We got to the bus station at 10:30pm to catch the 11:00 bus to La Paz, Bolivia from Cusco, Peru. I traveled to Peru in the summer of 2010 to visit my best friend, Julia. Julia moved there after graduation to work with a nonprofit organization teaching literacy to kids living on the streets, and I worked for months saving enough money for the trip to visit. Time ticked by with no sign of the bus, and by 11:45 we were tired of smoking cigarettes and chasing the stray dogs throughout the bus station. We worried we missed our bus, but finally around midnight they made a call for us to board. We found our seats equipped for the twelve hour ride with Pringles, Ipods, and extreme fatigue.
I woke up roughly ten hours later when the bus stopped on the Peru/ Bolivia border. Little did we know we would be spending a lot more time than we anticipated in this town, Desaquadero. We bought avocado sandwiches from a vendor on the side of the street for approximately $0.60 American, and waited in the morning chill for an hour to get our passports stamped leaving Peru. We eventually got through the line, exchanged our Soles into Bolivianos, walked over the bridge that served as a border, and found our seats on the bus once more. When the bus finally left, we stayed awake talking about the things we would do in Bolivia, how beautiful it was supposed to be, which hostel we would choose to stay at and so on. We were travelling through barren, dry land with only one road, dotted with a few emaciated buildings every ten miles or so. At about 10am, when we were an hour away from La Paz, our bus was stopped by the border police at a checkpoint. We were told to take our passports out and present them to the border agents walking up the aisle. Finally, when an agent got to our seats and checked our passports, he ordered the two of us to get off the bus.
Me, Julia, a Canadian tourist, and a helpful American student who was fluent in Spanish all got off the bus. The agent, and subsequently the translator, informed us that we did not get our passport stamped again once we entered Bolivia, and thus were there illegally. Who could have guessed you had to get it stamped twice? The Canadian tourist was allowed to pay a fine of $35 and get back on the bus. Bolivia has a very sour relationship with America however, so we were not so lucky. One of Bolivia’s main crops is cocoa leaves, a stimulant they fold up and suck on to energize them throughout the day—comparable to our coffee. America has imposed sanctions on their production of cocoa, however, because this same plant is the one chemically processed to produce cocaine which is most prevalent in the United States and Europe. Because of this, we could not pay the $135 only Americans must pay to enter the country and could not afford our fine of 300 Bolivianos. Julia and I were forced to get our belongings and watch the bus drive onward toward La Paz, stranding us in the desert of a foreign country.
The border agents interrogated us, asking why we didn’t get a stamp, what business we had in Bolivia, where we were staying, and who we knew—I finally understood what it must feel like to be Arab in an airport. He told us that we had to leave the country. We were being deported from Bolivia. Bolivian people do not have a reputation as the most trustworthy folks, so when one of the agents took our passports and disappeared into a tent on the side of the road, we thought for sure that we were going to get murdered. Once we got the passports back, we were optimistic that we would go back to Desagudero, use an ATM, get the stamp, and be only a few hours behind schedule. We sat on the side of the road for almost an hour, flagging down every taxi that came by—about one every five minutes. Some offered us a spot in their ten cubic-foot truck, and some denied us outright. Finally, a van came that was already transporting a couple. We got in the back of the van, exhaled, and got ready to take the road back to Desaguadero. Along the way, there was an old couple on the side of the road with two sheep. The van naturally stopped to pick them up as well. We saw this as the comic relief of the day. There we were, two American girls who just got deported, riding in a rickety old van on a dirt road in the desert with the driver, a couple, two farmers, and two sheep, who made it obvious by their incessant baaing that they weren’t enjoying the ride.
We got back to Desaguadero and were ready to use an ATM, pay our 300 Boliviano fine along with the bank account sabotaging $135 it cost to enter the country, and be back on our way to La Paz. So we approached one of the locals and asked where the ATM in town was. “The closest ATM is in Puno” he told us in Spanish. “No, that can’t be right,” we thought, so we asked a few other people before finally accepting there were indeed no ATMs in Desaguadero. This might have only been a minor roadblock, except that Puno was a two-hour drive from Desaquadero. We briefly considered scrapping the whole trip, until we remembered that Cusco would be a ten hour drive from where we were and we had already purchased bus tickets from La Paz back to Cusco. We found a taxi driver who would charge us eighty Soles each way, about $25 American, and started on our way to Puno.
Puno is a fairly large city by Peruvian standards famous for its markets selling handmade goods. We asked the taxi driver to wait outside while we picked up the money. That ATM in the middle of the shopping mall might as well have been the Holy Grail. We took out all the money we could, and were about to be on our way when we saw a older woman approach some nearby kids and chastise them for digging our ATM receipts out of the trash and following us deviously, noting where we put the money. For a moment, things were in perspective of how lucky we were to be able to travel so freely--able to overcome most obstacles using only our wallets, and how aware the locals were about such things. Only for a moment, until we got back in the taxi and went once more to Desaguadero.
By the time we got there it was dark. We had either been on the side of a road or in a taxi for the past nine hours trying to get to La Paz, and weren’t really liking Bolivia so far. We went to the immigration office on the Bolivia side of the bridge and were startled to find that they already knew who we were. They told us to bring copies of our passport information back to the office. After thirty minutes of aggravated searching, we finally found a store with a copy machine, and brought our documents back to the immigration office. We skipped by the other tourists waiting in line and were escorted to a back room--the chief’s office. He made us fill out paperwork, laughed and made fun of us from afar with the rest of the police force, and finally told us to go into another office. Here, an overweight officer sitting behind a desk told us he was going to drop the 300 Boliviano fine, and asked if we had something for him. After an awkward minute of him stealthily clarifying what he wanted, Julia and I each took out a fifty Boliviano bill, handed it to him, and watched him slide it in his pocket. We had just paid off the Bolivian Immigration Police with a collective $10. Instead of rejoicing in our minor victory, we tried to find the quickest way out of town. It seemed everywhere a voice and pair of unfamiliar eyes was protruding out of the darkness, watching every step of the unwanted strangers. We asked the clump of taxi drivers, huddled in a circle on the corner, if any could go to La Paz. They laughed and said no, that it was too late—why don’t we just stay there for the night? As soon as we found a taxi, I fell asleep leaning on an old woman who didn’t seem to appreciate my company.
Once we finally got to La Paz, the driver asked where we were going specifically. We asked him to take us to the Loki Hostel; he quickly said he didn’t know where that was and dropped us off in the middle of a busy street. We grabbed our luggage and hailed yet another cab. We were on our way with this one, until his car stalled travelling up a hill. To fix this, the driver held two wires together that were protruding from the inside of the car, opened his door, stuck his leg out, and began to push. To my surprise and awe, this actually did get the car to start once more. We got to the Loki hostel and learned that it was sold out for the night, so we stayed in a hostel down the road that was not as nice and more expensive. In the beginning of the day this might have been devastating news, but by now we weren’t even fazed.
Our actual stay in Bolivia was consistent with our trials of getting there, and the morning the bus was coming to take us back to Cusco couldn’t have come soon enough. Unfortunately, the excess of cerveza and subsequent theorizing on death and the devil the night before caused us to wake up only fifteen minutes before the bus was supposed to leave the station. By some act of God, we did make our bus and had a cranky, tired, unwashed, yet highly gratifying, twelve hour ride back to Peru. Cusco felt like home, even to me, when we got back, and the rush of nostalgia and sense of community I then felt remained steadfast until a few days later when I headed back to America. Before briefly imposing on my best friend’s new life, I couldn’t understand why she would want to live in a third world country, but by the time I left, I hated Bolivia with every cell in my body and never wanted to leave my newfound element.