I was forced to flee.
While spending time in La Paz at an extremely nice hotel that the Embassy graciously funneled funds to me to pay for, I was trying to deal with Bolivian Immigration; they were, as usual, giving me problems. Initially when I was in Guyaramerìn, they told me that I would simply have fifteen days to exit the country as soon as I got out of the hospital. This sounded like a fair deal, and I was more than prepared to accept it.
Once I arrived to La Paz, they began spontaneously changing their minds. The first time I went to their lair nestled between Social Services and the post office on Avenida Camacha, they told me I would have to leave through Chile within two days. When I went again the next day, they told me that my Embassy was organizing a flight back to the U.S.A. for me, which was obviously a work of pure fabrication since I was communicating intimately with my Embassy at the time.
I went back to the Consualte and relayed Immigration’s amorphous future plans for me; they agreed that the Bolivians weren’t making any sense at all. They asked to see my Passport, and I obliged. After making copies of all the pages with visas on them, they noticed that I didn’t posses the exit Visa for my most recent entry into Chile. I told them that initially, my plan was not to be caught without a visa in Bolivia, and to sneak quietly back into Chile a few days before my old Chilean visa actually expired. That way, it would be like I never left Chile, according to my Passport, and I would be able to leave the country through Perù and be completely legitimate again.
The fact that I didn’t posses an exit visa was quite problematic, according to the Embassy. This meant that not only was I illegal in Bolivia, but I was illegal in Chile as well! They told me that once the Bolivians eventually let me out of the country and back into Chile, (my only possible route of exit since that’s how I came into the country), once the Chileans saw that I didn’t get the exit stamp from their country I would be immediately deported back to Bolivia, whom would have just gotten through deporting me minutes before.
To put it simply, I would be deported into Chile from Bolivia, and then promptly be deported back into Bolivia as soon as I arrived. That’s two deportations from two different countries in the same day! This must be some kind of illegal immigrant record.
So what happens when I get deported back to Bolivia, you may ask. I’m not allowed there anymore, remember. The Embassy said I would have to be deported once again all the way back…to the United States of America.
Things were starting to look pretty dire for the adventure. Of course, if I got deported than I would promptly hitchhike back to South America, but then I would almost certainly miss my two-month window of opportunity to get to the South Pole (January and February). It would be so damn inconvenient, being deported all the way back to the Northern Hemisphere.
I couldn’t let that happen. If they were going to deport me back to the States, it was going to have to be whilst I was unconscious, in handcuffs, and with a couple of taser wires sticking out of my back.
I was lucky; my old Chilean visa still had four days left on it. I thought about it; if I could sneak back into Chile and pass into Perù in less than four days, than all my problems would go away! Well, they would at least stay in Bolivia. Here’s why:
I could wait and see if the Bolivians got their act together and gave me an exit pass within the next few days, but they had proved far too unreliable in the past. If they let me out before my Chilean visa expired, I would still have to sneak past the Chile checkpoint, since I had no exit visa, and would be sent back to Bolivia as soon as I got there.
I couldn’t afford to wait on the Bolivians just so I could maybe have one less checkpoint to sneak past; if they didn’t come through in time, I was fried for sure, because my old Chilean visa would expire. Then, even if I did manage to make it into Chile without being caught, I would be nabbed with an expired visa when I tried to cross into Perù.
I was going to have to risk it; being arrested and forcefully deported back to my home country by jumping the most heavily trafficked Bolivia-Chile border crossing; La Paz to Arica. All other crossings were too far away and it would be cutting the four days I had to get into Perù far too close.
This day had to succeed; if I was caught, everything would be over. Not only would I be deported, but there would most likely be some sort of passport restriction placed upon me, some thing I need like I need cerebral malaria. Additionally, Chile has a very strict visa policy; if I was caught slinking around the border and my scheme found out, I would be banned from Chile for life. Chile is currently the only way I can get to Tierra del Fuego without going through Bolivia (already banned for life) or Brazil (outrageous Visa charges). Therefore, my Antarctica attempt would almost definitely not happen. I needed to keep my wits about me and the border checkpoints as far away on the horizon as possible. I needed to disappear into the altiplano, to be the invisible man on the mountain. Everything rode on the outcome of this day.
As soon as I got the news that I would probably be deported back to the States, I made the decision to go for it. This was at about three in the afternoon. I had a little money on me (since my parents sent me my Christmas money early so as I could buy new gear while I was in the cheapest country in South America), so I decided to go and buy only the absolutely necessary things that I needed and to then buy a bus ticket to the small town where the Bolivian border checkpoint was located.
You’re probably wondering why I wanted to take the bus, since I hate buses; it’s because time was of the essence. Hitching out of La Paz could take five minutes or it could take two days. Since the next day was so important, I couldn’t risk the uncertainty; I needed to utilize all means possible to succeed, even if it meant violating my bus-taking rule, or for that matter any other rule I’ve imposed upon myself.
First, my things. I had US$91. I deemed the absolutely necessary things to be:
- Sleeping bag
I figured that these things would more or less exhaust my cash fund and leave me with enough for the bus ticket. With this in mind, I headed for Plaza San Fransisco, where street vendors sell you anything you could possibly want, or dream of maybe wanting one day. The selection was even more varied and exciting than in Mexico City.
Cheap, cheap cheap cheap. I purchased my ‘absolutely necessary’ items and still had lots to spare. I also got my secondary items, which were:
- Coat or jacket
- Fanny pack (shut up, they are damned useful)
I even got some luxuries:
- New toothbrush
Afterwards, I had enough to pay for my bus ticket. I headed to the station and paid my fifty Bolivianos to the town of M- and then tried to decided what I wanted to do for the rest of the night, since the earliest bus did not depart until six the following morning.
I decided to head back to Plaza San Fransisco and busk a bit with my new harmonica. I did so and with the ten Bolivianos I made I used the Internet for what I hoped was not the last time in South America.
I encountered a Facebook message from my British friend Laura (whom I mentioned before; she was the girl from San Pedro de Atacama before I hopped into Bolivia and started this whole mess) which said she was in La Paz now, at Plaza San Fransisco! Could I maybe meet her there at eight?
I looked at the clock. 8:01. Perfect!
So I left and met Laura once again in front of a massive cathedral. We went and had a spot of dinner, and she asked where I was to stay for the night. I told her my plans were to stay at the bus station for the evening.
Since we were rather drunk we concocted a silly plan for me to sneak into her hostal and covert camp the floorspace. After our meal we headed there, a place named Cactus a few blocks away.
When we arrived inside, the owner, of course, immediately said that I couldn’t go up; using our cunning skills as drunk people with a sneaky plan, we convinced him to let me have a few minutes. As soon as I got up I stashed all of my gear under one of the other beds, rolled out my new sleeping bag under Laura’s bed, and promptly went to sleep. Laura went out for a moment to buy some milk or something, and she told the owner I had left with her. When he went up the check (just in case) about an hour later, I was tightly concealed under the bed space. He bought our fun little trick, and I went to sleep in peace.
I awoke to the sound of Laura’s watch alarm at 0430; time to get out of here and head for the bus station. I packed my gear up as quietly and as quickly as possible and slipped out of the hostal onto the dark, early morning streets of La Paz.
I was about two blocks from the hostal when I heard a voice behind me, calling, ‘Hey! Hey you! Come back here!’ Curses, the owner was after me! I must have woken him up when I went out the door! I tried to feign ignorance and said that I didn’t know what he was talking about; I’d been sleeping on the street! He wouldn’t belive it. I even tried to escape in a taxi, but he was pretty strong and forcefully pulled me out of the cab. I didn’t know what the big deal was; I had slept for three and a half hours under a bed in an extremely cramped space; he really wanted to charge me for a full night for that? He was extremely angry and threatened to call the police on Laura for breaking hostal rules, so I agreed to go with him back to the place, since she hadn’t done anything, really, and I had gotten her into this sticky wibbet in the first place.
I ended up paying him my last dollar; he agreed not to charge Laura anything, though she later told me he gouged her for a fiver later that day. Next time we meet I’ll have to buy the drinks. I suppose that’s what we get for being foolish drunks in the night. This also confirms my mindset that owners of hostals where tourists frequent are usually not the nicest or most forgiving of folks when it comes to poor wanderers like me; they assume I have money to pay, but just don’t want to, instead of the reality that if I could pay I would, but I can’t. Next time I’ll just stay in the bus station, I suppose.
This whole ordeal with the hostal had taken up a bit of time, and when I arrived to the bus station I found that I had missed my six a.m. bus! The woman behind the counter said I would have to wait for the next one, which didn’t depart until noon.
I decided to try and hitch onto something headed in that direction while I was waiting; if I didn’t find anything I would just take the noon bus, though this meant I would lose half of my day, and I only had this one and two more.
Lady Luck smiled upon me; a semi pulled over, and he was on his way to Arica, Chile, and would be passing through exactly where I wanted to go. Excellent!
After riding for several hours, we arrived to the town of M-. I hopped out of the truck as soon as we got to the tiny speck of civilization out in the middle of the altiplano; quickly, I began the evasion plan.
Here was the situation: The town of M- was bordered by rolling hills that evolved into towering, snow-capped mountains to the north; to the south was flat, lama-studded altiplano. To the west there was about thirty kilometers of ‘dead-zone,’ where no matter what direction you took on the road you would have to pass through either Bolivian or Chilean border control. Once you passed the official border to Chile there was a large lake on which the Chilean border checkpoint was located, about six kilometers past the actual border.
My plan was as follows: in order to skirt the Bolivians, I would need to head north into the mountains, since I would be easily spotted on the flat southern plain. I calculated that a roughly eight kilometer walk would be needed to a) get far enough from the border checkpoint so as there would be no possible way I would be spotted, and b) get back to the road once I was safely past to hitch onto one of the numerous semis closer to Chile.
Once I arrived into Chile, I would need to skirt around the lake, thereby evading the Chilean checkpoint and arriving safely back into Chile, whereupon I would have two days to get to Arica and then to Perù. This would mean another eight or nine kilometer walk, as the lake was quite large.
I headed quickly out to the north, M- fading quickly into the rolling hills of the altiplano. I walked for several hours until the town’s radio tower was but a stick on the horizon and I had arrived to the foot of the jagged mountains. Here I encountered a dry streambed, which I followed west for roughly two hours. It wound randomly about and brought me to a nearly vertical rock face, which went straight up and didn’t level off until it was snowy.
At this time it seemed that I was far enough west that I had passed the Bolivian control, so I began climbing the hills back south so as I could arrive to the road and hitch onto a passing semi to the Chilean border. After nearly an hour and a half of trudging up and down the steep, bunchgrass studded hillsides with my heavy pack, I arrived at last to the road. I had come out about two kilometres west of the town of M-, but I could still see too many details and I couldn’t risk someone looking down the way with a pair of binoculars and seeing me; I went back into the hills and walked until I could see the town no more.
When I came back out onto the road, the next semi that passed picked me up and took me to the official border of Chile; the checkpoint was still about six kilometers ahead. I wanted to ride a little bit closer, but then I noticed something alarming; there were police cars ahead checking what I assumed were passports and documentation!
Spooked, I told the driver to stop and I booked it back into the hillsides before the police could see me. I continued walking west, with the road about 500 metres to the south. All I needed to do was pass the police; however, when I was peeking over a hilltop to check on the situation, I noticed the cars leaving and heading back to Chile. Phewph! I started back towards the road.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a large, armored truck came roaring towards me. It screeched to a halt, kicking dust up everywhere as the tires tore into the dry, sandy soil. Out came four or five men with assault rifles and body armor. At this point I figured I was toast; either I was about to be shot or I was about to be deported; neither of these things sounded appealing to me, but, fuck all, they had some scary-looking guns. I stopped in my tracks and raised my hands in the air as high as they would go.
One of the men ran up towards me.
‘What are you doing?!’ he asked in an extremely forceful voice.
‘Um. Walking?’ I said lamely.
‘Why are you walking here? Why are you off of the road?’ Incredulously.
‘Because I…prefer to take the path less traveled?’ I said hopefully.
The man stared for a moment, then sighed. ‘Where are you from?’
‘The United States.’
He looked me up and down. ‘Where are you coming from?’
A pause. Then, ‘Can I see your documents?’
I handed over my passport, prepared to be arrested. However, to my astonishment, he simply glanced at the ID page and quickly gave it back.
‘All right. You passed through the Bolivian checkpoint, right?’
‘Yes,’ I lied through my teeth.
‘Well, you need to go back onto the road. Did you know you were about to walk into a minefield?’
‘A minefield?’ I said, disbelieving. ‘You mean, like, a copper mine?’
‘No, like military-grade, high-explosive land mines.’
I opened my mouth, and then closed it again. ‘Land mines. The kinds that blow off your legs when you step on them? Pressure mines? Bouncing Betty’s? That kind of a minefield?’
‘Yes, that kind of minefield.’
I must say, it’s a good thing the A-Team came roaring up on me like that, all threatening-like, or your author would be in eighteen different pieces scattered across the Chile-Bolivia border.
I went back to the road and followed the armored men’s instructions carefully. The next two kilometers are mined, both sides of the road. Don’t get off until you’re near the lake. Yes, sir.
I walked another hour until I arrived to the lakeshore. There, it seemed safe to get off the road, and I began my walk around the rather large lake to skirt the Chileans. The walk was very long, but had a nice view. Chilean border control was but a speck in the distance, and now that I was officially in Chile, they couldn’t really do much to prove that I had come from Bolivia unless they asked the land mine people; I had a valid Chilean visa that was good for the next two days. If they caught me, I would just say I had been camping on the lake, which is not illegal.
I officially succeeded in my day of evasion when I arrived to the road once more, this time about three clicks to the west of Chilean control. In less than five minutes, I had hitched a ride on a Bolivian semi truck bound for Arica.
I had made it! Both checkpoints successfully evaded, and I would arrive in Arica just after nightfall. The Peruvian border lay a mere ten kilometers from Arica; I could arrive that very same night! But it wasn’t over yet, not until I was safely in Perù; I held in the celebrations.
When we got to Arica, I waited for about ten minutes on my old friend Panamericana Sur, and was soon in a car headed to Tacna, Perù, which lay about twenty k’s across the border. We arrived to the Chile-Perù border crossing at around eight-thirty in the evening.
I walked up to the little immigration window to get the exit stamp for my nearly-expired Chilean visa. The man glanced at my entry stamp.
‘You’ve been here 88 days.’ He looked up at my face. ‘Where exactly have you been in Chile?’
‘San Felipe, Valparaìso. Around a bit.’
He studied it for a moment more, and then nodded. ‘All right.’ He slammed his stamp on the inkpad. ‘Thank you for visiting the Republic of Chile. Please come again soon.’
He pounded my passport with his rubber stamp, handed it back to me, and went back to staring blankly at his keyboard.
I had done it; I had risked life, limb, imprisonment, and deportation, but I had done it! The adventure could now continue as planned! The joy and relief I felt was indescribable.
I got to Tacna and went to sleep at the local hospital (they loaned me an empty bed for a few hours). The next day I awoke and began my hitch to Cusco and Machu Piccu. I spent a lot of time walking in the desert and eventually arrived to Moquegua, where I am now, taking a few days’ much needed rest and doing a little bit of work on a heavily irrigated desert farm. From here I head to Puno, Cusco, Machu Piccu, and Yurimagua. After that, a riverboat to Iquitos, and then another riverboat on the Amazon River (yes, the big one) to Letecia, Colombia.
Farewell, with much relief,
The Modern Nomad
BORDER EVASION MAP: ROUTE TAKEN AND POINTS OF INTREST
1. The town of M-, and Bolivian border control
3. Chilean broder control