When you put it in numbers, it doesn’t sound as impressive, but by last count I has visited 33 of the world’s 196 countries. It’s a fair number and I happily consider myself well travelled. However, it is only an occasion like today’s that make’s me realise how little I have actually seen and experienced.
Today marks a first for me in my travelling experiences. A first that many of you from outside of Europe and from none island nations may baulk at… today I travel from Peru to Bolivia, and it will be the first time in my 29 years that I have crossed via land from one country to another… needing a passport.
Sure I’ve driven from The Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland, and been on coaches from France to Belgium (and vice versa). I’ve even skirted with the German boarder on a train in Austria. But none of these require a passport. There is just a sign welcoming you from one to the other. In the case of the Irish, simple a sign reminding you to drive in miles per hour and nothing more. I have never crossed a national frontier having been forced to get out of the vehicle, enter one building and then walk the dozen or so metres to another country. That was until today.
I imagined it like a Cold War thriller, with a bridge, flags at opposite ends and armed sentries. No such luck. The Peruvian police office was essentially a house with one, ‘plain-clothed’ policeman sitting behind a desk. A cursory glance at you passport and your Peruvian immigration form was stamped “NEGATIVE”. You then walked next-door to the ‘immigration hall’, where two Peruvian immigration officials sat behind a desk with a television chat-show on. They stamped your passport to say you had left Peru.
What followed was surely something anyone who has flown internationally (yours truly included) has experienced. You are nowhere! No longer in Peru, but not yet in Bolivia, you walk up a 50 metre stretch of hill, literally in ‘no-man’s land’.
Through an archway and you’re in Bolivia, technically if not officially. To your left is an immigration building that you can go into, though it seems the choice is entirely yours.
Inside, there is another man in civilian clothes whom you assume is an official. Another cursory look at you passport, a quick set of stamps and you are free to explore Bolivia for the next 30 days.
So what to make of my first proper border crossing. Honestly? There’s a part of me that’s disappointed there was no prisoner exchange. I was clearly not deemed important enough to either the Peruvians or the Bolivians to be traded for a communist spy! It was also somewhat frustrating to spend nearly an hour on formalities that neither country seemed to care enough about. If I had robbed the Bank la Nacion in Lima the day before, the plain clothed Peruvian police officer would be none the wiser. And if I planned to overthrow the Bolivian Government tomorrow (something which frankly seems a lot of effort) the Bolivians would be clueless.
Kind of makes you miss the practical approach employed in Europe.