Trouble crossing the Bolivian border: where law is a matter of personal interpretation

July 23, 2010 – Villazon
At 8.30am we boarded the bus that was taking us to La Quiaca, the last Argentina town before Bolivia. Four hours later we arrived and took a taxi to the border. We went through Argentine immigration and quickly got our exit stamps. From there on everything went so wrong.
Before leaving Uyuni for my salar trip I got an exit stamp for Bolivia and the officers assured me that I could enter the country again with that same visa (it had cost me $60). Upon entering the country the officer had told me I might have to pay Bs100 to keep the right to enter the country with the same visa but still nobody had requested it I wasn’t going to push it onto them. Back in Bolivia I felt comfortable that there wouldn’t be any trouble. Yeah, I couldn’t be further from the truth. As soon as I handed my passport to that same official who had sold me the visa he said I couldn’t enter with the same visa and I needed a new one. I told him what the official in Uyuni had told me but he wouldn’t bulge. I told him I wasn’t buying a new visa since I had done everything right and had followed the rules. It was clearly their fault and I wasn’t paying for it. After a while they sent me to the consulate that was a few hundred meters away. Apparently the consul would sort it out. I took a taxi there while Mario stayed behind looking after the bags.
Once in the consulate office I explained what had happened to what I thought was the consul but the lady turned out to be the secretary. She went to a back room and related the story to the consul ho came out a few minutes later, asked me whether I spoke Spanish and when I nodded he told me to go back to immigration and look for Sr. Rivera. ‘You got it?’ he asked. ‘Señor Rivera.’ he repeated.
I walked back and one of the officers asked me how it had gone. I told him I wanted to see Sr. Rivera. I had no idea who that person was but by the look on the official’s face I figured he was someone important. ‘Sr. Rivera. Carlos Rivera’ he repeated. He asked me to wait and went into a back office. He came out a couple of minutes later and said I had lost the right to enter the country on the same visa. He said I have to go back to the consulate. I lost it.
I told them it was their mistake and I wasn’t paying for it. I told them I had already been to the consulate and they had told me to deal with Rivera. I demanded I saw him. They refused and Mario and I stood in a corner trying to figure out what to do. I was so angry I broke crying. I hadn’t done anything wrong and yet I was being punished for it. It wasn’t fair. An official came a few minutes later and said we had to leave the office and that Rivera would be there at 14.30pm. I said I wasn’t going anywhere and he snapped saying ‘Wait forever then!’.
It looked like our best option was to go back to the consulate. We walked there and upon seeing us the secretary just told us to go into the consul’s office. I explained what had happened and he said he couldn’t do anything since Rivera was the immigration’s boss. I told him they had said he could give me another visa and only then he asked for my passport. He saw the pretty photo I had and made the most inappropriate comment I thought. He said I looked very pretty in that photo and asked what had happened with me. Why was I wearing a baseball hat, looking like a revolutionary? I thought he had no right to such comments in his position, thought it very sexist and broke crying. He didn’t get it. He thought someone had abused me. I hated him.
He said he would give me a new visa for free. Just like it should have been the first time. He said I needed to have a passport photo though. Obviously I didn’t have one and he wanted to send me to a photo studio to make some. When he saw me crying thought and after his secretary advice he let me just make a color copy of my passport along with some other copies that would be sufficient. Mario and I went looking for a Xerox and eventually found one. I got all the copies and went back. The secretary lady helped me with the application and the cleaning lady took it to the consul to sign once it was ready. 15min later we were still waiting for the papers. ‘What is he doing in there?’ asked the secretary. ‘Nothing.’ Responded the cleaning lady dryly. The secretary was the only person along with the cleaning lady who actually did any work at that consulate. I found the consul reading a newspaper and checking his personal Hotmail account upon entering his office the first time. The secretary also explained ho Bolivian visas for Bulgarians worked and that they are free. All it takes is a visit to the nearest consulate. Nobody had told me that the first time I had gone to immigration. They had just charged me the $60. She said different officials interpret the law differently. It is all about personal interpretation. How convenient!
Eventually the consul was ready to receive us and sign the papers. He signed the application as well as the visa the secretary had stamped into my passport. He stressed how this was a 30-day single entry visa and how I could have it extended if I wanted to. ‘It is a single entry visa’ he repeated several times before he let us go. I hated him so much but still politely thanked him before leaving the office. I thanked both the secretary and the cleaning lady from my heart before leaving.
Armed with my new visa we went back to immigration where more drama awaited us. We stood in line waiting to get our entry stamps. Mario got his 90-day stamp first and then it was my turn. The official took my passport, looked at me and called out to a colleague of his. He pointed at me and said ‘Look at this face and remember it!’ he said through his teeth. His boss, Sr. Rivera, had misinterpreted what I had said to the consul and had given him a hard time saying he wanted to charge me Bs100 (almost in the form of a bribe) to let me in the country. I opened my mouth trying to explain what I had said but he wouldn’t listen. He just put words in my mouth. I stood there quietly, waiting for my passport and once I got it I left. I couldn’t stand the look on their faces. I ended up being the bad guy although I hadn’t done ANYTHING wrong. I was on the verge of shaking from rage. I was so pissed. You think they would have given me my $60 dollars (paid for the first visa) back?! Ha-ha-ha.
Because of all that trouble Mario had also had some problems. Having left him with all the bags the first time he had been asked to leave the office with all the luggage. He had tried to explain what was happening but nobody would listen. When I came back and we were about to go into the office again one of the officers standing outside in control of the crowd in need of exit stamps snapped at him threatening not to let him into the country if he continued disrespecting his country. All he was doing was trying to make his way into the office loaded with four backpacks.
I was glad to be out of there. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I had told the officials how as a tourist I rely on them to advise me on the correct immigration practices and I have not the slightest idea that different offices interpret the law differently. ‘How is it my fault’ I had asked ‘if you colleagues in Uyuni supposedly belonging to the same Bolivian police, to the laws of the same country have told me something completely different that what you are now telling me?’.
What had also really pissed me about the consul’s behavior was that he was also trying to blame me for what had happened saying that I hadn’t done my homework before leaving my home country. He mockingly said ho I should have logged onto the Internet and read the immigration rules and prepared accordingly. Didn’t you hear me tell you that I had phoned (Inet site are often out of date) the Bolivian Consulate in Holland well before the beginning in of my trip where a lady had informed me about the immigration procedures. She had assured me I didn’t need a visa and that it only took a stamp to enter the country. She had advised me to get a Yellow Fever vaccination though since it might be required upon entry. And I had done so. That’s why I was surprised when they told me I needed a visa the first time I was here. I should have doubted them and gone to the consulate the first time. Nobody though (besides the secretary) thought about apologizing, not to mention giving me my money back. Instead the consul lectured me on how I haven’t done my homework. Very disappointing, frustrating, enraging!
After a few hours we were finally out of there. A piece of advice to all of you out there. Do not trust the immigration officials at the border crossings. If you are in doubt just refer to the nearest consulate. Do not doubt yourself. Good luck!

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