Look at me writing to you all in the middle of the night again. In addition to everything else, Bolivia is clearly hard on my beauty sleep needs.
As you read this update you’ll see that today is not going to go down as one of the better days we’ve had. I want you all to know though that we are all together and safe and caring for each other, and that remains the most important piece of this entire story. This entire trip.
Our Friday morning began the same way our Wednesday and Thursday mornings went, and that is with the sound of an alarm, a quick bite of a cold hotel breakfast and then off to the U.S. Embassy here in La Paz. I have to say that the people at the American Embassy here have been Godsends. They have been efficient, helpful, kind, patient, and hard-working. The thought of how we would have had to deal with all of this without their help…just the thought, makes it hard for me to breathe.
Yesterday’s Embassy visit revealed the location of our stolen passports (inside a notorious Bolivian prison) and today’s Embassy visit revealed more of just what kind of system we are trying to work within. It was explained to us that in an effort to retrieve our passports two undercover agents were sent into the prison posing as buyers for them because the inmate that has them is demanding money for their return. At our confused looks, they explained that there is really no way to fully describe just how dangerous a place this prison is. It is completely run by the inmates and has been dubbed “Thieves City”, a place where chaos and murder are rampant and the guards are scared to go in. It is not possible for the Bolivian police to just walk into this place and demand the passports from the man who has them, there would be no way to be sure of finding him and it would be a monumental risk to their lives.
There is also no way that the American government is going to pay a bribe (GOOD!), so the plain clothes go in just posed as buyers. The plan being to draw the inmate into a waiting room, close the door behind him and once he got in, THEN bring in the police to arrest him and confiscate the passports. They drew him in as far as the door and just as they were about to close it he sensed something going on and bolted. Disappearing back into the prison. Unreachable.
Given this new information, Bo and I decided to cancel our old passports and get new temporary ones from the Embassy that we are assured will get us into Argentina and back home. A few forms and $400 dollars later, we were on our way to being passport holders again. Since it was going to take a little more than an hour to process them, we decided to use that time to head back up to the airport, checking again on our lost bag.
Two days ago when I visited Avianca, I was told that they had found what they thought was our bag in Bogotá and had requested it be sent to La Paz for identification so we allowed ourselves to hope that we’d be getting it back after all. Today however, we were told that that wasn’t our bag and they think our bag is lost. I asked how they could know it wasn’t our bag if we didn’t get the chance to i.d. it, and they said because it didn’t have the corresponding luggage tag number. It didn’t have any luggage tag apparently. The essence of our looonng and bizarre exchange is thus:
“Couldn’t that have ripped off?”
“So…shouldn’t we check the contents to see if it’s ours?”
“Hmmm. It’s not here. It is in Cartagena. Or Bogotá. I’m not sure. We think it’s lost.”
“Well. What do we do now? Can we check your luggage room of unclaimed bags?”
“No. We don’t have one. We will keep looking for your bag. Maybe 2 more days.”
“If it is lost, what do we do? Is there a claim we can file in case it turns up? A police report if we suspect it was stolen? When you have a customer with a lost bag, what to you recommend they do? We are not staying in La Paz much longer and need to know a plan for this kind of situation.”
Shrug. Silence. “Un Momento.”
At which point another lady comes out and asks us to make a detailed description of all that was in the bag. If tennis shoes-what brand, she says, then they will look in the bag (this would involve cutting the lock) and if the contents match they’ll send the bag to La Paz. So Bo and I head to a restaurant, give the boys sandwiches and cookies and make the list. Hugely disappointed and increasingly worried about what someone with access to the paperwork in that bag could do to our lives, we drop the list off and head back down the mountain to the Embassy where after a short wait, we become passport holders again. (Another round of cheers for the Embassy workers!) I then dissolve into tears. Partly relief, part frustration about the airport visit, part exhaustion, part duration of worry — I don’t really know, but after my momentary mental break and the reassuring feel of Bo’s strong arms around me, we take stock of what’s next.
Only one thing left to get before we are free-moving travelers once again. A replacement Bolivian visa. Which can only be attained at a government office downtown. And feeling so close to the end, we head off to the Oficina de Migracion to see what that entails. The migracion office had the feel of a DMV, but with armed guards throughout and thick walls of glass surrounding each worker making it nearly impossible to hear things that were already difficult for me to understand. Once we figured out which window was ours, it became clear that problem #1 was how to keep the boys from utter mutiny while we wait in another long line. Bo offers to take them with him while he runs back to the hotel for more money; we didn’t want to get everything done only to not have quite enough dough on hand to pay for them! So off they go and I hurry up and wait. And wait. And then the metal door is being dragged down and locked so they can close for lunch and I’m feeling glad that I got in before that happened. I’m last in my line, and it’s actually starting to move. Still no sign of Bo and the boys and I’m wondering what I’ll do if they aren’t here and she needs to see them to verify their identity when the person ahead of me says, “Gracias” and walks off. I step up and the teller looks at me, announces she’s closed and to come back at 2:30.
Waiting in the sidewalk for Bo and boys I fight off another round of tears (what is with me today?!), and once they arrive we head BACK to the hotel where the boys get to watch a cartoon, Bo (who seems to be coming down with the flu) takes some aspirin and I try to track down someone at Montrose Public Health to see about verifying our vaccines since we’ve received mixed reports as to whether or not Argentina will let us in if we can’t prove we’ve had the Yellow Fever shot.
2:30 finds us heading back to Migracion, #3 line is long, we wait, boys squirm, we make it to the teller and explain what we need. She sends us to the teller next to her in window #4. He hears our story, tells us to wait, leaves, comes back, leaves again, comes back, tells us to come back in an hour because he needs time to look us up to prove we did in fact have visas before. An hour would make it 4:00 and on a nearby map we notice a park nearby and head that way.
Back at 4:00 our new teller’s line is long, I beg everyone’s pardon and slide in front to tell him we’ve returned, he looks very surprised to seem me and says, “NO. Cinco. Regresan a cinco.” (Come back at 5). We decide to wait in case he can help us sooner, they boys draw for a while, I take them for a walk, our teller’s line ends and Bo steps up only to be told “No. Cinco.” again. Boys have a melt down on our walk, we patch that up best we can, Cinco finally arrives and as we approach our teller behind window #4 he looks at us, holds up his hand in a wait gesture and walks away to another room. 10 minutes later, he’s back and telling us to come back at 6.
There is no way that works for us as Bo is now coughing and aching and running a fever, and the boys are so restless and hungry and grouchy…. and we have no sense that he’ll help us at 6 either! So, we track someone down again, explain the whole situation and ask if, now that everyone in the office has seen us to verify I’m not making them up, can I do the application alone or do they need to stay? I can do it alone. Phew!
They head off, I wait. Teller #4 comes back with forms for me to fill out and says he’ll need photocopies of our passports and police report as well when I’m done. I finish the forms hand over the passports and police report for him to make copies and absorb another one of his surprised/annoyed looks. Where are the photo copies, he wants to know. I’m sorry, I thought you were making them here.
Okay, where do I get photocopies? He gives me directions and then the man who has been holding up his hand to me all afternoon to wait, points his finger to his watch and says, “Rapido! Rapido!”.
I “Rapido” my way to the photocopy store and “Rapido” my way back. He takes it all, takes an inordinate amount of time organizing it. Hands it back and send me to the teller at window #3. Teller #3 re-organizes all the copies and passports and visa forms, gives me more papers to sign and then sends me on to window #9. The man in window #9 hands me 4 huge white folders to write my family’s names on while he types on his computer and determines how much I should pay for these new visas. He tells me a number, I pay it, he says no, in American dollars.
“No tengo dolares, solo Bolivianos.” He rolls his eyes, consults with his friends, does further calculations, and 2,190 Bolivianos later I am pointed over to window #2.
At window #2 I am given another whole set of forms to fill out, which I do, and hand them over. The big metal door is clanging shut behind me once again and I’m soooo close! Teller #2 asks for our transportation tickets showing when we are leaving Bolivia.
I explain we are hoping to leave Bolivia by train and I don’t have the tickets yet. She rolls her eyes, consults with her friends, writes something on all the white folders I have brought over, sticks every form I have filled out, every photo copy I have made, and all 4 of our new passports in their respective white folder and walks away.
Fifteen minutes later she returns and tells me to come back on Monday, they are closed. I ask for my passports back and she says that they are very secure and I cannot have them until this application is complete. I explain that I REALLY want them and she says impossible, they are secure. Come back on Monday.
Begin at window #5.