When Jorge, Kelli, our friend Sam and I began packing up and shipping out of Argentina, we opted for the night bus between Mendoza and Valparaiso. About 9 hours long, it’s an easy way to save a night’s expense at a hostel, though you do miss some of the stunning views by day as you ascend the craggy, rusted mountains of the Andes.
Being that it was a full moon the night of our trip, we were able to catch ghostly glimpses of the terrain. And with our bottle of wine, the four of us had a fun time chatting, sipping delicately out of the world’s tiniest plastic cups, and planning for the upcoming days in Chile.
A few hours into the ride, we knew the aduana, or customs control, would be happening soon. The typical steps of a land border crossing, at least between Argentina and Chile, are as follows:
- Approaching the border, a border official will board the bus to inspect things. He usually leaves after a quick once over.
- Fifteen minutes later, you’re at the actual border. Enjoy the frigid mountain air.
- Everyone must get off the bus, line up in front of two windows, and get their passports stamped/attended to.
- Linger outside for awhile, buy some Chilean sandwiches, wait until your bus pulls up to the next customs door.
- All the luggage is offloaded from the bus onto a conveyor belt, where it is automatically X-rayed.
- Passengers must line up in front of two long tables, where we place our hand luggage in front of us. Dogs sniff up and down the tables a few times.
- Our hand luggage is then scanned through the same machine. Anyone who didn’t pass the screening has to open their luggage so it can be inspected by an official. (And if they don’t pass the inspection…well, they don’t cross the border!)
- Re-board the bus, and try to catch a few more hours sleep until you arrive in Valparaiso!
So around the time we knew we’d be approaching customs, we collectively realized we still had a crapton of chocolates leftover from our impulse purchases earlier that day at the Mendoza bus terminal. And nuts! We had so many nuts and chocolates.
TIME TO EAT. We began scarfing chocolate, unwilling to let Chilean officials confiscate our hard-earned candy. They were gourmet, for god’s sake! I’ll eat myself sick before I hand these over just so they can be tossed in the garbage.
Our bus shuddered to a stop at the first control (step 1) while we were mowing down. The official boarded the bus as normal. Our bus was oddly empty, only about ten people on the 2nd level with us, where normally it could fit up to 60. The official didn’t have many people to assess before he made it to us.
He paused at our seats. After a curt assessment, he asked if he could see all of our hand luggage.
I nodded and grabbed my backpack, still popping chocolate almonds into my mouth. He began to rummage, one by one, through our bags. We exchanged confused glances as he did so.
He hadn’t asked anyone else on the bus for their hand luggage. And in my ample border crossing experience, on this exact route, the most I’d ever been asked to show was my passport.
As he rifled through our belongings, I offered him some chocolate. He curtly declined.
“What is this?” He held up Sam’s lip gloss, which was in a spherical pod.“Just lip balm,” she said, as he opened it up and examined it against the lights of the bus.
After he’d inspected all of our hand luggage, he told us to get off the bus. “Bring your hand luggage with you, we need to get your bags out from the bottom.”
Now this was really weird. Wordlessly, we followed him off the bus, sending wide-eyed looks between each other, wondering why we were being singled out. At the side of the bus where the luggage is stored, the border official and the bus employee pulled our bags down. They laid them unceremoniously on the side of the highway.
The official pulled me aside as he opened my big backpack. Wearing gloves, he pulled out my personal items and handed them to me to hold as he searched–my sandals, a Little Mermaid towel, piles of clothes. At the same time, another border official, who had already searched through some of Kelli and Sam’s things, grabbed my hand luggage and began searching through it again.
“Who’s is this?” His voice came out gruff, angry.
“Mine,” I told him, arms piled high with my crap as his colleague continued scouring my bag.
I looked helplessly between the two officials. How was I supposed to go through two of my bags at once? “Uh…I don’t–…um, what do you–? It’s already been inspected!”
He grunted and pushed it aside. Then he motioned to Jorge to follow him behind the back of the bus. The official searching my bag finished, and told me I could put everything back inside. Then he disappeared to where Jorge and the other guy were.
All I could see was Jorge’s face as they talked. Serious faces; occasional nodding. Intense glances. They were fucking questioning him.
My belly flopped. Was this about to be a problem, like a real, honest-to-god IMMIGRATION PROBLEM? [Cue horrifying flashback to Bolivian Immigration problems.] My mind started doing somersaults as I waited for some word from them, or my husband. Kelli, Sam and I huddled nervously as we waited.
Finally, the officials motioned us over. “Get back on the bus.”
THANK GOD. We re-boarded the bus quickly, settling into our seats with something like delirious relief pulsing through the air.
“What did they say to you?” I asked Jorge as the bus rumbled to life once more. The passengers at the front of the bus side-eyed us, probably wondering what we had done to warrant such a search.
“They were looking for weed,” he said, and went on to explain that the officials were looking for marijuana in all our bags–all the way down to Sam’s lip gloss. Convinced that we had it stashed somewhere, that we had been smoking it somewhere. Behind the bus, the officials had tried to bargain with him–if you guys have any on you, just let us know and we can work something out for you. We’ll make you a deal. Just admit it.
We gaped at him, incredulous, horrified, totally confused. Why on EARTH would they suspect us for SMUGGLING AN ILLEGAL DRUG INTO CHILE?
Clearly, they didn’t find the treasure they were looking for, because we don’t smuggle illegal substances across international borders.
Of all the passengers on the bus, they chose us. And why was that?
Was it because we were foreign? Maybe because of my dreadlocks? Was it because we were three American tourists, lost in a conversation in our own language, trying to be nice by offering chocolates?
Who knows. We sure don’t.
The incident weighed on us, hanging somewhere between astonishment and fear. What if this had been a different country, a place where cops bribe people to confess something, while they plant a drug in their belongings? What if this had been a situation where not finding anything in our luggage didn’t matter, and we’d be carried off to jail anyway?
Those places exist in the world. And oftentimes, it’s up to luck about what happens to you on the road: what society you’re traveling in, what border official is looking you up and down, what night of the week you happen to be traveling.
Once we made it to the actual border and our luggage was offloaded again to be X-Ray’d and sniffed out, none of the dogs noticed us, our backpack, or Sam’s “questionable” (yet adorable) lip balm.
It’s times like these that make you wonder all the ways that things can go REALLY wrong! Have you guys ever had a touchy situation like this traveling abroad? I want to hear about it!