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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Bolivian Blockades: Part Two

Later that same night of our daring escape into Uyuni, Jorge and I were dining just around the corner from the bulk of the tour agencies. The door of the restaurant swung open, and some tourists walked in -- dirty, ragged, boots covered with dust.

Their driver hadn't made it past the protesters; they'd been forced to walk into town. 

And only moments after they came into the restaurant, we heard some gunshots from outside. 

The owner of the restaurant leapt into action; she scrambled out the front door, surveying something in the distance. Then she came inside and ordered all her employees to lock the place up. With all of us diners still inside.

"It's okay," she assured us. "We are going to shut the restaurant for a little bit because the protesters are coming around now to bother the businesses." We heard shouting in the distance, something that sounded like stomping. "For the safety of our business and for your safety, we're going to lock up."

She yanked down the metal wall used to lock up shop at the end of each day. I watched as she used a padlock on both ends of the door. And then she and the other workers disappeared into the kitchen.

I can't speak for the other patrons at that moment, but I felt deeply concerned. Jorge and I looked at each other, WTF heavy in our gazes. Seriously, what was going on here? Were we inadvertantly caught in the midst of some revolution? The situation had escalated greatly since our arrival that morning at 5:30 AM...and now the protesters were taking to the streets. Restaurant owners were locking up out of fear, "for our protection". What were these guys going to do?

I was happy a jar of Sangria and three quesadillas were on the way to our table, because I needed something to take the edge off.

Between breaking into the city twice -- both that morning and that night -- and now facing the increasing stomps of a psosible mob maybe only a block away...I was deeply confused about the severity of the situation, and deeply concerned about how we were supposed to get out of Uyuni. 

Our dinner progressed relatively normally; after a little bit of banging around a few doors down, the threat disappeared and the owner opened up again. We consumed our quesadillas and Sangria with relative comfort. And as soon as 9PM rolled around, we bolted for the train station to find a way out of the city.

All bus transportation had obviously ground to a halt. If we couldn't make it into the city on bus or Jeep, we certainly were't getting out that way. And being that it was Friday, any negotiations between protesters and city officials likely wouldn't happen until Monday. So we were looking at a potentially long weekend in Uyuni. 

This was a no-go for a variety of reasons. First of all, Uyuni's main draw is the salt flats. Now that the tour was over and we were safely absconded back into Uyuni's unreleasing clutches, there wasn't much else to do there. 

And second of all, we had a flight from Lima, Peru in exactly one week. The miles between Uyuni and Lima were...well...a LOT. Easily several days voyage via bus. So we had to leave ASAP, and waiting until Monday would push us far too close to the deadline. 

The train station in Uyuni was bursting with people. We entered a line a mile long that didn't move an inch for a full hour. 

A train was due at 10:30PM, but whispers said the tracks had been blockaded and it wouldnt arrive.

At 10:45PM, someone cried out, "THE TRAIN IS COMING!" and the ticket office opened and everybody sighed collectively with relief.

Once all the passengers had boarded and the train departed, we were able to buy our own tickets, for the next night to a city more to the north but not our final destination of La Paz. We'd take it. Fine. Whatever. Just get us out of here.

We left that night exhausted yet triumphant. The next night would see us on a train, chugging contentedly out of Uyuni and on our way to Lima, or at least one step closer. Excellent.

We slept like babies that night.

The next morning over breakfast, some travelers came into the restaurant. They talked in low tones, looked a little anxious. And then we overheard something unsettling.

The train was blocked. All outgoing tickets were suspended.

We wouldn't be leaving Uyuni on bus, nor on train. What to do???

We confirmed the train blockade at the station; their advice was to wait until that night to see if it really showed up or not. However, we didn't want to wait a whole day just to find out we were stuck another one. So we looked into our last option: PLANE.

We ran to the airline office. Their only flight that day had left at 7:30AM -- completely full. Their next flight left the next night, at 10PM for La Paz. Over $100 per person, a stark comparison to the $9 train ticket.

Jorge and I didn't know what to do -- stick around to watch our options continue to disappear or otherwise shrivel? Wait for Monday and hope the rapidly worsening situation magically resolved itself?

As we paced the city streets plotting our escape, a wild-eyed woman approached us.

"Potosi," she cried. "We're going to Potosi, if you know of anyone that needs a ride, tell them we leave now!"

"How much?" Jorge asked. "And will you wait if we get our things?"

She said yes, they'd give us a half hour if we wanted to join them. We speedwalked to her office as she explained the details -- $50 per person, her drivers were sneaking our tourists in 4x4 Jeeps via a back road. Three Jeeps had left the night before; three more were leaving today. The situation was rapidly worsening, and it was of the utmost importance to leave now, because later might not be possible. 

We paid her (reluctantly, I might add -- a regular bus fare to Potosi was only about $10) and then booked it to our hostel to pack up and check out. We arrived back at her office fifteen minutes later, huffing, puffing, and totally ready to escape.

The Escape Director led us and four other guys through the city, block after block under the mid-day sun. Again, I felt my body failing me, too much weight compounded by the three layers of coats that were useful in the morning but now, not so much. 

Just as I was ready to call it quits -- I'll stay in Uyuni and wither, miss my flight, remain a tourist hostage, as long as I don't walk another step! -- we reached the escape vehicle. I've never been so happy to hand over my belongings to a stranger. The driver loaded our backpacks on top of the Jeep; he ushered us inside, and we began our swift and quiet exit from the city.

The Jeep was crammed full -- 4 gangly early 20's backpackers from a variety of countries (USA, England, Denmark), Jorge and I, and one small, quiet Bolivian woman. Nobody uttered a word as we turned down a dirt path and began driving away from the city.

I looked around, trying to discern whether blockades would be a problem this time. Our driver was taking the road opposite of...any road. He was, in fact, driving toward pure wilderness. The mountain was the only thing in front of us. 

As the road gave way to craggy dips, arching geologic formations, soemtimes almost vertical rock faces and a barely discernible sandy path, I felt deeply grateful for the 4x4. We alternated between safari-style bouncing and bated breath creeping. At some points, I thought I might see a rhinocerous. The landscape was so utterly pure and wild. Again, I dared not question where we were going and when me might get there, afraid that any display of doubt might make our escape mission crumble to the ground.

We wound through this 'back road' for nearly an hour, passing by a handful of 'villages' that were no more than a cluster of huts and sheep. Finally, in the distance, we could see the glimmering arc of a highway. We cheered. And once we set tire to smooth pavement, I breathed easily, feeling like the final threat of the protesters was securely behind us.

We drove on 4 more hours to Potosi, stopping once in a small village to pee behind a building.

This village had slightly more buildings than sheep, 
and electricity. I think. 

And the second we got to Potosi, we high tailed it to La Paz, hopping on the first bus to the capital. This time, when morning came at 5:30AM rolled around, we were snug and warm inside the bus, and not trudging along a highway with a million kilos of crap strapped to us.

Small joys. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Bolivian Blockades: Part One

A Spanish friend of ours who recently traveled through Bolivia said the following about his experience there: "Bolivia is a good country if you want to put your patience to the test. What you are told will happen rarely does; improvisation is your first friend of the day. The good part for us was that you can eat for 1 euro, and you can sleep two people for 5 euros. "

After roughly 8 days in Bolivia, I have to say, truer words have never been spoken. 

From the botched entry visa to the last moments spent in that country, the whole experience was a constant exercise in creative adaptation...and cheap as hell everything.

I don't want to imply that we had a bad time there; not at all. Bolivia rocked our respective worlds -- the people were friendly, the food was tasty, the landscape was breathtaking, the cities were historic and interesting, there was a profound and fascinating past, and so much more.

But there was a definitive lack of structure in a lot of ways. A visit to any restaurant, in a variety of cities, invariably produced the following experience: 

SHANNON or JORGE: I'll have the gnocchi.

WAITER: Oh, we're out of that.

S or J: Okay, uh...*looks through the menu quickly* How about the vegetarian lasagna?

WAITER: No, we don't have that either.

Repeat for up to five menu items until you finally hit an item that is available and/or the waiter kindly informs you what fourth of the menu is actually capable of being produced.

This sudden and unexpected unavailability of something tended to be the norm for Bolivia. All the way down to regular transportation.

We had planned to arrive to Uyuni, the city nearest to the salt flats, during the day Thursday. But our bus that morning was inexplicably cancelled due to a bloqueo, a blockade. They told us we'd leave that night at 8:30PM. 

So we called the terminal in advance of making the full 20 minute cab ride with the bags, confirmed the bus was in fact leaving, and showed up for the 8 hour bus ride to Uyuni. We departed on time, all things normal. Excellent.

Around 4:20 AM, our bus came to a stop. Jorge and I stirred to life, partially frozen from the cold night in the bus (Bolivian buses don't tend to have any sort of heat or air movement). The bus had come to a shuddering stop. Not just casually idling on the side of the road, but OFF. And in the middle of nowhere.

We were informed that the blockade was still, in fact, in effect. We were totally unable to drive further. And we were about 4 miles from Uyuni. 

What to do? Grumbles, complaints, fears, ideas, and plans began filling the chilly air of the bus. Bolivians familiar with this phenomenon informed the rest of us what was up: These blockades were serious. Creeping past was not an option. It was unlikely the blockade would lift by tomorrow. We would have to walk to town.

We, and a majority of passengers, decided to stay in the bus until daybreak. That way, we could complete the journey on foot with at least a modicum of daylight to guide us. From my bus window, the lights of Uyuni burned bright but distant, tiny flickers of life just beyond reach.

Around 5:30 AM, Jorge and I suited up and headed out. The new day was clear and bright -- and terribly cold. For reference, the salt flats sit at about 3,000m above sea level -- that's about 12,000 ft. And on top of that, it's winter down here. It felt like Ohio on an early February morning.

Good morning, Uyuni! Lovely way to start the day.

Jorge and I trudged along, finally passing the blockade itself. The road was littered with rocks of varying sizes, from pebbles to boulders. We didn't say anything as we passed the protesters themselves, who sat in a group around a fire at the side of the road, the Bolivian flag waving gently in the morning breeze. 

After about 20 minutes of walking, Uyuni looked no closer but we had certainly traveled far. However, we didn't pack for real backpacking. Our belongings are ample and heavy. We packed up a whole life in Chile, and aren't traveling as light as other backpackers who are just on a little vacation. Certainly not equipped to be walking miles with my luggage. Just as we were about to collapse and rest a bit, a truck rumbled past. Jorge stuck out his thumb. The truck stopped. 

The saviors took us into town, mercifully dropping us off right outside the center where all the tour agencies and hostels are found. I think the guy was a relative of someone on the bus, who had been summoned to pick her up, and just happened to see us withering on the side of the road.

Uyuni, the morning we arrived. The cars blocking the road
in the distance are part of the protest, too. 

Fast forward to our tour through the salt flats. We took a roundabout way out of the city due to the blockades. Someone mentioned the regular route out of town was now similarly covered in boulders and armed with protesters waiting for people to attempt to pass. We didn't think much of it, just enjoyed the bumpy road and craggy mountains in the distance. Everything seemed to be continuing as normal despite the blockades and protesters.

On our way back from the salt flats tours, around 7pm, our Jeep shuddered to a stop. The other Jeeps we'd been traveling with similarly turn off and go dark. Our driver disappears, rushing to the other drivers. They stand there talking for 15 minutes. Finally, he comes back to us and says,

"The protesters are blocking our road back into the city," he explains. "The one we took this morning can't be taken again. We are going to wait to see if they go away."

But they didn't go away. And as time wore on, and the night grew darker and colder, our driver and the others decided to risk it. 

With lights off and driving in a tight single-file line, our 5 Jeeps attempted to circumvent the protestors. Unable to see us, the plan was that we were swing wide around them, and gun it into the city. 

I didn't know where to watch. I was horrified by the proximity of the Jeep in front of us, how murikly dark it was, how dangerously close we sometimes came to it as our driver struggled to stay connected to the line and look out for protestors. In the distance, we saw the wide sweep of headlights. Protesters looking for people just like us: trying to escape into the city.

The inevitable came: we were spotted. Those sweeping headlights suddenly focused only on us. Our driver turned wide, executing a 180, and we began running from the car. We lost all of the other Jeeps we'd been following. We were on our own.

The protesters following us got distracted, maybe they decided to pursue someone else. Their goal was to prevent us from entering the city, and to do so they pelted trespassers with rocks. We knew our lives weren't necessarily in danger...but we didn't want an errant rock through the window, either. 

Our driver doubled back and, flying solo now, began creeping along the far side of the field. All of us in the Jeep scoured the countryside, looking for protesters that might have spotted us. So far, so good. All clear. We continued on.

To our far left was the burning bonfire marking the protesters and the beginning of the blockade. We saw groups of people milling around; the road full of boulders. 

And then, we saw three pairs of headlights following us.

We'd been spotted again, and this time, we had two motorcycles and a car racing after us. Our driver gunned it -- we were in the city limits now, no turning back -- and in the distance we could hear the accelerating whine of the motorcycles pursuing us.

This was no easy escape for our driver. Pitch blackness plus a very jagged, bumpy road, littered with bushes and dips. A few minutes once we'd driven past the protesters, he flicked on the lights. We drove in incredibly tense silence, all passengers craning to see if anyone would catch up with us. What would happen if they did? Would they make us stop, circle around us, throw a rock through the window? Or would it go even further? The driver made mention of the campesinos getting drunk and macho, liking to push the protest further at night. Would they force us to walk back into town? Or maybe they'd take all our stuff first?

Nobody knew the answers; nobody dared ask.

Finally, Uyuni grew nearer. We pealed into a side road. No headlights were following us.

We breathed a sigh of relief; and by the time our driver had parked in front of the tour agency, we were lauding him with applause and claps on the back. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Bolivian Border Bronca: Part Two (Or, My 20 Hours as an Illegal Alien)

Warning: This post contains graphic content involving border crossing failures. If reading about illegal aliens makes you squeamish, please read no further.

Jorge and I rolled into the Aguas Blancas border crossing right on time, around 3AM. I'd just managed to snag about two hours of sleep, and like all nighttime border crossings, the unexpected call to activity was unwelcome. However, I rallied quickly, knowing I had some negotiating to do.

We breezed through the Argentinian side of border control. I got my exit stamp. We re-boarded the bus and moved toward the Bolivian side of the border.

By this point, I had fully convinced myself that I would be able to waltz through the border control. Obtaining a tourist visa prior to visiting Bolivia is NOT required for US Citizens (though it is in Brazil), so I figured I'd show up, flash some money, and be back on the bus and sleeping comfortably within a half hour.


I was one of the first through the border control on the Bolivian side (Bermejo). I showed my passport, my immigration paperwork, and smiled hopefully.

"Your payment?" the border control agent asked.

"I have it here, in pesos." I showed him a fat wad of argentinian pesos.

"It must be in dollars."

My face fell. "I don't have dollars, only pesos."

"And your papers?" He referenced a list behind him. It was the full list of visa requirements for USA citizens. The yellow fever vaccination item sneered back at me. "Do you have all these items here?"

I pretended to examine it, knowing that I had exactly none of the required items, minus the credit cards and passport. We didn't even have a hostel reservation yet, because we didn't know where we'd be going that night.

"I have most of these things," I said, mind racing to figure out how to procure all these things out of thin air. "I have the passport photos, for sure." Because I did, I always travel with them. Except for that one time in Jujuy when the lady asked for them and they were with my things in a different city.

"They need to have a red background," he said.

Record screeching. "A red background?!" This was new. And ridiculous. Who has red backgrounds on passport photos? Was he just making this up on the spot to spite me? Red doesn't even look good with my skin tone, hi.

"Yes, and I need two copies of each of the items."

Fist in the stomach. "I, uh...I don't have those. I'd have to make copies. But I DO have these things!" Adding in my head, except the vaccination.

"You can't pass without these items. Return when you have them."

I watched him for a moment or two, hoping that I'd misunderstood his very clear and very firm Spanish. I was moved to the side as he continued attending the other patrons on the bus. Jorge and I went outside into the humid night air, plotting. We'd been prepared for this, to an extent. I just had hoped it wouldn't happen. The bus attendent came to our side and we told him what was up. In a quiet voice, he told us what to do next.

"Tell them you'll stay here in Bermejo to take care of the visa issue. And then take this taxi," he gestured toward an idling car in the distance, lights dimmed, "and go to the bus terminal. Take another bus to Tarija, where hopefully you'll arrive not too long after us. Then you can get your bags and take care of the visa stuff there at the Immigrations office on Monday."

It all sounded good, except one thing. "So we can't get our bags now?"

He shook his head. "I can't unload anything from the bus. You'll have to pick it up in Tarija at the bus terminal. We'll keep it safe for you."

It's one thing to be kicked off a bus in the middle of the night, but it's another thing to be stranded without the majority of your worldy possessions. We'd never been to Bolivia before, what did "safe" mean in the middle of a busy terminal? Jorge and I hurried to rescue our carry-on backpacks from where we'd been sitting, but all of our essentials -- clothes, soap, etc -- was leaving with the bus.

Once the border agent had reviewed the passports of all the passengers, we returned to speak with him. I informed him I'd be staying in Bermejo since I had no way to provide the information he required, being that it was 3am. He allowed this.

And then Jorge and I snuck into a taxi, went to the bus terminal, and hightailed it to Tarija.

Not technically legal, but the only way to really deal with anything given the situation.

We arrived to Tarija around 6am. Our luggage was safe and sound, as promised; we took a taxi to the center to scope a hostel, which we found easily. My first order of business was to procure all the items on the list, all the way down to the freaking ugly passport photos with a red background. I knew the vaccination was a no-go -- it was Saturday, nobody would be administering shots -- so the plan was to get everything on the list and then go back, begging and pleading to let me through.

A solid plan, I figured. Because Tarija, we soon found out, was not some place we wanted to stay for three full days, awaiting Monday's chance to get a vaccination and go to an Immigrations office. We had a limited timeline, and Tarija was...well...a bit lackluster.

I got all the paperwork in order, we napped, we ate, we changed money to dollars, and then we took a bus BACK to Bermejo (a three hour ride). I was prepared, confident, and ready to get my visa.

We arrive to Bermejo around 10pm that night. I waltzed into the border control office, laid down my passport, fanned out my dollar bills, and provided two neat sets of paperwork.

"I was here early this morning but didnt have these papers ready, so I'm here now to get the stamp because I have all the paperwork now."

A different border control agent eyed me warily and proceded to review the paperwork. I waited in thick silence as he reviewed the material for a few minutes.

"The only thing missing is your letter of invitation," he said, finally.

Bronca level: 4.

"Letter of invitation?" I was truly puzzled.

"Yes, from someone inviting you to come to the country," he explained. I was shocked. Who was going to invite me to Boliva? The thousands of Bolivian best friends I didn't have? One of the millions of Bolivian families I didn't know? The freaking President of Bolivia, perhaps??

"I'm just here for tourism," I said. "We're going to be traveling here one week. I don't know anyone in Bolivia. I don't know how to get a letter of invitation."

He resumed quietly reviewing the material. "And where did you guys come from just now?"

My stomach sank. "From Tarija."

He looked up at me, eyes narrowed. "And why did you leave Bermejo?"

"Because our bus left us here last night and took our things to Tarija. We went there to pick them up, and then came back here to finish the paperwork."

A policeman appeared from nowhere; a hulking man, armed with a bullet-proof vest and plenty of guns. "You went to Tarija?" He sounded incredulous.

I told him why we had done that. He shook his head angrily. "If you didn't receive the stamp this morning, you should never have been allowed to come into Bolivia."

"But we were left here to finish the paperwork..."

"And the fact that you left the territory of Bermejo to go to Tarija is unacceptable," the policeman continued. "That is absolutely not allowed and you cannot return to Bolivia until you have the visa."

"But that's what we're here to do," I said, panic rising within me. Both of these men were incredibly stern and incredibly unhappy with me. I felt trapped. "They told us we could stay here last night to finish the paperwork because when we crossed it was 3am--"

"No. You should never have been allowed to come into Bolivia. They should have sent you back to where you came from."

The border agent was even less helpful. "I can't give you the visa without the letter of invitation."

Stonewalled. "So what do I do?" At this point I was nearing hysterics. I needed a solution, and they weren't willing to give me one.

"You have to leave Bolivia," the policeman said.

Bronca level: Infinity.

Shock rushed through me in a hot and fast wave. I couldn't believe my freaking ears. "But all our things are in Tarija," I explained. "I'd have to go get-"

"Not my problem," the policeman said. "You have to leave. Without the stamp, you have to leave. You cannot reenter Bolivia."

Record screech, scene change, anvil dropping, cold rush of blood. I was being ejected from Bolivia with exactly none of my belongings. Work computer, all my clothing, books, every worldy posession was in Tarija, 3 hours away. How would we inform the hostel? How could I get my stuff? The guard wasn't even willing to let Jorge back through, because he'd left his passport at the hostel (not thinking he'd need to present it, as a legal tourist accompanying me on my trip). So we'd just...leave? Me with my wallet and passport and the jacket on my back?? Jorge with only his wallet?? And then what? Go to Argentina, spend days scouring the countryside for the paperwork to come BACK to Bolivia, to find that the hostel had re-possessed our belongings and everything had disappeared by the time we made it back??

I felt all sorts of things swirling inside me -- panic, fear, doubt, confusion. And another very specific feeling....a nervous poop.

I had to go to the bathroom, and now.

"Is there a bathroom I can use?" I was pacing the room, head in my hands, unable to really focus on what my next step should be other than running to the ladies room.

"They're closed," the agent said. "They're only open during the day."

"Is there anywhere else I can go?" More panic now.

"No." The policeman gestured toward the back of the building. "But you can go back there if you like."

I ran out of the office and behind the building. It occurred to me that crapping in the back yard of the border control office might be a perfect resolution to the visa debacle. You won't let me in, I poop in your yard!!

But no, fate was not to let me shit in their lawn. The few moments of fresh air and separation from the situation calmed me; I felt ready to return to the horror show, and rejoined Jorge and the two angry Bolivian men in the office.

Something happened while I was away. I don't know what. But the border agent was on the telephone with the agent I'd spoken with that morning when we crossed, apparently trying to verify the information we were giving them. We were told to wait outside.

So we did.

We waited horribly, nervously, gut-achingly, sickeningly, silently. Jorge and I had Plan B ready -- I wait at the border control while he took the 3 hour bus back to Tarija, collected our things, and came back to get me. I'd while the night alone there, probably sitting by myself on the cement sidewalk, maybe dying of cold in my calf-length leggings.

Then we'd walk back to Argentina if we had to. And go to Chile, or fly to Peru, or anything to avoid going through Bolivia.

We waited almost an hour there. Finally, the agent called me in to talk.

"Can I see the copies of your papers?" I gave them. "And your passport." I handed it over.

"You'll need to fill out this paperwork here." He handed me a sheet that said APPLICATION FOR VISA FOR U.S. CITIZENS. I almost cried. I ran outside to begin filling it out, still unsure if this meant I'd be turned away or not. I was too scared to ask. I filled it out quickly, handing it over like a proud kindergarten student.

I was ushered toward another border agent, a lady, off to the side. She took my application, looked things over, and then asked for $135. I opened my wallet, trying not to breathe too hard, in case it would cause either of them to review the list of requisite and notice that I didn't have the yellow fever vaccination.

I handed her the money. In my head, I'm urging her along, the whole process along, so that I might get the stamp and run away before anyone figures out that I'm vaccination-less. She examined each bill carefully, holding it up to the light, spending an inordinate amount of time looking at each one.

Finally, she slid a $50 bill to me. She pointed to a tiny number in the upper left hand corner.

"This is Series B2," she said. "I can't accept it. Do you have another $50 bill?"

I stared at her, slack-jawed. I'm traveling South America, I do not maintain American currency, and you want me to produce an EXTRA $50? "No. It's my only one. I have some other money here..." I showed her a handfull of 5's, a 20. "This is all I have."

She explained that the series B2 in Bolivia tends to be counterfeit. The non-acceptance of $50 bills only applies in Bolivia. This is the first time I've ever heard of this. She looked at my other money and exchanged some bills. I still wasn't sure I was in the clear -- maybe my potentially-counterfeit money would be the final blocade to me entering the country. I felt like the Bolivia trip was doomed.

Finally, she made a phone call to someone. They discussed the situation quietly. Then she informed me she could take the rest of the money in bolivian pesos.

I handed it over eagerly. She slipped the money between the pages of a novel she was reading -- quite formal, to be sure -- and then delicately applied a tiny visa sticker into the pages of my passport.

She handed it back to the first official, and I nearly crumbled to the ground with relief when I heard the loud smack of the stamp in my passport.

"That's all," the border agent said, handing me my passport. I watched him a moment, unsure if this was really happening. Beyond the door, I saw the policeman gazing off into the distance, smoking a cigarette. The storm had calmed.

I said thank you, hoping the full force of this word penetrated his expressionless demeanor, and ran outside.

Jorge and I were on our way back to Tarija in record time, breathless with disbelief, residual anger and, above all, immense relief.

Legal, at last.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Bolivian Border Bronca: Part One

WARNING: This post contains graphic content involving border crossing failures. If reading about illegal aliens makes you squeamish, please read no further.

When Jorge and I arrived to Salta, Argentina last week, the very first thing we did was buy our ticket to Bolivia for May 30th at 10:30pm. Bus timetables can be limited (sometimes only one crossing per week for some companies!), so we wanted to be sure to have this important step taken care of since our itinerary is quite full and short on time.

We purchased our ticket successfully. Before we left the office, I asked the ticket guy, "And the reciprocity fee I have to pay?"

"Oh... right...." Realization dawned slowly across his face. "You're American."

For those that aren't aware, several countries in South America have begun what is known as a "reciprocity fee" specifically for citizens of the USA. The visa procedure for visiting the US is notoriously strict and expensive -- so some countries have implemented this fee, AKA "You did this to us so we're doing it to you" fee. I've paid it in Chile, in Argentina, and I knew it was waiting for me in Bolivia.

The employee suggested I pay this fee in advance, since our bus would be crossing into Bolivia around 3:30am. He mentioned the Bolivian consulate was just down the block if we wanted to try to pay there. Fair enough. We left the terminal, went to our hostel, and I began investigating how to take care of this tiny detail.

Try searching "Reciprocity fee Bolivia" in google (or, if you're so inclined, "Tasa de reciprocidad Bolivia").  The results? All about the Argentinian reciprocity fee. Not helpful. Furthermore, no website where I could pay the fee in advance, like what I did when I visited Argentina.

I began searching for personal accounts of how to take care of this fee. No dice.

I looked around my hostel for other Americans. Zero. 

This is where the first hints of bronca crept in. Bronca is an Argentinian word meaning 'anger'. If you're pissed off, you say "Me da una bronca tremenda". And my bronca level was about 2 of 10 at this point.

We decided to go to the consulate. We walked ten blocks to get there, a pleasant late morning stroll through Salta. We showed up, crammed into a tiny hot room full of Bolivians, Jorge and I easily a full head taller than everyone else in the room. We waited for about 40 minutes there until we were attended.

The Consulate employee helping us didn't, at first, understand what we wanted. He had to call a different consulate for information. We were eventually turned away without a solution, since their office lacked a specific stamp necessary for the payment process. He did, however, mention we go to the consulate in Jujuy -- a city over 2 hours away. But he assured me that if we crossed into Bolivia, I could probably handle the paperwork aspect at the crossing there. 

Bronca level: 4.

We left with more questions than answers, and I began to feel deeply concerned that crossing the border might not be so easy.

Two days later, Jorge and I went to Jujuy. Our bus left that same night, so we figured we'd spend the day in Jujuy, take care of the fee, and then come back to Salta to catch our bus to Bolivia. Such a great idea! To be even more prepared, we called the consulate in advance, just to make sure they could help us. We didn't want to love 4 hours of travel only to find out they couldn't receive the payment like the first consulate. They told us to show up with my passport, the payment in dollars, and my yellow fever vaccination.

Wait, what?! Yellow fever vaccination? I had seen mention of this as a requisite for entry to Bolivia, but hadn't thought much of it. A friend of mine had traveled to Bolivia within the past year and she didn't have the vaccination, though it had been a requirement then, too. They said if we went to the hospital we could get the shot and then get the visa. Great, sounds easy.

After almost 2 and a half hours in a bus, we arrived to Jujuy and headed straight for the hospital. Sorry, they said. We stopped giving those shots years ago. Oh really? Because we were told to come here. They suggested the Ministerio de Salud. We walked several more blocks there, to be told that they only gave shots until 2pm each day. I looked at the time. 2:30pm.

WELL, FINE. Around this time, I started to get really angry. If I had known that the yellow fever vaccination was an actual necessity, I would have gotten it during the ample amount of free time I'd had in Salta. Now it was down to the wire and my bus left in 5 hours and I had no vaccination and no way to get it.

We walked about 13 blocks to get to the Consulate, and as we rounded the corner, we noticed a surprisingly dense crowd of Bolivians waiting at the front door. Oh crap. Turns out it was election time in Bolivia, and all these people wanted to vote. The employee sent me to the end of the line, about 30 people deep. Funny, considering we had only 2 hours before our bus returned to Salta, and then onward to Bolivia.

We managed to explain my unique situation -- we're traveling to Bolivia today, the other consulate told us to come here, I want to pay you, please help me -- and they told us to wait until the appropriate person showed up. Apparently, she was negotiating a hunger strike in a different part of the city and was detained.

In her absence, we communicated with another employee about the payment. "Can I pay in pesos?" I asked. "Or should I go change the money?"

"Pesos is fine," she reassured me. Score! We walked about 6 blocks to find an ATM so I could take out the remainder of the necessary money. In Argentina, finding dollars is hard -- exchanging for dollars is even harder, because the rate is so crappy when you want to buy them.

Upon our return to the consulate, the appropriate employee had returned and was ready to help us. We walked up to her desk, all smiles. I showed her my passport and explained what I wanted to do.

"And your passport photos?" she asked.

"Excuse me?"

"Your passport photos." She showed me a form, titled APPLICATION FOR VISA FOR U.S. CITIZENS, where it called for a passport photo at the top. "When you called earlier you were told to bring these."

"Nobody told me that," I said. Because nobody had told us that.

She sighed. "Well, your proof of economic solvency?"

Again, record screeching. "I'm sorry?"

"Your proof of economic solvency. Do you have copies of that, along with your passport, and your hotel reservations?"

I couldn't stop my jaw from hanging to the ground. "I'm sorry, I was just told to show up and pay the fee, I had no idea I would need--"

"It's 135 dollars."

"I have that! Here." I showed here the pesos.

"It can only be in dollars."

Again, jaw to the ground. Bronca level: 9. "But, the other lady just told me a half hour ago that...."

"Sorry." She shrugged. "They're the prerequisites. You can go take dollars out and make the copies of all this information and come back and then we can process it."

"I can't, though. Our bus leaves in an hour. We won't have time."

Another shrug. Jorge and I looked at each other in disbelief. I fought the urge to crumple the form in my fist and throw it in her face. 

"And how was I supposed to know all of this beforehand? We were told at the other consulate to just try crossing. Furthermore, why isn't this information publicly available? If all of this information is needed to get into Bolivia, it should be dispersed.

And truly, by this point, the "reciprocity fee" situation had fully snowballed into a "get your visa before you go" situation, and at no point in my research had I seen any inkling that showing up at the border wasn't an acceptable way to travel. 

I was really angry -- it felt like secret information. Most every country has "technical rules and regulations" but most aren't regularly enforced. For example, it's a technical rule to prove economic solvency for any visa to any country, but never in my travels have I ever been asked for it. The only time in almost 10 years of travel was when I applied for a student visa in Mexico and they wanted to know how I'd support myself while studying abroad. (AHEM, parents!)

What added to the bronca was the fact that this bullcrap only applies to citizens of my country, and I had exactly one friend who had recently traveled to Bolivia, and she didn't have to do ANY of this rigamarole.

We left Jujuy feeling discouraged and confused. We talked over our options -- cancel the bus ticket? Go back to Chile? Fly to Lima direct? -- and once we had discussed our situation with the bus company employee, he came up with a specialized solution.

"Here's what we can do," he explained to us around 9:30PM that night, only an hour before our bus was set to depart. "You guys get on the bus and travel to Bolivia. You'll hit the Bolivian border at around 3 AM. Depending on what official is there, he might not make any trouble and you'll go through fine. But if, god help you, you don't get through, you can hitch a taxi to Tarija (the city the bus was traveling to), and then do your migration paperwork there in the city on Monday. Plus you can go to our office in Tarija and ask for a refund for the part of the trip you didn't make with the bus."


We boarded the bus that night at 10:30 PM. I was 99% certain that everything would work out fine. After all, tons of Americans travel to Bolivia, and with how hard this information is to find out in advance, I felt it was certain that a lot of Americans were showing up to the border without all the paperwork and vaccinations. I'd be fine.

Totally fine.