According to the piece of paper I received from the Chilean Consulate in Sydney, within 30 days of arriving in the country, I had to register my visa and obtain an Identity Card (Cedula de Identidad). To do this, the standard form said I would need to go to the Registrar of Investigations (Registro de Investigaciones). If there was no Registrar of Investigations in my district, I would be able to register at a local police station (Carabineros de Chile).

Soon after landing, I googled “Registro de Investigaciones” and “Chile” and nothing came up. I tried some more variations but still couldn’t find anything. So, along with my trusty Spanish speaking friend (Leonel), I went one night to the local cop shop.

At the gate we met a young ‘paco’ (Carabinero), immaculately dressed in the regular crisp, green uniform. As best as I could, I explained my situation, with assistance from Leonel when I got stuck. Unfortunately, the young officer had never heard of a Registro de Investigaciones and he didn’t think I would be able to register through the Carabineros. But he kindly invited us to step inside the station while he waited to check with one of his superiors.

Like all official places in Chile, there was a queue of people waiting inside the station and the smiling face of Chile’s president, Sebastian Pinera, beamed down at us from the wall. The senior officers we hoped to speak to were all tied up so we waited in a corner of the foyer. After about 10 minutes, an older paco with a few more stripes on his shoulders emerged from a corner office. He too was perfectly groomed and just like his younger colleague, he was unable to help. Despite what the form said, the more senior paco informed us that the Carabineros had no system for registering foreigners. We left the police station and returned home.

A few days later, I met a British guy named Scott who had been living in Chile for over two years. When I told him about my situation he gave me a wry smile and said: “No, they’ve mixed it all up. Typical. First you need to go to the Policia de Investigaciones (or the PDI – they’re like the detectives over here and they are responsible for all foreigners in the country) to register and then you have to go to the Registro Civil to get the cedula.”

Following these instructions and a hand drawn map, I set out for the PDI’s National Office for Foreigners. When I reached the address that Scott had given me, it was obvious that I had come to the right place. Dozens of foreign-looking people were spilling out onto the footpath and above the door, there was an important-looking sign with large, bold letters that said: Jefetura Nacional de Extranjeria y Policia Internacional.

Inside the building were even more people, most of whom were crammed into two columns of hard, plastic, blue chairs. The rest stood, leaning against columns and pacing back and forth impatiently. The walls and the tiled floor were both a dirty white and on the far wall, was a big shield and the letters ‘PDI’, painted in blue. On the shield were a vulture and a deer, both wearing crowns, and beneath it was a motto: “By reason or by force”.

Around the room were 15 counters, attended by PDI officers, but only 12 were being used. The 16th had been transformed into an information desk and not knowing what to do, I approached it to find out what I needed to do. The lady behind the counter told me that I would need to go to the payment desk (caja) in the rear corner where I would be given a number. After waiting in a short queue I got to the caja, paid 800 pesos (just less than $2) and received a ticket. My number was 904. The screens on the walls indicated that number 820 was currently being served. There was a ‘ding dong’ noise and 821 flashed up on the screens. It was around 11.30.

I found a free chair, sat down and began to wait. The room was still packed and everyone looked either bored or pensive. Some people had brought along a book or computer and they were making the most of their diversions. The rest of us sat there with blank expressions on our faces, gazing at everything while trying not to look too intently at anything or anyone. We were a real melting pot of cultures – Haitians, Asians, latinos and gringos – united by our boredom.

But there was at least one person having fun. A young Indian girl, about three years old, was running up and down the aisle between the rows of chairs, laughing and trying to attract the attention of the restless adults. Some people smiled back or even said “Hola”, but others continued staring into space. After a while, the young girl’s mother decided to put an end to the fun and called out in perfect Indian English, “You come and sit here”. For a moment the girl hesitated and then she obeyed. I started staring at the wall again.

The clock struck midday. Ticket number 850 was being served. For the next five minutes, there was a flurry of activity at the counters as the speakers ding donged and the screens ticked over, before stalling for what seemed like an eternity at ticket number 858.

In a front corner of the room, there was a solitary, unisex toilet that not many people used. In the other front corner was an interview room with constant flow of entering and exiting PDI officers. Most of them wore navy jackets with ‘PDI’ written in large yellow letters across their backs, just like the jackets worn by FBI agents. The others wore conspicuous badges in their shirt pockets or on thick, silver chains around their necks. All of them carried guns and few of them smiled.

By half-past twelve, ticket number 870 was being served. I tried eavesdropping on some of the conversations around me but everyone was speaking Spanish. Quickly. I continued waiting. At 12.45, a ding dong interrupted my daydream and I looked at the screens. 897. Not long to go now. I started to pay more attention. At 12.52 my wait ended.

The guy behind counter number 14 was chatting on his mobile phone. It was a personal call and he seemed in no hurry to talk to me. Still engaged in his conversation, he held out his hand and I handed over ticket number 904 and he typed something on the computer. After some more typing, he ended the call and asked me to stand in front of the camera. He took my photo, looked at my passport and asked me for my address. Then he printed out a page with all my details and an unsmiling mugshot before telling me I could proceed to the Registro Civil. I thanked him and stepped out into the sunshine.

Like Arturo Merino Benitez Airport, the Registro Civil in downtown Santiago is an outstanding example of bland ’70s architect. Constructed in concrete, its shabby, grey exterior reflects the dullness of the bureaucratic proceedings that occur within. But when you step inside, the long queues and bored faces are accompanied by natural light and a series of frescoes high up on the walls, telling the story of Chile’s past.

After scanning the room, I found the queue for new ID cards and joined it. I recognised many of the faces from the PDI. There were the American students, smiling and laughing among themselves, the young French guy with his Chilean girlfriend and the middle aged couple from Miami who spoke Spanish and English. They gave me a nod of recognition then quickly looked away.

The wait here was just as long as at the PDI and equally boring. Thankfully there were no numbers. When my turn finally came, I entered a small booth where my photo was taken again and my details were photocopied. The woman on the other side of the desk gave me another piece of paper and explained that I could collect my ID card in a week and a half. All that remained was to have my finger prints taken and I was free to go.

Once again I stepped out into the sunlight. It was after 2.30 but I didn’t care. The rest of the day was mine.

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