35 - PERU
Cusco to Bolivian border - 11/09/04 - 13/10/04
Once again we had gorgeous weather and the road to Puno was fabulous. More stops for pictures and one to put some air in Dan's tyres. He couldn't work out why the bike felt weird. R suggested tyre pressure and miraculously it did the trick. He was a happy boy after that.
It was amazing arriving at Lake Titicaca, it's such a mystical place. We arrived at sunset and the lake stretched out in front of us. Unfortunately Puno is a bit of a dump. We were expecting hotels and restaurants at the lake side but the town is set back because the edge of the lake is swampy with reeds growing. We decided we wouldn't stay long and the next day went to visit the Floating Islands.
These are islands on the lake near Puno that have been made by the Uros people. They originally built them to stay separated from the Aymara. They are now a tourist destination and have really been turned in to floating souvenir stands. The people do now rely on the tourist trade though.
It was a strange little trip and we ended up buying a bunch of stuff we didn't really want. Guys on the docks sell you sweets and pencils to give to the children. Think they must have pencils to last a lifetime in the school there. One of the islands is the communication hub there is a post office and telephone booth. As I hadn't sent a single postcard home since we left I thought I would. Of course it has never arrived, but we took a picture to prove it.
Phoning a friend
The kids are gorgeous and never leave you alone. Sit down and you get jumped on. They're all after sweets of course and anything else you may have in your pockets for them. But they are very cute and difficult to resist.
Later we took a ride out to Sillustani. Here in the most gorgeous setting are funeral towers of an Aymara tribe, who were around at the same time as the Inca's. The towers are very strange and apparently no one has been able to recreate the tallest one yet. It's the most beautiful and peaceful place on the edge of Lake Umayo.
The next day we left for the border and trouble. The day started out ok, gorgeous weather once again and a great road. We took a little track down to the lake to get some pictures and things began to go wrong. R very nearly got the bike stuck on the beach and Dan dropped his camera, which has never worked again. Then we arrived at the border.
Looking back we don't really know what world we were living in. We had managed to convince ourselves everything would be ok when really deep down we knew we would be very lucky to get through.
We have a Carnet de Passage which is basically a document guaranteeing to the country that we're in that we are not going to illegally import the bike. It is issued by the RAC and their equivalents. In Peru this is the TACP. You leave a deposit with the RAC which the country can claim for import taxes if you do leave the bike. The maddening thing is we didn't really need to use it. We could have got a 3 month temporary import as you can in most South American countries. We only used it because we had just used it to exit Ecuador and it seemed easier!!
When we arrived in Peru the carnet still had two months left on it and we thought that would be loads of time. However we loved Peru and ended up staying longer. The guy at the border told us that the carnet was valid as long as our tourist visas were, which we ended up extending and didn't worry about the bike.............doh! How stupid was that!
We did check all this with the RAC back home, with several emails. The answer we got was that it shouldn't be a problem. People exited countries on expired carnets all the time and they'd never heard of any problems. An expired carnet can still be claimed on and anyway we were leaving the country with the bike so no big deal.........Stupidly we decided to believe this. It is of course a big deal. Once the date has expired customs see the bike as illegal and impound it. So we roll up to the border and the shit hits the fan.
To everyone who suggested we should have bribed them...........website contacts, British Consulate, Head of Peruvian Customs in Lima. We tried. Every step of the way we tried. If it works for you, great but there was just no way. The guy at the border was on the phone to his bosses immediately and the problem just kept getting passed up, no one wanted to deal with it. So after many phone calls, much pleading, me trying tears all to no avail we had to get our gear off the bike, leave it in the customs office and go back to Puno. We said goodbye to Dan, all of us expecting to be reunited in a few days. Misery, misery, misery. We got on a bus but couldn't bear it, not for 100 miles, found a taxi. Back to Puno, back to the hotel where everyone was so lovely we wanted to cry.
Next day, went to customs. Much waiting, see nice man who says get an extension from the RAC and all will be ok. Great. Get extension, go back next day. We are both ill, R can hardly stand up. Lima says no. What does that mean, no body knows. Whisper, whisper, maybe get your embassy involved. Nice man seems totally exasperated but we can't work out with who or why. We now think with his boss in Puno who turned out to be evil and the cause of a lot of our problems. Everyone goes for lunch.
We phone the Embassy in Lima. Speak to nice woman who says she'll see what she can do but really we need the Consulate. Ok, couldn't tell you the difference, but know now!
Send emails to both explaining our plight. Embassy woman has customs contacts who turn out to be drug related, all very hush, hush, can't mention any names or tell anyone. Have lots of secret phone calls just trying to establish who we have to deal with. Now it's the weekend but we have discovered that the Puno boss wants an explanation letter. We work on this all weekend and find a translator to come with us on Monday.
Have also discovered that we had two weeks to leave the country once the carnet expired. Work out that we were in Arequipa and had been in touch with the RAC. If they had known this, and told us we could have been in Chile within a day, renewed papers and come back..........arhhhhhhhhh!
Off we go on Monday morning and submit our explanation, copies of extension and everything we feel is relevant. Paperwork lady goes off to see if the bike has arrived from the border - WHAT??? Thank god it hasn't and they haven't tried to move it. Panic now sets in as they say the bike has to be moved back to Puno. R wants to ride it back? - No. How about with a customs official on the back? - No.
None of the bosses are around; they are all at the stadium doing a fitness test for new recruits. Andreas, our very patient translator suggests we go down there; we are not really keen but go anyway. Unsurprisingly they are all busy. Andreas finds out they will be back at five and we arrange to return then.
We wait more, thinking we will finally see the boss "Senor Jorge Montoya". We see someone else, the boss just refuses to talk to us. Eventually after nearly a week of nothing this man tells us the bike is gone forever, we cannot have him back. R nearly throws up, I just sit there silent refusing to accept it. We can't believe what we've done warrants such punishment. Ok we've been stupid, really stupid, but we're not criminals. Just idiot tourists.
Then we're back to hushed conversation. If the Embassy contacts customs in Lima then maybe it can be sorted out. We think now that this embassy solution is whispered to keep it from Montoya. They don't want him to know they are telling us a way out.
We try to persuade this man to let R ride the bike back from the border but he's not having it. In the end he agrees that we can go with whoever to pick up the bike and that we can go the next day as it has become apparent we are wasting our time here and must fly back to Lima.
Next morning we arrive at customs at 8am. 10.30 a driver arrives and after much moving of vehicles a van emerges from the far corner of the customs car park. Now we really panic. It's like a Luton van, there's no lift and nowhere to tie the bike to. We try to explain how big the bike is. No one is listening. We try to explain that there is no way a few people are going to be able to lift a 300kg bike 4ft up in to the van. They don't care. Someone says there is a lift at the border, we know there isn't. We ask if there is another van, with some thing to tie the bike to, no. A couple of old mattresses are found to lie the bike down on. Ok, it's not our bike anymore and nobody here cares if it's a complete wreck by the time it arrives. Why should they? This is just a big pain in the arse for them.
I am freaking, quietly of course, but R points out we just have to get on with it and see what happens. So off we go with the driver and his wife. Turns out he thinks this whole thing is mad too and doesn't understand why they won't let R ride the bike with an official on the back. Instantly we love him, at last a reasonable person, but he's just a driver, there's nothing he can do.
The road is so bumpy, don't remember it being this bad on the bike. We are being chucked about all over and dreading the way back with the bike lying down.
I am a big pile of hate, seething and sulking and why, why, why-ing. The van is getting slower and slower. We aren't going up hill. What's going on? The van is dying. The driver gets out and tries his mobile, nothing. He turns round. We head back even slower. Slower and slower, then nothing. I have killed the van. The evilness pouring out of me has killed it. Don't know how but I'm convinced.
Girls at Sillustani
The driver parks up and before we know it has jumped on a bus and disappeared. Great, now what? We ask his wife what's going on, she has no idea, he didn't say anything to her either. So we sit abandoned by the shore of Lake Titicaca. How the hell did we get here?
So we sit and sit, have a chat with a lovely old lady mooching past with her donkey's wondering what we're up to. Decide to get on the next bus to Puno. No buses. A bus! Completely full. Another bus, again completely full.
An hour and a half later a customs 4x4 comes barrelling down the road. Our driver jumps out with a mechanic. Lovely Pedro, driver of the 4x4 bundles us in and heads back to Puno. Hurrah, at last someone from customs who is truly Peruvian and not been taken over by miserable aliens like everyone else. He doesn't see why R can't ride the bike back either, but unfortunately it's not up to him.
Boss still won't see us. We are getting really pissed off with being treated like this now but we just have to keep being nice." Please, please, please let me ride the bike back. I'm not a criminal." At last R's persuasiveness does it.
At one O'clock R dives in a cab and disappears. It ends up taking him three hours to get there with some crazy driver who keeps crossing himself. Takes him in to Llave, the town where they lynched the mayor a few months back, to change tyres and just swaps the bald ones around. They then get stopped by the police at the border because he is a town taxi and shouldn't have taken the long distance fare. R, having paid already, left him to it.
On the way to Lima
At six I'm beginning to wonder what to do if I get a phone call saying "I kicked the little git off! I'm in Copa with Dan having a beer, get yourself here." Can I carry all our gear? I've been and bought a suitcase for going to Lima. It's got wheels. Change hotels tonight, bus to the border. Customs guy won't remember me, especially not in my bike gear. Phone rings...................
He's back in Puno, of course. I go up to customs and we take all the boxes off the bike, make sure he's safely parked and say our goodbye's but promise we'll be back. We'll be back, and see if we don't win Senor Jorge Montoya!
So we're up in a plane and on our way to Lima. The sky is beautiful but we are miserable and bikeless. The fog that covers the city hadn't shifted and looked like a layer of cotton wool from above. Through it descended two little black clouds, we were back in Lima.
We had thought it would be ok to be in Lima. Cinema, shops restaurants, we could do the web site. We ended up sitting in the hotel waiting for phone calls, getting food poisoning and the time just dragged. Back and forth to the Consulate, phone calls with the secret customs people and endlessly waiting for news.
All the things we’d got used to were now so annoying. The taxi driver's constantly tooting at you and getting in the way when you want to cross the road. The shoe shine boys wanting to put black polish on your trainers. The street kids with their bags of sweets, hassling, "One sole, one sole, Por Favoooooooor".
Sunset at 30,000ft
When I was ill and couldn't move from the room, R went to the supermarket. On his own, with his hands full he was a prime target and realised when he got back that he'd had his pocket picked. Just great. Oh well, those kids probably had a few days off on us.
Eileen at the Consulate was amazing. Worked so hard for us, always cheerful, always had time to speak to us and got us our bike back. It became so complicated. No one knew who could make the decision. No one knew who decided on the fine and eventually no one even knew where we had to pay it.
After almost three weeks we ended up with the Assistant head of customs for the whole of Peru running round with us at the airport trying to find a bank that would take the fine before they all closed for the bank holiday weekend.
It was crazy. He was such a lovely man though and he was so angry at what had happened to us. He was actually shaking at one point when it was becoming apparent this may go over another weekend. It was a very bizarre afternoon. We also had with us a guy from the TACP (Peru's RAC) and the customs boss was actually trying to keep things from him about this whole process. Not wanting us to ask the wrong things in front of him and we realised he had no sympathy for us whatsoever and if it had been up to him we would never have seen the bike again. We think now it was the TACP who told the guy at the border to impound the bike in the first place. Great.......we gave him the number!
FREE AT LAST!!
So finally we had our resolution. $670 lighter and a month later we were back at Puno customs. Once again they put a spanner in the works. Despite being assured we could get the bike that afternoon, the right person wasn't there so we had to go back in the morning. Went back and we sat for three hours while they waited for paper work to come through from the border where we entered. Whilst we were sitting there we got our first sight of Jorge Montoya. He came in to the office for some papers, could hardly miss who we were. Pair of Gringo's in bike gear, that Head of customs had been talking to him about for three weeks. But he chose to completely ignore us.
It turns out he could have made the decision to let us go within a couple of days. Each department is autonomous, it was up to him all along. But for whatever political reason, he didn't want to make the decision. He probably wished he'd just let us go in the end as I think he brought himself a whole lot of trouble from Lima. But finally the bike was out, we had him back. Our stupidity had cost us a whole pile of money, a lot of stress and most importantly a month of precious time.
We ride back in to town. Everyone's waving, smiling, chatting the minute we stop. We suddenly realise we've been invisible for a month. Without the bike we're just another couple of tourists. With the bike, it's a whole different story. We get back to the hotel and all the staff come out beaming, shaking our hands and touching the bike. We even get interviewed for local TV by a passing camera crew. It's all a bit overwhelming.
Road to Freedom
Next day we pack up and head for Bolivia. Back along that road, past where the van died, back past the mayor lynching town, back to the border.
It takes a while but they let us go. Bolivia is easy, we're in. We arrive in Copacabana, the town on Lake Titicaca that is just what you want it to be. Dan has come back from La Paz to meet us, it's good to see him. So there we are, we three once more, drinking beer in the next Gringo bar down the trail. Like the last month never happened.
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