Up until Ecuador, border control procedures in South America had been pretty chilled. Even the Chile-Argentina one, with dogs and conveyer belts and X-rays and line-ups, was nothing compared to the 1am event that took place at Huaquillas in the southwestern corner of Ecuador.
A brash, irritated-looking man stepped onto our bus. Using the light from the screen of his smartphone, he inspected the overhead compartments. His body language was a combination of “the highlight of my day is when complete strangers cower in my presence” and “my life is a steaming pile of misery and disappointment”. He barked orders at locals who couldn’t sink far enough back in their seats. He pulled out, inspected and casually dropped on the floor most of the locals’ hand luggage. He examined an innocent pillow, almost sniffed it, I thought, before walking out with it under his arm. A few minutes later we were all told to get off the bus.
Outside, a torn-apart pillow haemorrhaged its feathers in front of the open luggage hold. The man and his cohorts were pulling bags out from under the bus, one by one. The locals were separated from the gringos. We stood to one side, straining to hear and understand the orders that came like threats from another official-looking type. Something about commercial products. The bags were opened one by one, belongings carelessly tossed out and scrutinised by the border officials. On the fringes, the bags’ owners – middle-aged women, old men, young guys – stood silent and submissive.
There were a few quiet arguments going back and forth between the prosecuting and the persecuted. Many minutes passed. We the gringos looked at each other and shrugged; no one had even cast us a passing look. The bus driver laughed and shook his head when I caught his eye. “Does this happen every time?” I asked him in truncated Spanish (“Este, cada vez?”). “Sí, sí,” he said, sticking out his bottom lip and nodding while surveying a scene that he’d seen a thousand times.
More minutes passed. No one was in handcuffs, some people had started packing their belongings back into their bags. At last, it was our turn. I was prepared for the worst – these guys were obviously pretty committed; we’d no doubt each be searched. A few of our fellow gringos looked like they could be transporting a kilo or so of something illegal. I’m talking about the dudes with the surfboard bags who looked nothing like surfers.
The first man waved his phone-light over our closed bags, still in the luggage hold. He asked whether any of us had “bought anything” before crossing the border. Well, yes, I thought, that jersey for my dad and I still have the yerba mate and bombilla from Ushuaia, and a belt from Cusco, and does the moisturiser count? I mean, I bought lots of stuff. But we all denied that we had purchased anything, a blatant lie that he nonetheless believed. He closed the hold then waved us back onto the bus.
When we pulled off, the bus was half empty. Those harmless ladies and gents were found to be smugglers of some kind, and of what I have no idea – cheap clothing, maybe, but certainly not guns or drugs – and they were left behind in the dust and darkness between Peru and Ecuador at two in the morning.