Saturday, October 17, 2009

(old) Tell me why I don’t like borders. Tell me why.

because my battery was dead no photos this one is courtesy of flickr user Emi ♫ and used under CC license with much thanks

If you’ve been reading along (first I should say thank you, and second apologise for the huge lag between posts), you know I hate border crossings. It’s not the bureaucracy but the touts and scams that drive me nuts. Ever since the horrible crossing between Ecuador and Peru that dread has just gotten worse. My new plan to counteract the dread and disorientation has been 1. make sure you’ve not spent hours getting to the border, 2. get a good night’s sleep before hand and 3. exchange as little money as possible when you get there. Waking up today, I’d already broken the first two of these new rules. It was almost impossible to get much rest on the train. Between the uncomfortable seats and constant early morning stops, I think there were only about 3 hours of actual sleep. So once the sun was streaming in the windows, I decided to stop the charade of sleep. Adrian was in a similar grumpy frame of mind. But we consoled ourselves that we were heading to Argentina – not know for its pushy touts and tourist scams. Perhaps this time it would be different.

We still had an hour or so before our arrival at Villazon – the Bolivian border town – so we headed to the dining car for breakfast. It was included in the price of our first class ticket and I suppose was where the extra money went. But I can’t say it was worth it. Breakfast was eggs, breads and crackers and café con leche. Better than nothing and it helped pass the time until we pulled into the station relatively on time – perhaps our German friend from Santa Cruz had already brought the Bolivan Rail Service up to German efficiency standards. The platform was packed. Most appeared to be touts selling overpriced bus tickets to groggy tourists. A little bit of research in Uyuni had revealed that most (maybe even all) of these tickets were horrendously overpriced and that the same tickets were available just across the border for far less. So we barreled through the crowd, swatting the pamphlets that were thrust in our face and went to fetch our baggage. Here we had to fight with the locals. We could see our bags within reach but weren’t allowed to grab them without handing our tickets to the baggage handler who ignored us until he had helped every local first. When every local was gone, he turned his attention to us. We pointing to the two bags in front but he ignored us and he went looking in the baggage car coming out empty handed with a shrug until I once again pointed to the two in front and began to pick them up. I thought he was going to slap my hand for touching the bags before he had checked the tickets. And then went through the whole performance of cross referencing every number on our tickets with the tags on the bags. I guess with our lack of sleep we looked kinda shifty or something. Or perhaps he was just trying to save us from the touts because most of them had left to chase the other gringos down the street. We hopped into a cab and for $2 we were let off metres from the border post.

The street was lined with money bureaus and we backtracked to the nearest one and converted our Bolivianos into pesos. The rate was almost the real rate and it looked real after our quick examination (gently used, water marks security bands etc.) So far, so good. With cash in hand we retraced our steps to the border and joined the line up of gringos waiting to get stamped out of Bolivia. There were no locals waiting and there wasn’t another line up for Bolivans or Argentines which was a bit odd. The line wasn’t moving very fast and some pushy gringos thought they could bypass the rest of us by heading directly into the office. Now, nothing upsets a Canadian or a Brit more than ignoring a perfectly good line up (or queue if you prefer). We’re folks that pride ourselves on the orderly nature of a line up and would go to war to defend it. There were three Brits in front of us, about to join Adrian and I in our battle against the interlopers. However, bloodshed was avoided when an official with shiny boots and a gun headed them off and waved them to the back of the line. The tourists didn’t give up and pretending not to understand the official’s Spanish tried to continue into the office. But the Border guy dragged them to the end of the line which was now ten people longer than when they arrived. The three girls laughed and celebrated the victory with us. The line suddenly sped up and we were soon at the counter getting stamped out. Even better, the line slowed to a trickle as soon as we were done and the pushy wannabe queue jumpers had barely moved. Now that’s my sort of travel karma.

We walked with the girls across the bridge to the Argentinean border. There was an old rail bridge that ran parallel to us, left over from the days when the Bolivian train used to continue on into Argentina. It was fenced off but it wasn’t deserted. No, this was the way the Bolivians and Argentineans apparently crossed the border. There was a steady stream of locals carrying huge bags hopping the chain link fence and crossing the border without showing their papers. It looked rather illegal but since there were watchful border guards everywhere I guess it was fine. As we got close to the shiny new Argentina border post, I have to admit getting a bit nervous. I don’t know whether it was lack of sleep or excitement over stepping into Argentina but the heart was definitely thumping a little faster and harder. Perhaps it was the fear of the unknown – Would we be forced to produce proof of exit? Would we have to pay some outrageous entrance fee? Or would they want to tax our electronics as imports? All these questions were going through my mind. And all for nothing. The crossing was painless and even the customs guy waved us through without searching our bags once he saw Adrian’s Canadian flag, proclaiming his love for Canada in perfect English. Okay, perhaps I’ll stop teasing Adrian (the immigrant) for the stereotypical flag on his backpack.

But the easy part was behind us. Now we had to go catch a bus to Salta. Rather than take a taxi I believed the guide book which seemed to indicate that the walk was a short one. Short only if you’re not carrying 25kg in luggage on your back after sleeping upright on a train. As we got close to the bus station, I was lagging behind Adrian and when I eventually caught up to him, he was already in line to buy tickets for the bus. He was trying to purchase the tickets with his non-existent Spanish. The ticket man was asking for 60 pesos for the tickets which appeared to say 30 on them. So I asked him again. The chaos of the lineup and the ayudantes telling us to hurry because the bus was leaving made it hard to hear, and now it sounded like he said 80. So I asked him to repeat it and he said 180 for the 2 of us. Behind us the ayudante grabbed our bags and was throwing them on the bus. I chased the bags while Adrian paid for the tickets. The bus was now beginning to pull away but before we could get on the baggage guy now wanted 2 pesos before he’d give us our claim tickets. I gave him a nasty look and asked him why and he told me to give him the money unless we wanted to miss the bus. So we had no choice but to give him the cash. And it got worse when we got on the bus. I looked at the tickets and discovered that this "direct" bus trip was in fact two bus trips on two different companies. And worse, the price on the tickets read 30 pesos for the first and 24 pesos for the other for a total of 54 pesos not 90. Scammed in our first hour in Argentina. It was a shock after Bolivia where we’d had a few moments with touts but had mostly been left alone and untouched as we traveled through the country. It was one of the reasons we’d loved it so much – cheap and hassle free. Now here we were in Argentina and people were demanding cash bribes from us and skimming money from our bus tickets. Wow, Argentina you have changed.

The gringo sitting across the aisle from us asked me what was wrong. I told him what had happened and he looked at his ticket. He’d paid 60 but was upset that he’d been over charged 54. But when he heard what we’d paid, he started asking other people on the bus what they’d paid. Apparently we’d all been charged different prices. Some Americans paid 75 others 70 but we’d gotten ripped off the most. Dmitri (yes, he was Greek) immediately called over the ayudante to complain. The ayudante was sympathetic and told us to complain when we got to Salta where we could get our money back. Dmitri was adamant that we all do that particularly when the ayudante told us the price should have been 25 for the first half of the trip and 24 for the second half. But to me, it didn’t make sense – the company in Salta would be a different from the one that sold us the tickets and probably weren’t even aware that this other company was reselling their tickets. There was no way we’d be getting our money back. But now I had 4 hours to stew until we had to change buses. Actually it was 5 hours because we were stopped at a customs check just outside of town because another passenger apparently had enough gold on her to raise the alarm. We were forced to wait for an hour while they questioned her and charged her an import fee. During this break, the South Africa couple behind us tried to make us feel better. They had just been in Argentina for 3 months and this was the first scam they’d encountered. But I wasn’t worried about Argentina I was just angry that we’d gotten ripped off at another border.

When we finally got to Jujuy, the other bus was already there. We had just enough time to grab our bags and put them on the new bus not before being asked for another 2 pesos from yet another baggage guy who had just lifting our bags one foot off the ground and on to the bus. Once again I refused to pay and luckily this guy gave us our bags without demanding the money. I was commenting on the cash grab, when the South Africans informed me that in Argentina it was customary to tip the baggage man (although the refusal to give us the ticket until we’d paid was unheard of – it was a tip after all). Oops, I almost felt bad but then I remembered that some joker had already gotten an extra 70 pesos out of us today and we had to recoup it somehow.

This second bus was nicer than the first and arrived in Salta on time. We immediately went to the Flecha Bus office to make our complaint. As predicted it was the El Quicacena company we should have complained to but the fact that they were selling tickets for Flecha bus was enough to anger the Flecha bus attendant, let alone that they were ripping people off in their name. We filled out a complaint form but since it was the weekend we couldn’t get much further. They gave us a formal receipt and the number of the head office. They were very nice and apologetic which was enough to make us feel better but I knew I wouldn’t be calling the number and wouldn’t be getting our money back. The amount we lost wasn’t much in the grand scheme of things – about $20 I think – and we wouldn’t have paid it, if we didn’t think that was the price for 7 hours on the bus. Plus, just having someone who appeared to care about a customer complaint was enough to make us feel better.

Now it was time to find the hostel. We needed a shower and to relax. Lucky the hostel was close to the bus station and even luckier that there was room available, albeit one with shared bath. The hostel was great. It was a converted house and it felt just as welcoming. The staff were super nice and made us feel very welcome. We jumped into the (hot water! high pressure!) shower and washed away the crankiness of the day. We’d survived another border crossing.


Donna and Neil said...

We remember that border crossing well! We did the walk to the bus station too as we were too stingey to pay for a taxi...almost killed us with the luggage - it's all uphill!

Also to make you feel a little bit better, we paid about 70 or 80 pesos for the bus and it wasn't direct either. We found out later that there aren't many direct buses to Salta, most of them you have to change in Jujuy.

Your blogs now are bringing back lots of memories of South America!

liz and adrian said...

Hi Donna! Where are you and Neil now - i feel like it's been ages since i've heard a bit from you two. Glad I could bring back some SA memories (that must have been ages ago for you).

As far as scams go, it was a minor one. But it's amazing that borders are the only places that we get ripped off (touch wood, throw salt etc.). There must be some bad mojo there or something.