybe part of the culture (being slow or late to everything), there are instances where yes it can annoy the local too when he has other shit to do that day and equally is thinking “why the hell are we waiting so long?”

    “Once your time is worth more than your money, Latin America can be a pain.”

    Perhaps something more related to getting older but I also think that the pain comes from having — at least in part — a bigger commitment to the region.

    When you have a business tied to the region, family in the region with kids, if you were to ever buy a house, having to deal with legal documentation and slow government offices for residency or work visa, etc., then the pain becomes more real.

    It’s perhaps easier to ignore the pain or for it to not be AS BAD when you are the perpetual tourist doing visa runs with no kids, wife, visits to the migration office, house, business, local job, etc.

    Where you can just work from home and one of your biggest complaints might be the long line at Walmart or whatever more trivial matter that still takes up time (which might get more annoying as you get older) but still not as bad as the major headaches that can come with deepening roots into society down here beyond just a perpetual tourist that lives in Miraflores/Condesa, Uber Eats all day and is always trying to get the next gal from Tinder to visit.

    But that would be true in any country. Taking on more responsibilities might do that anywhere but is worse in Latin America because the inefficiency is greater than just suffering from a long line in Walmart or the slow moving waiter in a restaurant.


  2. Maybe we interpret things as simple when they are familiar. The Latin affinity for process and bureaucracy is a throwback to the Napoleonic system of Civil Law; a way of thinking where the process takes precedence over the result. It boggles the minds of those more accustomed to a Common Law approach where the focus is on the outcome. Pomp and circumstance are ingrained in Latin culture to an infuriating degree, particularly when dealing with Civil Servants. Even in the private sector, the “that’s not my job”attitude is prevalent. So how does knowing this help you get your family of five and all their luggage on a plane? It doesn’t. Is anything ever easy? Not really.


  3. 1. when you get ANYTHING done here you really, really, feel you’ve earnt it.

    2. some things are impossible, like trying to renew a driving licence as a national when you previously got it as a foreigner, I have several months of correspondence as evidence LOL.

    3. commercial transactions are always done in (at least) two parts because counter assistants are not trusted with cash; this has not yet filtered through to Yape, Izipay, and so on. Not completely*.

    oh and

    4. the modern world is incompatible with values from precolumbian times (We are In This Together, Don’t Rock Boat/Grab Steering Wheel, Distress is a Contagion, Keep Smiling). You try changing twenty thousand years of habits just like that.

    Cheers HTH.

    *anyone concerned about the CBDC “scam” heading, apparently, our way, is well advised to keep using cash. Although after the Viscacha’s miserable failure of anattempt to create individual DNI bank accounts any CBDC “might not work too well here”.


  4. PS
    “Once your time is worth more than your money, Latin America can be a pain”
    “Once you realise that the primary industry of Latin America is the Fiesta, all becomes clear”
    (no charge!)


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