The morning we left Manaus we stood for 45 minutes waiting for the bus to the airport. Our window of travel time slipping away, sweating profusely even in the early morning, we decided to catch a taxi. On the way we suffered through an evangelical lecture in Portuguese. When I said we didn’t understand (actually we sort of did) the cabbie switched to a lecture about the cuisine in Brasil. “Only in Brazil!” he kept declaring, only in Brazil! At about that time he drove right past the exit for the airport.
We flew south to Porto Velho, but not before getting into an argument at security about Magda’s film. They decided it was too many pieces to be hand-checked and should be x-rayed, despite flying multiple times within Brazil having it hand-checked at security.
“It’s federal law” the officer kept saying.
“It is not.” We told him, again and again.
Eventually we had no choice but to send the film through a bombardment of x-rays for the third time in four months.
When we arrived in Porto Velho we waited an hour to take a local bus to the bus station. The ticket-taker understood that everyone on the bus was going to the bus station but she fell asleep and we all missed our stop. We woke her with our loud complaints. She listened with a blank expression and then returned to her nap.
At this point Brazil was driving us nuts. If all went well, we’d be crossing the border into Bolivia the next day. But only if all went well. Our plan was to take a bus to Guajará-Mirim, a remote frontier town on Brazil’s southwest border. From there we’d enter Bolivia, in Guajara-merin, the Brazilian side’s twin sister city, separated at birth.
But at the bus station in Porto Velho they’d already sold the last bus tickets to Guajará-Mirim, and we were faced with waiting a few hours for the next one. We were still in the Amazon basin and the forest was near. It was as humid as ever and no fans pushed the thick air through the grungy little station.
Something unexpected happened. When the sold-out bus arrived it turned out to be larger than expected. There were two more seats available. The agent at the bus company’s window arranged everything for us and was incredibly helpful and sweet. If Brazil had been on the operating table, it might have been flat-lining. Suddenly there was a pulse and we remembered how great Brazilians could be.
The bus ride was long and tedious. The road had been hacked through the jungle and then left to decay. We bounced and shuddered along until we came to an unexpected stop. Two trucks and a car had just crashed, sending one of the trucks plunging into anaconda infested swamp. We waited for an hour for the mess to be cleared.
Arriving after nightfall in Guajará-Mirim we checked into an overpriced hotel, one of two in town, and collapsed into bed exhausted from the long day of travel. From the bus we’d been able to see Bolivia across the river, tantalizingly close, but as we would discover, so very far away.
In the morning we showered and wore our best semi-clean clothes to visit the Bolivian consulate. It was above an electronics shop near the river, accessible through a door on the side of the building. There were some handwritten directions telling us where to go. The waiting room was big, dark and hot, lit and cooled only by some windows poked through one wall. The attendant looked small behind a large desk, but even the desk appeared small in the center of the giant waiting room. When an insane Bolivian finished lecturing the consulate, he came out and continued where he’d left off to us. We smiled and nodded until we were called in to see the man behind the door.
The consulate’s office was a slightly smaller room, again lit only by sunlight. He stood up to great us, friendly but formal, and gestured for us to sit. Behind him and his regal looking desk were portraits of Evo Morales, the current President, and two Spaniards I assumed were Simon Bolivar, liberator of Bolivia, and another somber looking gentleman. Cloth hair had been added to their pictures, so that their lofty bouffants and mutton-chops were black and cottony. All three images had begun to fade from sunlight, and all three had a cyan hue. Except for the deep black of the matted three-dimensional hair.
We presented our documents to the consulate, told him we’d like to visit his beautiful country and asked if I might receive a visa. As a Polish citizen, Magda needed no visa, and though we already knew it, he informed us of this. I on the other hand, he looked at me a little sadly, would need a visa. Yes, of course, all of our documents are prepared for you here.
It will take two months.
The room was silent. Against one wall was a tall stack of three boxed photocopiers, all with the label, ‘office of the Bolivian consulate, Guajará-Mirim.’ Evo Morales grinned down at me from the wall as if to say he’d gotten the last word. The man is not know for his love of yankees.
Magda continued speaking Spanish with the consulate. We’ve heard it is not an issue for Americans, our friends have crossed without problems! Is it not possible to apply directly at the border? The consulate listened politely, kindly correcting her grammar at times. He got up and took a three-ring binder off of a shelf filled with similar binders. He opened it and showed us why his hands were tied. America, he pointed out, was “group three”. For group three countries, it takes two months. Then, again friendly, he told Magda that Poland was “group one”, and that she was welcome in his country.
After more polite prodding, he agreed to do us a favor and make some calls. He called the capital, La Paz, and waited for someone to answer the phone. No one did. He shrugged and suggested we come back in an hour, maybe someone would have answered by then. Perhaps we could get some lunch.
Back out on the street we looked at each other. If it had been easy to get to Guajará-Mirim we would have given the country across the river the finger and headed for Peru. But it hadn’t been, and there wasn’t a feasible exit strategy other than boarding another riverboat and heading west for days towards the Andes and the source of the Amazon.
We eyed the river and the little boats shuttling back and forth to Bolivia. We turned our back on the consulate, boarded one of the little crafts, and crossed the river.
We got off of the boat and stood on Bolivian soil. Nobody asked for our visa, nobody asked for our passports. Taxi drivers asked if we wanted a ride somewhere. We were confused. We asked someone at the dock if there was an immigration office nearby. She said there was and told us it was ten blocks away. So we started walking into the city, illegal aliens in Bolivia.
At the immigration office, a converted house, we sat in what was once a living room, waiting for a woman behind an enormous table to call us over. She was young and her baby was sleeping next to her chair in a carriage. On seeing my papers, she told us curtly that we’d need to make copies of everything, get an exit stamp from Brazil, and return for my visa.
How long will it take? We asked. She shrugged, a few minutes. We looked at each other again, gathered our things, and hightailed it back to Brazil, careful to avoid walking past the Bolivian consulate.
We returned the next day with our bags, got my visa in under an hour and checked into a shady little hotel. Putting our bags down, hearing and reading Spanish again all around us, we realized we had left Brazil behind without saying a proper goodbye. There it was on the other side of the river, with all its crazy quirks, its spectacular parks, its friendly and talkative people, its nightmare highways. The Bolivian side of Guayaramerin had so far been a little dull, the people a bit curt. I thought of every time I glanced up at a tv screen in Brazil to see people dancing and clapping. There were whole channels dedicated to dancing and clapping. We thought of Rio, Brasília, Curitiba and Ouro Preto. Recife and Olinda and the boat ride up the Amazon. Dancing in the Sambadrome for Carnaval. Such a rich, beautiful country. And there it was just over there, forested, quiet.
Near the Main Street, two little girls kicked a ball back and forth. It careened off a post and rolled out into the street. One girl started after it into traffic. I yelled out, “cuidado!!” Be careful! She stopped and came back. She looked up at me with big eyes and asked politely if I could get it for her, so I did.
Thus began our time in Bolivia.