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Bridge over troubled waters.. how I jumped the Ecuador border

Posted by on December 8, 2012

“Can I see your documents please Sir” The  Ecuadorian Customes Officer asked in Spanish. “Si claro” I responded . I  opened my document wallet. Hmm now where are they.  “No seriously where are they? I had them yesterday!…..Uh oh !!”,

The official went off to look at the Gavin and Gordon’s documents and  in that moment while I was looking I instantly knew what faith had befallen  my Temporary Vehicle Importation document. Last night I ripped it in pieces, doused it in gasoline and set it on fire.

How the hell could this have happened? I knew I was in for a whole world of crap because of this. As far as documents go, after your passport this is the most important piece of paper you hold when crossing a country on your motorcycle. As the title suggests this is the document that allows you to temporarily import your vehicle into a country.  The document must be surrendered at the exiting border to confirm this is your bike and/or that you haven’t sold your bike in the country,  hence the government missing out on tax. Its always about the bottom line you see!

So how could things have gone so wrong and how the hell did I end up burning it?

The day started off great. The previously day we had been on a great ride. We left that place called Villcabamba. As we headed out we saw a sign saying 120 km to the town about 30km before  the border. We had chosen a small border outpost off the Pan America highway in the east of the country. We figured we would easily make the border that day. We twisted our way along dirt roads for 3o km or more and then saw another sign saying 180 km! What the hell had happened? We had just added 90km to our journey. We continued on making our way slowly but surely across the muddy roads.  There had been a down pour the previous day so it was very slippery. At about 11 am we met our first obstacle. A road closure. After 2 hours waiting we were finally able to cross. The road was a mixture of dirt and thick mud which had myself and Gav squirreling through it and nearly being flung off several times. Then we hit road closure No. 2 and were stuck there for another 30 minutes or so.

Chatting at the road block

Sill waiting..

Yep… still waiting

Things weren’t going so well progress-wise but nevertheless it was a great ride. We eventually reached the town around 4 pm and decided to eat and get some provisions for a nights camping. Its was too late to hit the border we figured. In hind sight it would have been a lot simpler had we.

We found a nice camp spot where the road and a river intersected. It was a great location and very peaceful. It was perfect, but it was almost too perfect and this is when it all started go wrong.

While looking for some paper to light our campfire with I took out my document wallet. I had a bunch of old and defunct documents from the various countries I had passed through. So I set about separating the current and valid documents from the old stuff.

That sorted- current documents and originals on the left hand side and  defunct documents on the right; the document wallet slipped from my legs. I caught it, but unbeknownst to me the current TVI document had slipped to the right hand side.

And so I picked up the most important piece of paper I had. Ripped it in pieces  crumpled it up, put it at the base of the camp fire, doused it with petrol and it was set on fire. I would love to blame Gordon for this as it was him who struck the match but I was solely to blame for this almighty cock-up.

The campsite before the border

Behold – I have just burnt Seán’s documents – Thanks Gordo!

“Senor” he demanded in a stern voice ” Where are your documents?
The enormity of my mistake and the manner in which I had ceremoniously disposed of my document dawned on me. In that moment everything seem to be so funny to me. Had I really just set fire to my documents? Despite knowing I was in a whole world of trouble I couldn’t help but find the whole situation absurdly funny.

I responded by saying  “Senor, last night I needed some paper to light a fire with and I burnt them”. He done a double take in disbelief at what he had just heard and stepped backwards. He gave me a look that said “Do not fuck with me Sonny Boy”. He turned from amiable Customs Officer to one very pissed off Customs Officer in a second. He asked me again, “Where are your documents”.  I repeated “I burnt them”. With little Spanish its hard to elaborate much more on what happened but I followed it with a polite “Sorry”. That should do the trick I thought.  I guess it was the slightly hysterical smile on my face that appeared to  anger him even further, but he really did not like hearing this at all  and perhaps he thought I was making a joke about the whole affair.

He went off the discuss it with his superior. He was equally unimpressed. The two of them then began a session of intimidation  making out that this indeed was a very serious issue. And it was I guess. I assured them that this was my bike and showed them the paper trail form Alaska to Ecuador, with all the previous import permits baring the same plate number and the same chassis number. But my pleas were falling on deaf ears.

After some discussion they rang the Border Office where I had entered the country and after a half an hours wait later sure enough they called back and confirmed that I had entered the country with the very same bike. Easy, I thought. Perfect, common sense is prevailing, but it wasn’t. Bureaucracy being bureaucracy; the beast still had to be satisfied. They informed my I had to go back to Loja and get  new TVI document and that I was forbidden to leave Ecuador until I was in possession of this and I had surrendered it to them.

LOJA? But that’s 3 days ride for me over some of the most dangerous roads we had been on. And for what? Just to get a piece of paper? They had already confirmed the bike was mine and that I had entered the country with it and here I am now trying to leave with it. So what’s the problem? The only thing I’m missing is this stupid piece of paper!

Note: Never call a government document a stupid piece of paper.

This was no going well at all. I pleaded with them but they weren’t budging.  Gavin and Gordon would not be happy with the news.

Dejected at my attempts to try and appeal to the border guards sense of fairness. Which in hindsight was a stupid notion. I went back to the guys who were sitting having a breakfast beer waiting for an update. They had already been there for 2 hours or more.

Returning to Loja a difficult 2-3 days ride there and another two days back was not something that appeal to me at all. The roads were treacherous and I certainly didn’t fancy tackling them all over again.

I began to weigh up my options. The guys had sorted their documentation and were free to leave, however they had no additional piece of paper or stamp that I didn’t have. I had already got my stamp out from the Immigration Official, who was also the Police man as it turned out.  So it wasn’t as if Peru were expecting another piece of paper confirming the bike was removed from Ecuador.

Some road workers had come into the restaurant and I went over to chat with them. They were working across the border and I figured they would know the Peruvian border process. Their advice was to try get over the Peruvian side and talk to them to see if they would process my documentation and allow me enter. It was a long shot but I decided I would give it a go, but it wasn’t without its risks.

The border with Peru consists of a large river, too large to cross on a motorcycle or wade. Spanning the water was a large concrete bridge about 200m in length. One thing was getting across unseen by the Ecuadorian border guards, the other thing I had to consider was that it was possible that these guys were in constant communication with each other and if I presented myself in Peru with my problem they would immediately be on the phone and the illegal border crossing would have been rumbled with unknown consequence, perhaps jail time, who knows?

I found a pathway to the side of the bridge that led up to the road level. It was just out of sight of the border guards and unless the border guard was standing right on the bridge opening the barrier he couldn’t see across the bridge. He wasn’t so I went for it.
I walked across the bridge feeling what an escaping prisoner might feel like with the feeling that all eyes were watching and  piercing my back,  all the time wondering whether someone might shout or blow a whistle.  Also, what would I expect when I arrived on the other side? It was all very unknown and a bit disconcerting.

Bridge over troubled waters..

There was nobody manning the barrier as I arrived on the Peru side so I set about looking for the Immigration Officer. I looked inside his office but he was no where to be seen. The road workers I had seen earlier had told me he was gone off drinking. Were they serious?
Eventually I found him in a little restaurant eating and slobbering greedily. He asked me what I wanted and continued sucking on a chicken bone and spooning soup into his mouth. Dribbling as he did so.

I  told him up front I had a problem in Ecuador, that I had “lost” my TVI document  (I figured the truth was just too much for him to handle), and that they wouldn’t let me pass without it.
He started mumbling something in indecipherable Spanish. At that moment I realised that he was in fact completely drunk.

He basically said “No problem”, “Fuck those guys”. And told me it would cost me $50. He was in a restaurant and in front of people was trying to illicit a bribe from me. Had he no shame? Evidently not.

I asked him “What about the Ecuadorian border guards on the other side?”  He just waved his hand dismissively and mumbled something which I didn’t quite catch.

I walked out of his office and just happened to meet the Peruvian Customs Official. It was his job to approve the import of the motorcycle and issue the new document. He was just arriving and was getting out of a small mototaxi. He was an old guy maybe in his 60’s or 70’s even. He asked me to take his arm to steady him as we made our way to the office. I told him about my problem and in a Grandfather like way he told me not to worry about it and to come on over and he would sort it out. Just then the drunk Immigration Officer butted in incase a deal was being made without him. The old man sharply said to him “Help him!”. The immigration officer responded by saying “How can I help him?”. Looking at me with the assertion that it was going to take some green for him to help me. The old man snapped at him again and repeated “Just help him”. The old man then turned to me and told me to try pass the barrier and come on over.

Okkk then. I snook back to the Peruvian side with plenty to ponder.

Could I just bolt across the border when the guards weren’t looking? I figured they had no jurisdiction over there and it appeared there was certainly no love lost between the opposing border officials. But it still could turn into a messy confrontation if I went for it.
Could I even trust the crooked Immigration Official? or would he just come up with another “tax”or threats of jail when I arrived across illegally and knowing I couldn’t go back. I didn’t trust him one bit and didn’t like the idea of giving him anything.

At this stage we had been there for several hours and the lads were getting visibly weary of the whole affair. I went back to the Customs office to plead my case again with the border guards to see if they would allow me to pass, but they were not budging.

I went back to the restaurant and after some discussion with the lads I decided I would make a run for it. The barrier to the bridge wasn’t being manned at this moment. I noticed the lady who owned the restaurant right beside the bridge was moving her van.  I asked her if she could park her van between my bike and the border officials thereby by blocking their view. She very kindly complied and moved her van but it wasn’t enough they could still see. She told me to ask the guy across the road to park his van in their path too.

Emm, I wasn’t so sure about this. Should I be involving everyone in my illegal crossing attempt?  I went over to the man and explained to him that I wanted to make a break across the border and would he kindly park his truck in front of the border guards for me. To my surprise he said “Sure”. Seems nobody had any love for the border guards around here.

With the trucks in place and practically the whole village aware of what I was about to do, all systems were go. I was nervous and apprehensive but I quickly put on my bike gear and started the bike. But just then the Police officer came by and saw me starting my bike. He was talking closely to the lady and it led me to believe they were either husband and wife or she was his girlfriend. But she was trying to help me leave Ecuador?  He stared at me for a while wondering what I was about to do while he spoke with her.  Finally he said to me in Spanish “Don’t try it” and with that the Border guard came and made himself very big puffing out his chest and asking me in a very stern manner  as to what I was doing. Hesitantly I told him I was going to Loja but he sensed my intentions and then threatened me saying very straight out. It is prohibited for me to leave and if I try it I will be locked up and then he made the old neck cutting gesture. Gulp. Swallow.

I cursed the interfering cop for alerting the guards. He was pretty blasé about the whole affair and his girlfriend was telling him off not turning a blind eye. The border guard then wrote on a piece of paper and crossed the bridge to speak to the Peruvian side.  The chance was blown and the situation was looking grave.  It looked like a trip back to Loja and  being at the mercy of some other crooked official. I sat back down to discuss my options with the guys. There was no clear direction. Well, there was really, but I didn’t like that one much.

Just then I received a message from a passing motorcyclist. He had spoken to the old Peruvian Customs officer. The old guy had received the note from the Ecuadorian border official and been instructed not to let me past. His message was to wait until night fall and cross when the border guards were asleep. He said he would wait for me and do my documentation when I arrived.

I thought about it and figured it was worth a shot. What’s the worst that could happen? Actually I didn’t want to think about that.

So basically the plan was I would put up a show and leave the border telling them I was going to Loja and then return in the night to make my crossing under cover of darkness. Gavin and Gordon would cross the border and wait for me in a hostal at the other side.

And so I left the border and headed back up the road to the next village about 30 minutes ride away.

I scribbled this as I sat there waiting.

As I write I am lying on a bench on a dusty board walk on the side of the street. Above me is a wooden balcony over the board walk. The young ones have just finished up playing volley ball in the covered playing court opposite me and the lights have been turned out. The street dogs are roaming around doggy flirting, chasing and sniffing each others butts. There are 2 guys sitting down on the opposite side of the street drinking. I can just barely make them out. I don’t they are anything to worry about.
Earlier when I arrived I had asked whether there was a cafe in the village. No, was the answer, so I sat down on a bench to relax, it was a stressful day.  Within a few minutes the guy who I had asked about the cafe and who was painting his house at the time came over to me with a cup of hot coffee and some sweet bread in his hands. I thanked him heartily.
Before the volley ballers came I spent the last couple of hours playing football in the court with some younger kids and we had great fun.
At around 5 pm I asked the lady of owner of a small shop whether she had any food for sale. She cooked me up a meal and I ate in their home.
I then went back to the bench and sat down   beneath the balcony to read and write a bit. Everyone has now gone to bed leaving me here on the bench. 
Its 10pm, another lady just walked past me and saw me lying down with my coat over me. She spoke to me briefly   I told her why I was there and what I was doing. She asked me was I scared?. I said No, I wasn’t, and I wasn’t. But it got me thinking. Should I be? Here I was by myself  in a foreign country sleeping on a bench in the middle of this little village and just about to attempt to steal across the border. To most people it would seem crazy and I guess it is a bit, but it didn’t really seem that to me I guess you just deal with what is in front of you at that time. It hadn’t really occurred to me that I should be afraid, and anyway I was too tired to think about that now. She left and returned with some coffee and bread for me. People have been very kind to me and I always had a sense that something was looking out for me.
And so now I wait. I will wait until after 11 pm before I make the 15 km trip back to the border in the hope they are asleep and I can run the bridge. The moon is out and bright which is not a great sign. I believe they are expecting me to make a break for it so I will wait as long as I can.

 When I left the moon was obscured by clouds and it wasn’t as bright as I had anticipated.  It was jsut after 12 am. I rode on for a few kilometers until I came to the first army control post. The light was on but nobody was outside. They had no reason to stop me anyway but I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself either in case they were in communication with the border guards, so I tried to ride briskly and quietly by. That didn’t go as planned. I hit an area of red thick muck right outside their hut and dropped the bike on its side. I quickly righted it and got going  again with my tyre thread and footpegs full with slippery red mud. Grrr! Typical!, I thought but nobody had heard so I was still on course for my surprise crossing.

I headed on very slowly as the dirt road was very windy and hilly. As I climbed up and turned a corner it got very foggy. I could hardly see at one point and driving with only my parking light was better. I started to get worried as I went on, and after 30 minutes I still hadn’t come to hill that overlooked the border post. I figured in the dark I might have missed a turn or taken a wrong turn. But I held my nerve thinking “Any minute now, any minute now”. Sure enough I came to the hill and I shut off my lights. From there on I free wheeled down the winding road with my lights off. It was still at least 4 km away along the road to the bridge. At one stage I got a fright as I sailed right past a large horse in the middle of the road before I had even noticed him.

I then came to a better vantage point where I could see right down the road that led to the bridge. I could see the street lights and the gate but I couldn’t see any people. Perhaps they were inside. I continued to coast down the rocky switch-backs until I could see the road directly in front of me.  Coasting I ran into some mud which brought the bike to a stop. Somehow my coasting had flooded the engine and I couldn’t restart it. I thought I heard a vehicle coming. Oh crap! I was a sitting duck stuck in the muck right before the street lights.
I managed to start it and the noise had gone away. I wondered whether I should push it through the last 400 meters before the bridge or just drive through. If I pushed it, it would be easy to catch me however. I couldn’t see any one ahead and it was eerily quite. I opted to drive through. I felt like Clint Eastwood riding into town in The Unforgiven. The town was deathly quite but for the pottering motorbike and the sloshes of muck. With 200m to go I  twisted the throttle and nailed it straight for the bridge. The barrier had been pulled down lower than it had been previously and I had to maneuver the bike to get it under, all the time not daring to look back. I got under and drove across the bridge with my lights off. But I had another barrier to contend with. Literally. Wooden barriers had been placed across the bridge on the Peruvian side that were not there previously and also a chain. I thought they were expecting me? After a quick assessment I decided the chain was just loose enough for me to hold up and pass underneath.

When I arrived over to the other side. A light came on and a door opened. It was the old guy who I had spoke to earlier.
I looked back towards the Ecuador side. There was no activity. I had made it. The adrenalin was pumping through me. I had crossed the bridge and escaped from Ecuador.

My ordeal wasn’t quite over yet though. I still had to get into Peru legitimately to avoid any problems when leaving.
I talked to the old man, he instructed me to hide my bike and go to the building where the Immigration Officer was sleeping. The old man who was friendly before was now pretty short and meant business. By this time it was almost 1am and is customary in these parts of the world the Immigration Officer was sleeping. I knocked and knocked on his door but to no avail.
I would have to wait till morning to sort out my documents. The Customs Officer was ready to complete the temporary import paper work for the bike but without the Immigration Officers visa number he couldn’t do anything.

Meanwhile Gordon and Gavin were no where to be seen. There were no signs of their bikes outside but then again they could have been inside for all I knew. To avoid making any sort of noise or commotion I decided I would just sleep outside. I found a spot inside a small bamboo fence under a leento shelter just a few doors down for the Immigration Office. The building didn’t appear to be occupied so I rolled out my tarp put my motorcycle jacket over my shoulders and hunkered down for the night.

Catching some Z’s behind the fence..

At 4.30 am I was awoken by 2 people coming out of the previously assumed unoccupied house. It was a husband in his work clothes and his wife in her night dress seeing him off to work. They paused and looked down at me . There was a strange gringo sleeping in their porch. I gave an awkward ‘Buenos Dias’, they looked curiously at me, said nothing, kissed and parted company.

I got up at 5.45am The older guy instructed me to make sure I came back to him before 7 am as he would be replaced with another Customs Official. I went to the Immigration Officers door again and knocked and knocked. Eventually he roused himself and looked out the window. It was 6 am. I recognised him straight away it was the same drunk border guard I dealt with before who had demanded money from me. He shouted to me that he doesn’t  start till 7 and he was needed to wash.
I walked away knowing time was tight before he would come down complete the paperwork so I could get back to the Customs Officer before he left.

By the time the immigration officer had showed up it was past 7 am and the old Customs Officer had left.  Things had taken a turn for the worse. I had no idea who I was going to be dealing with. He might well send me back!.

As is usual procedure when crossing the border I went to the Immigration Officer first to kick off the paperwork.  He didn’t look all that great and was obviously suffering a bit of a hangover. He instructed me to go to see the Police first and get a form stamped and return. I returned after about 30 minutes. This was going to be the difficult bit. Here the Official would demand money from me, in exchange for doing my paperwork. I was not looking forward to this. I walked back into his office. There were at least 5 other people in there asking questions. I thrust the documents into his hand. It was an awkward moment but I knew he couldn’t openly ask for a bribe in front of everyone. Could he? He would have no other choice but to stamp my passport. He looked at me searchingly, he knew I wouldn’t offer him money in front of everyone even if I wanted to. He begrudgingly handed me back my stamped passport and to somewhat appease him, as I knew he expected money I said I would be back. To that he nodded.

Next job was the Customs Officer. This was the unknown factor. Had his colleague informed him about me? Did he know I jumped the Ecuador border? I decided to play it cool and not make any reference to the fact that I had exited Ecuador under dubious circumstances.

He asked my where the motorcycle was? Crap, the bike was still hidden behind the wall. He told me to go get it and place it directly in front of his office. He was annoyed that it wasn’t there already for his inspection. The thing was- to place it in front of his office was to place it in full view of the Ecuador border guards  I got the bike and placed it behind a standing by mototaxi about 10 meters from his office. He was outside at this point so it wasn’t too much trouble for him to walk a couple of extra steps. Hard workers these guys.

He asked me where were my Ecuador documents and I said I didn’t have any. I didn’t think I needed any. He said “Never mind”. He then began to process the documents. It seemed to take an age and all this time I was expecting the Immigration Officer to pop over and tell the new guy what had happened the night before. He asked me when I had crossed. I said  “this morning”. He looked at me funny. Clearly my immigration stamp for Ecuador said I left the day before. He asked me again, I repeated “this morning”. He just rolled his eyes and went on. He then left the room for a few minutes. I went outside to see what was happening and that’s when Gavin had noticed me outside and shouted “Yehaww go on Sean!!” from his third floor hostel window. I was delighted to see him and know that they weren’t too far away. I looked around nervously and gave him the “Shhh” finger and then punched the air when I was sure no one was looking.

I went back inside and that’s when I noticed a note on the Customs Officer’s desk that he apparently had not yet seen. It was the note from the Ecuadorian border guard with my name and details on it, left to inform them not to let me past. I quickly picked it up and I as did so the Customs Officer walked straight in. He looked at me squarely in the eye and right in front of him I calmly folded the piece of paper and put it in my pocket as if it were my own. He looked at me funnily and sat down. Phew! he had suspected nothing.

After another 20 minutes or so the document was done and hints were dropped about paying for the “service” which I completely ignored. With documents in hand I left the building. Yesss!!!!! Victory was in sight. All I needed to do was get the hell out of there before the drunken Immigration Official could have a chat with the Customs Official and blow the whistle. I quickly ran up to the hostel where the lads where staying.

There were many high fives and back slapping when I got there. I had just gotten away with sneaking across a border at night and the risk of probably jail time if I had been caught,  I was delighted and adrenaline was still pumping. I told them I was getting the hell out of here before they all started to talking to each other. I would wait for the lads down the road. I packed my bike up, kick started it and tore out of there.

As I went I saw the road workers who I had spoken to the previous day. They knew what I had done and they were visibly delighted. News had spread through the work crew about the guys trying to get across the border and as I rode through all the machine operators were blowing their horns and the guys were raising their picks and shovels cheering and punching the air as I rode  past. It was exhilarating. What a feeling. I rode through shouting and cheering myself.

Yeehaw Peru here I come!!!!…


Later on I discovered the guys also had trouble crossing into Peru the previous night. The so-called friendly old man that I had met, demanded money from the guys for their and my trouble free crossing. Luckily the guys didn’t give him anything, but he delayed their process as much as he could to inconvenience  them. He further frustrated the whole affair by going to the pub half way during the process. They could see him in the open facade bar downing drinks with his buddy while he left the guys sitting in his office. When he did eventually come back to finish the documents it took so long that Gordo fell asleep on his floor in his office.

And that was that. We were in Peru and what an eventful couple of days it was…


3 Responses to Bridge over troubled waters.. how I jumped the Ecuador border

  1. Randy

    Gord passed on your post – crazy experience but great read!
    I hope you guys write a book after your adventure

    • sean

      Hey Cheers Randy!!… Gordo is a great guy to have along on the adventure!
      cheers for reading!!

  2. Kev

    These are the days you will miss Sean. Great work buddy! 3 friends of mine shot through the Bolivia/ Chile border for similar reasons, they got chased but got away. The things you have to do..brilliant!

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