December 02, 2003
Adventures in Border Crossing
DAY 43: Navid and I were out of the hostel in the Guayaquil suburbs before eight and caught a city bus to the main bus terminal. A fake Christmas tree stood in the center of the main hall and for the first time, it was beginning to look a little like Christmas.
We got tickets for a bus bound for Machala, the major city closest to the Ecuadorean border with Peru. It was a nice -- and very secure -- bus ride, complete with baggage claim tickets, a carry-on bag search and a body frisk.
The female conductor put on Money Train -- starring Woody Harrelson, Wesley Snipes and Jennifer Lopez (before she was j.lo and was the designated target for big ass jokes) -- on the monitor to kill time. I have to admit that seeing New York city on the screen -- particularly New York during Christmas time -- got me a little homesick.
Thoughts of white Christmases blew away when we arrived at Machala. As soon as we arrived at a random spot on the city map, we were displaced eight blocks from any kind of bus station. We eventually found our way and got another bus for the one-hour ride to Huaquillas, the border town that when pronounced by a local, sounds like "Guayaquil." Navid used his GPS device to make sure we were on the right track.
As soon as we got off the bus, we were hounded by guys offering us rides to the border. We avoided them by going out for lunch.
Navid found a money changer on the street where we exchanged just ten bucks into Peruvian soles for the meantime. A taxi driver drove us to the border bridge on the other side of time, where there was no official customs office -- just a bunch of street stands. We looked around aimlessly as dozens of taxi drivers followed us, offering us rides to back to an immigration office back on the other end of town. One of them led me to a tourist information office where the woman confirmed that we did have to go back the two miles after all.
The guy who brought us to the office -- a Peruvian taxi driver by the name of Ricardo who was only allowed to drive on the Peruvian side -- wouldn't leave us alone and escorted us to a taxi back on the Ecuadorean side of the bridge. I swear he stuck to us like a fly on two turds. He even hopped in the cab with us as the other driver brought us to the immigration office. Sure enough, we got our exit stamps and got back in the taxi which took us back to the unofficial-looking border bridge.
Ricardo led us to his cab through a crowded maze of street vendors in the Peruvian town of Aguas Verdes. We were wary of walking into a trap, but Ricardo's car existed after all. We hopped in his Toyota and he drove us to the other side of town to the Peruvian immigration office. Why the two immigration offices are five miles apart, I just don't get.
Navid and I were going to catch a bus from there, but there was none. Ricardo -- who was still swarming like a fly on turds -- offered us a ride to the next town of Tumbes for seven US dollars or twenty Peruvian soles, which we had no choice but to accept. (Well, the other option was to deal with the other four guys trying to get a fare from us, but I figured we should just stick with the same guy.) Ricardo and I talked a bit during the ride, and he told me about his three kids who were all in university in Lima.
En route to town, there was group of policemen on the side of the barren highway that pulled us over. Ricardo told me it was normal, but that some police were very corrupt. We exited the car and the cops looked over our passports and searched our bags -- I had to admit having three cameras and a laptop -- but they let us go without asking for any money.
Ricardo drove us to an ATM in Tumbes where I got some more cash, and then to a hostel he recommended. I gave him a twenty soles note that I got in Huaquillas but he wouldn't take it.
"Es falso," he said. ("It's fake.") He told me how counterfeiting caused a lot of problems in Peru. He showed me the difference between a fake bill and a real one and it was really hard to distinguish between the two.
"[You got it in Ecuador, huh?]" the hostel clerk interjected. He looked at the note. "Falso."
Ricardo pleaded us to pay in more reliable US bills but raised his $7 for the two of us price to $7 each. Navid wouldn't budge.
"[You said seven dollars or twenty soles!]" Navid and I argued.
"[But your soles are bad.]"
In the argument, Ricardo seemed to raise the twenty soles price to twenty five, justifying it by saying he drove us to and around town as well -- which I guessed was justifiable. Besides, there was no other way to get rid of him. I gave him a (real) 50 sole note that I got out of the ATM and he gave me change in what I hoped was real money.
"[Give me your fake twenty,]" Ricardo said. "[It's not good if you get caught with it. You'll be put in prison.]"
I kept the note though, thinking "then why would he want it?" (Pepe, the Dutchman I met in Riobamba, told me that it is sometimes possible to pass a fake bill.)
"[How about some money for a Coke?" Ricardo asked me. "[Come on, be a friend.]"
There was no getting rid of him, so I gave him an Ecuadorean fifty cent piece.
"[That's all you have?]"
"Sí. No mas."
I tried to keep the other coins in my pocket from jiggling.
For possibly our last dinner together, Navid and I went out to a sidewalk table of a "pricey" restaurant (according to Lonely Planet) on the Plaza das Armas, which wasn't too pricey with the exchange rate. We tried the special Peruvian ceviche, which unlike the Ecuadorean kind, is served with big toasted corn kernals and hot peppers. It was a rather pleasant night in town, despite the peddlers, shoe shine boys and vendors that kept on approaching us with goods and services every ten minutes -- something that never really happened in Ecuador. It was clear that Peruvians -- like the ceviche -- were far more "spicier" than the Ecuadoreans; I supposed it was time to "kick it up a notch."
And thus began Chapter Two: Peru. In the immortal words of TV chef Emeril Lagasse, "BAM!"
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