January 18th, the day where things got interesting. (Also, there are almost no pictures from today; it was too stressful and dangerous to have my phone out).
To make a long story short, I planned on crossing the border around mid-afternoon as part of a group. However, my first bus was delayed, and as a result I missed my second bus. I didn’t end up making it to the border until 5:30m, and had to cross on my own. The Bolivian office closed at 6:30, but I thought an hour was plenty of time to cross. I was wrong…
It took me less than five minutes to go through the exit process from Peru, so I got to the Bolivian side at 5:40 or so. The immigration officer was friendly when I approached the desk to apply and pay for my visa, that is up until the point when he saw my passport. The difference was immediate and palpable. It wasn’t just hostility, it was also derision. He called over the soldiers to laugh at my passport and call me a stupid gringo while I was standing right there. I didn’t feel threatened per say, but I was acutely aware of the fact that the man holding my passport and three soldiers with assault rifles were alternately glaring and laughing at me. I also vividly remember thinking how infrequently Americans must cross this border to elicit such a reaction.
Now, at this point in time I had a cursory understanding of U.S. intervention in Bolivia. However, I wasn’t aware just how pervasive U.S. influence had been, and how it had impacted the way many Bolivians viewed Americans. To overly simplify an eminently complicated and multifaceted history, the U.S. government wanted to implement a neoliberal economic model in Bolivia and wanted to destroy coca fields. Coca is a harmless, mild stimulant much like caffeine. I had it nearly every day I was in Bolivia (here is the first cup of coca tea I drank)
It’s nearly universally consumed in the high-altitude regions, and is an integral part of indigenous tradition and Bolivian culture. However, the U.S. sees only the fact that coca leaves are used to make cocaine, and thus has been attempting to eradicate the plantations. It is understandable that the attempted imposition of American economic systems and the attempted destruction of cultural practices would foment a certain animosity towards the U.S. (If you want to get a better understanding for this history, read this article: U.S. Intervention in Bolivia)
In my case, this animosity manifested itself in the border officer holding my passport hostage. He told me, in Spanish, that there was something wrong with my application and that I was missing important documents. Guess what, I wasn’t. He then said the only way he would be able to approve my visa was if I paid him $100 dollars in cash to “motivate” him. At this point two thoughts ran through my head, one logical, and the other not so much. The first thought was, if I pay this in addition to the already sizable visa fee, I may not have enough cash to get to and sleep in Copacabana, a town of under 6,000 people I was pretty sure had no ATM. The second thought was, this is bull shit.
So I did something stupid: I started arguing. I was angry, and told the officer that I wasn’t giving him more than $10, because my application had what was necessary. He told me $100 again. And so we started going back and forth. As I look back on this, I genuinely wonder what I was thinking at the time. Even if I was worried about money, I should not have been fighting with the man who had my passport and was sitting right next to three men with assault rifles.
I’m honestly convinced the only reason the officer relented was because by the time we started going at it, it was nearly 6:30, and we were still going at it long past the 6:30 closing. He probably wanted to go home, and so with no warning, dropped his price from $100 to $15. I took the deal, he finished my application, and I officially entered Bolivia at around 7:15. Here’s the photo they took to put on my visa. Can you see the anger and frustration?
BUT, as ridiculous as it may sound, that wasn’t even the bad part. See, I had made an egregious mistake without even realizing it. The border was supposed to close at 6:30, so all the taxis that had been waiting at the border had left, thinking no one else was coming out. This left me stranded, 10km from the town, with darkness rapidly arriving.
So I did the only thing I could do, I started walking. Luckily, my walk lasted about five minutes before a guy in a truck pulled over and yelled “taxi!”. It wasn’t an official taxi (and rule number one is never take unofficial taxis), but the other alternative was even more dangerous, so I hopped in. We quickly settled on a price of 20 bolivianos, just under $3, and off we went. About two minutes in I could tell something wasn’t right, although I can’t put into words exactly what the feeling was. But I trusted my gut, and started thinking about how I was gonna get out of the car as fast as possible when given the opportunity.
To make things even creepier, about five minutes into the journey, the driver slammed on the brakes, swung the truck to the side of the road, and someone else opened the front passenger door and hopped in. This was all done in complete silence, and happened so fast that I couldn’t react. At this point I was thoroughly terrified, and I fumbled in my backpack for my Swiss Army knife. Now there’s absolutely no way that the puny, dull knife would have done anything (seriously, I struggle to cut an apple with the thing), but it gave me some measure of comfort as I gripped it tightly in my pocket. I hadn’t put my big hiking backpack in the trunk, so I knew that as soon as we stopped I’d be able to jump out and run, I just had no idea where we were going to stop.
Luckily, and I guess for the reader somewhat anti-climatically, we ended up at the outskirts of Copacabana, the town I was trying to get to. The truck stopped for some reason (my memories here are a bit hazy because my adrenaline was pumping so hard) and I jumped at the opportunity. Having been waiting for this moment, I already had my backpack on, so I was able to throw my money into the front, open the door and get out of the truck in just a few seconds. There was a restaurant just a few doors down that I jumped into, and I slowly let myself relax as I came to terms with the fact that no one had followed me.
Now to this day I have no idea if they had nefarious intentions. But those ten minutes, from the second guy silently getting in the truck to arriving in Copacabana, were the worst moments of my entire trip. It just felt so wrong, and I really do think I made the right decision by jumping out rather than waiting to see what might happen. It was also one of the only moments where I felt truly unsafe. I’ve realized that 90% of the bad experiences that people have while traveling are a result of doing something stupid or not paying attention. While there are of course things that occur outside of ones control, personal error accounts for the overwhelming majority of incidents. This was my one stupid moment.
I don’t think I’ve told anyone this whole story before, not even my parents. It was a really tough way to start off in Bolivia, and I think it permanently affected how I viewed the country. When I look back on Bolivia, I think of what is arguably the most naturally beautiful country in South America, but also one of the least friendly. So much of that opinion was influenced by this first day. And, moving forward, I would tell everyone I met that I was Canadian.
Next time I’m going to write about the Isla del Sol, an island on Late Titicaca, where I spent two incredible days.