Border Hell

A 5.30 am start as Pete wanted to ensure we didn’t run into the sort of siesta issues we had endured entering Venezuela. As it turned out a wise move as the border was total chaos.

The passengers were relatively easily, although painfully slowly, processed, the truck required more paperwork and ticks in boxes, Peter had employed a “fixer” to smooth the process and we had all paid an unexpected $30 visa fee (bribe?) on top of the $108 bolivar departure tax, paid into an office 4km from the actual border which felt slightly disorganised but was a model of efficiency compared to passport control. Incidentally some people didn’t have to pay, apparently based on age including Karen but Leslie older than Karen did have to pay! Who knows, you don’t argue just get on with it.

Departure Tax Dog

We had changed routes to take a more northern border crossing (Paraguachon), on FCO website advice. What should be a simple admin process is made very complicated with multiple inspections with no real validation and thus for no apparent reason.

Getting the final passport stamp, the fixer had paid someone to queue for us, the locals didn’t like 20 people joining the middle of the queue and some fairly aggressive pushing and shoving ensued although wise heads prevailed and it passed off, earlier a couple of the group said there had been some minor fist fights in the queue.

There are all sorts of street vendors on both sides of the border, taxis queuing, particularly on the Venezuelan side some of the most ancient and un-roadworthy looking vehicles ever seen, illegal money changers, police and so forth.

We found a bar and had a beer and watched Sweden v Ireland world cup qualifier, the water had only just gone in the fridge so barman went next door for cold supplies – no sense of competition here! The bar toilets had video poker machines en-route so following my normal rules having doubled my money (to $2) there appeared no way to cash out, I guess “for amusement only” so when I got to my original stake I let a young lad play the rest and was rewarded with a huge smile. We spent our last few Bolivars on a lunch of fried chicken, indeterminate meat – allegedly steak and rice with chicken arepas (corn bread) for Karen.

Some of the vehicles passing are just amazing, loaded to the gunnels with people, animals, children and every type of chattel imaginable. Much clearly illegal and equally ignored by the intimidating armed police in the area. A particularly good looking policeman was outside the bar, complete with M16 machine gun, and Karen said “I would love a photo” so I said “well just ask first”. Kirsten’s normal (and extremely sensible) advice is not to point cameras at authority figures in unstable countries so is witnessing this slightly nervously.

Policeman asks his sergeant or whoever in the car, he says yes and the policeman gives us the full works, dons his sunglasses, adjusts his hat and unslings machine gun for best view, accompanied by what we took to be good natured ribbing from his colleagues. A number of the group then had photos with him, all broad smiles and waves.

Friendly Policeman

The follow up was once we did clear the border there was a police check, the first of 3 inside Columbia and guess who came on board to inspect – our new police friend, cursory check, more photos and we were on our way. Kirsten may have to re-think her non-fraternisation policy J

Last job was to change some money, so the “fixers” came on board and following a fairly lively group discussion as to whether we were being ripped off or not we changed dollars at a rate of 1720 and 80 to the Bolivar to have some walking around money. $150 dollars meant $258,000 pesos – at least the notes come in sensible numbers for these values.

7 hours after we arrived we were on our way and although it was a long frustrating day, particularly for Pete and Kirsten, the people watching and events of the day was quite entertaining as there is no point in getting frustrated you just have to get through it.

Karen in Custody

Pete stopped at a small town over the border to get fresh supplies of bread, fruit and meat for dinner. We bought some toothpaste and some razors at a cost $8,000 (about £3) which came with a small pack of biscuits as part of the change. Generally, people seem extremely friendly, helpful and patient with our strangled Spanish, there is always music playing in the background and a sense that life is to be enjoyed i.e. work to live and not live to work.

Due to the border delay didn’t quite make it to our intended destination of Santa Marta as its really not a good idea to drive at night due to the state of the roads. Overnight stop at a nice riverside campsite and a short  one hour run up to our original destination. A beach campsite on the Caribbean coast –  thus proving travelling can be hell and heaven and in quick succession.

A really pleasant afternoon, a delicious curry meal – with a choice of Indian or Thai – and a beach bonfire with some cold beers made for a cracking day and a complete contrast to the day before.

Earlier Odyssey had presented those making multiple trips, some their 3rd, with “Extreme Overlander” T-shirts, Ken Northern Irish by birth but Irish by heart once more demonstrated the Irish reputation for liking a drink to be not unfounded, trying to persuade us to join him in attacking the beach bars “shooters list”.

And so to bed, I decided to sleep in my hammock, watching the stars and listening to the surf crashing on the beach 25 metres away, whilst Karen enjoyed the extra space in the tent.

Photos here.

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