Saturday, July 4, 2009

Dangerous Border Crossings - Huayaquillas, Peru

PeruI crossed the border into Peru to extend my Ecuadorian visa, as I had been hired to teach English at a summer camp in the Galapagos Islands and I needed a new 90-day tourist visa. I thought it would be simple and safe, but was I ever wrong.

My plan was to tour around Piura, Peru, then up to Mancora, then north again to Zorritos, near to where I would cross again into Ecuador via the notorious Huayaquillas border crossing, but northern Peru just across the border from Ecuador and straight down to Piura was one big garbage can; rubbish was strewn everywhere throughout each little town we passed and beyond, and by everywhere, I mean everywhere. So much plastic glittered on the trees, it was as if Christmas had long since passed and nobody had bothered to take down the faded decorations.

Zorritos, Peru

I decided I would return to Ecuador, but while I was in Zorritos, a fellow told me how tough it would be to pass through the Huayaquillas border on my own. However, the proprietor at my hotel assured me that I would have no problem if I were to go to the station in Tumbes and catch a bus, which would take me across the border.

The next morning, I flagged down one of the local mini-buses that travel up and down the Peruvian highways, but it was so jammed with farmers, fishing gear, bags, food, suitcases, coolers, and boxes that the tires were virtually flat. Nevertheless, I threw my suitcase on top of the heap and pushed myself down between two other travelers for the 25 km ride.

Tumbes, Peru

When we arrived in Tumbes, everyone clambered out of the bus and the driver’s sidekick put my suitcase on the sidewalk where, before I knew it, a tall, skinny man walked over from the other side of the road and picked it up. He was with another tall, overweight fellow. They talked to the mini-bus driver and I strolled over, and, pointing to my bag, asked them what was going on. They said to follow them and they would take me to where I wanted to go, and walked boldly away with my bag towards a black four-door sedan. I asked the bus driver what was going on, but he just nodded and pointed at me to go with them. Mistaking his nod for approval, I assumed they were taxi drivers. The skinny one opened the backdoor of the fancy taxi (it was clean so it seemed fancy) and gestured for me to get in.

'You're taking me to the bus station, right?'
'Si,' the fat one said and nodded.

As we drove around the few blocks of Tumbes, the chubby fellow was very talkative, turning around in his seat and asking me all the usual questions: was I traveling alone, was I married, and, of course, was I lonely? When he found out I was from Canada he regaled me with stories about his brother in Toronto and how he would like to go, how he wanted to work there one day, or perhaps emigrate. The driver grunted in Spanish because he didn't speak any English. I wasn't paying attention because the big fella was talking so much, but after driving for what seemed too long, my intuition told me that perhaps we weren’t headed to the bus station at all. In a town of 1,000, it wouldn't take half an hour to find, but my realization was too late when I saw that we were turning on to a highway on the outskirts of town.

'Hey! Que pasa? Donde va?,' I asked again. 'Where are you going?'

Chubby reached into the glove compartment and pulled out some leaflets and handed them to me. They were bus schedules.

'We take you now to the bus station in Huayaquillas because no bus station in Tumbes,' he said, pointing to the timetables.

What? He swung around again, wrapping his elbow around the back of the seat. He ignored me when I asked about the bus station and grew animated once more about his relatives in Canada and how much he missed them and wanted to see them. The driver was silent, but as we were turning on to the highway he rolled down his window and went 'hack-tu' and spat a gob the size and consistency of a jawbreaker out the window. Watching it soar through the air, my spirits sank and I knew I was in trouble because would a real taxi driver with a real fare do something as disgusting?

'But I've been told there was a bus station in Tumbes and that's where I want to go.' The fellow shrugged and said I was wrong.

'We're going to take you to the border. No problem. We're going to take good care of you.'

It was the ‘we´re going to take good care of you’ part that made me anxious and my heart started to turn over and do back flips, but I remained outwardly calm and jovial because before I could say ‘let me out of the car you jackasses,’ we were speeding down the highway towards Huayaquillas.

I gazed at the barren road and brown landscape stretching out ahead of me into my infinity and cursed myself for my stupidity, but I continued to act like I was oblivious to danger because if they thought I was suspicious, I'd never get out of the damn car. There was no going back now. My mind raced. Would they bury me alive or shoot me first? Would they stab me? Or would they drain my bank account, rape me, then bury me? I visualized every rotten ending, but then I visualized how I was going to trick them and escape and outrun them with my bad knee and my computer, because in the end, this was what it was all going to come down to.

Jenny Pope
I shuddered when I thought of the stories I'd heard - people who had been kidnapped, or held until their bank accounts were drained, and then killed. I thought of Jenny Pope, a British woman who had gone missing in Banos, Ecuador and had never been found. Ironically, I had just been to a benefit dance for her two weeks prior and met her husband and son in Vilcabamba. I looked out the window of the car and thought of jumping, but at eighty miles an hour why risk it when I could possibly escape?

The empty desert raced by as chump in the front kept up his chatter and I kept up my laughter. Suddenly, I saw in the watery distance some shapes looming up, which kept getting bigger and bigger. I thought it was an illusion until a few lean-to shacks that had been thrown up to sell pop and chips at the side of the road appeared and beside them on the dusty shoulder were three tuk-tuk drivers with their feet propped up on their handlebars, napping. Holy shit! I reached over to the driver and tapped him on the shoulder, pointing at the kiosks and telling him to stop because I needed some water.

'Aqua, man. I'm thirsty. Tengo sed.'

He slowed down and looked at Chubby. They gave each other a look and the talkative one raised his eyebrows.

'What's wrong with me getting water?' I asked. Chubby then nodded to the driver. Slowly, we inched on to a dusty road beside the kiosks and drove about 50 yards down.

'Stop! Stop here! Where you going? That's good,' I said, waving my hand.

The moment the car was stopped I opened my door and stepped out with my computer firmly under one arm and my purse tightly held under the other, unbelievably relieved to open that car door. Step one. They got out and stretched. I walked to the back of the car and asked Chubby to open the trunk so I could get my suitcase out because although I was totally grateful for the ride, it was was far enough, and thank you very, very much.

They were surprised and as I turned to look at the kiosks to see who was there, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that a mini-bus filled with people had pulled up beside the kiosks and was idling at the side of the road. They must have been behind us on the highway. They were getting drinks. Holy fucking jumping shitballs! I waved and leapt up and down like a mental case at the bus driver to catch his eye.;

'Esperame! Wait for me!' He waved slowly back at me.

I repeated to the skinny driver I was going and pointed to the mini-bus.
'I'm taking the bus. You've gone far enough. No los quiero molestar,' I said in my lousy Spanish.  'I don’t want to bother you.'
'Que?' Chubby said.
'I'm going to take that bus over there.' I pointed. 'Thanks a million for the ride though.'
I pointed again to the trunk.
'My suitcase, por favor.'

They started babbling in Spanish and then Chubby took an identification badge out of his shirt pocket and explained that he was a legitimate taxi driver and there was no need to worry, if that was the case. It looked like some kind of phony badge and I pushed it away and he knew I wasn't having it. Skinny was talking too fast for me to understand and when I mentioned the suitcase again, Chubby opened the back door and tried to get me back in the car, taking my arm and telling me not to worry.
'Get in. We'll drive you.'

When I pulled away from him, the driver snarled and stepped forward, demanding money.

'Of course I'll pay you,'  I said, 'but my money's in my suitcase.' That wasn't true and I was ready to run without the suitcase, it wasn't that important, but why not try? They opened the trunk and I dragged out my suitcase and plunked it on the ground. Step two.

I couldn't fathom my fortune at not only being free of the car, but also having my purse, my computer and my suitcase in hand as a mini-bus stood waiting for me! I pulled up the handle on my suitcase, tucked my computer under one arm, my purse under the other, then turned to the two of them.

'Right. Step three. I really appreciated the ride.'

That said, I spun around and tore off like a bloody lunatic towards the bus, my arms and legs flailing as I dragged my twirling suitcase behind me through the dust, never looking back and running as if I were being chased by an axe-wielding serial killer. Sweating profusely and gasping for air, I finally reached the bus and clambered on, dragging my filthy suitcase behind me as I scrambled to the back of the bus and dropped my suitcase.  I was safe! I'm going to live! I plopped into a seat with an enormous sigh of relief and motioned for the bus driver to go. Quickly! Go! Rapido! But before the sliding door was shut and I could stick my tongue out as I waved goodbye, dudes were holding the door of the van open and shouting and pointing at me.

'She owes money!' Chubby yelled.
'Yo no conosco los hombres! I don't know them! Banditos,' I yelled back.
'She have to pay money. You don't go anywhere!' He pointed at me.
'Money now!' roared the skinny driver, leaning in the bus.
'They were going to kidnap and rob me!'

A murmur and a rustling went through the van as we yelled back and forth and everybody sat as if at a tennis match, looking blankly back and forth from Skinny, to me, to Skinny, to Chubby, and then back to me.

Suddenly, the taxi driver burst into the van and grabbed my suitcase and pulled it towards him, but I snatched it back and pulled it towards me and he pulled it back towards him and I pulled it back towards me until we were locked in an insane tug-of-war. He finally yanked it out of my hands and started to walk away with it, but I scrambled over a few people and out of the bus and jerked it out of his hand.

'Maggots!' I shrieked, and climbed back on the bus.

People were starting to grumble, they wanted to get going. When I shouted the word banditos again and pointed to the men, everybody fell silent once more. The driver stuck his head in the van.
'Twenty soles!'
Everybody looked at me, so I opened my purse and handed him ten, cursing him as I gave him money for a ride I didn't want to a place I wasn't going. He swore and snatched the money from my hand and I breathed a sigh of relief when they finally walked away. I couldn't believe I got out of that one.

border crossing
An immigration official for the Huayaquillas border happened to be on the bus and he spoke to me after the bus pulled out, asking how I had gotten involved with the men, and after, telling me I was lucky to have gotten away.

When we finally arrived at the border station, he pointed out where to get my passport stamped. I thanked him and got out of the mini bus, but as I was walking to the door of the border station touts ran towards me - Did I want a taxi? A special bus to Machala? A ride to a scenic park? A hotel room? How about changing money? Was I alone? I exploded.

'Get lost you maggots! Leave me alone!' They scurried away.

Once inside the border station, I was worried about being hit up for more cash by the huge biceps, dark shades and greasy hair that passed for an immigration official. All of them looked like a gang of hoods and loan sharks from New Jersey, especially one goon who looked like he could have twisted Arnold Schwarzenegger's arm and made him cry. I bowed and scraped and answered all their sinister questions and they shooed me through.

Finally, after another tuk-tuk ride, a long walk over a crowded bridge, and another border station, I was finally, at long last, safely in Ecuador.

View this story for dangerous border crossings at Travel and Leisure Magazine

Go to this blog for news about Jenny Pope, the woman missing in Ecuador