Thursday, January 9, 2014

Fun at the bank

Written by Eric
I've known we had this coming for some time - we had to cash 2 checks today (one from the buyer of our car and one for a deposit refund from the kid's school) and take them to the embassy to exchange them and deposit to our account in the US. Chris graciously agreed to accompany me, though as it turned out he may have regreted that decision. 

We arrived at the first bank, the National Bank, and guessed from the state of the full parking lot that we were in trouble.  We walked in and took a number, 284 - and heard them call number 111 to the desk.  Then we really knew we were in trouble.  So I looked around and thought I'd try the foreign exchange window upstairs where I've made withdrawals.  I thought the line would be shorter there, and it was, but there was only one teller instead of ten like downstairs.  So Chris and I stood in line working on a fiendishly hard Kakuro puzzle until we got close to the head of the line, and then Chris went over to the other bank (fortunately just next door) to start standing in line there.  He'd already scoped the Standard Bank out and found that there was no system of taking numbers.  After 30 or 40 minutes he was at the front of the line but I wasn't there yet, so after about 20 minutes of letting people in front of him he asked someone further back to hold him a place and went back to find me.  Meanwhile, within 15 minutes of Chris leaving I was at the head of the line, after an hour of waiting.  The teller looked at the passport, looked at the check and stamped it, and said, "Now I just have to confirm that there is money in this account.  Just sit over there."  So I went and sat over there.  For 45 minutes.  When I was finally called back I finally got the money.  The delay was because  the check was drawn on an account at a different bank branch, and the branch I was at had to call the issuing branch and then they called the account holder to confirm the check before they could cash it, though I didn't find this out until later .

By this time it was 11:15, and I was starting to get nervous because the embassy cashier window closes at 12:30.  So I went  over  to where Chris had held a place in line at the Standard Bank, and was soon in front of the teller whom I told that we really needed to be through by 12:00.  She explained that it could take longer because they would have to call the other branch where the account was held to confirm the check.  So we decided to beat it to the embassy, and drop off the first pile of cash, since we didn't feel very comfortable carrying $4500 in cash (especially as it is a large pile when the largest bill is worth less than $2.50), and concluded we'd probably have to repeat the entire exercise again in the morning for the other check, since the embassy cashier closed at noon. However, the cashier and the finance officer at the embassy were very helpful and told us that they could help us in the afternoon as long as we got back before 5:00.

We did the logical thing and had lunch at a small restaurant I'd been hoping to take Chris to where we could get nsima, beans, and greens cooked with ground nut (peanut) flower. Thus fortified we approached the downtown branch of Standard Bank, figuring that since that was where the account was held we might get out faster.

We were in line by 1:00, and the line seemed pretty short.  Within 10 minutes we were at the counter.  But the teller said their network was down and so they were only accepting deposits.  Would the network be back up today?  Maybe.  So we went to buy groceries, then came back to the bank and found that the network was back up.  So in we went and stood in line again and had another  20 minutes or so to work on the Kakuro.  This time the teller (who had previously told us there was not network) looked at the check and told us we were in the wrong line. I pleaded ignorance, telling her (truthfully) that it was my first time trying to cash a check there. She kindly relented and  started processing the check and then informed us , "We need to confirm this now."  So we worked on the Kakuro a bit more, until the teller said, "Nobody is answering the phone at BMIS."  So we arranged with her that we would return in 30 minutes, and  went off to pick up some new trousers for Eric at the tailor while they kept working on it.  When we got back to the bank we found that they still hadn't managed to reach the school.  They asked if I didn't have a cell phone number for someone at the office. I didn't, but I started thinking: we know that nearly all the embassy staff who have kids send them to BMIS.  So I called the FO at the embassy back and explained the problem, and he says "No problem.  Give me five minutes."  Within five minutes I had a text with the phone for the school's finance officer. At first I tried to give this number to the teller, but she said "That isn't the number we have on file - tell them to answer their phone". So I called the number, and the school's FO told me they were closed. The teller then gave me the bank's number and said "please have him call the bank". So I relayed the number, and we returned to our Kakuro puzzle for 15 minutes. At this point I was starting to get really annoyed, so I called the school's FO back and asked "have you called them?". He replied "I've been trying but they won't answer the phone." I tried to relay this information to our teller, but she had disappeared.

After a further 10 minutes of Kakuro fun, I inserted myself in front of the next line and asked the teller their if they was some problem.  He must have relayed a message, because five minutes later the manager came out and informed us that there was a delay because the account was overdrawn, and they were waiting for the credit department to authorize a payment on credit. I called the school's FO back and relayed this, and he said "I'm coming right over."

About 30 minutes later ( 4:15) the teller handed the check back and said "Sorry, the check has been refused."  Since the school's FO still hadn't arrived, we didn't know what else to do except call the embassy FO and say we wouldn't been coming.  We left the bank, which was already closed and the door was locked behind us. We ran the gauntlet of beggars again, went back to the van. We decided to get some takeout pizza for dinner, but before we could leave the area around the bank my phone rang. It was the school's FO, telling us that he we was at the bank and we should come back. So we found a parking place again, knocked on the front door until they let us in, only to discover that the school's FO wasn't there yet. After 10 more minutes he finally showed up, and explained that he'd been at the police station all day since he'd had a robbery at his house. Once he was there they took the check back and paid us:  1.5 million in 1000 kwacha bills and 1.5 million in 500 kwacha bills - a stack of bundles of money a foot tall.

By then we had 20 minutes to get to the embassy before 5, so we charged off and made it with 5 minutes to spare.  But when I got set to enter the embassy (you can't take phones & etc in) I couldn't find my passport.  I'd been using it all day as ID at the banks and now it wasn't in the backpack.  Now I was starting to panic, but Chris took the key and found my passport beside the driver's seat in the car. Finally, we drove away from the embassy at 5:30, after 8 hours of wrangling with banks. I would be remiss if I didn't give a special thanks to the embassy FO and the cashier who went the second mile to help us out! (It turns out the cashier is Chimwemwe's brother!) Also a huge thanks to Chris - you helped keep me from going crazy!

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