Sunday, April 12, 2009

Golden Anniversary

I´m in Peru, and it's country #50 on the way (no, I'm still not counting you Bosnia and Moldova - I feel like I need to cover more than 5km of a country for it to count), so in honor of this exciting round number, I got to thinking about all the borders I've crossed in the past 15 plus months. Which quickly brings me to the conclusion that traveling in South America really is rather pleasant - they seem to have figured out how to make the border crossing formalities as painless as possible. To wit:
- crossing the channel separating Uruguay and Argentina, you get joint immigration desks at the departure point in Colonia, Uruguay - the Uruguayan official stamps you out of his country, then hands the passport over to the Argentinian guys sitting right next to him, who promptly stamps you into Argentina. Fast, efficient, sensible...
- Brazil to Argentina: Cyrus and I go across in a Brazilian taxi. Nobody actually bothers us or asks to stop, it's really done as more of a courtesy to the customs guys. The process takes a full 15 minutes, 10 minutes longer than it would have if I hadn't lost my Brazil arrival card
- Chile to Peru today: they have an actual border, so you really have to stop, twice (Chile, then Peru). Yet, the whole thing takes barely 10 minutes, the most time consuming parts being me trying to understand Spanish when the Chilean guy points out that I ought to take my passport out of its cover and the Peruvian guy, upon seeing my backpack, inquires if I'm carrying a parachute...

On the other hand, a few "highlights" from some prior border crossing experiences:
- New Zealand didn't even want to let me in because instead of a ticket for onward travel I just had the name of a boat that Nate was sailing on... Eventually they figured they were stuck with me, but still confiscated my boots and only returned them after having sprayed them with some vicious acid designed to kill any and all remaining traces of SouthEast Asia
- Vietnam searched my bags, but not all that thoroughly. Then we discussed the US primaries going on at the time and I was surprised to find out that the Vietnamese customs officer supported McCain, a former Vietnam POW
- China chose to search my bags quite thoroughly, checking all the books I was carrying, then opening up my laptop and requesting to see all of my photographs. I suppose that's what you get for being the only American they had seen that week (month?)
- crossing by train from China to Mongolia requires the trains to be raised up in the air and the wheels swapped out because China uses a different gauge of rail than Russia and Mongolia
- crossing from Mongolia to Russia, you sit for two hours on the train (without your passport) while the Russian customs officials thoroughly search the entire train. To their credit, the Mongolian women were smuggling all kinds of things across the border
- Kosovo explained to us how we needed to pay 50 Euro for each car because our insurance policies did not cover Kosovo... And then all the lights went out. And then we still had to pay, under the faint lights from a generator. "Or you can go back to Albania" - I still don't like that guy!
- Greece, where Cyrus chose to celebrate us reaching our 6th country in under 24 hours by spilling scalding hot coffee on Liz' lap...
- entering Turkey by car requires going to about 12 different stations to get various pieces of paperwork stamped. A lot like Turkmenistan, except that I could at least speak the language in Turkmenistan. Well, and Turkmenistan charges a lot more
- I ripped the exhaust pipe off the manifold coming off the ferry from Ukraine to Russia, then had to drive the next two hours with the car making horrible noises. On the bright side, the Russian customs agent was very cute in her exceedingly short skirt uniform, and seemed more interested in taking pictures of the mini with her cellphone than actually making me do paperwork
- Uzbekistan confiscated my contraband Sudafed - that's Cyrus' fault, really. And the lady felt really bad about it.
- The customs agent at the Kazakhstan border decided to show Lott and I a porn video on his cellphone while we were waiting for somebody else to get back from dinner and finish our paperwork. Thankfully, the movie was not of him.
- Mongolia, the only country that's more difficult to leave than it is to enter as they absolutely insist on searching everything you've got to make sure you are not carrying any priceless Genghis Khan artifacts with you out of the country.
- the Canadian customs agent was simply confused when I presented him with a Carnet de Passage for the mini, clearly never having seen one before. 20 minutes later he managed to put all the stamps in the right places
- and finally, of course, there's Moldova, which turned the mini right around after noticing that the VIN number on my paperwork didn't actually match the one on the car.

But you are not really here for my border musings, you want pictures. So, let's have some pictures from my first day in Peru:

I started off in the border town of Tacna. I had 2 hours to explore it while waiting for my bus, and found this Cathedral (quite busy on Easter Sunday), designed by Gustave Eiffel (of tower fame, as the Lonely Planet, oh so helpfully, points out)

I've always found the juxtaposition of palm trees and European architecture a bit surprising

The arch (not a replica of the one in St. Louis) celebrates some Peruvian generals. Even though they lost the war and Tacna was under Chilean control for a while, until Chile voluntarily returned it...

This is just a crazy random sight in Tacna. For a little Peruvian city in the middle of the desert it did actually have a surprising number of green areas

And then there was this sight: an honest to goodness Bajaj tuk-tuk on the roads of Peru! Just like the ones we had in India (it occurs to me that the blog doesn't actually have any good pictures of our beasts). We did see a couple of these things in Costa Rica too, but there's more of them here, so I managed to get a picture. Before I leave this country, I must get a photograph of me behind the wheel of one!

From Tacna I had an unexciting seven hour bus ride to Arequipa, my destination for the next couple of days. The most memorable things on the journey were the immense desert outside, the woman sitting next to me, who had the worst breath imageanable, and the one hour delay we had early on, when Peruvian security forces apparently decided to prove to me that their customs and immigration facilities don't all run as seemlessly as I may have imagined earlier: here, everybody's luggage was removed from the bus and examined (with varying degrees of thoroughness - my backpack attracted no interest whatsoever). As for the rest of the passengers on board, I'm not going to say there was a bit of smuggling going on, I just found it a bit surprising that everyone had giant boxes and satchels full of childrens's toys, baby carriers, and unopened skateboard/helmet sets. The only thing I can't figure out is where could the smuggling be possibly coming from - cross-border Chile is much more expensive than Peru?

By the evening, I arrived in Arequipa, and have so far found it to be a city of interesting contrasts. On the one hand, you see the cars and city buses prowling the local streets, and the words "Third World Country" scream out of your mind. On the other hand, I walked a couple of blocks down the street from my hostel in search of food and was greeted with an unexpected variety of restaurants, eventually settling on a Turkish kebab. All the restaurants even appeared to take credit cards, so not so third world at all... On your third hand in Arequipa, you've got a smattering of colonial architecture, including some very impressive churches, nicely lit up at night, all around the center of the old city. So, all in all, Arquipa seems rather fascinating, I understand three 5,000+ meter peaks surround it, along with the 2nd deepest canyon in the world (or South America, I can't quite recall). And I did get to see a little more of the city than I had bargained for as my cab driver from the bus station tried to take me by a few of the hostels that would pay him commission instead of going directly to the one I had actually wanted. Considering that both the Lonely Planet and my hostel had warned me that this was quite likely to happen, I actually found the entire experience amusing - gave me plenty of practice for my Spanish for "No, this is not where I wanted you to go."

PS. And as a final parting note for this long seemingly rambling post, this picture really should have been in the Lauca post, but better late than never:

We haven't had anything crossing the road in a while, so here's what Chile uses to warn you of crossing vicunas... llamas too, if you want to be technical about it...

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