Andrew Evans provides a cinematic retelling of the story of his border crossing into Bolivia.
The setting is the tumbledown Peru-Bolivia border town of Desaguadero, on the shores of breathtaking Lake Titicaca. Pan across the bright blue watery expanse and the brown Andes Mountains, then down to the fields of yellow flowers and rows of reed boats drawn up on the lakeshore. Camera sweeps through the muddy streets of the Peruvian village, past burros carrying colorful loads and into a colorful Latin American market squalor.
Subtitle briefly flashes onto screen, announcing: “Based on a true story.”
Protagonist AE steps off a red and green bus sporting a six-week beard. He stretches his legs and squints at the sun. Suddenly a woman’s voice cries out.
Bus Attendant (BA): “Hey you–Americano! Come with me and we’ll walk across the bridge into Bolivia.”
AE: “But, why?”
BA [hurries over and explains, whispering]: “The Peruvian police, they stop all the foreigners and try to take money from them. Just don’t look at them. Just look right ahead, keep walking and stay close to me. If you’re with me they won’t bother you.”
AE follows behind the bus attendant, trying to take in all the sights around him as he walks across a single-lane bridge and towards a giant sign reading, “Welcome to Bolivia.” He pauses and looks back at Peru longingly, followed by a quick flashback sequence to all the good times he had in that country. He then glances up to the tri-color Bolivian flag fluttering in the high-altitude wind. Having reached the other side, the attendant suddenly disappears into the crowd, leaving AE all alone in a new land.
The traveler looks around before setting off to a cement box of a building with a sign that reads. “Migración.” Inside, everything is quite dark, the floorboards creak and dust swirls in the sun streaming through the windows. AE steps up to the first window and presents a passport, bent into the shape of his front pocket.
Bolivian Border Official #1 [sitting bored behind a scratched plexiglass window with a hole cut in it, looks up briefly, then looks down again and waves his hand]: Other window.
AE steps over to the other window and presents his passport again.
Bolivian Border Official #2 [Same uniform as BBO #1 but shorter, with a moustache]: American? That’s not me. Go to that window over there.
Bolivian Border Official #3: [Same uniform as BBO #1 & #2 but older, with a moustache]. Says nothing, just nods to yet another desk.
Bolivian Border Official #4 [Same uniform as BBO #1, 2, & 3. Nondescript]: You have a visa?
AE: No. Where do I get I visa?
Border Official #4: In Peru.
AE: I just left Peru. They said I could get a visa here.
Border Official #4: You can. Over there. Points down a dark, dusty hallway.
AE creaks across the floorboards, past tattered maps of Bolivia, past a glossy calendar of the new president, Evo Morales and a painted insignia for the Bolivian Border Patrol. He pokes his head through a window.
Border Official #5 [same uniform, same moustache]. Says nothing. Looks up and points to the desk that’s three feet away from his desk.
Border Official #6 [same uniform, etc.] What?
AE: I need a visa.
Border Official #6: In Peru. Nods back to the bridge.
AE [Defiantly]: Yes, but I was told I can get one here.
Border Official #6: You can. He pushes back his chair noisily and escorts AE down another hall, knocks on a door and then shoves it open. Behind a desk sits a young man in similar uniform, Border Official #7. #6 and #7 talk back and forth, then #6 leaves.
Border Official #7: You need a visa, right?
AE: Yes, please.
Border Official #7: That’s a hundred and thirty-five dollars.
AE: Correct. Can I pay with a credit card?
Border Official #7: No [Shakes his head]. Cash only. Can you pay?
AE: Yeah, I can pay cash. Uhm, I have to undress a little first. Right here?
Border Official #7 nods with encouragement and then looks down and begins the paperwork. Andrew slips off his belt in an unintentional strip tease, unzips his pants and then turns away before his hand reveals an origami one hundred dollar bill. He unfolds until Benjamin Franklin’s head comes into focus and places it on the desk with two crisp twenties.
Border Official #7 [stares at each bill carefully, then shakes his head]: No, no. Can’t do it. See this here? [points to one of the twenty dollar bills] It’s too worn. I can’t accept it.
AE: This is American money carried all the way from America. It’s good.
Border Official #7 [still shaking head]: No good. Can’t take it.
AE: But I don’t have any other cash . . . [remembering] except these leftover Peruvian Soles [pulls out a colored wad of cash]. Can I just pay you the difference?
Border Official #7: You could go change the Soles for dollars.
AE: Where can I change Soles for dollars?
Border Official #7: In Peru [nods back towards the bridge AE has just crossed]
AE: But I’m in Bolivia now. I already left Peru. [flustered into speaking even worse Spanish] Peru, Finito.
Border Official #7: Go change the money. You only need $15 more. Don’t worry. I’ll keep your passport until you come back. It’s safe.
AE: No, I’ll take it with me and then come back later. AE has serious trust issues with immigration officials. Theme music plays in minor key.
Border Official #7: No, I’ll keep it.
AE: But if I’m going back to Peru, don’t I need it?
Border Official #7: No. Nobody uses passports around here.
AE [takes a chance and leaves his passport. He does not go back to Peru but instead walks around the mud puddles of the Bolivian border patrol, looking up and down for moneychangers–normally more numerous than pigeons in a park but today suddenly elusive. He finally runs into an old, wrinkled Aymara Indian woman holding a wad of cash.] I need to change Peruvian Soles for American dollars.
She says nothing, just flips through her wad and hands him two bills: a twenty and a five. He inspects the twenty but fears the dirty crease will make it untenable. He returns it and asks for a better twenty-dollar bill. The moneychanger refuses but he persists.
Finally she pulls a perfect, unused twenty and reluctantly hands it over. He holds it up to the bright Bolivian sun to inspect the security strip inside the paper. The bill is good.
AE takes the bill and runs back to Migración, past Border Official # 1,2,3,4,5, and 6, then opens the door to #7’s office.
Panting from the high altitude exhaustion, he places the new twenty on the desk. Border Official #7 looks it over, holds it up in the light and then puts it away. He carries on with the paper work, handing form after form to AE to fill out. It takes a very long time. AE watches as Border Official #7 takes great care and glues in a rainbow-colored square of paper into his passport page, then stamps it once, twice, three times.
Finally, Border Official # 7 hands over the passport, two long paper forms, and three more pieces of paper. He gets up from his desk and guides him over to another door that opens to another room where sits Border Official #8, looking older and wiser. It is understood that this is El Jefe–the chief. The man motions for AE to sit down, then looks through all the papers slowly. He stamps the passport once, twice, three, four, FIVE times–each with a different shaped stamp, then hands the passport back to AE. AE is relieved, smiling even.
El Jefe: Now take this passport and make two photocopies. One of the visa page and another of the page with your picture on it.
AE: Really? [AE wonders why they can’t just make the photocopy here at Migración, but then realizes that maybe they don’t have a photocopy machine. He feels bad for them, but just wants this to be done.]
AE: Where can I get photocopies?
El Jefe: In Peru.
AE: I can’t go back–they’ve already . . . [He does a hand motion of a passport getting stamped since he doesn’t know how to say, “they exit stamped me.”]
El Jefe: Yes you can. Facil. Everybody does it.
AE is remarkably flustered. He grabs his passport, runs past Border Official #7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, but not 1 (who is understood to be on break) and then outside. For a minute he pauses in the sun, passport in hand, wondering if he should even comply with El Jefe’s request.
Would it even make a difference? He has his passport. He explains the conundrum to a fellow Bolivian passenger from the waiting bus who explains that no, it is quite necessary to comply. The two of them go in search of a place to make photocopies. There are none in Bolivia, and so they walk back across the bridge into Peru, ignoring both the police and immigration.
In Peru they run up to every shop with a sign that says “Fotocopias”.
The first is closed, the second lied, they don’t have a copier. The third says they used to have a photocopier, the fourth is closed. The fifth is a tiny pharmacy with a broken down copier but also a scanner that can make copies. First it has to warm up.
AE is highly impatient but must wait a good ten minutes for the scanner to heat up. Finally, the man behind the counter takes his passport and makes two scanned copies of his passport.
Photocopy guy: That’s 3 Soles.
AE: I don’t have any more Peruvian Soles but I can pay you in Bolivianos.
Photocopy guy: Go change the money into Soles. I only take Soles.
Right then, the fellow bus passenger reaches over the counter and pays the guy his 3 Soles. AE thanks him, grabs the photocopies and runs back through the town and across the bridge and back over the border. For the third time, Andrew enters Bolivian Migración and gets recognized nods and from Border Officials #1 (back from break), 2, 3, 4, (but not #5 who is now on break), 6, and then 7, who leads him back into El Jefe’s office.
Panting, having just ran a half-mile at 13,500 feet altitude, AE hands El Jefe the two photocopies. The border patrol officer nods and takes the papers and adds them to a pile on his desk. Ninety minutes have passed since Andrew first crossed the bridge to Bolivia.
El Jefe [looking up and smiling]: Welcome to Bolivia.
Cue title score, music swells.
Andrew has just crossed over the Chilean border, to find out how it went, follow his Twitter feed @Bus2Antarctica, and track the map of his journey here. Bookmark all of his blog posts here, see videos here, and get the full story on the project here. Photos by Andrew Evans.