The gentleman sitting next to me had been chatting, asking me about California. With an hour left on the bus though, we’ve exhausted our social energy and silently agree to break conversation and move onto personal thoughts. Out the window to my left, Lake Titicaca comes in and out of view. It’s full size can’t be appreciated from this angle, and I find livestock and rural homes more interesting. I picture myself on an island in the lake. From there I would be able to appreciate the size of Titicaca. However, it is not it’s surface area that is the most impressive. What is especially interesting about Lake Titicaca is it’s altitude: 12507 feet.
Earth’s gravity pulls oxygen down to sea level, literally thinning out the air at high altitudes. At 4900 feet reduced oxygen levels impair athletic performance as the cardiovascular system tries to figure out why it can’t circulate like it did at sea level. The air is lighter, explaining why so many home runs are hit at Denver’s Mile High Stadium. At 8000 feet, a flight of stairs becomes a challenge and altitude sickness becomes a concern. Hemoglobin suddenly is unable to saturate with oxygen. No major American city sits above this limit (though Santa Fe, New Mexico does top 7000 feet). At 12500 feet, the atmosphere contains only 2/3 the amount of oxygen it does at sea level. Only the tallest mountains in America break this boundary. A visitor at this elevation is severely impacted by the low atmospheric pressure. Loss of appetite, headaches, and general fatigue will create a sensation of a never-ending hangover. The thin air is dry, chapping facial tissue, causing nose bleeds. With less atmosphere to push through UV rays scorch unprotected skin. In Peru and Bolivia, the bottoms of the mountains are at 12500 feet.
Despite it’s altitude, Titicaca is by no means a mountain lake. It rests in the broad plains of The Altiplano, the world’s second largest high altitude plateau (after Tibet). The altiplano is found between an impressive split in the massive Andes mountains. The world’s longest mountain range runs southward from Colombia and Venezuela to the tip of Argentina and Chile. For nearly it’s entire length, it is notably narrow and abrupt. From the pacific heading east, the mountains rise immediately to staggering heights topping 20000 feet in elevation. In as little as 150 miles they fall suddenly into the Amazon basin. Ecuador, a country smaller than Nevada, has beaches and rainforest, with 20000 foot glaciated volcanoes in between. The one place where the Andes fatten is in Bolivia, where they split and form The Altiplano. It is important to recognize the scale of the Andes and the Altiplano. Unless you live in central Asia or in the Andes themselves, it is hard to fathom the immensity of these mountains. Outside of Alaska (which has a scale of its own) USA’s highest peak is Mount Whitney at 14505 feet. By most standards, this is impressive. By Andean standards, not so much. La Rinconada, a mining town in Peru with a population of 50000, finds itself at 16700 feet above sea level. This is a city, not a summit! Potosi in Bolivia, with a quarter million inhabitants, has an elevation of 13300 feet. Even La Paz, Bolivia’s de facto Capital, which has a population of one million, sits at 12000 feet in elevation. The surrounding mountains are the highest in the world outside of Asia (no other continent can quite compete with the Himalayas). Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere (and Southern Hemisphere), has an elevation of 22800 feet. Next to lake Titicaca, Illampu, Illamani, and Janq’u Uma all break 20000 feet. Titicaca itself is the winner of two superlatives: It is South America’s largest lake, and the highest navigable lake in the world (12507ft).
The road my bus is traveling on is nearly the same altitude as the tallest mountain in Montana. Yet, we are not going over a pass. We are not switch backing up a steep slope. The terrain is flat. We are at the bottom of the mountains and already higher than nearly all of North America. The bus approaches Titicaca’s shoreline and from this angle I can begin to see that the lake stretches far beyond the nearby islands. The water is the same deep blue shade as an ocean.
Considering that Bolivia’s Altiplano is surrounded by the Andes mountains, it seems only natural that a major lake would form. Water is trapped in a basin with no escape to the oceans. The heat and humidity from the Amazon Rainforest push up the eastern slopes of the Andes exhausting tropical precipitation and producing snow atop Bolivia’s Eastern Andes Mountains. While the Western branch of the Bolivian Andes are dry and distant, the Eastern summits contain massive glaciers, shedding melting ice into Lake Titicaca through five major river systems and twenty or thirty smaller streams. The further west one gets from the Amazon the dryer the landscape becomes. No moisture makes it across the entire Altiplano to the Pacific Ocean, producing the driest place on our planet: The Atacama Desert. Fortunately for Lake Titicaca, there is a developed hydrosphere in the Altiplano, and the massive glaciers in the Eastern Range provide enough run-off to feed the great lake.
“Uh, So, where’s the border?” I ask the driver as he hands me my bag from the roof of the bus. We’ve reached the end of Peru. I’m anxious to cross before it gets too late. Daylight is fading fast and so is my fascination with the region’s physical geography.
“Just follow this road. On the other side of the bridge is Bolivia.” I stroll out over the Desaguadero River, taking a quick moment to appreciate the geographical and political importance of the river. Lake Titicaca is drained by this single outlet. It also marks the border between Peru and Bolivia. The small highway I took to arrive here, skirts the western shores of the lake in Peru and cuts into Bolivia towards the southern end of the lake via a bridge over the Desaguadero River. The combination of international border and transportation route gives birth to a border town, the least appealing of all human communities. Dangerous and slummy, the town of Desaguadero owes its existence to human migration and imaginary lines drawn by politicians.
Though the Desaguadero River should act as a barrier dividing two countries, movement across the bridge is surprisingly fluid. Herds of people and vehicles of all styles and sizes jump back and forth between the two countries. Most are going about there usual business. They are locals, and despite two time-zones, their community is a whole. They claim the right to be on either side of the river. Many of them pedal cargo back and forth across the bridge using oversized tricycles, weaving between foot traffic and makeshift shops, making a living off those who can’t pack light. Travelers are forced to spend several hours in town jumping through bureaucratic hoops. This sets up the economic base for the community. Street food sizzles on either side of the bridge, masking the stench of urine. Shops sell trinkets to tourists who have money to burn. Run down hostels advertise their location with obnoxious neon letters. Money exchanges do there best to look proper amid the chaos, reminding travelers to prepare for Peruvian or Bolivian currencies. Printers and photocopiers are scattered around the shops in case someone’s travel documents aren’t quite in order. Arching across the bridge above me, Peru thanks me for the visit, and 200 feet later Bolivia welcomes me in.
I am standing on Bolivian soil, but I have not legally entered. I’m not funneled right to the immigration officials like I would be in an airport. It’s as if immigration is optional. I could skip the process entirely and no one would stop me. I assume there would be nasty consequences when I decide to leave South America though, so I ask for directions. The immigration office barely seems any more governmental than local shops. Nothing distinguishes it from the rest of the decrepit town. An annex feeds me into a small room with a security guard overseeing migratory technicalities. Most travelers are Peruvian or Bolivian. With a flash of their IDs they are waved on to enter Bolivia. There is the occasional satisfying ‘kachunk’ of a government stamp. I approach a female border official with my American passport. As a government employee she tries to be formal, but sporadically she’ll smile or joke with her colleagues. She doesn’t want to be miserable at work. She flips through my passport and I wait for her to tell me that I need to purchase a visa in order to enter Bolivia.
“Are you leaving Bolivia or are you trying to get into Bolivia?”
“I’m trying to enter Bolivia.”
“Where is your stamp saying you’ve left Peru?”
“Was I suppose to do that in Peru?”
“Of course. You can’t just leave Peru without going through their immigration process. Go back across the bridge and have the Peruvian officials stamp your exit. And hurry! We’re gonna close soon.” She teases me, giggling about my pathetic attempt to enter Bolivia.
I’m on the bridge again, returning to the other side of the international border. From this angle the signs read differently: Bolivia thanks me for my visit and Peru welcomes me in. I walk briskly across Lake Titicaca’s single drainage and look for Peru’s immigration building. It’s easier to find than Bolivia’s, partly because a very proper ‘MIGRACIONES’ board calls my attention and partly because a hundred travelers are filed along the sidewalk waiting their turn to be blessed with a Peruvian Government stamp. I trace the line between street vendors and accept my position at the back. Minutes go by and the line remains stagnant. The reality of my night starts to creep in. I take off my unwieldy backpack, giving up hope of a speedy border crossing.
I tell myself that I’m 20% of the way to Peru’s immigration office, but this is based more on the growth of the line behind me than any kind of forward progress. Every five minutes the line inches ahead and I swing my bag forward with me one big step. In front of me a Bolivian man is trying to get his car insurance in order. At least I don’t have to deal with owning a vehicle. He explains that Bolivia will have a major vote on Sunday, and that there will be no transportation out of Desaguadero over the weekend. It will be illegal to drive. Drinking will also not be allowed over the weekend to ensure a sober vote. What’s more, if a Bolivian citizen does not vote, they will be fined. I suppose that is one way to promote freedom and democracy: impose it. Shove it down your citizens throats. For me, this has dire consequences. If I don’t get out of here tonight, I will be spending three nights in this seedy South American border town. I will be the first gringo to spend an entire weekend in Desaguadero.
Behind me there is a lady who overhears my situation, “You have to go to the front of the line. You’re not going to make it into Bolivia tonight waiting in this long line.”
“Is everyone here coming into Peru or going into Bolivia?”
“We’re all just coming into Peru. You’re the only one going to Bolivia. The Peruvian border will be open for a few more hours and we’ll be fine. But the Bolivian border will close soon. You have to go to the front of the line and beg them to let you cut in front.”
Begging is the last thing I feel like doing, “No way. I’m sure there are some people in line trying to get into Bolivia. It would be unfair if I cut to the front of the line.” I wonder how American I sound. Surely a Latin American in my situation would go to the front and charismatically work things out. The car insurance man in front of me supports my stance though. He thinks that Bolivia’s border will remain open for me, so I decide to wait out the long line. An hour later, at 7:30pm, a Peruvian official stamps my passport. I get back on the bridge, walking a little brisker now, Peru thanks me for my visit, and Bolivia welcomes me.
In Bolivia it is 8:30pm, which feels infinitely later than 7:30pm. Bolivia will close it’s immigration office soon. I tote my luggage through the Bolivian queue at a more satisfying rate. The same female border official from my first attempt awaits me.
“Where have you been? I told you to hurry!”
“There was a long line in Peru.”
“Really? Well, why didn’t you cut to the front? I told you to hurry!”
“I can’t cut a line. That’s not fair to other people.”
“Well, you probably should have. You barely made it. We are about to close.” She stamps my passport and takes a picture of me for Government records. “So I can remember you forever,” the camera makes no sound. She thinks this is the last she’ll see of me. She thinks I’m legally allowed to visit Bolivia. I wish she was right.
“Don’t I need a Visa?” I murmur.
“You have one,” she opens my passport, “see, what do you think this is.”
“That’s an old one. I think it’s expired.”
She pauses, “Oh my god,” her eyes widen, “you need a visa. We’re closing now. We have to hurry.” She is furious at me for making her day complicated, but at the same time she is embarrassed that I had to catch her mistake, “The Visa costs 160$.”
My eyes widen, “160$? I thought it was 135$.”
“It was 135$, but now it’s 160$. It’s a ten year Visa though, so it’s actually a better deal.” Why wasn’t it a ten year visa when I came six years ago? I would still have four years left on it. This time the five year extension makes no difference, as I will use up the 90 days before ten years. I will use up the 90 days in the next 90 days. It will be a ten year 90 day Visa. This new Visa will expire nine years and nine months short of the 10 year benefit.
I stop calculating how screwed I’m getting and determine how I can work with Bolivian government to get through this minor disaster. My anger can’t be directed at my border official friend. It’s not her fault. Together I’m sure we can work this out. I produce seven crisp 20 dollar bills, “I have 140$.” I remember the three dollars I’ve kept hidden behind my driver’s license. “Actually I have 143$. I thought the Visa cost 135$.”
“I told you. It used to be 135$, but now…”
“What should I do? Are there any ATMs open?”
“Not at this hour. Don’t you realize how late it is. We should have closed by now.”
“What about 60 Peruvian moneys. That’s about 20$. I can give you 143$ and 60 Peruvian moneys,” my voice tries to not sound desperate.
“We can’t take Peruvian money. This isn’t Peru! We can only accept American dollars.”
“Well. What do you want me to do? Can I exchange my Peruvian money for dollars somewhere?”
“Yea, if you go back to Peru they have places still open that can offer dollars.”
“Can I leave my bags here, please?”
“We can’t stay open just for you! Okay, fine, leave your bags here. You better hurry though.” A government job has not stripped her completely of her humanity. She wants me to make it.
I’m at a full sprint across the bridge. Bolivia thanks me for the visit and Peru welcomes me. My second attempt at entering Bolivia failed, but it looks like I’ll get one more chance. I scold myself for being underprepared. I should have brought more money for back-up. 200$ would have a been a safe amount. Instead I’m going broke. And why hadn’t I visited Peruvian immigration first? I had no plan and this is what I get: running laps between Bolivia and Peru. I can’t think straight. I’m not even really sure what I’m looking for. Out of breath I ask a lady selling bootleg CDs where I might be able to exchange money. She points, and I’m off running again.
“Can I get American dollars for 60 Peruvian moneys and 30 Peruvian cents?” I empty my money purse.
“If you give me another 60 cents I can give you 19$.”
“This is all I have.”
“Whatever.” The man’s laziness earns me a full 19 dollars, for a grand total of 162$.
Again, I’m on the bridge. Peru’s thank you flies over me, but before I can get to Bolivia’s welcome, one of the cargo loaded tricycles swerves around another to pass, barreling down on me. I shuffle towards the side of the bridge and my feet slip out from under me. My hand catches concrete and brings my feet back under me, while The tricycle zips past me, narrowly avoiding my right hip. Laughter erupts. Women selling hats on the side of bridge won’t stop cackling about how the foreigner, who’s been running back and forth all night, almost fell and got run over exactly on an international border. I’m feeling less and less human as the events of the evening unfold.
Bolivia welcomes me and I slow down to enter the government building. Straggling travelers remain in the annex collecting their documents and belongings. The door into the immigration office is closed, but unlocked. Inside, a janitor is sweeping the debris left over from the storm of migrants. I don’t see her at first, but I hear my female border official friend. She’s complaining about me around the corner. I can’t tell if she’s upset or complaining for fun. I’m the story of the day, the one traveler that didn’t have his shit together. I round the corner and lay out seven twenty dollar bills, a ten, a five, and five one dollar bills. She goes through each twenty, verifying their authenticity.
“Why did you come so late tonight? You’ve been to Bolivia before. You know how this works?”
“That was six years ago. I still don’t really know how anything in Latin America works.”
“Why are you coming back to Bolivia?”
“I have family here. And, you know, you gotta visit family sometimes.”
She takes her eyes off the 160$ and flashes me a smile, “this is true.” I want to ask her about her family. Does she travel to see them? Does she have to cross imaginary political lines to visit them? As she completes her assessment of my money she stops being my friend and reverts back to being my border official.
“We can’t accept this dollar bill. It’s not in very good condition.” She is so cruel to me. Or maybe it’s Bolivian politics that are so cruel to me. I retrieve one of my last two remaining dollars, the nicer looking one. She stares at this one as well, unimpressed. She calls in another official and asks him what he thinks about the condition of the dollar bill. He inspects it and tells her to accept it. She prints off my Visa and sticks it into my passport. I’m free. I’m legally allowed to exist in the country of Bolivia. However, my friend has one last mean trick.
“You have to do one more thing for me, honey. Bring us photocopies of your passport and your Visa. It will only cost you one Bolivian money.” It feels like an insult. Do they not have a photocopier? They know that I just spent all my money trying to get the Visa. I’m completely submissive though and accept their request.
I’m about to sprint back to Peru to exchange my last two American dollars for 14 Bolivian moneys, but the concept seems so insane that I refuse to let myself do it. Across the street I read ‘FOTOCOPIAS’ in front of a store that appears to still be open. Travelers must visit his shop constantly as they work their way through Bolivian bureaucracy. A magical machine inside that store should put an end to this nightmare. I don’t have Bolivian moneys, but I have to make this work out somehow. Inside, a man greets me with sincere friendliness. I return his warmth with desperation.
“Sir, please can you help me. I need a photocopy of my passport. I don’t have any Bolivian money. But, listen, I’ll pay you an American dollar. Please, just one photocopy. I’ve had a really tough night. One dollar is like seven or eight Bolivian moneys. Please, sir.” He responds to my begging with a look somewhere between confusion and pity, and accepts my proposal. On my way out he kisses the dollar bill dramatically, and smiles good-bye to me. Tomorrow he’ll send his son to Peru to exchange the bill for real currency, or maybe he’ll hold onto it as a souvenir. Foreign money looks cool.
Across the street, past the annex, the door is closed and an official on his way out refuses to let me in. I’ve gotten past the major obstacles, but it is small inconveniences like this that are beginning to drive me towards the edges of insanity. I’m begging again, waving my photocopy in his face. It’s the last step. It has to be. All I have to do is give my female border official friend this piece of paper. He tells me to wait and goes back in the room to ask about me. “Alright, go in.”
I’ve jumped through every hoop. I hold the photocopy in the air in triumph. My female border official friend is busy talking with a colleague and signals for me to leave it on the table. I ask if I’m all set to go and she nods and waves me away entirely uninterested. I thought we were friends. Doesn’t she want to celebrate with me? A high five, maybe? Can’t she wish me safe travels? It’s like the photocopy could be cleared away by the janitor and no one would ever notice. It wouldn’t make any difference. I retrieve my bags that I’ve left sitting in the corner of the immigration room, moving on to the next chapter of my journey.
It took at least four hours to enter Bolivia. I’m at 12500 feet in elevation. Beyond the flickering street lights of Desaguadero is South America’s largest lake, it’s only outlet under the bridge just behind me. Beyond the lake are the biggest mountains in the world outside of Asia. Down the road a couple hours is La Paz, one of the world’s most impressive high altitude cities. I’m too tired to think about the incredible geography. My night is not over. I’ve been traveling since 7am and my destination is still hours away. I try to get oriented on the Bolivian side of Desaguadero. My only instinct is to walk away from Peru. Where are the buses? How will I pay for transportation? I may have a Visa, but I only have one American dollar left. I try to focus and think of a plan, but I’m too exhausted.