By Alex Mehlin
The peaceful sounds of water dripping off the dense amazonian mountain scape were suddenly terrorized, as two A-37Bs engaged each other in air-to-air combat. .50 caliber shells littered the canopy while the dog fight ripped the air currents around the disputed Cordillera del Cóndor.
Dating back to 1941 Peru and Ecuador have been fighting over the head waters of the Cenepa River. East of the Cordillera del Condor was claimed by the Ecuadorians as their own, Peru´s government meanwhile claimed that the territorial boundary lay on the ridge of the mountains. In 1998, after 57 years of border disputes, it was resolved that Peru would give up a square kilometer of land to Ecuador in the Amazon and the official boarder would rest on the ridge of the Cordillera del Condor.
As Alaena and I drove down the post apocalyptic road into Peru we had no idea that one of the longest boarder disputes in the western hemisphere this century, over uninhabitable land deep in the jungle, would ever affect our life on the Gypsy Train.
In Ecuador we were seldom pulled over. When we were the National Police were only curious as to what we were doing with a bus, filled with Gringos. Once we were pulled over as the sun lay low on the horizon. After 30 minuets of dispute over the legality of my driving eligibility, an obvious ploy to elicit bribe money, we were let go under the caution, “you know they are going to rob you in Peru?” We chuckled at the irony of the comment as we pulled away.
We were later warned once again of the criminal nature of all Peruvians. As Alaena and I sat watching or mechanic sing karaoke in a posh Santo Domingo bar, the men next to us informed us how once while visiting Peru he fell victim to an attempted pickpocket. On another none-the- less-startling experience, this same man while visiting a market was also short changed. It was clear to us we were in for a world of trouble when we entered Peru.
Crossing the boarder was easy. We simply drove into the shacks that consisted of the Peruvian Boarder Patrol offices, parked, presented all our documents, signed a few pieces of paper and were rewarded a 90 day driving visa for Peru.
Mancora lays about 2 hours south of the boarder. We were pulled over twice before reaching the electric beach town. We were unprepared for the battle. Alaena talked to the police man as I fumbled through my folder of important documents. After producing our array of freshly minted documents we were let go with the wave of the hand.
We have been pulled overa round 40 times. Most of these occurrences end as abruptly as they started once the road patrolee realizes we are not Ecuadorians. Others do not go so smoothly. For these occasions we send in our diplomat, Alaena. When we had Marta with us our diplomatic team was too much for the police to handle.
On one occurrence while the police officer was holding his ticket book, pen in hand delivering us a “small fine, so we have something to remember Peru with” Martha, convinced him that Alaena and her would rather remember Peru through a picture of the three of them next to his police truck.
We avoided an expensive fine for not having a seat belt on the front passenger side of the cockpit. At the time of our alleged criminal activity there was no person riding in the illegal seat. This did not deter the speak impedimented slobbering road Nazi from feeling the need to deliver us a fine. As he began to write out a ticket, violation number 29A in the cheap paper back road handbook assigned to all police, Alaena stepped off the bus and after 20 minuets of confruntation smiled and jumped back on board as the cop put his fine book away. We peeled out of town with all our money.
After a particularly roaring night around a campfire, we drove into the city. A team of red barret National Police stopped the Gypsy Train to inform us that our rear trunk was open. As they waved us through one of the police yelled into the window asking us if we needed any marijuana. We drove off without taking the offer.
Through these experiences we have put together a game plan for dealing with the police. Our first move is to wave and smile, second we ask for directions or simple tourist questions, this throws them off their game since we are in control asking the questions. They then always ask where we are comming from, we take this oppertunity to compliment Peru´s natural beauty. At this point we generally get waved on, but not always.
Some cops are after bribe money. They scrutinize every official document we present. Our driving visa is clean, we have the Matricula in my name, my California Commercial Drivers License is legal for 90 days. The only thing we don't have is insurance, the reason being it is stupidly expensive and worthless. We have stopped allowing people to ride shotgun because apparently it is illegal to have a navigator unseat-belted, however it is completely legal to smash 20 people into a 10 person van, as long as they are not navigators or co-pilots.
In preperation for these run-ins I have plastified and copied all of my documents, this prevents them from holding my identity hostage. We try to carry very little money with us, if we don't have any money we cant pay bribes or fines. Alaena is a master of rhetoric. She refuses to accept a ticket and will out smart any cop, she is our biggest asset in the daily fight against ticketing.
Our efforts to deter the police from finding anything worthy of costing us a night in jail or a hefty fine have worked. So far we have not given a single centimo to any badge totting, power hungry officer of the road.We were pulled over a record setting 6 times on the drive between Huaraz and Lima. I’m sure that we will continue to do battle with the police on every and any road we choose to ride down in Peru. Our only hope is that Chile does not hold a grudge against Ecuador over a small piece of mountain tucked so far into the jungle it is only accessible by helicopter or fighter plane.
Photos by Marta Anglada