Bribing Border Guards and Smuggling Human Remains
A whirlwind trip of South America.
Late last year I took a little trip to South America. Why South America, you might ask. Well, quite simply, because someone said to me "what about South America?" And so it was decided.
Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances and a less than compatible travelling companion, I ended up alone, on the other side of the world, backpacking. To be completely honest, I consider myself to have a healthy fear of, oh, just about everything. This is just the kind of situation that would normally have sent me into spirals of panic and fits of tears. However, I'd recently read so many travel adventures of single women doing insane things such as cycling solo around the world (Anne Mustoe and Dervla Murphy) or walking - WALKING - the Sahara Desert (Paula Constant) that I felt like I was a bit of an intrepid adventurer by default!
This was it! I was on my own and I was going to have ALL OF THE ADVENTURES! If those women could do it for years, I could certainly survive for a month without getting myself killed/kidnapped/eaten by an alligator!
I'd spent the first couple of nights after my arrival in an Argentinian hotel + wine bar. After having a few glasses of amazing red wine on the first night, I thought it was the jet lag that was kicking my arse the next morning. Alas, I ran into the owner (a tall, Germanic super-model-cum-hotelier) who found my hangover hilarious and took great pleasure in telling me "Oh, it says 15 percent on the bottle. We have to say that for exporting. It's more like double that! Ha!". Thanks Frauke. This information would have come in handy about 14 hours ago.
Buenos Aires didn't offer anything too exciting (for me), unless you're into eating dinner at 10pm and then hitting the clubs until the sun comes up. Personally, I'm not enough of a party animal for B.A. Time to head for the first big attraction - Iguacu Falls.
The falls are amazing, there's no doubt. But how long can you stand and look at a giant waterfall? Half an hour, that's your answer. Well, that's that one ticked off the list! Onwards and upwards!
Next stop was Bolivia and the incredible Salt Flats. But how to get there?! My budget didn't allow for flights between all cities, so I'd have to do what the locals do and take the bus through Paraguay. This country hadn't been on my list originally, however there was no other way. I made a quick visit to the local travel agent in the tiny gateway town of Puerto Iguacu and asked if Australians needed a visa for Paraguay (the Australian Government's travel website is superbly unhelpful when it comes to entry into Paraguay). The fellow at the desk made a short phone call to 'a mate' (surely an expert on Australian visas?!) who assured me that, no, I did not need a visa to enter. Brilliant. I booked my bus ticket for the next day and my little stopover in Paraguay was as easy as that.
Only it wasn't. Most South Americans I met on my trip spoke very little English. And my Spanish, despite my best efforts to learn, was appalling. I was soon to learn that travelling through South America is nothing at all like travelling in Europe, or even Indonesia, where everyone has at least a rudimentary grasp of English. Duh, right? I know, I know. I'm terribly intrepid.
My bus driver was no exception here, and as we pulled through the border without being stopped, I thought I was home and hosed! Elation quickly faded as the bus driver pulled up a few hundred metres past the border stop, pointed back towards it, and mumbled something in Spanish. After some sign language, I took this to mean that I needed to go and have my passport stamped at the border office. Simple. No worries. I got off, grabbed my backpack, headed towards the office...and saw the bus take off without me. Great. Fantastic. Don't panic.
I entered the border office and joined the non-existent queue. When I presented my passport to the officer, smiled pleasantly and waited for my stamp, I was met with a grimace. "Visa?" he said, gruffly. I launched into a spiel about how I was Australian, and I didn't need a visa...I already asked about this... I checked...I was told by the guy's friend at the travel agent back in...I trailed off. He had no idea what I was saying, and more to the point, he didn't care. "No English. Espanol".
I decided to try a different tactic. "Yes, Visa. You give me Visa. How much?" I was making the money-fingers gesture and giving him my best shifty, 'I am happy to bribe you' look. I was met with more confusion.
"You go back to Buenos Aires, get Visa," he said, nonplussed by my valiant efforts at bribery.
"No, no, no!" I said, "I pay you! I pay you for visa, yes? How much? Eh? Eh? How much do you want?" *winky wink wink*
He started to catch on, and when the realisation dawned on his face, he smiled. "Yes. I give you visa. Fifty U.S dollars!". A fortune to him, and totally worth it to save me spending two days getting to B.A and back again.
"Yes, yes, ok!" I handed my money over and watched him stamp my passport, then hand write "5 day tourist visa" on my stamp. That seemed less than official. But hey, this is Paraguay! What could go wrong? I walked out on my merry way, quite pleased with my superior bargaining/bribing prowess, hailed a taxi and headed for the next stop.
I met some fantastic people in Paraguay and spent some fun days chilling by the hostel pool, shopping downtown, visiting the 'beach' (Paraguay is a landlocked country and the beach was some dirty sand lining the brown, snaking river that runs through the capital). I truly felt like I was winning at this backpacking gig. You can't sit and read a book in a hostel for five minutes without making a few new friends. I had a great time. There's not that much to see in the capital of Asuncion, but it's incredibly cheap and you can live on a shoestring while hanging with other guests who hail from all parts of the world. It's a veritable melting pot of cultures and experiences.
Eventually, I was ready to say goodbye to Paraguay and arrived at the airport for my flight to Bolivia. Heading through the customs line, I was the only person crazy enough to catch a flight this early. From behind his glass partition, the officer opened my passport to stamp in for my exit and shuffled through the pages. He stopped.
"Where is visa?"
I point to the little hand written note and stamp on the page he was looking at.
"That's my visa!" Look confident. Smile. Don't panic. You're leaving their country anyway so who cares? So what if that's not a real visa? So what if you overstayed the fake visa by a day? So what if you end up in a Paraguayan prison and never see your family or loved ones again?
Shit. Shit. Shit.
I should have won a bloody Oscar. My face was a picture of carefree serenity. The officer turned back to my passport, looked at it for a few more seconds, muttered something along the lines of 'meh', shrugged his shoulders and stamped my exit. Ahhh, Paraguay.
I was then headed for Bolivia. Possibly the dodgiest country I'd ever had the pleasure of visiting. I flew into Santa Cruz with a plan to stay one night in a hostel, then buy a bus ticket out to the Salt Flats the next morning. As you can't buy bus tickets in advance, or so I was told (so as to give the touts for the bus companies the best possible chance to screw you over, I'm sure) I arrived at 7am to secure my ticket for later that day. And that's where the fun began. To cut a very long story short, I didn't see the signs that actually outline (in Spanish) the price regulations on bus tickets, I was charged around 5 times what my ticket should have cost, and waited around until 7pm for my bus to arrive. Two hours late. Now, I don't mind paying a little more for things as a tourist (and one with very bad Spanish skills), this comes with the territory. I don't even mind roughing it a bit (come on, I packed a whole month's worth of clothes, shoes and hair product into a teeeeny backpack! Go me!) I had requested a 'full cama' bus, which means fully reclining leather seats, air conditioning, bathroom and on-board meals for this 23 hour journey. What pulled up at the terminal was like something directly out of the Romancing The Stone movie set. I'm talking dodgy old school bus, with NO reclining seats, no on-board meals, no leather seats (almost no seat covers at all) and...wait for it...no bathroom. For twenty three hours. Sigh.
One drawback to travelling alone is that you have no one to bounce ideas off, or juggle options with in troubling situations. As I sat squished between a window and large Bolivian woman sporting a bag of grain (and I'm pretty sure, a sack of live chickens) I thought to myself "Ok, self. Is it just me or is this situation totally unacceptable? Am I being a princess because I don't want to sit on a rickety bus for 23 hours with no bathroom, supporting the snoring head of a woman who's never heard of antiperspirant? No, self. No I'm not. This is bullshit."
I climbed over my neighbour's seat, pushed my way past the livestock, luggage and passengers and squeezed myself off that bus! I then found the luggage attendant and explained in no uncertain terms that I wanted my backpack to be pulled from the storage compartment. It's funny how the word 'f***' is universally understood. As is, I guess, a screaming woman pointing at the luggage and wildly gesticulating. To that poor young lad, I wholeheartedly apologise.
I soon had my bag and I walked back into the terminal, trying hard not to cry. The scamming merchant who'd sold me my ticket saw me brewing up a storm while walking past and pulled me into his office, probably assuming I had missed my bus and thinking there was an opportunity to sell me yet another overpriced ticket on the shittiest bus in the country. He obviously had no idea what was coming. I took leave of my senses and my inhibitions and screamed a teary, sobbing tirade at him right there in full view of a few hundred tourists, locals and livestock. He was so shocked, and clearly I was scaring away other potential suckers, that he pulled out his wallet and proceeded to refund me my full 300 Bolivianos! By the way - the official price for my ticket was regulated at 60 Bolivianos. Sigh. I promptly found an internet café, fastidiously ignored my bank balance and booked myself a plane ticket. I then booked myself into the most expensive hotel in town (for a bank-breaking AU$120!)
Two days and a dust storm later, I made it to the Salt Flats. This time I scored a great deal and managed for once not to pay 'tourist price' for my 4WD trip of the flats. I met some more fantastic people on this intimate 3 day tour. We played UNO in hostels with no heaters in -5 degrees, with no electricity, by the light of our phones. We scattered some of my Dad's ashes at the famous Red Lagoon (the one you see in all of the photos, with millions of pink flamingoes...they don't tell you about the SMELL!)
So I hadn't mentioned til just now, I brought some of my Dad's ashes with me on my trip. Well 'smuggled' would be the appropriate word. To bring human remains into South America required all sorts of nonsense with DFAT and paperwork and fees and blah blah blah. So I did the most logical thing I could think of, and sealed them into one of my empty mineral makeup jars. Human remains kind of look like makeup...only greyer. And with little bits of bone. Anyway. Moving along.
So, I'd had Dad in my little leather pouch the whole time I'd been travelling around, and it was kind of nice. I am not ashamed to admit, sometimes we'd have a little chat. To be honest, it was pretty one-sided. Nonetheless. I'd been waiting for some incredible places to scatter his ashes and as I hadn't met any hot Brazilian strippers yet, natural wonders would have to do! It was more emotional than I had expected, my companions and I all had a good cry. One of them said a few appropriate words about Dad and it was lovely. After a farewell dinner back in town, it was time for me to finally brave Bolivian buses and head off for Peru!
Well. I don't even know where to start with the bus journey. The bus was certainly better than the one I was almost stuck on back in Santa Cruz. But the roads. Oh, the roads. How can I put it? .... It was like the Bolivian Government had undertaken a strange scientific experiment (for the advancement of the human race, of course) in building a road entirely out of pot-holes. It was more hole than road. It was the anti-road. Like black matter. Or something like that. Anyway, the result was that passengers needed to strap themselves down tightly with their seatbelts to avoid bouncing out into the aisles. If you managed to fall asleep, that is. Which I did. Miracle! I can barely sleep in my own bed, yet I managed to get at least 20 minutes on that 12 hour bus ride. Joy! I only awoke when I was hit in the head by a 2 liter water bottle which escaped its compartment above me, but really it was just part of the experience. Breathe. Shower. Relax. I'm in Peru!
The final and most exciting country on my list, Peru was fantastic. Just as many scammers and snake oil merchants waiting around every corner, only they wear better suits in Peru. I booked a train to Aguas Calientes, the little city outside Machu Picchu, I haggled with dealers, I very nearly got ripped off again, but by now I'd put on my 'don't fuck with me' boots and wasn't prepared to be messed around again.
Within 2 days of arriving, I was in the ancient city of MP and checking out the incredible and inspiring ruins. It truly is an amazing sight and I'd recommend that everyone jot that down on their bucket lists. As I couldn't secure a ticket to actually climb the Inca Trail (and let's be honest, the three day trek would have bloody killed me) I decided to climb up to the Sun Gate after I'd explored the ruins. This 'easy' trail is about a 2-3 hour round-trip hike. Holy freaking crap. There were 70 year old women doing it faster than me, but it nearly killed me. I am allergic to exercise, I swear. I could have given up at any stage and no one would have ever known. But something about that amazing setting, and the fact that it was the final epic destination on my solo South American trip spurred me on. I made it. I freakin' made it! I had the sore feet, the blisters and more importantly - the photos - to prove it!
This was the perfect place to scatter the last of Dad's ashes. I found a quiet spot alone and skillfully placed my camera to take the photo of the moment (if you can't Facebook it, it never happened). I made my way back to Aguas Calientes and ate some alpaca, then my time in Machu Picchu was over. Back to Cusco for a couple of days, and then a flight out to Buenos Aires for my return home.
At the airport in Cusco, as I headed towards the check-in counter for my airline, they had set up a trestle table on which to search bags before boarding. Oh. Crap. I realised that I had a little of 'Dad' left in my makeup jar. Shit. I hadn't so much as seen a sniffer dog in any airport or border crossing I'd been through so far, yet here at my final stop I was about to be arrested. Thrown into a dark South American jail cell. Left to rot. Never to see home again. Ok, you nutcase, think. Stop panicking.
The guard doing the baggage searches looked bored, yet friendly. I asked him if he spoke English. A little.
"This looks like it is going to take a while," I pointed to the sorting table. "I really have to use the bathroom first. You want to look after my bag while I go?"
Bingo. If there's one thing airport security the world over hate more than smugglers, it's the possibility of standing next to a stranger's bag before the bomb inside goes off! Ha!
"No, no, no!" he said "you can take it with you!" He backed away warily.
I made my way to the bathroom with my contraband and locked the cubicle. I pulled Dad out, and sat down to have a chat.
"It's been great Dad, we've seen some great places. I left your little toe and bit of your beard in the Red Lagoon, and I scattered what I guess to be your left ear and your belly button over Machu Picchu. Thanks for keeping me company this whole month, it's been scary, and amazing. But this is where your journey ends. I think you'll agree that this will be funny later, like all awful things tend to be. Love you, Dad!"
And with that....I left the remaining contents of my makeup container (things I'm sure he wasn't fond of, such as his fingernails, nose hair and rough elbow skin) in the sanitary bin of the Cusco Airport toilets.
See ya later, South America!
This post was written several months after my trip to South America. I've since published a book about this, and other ridiculous mishaps I've encountered in my travels. You can find it, and more information at www.maggiekateharris.com.
Bribing border guards? Smuggling human remains? All in a day's work for Maggie Kate Harris.'Otherness' is a collection of tales from her travels. Some of these tales are delightful. Some are sad. Some are hilarious (she thinks). Many of them involve a great deal of stupidity. She hopes it makes for interesting reading, at least. If nothing else, she can laugh in hindsight at all of her escapades.Being less than prepared hasn’t killed her yet. But give it time. May her headstone read:‘Well, that was interesting…’