crossing the Andes

A 6-hour bus ride takes you from Mendoza across the Andes to Santiago de Chile. The route climbs very slowly on the Argentinian side so it is a surprise when a road sign at the border informs you that you are 3,200 metres above sea level. The breathing becomes heavier and the head a bit dizzy (or was it all the turns?).

The scenery along the road is amazing – the colours and structure of the ground change all the time from bright greens and yellows to pale, high-mountain grey and orange, from grassy plains to rock to sand.

While I was expecting a scenic ride, the experience at the border was a surprise. In the first three weeks of travelling I entered three countries, was asked how long I intended to stay, got my passport stamped and waved goodbye. At best, the exercise is tedious.

The scene at the border between Argentina and Chile, high up in the Andes, was more intense. All the passengers had to leave the bus and queue, first, to get an uninterested look and automatised stamp from the Argentinian official and then again for a full interview with the Chilean. Why are you here? Why are you taking a bus and not a plane? Are you married? What is your profession? Oh, abogado… OK, fiiine.

The person before me was Peruvian with no job and a daughter living in Chile. She had a much longer and more threatening discussion.

Then came the sniffing by a dog. A lab, sure, but if you can’t cuddle it, what’s the point? We’re 3200m high, it’s cold, we don’t look at each other, we just wait for the dog to show up. The paranoid mind makes you start doubting the content of your own bag. How will I ever explain in Spanish (and with a heavy breath!) why I am carrying whatever they will find in my backpack? Wait! – what? Relax.

The dog passes, barks at a few people, passes again and barks some more. Then the headcount starts for which we had to rearrange ourselves in a single line in front of a wall. The numbers do not add up – the driver says he has 38 passengers, but there’s 39 of us standing at the wall. Jose B.? Si. Maria F.? Si. John D.? Presente. “Has someone’s name not been called out?” Em… mine. Name? Why are you here? Are you married? OK, fiiine.

The authorities took more than an hour to let the bus through to the other side. It is not the end of the world to be questioned, sniffed, barked at, counted in front of a wall, and then questioned some more. But it’s not fun either. Borders are not fun! They are humiliating and depersonalising. And if they are not fun for a white man travelling with an EU passport, imagine what they must feel like for the 80-year old Peruvian woman travelling alone and who only wants to see her daughter but whose every sentence is doubted and tested.

The more and more people back home who are having rabid dreams about raising borders again, should first cross one before indulging in their daydreams. Or else we should all start getting ready to be regularly sniffed by uncuddlable labradors.

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