We reached the Brazilian town of Guajará-Mirim at around 11pm. I finally got some sleep by putting my headphones on. Maybe - just maybe - the woman talking incessantly to me would get the message. I'm sure she was a lovely lady. She had a delightful lilt in her accent when she spoke. But I was knackered. I had spent most of the past week sleeping in a hammock and as much as I liked them, by now I was craving a bed. And Brazilians can talk. They make even me seem reticent...
Waking up as we pulled in, I realized the woman had taken umbrage with me. How dare I try to sleep! She gave us directions to a nearby hotel but she was definitely upset. I felt almost guilty. Almost. But before that we had to find a bed. So Camila, Leo and I walked from the bus station to the hotel and rented a room for the three of us.
Then, it being Christmas Night, I took a quick walk around town, right down to the Rio Mamoré so I look across and onto the Bolivia side of the river. I smoked a cigarette there and watched a few people in the midst of their Christmas celebrations. There were only a few about. Most were congregated around the park on the road leading to the dock. The centre of town was dark and deserted. Christmas seemed a long way away for me. So I headed back to the hotel, passing a few huts selling drinks and snacks on the way but I wasn't hungry. I just needed to crash...
The next day we all woke up refreshed and excited about crossing over to a new country, Bolivia. I'd been sailing down through Brazil for about two weeks but it felt longer than that. A little part of me wanted to get back to the Spanish-speaking world. And at the same time Bolivia seemed so alien, so different. I had no idea what to expect.
But first we had to get our exit stamps from the local police station. And then go to the Bolivian consulate at the dock to get an entrance stamp before we crossed to the other side. Easier said than done. Especially on Boxing Day; this as it turned out was a national holiday in Bolivia. So the consulate was closed.
Fuck it! We had some lunch, said goodbye to Brazil and crossed over to the Bolivian town of Guayaramerin anyway, in a little raft across a very big river. The raft docked at a set of steps leading up to a port station filled with men exchanging money. We had no idea what to find on the other side, whether there would be a cash machine or whatnot, so Camila changed some dollars and then we asked the nearest official looking gentleman what we should do since - although physically we were most definitely in Bolivia - officially we were in between countries - in no-man's land as it were. And in that part of the world they love their paperwork so it might be a good idea to get all done 'n dusted before heading out.
We were directed to a police station around the corner from the dock where, inside a wood paneled office past an almost deserted reception area, we found a lone police sergeant in full uniform. He was sitting beneath an enormous portrait of Bolivia's president, Evo Morales. This being Boxing Day and a national holiday, the sergeant was in charge of all he surveyed. He was deciding who was getting in and out. And he had looked us up and down he seemed to lick his lips. Assuming we were Colombians - Camila, as usual, was doing the talking - he invited us all for a little chat. However, once I produced my British passport, the sergeant came over all frosty and asked me to leave the room. "I'd like to speak to your Colombian friends alone, if you please."
I exited and walking out to where we had left our bags, in the empty reception, I started to go through the pockets of mine, just in case I had brought anything illegal across the frontier. The sergeant's parting glance at me left me with the impression I was in for a search, rubber gloves 'n all. I'm sure that few gringos came through these parts at any given time. But this was Christmas and this guy seemed to think it was his lucky day. I generally don't cross borders with illegal goods but it wouldn't do any harm to make sure.
After about ten minutes, the sergeant finally called me into his office. A squat little man with indigenous features, he looked at me inquisitively and said: "Why are you my coming to MY country?" I almost laughed at the way he said, "MY country". He was king for a day, that was for sure. Bolivia was his! I replied that I was a tourist.
He then looked at my passport and asked if I knew what visa bracket I was in. I had no idea what he was talking about. "Well, are you in one, two or three? If you in three which includes countries like Afghanistan, I can't give you a visa. Those countries cause trouble. England isn't anywhere near Afghanistan, is it?"
I couldn't believe it. Facing this kind of questioning, I had no reply. I was sure I wasn't in third bracket. Britons were lucky people, weren't they? They could go anywhere. But how to explain that in diplomatic terms? I thought about getting out my Australian passport, just in case the UK was classified alongside the countries it invaded. But then I thought better of it. That would only complicate matters. For a brief moment, I knew how the other half - well, actually the vast majority of the planet - might feel at a western immigration post...
I rounded to the policeman's side of the desk and went through the list of countries in the first bracket. Sure enough, there it was - the UK. I breathed a sigh of relief and pointed to the type exonerating me from further suspicion. But this guy wasn't letting up. "I'll give you 30 days," he said stamping the page in passport. "You can of course stay less!"
And then it was out and into town. Camila, Leo and I collected our bags and hailed the Bolivian
version of a rickshaw, directing the driver to the cheapest hotel he knew of. It wasn't actually that bad. Cheap as chips, the room was airy and looked out on to courtyard filled with Bolivian families who I think lived there.
Bolivia felt different to Brazil - less cosmopolitan, more inward looking, more insular. The streets of Guayaramerin were lined with shops selling electrical goods at knockdown prices. Most of the goods came from China. This seemed to be the basis of the local economy. The only other foreigners in town were Brazilians on shopping trips to buy new mobile phones or cameras or, bizarrely, musical instruments.
We looked around for any signs of nightlife - a club, a bar - eventually ending up in a small hut with two pool tables and juke box. Camila chose the tunes while Leo and I tried to have a game. There was one problem. The balls were too big for the pockets so it was impossible to pot anything. We tried our damnedest but it was nigh on impossible. I hit one of the balls so hard it wedged in the pocket and we had trouble getting it out. Bolivia's version of pool was beyond me...
Still, I liked it there. Even though there didn't seem to be anything to do in Guayaramerin, - other than buy a mobile phone or a keyboard - the streets were packed with people. Indigenous people. Far more so than either Brazil or Colombia. This was the heart of Latin America. The European invaders had only penetrated this far inland in small numbers. Even on the Brazilian side of the river, there were more European faces. The change was stark. Bolivia looked and felt like a different world.
That night we slept soundly. We had to get the early morning bus to La Paz, 36 hours away on the other side of the country. Getting up, we hopped the first rickshaw to the bus station and bought our tickets.
The bus was exactly as I expected. It was about forty years old. The driver sat down below with the luggage and a bed, the passengers above. This was no luxury affair. There was no TV, no air conditioning and no toilet. Thirty six hours - if we were lucky - and NO toilet! And we were sharing the space with cats, dogs and chickens. As strange as it sounds I wouldn't have had it any other way. If I was going to take a bus ride across Bolivia I wanted to do it as the locals do. I bought a bag of coco leaves and started chewing. This was going to be an experience...
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