I'm a risk taker. That much is clear. But sometimes I am just plain stupid.
Last week I went to Bolivia. I hadn't really looked into it any further than the Bolivia section of my ¨South America on a Shoestring¨ Lonely Planet. (Which I both hate and love...every time I come close to passing it on to another traveler, I find a gold nugget on the eroded gringo trail of its pages.) When I was waiting at the bus station in the middle of the night, wrapped in my sleeping bag against the frigid Andian air, the ticket man warned me it was $140 to cross the border. Just for Americans. What? Lonely Planet didn't tell me that. Thinking it was a lie or at least an overstatement (quite common here), I pulled the required amount out of the bank, and waited for my bus. When border time came, ho ho, this lonely American (yep, the only one on a bus of gringos) was going to be charged the full amount. Then inspiration struck. I still had my Ecuadorian ID card, so I attempted to use that instead of my passport. The immigration guy looked at me, gave me a face, and told me to follow him. He took me to another desk and said, ¨$40.¨ Ok, great, I just saved $100. Then he said to the guy behind the desk, ¨We'll share it, right?¨ That's right ladies and gentleman, I found myself in the middle of a South American bribe. Never one to shy away from adventure, or a good deal (hey, it's the Jewish blood), I agreed. I exchanged names with a guy who worked there who could get me back across the border, shook hands, and crossed that highly politicized, very expensive, yet invisible line that divides Bolivia and Peru. Without a visa stamp in my passport. As we drove along the coastline of Lake Titicaca, I realized I was entering the poorest South American country as an illigal alien. An undocumented immigrant, if you will. I spent a week feeling my heart race every time I passed someone in uniform (any uniform, including the bathroom cleaning people). Bolivia was absolutely grand, and I would have stayed longer had it not been for the tiny detail that I could be thrown into a Bolivian jail at any moment. Yes, folks, this was a DUMB move. On the agreed upon day with the name on my slip of paper, I returned to the border, ready to plead innocence, grease palms, give sexual favors, whatever it took to get me back into Peru. Turns out, all it took was the ability to walk. I literally walked right back across the border and jumped in a van bound for Puno. No one said a word. I exchanged my Bolivianos for Soles and was on my way...the only evidence of my little stint in Bolivia was the Bolivian flag bracelet on my arm. This isn't exactly the Mexico-US border, is it?
Yesterday afternoon I took a bus from Puno, near Lago Titicaca, to Cusco, the jumping off point for Machu Picchu. I arrived quite early to buy my ticket, and left my big backpack in the bus office, as is normal. I was chatting with the woman behind the desk for a while, then left to explore Puno (mostly the public market...I LOVE public markets). When I came back I asked two different people about my backpack--should I go get it, or are the bus people going to load it for me? I always ask this, and the answer is always the same--the bus people do it. Great. Jumped on the bus in the very first row, above the driver, with a spectacular view of the terrifying driving that defines Peruvian bus drivers. I was feeling quite content with the world and my five for a Sol (about 35 cents) bananas. When we arrived in Cusco last night at about 11:00, and all I wanted to do was go to sleep, I found my backpack to be missing amid the piles of backpacker gear under the bus. Oh yes, the bus folks did not, in fact, bring my backpack for me. It was still sitting in an office, a seven+ hour bus drive away. Awesome. Now, realize, South American buses aren't like airlines...if your luggage doesn't make it on by mistake, there is no orderly form to fill out, no office to complain to, no home delivery 24 hours later. I discussed, after yelling in my very best Spanish, my options with the bus people. They made some calls, I got some names and phone numbers, and was told to return to the office the next day. All I could do was find the cheapest hostal possible and hope that somehow my backpack got remembered. I tossed and turned all night, thinking how DUMB I was. I should have checked. I should have gotten it myself. I should have made sure I understood. I had so much time! I should have paid more for a better service that takes better care of my stuff. After sleeping in my clothes and borrowing toothpaste from my hostal neighbors, I got to the office early. When it finally opened, half an hour late, the woman had no idea what I was talking about. I gave her a Sol to call the office in Puno, and luckily found out my backpack was indeed in Cusco. At the bus driver's house.
On this side of things, safely and legally in Peru with my backpack all locked up in my hostal, I can say its all part of it. That this kind of thing is what travel is all about. It's about making mistakes and pushing boundaries. It's also about recognizing pure DUMB luck, and thinking twice before doing it again.
P.S. If you want to see where I did my little soul searching mission in Ecuador, check out these photos. Click, and be jealous.