La frontera… Otra vez. So my second “first impression” of Bolivia was equally as strange and frustrating as my first.
For those of you who don’t remember, or are just tuning in to my adventures, you can click here to read Welcome to Bolivia, about my strange experience crossing the border from Argentina (La Quiaca) to Bolivia (Villazón) last year.
This year my experience was similar, but even more annoying. I thought I was totally prepared this time around for what was expected of me at the border. But, this is Bolivia. And I was wrong.
This time when I got to the border, I knew exactly where the windows were that I needed to go to get my passport stamped (remember this is all on foot, and outside). I also had plenty of cash on me so I was fully prepared to pay for my visa without having to run in and out, from country to country… again. Yeah, right.
So I was successfully stamped out of Argentina. Easy Peasy. When I got to the window at Bolivia, I actually thought I might be in the clear and not have to pay anything at all. I had heard that the purchased visas were good for 10 years, as long as you didn’t stay in the country for more than 90 days each year, but of course I was not certain of this. The Bolivian border patrol was even confused by my previous visa, and seemed to think it was a work visa. Either way, I had to pay for a new one (and this time I got one that will actually be good for 10 years… if they don’t keep changing their policies every day). This time they asked for $160 (much more than last year). American Dollars. I asked what the amount would cost me in Bolivianos or Argentinian Pesos. They refused to accept anything other than American dollars… And just to be clear, last year they refused anything but Bolivianos. Well this I hadn’t prepared for (and frankly, seems quite absurd at an on foot border between two countries with their own separate currencies from mine).
I explained to the guards that I could only pay with my Pesos or Bolivianos. So then, almost as anticipated, they told me to walk a couple of blocks North, into Bolivia (without a stamped passport… again), find an open money exchange shop and return to the border with my newly acquired American dollars.
Begrudgingly, I complied. I walked with my rolly bag and my backpack uphill. Most cambio venders were closed because it was early on a Sunday morning. I found one that was open. I lost the equivalent of about $20 in the exchange, because at the borders the cambio shops charge an arm and a leg extra to exchange currency. But I had no choice. I gave up my Pesos, which I needed to exchange anyway, and in return I was handed a 100, and three 20 dollar bills. And I am talking about the crispest, freshest, hot of the press, flat as a board dollar bills that you can possibly imagine.
I rolled my bags and my perfect new American dollars back to the border, and back to the Bolivian immigration window fully ready to pay for my visa and get on with my day. But when I handed the officer my money, he immediately determined that one of the $20 bills was not adequate and they refused to accept it. I didn’t understand. So he held up the perfectly perfect bill and showed me in the top right corner the tiniest tear. It must have been 1 mm in length. I never would have even seen it.
“You’re joking, right?” I said it out loud. Luckily they didn’t know English but my tone told them enough. They shrugged me off. And they were not about to hand back my passport, or any of the dollars I had just given them. So then I got a bit panicked and in my broken Spanish asked them what I was supposed to do next. They told me to go exchange that $20 bill for a different $20 bill. But I already knew that there was as much as a snowball’s chance in hell that anyone was going to exchange my perfect $20 bill with a 1 mm tear and give me an even more perfect one. They would laugh me out of the cambio stand. And the guards new it too. And I knew they knew it.
So I deliberately got visually upset. And luckily, one of the guards took pity on me. He let me put my bags down inside their office. And then he walked with me back to the cambio stand (Meanwhile, they still did not give me back my passport or money). He argued with the woman behind the desk for me in Spanish. She was clearly unhappy and blamed the bank for sending a less than perfect bill. She tried to argue her way out of it, but eventually the immigration officer won the battle for me, and she handed him a different, more acceptable $20. I was grateful that this guy abandoned his post to help me, because there was no way she would have ever listened to me.
So we walked back to the border, yet again… Now a walk I am quite familiar with in the town of Villazón. Both guards then disappeared with my money and passport for an oddly long time. Long enough that I started to get nervous. But eventually they came back. I was rewarded my new 10 yr visa and sent on my way.
Thank god that was over. I made my way up the hill to the bus terminal to buy a ticket out of Villazón. I was excited to head to the city of Potosi, Bolivia, which I hadn’t had time to explore last year on my travels. When I got to the bus terminal all of the familiar sounds of a Bolivian bus terminal came at me full force. Men and women shouting names of cities at me in their strong and fully projected voices, like you would expect from a melodrama character a stage in a giant theatre. As soon as I heard a man call “POTOSI”, I shook my head at him and said “Potosi, si”. He flagged me over and indicated that I follow him to his desk to purchase my bus ticket.
At first he was perfectly friendly and explained the time schedule and price to me. Perhaps because it is a border town, he was required to see my passport before selling me the ticket (this has not been a requirement at other bus terminals in Bolivia). As soon as he realized I was a citizen of the USA his attitude changed. “Ah, Estados Unidos, no eres bienvenido aqui”. – Oh, An american, you aren’t welcome here. Then he opened my passport and pointed to the faded printed image of the American flag and said “malo” – bad. I was honestly just shocked at the rudeness and ignorance. And the fact that this man had no problem taking my money but felt it appropriate to tell me what he thought of me, and make his judgements so obvious. Of course, after the transaction was complete and I had a bus ticket in my hand, I deeply regretted finishing the transaction at all. I wish I had gone to one of the other ticket vendors. But sometimes you realize how you should react just a little too late.
I realize that USA government has pissed off a lot of Bolivians. Apparently I am somehow responsible for that, just by being born there. Anyway…
I was really irritated at this point by how the entire day had shaped out. And nobody ever looks forward to being on a bus for 8 hours. That was all I had to look forward to for the rest of my perky day. I even began to have doubts. I started thinking about how much I loved Bolivia last year, and how enamored I was by this country. And I started to question if it was really such a great place, as I remembered. Maybe I over-exaggerated my feelings and memories of how wonderful this country is because of what I was going through, and how desperately I didn’t want to go home… I don’t know? It certainly wasn’t a nice welcome to the country that I had received.
But around 9:00 pm our bus entered Potosi. The lights of businesses and people’s houses rolled over the hilly landscape of the city. I could see dogs on the street, and chola’s in their felt hats and bushy skirts bustling with their food stands. Even before I got off the bus the city felt familiar. New, but familiar. Even from my seat, I could feel the Bolivian flair that I loved about Sucre and La Paz. My doubts about whether I still loved Bolivia so much, completely faded away. I guess all I can say is “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” – or don’t judge a country by their border towns. They tend to be the worst.
Stay tuned for my next post about my time in Potosi, which will be a much cheerier post!