Before I left South Africa, the excellent travel angel/agent Tessa in Bloemfontein pointed out that I need a visa to enter Bolivia. When my passport came back from the Bolivian consulate in Jo’burg I was a little worried about the date stamp: November 2012. But I figured they knew what they were doing and that the border officials, once I got to Bolivia, would know that it signified the date of purchase, and not the date of entry or whatever. In truth that little date, the only date on the visa, was nagging at me all along, but I knew that I had paid and that the visa was legit, so I put it in the Worry Box (the one I’m not allowed to open) and didn’t obsess about what may or may not transpire.
So, at 5am on Wednesday 28 August, I was outside Sol Atacama hostel in San Pedro de Atacama, ready to take on country #4. The ride was pretty expensive (CL$25,000 – about ZAR500) but I was told it would take place in a bus and then a 4X4, and it would take only eight hours. We did get a very nice breakfast before leaving San Pedro de Atacama.
At the border, there was no transfer 4X4 for the few of us who were going straight to Uyuni, so our driver struck a deal with a Bolivian bus and we were made to run from one end of the border precinct to the other and then rushed to the entry-stamp queue. It all had to happen very fast because New Bus Driver was waiting just for us.
When Border Guard #1 saw my passport he asked for the visa, and I confidently showed it to him. “Todo bien,” (all good) he said, gave me the forms and sent me on my way. But when I approached Border Guard #2, the man with the stamp, he took one look at the visa and said, flat out, “No”. He called over Guard #1 and together they just shook their heads, and said that the visa was from last year. Unsure of what to do, they ripped up my forms and told me to sort it out in Uyuni. I was ushered into the bus by New Bus Driver without a word, and plonked down in the front row, and off we went. Me, now officially in a new country, stamped out of Chile, but not stamped into Bolivia. No man’s land.
Those five hours between the border and Uyuni were the toughest since the time I lost my credit card in Puerto Iguazu. A solitary tear ran down my cheek as the rickety bus rattled along, and I could almost hear the world’s tiniest violin playing just for me over the din of an obnoxious and base Bolivian comedy trio that was being blasted out over the tiny but loud televisions. The bus was hot inside and old and full of people and it smelt, well, bad. The people laughed at the comedy trio in garish unison. On my right a woman was breastfeeding a child. Next to me on my left a very friendly Bolivian tried to make conversation but I didn’t even try to understand his Spanish (I am sorry, friendly Bolivian dude). Outside, the spectacular barren mountains and the llamas and the old women sitting road-side in their signature Bolivian pleated skirts and bowler hats did little to quiet the noise in my head: Would I have to go back to Chile? How would I explain that I need to get back into Chile? I don’t want to go back to Chile. How much were they going to nail me for a new visa? Could I even get new visa? It’s not fair to make me buy a new visa. Could I bribe them into giving me an entry stamp and letting me stay in Bolivia? I’ve never bribed anyone before. If not, was it OK to just go home? I forced myself to sleep – my go-to coping mechanism – and when I woke up the comedy DVD was on its menu loop, mocking me as it repeated itself every 45 seconds. My head was fuzzy, my nose was stuffy, eyes swollen and heart very, very heavy.
A lot of people comment on my supposed bravery when they hear about my travels this year, either directly to me or via my mother and father. In all honestly, courage is not something that ever came into play. The hardest part of this whole trip was making the decision to pack up and travel – and it was hardly a decision I would characterise as difficult. And once I’d done that, everything just fell into place. The project took on a life of its own, the working and the saving and the planning came so naturally (what I remember of last year are giddy excitement and unrelenting focus), and nothing at all about it scared me one little bit. I don’t know if that makes me crazy or stupid, but the alternative – never doing this at all – was a decidedly more frightening concept.
However, going to the immigration office in Uyuni that day was one of those defining moments in life, when I had to muster up all the courage I could squeeze out of every last fibre, I had to mind over matter this thing in a very serious way. I was more scared and shaky and tired and insecure and alone and small than I have ever been.
The altitude hit me as I got out of the bus, desperation amplified by the fact that at first I thought my backpack was gone. In the rush at the border I didn’t actually see them putting old faithful into the bus – rookie mistake. And then once we found it, tucked away and abused under the bus, the flock of aggressive tour sellers descended. It was everything I could do not to scream and cry. I found a shady corner and just breathed, had no idea where to go to next. A very dodgy-looking guy, one hand tucked into his breast pocket under a jacket (what was he hiding in there?!) approached me and asked, in English, if I needed anything. I suspected him of terrible things and said I just needed to get to the immigration office. Without asking for anything he gave me directions – three dusty blocks to the train tracks then left – and I hurled my stuff onto my back and front and started walking. Fast at first, but after 15 steps I couldn’t breathe anymore and I remembered the advice “adelante” – slowly. We are 3675m above sea level now.
The immigration office was closed, so then I had a brand new worry. Would a hostel take me without an entry stamp? They did, and the dude at Piedra Blanca hostel suggested I return to the immigration office in 30 minutes (he also suggested that I breathe: “Respirar, por favor”). Turns out we’re back in the land of the siesta. I considered taking a nap myself, but I knew I would deliberately stay in bed till the next day, and who knows how much that delay would complicate things with the immigration officials.
I returned to the immigration office and when I saw it was open, I took a deep breath outside and walked in, shoulders back and a smile on my face. I greeted the first man warmly and nearly genuflected, and explained, as humbly as I could, that I had a problem with my visa. He took one look at my passport and shook his head, then banged out a figure on his desk calculator: 360 (about ZAR540). “Es muy caro,” (that’s very expensive) I said quietly, and he snorted at me, “Como caro” (how expensive, like expensive, or something). I explained to him that the date on the visa was the date of issue, “Es la fecha cuando yo tuve que comprar el visa, antes me viajando,” but he just shook his head. He was not fond of me. A year has passed, I think he said. I did not think it wise to point out that in fact only 10 months had passed.
Then official #2 came to the desk, and when he saw my passport he exclaimed with a smile, “Ah, Sudafrica!” I suspected I would have more luck with this guy, he seemed like the good cop. But he took the same stance, and over and over I explained that I had no choice but to buy my visa in South Africa before I left. That the date is the date of issue. That it was my first time in Bolivia, I had not used my visa yet. That I told the woman at the consulate in South Africa that I would only be in Bolivia mid-way through the year.
We went around and around in circles for about half an hour. I did not raise my voice, I took long pauses, and calmly persisted, repeating the important facts. Eventually Good Cop picked up the phone, he was calling HQ in La Paz, I guess. I understood some of what was going on, and he seemed to understand what I was saying too (that I was a long-term traveller), but when the short response on the other line came quickly, and all Good Cop said was “ah, perfecto”, I thought, ah fuck, that’s it, I’m fucked.
But he led me to his desk and gave me the forms to fill out and I asked “No tengo que pagar?” (I don’t have to pay?) and he said, “No”. I nearly hugged the dude. Thank you, thank you, I said. I grabbed my face and smiled and laughed and bounced. Thank you, I said again, thank you so much. The metal click of the entry stamp making its mark in my passport was loud and definite and irrefutable: I had successfully argued my way into Bolivia using only Spanish … and I didn’t even cry. Bad Cop did not smile back as I bid him a happy buenas tardes.
From my weakest point yet to feeling invincible, this will go down as the bravest day of my life.
The only thing that truly scares me now is returning to South Africa. How different are people going to be, or are they going to be exactly the same? Have the people I love barely felt my absence? How much have I missed out on? Will life return to its previous monotony and frustrated discontent? Will I be able to fit in again (precarious as that idea “fitting in” has always been)? What am I going to do with my life, guys? Honestly, I am petrified, and sometimes I think I could disappear here in South America (still holding out for a bar job on the beach in Ecuador) just so that I can avoid facing the answers to these questions. The going home, I suspect, is going to be the moment that requires real balls.