Any long-term traveler has to be prepared for something to go wrong eventually, and luckily I’ve been traveling long enough now that I was able to roll with the punches. But in this case, man did the punches keep coming.
It all began on Saturday when I caught the night bus from Ecuador to Peru. Five other people from my hostel, a group from Canada and England, were on the same bus, and we’d been chatting for awhile in the bus station before boarding.
One girl was apprehensive about her motion sickness and was stressing back and forth about whether she was going to take a sleeping pill. I pointed out that the border crossing was in the middle of the night, around 4 a.m., and if she took a whole pill she might have a hard time waking up for it. Eventually she decided to go for it anyway and we boarded the bus at 11 p.m. An older French Canadian couple was sitting in front of me, and I greeted them in French. They were very sweet and when a seemingly drunk guy tried to sit next to me, the husband insisted he move and leave me alone. A more normal-seeming guy sat next to me instead and I inflated my pillow and fell asleep.
When I woke up, it was daylight and the landscape had changed dramatically from the massive green mountains of Ecuador to a flat, dusty expanse littered with garbage and straggly trees. I wondered why we hadn’t stopped at the border, but the only time I’ve crossed a border on a bus was going into Canada, so I tried to rationalize that maybe bus crossings were different in South America. Perhaps they have a customs desk at the bus station in Piura, the city we were headed for, I thought. It didn’t really make sense, but neither did the fact that we hadn’t stopped at the border. I was feeling really disoriented.
Eventually, around 8 in the morning, we arrived at the bus station in Piura, Peru. As soon as we started to get up from our seats, a guy across the aisle pointed at me and yelled in Spanish, ‘You didn’t get your passport stamped.’ Confused, I replied, ‘No, of course not, we didn’t stop at the border!’ The Canadian couple turned around aghast and looked at me. “You didn’t get off the bus at the border?”
“No, I was sleeping! We stopped at the border?”
“You have to go back!” A bunch of people around me started chattering excitedly in Spanish, and the Canadian couple, who also spoke Spanish, agreed with them.
“You have to go back,” the man explained. “Otherwise, when you go to leave the country, they won’t let you out.”
“Oh my gosh, I am so sorry,” the wife added. “I saw you sleeping; I even mentioned it to my husband that I hadn’t seen you at the customs office. But I didn’t think they’d let you across without waking you up. I’m so sorry, I feel horrible.”
We crowded off the bus and were swarmed by a mob of aggressive taxi drivers, who quickly picked up on the situation and started bidding to take me to the border. “$80!” one driver shouted. “$80? F#*%,” I said. “I only paid $14 for this bus. I don’t even have much money on me.”
I was desperately looking at the Canadian couple, whose Spanish was better than mine, since I could hardly keep up with the rapid fire Spanish coming at me from every direction. “Isn’t there a bus going back?” I asked them. It was hard to tell who was a bus employee, who was a taxi driver, and who was a random passenger shouting opinions at me.
My friends got off the bus and when they realized what happened their eyes widened. “What? We saw you sleeping but we had no idea they’d let you across the border without waking you up! We’re so sorry!”
I felt a bit shocked that they had all woken up at the border, even the girl who took the sleeping pill, and yet somehow I slept soundly through it all.
“It’s not your fault,” I told everyone. “I can’t believe the border control didn’t wake me up. I don’t even know why I didn’t wake up!” I’m not normally a heavy sleeper, although I do brag about my ability to sleep anywhere: hot, crowded buses included.
We were able to determine that the next bus back towards Ecuador was at 1 p.m., so I would have to wait in the station until then. I had $15 American dollars (the currency in Ecuador) in my wallet and no Peruvian money, since I always get local currency from an ATM when I arrive in a new country. The bus station was not as much of a terminal as others I’ve been to in South America: only a waiting room and a little snack shack. There weren’t offices and there definitely wasn’t any WiFi. I needed to use the bathroom, which cost 15 Peruvian centimos, and I talked the attendant into taking some American coins instead.
When I left the bathroom, both the group from my hostel and the Canadian couple had disappeared. They were all going on to other cities and had caught taxis to the next terminal. Even the bus had left. I had no idea what to do.
A taxi driver started talking to me and I asked him where I could buy a ticket back to the border, and whether there was an ATM around where I could get some Peruvian soles. As it turned out, everything in Piura was closed because it was Sunday: even the ATMs (they lock the vestibules). He explained to me that he knew where an ATM was that would be open, and he was willing to take me and let me pay when we got back. Feeling like I didn’t really have any other options, I agreed. True to his word, he took me to an ATM that actually had both US dollars and Soles, so I got some of both. Unusually for me, though, I hadn’t researched the currency beforehand and had no idea what the exchange rate was. When we arrived back at the station, I asked the driver how much the ride was, and he said 30 soles. Having no idea how much that was, I paid him, thanked him, and got out. I later found out the entire ride should have cost me no more than 5 soles. He had charged me almost $10 US!
Hungry and disconsolate, I bought a soda and some crackers from the guy at the snack shop, and resigned myself to the four hour wait in the bus terminal plastic chairs. I was going to be volunteering at a school in Trujillo, my ultimate destination, and now I was going to be a day late arriving there (it’s still 6 more hours from Piura to Trujillo). I didn’t have a way to contact the school, and I was all alone.
I’d been sitting there for maybe five minutes when a friendly-looking girl wandered into the waiting room, not carrying any luggage and looking a little confused. “You look like you speak English,” she said brightly. “Do you know where I can buy a ticket to Ecuador? I don’t speak a lot of Spanish.”
“I don’t know, but I’m going the same way and I can speak Spanish so I’ll go with you to ask,” I said, and collected my things. We discovered that the ticket office was closed until 10 a.m.
“Are you staying at a hostel?” I asked, since she didn’t have her luggage with her. “Do you think I could go back there with you? I’m stranded here alone and I don’t really feel all that safe.”
“Of course!” she said. She was so warm and friendly, I liked her right away. It turned out she was from Germany and backpacking her way around South America, too. We went back to her hostel, where for a few soles they allowed me to spend the rest of the morning hanging out in her room with her. It was brutally hot, so I changed from the long pants and sweater that had been my uniform in the rainy mountains of Ecuador into the shorts and tank top I hadn’t worn since the Colombian coast.
I logged on to WiFi, shot off an email to the school that I wasn’t going to make it to Trujillo that day, and panicked all my friends on Facebook with a cryptic post: “That time I accidentally crossed the border illegally…” I had no idea how long it would be before I’d be able to fill them in.
Leaving all our stuff in her room at the hostel, my new friend and I walked back to the bus station to buy our tickets at 10 a.m. We found another American lady there waiting to buy a ticket for the same bus. She was a university professor from Idaho who had been in Peru for a conference or something. She said that she’d heard Piura was the oldest colonial town in South America and she wanted to look around a little since we had to wait for three more hours, so we decided to go with her. We found the main plaza, which was much nicer-looking than the other streets we’d seen.
It was Palm Sunday, and people were handing out palm leaves twisted into the shape of crosses at the entrance to the big cathedral, where Mass had just begun.
Eventually 1 p.m. rolled around and we boarded the bus headed for Ecuador. I actually enjoyed the trip because we went back into the green mountain terrain that I loved so much in Ecuador. It only took 3 hours to reach the border, and I started to realize why I had slept through the crossing. The bus stopped and no one announced the border or anything. Some people got off and eventually the rest of us realized that maybe we should get off too.
I needed the exit stamp from Ecuador first so I had to go back over the border. I asked the bus driver when the next bus was coming heading for Piura, and he told me 6 p.m., in two hours. I got my bags, said goodbye to my German friend, and simply walked across the bridge from Peru to Ecuador, in front of a few random crowds of border police. No one stopped me or asked me any questions.
Standing in front of the little shack that serves as the Ecuadorian immigration office, I simply told the man I was going to Peru and he handed me to the form to fill out. I did; he stamped my passport and I walked back to Peru.
I told the Peruvian border agents that I was coming into Peru, filled out the form, and just like that I was legal again.
Legal, sure. But also stuck at the border. Everyone else had boarded the bus and left, so I looked around. It is a tiny outpost, hardly even a town, with no restaurants or hotels or anything. I decided to find a drink so I heaved my stuff down the street to find a little shack where a lady was selling sodas and lollipops. A bunch of guys were sitting around out front drinking beer. I bought a soda and started chatting with them. They thought it was hilarious that I could speak Spanish with them so they pulled up a chair and shared their beer with me. They were pretty cool.
I hung out with them for about an hour and then I decided I needed to go back to the border so I took a picture to remember them by and headed back towards the police station.
I sat down on the curb to wait for the 6 p.m. bus.
After I’d been sitting there awhile, one of the border agents wandered over to chat. “Where are you from? How long are you traveling? Are you married? No? Why not? Don’t you have a boyfriend?” The usual questions that I get in Latin America, where it’s extremely unusual for a woman to be single at age 30…much less gallivanting around the world by herself.
Eventually I explained that I was waiting for the bus and he looked surprised. “The bus doesn’t come until 4 in the morning!”
I looked at him dubiously. “There isn’t a bus at 6? The driver told me there was a bus at 6.”
“No, only two buses per day. 4 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon.”
There were no hotels or anything. I shrugged. “Well, I have to wait for it. I can’t do anything else.”
He went into the little room that served as the police station and had a discussion with some of the other guys. A few minutes later he called me over.
They set me up with cable tv (in Spanish, of course, but I understand enough to follow along) and when it got dark, they made me a cup of tea.
They explained to me that because the post is so remote, they all live in Piura and work for 4 days at a time on the border, with 4 days off. As such, they have bunk beds available. They suggested that I could take a nap and they could make sure I woke up in time for the bus. Exhausted, having spent the previous night on a crowded, hot bus, I gratefully accepted.
I once again inflated my handy pillow, pulled my jacket over myself as a blanket, set my alarm for 3:30 a.m. and fell asleep.
When my alarm went off, everything was dark and quiet. I got up, packed up my stuff, and sat outside for awhile with the two guards who were on duty. I watched them casually flick flashlights into the backseats of cars that drove past, not paying much attention. I laughed to myself comparing this with any typical US border crossing.
A few pedestrians wandered up to the Peruvian border office, and the guys I was sitting with told me they were bus passengers and the bus would be crossing over to collect them in a few moments, so I was starting to pick up my bags when I heard a dog bark and a woman shriek.
Moments later, two tourists, a guy and a girl, hobbled slowly up to the Peruvian office, and I recognized the guy. He had stayed at the same hostel I was at in Vilcabamba. I asked him what happened and he said the woman he was with had just gotten badly bitten by a stray dog. I went over to investigate and sure enough, her ankle was mangled and bleeding. No one was helping her so some passengers on the bus tried to find alcohol and bandages and eventually they got her patched up. Obviously there was no clinic at the border so she was going to have to wait until we got to Piura to get a rabies shot and probably stitches. I talked my way into buying a partial bus ticket to ride the rest of the way to Piura (usually that bus line won’t pick up anyone not from a terminal) and fell back asleep on the bus.
When I woke up a few hours later, the sun was up and the bus was stopped at the side of the road. A police officer was checking everyone’s paperwork. It was during this passport check that a young couple on the bus discovered that they had been robbed while they were sleeping. Their camera, sunglasses, and a few other things had gone missing, so we had to sit there for another hour while the police searched all of our bags. Nothing turned up, though, so when we got to Piura we had to sit for another hour while the couple made a report at the police station. It was over 40 degrees Celsius (104 F) and the windows on the bus were closed. We were dyyyyying. It felt like ages before we finally pulled into the bus station again.
I wished the dog-bitten victim good luck as she and her friend ventured off to find a clinic, and I walked to a restaurant I’d seen the day before for a cheap breakfast (Peru is thankfully MUCH cheaper than Ecuador) and took a taxi to the bus station. I boarded my very first double-decker coach bus in South America for the town of Chiclayo, which was 3 hours away. The landscape in Peru is so dramatically different than Ecuador! On the northwest coast, it’s like a total desert!
Chiclayo is not any better organized than Piura, and they don’t seem to have a centralized bus terminal either, so I wasn’t able to compare bus lines or anything, and I couldn’t remember the names of bus lines I’d been recommended, so I had to ask the taxi driver to take me to a terminal where I could catch a bus to Trujillo. Chiclayo is big, dusty and chaotic, but once we’d left the station we were back to desert landscape, this time with mountains, too.
Another sweltering 3-hour bus ride with no air conditioning and closed windows later, I arrived at the central terminal in Trujillo. I hadn’t had WiFi since the previous day so I had no way to contact the school where I was volunteering, and I didn’t have their address. I decided I would just grab a bed in a hostel for the night, use their WiFi, and figure it out in the morning.
I found a taxi driver who was very quiet and polite and it turned out he was fluent in English – he’d lived in the US for 14 years. I explained to him that I needed somewhere I could eat and use WiFi that was centrally located near the main plaza. He took me to McDonalds, so I bought some french fries (I was starving!) and tried to use their WiFi to no avail. No worries, I thought, all the cities down here are lousy with hostels and I’m in the main plaza. I’ll just walk around for a bit and I’ll be able to find one.
I walked for almost an hour and wasn’t able to find anything but expensive hotels. I even stopped some gringo tourists I ran into and asked them where they were staying, but they said their hostel was 20 minutes away by taxi and I didn’t want to go that far away. It was getting dark so I finally went to an internet cafe to use one of their computers to find a hostel on Booking.com, and I was distressed to discover there were no backpacking hostels in Trujillo (a huge city!). I found a hospidaje (sort of a hostel, but more oriented for local tourists than gringos) that I could afford and that seemed to be within walking distance, so I made a reservation and snapped a photo of the map on the computer with my phone.
It was dark when I left the the internet shop and I was developing a nasty headache. I gave myself a pep talk that it wasn’t very far to haul my heavy stuff with a headache and headed off. But quickly enough, the streets didn’t seem to match up with the map I had taken a photo of and I realized I was lost. I didn’t trust a taxi (taxis, not having GPS, can hardly ever find a place themselves, much less if you are lost) so I stopped in another little internet cafe shop run by a girl about my age.
I tried to find the hospidaje on Google maps again, but I was really starting to feel sick. I asked the girl where we were, and explained that I was trying to find this hospidaje and needed to get a taxi. She was calling a taxi from her cell phone for me when I realized I was suddenly about to be sick. I darted outside and threw up in the bushes…the heat (and probably the stress) had gotten to me. I explained to the girl when I came back in, sweating and dizzy, that I’d been traveling for two days and I wasn’t feeling well. She insisted on giving me a bottle of water for free and let me use the non-public bathroom in the back. The taxi arrived and she gave the driver directions, gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek and told me best wishes. She was an angel.
The taxi driver found my the hospidaje, which was in a good location right across from a pretty looking park. The owner, a tiny older lady named Clara, let me in right away and was trying to get me registered when I started feeling sick again. I explained to her that I had been traveling too long and wasn’t feeling well, my head was absolutely killing me, and could I please sit down for a moment before we got the registration stuff sorted. She sat me down in a living room area and bustled off to make tea. In that moment, the relief and exhaustion simultaneously flooded over me and I burst into tears. She insisted on giving me a head and neck massage, made me tea, and she and the rest of her family listened sympathetically as my story spilled out. They agreed with me that it was the fault of the border agents, and that the buses definitely needed to open the windows if it was going to be over 40 degrees!
She gave me a private room and I collapsed into bed. I was able to log in to Facebook long enough to message a couple people to reassure them that I was indeed alive, but my head was throbbing and I was exhausted so I couldn’t do more than that before passing out for 11 hours of total, restful bliss.
The next morning Clara made breakfast and coffee and called the school for me. I asked her for a quick picture to remember her by, for being so incredibly kind. If you are ever in Trujillo, Peru and can’t find a backpacker’s hostel, I can definitely recommend that you stay at Casa del Clara, which can be found on Booking.com. She is an angel (and my private room plus breakfast was just under $10).
Then someone from the school picked me up at the hospidaje and I was on my way to the next adventure, teaching English in Trujillo….No worse for wear, but with what will definitely be my most treasured passport stamp in hand.