Monday, April 30, 2012

I'll fight, but will I win?

A long, long time ago, I thought of myself as shy. But I left that behind many years ago when I took a job that required asking bold questions of strangers, and it was onward into bigger and bolder from that point on.
Forthright and informed with a touch of indignation can be a very effective strategy for making things happen in Canada. Using the ability to find information that I’d picked up as a journalist and the copy-the-boss-and-the-boss’s-boss strategy that I’d honed in my work with non-profits, I became  quite adept at resolving problems in my work and in my personal life. I even got a cell phone company to back down on a $150 “early cancellation” fee, and I’m sure you can appreciate how challenging that was.
But I’ve met my match in Honduras.   In Canada, I know how to play the role of a polite but clearly unhappy customer prepared to take it up the chain until she gets satisfaction. But I’m lost here, where they just pat your hand and assure you they’re working on your problem even though they’re not.
You keep coming back at them, of course, because your complaint doesn’t get resolved. But the process just repeats – so sorry, we’re looking into that, try again next week, we’ll call you Thursday. And repeats.
Two recent examples, both having to do with Honduran banks.  In the first instance, I waited two long months for a debit card so I could access the stipend that Cuso International pays, as there’s no branch of that particular bank in Copan Ruinas.
If I didn’t want to take an eight-hour return bus ride to San Pedro Sula whenever I needed money, getting my hands on that debit card was essential. But all my Jody powers were useless in the face of a friendly, do-nothing string of nameless bank employees who said all the right soothing things in the moment and then just left me to do it all over again with whoever I ended up dealing with the next time.
I lost track of how many times I heard that my card was on its way – sometimes to Copan, (until the bank quit pretending that it had been mailed to Copan), sometimes to a mysterious shipping agent who took care of such things, sometimes to the bank branch in San Pedro Sula.  I ended up making two trips to San Pedro Sula before the problem was resolved, and a long series of calls and emails to various young dependientes and their bosses as I desperately tried to grasp how it could be this difficult just to get a lousy debit card.
I got it eventually, and for maybe a month all was well. But on Friday I used my card at the ATM I always go to and ran straight into a new banking nightmare.
I knew to be worried when the machine made more grinding noises than usual, and didn’t dish out my cash at the usual speed.  Then it spit out less money than what I’d requested – 3,000 lempiras instead of 4,000, a $50 difference. And no receipt.
Uh-oh, I thought. The bank hadn’t opened yet, so I trotted home to log into my account on-line to see what I could see. It was worse than I expected – the ATM had dinged me for 4,000 lemps that it never gave me, and then another 3,000. That’s a $200 hit, significant money on a volunteer stipend.
I returned to the bank the minute the doors opened, but I pretty much knew how things were going to go. The nice young man at the desk where they send unhappy customers told me that the machine always corrected itself at 3 p.m. every day, so I should just check my bank balance after 3 p.m. and probably everything would be fine. And if it wasn’t, I could come back.
It wasn’t. I came back. And this time I talked to the woman who looks after the ATM, who promptly went into some back room to check and emerged to tell me that everything seemed to be fine with the ATM. Did I have a receipt, she asked? No. Did I have any way of proving that I hadn’t just pocketed those other 4,000 lempiras? No.  With a pleasant smile, she advised me to check my account balance again in a couple days and maybe things would have straightened out– and if not, I could come on back to talk to her.
My partner says the way they do conflict in Honduras is kind of like Muhammad Ali in his prime, all rope-a-dope. You can throw all the punches you like, but the only one who’s going to be worn down by the end of the fight is you.
Today I’ll send an email to my bank in Tegucigalpa, and copy the other bank here in Copan that owns the ATM. I’ll ask to see some kind of documentation that shows the exact timing of those two transactions, in hopes of demonstrating  that it wouldn’t have been possible for me to withdraw two batches of money in what must have been a mere three or four seconds, let alone in a single transaction. The ATMs here only allow you to withdraw 4,000 lempiras at a time, so I plan to make the argument that I couldn’t have withdrawn 7,000 given that I inserted my card only once.
But I’m doing all that only because I can’t bear to give up a fight that easily. I’m betting I’ll never see that $200 again. It infuriates me, but I just know how this is going to go. I guess it’s better that I take the hit and not a hungry Honduran for whom $200 is serious money, although who knows how many of them have had this same frustrating experience?
Then again, even the master of rope-a-dope didn’t win every match.  I just have to learn to fight like Joe Frazier.