Thursday, November 6, 2008

Crazy Crossing

Crossing the border from Peru into Ecuador was an experience. I took a bus from Trujillo to Tumbes, a town not far from the border. As I stepped off the bus, I was met by a man who asked me if I was going to Ecuador. I told him I was and that I wanted to go with Cifa, a company that had been recommended to me back in Quito because it is an international company—it would take me straight across the border, from well within Peru all the way to Cuenca, Ecuador. He told me they left in 10 minutes and that I had to hurry. I asked him how much the taxi would cost and he told me $2. Going to the bathroom was the most important thing to me in the world at that moment, so I took care of that first.

After I exited the baño, we grabbed my backpack off the bus and hurried off to a taxi. We threw my bags in the back and I got in the back seat. The driver (a different man) started chatting with me. I asked him why we weren't leaving. He didn't answer. A couple minutes later, the first guy got in the back seat next to me and another guy, an employee of the bus company (the bus I had just exited) got in the front seat. He was wearing a vest and cap and looked official. So, now there were three men and me. We headed out.

There had been a change of plans and I hadn't been informed. We were heading to the border, to a town called Aguas Verdes, about a half-hour's drive. I was warned about this border crossing. It's dangerous. The unsuspecting tourist will get robbed—or worse. These men told me this was where we were going, but I was skeptical. Why were there three men in the taxi with me? I half expected that they were going to drive me to a remote location outside Tumbes, rob me and leave me. I placed my hand on my pocket knife—a sharp 3-inch affair with half smooth and half serrated blade. I wanted to make sure it was there. I wondered to myself, if they pulled over and demanded my money and my things, which one I would start with and precisely how I would start. A simple shove into the chest? Slit the throat? I didn't cherish the though, but I was done being robbed. I respect people who fight back against crime, and think the ones who allow themselves to be victims are pathetic. At least if I got robbed again, it wouldn't be because I wasn't paying attention. I would be ready.

I asked why we were going to the border and not simply to Cifa, as I had requested and been told we were doing. I was informed there were going to be protests at the border later in the day and buses and other vehicles wouldn't be able to cross. We would have to hurry before the border closed if I wanted to make it into Ecuador today.

When we arrived at the border town, we saw the buses and other vehicles parked. The protests had begun, apparently, and the border was closed. The driver turned down a side street. We wound around through a maze of narrow passages. The car stopped and a police officer stepped up to the window. The guy in the front seat with the vest on told me I had to pay the office $40 for protection. I knew this was a dangerous crossing—I had been told that by people who had nothing to gain by lying. I wasn't really in my element. I pulled $40 out of my camera bag and handed it to the cop. We continued a few more blocks. The man in the vest also told me I needed to give him $35 to cover his cost (i.e., the taxi) plus the bus to Cuenca. He would get the ticket for me once we were across the border.

At that point, the car stopped, the vested man and the man next to me got out. I was instructed to follow suit. We would be crossing the border on foot—just what I was told not to do—and I would catch a bus on the other side to Cuenca, my first Ecuadorian destination. The man who had been sitting next to me grabbed my backpack and slung it over his shoulder. The driver asked me for a tip as I was about to step out of his cab. This was an expensive trip. The $35 I had given the vested man would cover the taxista's fee. I wasn't going to give him a penny more. I grabbed the rest of my stuff and the three of us headed out.

We headed into the market. I had no idea where Peru ended and Ecuador began. This was the craziest market I had seen. There was barely room to move. The street was filled with men pulling carts—they were in gridlock. We squeezed between them. There were vendors everywhere. There was raw meat hanging from hooks. It was chaotic. We moved fast and stayed together. I wished I was alone with just my camera. The setting was amazing. I thought to myself "I've got to come back and photograph this place."

Aguas Verdes is a small town of only a few thousand. It's mashed together with Huaquillas, a town on the Ecuadorian side. Residents move freely between the two towns to trade, sell, and barter their goods. Immigration control is farther inland on both sides of the border.

At some point—I don't know when—we exited Peru and entered Ecuador. We had left the market behind and the streets were calmer. We approached a taxi driver. Apparently no buses were leaving from this town, also due to the protests. I would have to take the taxi to Pasaje and catch a bus from there to Cuenca. The taxi would cost $25. The bus from there to Cuenca would cost $5. The man in the vest begged me for a tip, saying that would be his only pay. I gave him a five-dollar bill but told him he had to give the taxi driver $5 to cover my bus ticket in Pasaje. I also gave him my last few dollars' worth of Pesos. I was already spending a fortune to get across this damn border, so another five bucks wouldn't kill me. At least that's what I tell myself to feel better. What it comes down to is that I'm a softie. I need to work on my negotiating skills.

The taxi ride went without a hitch. The roads were nice. We arrived in Pasaje in an hour, or so, the driver got me a bus ticket, and collected his $25.

I may have just been robbed by the nice men in the taxi, but I did make it from Peru to Ecuador with all my belongings—minus about a hundred bucks—and with my life. I'll never know what would've happened if I'd saved my money. Maybe nothing. Or maybe I would've ended up with even less.


Jay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

"I have concluded that the most beautiful women in the world are in Colombia!"

That's because you haven't been to Italy.

Jay said...

Actually, I have. Nothing against Italian women, though.

Brent Durland said...

Very entertaining, Jay! Thanks for the story.