Lost in Translation

I was finishing my 3-day Salar de Uyuni tour through the beautiful Bolivian deserts. My next stop was San Pedro de Atacama, crossing land borders with Chile. I wasn’t going back to Uyuni with the group.

As we drove by the border crossing office, I realized I left my passport in my backpack that was on the roof of the car. My Canadian friends went to the office while I got my passport. When we crossed paths as I went to the office, they told me I was going to pay 15 bolivianos. I thought they were joking.

Inside the office, the border officer asked me for the 15 bolivianos. I told him I didn’t have any money and didn’t know I had to pay. He got upset, but still stamped my passport. On my way out, I told another guy not to pay and he told me the officer didn’t even ask him for money. Crossing land borders is always fun!

We said goodbye to the group and got into the bus that would take us into Chile. With a full bus, the driver stands up in the front and starts explaining the border procedures.

Chile is rigorous with what you can take across the border, you have to declare everything that can be doubtful. I could see from people’s faces that most of them didn’t understand Spanish. I got up and took the initiative of translating everything the man was saying. The driver looked very serious as he told us what we could and couldn’t take. In the middle, he mentioned the fines we would have to pay and all that complicated stuff you need to consider when crossing land borders.

I then remembered I had some coca caramels I bought in Bolívia. They sell all kinds of coca-related products to give you energy at high altitude. Bolivians and Peruvians chew coca leafs for example. I had to get rid of my caramels, so I started offering my coca caramels to the other passengers. Everyone was happy with my kindness, not only did I translate and help them fill in the border control forms, I also gave them some coca sweets.

We left Bolivia and arrived at the Chilean border control. Before screening your luggage, you have one last chance to get rid of the stuff they don’t allow in. If you miss those garbage bins, they will fine you for everything that’s not allowed across the border. You can’t take fruit, food or any type of natural material unless they’re sealed or canned. You have to make sure your souvenirs like wooden carved objects and similar stuff are ok to go through.

I remembered I had food in my backpack as a backup plan for my Salar de Uyuni tour. I got a little nervous as I mentally went through the list of stuff I had: onions, pasta, canned tomato and canned tuna fish. The onions went into the trash bin but I kept the rest. I put my bags on the x-ray machine and followed the line. My backpack made it through without problems and I felt relieved to get back on the bus. Maybe the driver had over-dramatized the situation to force us to be careful and it worked.

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