The Joy of Border Crossings

Border crossings in South America are not for the weak-minded. The combination of confusion, paranoia and a fuzzy head from an uncomfortable 14 hour bus ride left me standing somewhere near the Ecuador-Peruvian border in a daze. The sequence of events that led me to this point made it a memorable adventure. And at the end of the day, that’s what it boils down to…Another adventure.

There’s only so much you can do to prepare for border crossings between underdeveloped countries. Doing it alone as a blonde female, with very little Spanish, adds another element of fun to the mix. There’s no chance of blending in with the sea of Ecuadorians and Peruvians.

I left Montanita at the peak party hour of 4:30 a.m. (although I didn’t partake in the fiesta, I got my rest so I’d be mentally ready to handle the day of buses changes that would hopefully land me in Mancora, Peru).

I hop on a bus to Guayaquil, a city I have zero interest in visiting for more than a couple hours. I arrive at the bus station by late morning. It resembles a major airport. The place is massive, four stories high, packed with food courts and shops. After searching around and being shouted at and propositioned by loads of bus companies to come to Quito (I wanted to scream “Hell No”), I finally find the bus that will take me to Tumbes, which is the first town in Peru after crossing the border from Ecuador. There are a couple other border crossings, but this is the one I was told was the most straight forward and safe. I buy my ticket for 8 dollars and search for the platform.

I find the international platform, located on the fourth floor, step outside and am overcome with a wave of exhaustion. The heaviness of the humidity along with my backpack immediately makes me break into a sweat. But I sigh in relief, because the bus is in front of me and I’m headed to Peru.

Not quite. Within seconds I’m approached by two policemen.. and then two more, and then two more. They circle around me and ask to see my passport, so I dig through my bag and hand it to them. They look more entertained than anything, flipping thoroughly through each page, scouring each stamp and visa, pointing and smiling and showing the others as if it were a comic strip. They clearly find it very amusing.

When they finish humouring themselves with my potentially suspicious visas, they move on to my bus ticket, and immediately decide they have a problem with it. In quick Spanish that I can’t comprehend, the six of them chime in trying to explain to me that there is something wrong with my ticket. But what? I can make out that they are telling me I needed to change it. But why? Something about it is obviously amiss, but between their poor English and my poor Spanish and nervousness, it was lost in translation.

The bus is scheduled to leave in ten minutes, and I have to get on it if I want to make it to the border before dark. Somehow these six Ecuadorian policemen and I need to come to a resolution, and fast. I ask them what I should do. I feel a bead of sweat drip down my forehead and do what I always do in situations like this: panic. I pep-talk myself in my head to remain calm and confident. They ask me where I got my ticket. I tell them downstairs at a ticket office. Finally one police officer, with my bus ticket and passport in hand, asks me to follow him. I grab my passport back first and then agree. I let him take me on a wild goose chase to the ticket company I bought it from on the bottom floor. He cuts the line and proceeds to chew out the ticket guy for a reason I can’t understand. Then, like it was nothing, he simply hans me back my unchanged ticket and says “Esta bien” (It’s all good). Really?

As he walks me back to the platform, he casually engages me in conversation.. how I am enjoying my time in Ecuador, how long I am traveling for, why I am alone, the usual banter. The bus leaves in two minutes. I answer his questions in whatever Spanish I can fumble together and try to pick up our walking pace.

Finally, back at the platform. I ask the bus driver if the bus is for Tumbes, and he says yes. I put my backpack underneath the bus and climb on. Something feels off. The bus is tiny and scruffy and looks like an inner city bus, which isn’t typical for a 9 hour journey. I’ve learned it’s always good to double and possibly triple-check with important things like this, so I decide to ask the girl next to me if this bus goes to Tumbes. She looks shocked by my question. This can’t be good. She engages in some commotion with other passengers and then turns to me and simply says “No”. The bus driver turns on the engine. Before I can stand up, a man working at the bus station runs on the bus and grabs me and tells me to get off. I comply and follow him off the bus. He asks me where I’m going and I say Tumbes, and he says no buses leave to Tumbes. He asks to look at my ticket. While he’s studying my Guayaquil-Tumbes ticket, I glance up and notice all the locals on the bus have rolled down their windows and are sticking their heads out, to watch the story unfold with the confused gringa.

The bus starts to pull away. He tells me to get back on the bus because wherever this bus is headed I can catch another bus to the border. I ask him if he is sure. He says yes, of which I am skeptical. But I have to go somewhere, so I promise myself to be as courageous as possible in whatever unknown city I end up in. I get back on the bus, all curious eyes on me, and take a seat in an empty row.

A Peruvian guy a couple rows over tries to get my attention and motions for me to come sit with him. He has aviators on and thick black hair slicked back with about a gallon of sticky gel. He’s wearing a skin-tight nylon v-neck shirt, with army pants and boots. No gracias, sir. He insists. I watch as he kicks out the guy in the seat next to him and asks me to sit wth him. Still, no gracias. But since his English seems decent, I ask the name of the city the bus is headed to. Then I check on a map. Not so bad, looks close enough to the border to figure it out from there. Rico Suave doesn’t give up. Since I won’t sit with him, he moves up a row so he is closer to me. Then he hands me a binder.

Out of curiosity, I take it from him and flip through it. Not sure how to react. It’s a picture album packed with photographs depicting him and young white girls. They all look like a cross between horrible karaoke shows and mild pedophelia. In each picture there’s a row of very young white females, scantily dressed, standing in front of a white wall. They all look alike. In fact, they all look like me. And in every photo, he’s in the middle with a microphone, resembling a cheap rock star. Before I could make sense of this awful album, he shoves his business card in my face, telling me he is looking for more back-up singers and dancers and would love for me to join his twisted sex-trafficking ring. Again, Rico Suave, no gracias. I give him his binder back, wondering if this really ever actually works on girls, but not until he writes his contact number on the back off his card and insists I call him. It will “change my life”. I bet it will.

Cheap bus rides are never relaxing, but always intriguing. People continuously hop on and off the bus, selling everything from fried fish to jewelery. Every so often someone jumps on the bus and spends 30 mins giving a speech, either a sob story about how they have no money, or a presentation that resembles an infomercial. One man jumps on in a business suit with a briefcase, and spends the better part of an hour trying to sell the passengers a cure for arthritis. I thoroughly enjoy the show. I find it fascinating that he is trying to sell arthritis medicine on a bus, and even more interesting that half the passengers ended up buying it from him.

Time goes by. I hug my purse and backpack to my chest and drift in and out of sleep, waking up occasionally to drunk men stumbling through the bus slurring their words begging for money. I’m shoved up against the window and the sun is scorching through. I can feel my face getting sunburned. The bus driver is cutting back and forth between lanes, overtaking other buses and trucks on narrow one way lanes. Every now and again he jerks the bus back into the lane the moment before a head-on collision. The man in front of me has his seat reclined so far back the circulation in my legs is being cut off and his head is in my lap. I promise myself next time I will opt for Cruz del Sur, the supposed “nice” bus company.

At one point, after 7 hours or so, the bus pulls over on the side of the highway. I look outside and see a small hut across the street. The bus driver rushes over to me and tells me to get off here for my exit stamp. I’ve read about this. For no other reason but to complicate the lives of foreigners, the place to get your Ecuador exit stamp is 8 km or so from the border. Apparently I’m the only one who needs it, since everyone else remains seated. I dodge across the highway and hand my passport to the man in the hut. He takes his time, flipping through all the pages and having me fill out some forms. I glance across the street and see the bus start to slowly pull back into the street. I ask the visa guy to hurry up, and he does. I rush back across the highway. The bus is already moving again. They love to do this. So I run and jump on the bus, something I’ve grown quite accustomed to doing this past month in South America.

A little while later, the bus pulls over and announces it’s last stop. As I climb off, I have Rico Suave on my back saying I can come with him to cross the border. The bus driver hands me my bag, along with $2.50 for a reason I cannot explain. He tells me to follow Rico Suave. I pocket the money and walk the opposite direction and lose Rico Suave in the crowd. We are near the border. There are markets everywhere and taxi drivers grabbing me trying to get me into their taxi. One of the girls who was on the bus tells me I can follow her to cross the border. I take her up on it. She is with five other Ecuadorians so I decide to go with them. We walk for 15 minutes or so until we see the sign that says “Bienvenidos a Peru” and I can immediately tell we are in a border town. Everyone from young boys to old women are pulling wheelbarrows and carts strapped to their back full of wood, rocks, and all sorts of clothes and jewelery across the border. The streets are lined with men in suits sitting with open briefcases stuffed with money. I decide I’ll exhange my money elsewhere.

The six Ecuadorians find a guy who says he will drive us. To where, I’m not sure, but why not, Feels like my safest bet. A little while later we pull up at immigration office. I get my Peruvian visa. He then drives us furthur into Peru, and I realize I have reached Tumbes.

There’s always so much hustle and bustle exiting cars in border towns, especially when your backpack is spotted. Men surround us, trying to grab our bags and tell us they will take us where we need to go. One guy grabs my bag. I grab it back and tell him I need to go to Mancora. He tells me he has a van with people who are going to Mancora. I go across the street and buy a ticket to Mancora, then shove in a van with more locals. Again I drift in and out of sleep. We drive down a highway surrounded only by vast desert on each side. The van driver pulls over at one point and jumps out. I turn around to see where he went and notice he has only pulled over to relieve himself behind the van. Gotta love Peru.

After 14 hours and plenty of confusion and entertainment, I can proudly say that I made it. The driver drops me off in the beach town of Mancora.

I’ve quickly learned that bus journeys in South America are very different from bus journeys back home. You never simply jump on at one stop and end up in your promised location. Well, I don’t anyway. It’s always a real adventure trying to decode what is going on and who I should trust. But, in the end it’s always worth it. I always feel very accomplished and relieved when I realize that me, my bags, and my sanity have all made it to my destination in one piece. More or less.

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