28 February, 2010


this day, our first full day way up on the altiplano was supposed to be a major one, a great one. it was to be a leisurely day to trip to Copacabana--not that Copacabana, the one just over the Bolivian border around the south end of Lake Titikaka. but once again, we hit a few snags, only this time it wasn't the fault of striking transit workers.

no, while socialism got involved a little later on, this time what went on strike was my whole digestive system, beginning when we left the clay-eaters of Atuncolla. not that i blame any of it on them--my problems i believe stemmed from lunch, though curiously Jill and i split everything we ate, and she didn't even get a hint of sickness. i may have eaten more lettuce on my sandwich or something, but what i got seemed much bigger than i would have expected from such a small garnishing. in any case, that night a massive foreign horde had invaded and my body's defenses had been overwhelmed and basically revolted to join the onslaught. seldom have i experienced such pain, nor when i have have had to do so on a tiled bathroom floor of dubious cleanliness. and usually i have a pretty good gag reflex but in this instance i had to press my toothbrush into a service it was never quite designed for, which i did seven times over the course of a very long and uncomfortable night. so when the morning came and we were to head for Bolivia, i was still feeling pretty fragile and not at all like being on a bouncing bus with a bunch of loud-mouthed, tobacco-reeking hippies, but i guess we all have to sacrifice.

proof we did make it to Bolivia, above, and below, proof it wasn't quite as we'd planned...

trouble is, not all sacrifice turns out to be worth it. when we got within fifteen minutes of the border the bus steward started making the rounds and asked us, in broken English, if we had our visa. in broken Spanish i told him that, no thank you Friend, we didn't need one of those, and he could move on with his rounds. after doing so, he came back, seemingly having forgotten what we talked about, but really having worked out the words to tell me that in fact, Friend, you will be needing a visa, thanks to a new requirement just for Americans, hooray! apparently Bolivia's socialist president, Evo Morales had decided to impose this requirement, but whether it was because the much vaunted "change" America's Dear Leader was supposed to be ushering in hadn't yet destroyed capitalism or because a mighty cash cow was going unmilked i don't pretend to know. nevertheless, at 135 bucks a pop--more than we paid to get two Chinese visas through a travel agent in Japan--i suspect it was a little of both, such a delicious irony for us residents of the Evil Empire to reflect on.

we let our new friend know that for us this was only a day trip, and somehow seemed sure that would make a difference--as if he made Bolivia's entry requirements all by himself--but he was quite certain that US$270 would be required whether we wanted to be in country for two hours or two weeks. we were still pretty sure he was making it up so we let him know we would take care of things at the border and he went away again... for a few minutes until he came back with the kind of plan that almost made me think he did make the immigration laws in those parts. he said there was a way that we could pay half price, but he would have to take care of our customs paperwork and we would stay on the bus the whole time it was in Bolivia, under his wing, so to speak. Basically, he was pretty sure he could smuggle us over not one but two borders for the measly sum of 135 American Dollars. when i reflect on what some people go through to get to America, or the expenses to which my parents went to allow us to immigrate to the United States, i tend think that we were being offered a killer deal. on the other hand, when i think that Jill and i would probably still be locked in a Bolivian prison, having paid $135 to get there, i'm confident we made the wise choice to disembark the bus at the border and wait in the charming Peruvian border town of Yunguyo for the couple of hours it would take the bus to come back for the return trip to Puno.

Jill having "crossed" one of the loosest borders we've come across.

now when i say Yunguyo is charming what i mean is that it is small and consists of a street with a bunch of cambios--currency exchange shops--and a side street that looked like it would go down to the lake shore but that turned out to be guarded by a scrawny but fearsome looking wild bull who happened not to look like he was tethered to anything. so all our exploring came to naught and we ended up sipping Sprite and munching saltine crackers so my guts would have something to do during all the time we were waiting. actually we did do something a bit more exciting after all: i had the distinct feeling that our friend had been telling us porkies about the border crossing because we hadn't come across anything about this supposed new visa fee, so we wandered up the road and just walked across the border like we owned the place. and nobod seemed to care. there was even a very military-looking Bolivian border guard standing off to the side of the road, so we decided to approach him lest he be tempted to check us out in greater detail. we wanted to see if he could confirm or deny these fees that were increasingly seeming like an attempted scam, and without any apparent knowledge of English, he did in fact confirm the exorbitant visa fee story, but then curiously didn't seem to mind that we just wandered off further in the direction of Copacabana proper.

so we have been to Bolivia--hence its flag in the sidebar--just never officially, and not for very long. i'm pretty sure that if i ever wanted to cross a border illegally, that would be the one to go with. i haven't yet worked out what one would do later on when someone asks to see entry papers. i don't remember a time in all our travels that we've ever been stopped for such a check outside of some official and obvious checkpoint, but i'm sure the one time you don't have that little stamp in your little book is the one time you'll run across the cop who wants to card you just because he can. so we were lucky. the weather was good, the little fellow pictured above at the cambio kept us supplied with refreshment and even sold us a few Boliviano notes and coins, and our actually well-informed friend even stopped on his way back through to pick us up, just as he had said he would. things were looking up for us and the rest of our time by the great lake.

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