Thursday, May 5, 2011

Bienvenidos Bolivia

By Alex Mehlin

We successfully stamped out of Argentina. We walked five meters to the left to the Bolivian vehicle crossing guard. I mechanically produced our documents while Alaena sweat talked the guard through a warm smile.

He glanced up through his bifocals. Seguro? I reached into the folder and produced our tried and true international driving insurance. He scrutinized it as if it were a ticking bomb.

Without raising his head, he informed us that the folded piece of paper did not specify that the insurance was indeed for Bolivia. I looked across the boarder. Donkeys pulled loads of good illegally passing between countries, people chewed on coca leaves, cars not fit for a demolition derby sped down dirt roads. There was no chance in hell any insurance company would ever pay out for an incident occurring in Bolivia.

Alaena argued with the stubborn man. ¨our insurance has worked in Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina. Are you telling me that Bolivia is not in South America?¨ He did not like this and finished the argument stating that we would not pass into Bolivia without insurance that specified Bolivian coverage.

We were forced illegally back into Argentina. We returned 30 minuets later and 180 peso the poorer with a print out of an insurance statement declaring that we owned insurance for the Gypsy Train. The guard once again did not look up, he stamped our paper and we were allowed to pass.

The ancient floor board creaked under our feet, cracked glass windows sheltered the tellers from unwanted saliva, a sign hung on the wall stating that children are not objects and should not be sold. We stood in line watching every South American get stamped through with little effort and extreme speed.

In order to expatiate the process Alaena bypassed the line and procured a document of entry. She filled it in and qued up. Her time came and she stepped up to the cracked window. ¨Where did you get this paper?¨ The boarder guard, officially sporting track pants and a leather jacket, inquired. ¨You did not get it from me, take this one and fill it out.¨ He gave her the exact same paper and sent her to the back of the line.

I stepped up next. Bolivians hate Americans and I did not expect much. What I received was far from welcoming. I was asked a serious of questions outlining my birth city, occupation, if I ever worked for the government and if I had family who did. I must have passed the inquisition because I was given a piece of paper outlining the very questions I just answered. I filled it out and stood in line. At the window I was told I would need to produce $135 USD and no other currency would be accepted. Since I was just coming from Argentina I was forced to exchange my peso for dollars at a painful rate. For this exercise I was allowed to enter Bolivia, however not trusting the guard holding my passport hostage, Alaena for the second time in a day ran illegally into a foreign country.

She returned safely with the money. I paid and was rewarded a 90 day vias once a year for the rest of my life into Bolivia.

We drove back into the third world.

At the gas station we were forced to pay double the diesel prices because of a law prohibiting sale of diesel to foreigners within 200km of the boarder at the national price.

At the gas station I met my first real Bolivian. We talked and he told me that the road to Uyuni was very long, however his crooked gold smile proudly informed me the first 90 km were newly paved. We shook hands and he wished us safe travels, warning me never to drive at night.

Off into Bolivia we drove. The world outside the Gypsy Train filled with dust and gravel. The country side looked like the Wild West only the renegades to the likes of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, have now traded their stallions for 4x4 Toyotas.

No longer did signs point the direction to the next town or warn of approaching danger. There were no longer any fences marking private property and llamas roamed freely. Quechua women huddled next to the side of the road watching the world go bye and we occasionally picked up kids hitching to school 30 km from home.

Once again we were away from all the comforts of the first world, like an unwanted but highly needed cold shower if felt refreshing.

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