Border crossings can be frustrating places, even more so when the police rob you, as Damian Hall found out, going from Peru to Ecuador.
This is how we were robbed by the police. My girlfriend and I get off the overnight bus, which delivers us to the northern Peruvian border, but fails to deliver us any sleep. A throng of motor-rickshaw drivers fight for both our attention and cash. We squirm through them with the idea of getting the bus, but a rickshaw driver with a spectacular mullet follows.
After a minute we tire and listen to him. He claims there are no buses from this town – the guidebook says there is. His plan, to drive us to the border and put us on the right Ecuadorian bus, sounds good. But he’s too eager. Instinct pushes us on.
A man pulls up in his car. His jacket claims he works for the bus company, the one that takes you across the border. “They no longer go,” he says. But he can drive us there. We don’t trust his smile. No thanks, amigo. We turn back. A cab then. But Mullet, seemingly randomly, pulls up again. We’re tired. The price is excellent value, almost too good to be true. The lesser of two evils. We may as well.
Twenty minutes later, passing through banana plantations, with the early morning wind in our hair and sun on our faces, we feel relaxed. At the Peruvian border we get our exit stamps. Then we meet Mullet’s friend. He speaks some English, smiles a lot and constantly reassures us. The border has many problems, he claims (the guidebook didn’t mention this). He promises to help us cross it. But we didn’t ask for any help. It doesn’t seem necessary. He joins us for the ride nevertheless.
We’re not sure about the friend. He smiles a lot, maybe too much. But why is he with us? We try and drive these thoughts to the back of our minds. The border can’t be far now. Then Mullet takes a sharp and sudden right turn. “The border is closed,” he says, speaking urgently. “Many protests in Ecuador,” he says. The friend nods. “We won’t get through for days.” His friend nods harder. But kind, clever Mullet can take us across the border a secret way. For only twenty American dollars. Each. The taxi fare is quoted at less than three dollars.
We suggest, quite firmly, that we don’t mind waiting at the border. We’re not at all keen to pay forty dollars. We prefer the normal road, to the secret road. But Mullet seems to have mislaid both his brake pedal, and his ability to hear. His friend asks us to be calm. “Everything is okay. You’ll see.” He smiles, a little more nervously than before.
“Hold onto your bags around here,” he warns. “It’s not safe.” He’s looking out for us. How thoughtful. What a nice guy. The rickshaw barges a way through a muddy, cramped market. We spot a policeman. Sweet relief!
“Is the border this way?” I shout, slightly panicking. He nods casually, avoiding eye contact. We relax a little. The authorities are here. You can always trust a policeman. He’s got a gun. We’re safe from the see-through scam now.
He helps clear us a path through the hectic market. He waits. We pull over. “Passports please”, he says, in Spanish. This isn’t the border.
“Passports por favor.”
I show them, without letting go. He takes some mysterious notes. Which I try to read. “Hay un problema?” He nods. There’s a fine. Forty dollars. What a coincidence.
I give him a look. He seems to have a problem with his eyes. They dart about a lot, tend to look downwards, never into my eyes
“Why can’t you look me in the eyes?” I demand, in English. But he can’t understand. Of course he can’t. ‘No es correcto!” I protest.
“Si. Correcto”, he says and points to the police insignia on his shirt, as if that makes it 100 per cent correcto.
“No es correcto!” I repeat. I shake my head. He knows. I know. We both know each other knows. The border scam: the oldest trick in the book.
“Perhaps we should just pay it and get out of here?” says my girlfriend, wisely. “He’s got a gun.”
But I can only find a twenty. “That’s all we have,” I say, holding it up. They’re not thrilled. We’re not thrilled. It’s a score draw.
We take our bags and walk off. Mullet’s friend follows. He says he’ll help us get the bus. He knows where to go. He’ll make sure there’s no trouble. And, hilariously, would I buy him a Coca-Cola?
We laugh in his face and get in a cab – one with a driver sporting a much more sensible haircut.