When I Couldn’t Get a Chilean Visa at the Border and Bolivia Wouldn’t Take me Back.
My cheeky Canadian friend Alison walked towards me from the immigration counter at the Bolivia-Chile border in San Pedro de Atacama. Fanning herself with the green Chile tourist card that boasted her free entry into Chile for ninety-days, she smiled.
Now it was my turn. The young immigration officer looked at me and gestured me to come closer. I walked to his desk. He asked for my passport. I slid my blue passport through the gap under the glass that stood erect between us.
Instead of handing me a green card as he issued to other tourists, the officer turned the pages of my passport and squinted to read the various visas and immigration stamps I had collected over the years. When he found my Chile temporary resident visa stamped on one of the passport pages, he asked for my RUT.
The RUT is a temporary residentship card issued by the government of Chile. I was given a 180-day Chilean residentship by a government program when I had traveled to Chile to teach English as a volunteer in Castro, the capital of a Southern Chilean island Chiloé.
But why was the officer asking for RUT? I wondered. Why didn’t he just give me a 90-day free Chile tourist pass that most tourists receive at the immigration? The RUT wasn’t of any use as I had already stayed in Chile for 180 days along with an added grace period.
Ignoring the hundred doubt that sprouted in my head, I rummaged for the RUT in my NorthFace rucksack with my sweaty hands.
The officer took my RUT, calculated some dates, and then asked me to wait outside the office.
While I sat on the small bench outside the immigration center, cars and vans studded with tourists came and left. The border control officers stamped the strong, colorful passports of other travelers in a few seconds without asking for any other document. I watched silently.
I was crossing into Chile after touring through the vast salt flats near Uyuni town in the south of Bolivia with Alison, another volunteer from the program, and more like a chuddy-buddy by then. That tour was the last leg of my post-volunteership three-month backpacking trip through Chile, Peru, and Bolivia. From San Pedro de Atacama, I was to make my way down to Castro to say goodbye to my host mother and friends and then travel to Santiago to board my homebound flight to Mumbai.
While driving around in Salar de Uyuni with our stout guide-cum-driver Juan, Alison and I climbed giant lava rocks, hurled salt balls at each other, posed for reflective photographs, and gazed at the star-studded sky. I didn’t think about the Chilean visa even once during those three days.
But I was getting anxious now. I couldn’t recall if I had read that Chile offered a ninety-day free tourist card to Indian citizens, too. And then the myriad of international border-crossing experiences where I had gotten enough stupefied looks from the immigration officers that I was convinced I could pass(or get stuck?) as an alien churned my stomach. (Find my different visa experiences on this page.)
I tried to dig some sympathetic words out of Alison regarding my poor-passport situation. But even talking to Trump could have resulted in more empathy at the time since she had both Canadian and British passports, the two strongest in the world. Bite me.
By the time the tourists’ buses left, the afternoon sun glowered hard. The dry air of the barren Atacama desert scorched me harder than the Dilli loo ever could.
The border control officer told me that he had sent pictures of my RUT, passport, and entry-exit stamps to his Santiago seniors and that they would reply in some time. We had to wait even longer. Alison rushed to San Pedro to buy water. Later, that water would be my sole companion on the long journey back to La Paz.
The bespectacled officer was making phone calls to the Santiago office when the Chilean van driver returned from San Pedro de Atacama. He had driven the rest of the tourists into the town.
I cannot leave you free, he said.
If only he had seen my garden squirrels running to the kitchen, climbing the marble slab, and nibbling at the watermelon pieces on the slab unabashedly even if I was just a foot away, he wouldn’t have considered me a security threat.
The long phone conversations of the officer with his Santiago counterparts accompanied by persuasive hand gestures hinted that I was in trouble. But my B positive blood group and Alison’s constant efforts of pacifying me by saying that neither was I alone nor was I dying helped me hold onto hope. From the summit of that bigger-picture mountain of life and death, the getting-stranded-at-an-international-border problem looked tiny.
The young officer walked out of the immigration center with a cigarette dangling from his right hand. He stopped outside the shadow of his ground-floor office. Where he stood, sunlight made the desert sand glitter like gold. Though his droopy shoulders suggested disappointment, I marched to him from the shaded corner in which I had been waiting for three hours.
I stopped at a few steps from him. We looked at each other.
“No puedes. You cannot enter Chile.” He said and took a drag.
My heart started thumping harder against my chest. Rivulets of sweat trickled down my sunburnt temples. I had to fly from Santiago to Mumbai in twelve days. My luggage was spread throughout the length of Chile with my friends who awaited my return to hear ambitious travel stories. What was the immigration officer saying?
“Why? What did the officials in Santiago say?” I could barely speak after what seemed like an eternity.
“That Indians do not get the free ninety-days Chile tourist pass like most of the other nationalities. Indians should have a visa before they come to Chile. You can get a visa for Chile in La Paz.”
He blew out smoke that soon disappeared into the dry Atacama air.
“But I cannot even enter Bolivia now. My Bolivia visa allowed me only one entry and exit. And I have already exited.” I exclaimed.
“Puedes. You can. When a country doesn’t let you in, you have to return to the country you came from. The origin-country has to take you back. These are the standard immigration rules.”
Bolivia border control had stamped my passport with an exit seal. How was I going to cross into Bolivia on a single entry and exit visa that was about to expire in a few days? Will I get stuck at the border? How did I miss that I needed a Chilean Tourist visa?
Hot showers at my island home in Chiloé, my cute British housemate’s bedtime discussions of the first world problems of his English friends, and evening Kunstman beer sessions with my Chilean host mother Cecilia seemed impossible in the immediate future.
An urgency clattered in my head and said, Priyanka, get yourself out of the situation.
Only when the Chile officer assured me that Bolivia would let me in, I accepted that I had to go back to La Paz, the city I had left a few days ago, to get one tourist visa for Chile. I thanked the officer for being patient. He trudged back to his office.
I plodded back to Alison who was now watching me quietly. The Chilean driver who had driven us from the Bolivian border to the Chile immigration office yelled that we had to leave quickly. When I told Alison that I couldn’t go with her to San Pedro as I first needed to go back to La Paz to get a visa, she handed over the two-liter water bottle to me and hugged me goodbye.
The driver bawled at me to get back into the van without wasting any time and sped on the same road where we had driven a few hours ago.
As the van galloped through the desert billowing clouds of sand behind, the Chilean driver asked me what was I going to do.
I had little cash, and there were no ATMs for a long way. A plethora of questions banged my head.
Would Bolivia let me in? Would my family rescue me from the border refugee center? Were they going to take me back to India only to marry me to the first man they found? Will I find a bus from the border to Uyuni and then to La Paz? Do I have enough cash for the journey? Where will I stay in La Paz? Does the Chilean embassy there issue quick visas for Chile? How much time will it take me to travel to San Pedro de Atacama again? And then how much longer to arrive in the south of Chile? In the worst scenario, I might have to hit my husband in the head with a lamb’s leg to escape, I decided.
The driver brought the van to a sudden halt at the border. Then I saw him running to a car that was about to leave the parking. My driver requested the car driver to take me along to Uyuni, the nearest town. He refused, and I scanned myself from top to bottom.
The driver walked inside the Bolivia border control office. I followed with my head bowed.
At first, the Bolivian officers declared that they could not allow me into Bolivia as I had a single entry visa. But when the driver elaborated that Chile wouldn’t let me in, they invalidated the exit stamps and returned me the blue entry slip.
“If someone asks about the annulled exit seal on the passport, tell them you stood in the immigration line by mistake.” One of the benevolent officers whispered.
I gave orange candy to my accomplices.
Bidding goodbye to the driver who said that he was worried about me, my eyes filled with tears eager to spill. I pushed back the tears before they could stream down my cheeks and went out of the office to wait for a ride back to Uyuni.
While clicking pictures of the Chilean and Bolivian flag dancing in the desert wind in front of icy mountains, I thought about the world political maps that our school Geography teacher made us label with countries in every other class. He hit us on the head with a rolled paper map if we marked a country incorrectly.
How did Rajendra sir know the significance of the lines scratched on earth when he had never even traveled out of India?
Soon I saw a lean white man walking towards the immigration center.
“What happened, Señorita? All okay?” A handsome guy asked me with a smile on his face.
“I am Petro. Originally from Ukraine, now I run a tour agency here in the Atacama.” He added.
When I narrated that I was waiting alone in the desert because I couldn’t enter Chile and had to get back to Uyuni, Petro said that one of his drivers and a guide was driving to Uyuni in half an hour. I would request the driver to bring you, he said.
“I am going to get out of the situation by taking one step at a time,” I told myself.
After fifteen minutes, the driver, the lady guide, one of the border control officer Javier, and I were speeding past by the same surreal landscapes that Alison and I had seen on the tour. Tall volcanoes fringed us on both sides. Amber sand blew around us unhindered. The vast salt flats rushed to the horizon in all directions. Vicuñas and llamas grazed on the rare golden scrubs.
When Javier told me that I was the first Indian he had met at the Bolivian border, I wondered how did I always end up alone in the world unprepared.
We drove six hours non-stop to arrive at Uyuni town at 7 pm. I ran to the bus stand to get the earliest bus to La Paz. I boarded the night bus with a pack of potato chips hoping that the sudden pain and swelling in my gums would subside allowing me to eat again. Hot manzanilla tea that usually calmed me down only hurt my gums.
I gulped down the toothpaste foam as the bus toilet didn’t have a functioning basin. Before letting myself sleep, I considered a myriad of possible scenarios at the consulate of Chile. The imaginative task of preparing a list of the people and organizations I would call and email if the office did not issue a Chile tourist visa quickly put me to sleep.
And I am glad that I pulled myself through that one hour of planning for the next morning in the Chile consulate, a tall, chiseled-face officer told me that the consulate could not give me a visa to Chile as it only issued visas to Bolivians. I pleaded. He asked me to fill a Chile visa application form. He handed the form to a woman sitting in a quiet corner at the back of the room. She typed on her computer as I waited on a chair wagging my legs.
After half an hour, the woman walked to the glass partition between the visitors and the staff. She said my name into the micro-speaker behind the glass window. I walked to the partition.
“I cannot process your visa here. The Chile consulate in La Paz does not issue visas for Indians as Santiago Ministry approves the Chilean visas of Indians directly.” She stated.
Neither did my past temporary residentship nor did my impending flight out of Chile could win her sympathy and trust. My stories of obtaining visas for a country from another country out of India did not buzz her either.
“I do not care about the policies of other countries.”
Maybe it was my puppy eyes or perhaps the lady realized the responsibilities of a consulate. For after a short pause the consulate officer told me that she would make an exception for me, but the office would need fifteen days to process the visa.
“But my flight is in ten days.” I reiterated.
“Your last-minute urgency for the visa isn’t the consulate’s fault.” She declared and walked back to her solitary desk.
While repeating my conversation with the consul officers to the roly-poly secretary at the gate, I choked up. He told me everything would be okay.
I rushed out of the consulate and prayed to the visa angels.
I promise to bring fresh avocados if they process my visa faster. I uttered.
I curbed the temptation to inform my family about the visa fiasco. Otherwise, the we-told-you-so followed by the incessant crying of my mother would have tempted me to apply for asylum. Instead, I activated my brain and pressed the backup-plan button.
I took out my mental list of places-to-go-in-emergency that I had prepared in the last night bus from Uyuni to La Paz. I took a taxi to the Indian embassy.
The embassy guard shut the building door on my face and shouted from the other side that the embassy had moved six years ago.
I googled the embassy address in the next door cyber cafe. Out of the five addresses that Google popped up, I picked the one that appeared to be in commercial neighborhoods of La Paz.
Please let this be the correct address, I mumbled.
Soon the taxi drove into an apartment complex. I said to the withered-face driver that the area looked residential and we wouldn’t be able to find an embassy there. And as I should have expected from a perseverant South-American, the driver stopped in front of the building in the address and told me to use the building buzzer system to talk to the office.
I buzzed 701.
I want to see the ambassador. I said.
Come up. A female voice told me.
I thanked the driver and took the elevator up to the embassy office. It was the apartment of Bolivia’s Indian consul. The middle-aged Bolivian woman who had spoken to me over the buzzer was the consul’s wife.
“There isn’t an Indian embassy in Bolivia. Here, take my husband’s phone number. He is in Santa Cruz.” She said.
The consul quickly replied to my Whatsapp message and sent me the contact of the Indian ambassador in Peru.
“Talk to him. He will help.” He told me.
The Indian ambassador in Lima heard my story over a WhatsApp voice call. When he asked why did I leave Chile if my temporary residentship had expired, I almost bit my tongue.
Waiting until the Chileans deported me wouldn’t have been a wise choice either? I refrained from shouting into the phone for I had been foolish enough to miss the Chilean visa requirement for Indians.
We Indians can’t catch a break, I mumbled to myself.
The Indian ambassador in Peru added one more obstacle to my hurdle race to the border.
Most of the government offices would not work on Thursday and Friday. It is Semana Santa, the holy week for Catholics.
Then he took a minute of silence as if he was grieving that in South America nobody was fully functional even on regular days so I shouldn’t hope for any progress that week.
We were already on Tuesday.
I blew the siren for help in all directions and emailed the coordinator, head, and regional representatives of the program for which I volunteered in Chile. Then I took a taxi back to my hotel area while my eyes hunted for a dental clinic on both sides of the road. Most clinics were closed due to the Semana Santa. In a food court near my hotel where people had started recognizing me, I pushed a chicken empanada down my throat.
I sipped chamomile tea while my gums bled. Ignoring the sky trolleys flying above me, I went back to my room and crashed on the bed.
A few hours later, my phone vibration woke me up.
The Gmail notification displayed an email from the Indian ambassador in Peru. I tapped on the notification.
“The approval of Ms. Gupta’s Chile visa has been sent to the consulate of Chile in La Paz. Please ask her to go to the office with this email.” The email which the ambassador had forwarded was originally sent and signed by the Indian ambassador in Chile. I grinned.
While I slept, the Indian ambassadors had spoken to the Ministry of External Affairs in Santiago. Santiago authorities had sent my visa approval to the Chilean embassy in La Paz.
I had been able to escape from the holiday wave of Semana Santa at least visa-wise.
How many avocados did I promise?
Following the Indian ambassador’s instruction in the message, I printed the confirmation email and took a taxi to the Chile consulate the next morning.
When I handed the printout to the lady, she lifted her round glasses off her snub nose and squinted her eyes to read the email. Then she turned around and walked to her desk. I went back to the white bench I had been sitting on.
For the next hour, a young Bolivian and I whispered about the slow and mysterious visa process. When the attendant asked us to deposit the Chile visa fee in the bank, I almost jumped. Then the Bolivian and I shared a taxi to the bank. When I showed the bank’s receipt for a USD 50 deposit in the Chilean embassy’s account to the immigration lady, she printed a nine-day Chilean visa on my passport that expired on the date of my flight.
I gushed out of the office.
“I got my visa.” I chirped to the jolly attendant at the gate.
“Didn’t I tell you it would be all right? I hope you have a great time in Chiloe.” He knew I had spent six months on his favorite Chilean island. We said goodbye by kissing each other on both cheeks.
With my whole mouth aching as if someone had punched my face like the Indian women beat clothes with a wooden bat, I again slept off in my hotel room. In the evening, I went to the bus terminal to buy a ticket to Uyuni. But my misfortune was a few moves ahead.
The twelve-hour long buses to Uyuni only ran at night. The tickets for the day were sold out.
I had to wait for another day in La Paz.
In the nine days until my return flight to Mumbai, I had to travel 4000 kilometers to say goodbye in Castro and then 1400 km from Castro to Santiago to catch my plane.
Wish me luck.
I strolled around La Paz for another day, took painkillers, and stuffed myself with more roadside potato empanadas. The night bus from La Paz brought me to Uyuni at 5:15 am. But the last bus to the Chilean border town Calama had left fifteen minutes ago.
I stationed myself in a rickety hotel next to the bus station to catch the next day’s early morning bus. Eating pizza and drinking fresh lemon juice at the plaza filled the time between binge-watching Pablo Escobar.
Now every fifteen minutes I found thick dollops of blood floating in my mouth. My swollen gums had shed a blood bath punishing me for not visiting a dentist for two years. If only my sister had warned me to clean my teeth for hygiene purposes and not for beautification, I might have listened.
A temporary cleanup was all I could get on that Semana Santa weekend in a small dysfunctional town of Bolivia.
I boarded the bus to Calama the next morning.
Now an aching wisdom tooth that had decided to protrude beyond its space poked me throughout my 12-hour bus journey. I started to get a hint of karma being at work. (Or it could be that I didn’t know how to take care of myself and never focused on self-growth.)
The rickety Bolivian bus sped on the dusty road to bring me to the Bolivia-Chile border again. The immigration officer stamped my passport without asking any questions at that time.
The border control took five hours to stamp all the bus passengers’ passports. When a fellow Canadian passenger Lucas suggested flying to Santiago from Calama, a journey which would have taken us another twelve hours by road, I sprinted along with him to a cyber cafe. We both booked a $120 plane to Santiago. But fate played its next turn, and the $120 turned out to be 120,000 Chilean pesos or 200 US dollars. Since then I have not trusted sites that display the US dollar sign in front of other world currencies.
We arrived at Santiago airport at 2 am. Aware of the notorious streets of the capital, we took a taxi to the Estacion Central at twilight. When I enquired about the bus timings to Chiloé, I was not surprised to find that the earliest bus left at five in the evening. Another turn played right.
Lucas and I spent the next twelve hours talking in the food court of the station and taking turns going to the bathroom. When the clock struck five, I didn’t feel the urgency to leave. A year of continuous travel had taught me that there is always a minute to stop and appreciate the journey taken so far. Lucas pecked me on the cheek and said that I had a home in Canada. I strapped my rucksack, picked up my backpack, and climbed down to the platform.
After yet another fifteen-hours-long bus journey later, I arrived in Castro the next morning famished and disheveled. I strode to the house of my host mother Cecilia. Opening the house door with a spare key that Ceci kept in a secret place outside her home, I let myself in. Then I placed my bags on the wooden floor and walked upstairs to her room stealthily.
The corridor was lit with twilight, but the sun hadn’t risen yet. I stepped carefully on the wooden floor. The framed photographs of my British friend, Ceci and I laughing and celebrating my birthday with cake pasted all over my face and wine glasses in our hands watched me from the wall.
When I opened the door of Ceci’s room slowly, she slightly lifted her head off the bed and asked, “Quien? Who is it?”
I hadn’t told her that I was coming.
I said, “mama.”
She stopped searching for her glasses on the bedside stool and shouted, “hija. My daughter.”
I strode to her bed and hugged her while she repeatedly said that she had missed me and asked me why I didn’t tell her that I was coming. Then she took off her white blanket while still holding my arm and jumped out of the bed. Wrapping herself in her pink robe, she said, “Vamos. Let us go downstairs.”
We both walked down the stairs hand in hand while thinking about the things we had to tell each other.
Over a cup of Nescafe coffee and toast with cheese, she asked me what took me so long to get back to her.
“I wanted to see the world. I wanted to know if I can make it alone.” I said.
She smiled, as if she already knew the answer.
Have you ever been stuck at a border? Did you like my Chile visa story? Let me know in the comments.
PS: While writing this essay I realized that I could have just taken a flight from La Paz to Santiago and that would have saved me three days. Well, things you learn when you travel enough.
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