Strip-searched at the Border

Trip Start May 17, 2009
Trip End Jun 16, 2009

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Flag of Peru  , Tacna,
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The only sense of urgency we felt Monday morning compelling us to leave the warmth of our very comfortable beds was the fact that neither of us wanted to do any border crossing after dark. With another six-hour bus ride looming over our heads however, we got dressed, enjoyed another complementary "breakfast" of coffee and assorted rolls (no wonder no one here is taller than me, Wheaties anyone?), and made our way through rush-hour traffic in Peru's second largest city back to the bus terminal.

We bought our tickets for 20 soles ($6.85US) on the bus company "Flores". The bus wasn't very crowded, so we were able to pick the front row seats. We assumed having a view out the front window would help pass time a little more quickly. The view did help, but we didn't take into account that the day's journey would take us through the closest thing to Tatooine (the mythical desert planet from Star Wars) on this planet, where there is literally NOTHING but dust, sand, and rocks for miles in any direction. The trip was a series of high, winding mountain passes connected by straight lines of asphalt across the barren valleys in between. I rather enjoyed not seeing anyone or anything for long stretches while taking in the desert vistas, but Taylor- the desert-born native found it boring and retreated to the sanctuary of his i-pod's tunes and dreamland.

As the time grew closer to our ETA, we came over the mountain pass upon our last stop in Peru- Tacna. As soon as we de-boarded the bus in Tacna, we were approached as our guidebooks said we would be, by a man trying to recruit enough people for his collectivo over the border. Initially sketched-out, the price seemed right so we agreed to go to his company's kiosk where we filled out the paperwork for crossing the border. After a short stint in the parking lot while the driver corralled a Chilean family to fill the car, we were flying down the Pan-American highway in a 1992 Crown Vic going somewhere in the neighborhood of 100mph.. not kph, mph.. I can't say for sure because the speedometer was hovering somewhere near 7mph the entire time and the only part of the entire dash that seemed to work was the "low fuel" light the came on immediately after we left the terminal and went off after he stopped to put in a dollar's worth of 78 octane fuel. I had a pretty good view of things because I was wedged between Taylor in the passenger's seat and the driver while the Chilean family filled the back seat with their copious amounts of baggage and strollers.

Twenty minutes and about 40 miles down the road, we were pulling into the Peruvian border crossing's parking lot. The driver was good at his job as he helped us bypass the large line of locals waiting to be cleared. We put our bags through the un-manned x-ray machine and walked through a metal detector that didn't go off despite the pound of coinage I had in my pockets, metal belt, and assorted zippers, keys, and buttons I had on my person. We were getting ready to approach the podium where we would receive our exit stamps when the guard who would have cleared us noticed one of his compadres near the x-ray machine motioning for us.

I've heard enough travel horror stories to assume that when we entered the search room, there wasn't a good chance we would be leaving with both our money and dignity. Luckily we were both put in the same room which was slightly reassuring and a little more unnerving at the same time. He asked us if we spoke Spanish. Taylor shook his head "no" and I figured this was a good time to have him try to speak English instead of me trying to understand Spanish. His directions came more in the form of motions similar to Charades and "Simon Says" combined. He pretended to lift his shirt, then we actually lifted ours. He pretended to drop trou, then we actually did. He searched our money belts, counting our cash and examining our immunization cards, then replacing it all. Taylor lucked-out and received the "quickie" version of the body pat-down, while I got a little TLC from Jorge the border guard, complete with a squeeze of the butt-cheeks at the end. Apparently I was more his type! We emerged from the room to the questioning eyes of everyone in line who watched us go in and not come out in handcuffs. Our driver who also looked relieved, hurried us through the line again and it was on to the Chilean authorities a mile down the road. For a moment, these two white-boys from the states got a taste of how Arab guys must feel when they are "randomly searched" at every airport checkpoint. The Chilean protocol was much more straight-forward. A short time later, we were going 100mph down the Pan-American again, this time for Arica!         
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