Illegal: a true story of love, revolution and crossing borders [Ch.23]
I'm a journalist for publications such as The Guardian, Vice, The Diplomat and Narratively and my first book, a memoir, came out just over a year ago [Amazon link]. It's won numerous awards and sold thousands of copies. And now I want to give it away. This is the twenty-first installment [Prologue | Ch 1 | Ch 2 | Ch 3 | Ch 4 | Ch 5 | Ch 6 | Ch 7 | Ch 8 | Ch 9 | Ch 10 | Ch 11 | Ch 12 | Ch 13 | Ch 14 | Ch 15 | Ch 16 | Ch 17 | Ch 18 | Ch 19 | Ch 20 | Ch 21 | Ch 22] and every few days I'll post another chapter. From the back cover:
A raw account of a young American abroad grasping for meaning, this pulsating story of violent protests, illegal border crossings and loss of innocence raises questions about the futility of borders and the irresistible power of nationalism.
Lying to the Police [Chapter 23]
The next morning around 9:00 a.m., I got into a cooperative taxi headed toward the border. I consulted with the driver to ensure that the taxi would cross the bridge into Ecuador. Crossing the bridge on foot would mean a higher likelihood of police questions, and I was afraid that the next time I lied to the police I would be caught. As expected, the taxi was stopped at the far end of the bridge when it crossed into Ecuador. While the trunk was searched I took my passport out of my pocket and held in tightly between my hands, ready to quickly hand it over if asked. Often the police ignored the passengers and only checked cargo and I hoped that I wouldn’t have to speak to the police officer at all. If he did demand my passport, a lack of suspicion would probably mean he would just flip through the pages without looking too closely. After glancing in the trunk the police officer scanned the inside of the taxi. I saw his eyes move from my face down to the passport in my hands. Then he waved us ahead, never asking for our documents.
The taxi dropped us off at the parking lot across from immigration and I quickly climbed into a communal van with a dozen and a half others and exited at the bus station in Tulcán. I felt safe now, and a wave of relief washed over me. Crossing the border involved hours, even days of stressful anticipation, but it was almost all waiting; the moments of danger were just flashes, gone almost as soon as they began.
In my head I had tried to anticipate different scenarios that could play out during each leg of the journey. While I wanted to have my passport ready while crossing, I wanted it hidden at all other times, so before boarding the bus bound for Quito, I stuffed it into the pocket of a pair of jeans within my duffel bag. Highway checkpoints usually consisted of a police officer coming onto the bus and asking for everyone’s papers, which for me was my passport. Typically, they looked quickly then left, and even when people didn’t have any identification it rarely seemed to be an issue.
Unfortunately for me, the rapidly changing political climate and the rise of nationalism had begun to permeate the police and immigration forces, which were becoming more hostile to foreigners with each passing day. My visa issue was confusing, but the revolution was almost certainly the indirect reason behind my deportation. It bred a fierce brand of nationalism that targeted the nation I came from, and I felt it everywhere I went. From immigration officials and police officers, down to kids on the street begging for change, everyone had begun to look at me differently.
Though I was oblivious to it at the time, when I viewed myself as a victim, it’s worth noting that while I believe all nationalism is bad it’s not all equal. It’s not that simple. The U.S. has a long history of asserting itself and its values in Latin America, from supporting the brutal coup and dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile to the possible assassination of Jamie Roldós in Ecuador. In Ecuador nationalism is often a knee jerk reaction contained within its borders, which is bad but Nazi Germany and their plans for the Aryan race were also driven by nationalism. It doesn’t justify an Ecuadorian treating me with ire, but it also doesn’t mean that all nationalism is equal. Still, it was on the rise in Ecuador and I was beginning to feel it everywhere I went.
The relief and relative safety I felt after bypassing immigration at the border was an outdated illusion. Though I was slow to realize it, always reluctant to believe that the revolution had its dark side, traveling within Ecuador was becoming dangerous for me as well.
I boarded a bus for the five-hour journey to Quito and asked to put my bag in the storage underneath. Instead, I was instructed to board the bus with my bag and to put it near the front in an open space. I took a seat a couple of rows behind. At six feet tall, my height was ordinary where I came from, but I was a giant in Ecuador and the buses were not made for me. As a result, I had to slouch down to avoid hitting my head on the low ceiling when I walked down the aisle, and invent creative poses to fit my legs into the space the seat provided.
Long distance buses, such as this one, kept to a strict schedule and would start moving at the appointed time, even if empty. Most people never purchased tickets, opting instead to wave down the lumbering machine along the route. Some bus stations charged a ten-cent tax and at these stations you were likely to find a large cluster of passengers waiting just outside the gates. The buses weren’t built for luxury, though this one was in fairly good shape. When I sat down I couldn’t help noticing how similar the cushioned seats were to those on the discount airline I flew down on, though the plane was much cleaner. The seat covers on the bus were beginning to fray and were caked with spilt food and dirt from the hundreds of passengers who came before me. A handful of passengers boarded the bus as we left town, but two-thirds of the seats remained empty when we pulled onto the highway.
At the first checkpoint two officers boarded the bus. The first man was middle-aged and his uniform was crisp as if it had just been ironed. A younger policeman followed closely behind. The officer with the crisp uniform stopped at each person and asked, “Papers?” while holding out his hand, reviewed the document and moved on in just a few seconds. The policeman behind him followed but didn’t speak. The first officer changed his routine when they approached me.
“¿Hablas español?” he asked.
I acted confused. “What?”
“Do you speak Spanish?”
“Oh, ummm a little,” I replied with the worst Spanish accent and grammar that he could understand.
The older officer gave a wry smile and turned to his partner and resumed speaking in Spanish. “You get this sometimes. These gringos come here and don’t know any Spanish—they expect us to speak English even though we’re in Ecuador.”
The younger officer nodded.
I handed him a photocopy of its first page.
“And where is the original?”
“It good, my passport, yes.” I said with a smile, purposefully stumbling on my Spanish and stupidly pointing to the paper in his hand.
“Where are you coming from?”
“Tulcán to Quito,” I said, straining to mispronounce the names.
Again, he turned to his partner. “Technically we can’t accept this,” he said, holding up the photocopy. “But you’ll see this all the time; stupid tourists who don’t speak Spanish, or have their passport or anything else. They should learn the rules here, but it’s not really a problem. I’m sure this gringo is just on vacation.” He then handed me back the paper and continued to the next person. It was all just as I expected.
Before leaving the bus, the pair of police asked whose bag was at the front.
I was silent, still playing the role of someone who doesn’t speak the language.
The older officer looked at me and asked again, pointing to the bag then to me to illustrate his point.
“Me,” I said, nodding my head.
He smiled, but it was anything but friendly. He motioned me forward with his fingers.
While I stood over him, he unzipped the bag and began taking out the clothes and putting them on the dirty floor. While he was laying a pair of jeans down, he felt the passport through the pocket and took it out, holding it up in one hand and looking at me. His smile had faded, and his eyebrows narrowed. His eyes glared.
Fuck, this is horrible, I thought, while trying to maintain my composure. I felt my lungs fill with oxygen and a rush of blood pulse through my body. My mind went into overdrive and in a split second a million thoughts raced through my head as I struggled to keep up the appearance of someone who had no idea what they were doing. With each possible scenario I constructed, I analyzed the potential outcome.
He not only had the grenade that was my passport in his hand, he had reason to be suspicious, and it was clear I was not on my way to immigration.
This could be bad, I thought. It could be jail, it could be deportation, it could be the end of Lucía, the end of Ecuador. He may arrest me; I may spend years in a South American jail.
A sentence of deportation away from the border or airport was the nightmare scenario. At best it would be a longer detention during processing. At worst, a second and blatant violation so soon after my first would have led to full prosecution and a criminal conviction of between three and five years in an Ecuadorian prison. How would my parents find out? How would Lucía find out? Fuck, this is bad.
The first flash was a nightmare, but in the next instant my mind raced into more hopeful territory. As the officer gripped my passport and glared at me, opening his mouth to speak, I felt prepared. He may turn me around and send me to Colombia. If he sends me to the border I will be ecstatic. I will call Lucía and tell her I am delayed and try my luck again at night with a new shift. If he wants to arrest me I will try to bribe him.
Before the first sounds of his response hit my ear, I decided that if he realized the full extent of what I was doing then I would show my hand and try to buy my way out but until that point, I would keep playing the role of the stupid tourist.
He leaned over me and asked with definite anger in his voice, “Why didn’t you want to show this to me?”
I gave him a look that said I had no idea what he was talking about and once again pointed at the copy in my hand and said, “My passport, it’s good, yes.”
He opened up my passport and flipped through the pages starting from the back. A few pages in he saw the entry visa into Colombia and noticed that there was no stamp from Ecuador, but he didn’t flip back far enough to see my deportation stamp.
“You are coming from Colombia,” he shouted, half as a statement and half as a question.
For the first time I acted as if I understood something and quickly responded “Colombia, yes.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you were traveling from Colombia when I asked you before?”
The character I was playing wouldn’t have understood his Spanish, so I gave him a confused look, like a dog that doesn’t know where the ball went, half cocking my head.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming from Colombia? Why!” he shouted.
I meekly responded, “I don’t know,” but strained to give the impression that I just didn’t understand.
He seemed frustrated and focused his attention on my bag. He searched everything, finding some relics from Colombia in the process. After the search, he gave me back my passport and slowly told me that when I enter Ecuador I need a stamp or otherwise I would be fined when I left. He knew that I was missing my entry stamp, but didn’t realize that I was sneaking in.
I asked, “I need return?”
With tired disdain in his voice he said, “No, you’re an American so you can just get it in Quito.” Still thinking I couldn’t understand more than a smattering of Spanish words, he shook his head and muttered to his partner, “I hate these fucking gringos,” as they stepped off the bus.
An uncontrollable joy broke out within me and I laughed out loud. I wondered if the other passengers, who had all been watching and listening to the interaction, had suspicion of my reality. Eager to prevent a repeat of what just happened I went through my bag and removed everything that could link me to Colombia: business cards, ticket stubs, customs forms, and so on. Then I threw them out the window.
One thing I hated about Ecuador and Colombia was how freely people littered. I made it a point not to absorb this aspect of their culture, but for that moment I made an exception. Since my deportation I had begun to make a number of ‘exceptions.’
Besides the roadside litter I created, there were several items that I didn’t want the police to see but still needed to hold on to: my passport, a few thousand pesos, and the visa extension papers. On the seat in front of me, I removed the plastic panel where the seat back and bottom met, put these items inside, and replaced the panel in its original place.
Over the next two hours we encountered three more police checkpoints. I became extremely stressed at each, hoping the other passengers would not betray me if I had to tell a different story to a new officer. My heart pounded as though I’d just sprinted a marathon, and I wished I had switched buses. Luckily, police only boarded the bus once more and didn’t give me any trouble. The two other stops had different focuses: one was to check the driver and the other verified the cargo underneath.
The bus pulled into the city of Ibarra shortly after the fourth checkpoint and I knew I’d be safe from there on out. The road between Ibarra and Colombia was hemmed in by mountains and had no detours, so all checkpoints were on this stretch. Ibarra had a few smaller roads to domestic destinations and the police almost never checked buses south of the city.
I stretched my legs in the station while the bus waited for more passengers. When the bus started again I remembered the things I had hidden in the seat back. I had changed seats and now had to climb over a portly indigenous woman to recover my stash. Back at the new seat, the man sitting across the aisle from me had been watching and when I returned he asked if he might see my passport, which was still in my hand. I knew he was probably just curious, but I’d developed a constant paranoia on these trips and thought he might be a cop. I quickly reasoned that if he was, I couldn’t deny I had the document, and he could force me to hand it over, so I complied. I watched him carefully as he flipped through the pages, and then handed it back to me with a “Thank you.”
When we arrived in Quito I immediately hopped on a new bus heading south. I had recently begun telling the bus drivers I was a student in order to cheat them for a discounted rate—another ‘exception’ I had begun to make.
The deportation had wiped out any meager savings I had and caused me to lose my job, and money had been an issue ever since. At the time, I told myself the deportation directly caused my financial troubles so I justified a cheaper fare as part of the larger effort to hold onto my once charmed life there. But the bus drivers had nothing to do with my trouble. Most buses were privately owned and operated like small family businesses—so when I cheated bus fares, it probably meant I was just cheating the overworked driver struggling to pay back the loan he took out to buy the bus. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the fantasy began, but at some point I began to ignore what was right in front of me if it didn’t conform into the larger narrative that all was grand and that I was just.
It was the same with Lucía. I knew she had been dishonest, but I thought it was someone else’s fault. If she had told me the truth the first night we would not have gotten together. The water was boiling already, but I had been in the pot too long to realize I would burn.
I arrived in Latacunga as the sun faded into the earth and day gave way to night.
While walking home, my heart pounded harder than at any other time that day—no longer in fear of being separated from mi amor, but now in anticipation of being with her. At our apartment I walked in the open door. Lucía ran to me and our lips met. I was alone with everything in my arms—and nothing else mattered.