Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Our little run in with the Ecuadorian border patrol

We left Quito this morning with the very basic hope of entering Colombia tonight. This did not seem much of a feat as Colombia’s border is only 5 hours north of Quito. So we woke up not early and not late, had some breakfast and caught a bus to Otavala (2 hrs north of Quito) to do some sightseeing and shopping. After a brief stint in Otavalo and an amazing cheeseburger, we headed to the corner of the street where we were assured a bus would come by for Ibarra (the next large town to the north of us). We sat in the rain on the corner of this street for a few minutes when sure enough a bus drove up with a man hanging out of the doorway screaming “Ibarra, Ibarra, Ibarra”.  We got on and about an hour later the bus pulled up and parked at the main terminal in Ibarra. Again waking through the rain we asked and looked for a bus to the border, to a town called Tulcan. So this town is spelled Tulcan but pronounced “Toocaan” and so it took us a while to find anyone who knew of a town by this name. Once we established the correct pronunciation of our destination we were told that the bus for that location leaves outside of the terminal. Actually what we understood was that we should ride a bus headed in that direction and then get off on a road where the Tulcan bus drove by. We hesitantly and surprisingly agreed to this plan and hopped onto the bus. About ten minutes later we found ourselves, sure enough, on the side of the road waiting for a bus we were not sure would come. We waited for about a half hour in the rian when the Tulcan bus pulled up and about 30 people appeared out of nowhere and clambered onto it. Unfortunately we did not clamor hard enough (you would not believe the elbows little old ladies and very young children can throw!) and so we returned to our rainy street side. With this, I (Jynene) decided I was unwilling to wait in the rain for a moment longer and begin hailing a cab so we could return to the bus terminal and see what our other options might be. Truthfully, I had been skeptical that waiting on the street would work anyway and thought the bus terminal was probably better.  But, the cab driver explained to us that the bus terminal was not the place to catch the bus to Tulcan and encouraged us to return to the street but he said he knew a better place to wait. The moment he pulled into this spot on the street, the Tulcan bus pulled up and he got us on with a quick yell to the bus assistant (the guy who manages fares and yells out the door yelling the bus route so the driver can focus on driving).  At this stop, we were the only ones headed to Tulcan, so we didn’t have to throw elbows.  We did later pass the place we had been waiting before and saw the ensuing elbow-throwing event from inside the bus. Two and a half hours later we were finally on the border with Colombia. In Ecuador- it is important to remember-the sun rises at six and sets at six all year and so it was very dark when we arrived. The one thing our travel book says about the border crossing with Colombia is; “don’t do it at night.” So we were a little concerned about our late (well, more dark than late) arrival.
On the border of Colombia, we walked into the Ecuadorian immigration office and a very nice young man flipped through our passports and told us he couldn’t stamp us out of the country because we had never been stamped in. Why had we not been stamped in? Because the stupid border official at the southern end of Ecuador, coming up from Peru, did not stamp our passports two weeks earlier. We explained to our current border patrol officer in very broken Spanish (suddenly the stress of the situation made us completely forget how to speak even our very basic Spanish) that we asked the border guard on the Peruvian border to stamp us in but he told us he didn’t have the stamper. The current agent told us that this was a big problem. He said it was illegal to enter the country like that and that we should have known better.  He said that because it was illegal, he could arrest us (not that we know the words for arrest, but he held his hands out like they were handcuffed)!  We told him that we tried but there was nothing to do (also, we have been to many counties where a stamp in a passport is completely unnecessary…really just so the tourist has something to show off. We actually travelled through four countries in non-EU Europe where Buffy received no stamps at all while I received many. We figured is wasn’t that important) We showed him our entrance stamps for Peru proving we had not been in Ecuador for more than the legal 90 days but he was not happy. He told us to sit and left the room for a few minutes.  When he returned, he told us to follow him and he led us to a hallway away from other travelers and asked us if we spoke Spanish. We said that we could speak some Spanish and so he started to talk but very fast. (I think it is important to explain here that we actually speak Spanish reasonably well at this point but for some reason neither of us could speak any Spanish at that moment). We asked him to slow down and when we couldn’t understand a single word he said we asked a French girl in the other room to translate. She said that he said they would stamp our passports and everything would be fine (which, I should point out, did not seem to be what the officer had been saying to us.  We thought he was telling us something less official, like we should try and get Columbia to stamp us out of Columbia so Ecuador could stamp us in.  Or something equally confusing and un-official) Then the French girl left and the officer left and another, older-looking and higher ranking-looking agent came over. This agent told us we were in big trouble but that they would stamp us in.  Then, with our passports in his right hand, he stuck his left hand out and started to talk very fast. Here our Spanish failed us again-nothing he said made any sense and we said we didn’t understand. So he walked over to a sign that said $200 dollars payable at the central bank for all travelers who stayed over 90 days. He said we would have to wait until the morning until the bank opened to pay the money.  It was very clear at this moment that we could either sleep in the immigration office and wait to pay the fine at the bank in the morning or we could put something into his left hand and have our stamps. However, because we were slow on the uptake (and apparently speak no Spanish) he walked away frustrated and told us to wait again. He came back a few minutes later and again we showed him our paperwork showing when we were in Peru proving our stay in Ecuador was less than three weeks and so again he said “wait”. About an hour later we had two stamps in each of our passports.  He had placed our into Ecuador stamp one over another previous stamp making it impossible to read, and the other stamp he placed nice and clear on one of the last fresh pages of our passports.  So, thanks to our nerves, we forgot Spanish, and because we didn’t understand Spanish, the border agent decided it was too much work to extract bribes from us.  Who knew it could pay to be mono-lingual?
This was sort of just the beginning of our night… After we got stamped in we were hounded by many taxi drivers offering to drive us across the border but it looked like a short hike so we decided to hoof it. We asked the security patrol at the border (two very young looking guys) if we were able to walk across the border and they said yes (by this time our Spanish had returned a little). We walked across a very dark bridge for about a hundred yards to Colombia. This was probably the creepiest bridge on the planet. As we walked across it a few trucks drove super fast over it without stopping on either side of the border. On the Colombian side, the border got even shadier than it had been on the Ecuadorian side. Here, men were waving wads of American dollars (massive wads) to trade for pesos and there were absolutely no Columbian police guarding the border.  Off to one side was the poorly-lit immigration office.  But, the Columbian border agent was completely professional and it took a quick few moments to get stamped in to the country.  Luckily, there was a Colombian couple who we met on the Ecuadorian side who offered to share a cab to the Columbian border town a few kilometers away (they also seemed a bit worried about the border situation). This was good because there were no properly marked taxies there. So the Columbians negotiated with a driver and got us a ride in a very shady appearing black Soviet-bloc looking car. The driver showed us a few hotels and dropped us off on the side of the road near these hotels (another few minutes for us to spend in the rain) in the middle of Ipiales- our first Colombian city. Everything worked out and we are now sitting in a pretty nice hotel planning our next bus ride that should get us half way across the country over the next two days. I personally blame our problems on the fact that we are back on the Northern hemisphere and therefore our summer is officially over.
This was by far the creepiest border we have crossed, but it is also our last border before we get to the United States.  All in all we have been to 16 countries in the last 7 months for a total of 32 stamps, three of which we received in one hour. Actually, Buffy only has about 20 from this trip…border guards always seem to skip over her. J

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