Saturday, April 14, 2012

"...and then they will kill you." said the thief

 After our getting spoiled and fed (basically an entire cow a la parilla, ceviche, fish, lomo saltado and churros) in Lima for a couple of days, it was time to scoot along. We had a great time exploring the historic old part of Lima. This was something I waited to do until Justin got there and I'm glad I did. It had all kinds of great gems, the Cathedral, the Catacombs with thousands of bones and, like every major metropolitan city, Chinatown.

We were heading back up the mountains, to a town called Huaraz. It's known as a jumping off point into the real Andes, the beautiful Cordillera Blanca and the infamous Huascaran mountain sits watch over the town. If you climb, ice climb or mountaineer this is the town for you. It's also a great place if you just like to hike around looking at stupidly beautiful mountains. The Cordillera brags an impressive roll call of peaks...22 in fact, with summits over 6000m. That makes this the second highest mountain range in the world, second only to the Himalayas. Not bad, not bad at all. Our initial reason for heading over that way was to do our own trek. This time without a guide, a group and all the hoopla we left behind in Cuzco. There is a pretty famous 4-day trek there called the Santa Cruz trek. From what we gathered, it was totally doable to do it alone.

But like many things, this plan had to change. Upon arrival to Huaraz we discovered that a portion of the trail was closed due to a landslide and we couldn't go. There were a few options for day hikes, but really, if we wanted to get up to the mountains now, we would have to go on a guided tour. This option wasn't that appealing to either of us. We mulled it over for a couple days and explored some options of tours that we thought might be worthwhile while we did our best to do some hiking on our own during that ever important acclimatizing period. But at the end of the day, the altitude got the best of the Justin, and the cost of things got the best of me. So we gorged ourselves on tasty food (like the California Cafe) available in town, and decided, that maybe it was time to hit the coast. I was a bit bummed that we didn't get to climb any mountains or do a significant amount of hiking because it was just so beautiful there, but the beach did sound nice. So nice in fact, I thought I wouldn't be needing my hiking boots anymore. I am going's gonna be warm. I won't need these nasty things anymore. Turns out that was a pretty impulsive move and apparently Ecuador has some pretty sweet mountains. DOH!

The way out of Huaraz was through Trujillo. Justin had done some research and found another cool spot. He wanted it to be a stop a long the way at Trujillo and Huanchaco on the coast of Peru. One for the historically and archaeologically significant site of Chan Chan and the other for the famous reed boats and surfing fisherman. We wouldn't be spending too much time there, mostly just passing through and breaking up the bus ride, but I am glad we did. They both were really worth it and something different from everything else we had seen and would see. It is still hard to really grasp that the ruins that we were standing in front of were over 3000 years old. It's amazing when you really stop and think about it.

It wasn't that we'd had an unpleasant experience in, Peru, we were just ready to get to something different, greener maybe. We'd had a great time, covered a lot of ground, seen some really cool things, but it was time to get to Ecuador. Mancora (our stop after Trujillo) was a good spot to hang out for a while, but the town really was only 2 streets plus a few others where the locals lived. By 3 days we had seen all there was to see and the surf there was far to advanced for the two of us. Besides the idea of sitting in the lap of luxury for a couple days with some friends of my mom didn't really sound like a bad idea at all. At this point all that stood between us and a room with AC was an 8 hour bus ride. I requested that we not take the night bus this time. First off I was sick of night buses. That, and I'd been told that the borders as we move north got exponentially more questionable and dangerous, and I would rather deal with it during the light of day. I was confident that we wouldn't have any problems, but the video recording and fingerprinting at the commence of a journey that seemed common place in Peru, for whatever reason, made me feel that, you know, maybe it's not such a bad idea to take this route during the day.

It was harder than we expected to get a day ticket. Apparently this route is much more popular by night, but there were 2 operators who did have a day service. We went with the cheaper one, which was similar in price to all the night services. We bought our tickets the day before we intended to travel and were told after the money had exchanged hands that we didn't actually have a direct bus from Mancora to Gauyaquil. What we had purchased was a transfer in a van to Tumbes and from Tumbes we would have to catch a bus to Guayaquil. We were assured that we had purchased everything necessary to get us to Guayaquil, it just was a little convoluted. This wasn't ideal, but it wasn't a big deal either. Really, it's just a transfer. The other bit of information that we got was that we were supposed to go back to where we bought the ticket/transfer at 7:15am for the transfer to come get us. Cool. Now that that's done, we can enjoy our last day on the beach and we really did.

Morning came fast and we were right where they told us to be right when they told us to get there. The transfer however was not. I am starting to see a trend here. By 9 am I was starting to get a little impatient. I had asked several times what was going on and was repeatedly told that the transfer would be right there. It wasn't long before we discovered why we had to wait at where we bought the tickets and not the normal bus terminal. A mostly unmarked van did eventually make it's way down the street at about 9:30 and the girl who sold us the ticket flagged it down and told us to get in. I should have known then that this was already going to be a different kind of border crossing.

The van was packed tight, but it wasn't uncomfortable. We watched to banana trees whip by, the small pueblos along the side of the road, the rising and falling of the lush green hills until it looked like we were reaching the outskirts of a pretty good sized city. This must be Tumbes. The van stopped and a guy opened the side door, looked right at me and said in Spanish, "you two came from Mancora and are going to Guayaquil, transferring with Cifa?" I nodded my head in agreement. "Follow me." So we got out of the van and there was a bit of the scuffle between the van driver and the new guy for the backpacks. I didn't get it all only something about "I am supposed to take them" and "Call if you don't believe me, I have the number." I thought it was a bit off, but it all happened so fast, and before I could say "fishy" we were in a taxi with 3 guys and our van was gone.

The 3 guys in the taxi were really nice. They were very social, asking all kinds of questions, talking a mile a minute. After a bit I asked for clarification about what was going on. I was under the impression that we were just going to get transferred to the bus and then be on our way, by now that good-sized city was behind us and I was starting to get a strong feeling that this just wasn't right. Of course they had a story to explain away all the weirdness that was going on. What they told me was that we had bought tickets for a local bus and that we had to cross the border to find the bus we had paid for. The expensive bus is apparently an international bus and that one takes you to through customs and what not. We didn't get these guys, they work with the local bus company to get all that border crossing stuff taken care of, and THEN we get taken to our bus in Ecuador.

It seemed wrong. At this point I had done more than my fair share of international bus crossings and nothing like this had ever happened before. But I don't know...they may do things different up here? I always took the fancier international buses, maybe? I really wanted to believe that everything was going to be okay and that these guys really were working for the transfer company. But I couldn't shake that feeling that, Claudia...snap out of it, this just isn't right! And now that city we passed through seems very, very far away.

The taxi stopped at customs, and the fast-talker got out with us to show us where to go. There was nobody else around except for some security and one guy sitting at a desk who asked to see our passport. I gave it to him, he scanned it, took my temporary Peru visa and stamped me as out of the country. Justin handed his over, and now we had both legally left Peru.

It's at about this point that you normally walk on over to another counter with someone wearing a different countries military uniform and hand over your passport and then they stamp you to legally enter their country. This didn't happen. We got loaded up in the taxi again.

I asked the fast-talker. Where is the customs for Ecuador? You have to cross the border he told me...

This just isn't right.

All of a sudden the talk isn't so friendly. The theme has changed from being my buddy to telling me that the border is very dangerous and that we need to be careful - roll up the windows, lock your doors. This border is one of the most dangerous in all of south america...there is drug dealers and gangs and crooked cops and bad people and thieves and murderers and bad, bad, bad all there...lurking, waiting to get ahold of some gringos. But not to worry, we have them-our fast talking guide and his two mute buddies, and they will protect us.

Oh yeah, and the border is closed. There is a "parada," basically a strike of sorts, and the whole things is shut down. See...look our your window. Look at all these people. See...the cars aren't moving, the buses are stopped. You can't get across. Maybe by foot, but it's SOOO dangerous out there and you only have 30 minutes, and then who knows, the next world war might break out and we could be stuck in Peru for 2 days? 5 days? Weeks? Really there is no telling. But they know people and they can get us across. Of course they do.

The thing is though, we're gonna have to pay. Of course we are.

I may look like a gringa, but this ain't my first rodeo and these guys took a bad gamble thinking they were getting a penny from me. First of all, I don't carry cash when I travel, especially across borders. Second of all, I understand EVERY fricking lie you are feeding me and can talk back just as fast. This I didn't know until just that moment, with the windows rolled up and people knocking on the glass from outside, sweat dripping down our backs and faces. We are in a battle, me and this fast-talker, and he doesn't know who he's messing with. I am NOT scared of you or your stories, because that is all they are, stories. If you want to rob me, go ahead, you won't find a dime, just a backpack full of dirty clothes. You picked the wrong couple.

The lies keep spilling out of his mouth, trying harder and hard to plant that seed of fear that will turn into money for him. But what he doesn't know is that each lie isn't scaring me, it's pissing me off. I can feel the fire building behind my eyes, my features growing colder, my voice getting louder. He is getting mad, we're not giving in. I getting mad at him for his bullshit and mad at myself for letting us get in his crooked taxi to begin with. Justin knows something is up, but doesn't know all of it. The fast-talker gets out of the car with one of his buddies and leaves us there alone with the driver. They say it's to go talk to their friend that can get us across and negotiate a different price. I use the opportunity to tell Justin exactly what is going on, I don't want to scare him, but he needs to know. We're in a bad spot...and it's all my fault. "I am sorry," I tell him, "but I will get us out of here."

What are our options? Is it really that dangerous out there? Is there even really a parada? Can we walk across from here? How much do they want? Is it worth it to pay anything? I don't think we are in imminent danger of being killed, but this isn't a joking matter either...and on top of all of that we don't legally belong anywhere right now. We don't have the papers to be in Peru or Ecuador. I have no idea where we are. I have no idea where the bus is. I have no idea how to get us papers. I may be acting brave, but there is that little seed of doubt starting to take root. What if in my fury I am not grasping the real danger?

I just need to be still for a second. I just need to quiet all these thoughts that are racing in my head. I just need to listen, pray to know what the best answer is. I am being protected right now, Justin is being protected right now, just like we always are. It may not look like it, feel like it, or smell like it, but if I could just calm down. I take that moment to close my eyes, shut out all the noise, the distraction, the lies and say my simple prayer. I know good is here, everywhere. We are not forgotten, we are not lost, we are, what's up God, what am I supposed to do now?

My heart-rate drops. I look out the window and see the scene for the first time. It's a border, swimming with people. The cars are not moving and the little tuk-tuk looking guys are stopped as well. I see women selling food along the side of the road and men hawking glasses, clothes, and watches. It really doesn't seem all that different than any border town...except for the all the stopped traffic. Maybe these guys aren't totally shitting me...maybe they are.

The fast-talker and his buddy are back. Here's the deal the tell us. They can get us across, we will have to pay $100usd to the guy, but we can still make our bus. I tell him no. I want to see the border first. I want to ask the border agent if there is really a strike. I want to gauge for myself how dangerous this really is. If, and only if, I think it is as bad as he says, will I pay him. And only once we are across the border, not a cent before. If I don't think it was worth it, they won't see a dime. It's his call. But I have nothing to give you now and you won't get it later if I see that I was played. That won't work, he says, I have to pay him first. It's very simple, I told him what I would accept, and I am not negotiating. Think it over, I tell him. But you won't get any money from me until we're on the OTHER side of that border. We are at a stalemate again, only this time I'm not yelling, and he has to know he's already lost. But the bus, he tells me, you'll miss your bus. I just look at him, my offer is already on the table.

He's pacing outside the car now, sweating. I watch him for a while and then make a decision. I tell Justin to wait for me, to stay put, that I will be right back...and I get out of the taxi.

"Where are you going?!" the fast-talker yells in Spanish."They will kill you!" I wave him off, I am already gone. I am looking for a policeman or someone. People are hollering at me at the side of the road...whistles and catcalls and hola gringa. I see a truck driver and ask him if there is a parada. He tells me yes. But can I still get across the border...can I walk? He tells me sure, of course I can walk.  Is it dangerous? He gives me a smile with several missing teeth, "no girl, you will be fine." I ask 2 more people they all tell me the same thing. This takes about 3 minutes and I head back to the taxi.

People are hollering at me. "Oye, gringa! Gringa! Por el otro lado! Gringa! Ya se fueron!" I ignore them like I always do, but it's the most persistent yelling I have ever heard. I get back to where the taxi was...and it's gone! I whip around, looking in a panic for signs of Justin. Shit! why did I ever leave him alone!!

"Gringa!!" I finally look one of the yellers in the face. He must see the worry in my eyes. He points in the direction I just came from, motioning for me to go back. "El gringo se fue por alla. El tiene sus mochillas. Correte niña, correte." I take off running, dodging the street vendors, the parked cars and the dogs, running to the symphony of locals telling me, "Por alla, el gringo se fue por alla." I am not sure what is registering, I am so mad at him for getting out of that taxi and so worried at the same time. Why would he ever do that?!

"Correte niña, correte!" It's like a sauna out here. It's hot, and humid...the sweat has soaked through my shirt and pooled in my elbows and ears...I am not a runner and it's getting hard to breathe. But then I see it, my bright blue backpack bobbing up and down in the distance. It's moving so fast. I start yelling for him, but I doubt he can hear me through all the noise. I have to catch him..."por alla niña, correte."

I finally catch up and yank on the bag to stop it from moving. I am so mad. I am so worried. I am so glad he's ok. I'm so...shaken. "Why did you do that?!" I yell, "why did you just take off like that?! I told you to wait! I told you I would be right back!" But he's mad too, I can see something different in his face and then he speaks, "as soon as you left they kicked me out. Unloaded the bags and took off. What was I supposed to do?"

I feel sick. "I'm so sorry, " I tell him, "I'm so sorry." Just then I notice he has two teenage boys with him, one of them is carrying my backpack. Justin is loaded down with his backpack, day pack and a rice-bag full of Peruvian blankets. "I'm so sorry." but now I'm fighting back tears. It's not just my life and my stuff, what if something happened to him...and it was my fault? "I'm so sorry. I just...I just..." It's all I can think to say.

"It's ok," he tells me. "It's better we're out of that car anyway. We're ok. But don't you ever leave me alone again." When did he get so calm? When did he get so...grown-up? I just look at him, all I want to do is bury myself in a hug, drinking in the fact that he is, actually ok. But we can't just stand here, we still have to find our bus...and we're still illegal.

The kids said can take us to the terminal, that they knew where Cifa was. All they wanted was a tip for taking us there. Sure, we can do that. I am sure these guys are little thieves in training, but at least they aren't asking for $100 or telling us we are going to get killed. Once I had Justin back in sight I calmed down a bit and recognized the irony of a thief warning us against thieves. At some point in the future this story will be funny. Right now I'm just relieved and will be even more relieved when we get on the bus. I have two nagging concerns, one is whether we even actually have a ticket (who knows, they may have sold us something bogus) and what we are going to do about the visa for Ecuador. We seriously NEED to get that taken care of. But I don't even know where to begin.

The kids kept their word and they delivered us to the Cifa terminal. It was a bit of a walk from where we had been fighting with the fast-talker, but nothing dangerous. Well, other than the heat. I felt like I had sweat half my body weight and was already wondering how I was going to salvage my first impression with my mom's good (and very wealthy, classy and probably good-smelling) friend who would be waiting for us in Guayaquil. I suppose that I will have to cross that bridge when we come to it, but I just have my mother's words echoing in my ear, "honey please, please, when you see my friends can you at least try not to look like a total bagabunda (aka homeless person)."  I think I might have to let her down today, but hey, at least we'll still be alive and that should count for something; maybe even buy me some credit for my smelliness or general disheveled appearance.

I would have the bus ride to worry about this, first I had to make sure we actually did have a bus. I handed the girl at the window our receipt for our ticket. She had a very confused look on her face when she saw it and asked me what it was. I told her the story about the company in Mancora, the transfer, the taxi catastrophe...our need to get stamped into the country, how really, all we want is just to get to Guayaquil. Please, can you help us? She told me to wait for a minute, she had to call the number on the receipt and verify that we had actually paid for the service. Once she heard back, she said she could issue us our final tickets, but until then we would have to wait.

Maybe 10 minutes went by and I didn't hear anything from here. So I went back up to the window to see what was going on. No one was answering she said and we can either wait until she hears back or just buy another ticket.

This is really not our day.

I almost start to cry. "You don't understand," I said, "We can't wait until the next bus, my aunt (small white lie) is expecting us on that bus and there is no way for me to get ahold of her. She will be very concerned. We've already paid for the ticket. They promised us when we bought it that this was all we would need. And then those men...we have already had such a bad day, please, isn't there anything you can do to help us...please?"

"Your aunt is waiting for you?" she asks. I latin america friends are practically family anyway. "Hold on." She says, and I see her talk to what must be a manager. Just like that, we're going to get on the next bus. "What about the passports?" I ask her. More talking with the manager before she turns back to us and says, "the driver knows to take you to customs."

I let out a sigh of relief. Finally, it looks like things are gonna turn around. I sink down in that bus seat and don't even care that there isn't a/c. At least we're on a legitimate bus going to where someone will be waiting for us. I have never been so grateful to know that someone would be there waiting for me as I was right then. But right now, I'm just so tired. I look over at Justin sitting in the seat next to me and tell him again that I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to get us into this mess. He just smiles at me, takes hold of my hand and tells me that it's ok. I got us in it, but I also got us out. And hey...don't over leave me again.

I promise. I got a firm grip on this one and I'm never letting go.

After all that...we're still smiling.

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