Crossing the Border Part 2: Bermejo, Bolivia
For Crossing the Border Part 1, see here.
“Immigration” on the Bolivian side was a small building that consisted of a reception desk and an office. You entered on one side, got stamped, and came out the other.
Or, if you’re me, you go in and hang at the desk for a really. long. time.
I had my passport. I had a photocopy of my passport. I even had a yellow fever certificate, which I didn’t have to show. I had the visa fee.
I didn’t have change.
I didn’t have negotiating skills in Spanish.
There were two men behind the desk, and neither of them showed me much interest. They handed me two forms to fill out, which I did. They looked at my passport.
$135, the short man said.
I handed him a crisp $100 and slightly-less-crisp $50.
He took the $100 and gave me back the $50.
$35, he said.
“No tengo,” I said. “Puede cambiar?” No have. Can you change?
According to the almighty internet, they were supposed to make change. They were supposed to give it to you in Bolivianos.
$35, he said, and turned his attention to the next five people who came in.
When I was the only one left in the office and he couldn’t ignore me anymore, he finally made eye contact.
He took the $50 and turned it over lazily. “Tienes pesos?”
“Yes!” I said. Yes, we had Argentinian pesos. We were saved! The stubborn $35 would come to about $167 pesos, but I was ready to give him $200 and be done with it.
245 pesos, he said.
I balked. That was just over fifty dollars! It was more than I could take. Finally, seeing my despair, he suggested that we go to one of the stalls down the street to see if they had any change. We had to change our pesos to bolivianos anyway, so I wearily agreed.
I stood guard over the bags while Jared ran down the road to the exchange booth. He returned soon after, angry.
“The guy was an asshole,” he said. “And he wanted one for one.”
One peso is worth about 1.45 bolivianos. It was a blatant ripoff. Jared headed in the other direction, with the same results. Eventually, we conceded, changing 317 pesos for 317 bolivianos, from a woman running a roadside restaurant-cum-black market money exchange.
But we still hadn’t solved the problem of the $35. I went back in to try one more time.
“No pueden cambiar,” I said, putting on my most dejected face, as if the guy cared. They can’t change it.
The man took my fifty. He scrutinized it carefully, pausing to examine every rip and fold.
In Spanish, he explained that this note was no good. It had an infinitesimal tear on one side, and it had been folded at least twice, rendering it useless. I’d have to get a taxi to Bermejo, the border town, he said. There, I’d find a place to change it for smaller notes. Then, I’d return, pay the cursed $35, get my damn stamp, and go back to Bermejo to catch a lift to Tarija, our final destination, three hours away.
I nearly cried.
After a brief discussion, Jared and I agreed on a plan.
I returned. I handed over the fifty. “Puedo pagar con esto?” I said. “Todo, no cambio?” Can I pay with this? All, no change?
Slowly, the man took the note, rips, folds, and all. He deftly slipped it beneath the desk. Without a word, he flipped open my passport, affixed a sticker, and THUMP!
I had a stamp.
“Hay un baño?” I asked, still busting for the toilet. Is there a bathroom?
The man laughed. “No. No hay.” No. No there isn’t.
Welcome to Bolivia.