“No soup for you!” – The Soup Nazi, ‘Seinfeld’
To read Part I and II of ‘Catch Me If You Can’, click here.
When I first came to the Policia Federal in Lapa to get my Spanish tourist visa extended, I took the wrong combo of trains and buses, arrived at the worst possible time (lunch), didn’t have half the photocopies I needed, and stumbled through my Portuguese, still in its infancy. The Superintendencia, named as such for being the largest Policia Federal office in São Paulo, was a zoo. To the naked eye, it seemed there were dozens of different documents being processed on the same floor. Resident cards. Passports. Tourist visas. Work permits. The waiting room looked like a DMV from hell. Even the TV was distorted and discolored, with the actors looking like extras from ‘Beetlejuice’, which is no way to watch soaps like Mulheres De Areia.
But a lot of things can change in 6 months.
This time around, I left the house after lunch with all relevant photocopies in hand, a firm grasp of the public transportation system, and enough Portuguese to sweet-talk any Consular Officer into a stamp. In fact, I had a detailed plan of attack for my 2nd prorrogação de prazo de estada (prolonging of my period of stay).
First, I would work in a bit of Portunhol (similar to Spanglish, with Portuguese replacing English) to avoid arising suspicion. Second, I would concoct a story to explain why the printout of my April 13th departure also showed a return date one week later, not to mention my destination being Miami instead of my alleged home country of Ecuador. I had decided on the bus I’d say the flight was cheaper as a roundtrip than as a one-way. That would hopefully do the trick.
I was a bit more concerned this time around. My first circumnavigation of Brazil’s 180-day-max-per-365-day-period had been facilitated by an early return flight and a careless customs agent. But surely these agents were no match for a Policia Federal officer. If anyone could see my history of multiple entries under multiple passports, it would be them. In many ways, this tourist visa extension would be the truest test of the system in Brazil.
It was go time.
As I arrived at 3pm, the lunch crowd was nowhere to be seen and I advanced right to the front desk to announce the purpose of my visit. I was directed to the 4th Floor, which I was pretty sure was one floor higher than last time. Perhaps it was one of those cases where the 1st floor is really the 2nd floor. Nevertheless, I returned to the same room I had been in 6 months earlier only to find it had been transformed. The Policia Federal had been busy in my absence.
The room formerly confused for a DMV office now had the look of the FBI office in ‘Catch Me If You Can’. There was a new desk that exclusively assigned numbers based on your needs, and the high cubicle partitions had been knocked down, ‘Office Space’ style. The organization was alarming for someone trying to squeeze through the cracks of Brazil’s tourist laws. There was adequate spacing, an expanded staff and an electronic board to replace the inefficient calling-out of numbers. They had even fixed the warped TV, where I caught wind of George Clooney’s arrest in DC.
I grabbed my number from a friendly receptionist and found there were only a handful of people ahead of me. Everything was going perfectly. My number was called after a few commercial breaks and I was well on my way to securing the remainder of my time here as an Ecuadorian citizen.
That was when I found out I was on the wrong floor.
The Visa Nazi
After going back to the lobby and past everything I had already passed, I finally found the only way up to the 4th Floor nestled in an unmarked corner. Moments after exiting the elevator, the real madness began.
The room couldn’t have been larger than 5×10 meters. There were a dozen cushioned chairs and two sofas up against the glass, which looked out over the Lapa skyline. The sofas should’ve tipped me off as to the expected wait time. That and the lack of a clock. There were no numbers on this floor. There was no line. And despite a thin plexiglass divider spanning the length of the room, the employees weren’t paying much attention to the multitude of people waiting to be attended.
It was a familiar cast of characters. An Italian girl asking to speak to someone in charge, unable to understand why the customs agent had given her a 90-day max when her departing flight was 108 days out. A shady lawyer speaking on behalf of a family of 5 Argentines. A 30-something Paulistano demanding to know where the line began as he directed his American lady friend to pay an overstay fine. There was even the token Latin American Mom breast-feeding in the corner.
Yup. This was my room.
It was then that I spotted him for the first time. Amongst all the seated, uniformed female agents stood a genuinely angry man in a short-sleeved, plaid button-down which he wore untucked over his jeans. I’m talking about Tom-Coughlin-angry, or Old-Man-from-’Up’-angry. With uncombed, salt-and-pepper hair and bags under his middle-aged eyes, he looked like a person who had yet to smile this decade. Calling out the first names of the 3 latest passports he’d stamped with revised expiry dates, he had a parting shot for every one of them on why he shouldn’t have granted them the extension. It’s as if allowing these foreigners to stay one extra day in his country kept him up at night. Remember Costanza’s tormentor from Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi episode? Let me introduce you to The Visa Nazi.
He turned his attention to the petite Italian who did an astounding job of not breaking down in tears as he blistered her with irrefutable responses on why she would shortly have to leave the country. While she exited stage left, he announced he would only be processing prorrogaçãos for the remainder of the afternoon, at which point a dozen Brazilians begrudgingly made their way to the exits. He then stormed away to the back office, where he was apparently investigating the extension requests personally.
This would be my dealer today. He was the Brazilian version of ‘The Dragon Lady‘. And there was no table to switch to. I had already-doubled down. I would have to play the cards I was dealt.
I continued shuffling through my iPod and every 20 minutes or so, the Visa Nazi appeared with a few more passports. He’d call them out one at a time. An unlucky few were denied. Others were given a fraction of the time they had requested. He spoke to all of them in a stern tone. A few argued, but to no avail. A couple fought back tears. Even the ones who were granted their full extension weren’t dismissed without a reprimand. He was surgical in his approach. A cold-blooded assassin who had missed his calling. I put my game face on and awaited our encounter.
After 2 hours had passed, the cast of characters had dwindled down to just 3 of us. 4 of the 5 agents in the front had already changed into provocative civilian clothes and punched out. I thought a few people who had already left had definitely arrived after me, but it wasn’t until the lactating Mami left, that I knew for sure. I approached the counter to see if I had somehow missed my name being called.
But before I could even ask, the last remaining agent looked at me and said, “Estamos fazendo os calculos“, (“we’re doing the calculations”) and returned to the back room. There was now nobody in the front office. Calculations? What calculations? I started going over some scenarios in my head. None of them were good.
20 minutes later, the Visa Nazi emerged, one final time. He had two passports in hand, both bearing the same red color. This had to be me, I thought. Then suddenly, before calling out any names, he stared directly at me. It was more of a glare actually, and it lasted for what seemed like eternity.
“Juan”, he said, holding eye contact from across the room.
I put my poker face on and began my final approach. “Tudo bem?”, I asked, with what I imagine was a faint smile.
His glare was unfazed. After a solid 5 seconds, he handed me my passport, and began.
“Na verdade, eu não deveria ter dado!“, he said, angrily as ever, and waving his finger. (“In fact, I shouldn’t have given it to you!”)
“Só fiz porque você tem um vôo no dia 13, só!“, he then stated. He had only extended me because I had proof of a departing flight. Thankfully he had missed my return flight for the 20th a few inches below.
“Mas.. (But)”, I began, trying to formulate an intelligent response, but before I could speak another word, he somehow took his glare to a new-found level, held it for a few seconds and finally turned away before calling out the last person’s name.
As the Visa Nazi began explaining the reason for a mere 15-day extension to the only other people in the room with us, I stood there in disbelief. My adrenaline was rushing. He had piqued my interest. Did he see my other stays under the Spanish passport? If so, why had he given me the extension? Perhaps he was only upset about my leaving after 2 months, only to return for another 3 months, and attempting to request an additional few weeks to max out my 180 days. Or, maybe his wife had left him for an Ecuadorian. Whatever it was, I needed to know, not just to quell my curiosity, but to know what level of enemy I was up against going forward.
I waited my turn to speak to him. There would be one final showdown today.
The 3 people left, leaving just the two of us. Then, as the Visa Nazi turned sideways to return to the back office, I called out to him. Just like Costanza, I was about to press my luck and risk my soup to ask about the bread.
“Disculpe, mas eu posso fazer uma pregunta?” (“Sorry, but may I ask a question?”)
“Se você quizer, eu posso tirar!“, he replied loudly (“If you want, I can take it back!”), once again pointing a finger at me, with his eyes widening as I dared to question him. He was in full Visa Nazi mode now.
“Você tem muitas entradas e saídas!”, he continued. “O maximo é 180 dias por ano, não por estadia!” (“You have many entries and exits! The maximum is 180 days per year, not per stay!”)
He knew. But I refused to lose. So I played dumb.
“Não, mas eu so quero entender, eu cheguei o 16 de Octubre, saí o 15 de Decembre…“, I began, but he interrupted me before I could continue (“No, I just want to understand, I arrived October 16th, left December 15th..”).
“Você quer ver? Então, olha aqui“, he told me, as he thumbed through my file (“You want to see? So then, look here”). He produced a printout and began going down the rows as I did my best to stay calm.
He began reading off all my Brazilian entries and exits. On both passports. Dealer had blackjack.
“Você chegou o 17 de Abril, saiu o 13 de Outubro, voltou o 16 de Outubro, saiu…” (“You arrived on April 17th, you left on October 13th, you returned on October 16th…”)
I saw my own chance to interrupt and intervened.
“Mas, isso é outro passaporte“, I argued, pretty convincingly I thought (“But, that’s another passport”). I would now confirm whether the law allowed me 180 days on each passport.
“Esso não importa, não importa“, he stressed (“That doesn’t matter, it does not matter”). I thought he had bought it, so I pressed my luck.
“Ah, então agora entendi, claro, se não importa… nossa, agora entendi.” (Ah, now I understand, sure, if it doesn’t matter… wow, now I understand”).
He didn’t appreciate my rubbing it in his face and resumed his glare.
“Eu vou tirar, passa seu passaporte!“, he exclaimed as he reached for my passport yet again (“I’m going to take it back, give me your passport!”), not quite as fast as the cashier lady in the Seinfeld episode, but quickly nonetheless. I pulled it back and into my back pocket, and began to slowly back away towards the elevator.
“Não, por favor, agora entendi, desculpa por todo. Bom fim de semana para você.” (“No, please, I understand now, sorry for everything. Have a good weekend.”) I cut my losses, content with knowing what he knows, and cashed in my chips.
A million things crossed my mind as I entered the elevator. The first was I would never have another visa extended again. Ever. Not in São Paulo at least. There’s no way the Visa Nazi would give me a free pass twice. The second was that I was running out of lives. The ups and downs of Brazil, as I’d already mentioned, were getting wider apart. Not being able to stay 6 months at a time on each passport would alter the landscape quite a bit.
But no matter for now. I’ll find a way, or as they say here, um jeitinho. The Visa Nazi might be on to me, but he won’t be waiting in customs on April 20th. Whether our encounter changed anything, though, is yet to be seen. If it has, I wouldn’t be allowed back in until April of 2013. But I still have a few aces up my sleeve, and I will have my soup.
Game on, Brazil. Game on.
What do you think will happen at Guarulhos Airport on April 20th? Leave a comment below.