5:10am — Standing in line at the passport application center at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) basketball court. I arrive here a few min past 5am, and there are at least a hundred people in line already. After standing in line for about 30 min the line behind me has grown as long as the one in front of me. Darwin warned me about this. Darwin’s our Lotus Notes admin @ the office. He told me to be here as early as 4am, and to expect people to be here earlier than me. He was so right.
Sam is with me here but escorts are not allowed inside the area. Applicants only. lf he’d been a taho vendor or a newspaper guy he could come in. Hurrah for small businesses. So he waits outside, and after a while he gets shooed off by the guards and ends up at the nearest McDonald’s, where he will wait for me until I am done.
The DFA basketbalI court/passport application center is flanked by xerox machine shops and food centers. One could come in here with just enough money and have everything one needs to get a passport application accomplished. You can get passport pics “in one minute”, application forms. lf you get hungry while waiting you can get breakfast @ Kay Mommy Food Corner, or a sago at gulaman with your goto @ the stand right next to it.
I strike up a conversation with the young man in the line ahead of me. He is from Minglanilla Cebu (two towns south of Cebu City and about an hour’s drive from where I used to live). He is a welder on his way to Bahrain to join his mates from work who were already there. I ask him what stories his mates have told him so far. He says they were all suffering from nosebleed from the heat. He goes on to say that there was something worse than than the heat, and when I ask him what that is he said it was missing your family. He knows of some workers who had intentionally got into a fight just to be sent home, which is different from actually skipping out on your contract.
@ a few minutes to 7am a DFA person in a dark blue barong starts distributing application forms. The one I had downloaded was no good, as I didn’t print out the back part (“dapat back-to-back”), which to me didn’t make sense–as the back part contained only the rules. But rules were rules so. At least they have paste, staplers and stamp pads at a counter in the middle of the court for everyone’s use.
@ exactly 7am the line starts moving. First check—to see if you’d accomplished the application form correctly. You go from the herding area (where everyone lines up first come first served, before 7am) to the Step 1 area – Records Verification. This is where they check if you’re on the Hold list (the do not allow to leave the country list, pretty much where Garci should have been in his time, but that’s another story). This is also where they check if you have the very basic requirements and the appropriate photocopies thereof. They also check if you’ve been issued a passport before so they will know if you’re trying to get a double passport (for reasons known perhaps only to you).
It is here when I first realize just how many people are here at the DFA to get a passport on this day. I am, according to a rough count, among the first 100 people in line. When I sit down at the (trip to jerusalem) benches prior to Step 2, I estimate no less than a thousand people standing in line at various stages at the DFA basketball court. And this is just half past 7 in the morning.
Step 2 is in the next building, where you go when you’ve cleared the hurdle of Step 1. Step 2 is where you stand patiently on the red line while the documents of the person in front of you is checked by the DFA person at the counter. If nothing is wrong with his papers, then it’s a short wait for your turn. This is probably the quickest line there is of the verification process, but then you get someone like the woman who was trying to cut into the line in front of me, claiming that she had been in that line earlier but she got sent off to photocopy her application form with the pictures on it. She swears to me that they will ask me to do the same so did I want to go off to a photocopying machine to do that now, and I tell her (nicely naman ha) that I will wait until the DFA people actually ask me to do so.
Then I notice that she has a very quiet little girl behind her, so I think what the heck, and ask her to go ahead on account of her little girl. The counter is still attending to the young man from Minglanilla ahead of me, and so this woman starts telling me she still has to go for her medical exams which will cost her four thousand pesos, and asks me if I had gone for mine. I tell her I probably didn’t need one as I was just going on a two-day business trip. She says she is going off to Canada to join her foreigner husband. She asks me which I thought the better hospital is to go to for her medicals, Makati Med or St. Luke’s, and as I have no idea about these things at all I tell her so, but she insists so I think yeah why not, St. Luke’s if the fee’s the same anyway, go to St. Lukes and she says they have a branch in Ermita.
I ponder that declaration when the young man I had befriended finishes at the counter and the woman with the little girl takes his place. The young man (his name was Johnrey, I had seen it written on his application form) says goodbye to me (“Sige Ate, ari usa ko”) and I smile at him and say “Sige, good luck!” and watch him head off to the cashier’s area (Step 3). The woman with the little girl takes only a few minutes at the counter and then it is my turn. I step up to the counter with a smile and a good morning, just like I did at the other counters, but by this point I have all but given up trying to make a DFA employee smile. But he is efficient, and he returns my photocopies politely and asks me which processing (regular or overtime) did I want.
I sign my passport slip and head off to Step 3, Payment. This is when the DFA divests me, in the quickest way I have ever seen, of PhP 750.00 (35 seconds). And then it’s out the door to join Sam at McDonald’s, with a schedule to pickup my passport Monday next week.
When I look back at the basketball court on my way out I see that there are as many people there as when I had left, and it is only a little before 9 in the morning. I figure there could easily have been two thousand people getting passports before lunch, and maybe even more than that later in the day. Where are all these people going? In the first hundred that I was in, I figured 60% male between the ages of 20-35, the rest were young women, old folks and a few kids under the age of 18. Chances are out of that first hundred, I will be the only one who would purchase a round-trip ticket. Then I realize that I am right in the middle of it, these people heading off for jobs and joining families already abroad; these people are our country’s biggest commodity.