The People in Between | Border Blues

In his ongoing series of travel blogs, Jason Smith chronicles another surreal border crossing, this time in South America.

New in Ceasefire, The People in Between - Posted on Thursday, January 12, 2012 14:38 - 0 Comments

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Rarely does a border crossing go according to plan. In Asia I’ve found myself being ferried on moto-taxis to unknown villages, in Africa I’ve been fed rancid samosas, and in Central Asia I’ve been held up in the cold while border guards tried to extort bribes. But never has a day been as completely full of hold-ups, disaster, helpful locals and sheer absurdity as the one on which I crossed from Venezuela into Colombia

Trying to make it across in time for Christmas, I took a night bus from Mérida, Venezuela up to Maracaibo in the north-western corner of the country. I arrived in the world’s scariest, hottest bus station at 3.30am and after realising there were no buses, started to negotiate for a ‘por puesto’, or share taxi, to the border. This would be very easy for a Venezuelan, but as soon as the drivers realised I was a gringo (as I was ubiquitously and incorrectly referred to) they refused to take me, knowing that I would have to get out to have my passport stamped. It took an hour of arguing and pleading to get someone to take pity on the poor foreigner, otherwise stranded in a city seemingly no-one has anything good to say about.

This is where my day took a wrong turn, from which it was never fully to recover. As soon as we hit the queue of cars I was told to jump out, get my passport stamped, and rejoin the taxi to carry on to the nearest town. Despite needing first to buy an exit receipt, pay a lady to fill in a card and then finally have a guard stamp my passport, I cleared the Venezuelan authorities in record time. I walked back past cars all pumping out Venezuelan reggae music at painful volumes and found the taxi still queuing, whereupon the driver waved me on to the Colombian migration office. I was not at all pleased with what I found: a queue several hundred persons long, with angry, hot people at the front complaining they’d been there for some four hours.

I knew that I wouldn’t get done before the taxi got through the traffic, so I kept an eye out for it. You see, my backpack was still in it. This was my first big avoidable mistake: never leave your bag in a taxi. Ever. The queue ran in and out of buildings, past boiling pots of soup and around a million sellers of cold drinks. Every once and a while a man would come past, whispering quietly that I could take the ‘fast-track option’. I ignored him.

After an hour or so I suspected the taxi must have come past, so I asked someone to hold my place while I went in search. I walked back to where I’d last seen it, and then right past the Colombian guards to the end of the line of traffic. It was nowhere to be seen. I became quite worried, but I couldn’t go on to the next town without a stamp. So I went back to my place in the queue, faced with the prospect of losing almost all my belongings. Given my previous track record with taxis, things did not look promising.

The ‘fast-track’ man came back past and I told him my problem.

“You left your bag where?!” he exclaimed. Suddenly he was dragging me off to his shop, giving me water to calm me down and then coming up with a plan. We went off to talk to a policeman, who was very unhelpful, then to the Colombian guards who allowed us to pass temporarily while we went in search of a taxi from the same company. Finding one, he took down the number for the company and phoned them. There was no answer. We went back to the front of the queue, whereupon he pleaded my case with the guards. They laughed at my anxiety and stupidity, then opened the door for me and ushered me to the front.

The rest of the queue shouted and jeered, wrongly assuming I’d bribed someone. I stood at the window waiting, seeing now why there was such a delay. Not only is the Colombian computerised system excruciatingly slow, there were also three ‘fast-track’ passports to every normal passport. The amount of money changing hands was terrifying. Passport stamped, I tried to hand my new friend something for his trouble.

“I don’t want your money,” he said to me, looking offended. Instead, he gave me his number and email address and put me on a moto-taxi to Maicao, the nearest town.

And what should I see on the way? My taxi coming the other way! I halted my driver and flagged down the taxi. “Amigo!” he shouted at me, looking both pleased and surprised. He handed me a card with the name of his friend on it and told me to continue to the bus station. Sure enough, after asking around at the terminal I found his friend looking after my bag. He seemed rather surprised that I’d turned up.

With a renewed faith in humanity I jumped on to the first bus to Cartagena. The air conditioning was broken. I don’t know whether I possess an electromagnetic aura capable of destroying any AC within 100 feet, but I do have an uncanny knack for choosing those buses that turn into saunas. Twelve hours of sweat, and no money for any water. It should’ve been eight, but halfway there we were stopped by a protest in a random town where the people were angry about not having Christmas lights. A thoroughly worthwhile cause, I agree, but not on the 23rd December. They held us up for four hours until the police negotiated a thirty minute window for traffic to pass.

While we were waiting, a Colombian couple on the bus insisted on buying me dinner and drinks because of how haggard I looked. They also became very concerned that it was close to Christmas, that I had no accommodation booked in Cartagena, and that we would be arriving very late. They decided I would come and stay with them for the night. Now, I am very thankful for their hospitality, but what ensued was, shall I say, less than comfortable.

I sat on a chair in their tiny living room while I watched them and their three daughters unpack at 3am. Having not slept properly in three nights I couldn’t keep my eyes open, so I apologised and said I needed to rest. They happily showed me to a room with a double bed and a fan. Perfect. But I had lain there just two minutes before the door opened again and the twenty-five year old daughter climbed into bed with me. Not only was this a bit odd given that I was a complete stranger, but she also brought her one year old son in with her, who proceeded to kick me all night. I didn’t sleep, thoroughly confused and a bit afraid. At 8am I extracted myself from the child who was now hugging my leg, thanked them and left.

I don’t know what it is about border crossings, but they seem to be the focal points for all of the stranger things residing in the neighbouring countries. They are bottlenecks of peculiarity, where the weird and wonderful are forced to brush alongside everyone else. That’s what makes them so very memorable.

Jason Smith is currently exploring the world, bumping into as many folk as he can. Follow his progress at www.traveleyesopen.com.

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