all good things must come to an end, and so it came that we eventually reached our last day in peru. although i thoroughly enjoyed my time there, as it is a truly beautiful country filled with interesting culture, i was excited to be on our way to buenos aires. mostly because i wanted to eat a cheese sandwich with lettuce and tomato without fear of illness. so we hopped on a bus to la paz, bolivia. why bolivia, you ask? because apparently they have really cheap flights to buenos aires. but only on fridays.
our itinerary was as follows:
1. board bus
2. cross over border into bolivia
3. have 90 minutes of free time in copacabana (sing it with me!)
4. continue on to la paz
5. fly to buenos aires 36 hours later
ah, but nothing is ever that easy, is it dear blog readers.
first, while we were in the south american explorers club office in cusco, we saw that the entry rules had changed for US citizens to enter bolivia. instead of being free, it would cost $135 american. this is what is called a "reciprocity visa," which means that the bolivian government has decided to charge US citizens the amount that the US charges them to enter our country. anyway, we would also need passport sized pictures, a completed visa form, proof of yellow fever vaccination, proof of place to stay in bolivia, and copy of travel itinerary showing pre-purcharsed departure from bolivia. ok. we could do all that, but it kinda sucked since we would only be in bolivia for 2 days.
as we boarded the bus in puno, we went to an atm and took out enough american money for both the bolshevik and i to get our visas. and each of us had about $5 or $10 to spare. on the bus, the driver explained that we would be going through a checkpoint to leave peru. then we would be going through a seperate checkpoint to enter bolivia. after that we go to copacabana, where we would need to pay 1 boliviano each to enter the town, dollars or peruvian soles would not be accepted.
we stopped in a little town before the checkpoint where we were told that we could exchange money. i try to exchange my $5 (leaving me with $140 to pay my $135 visa), but the woman behind the counter would not except it because it has a small tear in the corner. this is an ongoing problem we had. people in south america do not like money with little tears or creases or marks on it. you know, used money. i guess we should all just use our money once and then throw it away and buy new money. so i wound up changing one of my $20s, thinking i would just pay my visa mostly in dollars and then pay the rest in bolivianos.
around this time the bolshevik got to thinking that maybe we should get some extra cash. so he went to a nearby bank, only to find that the atm was boarded-up old wild west style.
at the peruvian checkpoint, we were told that we had overstayed our alloted time in peru. say what? apparently, instead of getting the 90 days allowed for US tourists (and listed on all peruvian government websites, as well as in all guidebooks) we were only given 30 days. we were 9 days over.
the bolshevik and i were then carted over the opposite end of the counter, where they bring bad people. everyone on our bus went through the line with no problem, and there we were being punished in the corner.
the man behind the counter told us, in spanish, that we must pay a dollar a day overage fees. fine, between the two of us we would have just enough money to get our bolivian visas. the bolshevik tried to pay for the two of us, while the man repeatedly said "nueve. nueve." which if you don't understand spanish, means "nine." then he wrote down the numeral "9" and pointed at it repeatedly. yes, nine, we got it. please move on.
there was much back and forth between us since we could not understand why he wouldn't take our $18 and be done with it. then eventually, he wrote the number "19" and said "diez y nueve!" ok, so it was $19 each. but why write the number 9 and point to it, if you want 19?
for $38, we finally got out of there. we were a bit frazzled as to what to do at the bolivian border since now we were a little short for our visas, and of course there was no ATM in sight.
note: the bolshevik has dual-citizenship, so we were thinking that if they would allow him into bolivia on his irish passport (which would be free) then we would be all set.
the bolivian border patrol was housed in a one-room building with two desks. at the first desk i gave in my paperwork and passport and paid my $135. i was then told i had to get a photocopy of my passport. when i asked where, they pointed outside to a small bodega where i paid a man a dollar to photocopy my passport. then when i returned, i was ushered to the second desk where a man stamped my passport. (this is a two-person job, of course)
after my passport was stamped he told me i needed to photocopy the stamped part, as well as the passport picture, which i had already photocopied for the man at desk #1 and had not changed in any way. so then i went back to the bodega to pay another dollar for two more copies of my passport. which leads me to wonder why the bolivian border patrol doesn't have their own photocopier if they love copies so much.
meanwhile, the bolshevik was being detained by the border patrol. say what?! yeah, they would not accept his irish passport since it did not have an exit stamp from peru. and when he tried to pay for his visa, they would not let him combine dollars with bolivianos. take note, dear blog readers, if you find yourself at the border trying to enter bolivia, they do not accept bolivian money. only US dollars.
i rushed over to assist, and ultimately we figured out that the only way to free the bolshevik was for me to go to the nearest ATM without him, which was a 15 minute drive away. so i returned onto the bus, sans bolshevik, and entered the town of copacabana.
at the bank i was told i could not take out american dollars, i could only take out bolivanos and then exchange them for dollars. what is the difference, you ask? a small fee. so i took out 900 bolivianos and then exchanged about half of it, leaving me with more than enough american dollars to spring the bolshevik, and enough bolivianos for whatever other ridiculous fees we would incur next.
15 minute cab ride back to the bolivian border.
triumphantly, i entered the border patrol office to liberate my man. i sashayed over to desk #1, the bolshevik at my side, and we handed the man $140 in crisp twenties. the man began to sort through the bills making two small piles -now, keep in mind that half of this money was from an ATM in peru, and half of it came straight from a bolivian bank- the man pushed one pile back towards us, and told us that it was in unacceptable condition. thereby leaving us without enough money. again.
i went through the bills and a few of them had a faint pink ink on the edges, which i have seen before and believe is some sort of authentication marking from the bank. these bolivian bank-authenticated bills were not good enough for the border police.
around this time the bolshevik had a little outburst and was told to go sit down. take note, dear blog readers, the bolivian border patrol do not like little outbursts.
then i took out all the money i had, american and bolivian and fanned it out on the table. i explained that all this money had been given to me by the bank and was real currency. i then took out all 5 credit cards that i was carrying with me at the time, and fanned them out as well. i then explained, in bad spanish, that i had $135 in dollars, as well as what was equivalent to $135 in bolivianos, and that he could take whatever he wanted.
he then, reluctantly, counted out $140 of the fresh crisp bills from the bank, giving me $5 change (which i accepted!) and then he ushered us over to desk #2.
and of course, at desk #2, the bolshevik was told that he needed to make a 2nd set of copies of his passport. when we went next door to the bodega, the nice man there had decided to close up shop and go on a well-deserved siesta. really? i asked a nearby elderly woman if she knew where a photocopy machine was, and she helpfully pointed to peru.
what happens at the bolivian border if people need to make copies then?
i'll tell you, dear blog readers, i had to pay a bolivian border guard to walk the 300 feet over to peru so that he could make copies of the bolshevik's newly stamped passport at the peruvian border office. yeah, that's how they do things.
eventually the border guard returned with the necessary copies and the bolshevik was finally freed. then we rode off in a cab to cobacabana where we arrived just in time to get back on our bus for the final hours of our journey. but do not fret dear blog readers, because we can always go back to bolivia ... we have 5 year visas now.