Monday, January 3, 2011

Postcard from Limbo

Well, we made it to Peru, sort of. We were expecting the two-day overland trip from Vilcabamba, Ecuador to Chachapoyas, Peru to be our transportation boot camp—rough roads, uncertain vehicles—but the first leg went like clockwork. The windows of the bus from Vilcabamba rattled and the whole thing jounced, and the road was narrow, steep, winding and unpaved. But the surface was dry, and though we passed several recent rockslides and drove through a number of streams, nothing untoward happened.

In fact, what we’d been told would be a seven-hour trip to Zumba took just five and a half hours. And instead of waiting there for the ranchera—an open-sided truck fitted with padded wooden benches—we went in with some other travelers and hired a yellow pickup truck taxi to take us on to the Ecuador/Peru border at La Balsa, a river crossing between high green hills.

We should have known things were going too well. No sooner did we get our Ecuadorian exit stamps from the little building on one side of the river and step onto the short but grandly named International Bridge than a young man with a German accent stopped us. He was sitting in front of a glass-enclosed shrine on the Ecuadorian end of the bridge, in the shade from the corrugated metal roof, luggage all around him.

“There’s nobody on the Peruvian side,” he said, smiling ruefully. “The border agent took the key and went off somewhere. Nobody knows when he’s coming back. Maybe tomorrow.”

He and his girlfriend had been traveling in Peru. Now they wanted to enter Ecuador but couldn’t without getting their Peruvian exit stamps. And we couldn’t legally enter Peru without entry stamps. On our way to the border that day, we had been stopped at a checkpoint in Ecuador, and though we had no problems, the frown on the face of the young man in camouflage there reminded us that we don’t want to be traveling around without our papers in order.

“So you’re still in Peru and we’re in no man’s land,” I said. I looked at the short, concrete bridge, wondering if we would end up spending the night there. At least there was shade at the shrine. Or maybe we could re-enter Ecuador, but there didn’t seem to be much point. Yes there was someone at their border post, but beyond the barrier we had just crossed, there was nothing but a small group of shacks.

The three travelers we’d shared the cab with—Jacob from Utah, Natalie and Fannie from France—joined us and we filled them in. The German man’s girlfriend walked over from the Peruvian side. A good-humored, take-action sort fluent in English, German and Spanish, she was a handy person to encounter just then, and she gave us all an account of the phone calls she’d been making. She’d already done everything any of us could think of and more besides—she’d asked around to see when the border agent might be back (no one knew). She’d called embassies. She’d checked whether in such a situation you can legally continue on to the next town of any size. There was nothing for it, she reported, but to sit tight and wait for the border agent.

But eventually we realized there was nothing to stop us from simply walking around the wooden barrier on the Peruvian end of the bridge and getting something to eat at the little restaurant we could see there. It was right next to the brown wooden customs building—if the agent showed up, we figured, we would surely see him. The German pair stayed where they were, but, driven by hunger and heat, the rest of us unceremoniously entered Peru.

The restaurant was a little blue-painted cinderblock place with red tablecloths and green chairs, steamy despite being open on two sides, and the music was at high volume. I ate a plate of rice and fish, then the five of us pushed two tables together and got a game of rummy going. A burly Peruvian man came over and, speaking so grandly none of us fully understood him, shared with us his conviction that music was the universal language and knew no borders. Out of respect for our country, he said, he had asked the man who ran the restaurant to put a special CD on the sound system. Somewhat puzzlingly, given the fact that we were collectively from France and the U.S., the special CD turned out to be Rod Stewart.

We sweated and played cards and an hour went by. Another German traveler showed up, this one a young man who was also trying to get to Ecuador. Jacob went off and came back with the news that there was a hostel next door. It wouldn’t be open for another half hour, but we decided we should form a line outside the door before the ranchera from Zumba arrived and poured another couple dozen people into our little state of limbo.

So we sat on a concrete ledge in front of the tienda on the first floor of the locked-up hostel.

And we sat.

And we sat.

Two hours went by, and though the tienda owner was smiling and apologetic, the key was still nowhere to be seen.

It wasn’t like there was nothing to do. We watched chickens peck at the corn the tienda owner scattered for them. We watched two little girls race their bikes up the dirt road. Rie and I took turns wandering back across the bridge to the Ecuadorian barrier or a hundred yards or so along the road on the Peruvian side, not sure quite how far you could go in a country you weren’t legally in. As if to taunt us, horses or donkeys would occasionally canter loose across the bridge. (“Where’s your exit stamp?” Jacob called cheerfully to one headed for Ecuador.) Pickup trucks, white collective taxis and moto-rickshaws brought more travelers to the Peruvian side. Most sat down outside the customs building. Others wandered. Eventually, most of the Peruvians dispersed again.

But still we sat on our ledge, the hot afternoon going on and on. Around 5:00, there was a stir: the key had arrived! “One more minute,” said the tienda owner. We saw people go in the building with sheets and towels. This looked promising. Another half hour went by. Three-quarters of an hour.

“A Peruvian minute,” said Jacob.

By 6:30 or so, we were in, trundling up four flights of stairs to small, dim, smelly rooms for which we were by then thoroughly grateful. Rie’s and mine had one small bed and a bathroom with no door, toilet seat or hot water. But it got cool as night came, and it had a stunning view of the stars over the Ecuadorian mountains. And we slept, more or less, and are now ready for whatever today might bring. A border agent would be a nice start. (KK)


Marie said...

What an interesting and hilarious description! Rod Stewart...?! Love, comfort, and smooth border crossings to you both. M x

Boo Howe said...

Oh, geez. Glad you had the company of fellow always makes the unexpected more enjoyable. Enjoy Peru!!!

Kathleen Kearns said...

Thanks, Rie and Boo! It sure helps when things go wrong to know folks like you are out there rooting for us.
All turned out well in the end. When the border agent showed up the next morning--his children in tow--he was cheerful, relaxed and welcoming, no doubt all the happier for his day off.