The Bridge Builder – A Bureaucratic Fable

A man stepped out into the wild and surveyed the world at large

He knew what needed to be done, because he was the Man in Charge.

His shoes were polished perfectly, and his hair was cut pristine,

His tie was neatly in its place, and his jaw was shaven clean.

His shirt was tailored to his build, his suit was grey and bland,

And he wore expensive sunglasses as he gazed across the land.

He saw a separation, that couldn’t be denied,

Two towns were being kept apart due to a great divide.

The Man in Charge knew what to do, and he began to sing,

If we put a bridge right here, then that’ll be just the thing.”

Volunteers came from far and wide, but no one had the stuff.

They said that they could build a bridge, but they just weren’t good enough.

Then out the shadows stepped a man who had been standing by,

I know what you want,” he said, “and let me tell you I’m your guy.”

The man was strong and able, and his hands were rough and worn.

He’d been building bridges ’round the world since before you or I were born.

The Bridge Builder demanded that the bridge be strong and thick

He wanted reinforcement in every pillar, and quality in every brick.

Money was no object, only the very best would do,

He demanded the plans be double checked, and he interviewed the crew.

The Man in Charge, meanwhile, didn’t want a single penny gone astray

So he employed an Overseer to keep embezzlement at bay.

The Bridge Builder set to work, in the best way that he could.

He cleared the land and dug some holes, and planted stone and wood.

He’d done this a hundred times before, he was a master of his craft

He had intimate knowledge of every screw, and bolt, and shaft.

He was careful with his calculus, he measured every foot,

And at the end of every day he was satisfied with his output.

As time went by The Overseer began to be afraid,

He wasn’t doing the very thing for which he was being paid.

There was no corruption that he could see, which made him kind of nervous,

The Man in Charge had put him there to perform a special service.

So as time went by the pressure rose, and the Overseer had to act

He found a problem that wasn’t there, and with it he attacked.

One day he found the Bridge Builder, and whispered in his ear

The blueprints call for three supports, but look what we have here,

If my eyes are to be trusted, you’ve planted only two.

That goes against the plans, my friend, and I’m afraid that just won’t do.”

The Bridge Builder nodded once, but he was entirely unfazed,

Your eyes do not deceive you,” he said, “your observation should be praised.

For according to my calculations, three pillars would be excessive

I’ve reduced the cost by vast amounts, which I think is quite impressive.”

The Overseer saw his chance, and he pounced with all his might,

But you haven’t followed the rules we set, and I don’t think that is right.

You’ve deviated from the plan, so I’m giving you a fine,

You’d better sort this out right now, else I’ll continue to malign.

So the project came to a halt, as the Bridge Builder went to court.

The delay was quite expensive, and his budget came up short.

It was a convoluted process which the Bridge Builder couldn’t comprehend

But he filed all the paperwork and saw it to the legal end.

No corruption was discovered, and no fine was to be paid

But by then the bridge in question was hopelessly delayed.

The due date was approaching fast, and he took all the help that he could find

The Bridge Builder pulled out all the stops, but still he fell behind.

And when the deadline came and went, the bridge was not completed.

The Overseer pounced again, saying, “Our agreement is deleted.

You failed to keep your word, so we shan’t pay you a cent,

All I can do is reimburse you for the money already spent.

The Bridge Builder shook his head, for there was nothing to be done,

The time wasted was priceless, the money gained was none.

So with heavy heart he packed his things, and went back to whence he came

His pride had been quite tarnished, he’d lost most of his fame.

 

The Man in Charge stepped into the wild to survey what had been done,

An incomplete bridge lay decaying in the sun.

His money had been wasted, but what was he to do?

The only logical solution, was to start the bridge anew.

He put the call out once again to find a builder with some skill

A new contract would be drawn up, the townsfolk would foot the bill.

And as builders from far and wide were vying for a place

The Man in Charge was satisfied, he had a smile upon his face.

For although some time had been lost, and some money had been spent,

Everything was in its place, he’d kept track of every cent.

The people in the towns could sleep peacefully tonight

Knowing that the Man in Charge had done exactly what was right.

Everyone had done their jobs, and honesty was key

Business was conducted openly for everyone to see.

In the end, the two towns remained distinctly quite divided

But the Man in Charge was confident that his decisions hadn’t been misguided.

Bridge

 

 

 

 

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Jorge of the Concrete Jungle

There is an oft-quote Chilean saying which I’ve just this instant made up, and it goes like this:

“Ask not, ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ but rather, ‘How did the chicken cross the road?'”

Crossing the road in Santiago is a chore. One must admire the audacious town planner who, with a straight face, presented his designs for Santiago to a committee who subsequently approved and funded them. I imagine that this town planner must have hated pedestrians, because he certainly hasn’t made things easier on us.

I say “he” because after years of walking around this city, the person who designed its layout has become very real in my mind. I have dreamed up a fictional figure towards whom I can channel all my rage every time I have to leap a barrier, or wait at three separate sets of traffic lights simply to cross a road.

I call him Jorge. Not only because Jorge is a common name in Chile, but also because it is a name that can be said with menace – Two syllables, each beginning with an aggressive rumble in the back of the throat, like the way a sleeping dog might growl while you attempt to tie a bandana onto its head. I hate Jorge almost as much as I’m sure he hates me. Take for example, my local super market.

My local super market is exceptionally close, perhaps two blocks away as the crow flies. If I stand on my balcony and look straight ahead, I would be able to see it if there wasn’t a building in the way.

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I like to survey the city from my balcony while I angrily mutter “Jorge” under my breath.

In order to reach this super market, I need to cross two busy streets which are separated by a wide concrete island. One street takes traffic north, the other takes traffic south. So picture the scene: I leave my building and walk in more or less a straight line until I encounter the first busy road which carries traffic north. I cross easily at a zebra crossing and reach the middle island. I walk across the island towards the street that carries traffic south, but before I can set foot on the tarmac I encounter a fence which forces me to walk about two blocks up in order to get around it, thereby doubling the distance I have to travel.

Now, I don’t drive, so I don’t know what things are like from a driver’s perspective, but I am convinced that the discomfort brought to every Santiago pedestrian is not a result of careless planning. No, Dear Reader, when Jorge sat down to trace out his initial blueprints for this city it was with malicious intent.

The average intersection, for example, offers only two or three demarcated crossings. Usually, the less-busy street can only be crossed from one corner. This means that, if you want to cross a street while obeying the rules, you often have to cross a road three times. If you have trouble visualising that, let me explain:

Let’s say you’re walking north, and you’re on the west side of the street, okay? Now you come to an intersection. But your crossing is on the east side of the street. So you cross the street, going from the west side to the east side. That’s Crossing Number One.

Then you cross legally, going north. That’s Crossing Number Two.

But, although you’re heading in the right direction, you’re still on the east side of the street. Should you want to get back on the west side (to get out of the sun, say), you’ll need to cross again. That’s Crossing Number Three.

Three crossings just to get to the other side.

But suppose you’re willing to play slightly fast and loose with the rules. Suppose that a little jaywalking doesn’t phase you. Well, you may be thwarted yet. If you cross at an un-designated crossing spot you might find yourself confronted with a metal railing on the opposite side, which you need to either leap over or walk entirely around. It’s a hassle.

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To the left of this photo you can see Jorge’s freedom-inhibiting fence.

 

And it’s not just the crossings that vex me so. Trees and benches are scattered around the city with with no obvious harmony. For example, there is a street in the eastern part of the city which I often make use of. It runs west to east and therefore gets blasted by the sun in the middle of the day. Fortunately, this avenue is lined with benches and trees, yet these objects are nowhere near each other. So should you find yourself requiring a rest here, you can either sit in the sun or stand in the shade, but you can’t do both. Well, you could stand in the sun if you wanted to, but that would be madness.

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Note the benches. Now note their distance from the trees. I call that distance “Jorge’s Constant.”

 

I hope, Dear Reader, that you can understand some of my ire. Jorge is like a child colouring in a picture of a kangaroo – it’s all over the place and the colours are all wrong – except this mess isn’t through incompetence, it is through malice. I know this because I invented Jorge. I’m sure, if the budget allowed it, he’d make you duel a wizard on each corner too.

So, the next time you find yourself in Santiago and you need to get to the other side of a street, simply cross the first lane, go several blocks up, cross the second lane three times, leap the fence, and be thankful you don’t have to fight a wizard.

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I tried to take an aerial photo of the city, but I couldn’t throw my phone that high.

Queuing

The word “queue,” often very much like the concept which it denotes, is far longer than it needs to be. In fact, 80 percent of the word is entirely superfluous.

But the beauty of the word “queue” is that it quite poetically summarizes the queuing culture in Chile. Upon first glance, the word seems foreign, messy, and totally un-navigable. All those vowels piled one on top of the other – “ueue” – surely there must be an error with the rendering of this word?

That was how I felt the first time I joined a queue in Chile: I was confused and bewildered. I questioned whether there had been some mistake. I started using vowel language.

This is how it normally works: Let’s say, by way of illustration, that I want to buy some cheese. Perhaps I want to make a pizza. But that’s not important right now. Firstly, I’ll spend a few moments searching for a number dispenser. This is never immediately apparent, but once located I’ll collect my number. When my number is called, I’ll approach the counter and make my demands.

“Necessito queso! Para pizza!”

I’ll then specify the quantity of cheese I desire (“Mucho!”) and the helpful quesador will harvest the correct amount. He will weigh it, and then present me with a receipt. I’ll then have to take the receipt to another area of the room, where I’ll have to wait in a queue. At the front of that queue, I’ll pay for my purchase, and then be given another receipt. With that I’ll return to my original quesador, and show him that I made good on my commitment to pay for his wares. Only then will he give me my purchase. That, more or less, is the way things go, sometimes with fewer steps, sometimes with more.

But the most taxing trials of all are the queues that are found in a government office. These places take the idea of queuing to a whole new level. You could almost say that the task is quite Herculean. Her-queue-lean.

Hades makes a joke
Amiright?

The first time I had to wage this battle was over a year ago, when I made the first steps towards registering as a legal resident of Chile. So yes, it’s an old story, but like I always say, “Bureaucratic stories make the best stories!”

Actually, that’s not true. I’ve never said that before and in fact I didn’t know how to spell “bureaucratic” until just now when I looked it up. But earlier this week I did have to face the queue again, and so all those old, dull, fragmented memories brought visions of the past back to me like a fist full of letters pulled out of a Scrabble bag.

Scrabble tiles
The real joke here is the effort that went into obtaining this photo.

What follows, Dear Reader, is a rather unexciting account of my adventures with bureaucracy. But in an effort to jazz things up a bit, I’m going to make the following substitutions:

Government Building will now be referred to as Beach Party.

Government worker will now be referred to as Velociraptor

Visa (or similar document) will now be referred to as Monster Truck.

The verb To Process will now be referred to as Roundhouse Kick

Queue will remain the same, because it’s a beautiful word.

Dinosaur government worker
In this story, dinosaurs aren’t bad guys.

So here’s how things progressed:

  • I’d finally been given the go-ahead to collect my new Monster Truck, which legally entitles me to stay in the country for longer.
  • I had to go to a Beach Party in the middle of town, which was swarming with foreigners. There seemed to be no recognizable order, but I spotted a Velociraptor at the foot of some stairs, and asked him what to do. The Velociraptor handed me a piece of paper which said 10.00 on it. It was 09.40 in the morning when he did this. He then explained that I had to wait until 10.00 before I could go up the stairs. This was a method of crowd control.
  • At 10.00, I presented my paper and was allowed up the stairs. Thereafter I had to stand in a short Queue to collect another piece of paper with a number on in. My number was 197, and when I got there they had just called 72. After a two-hour wait, I was finally able to collect my Monster Truck. But I was not nearly done.
  • A few days later, when I had time again, I had to go to another Beach Party in another part of town. This time, the Queue stretch three quarters of the way around the outside of the Beach Party. It took me two hours just to get inside.
  • At the front of that Queue I had to pay a small processing fee, and then I had to stand in another line. After an additional hour, a friendly Velociraptor helped me Roundhouse Kick my Monster Truck. I could leave the Beach Party then, but I was still only two thirds of the way done. I still had to go and get an updated version of my Cédula de Identidad Monster Truck, which is basically my ID card here. That meant going to a third beach party, standing in two more Queues, and having another Velociraptor help me Roundhouse Kick another Monster Truck. That whole process took a further three-or-so hours.

If you weren’t able to follow that, then don’t worry. I mean, you missed out on a great story about dinosaurs and monster trucks, but other than that, nothing too important.

But here’s the thing: As messy as the government offices might appear, there is an order to them. Like the word “Queue,” once someone explains it to you, it becomes neat, almost pleasant – /Cue/. Very close to “Cute.”

But not that close. It’s still kind of annoying.

Once you understand the layout and the intention of the all the different queues, you see that it is designed to lubricate the bureaucratic process. Oh yes, it is about 80% superfluous, but it moves with purpose and, ultimately, it gets the job done.

Glowing red sign
This glowing red sign has dominated several of my afternoons.