The Politics of Having your Passport Seized

Cochabamba Travel Blog

 › entry 27 of 38 › view all entries
Last night, I was watching a movie in my hotel room when I began to hear knocks on the doors at both ends of the hall, short conversations, and then more knocks on different doors. I couldn´t quite make out what the conversations were about over the movie and the Shakira someone was blasting a few rooms down but I figured that it was Friday night, maybe somebody was trying to get people to have a party. I wasn´t really interested in partying (my stomach was a bit unsettled from some strawberries I had bought at the market) and I prayed that whoever it was would miraculously pass my door by. For a moment it seemed that my prayers would be answered, then there were footsteps on the walkway outside my room and a voice hailed me through the curtained window. ¨Hola¨. Both my TV and my lights were on. I couldn´t exactly pretend I wasn´t home. ¨Hola¨I replied. The man began to speak but a plane flew overhead and I could not hear what he was saying ¨...por favor¨. My stomach churned distractingly. I didn´t want to deal with this. I pulled the card I always do when I don´t want to interact with people. ¨No entiendo Español¨ (I don´t understand Spanish) there was silence for a minute and I turned my attention back to the television. The man said something again that I didn´t understand. ¨No hablo español. Hablo ingles.¨(I don´t speak Spanish. I speak English) I repeated. Then I heard the word crisp, and clear through all the clanging and clashing noise of the city. ¨Passeporte¨. I got up from my bed and pulled back the curtain of my window. Outside, there was a crowd of about six Bolivian police officers fully uniformed and sporting ID tags and guns. Everywhere you go in Bolivia, there are signs warning tourists not to talk to strangers, not to put small backpacks on the floor, and not, under any circumstances, to show one´s passport or money to anyone claiming to be a police officer. These warnings are omnipresent in hostels, on tourist maps, and in guide books and I wondered how anybody could ever fall for such a scheme. Confronted with a landing full of uniforms, I realised that whether or not they were legitimate cops I really did not have a choice. Either I produced my passport or they were going to break into my room and search for it. I closed the curtains, retrieved my passport from its hiding spot and unlocked the door. The passport was passed from hand to hand and my stamps and picture were examined thoroughly while a man interrogated me in Spanish. ¨When did you arrive in Bolivia? Why are you here? How long are you planning on staying here? Are you travelling alone? How long have you been in Cochabamba? Why are you travelling alone? Which city did you come from? Are you sure that there are no other Canadians with you? Are you working here? Why are you here? Why are you alone? What is your job? What do you study? Are you studying literature here in Cochabamba? Why are you here? Where is your language school? After 3 or 4 minutes (or an eternal age) the questions stopped and the man extended his arm to return my passport to me when he noticed a glaring error. In my passport, right next to my Bolivia entry stamp, was a stamp that said ¨tourist visa 90 days¨. He examined it for a long instant, checked the country on the front of my passport and looked at the stamp again. ¨This stamp is not correct¨he said slowly, enuciating every syllable so that I would understand. ¨Canadians only have a 30 day tourist visa.¨ I knew this was true.  I remember being delighted at the Villazon border when I realised that I had been granted 3 months in Bolivia, instead of the 1 I had expected, without even asking. I protested. ¨Yes I know but it is not my fault. The man at the border in Villazon...¨the man cut me off. ¨You will have to take this to immigration control in Sucre on Monday¨. My eyes grew wide. Sucre is a 1000 kms away. ¨Sucre!?¨I said disbelievingly. A female officer relieved me by saying ¨Sucre Calle. It is a street.¨ The man told me in no uncertain terms that I had to go get my stamp changed as soon as the office opened Monday morning. I promised that I would, took my passport back and closed the door and settled back down on to my bed. The movie was almost over and the credits began to roll before the knock came at my door. It was my police officer friend again. He asked for my passport and pulled out an official looking pad of paper with the word ¨citacion¨in bold letters at the top. He filled it out, stamped it and then handed it to me. ¨You are not allowed to leave the city or change residences.¨he told me and stuffed my passport into the inside pocket of his jacket. ¨You can pick your passport up at 8am Monday morning. Have a nice evening.¨ and with that, he walked off down the hall with my passport leaving me clutching the flimsy citation in my hand. I am fairly convinced that they were police. They were admitted into the hostel, had lots of official paper, and there was a legitmate error in my passport. Still, I am a bit peeved to have my passport confiscated on a Friday night with no possibility of retrieval until Monday morning and I half feel that I will never see my passport and all its pretty stamps least I have photocopies. I hope that I can get an extension on my visa or I won´t have the time to do most of the things I want to do in Bolivia. I am a bit uncomfortable being separated from my passport (the item I own that it would be the worst to lose) but what´s done is done and there is no use fretting about it until Monday.
Despite my plans to travel from Potosi to Sucre, I have somehow found myself far away in the city of Cochabamba. A bus strike the day I left Potosi meant that no buses were leaving town until late in the evening and Cochabamba was the only destination that wouldn´t deposit me in a strange city at 4am (630 is slightly better). Cochabamba is considerably lower than Potosi and is closer to rainforest than to the high altiplano. There are palm trees and beautiful purple flowers lining the squares and a huge statue of Jesus guards the town from up on the hill. The city is fairly clean but the amount of noise here is amazing. Cochabambans seem to complete every task (whether it be driving a car, unloading a truck, or sweeping the walkway and talking on a cellphone outside your room at 6am) as loudly as possible. I have been here for 4 days so far and have seen the same amount of white people. I am quite the novelty here. I am staying in Cochabamba for a week and taking some Spanish lessons. I like it here but it is a slightly lonely place in my trip because the single rooms at the hostel make it difficult to meet other people. I have made good friends with my television. I have asked the language school to find a conversation partner for me but so far nothing has come of it.  The only people who I talk to are my Spanish teacher, the hostel staff and the people who wander into the restaurant during diner and try and sell me nailpolish. I went out for dinner the other night and in the 45 minutes that I was there, 15 people (and this is not one of those Meghan is exagerating for effect numbers, I actually counted) came into the restaurant and tried to sell me everything from a cheese grater to chocolate bars. I can understand that there might be a market for napkins, flowers, cigarettes, and breath mints in a restaurant but I cannot fathom a circumstance in which I would want to purchase a burned dvd of Barry Manilow in concert while I am eating dinner.
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photo by: jendara