Journey to Jail, part one

Stories are, occasionally, best begun at the end.

When this is true in the context of day-to-day personal narrative (um, blogging), it usually means the storyteller doesn’t have time to build up to the punchline.

I get punched in the line Monday morning at 8:00, so I’ll skip ahead to the end and start blathering about my excellentfantasticinterestinghilarious-and-vomitous trip with Katherine through Western Bolivia later this week.

I’m on parole.

Theoretically, I could be in a Bolivian jail tomorrow evening.

The story is a bit spoiled by noting that jail is entirely unlikely, I realize, but the note is nonetheless fair.

Katherine and I took a double-decker bus from La Paz to Cochabamba on Friday night, leaving 10:30pm and arriving 6:00am. We arrived in Cochabamba about 15 minutes early, hopped down from the bus, collected our gear from below, and headed into the bus terminal to look for my father who was set to pick us up.

Twenty  feet into the terminal, Katherine was confronted by two individuals asking for her identification. I was about ten feet behind, so I caught up to them and asked what was up. They were from Immigration Control and insisted on documentation. We handed over a photocopy of Katherine’s passport and my U.S. Missouri Driver’s License. We left Katherine’s physical passport at our house in Cochabamba so as to not risk it getting stolen on the road.

My passport, however, is somewhere in the bowels of the red tape tangle of Bolivia. I have not seen my passport since November 2007.

I arrived in Bolivia in February 2007 when no significant immigration limitations were placed on American tourists. An American could enter the country without a visa and have 90 days, renewable up to 180 days, to hang out. Dandy! At the 90 day mark I had determined that I would be in Bolivia for about a year so I went to a local travel agency to start the process of a visa. I went to the agency to whom practically all of the local gringo missionaries are recommended because they have this little lady, Rita, who just whizzes people right through the system of endless paperwork. Hand over your cash and your passport, and she handles the rest. Just a few months later you have a shiny new ID card and a sticker in your passport.

My passport and cash, therefore, went into Rita’s hands. Several months later when I needed a quick jaunt to the States for business in October 2007, I had to spend an afternoon staring at Rita’s office from outside until she was willing to get up and go do the necessary steps to retrieve my passport from the mix of tramites – paperwork! – and provide me with a slip of paper which proved that I had been in tramites in an attempt to get a visa. She did so, I went on my trip, and returned to put my passport right back into tramites just days before the Bolivian immigration laws changed.

Moving on to August 2009, she still hasn’t given me a visa. The laws have changed, things are complicated, etc etc. I haven’t minded; as long as she sorts it out in the end, the delays have afforded me time in Bolivia that I’ve been able to use for good purposes. I should have been able to go in January 2010 without any significant problems other than her putzing around with time.

Katherine and I went on our jaunt across Western Bolivia. We’d flash our photocopies of our passports when necessary or just use our U.S. driver’s licenses when someone needed a photo ID without tax or travel ties. No serious problems.

In La Paz we attempted to schedule a trip up to Lake Titicaca and Copacabana. What we learned, however, was that an immigration checkpoint has been opened on the way to Copacabana, and that the officials wouldn’t be content with our photocopies, leaving us stuck having to give outrageous cash bribes. We skipped the Lake and spent more time in La Paz instead.

Everything seemed dandy until we found ourselves faced with two immigration officers ten inches from our faces in the middle of the bus terminal back home in Cochabamba…

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