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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.

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