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Passport Please!

My Kiwi mate Doug and I decided to take a few days break from Quito and head north to Pasto, where we had been invited by a girl friend of mine  to attend the three day festival of the Blacks and Whites (Carnaval de Negros y Blancos).

Rather than take the scenic route which was a rough, four hour journey up the Pan-American Highway, we chose to save time and took a flight from the capitol to the meagre, border town of Tulcan; in the seventies known only for its villainous contrabandistas,  its topiary garden cemetery and its shifty money changers.

By the time we took the five mile taxi ride from the town to the border, we were suffering no pain. As hapless as Tulcan was, it did have bars and wretched though they were Doug and I had managed to down a few glasses of aquadiente, the local sugar cane alcohol, to accompany a greasy breakfast of chewy lumps of un-identifiable meat, under-cooked eggs and rice.

Crossing frontiers in Latin-America at the best of times could be a tricky moment for foreigners. One never knew what mood the border guards would be in, but on this occasion there was no hassle. There were no guards present on the Ecuadorian side of the border and we crossed Rumichaca bridge to the Columbian side where Doug did his bit of public relations by pouring generous measures from his emergency bottle of aquadiente into their coffee mugs and after getting our passports rudimentarily inspected and stamped, we were allowed into the country and took a taxi into nearby Ipiales; a Columbian version of Tulcan. Eventually, after checking out a couple of the local watering holes, we negotiated for a taxi to take us the sixty miles on to Pasto.

A further, hair raising taxi ride, on an appallingly bad road, during which our driver who was sharing with us a bottle of whisky I had the fortitude to bring with me, forced his ancient and battered vehicle through mud and rock slides, under waterfalls, full throttle through a group of Indians, who he thought may have been bandits and on to our destination

We were warmly welcomed in Pasto, where the carnival was already in full tilt and everyone appeared to be as drunk as Doug and I were. My friend Livia, introduced us to her friends and we partied from one house party to the next one.

The Carnival de Negros y Blancos, takes place every year between the 4th. and 6th. of January.  It has its roots in pre-Columbian history but over the centuries Christian and Afro-American traditions have become integrated from both the Spanish conquistadors and the slaves. One of the customs was to throw flour over everyone and being Gringos (foreigners) Doug and I were open season for the locals. By then end of two days we looked like a couple of ready to be baked biscuit figures.

On the day of the big carnival parade, which anyone could join in, we were  offered a couple of feisty horses to ride but common sense somehow prevailed and we declined, preferring to watch the procession from the safety of the balcony of Livia’s house, where her family and their friends lavished their traditional Columbian hospitality on us.

The parade, from what I do remember of it was quite spectacular, with amazing displays of workmanship on the floats which portrayed local legends and traditions and took the Mickey out of the politicians in Bogota.

Somehow, before dawn on following day, a weary and still inebriated  Doug and I said our fond farewells and took the bone rattling taxi ride back to Ipiales. The journey in good weather would have taken around three hours but on this occasion, due to heavy rain, took eight. But the bad weather was the least of my problems because, on our arrival in Ipiales and just as we were preparing to take a taxi across the border, I experienced every traveller’s nightmare – I had lost my passport.

The possible implications combined with my hangover were frightful. I would not be allowed back into Ecuador and would possibly have to wait for weeks for a replacement from the British Embassy in Bogota. In the meantime I would have little money left and would temporally be stateless. I had heard of travellers in the same circumstances being thrown into jail and forgotten about.

I attempted to phone Livia in Pasto to see if I had left the document there but, due to the bad weather, there was no connection. The very thought of taking another eight hour journey was out of the question. The only course of action we could take was for me to bluff my way through the border controls.

Fortunately the devil was looking after his own that day. One of the very same guards who Doug had plied with aquadiente some forty eight hours ago was on duty and rather than leave the shelter of the guard house, waved our mud plastered taxi on. I was now out of one country but I still had to get into another one.

Crossing the Rumichaca bridge that evening was like an episode from the film ‘The spy who came out of the cold’. As we inched our way over the gorge which separated the two countries, I knew just how  Richard Burton must have felt when attempting to cross through Berlin’s Check-point Charlie.

Once again Old Nick was on our side and the Ecuadorian guard had no more intention of getting soaking wet than his Columbian colleague. I shall never forget the wave relief that swept over me as we came off that bridge into Ecuador.

As there no flights to Quito until the following morning we had to overnight in Tulcan but seeing the appalling quality of the hotels we decided instead to drink our way through the night. Unfortunately that idea did not last long and we were turfed out of the last bar at two o’clock, to spend a couple of freezing cold hours, trying to get some sleep on a wet park bench.

However, even that was not the end of the saga. At dawn we eventually managed tp find a taxi to take us to the airport and were already in the queue to board the aircraft when we realized that the Ecuadorian police were at the front, checking documents.  There was no way I could escape and as I came slowly to the head of the line, I deliberately fumbled through my jacket, as though searching for my passport. My hand found my German driving license. On the command “Passport please!” I closed my eyes and  handed him the old grey linen license, which he carefully  opened. His eyes scanned back and forth from  my face to my photo and, after what seemed like eternity, to my utter amazement, he stamped the license and handed it back to me with a curt “Gracias señor”.

I crept fearfully up the aircraft steps, all the time waiting to hear a voice demanding me to stop but I made it and it was now Doug who had been stopped. Presumably the official had never seen a New Zealand passport before. Distrusting the foreign document, he called for a colleague and together they perused it as though it was their mother’s last will and testament. Meanwhile, I was already seated and waving a cheery farewell, through the window to Doug, who was desperately trying to explain where New Zealand was. In the end his passport was acepted as a legal document but I am sure the whereabouts of NZ remained a mystery to them.

A couple of hours later we were both safely back in our local bar in Quito, telling our tale and showing my driving license visa to all who would care to listen.

    Tags - Fly at a Smile-Price