Jay Bjerkan Photography

- Tales from Ecuador 1977-78

Visa Renewal

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At the Columbian border

Home Ecuador
As our first ninety days in Ecuador closed upon us, we made plans to travel to Quito, the country’s capital, and the only place that we could be granted an extension on our visa. We spent a night on the bus, traveling through the dark and fog up the country’s backbone, and arrived in Quito, at an altitude of over 9,400 feet, in the cold light of dawn. It was very chilly as we left the bus and shouldered our packs, but we warmed ourselves by walking through the steep streets in search of a hotel. We found one in the old section of town, deposited our luggage, and immediately set out to take care of business.

Quito was bustling with autos and pedestrians hurrying through the crisp morning air. The city warmed quickly as the sun rose and peeked over the old buildings into the narrow streets. We looked through some of the well-stocked bookstores and shops before arriving at the Department of Immigration about noon. The officials there denied us a visa extension, but referred us to the Minister of Foreign Relations. We walked to that department, in another part of town, but were disappointed when the lady we talked to also denied our request. This wasn’t going to be as easy as we had expected.

We decided to get some advice at the American Embassy, but arrived during siesta, and had to wait until they re-opened. When we returned, the lady at the information desk referred us to a telephone in the lobby with instructions to dial 261. A woman answered, but told us only what we’d already been told, that tourists were only allowed to stay three months in any one year. However, even though the majority of our three month stay had been during the previous year (a technicality?), we still couldn’t qualify for an extension. The woman on the phone suggested that we might journey to the Colombian border, cross, and re-enter again to obtain more time in the country. There didn’t seem to be any alternative other than returning to Gualaceo, packing our belongings, and leaving the country, but this we were loath to do.

In the embassy’s lobby we encountered a couple of Americans with their own peculiar problems. They didn’t recommend walking about without a passport in one’s possession. They’d left theirs’ in the hotel and were subsequently stopped and questioned in the streets by authorities. When they couldn’t produce identification, they were forced to spend the night in jail.

Peggy hadn’t been feeling very well that day, and dealing with unmoving bureaucracies had drained our time and energy. We returned to our hotel and went to bed early. We’d been sleeping for a while when we were awakened by a knocking on our door. “Dormiendo!” I called. A voice responded “Policia!”. I thought I’d better get up and open the door. In the hall stood a man in street clothes and a young man who was a hotel employee. The man, uninvited, stepped into the room and turned on the light. He was holding the hotel’s register book, and he wanted to see our passports. At each hotel we’d stay at, we were required to give our passport numbers. This was the first time someone had come to check up on us.

The man said that he was from the Department of Immigration, so I explained our problem to him. He remained stony-faced throughout my tale, but said that he’d return in the morning. We were unnerved by the rude awakening and wondering what the real purpose of the visit was, but we had hopes of getting our visa problem ironed out.

The following morning we talked to the same hotel employee from the night before, and he told us that they often got visits from officials of immigration, Interpol, or “medicina”, supposedly checking for drugs. He said that he recognized our previous night’s visitor as one of these. The “help” that the man had promised would have been under-the-table, but we were willing if it would allow us to avoid making the journey to Colombia. We were wondering how and when the man would contact us, and the employee offered to help us, but was obviously reluctant to do so. We waited around the hotel most of the morning, and then decided to make the trip to Tulcán, an Ecuadorian town on the border with Colombia.

The trip to Tulcán took five hours by van. As we stepped off the vehicle, we were met by a group of men with rolls of bills in their hands, who were in the business of exchanging Ecuadorian sucres for Colombian pesos. We walked a good distance through town before catching a collective to the “rumichaca”, the bridge that crossed the border. The officials in Quito had put a stamp on our passports and we, still naïve in the ways of governmental control, though it would be easy to accomplish our goal. We went directly to the Colombian border station. There were some uniformed men checking cars, and an office upon some stairs where we talked through a window to the man within. We tried to tell him that all we wanted were Colombian entry and exit stamps, that we didn’t want to actually visit Colombia, no offense intended. He looked at our passports and told us that we were lacking a Colombian tourist card. This we were supposed to obtain from the Colombian consulate in Tulcán. He also informed us that we were lacking an Ecuadorian exit stamp, but it was unclear where to get this. Then he pointed out that we didn’t have in our possession tickets assuring our leaving Colombia. We were daunted by this meaningless governmental morass, and walked back up the road a short distance to the Ecuadorian authorities who were situated in a trailer marked “Migracion”. There was a man seated at a desk behind the window inside. He told us that the Ecuadorian exit stamp could be obtained from the Department of Immigration in Tulcán. He added that after we had entered and left Colombia, he could give us a stamp good for eleven days, but that we could get an extension in Quito. Right.

We hurried back to Tulcán to the Colombian consulate, but it was closed for the day. We were in foul moods by now, and checked into a hotel for a refreshing night’s sleep. Perhaps a new day would bring an easier way.

The next morning we returned to the Colombian consulate, but we were stumped in our attempt to get a tourist card because we didn’t each have three small photos of ourselves. The young Colombian official informed us that these could be obtained from one of the photographers that operated in the park across the street. We went there, but not a photographer could be found. We took time out for some breakfast, but upon our return to the park we found only groups of fusbol players and shoeshine men. We began making the rounds of photo studios until we found one that could make some small copies of photos we already had. Carrying these as an offering, we returned to the Colombian consulate. The official, to his credit, accepted our plane tickets from Quito to San Francisco as assurance of transportation out of Colombia and issued us tourist cards.

Our next task was to find the Department of Immigration for our exit stamp, which we accomplished with, by then, unexpected success. Flushed with victory, and armed with these documents, we returned to the Colombian official at the rumichaca. The same man was there and we again explained that we were only interested in the entry and exit stamps. He told us in that case, we didn’t need the tourist cards. Had we said something different? The man gave us the stamps we needed, and asked if we didn’t have a little gift for him, as if he’d done us a favor. We pulled out the trusty Polaroid camera and presented him with a portrait of himself, with which he was quite pleased.

We hitch-hiked back to Tulcán with some people on a truck who recommended that we go to see the cemetery. It seemed an odd suggestion, but then we remembered that the cemetery was famed for its topiary. We walked there, and spent a while wandering among the graves and vaults, and the green trees and bushes that had been trimmed to resemble sculptured walls, animals on pedestals, arches, and faces. It was very fascinating, like touring in Alice’s Wonderland for the Dead.

Our visa marathon was still not complete. We went back to the Ecuadorian Immigration Office to await its opening after siesta, along with a crowd of other seekers. When our turn at the window came and the official asked us how long we were staying, we said ninety days. The man gave us a stamp for thirty, and told us that we could get an extension in Quito. We weren’t about to hassle in Quito again, and decided that this, as before, would be sufficient approval for ninety, an assumption that would get us in trouble on a later trip to the Oriente.

We took a taxi to the bus terminal and boarded a vehicle for Latacunga. Shortly after getting underway, we were stopped at a check point where we had to have our passports entered in a large book by military officials. There were five more checkpoints before we reached Quito, and at each one a police or military man boarded the bus to check passports and IDs. Twice we all had to leave the bus while they made a search. Part of all this official concern was due to a somewhat recent kidnap and murder by suspected foreigners, and part to real foreigners coming to work in Ecuador illegally. When we arrived in Quito, we transferred to another bus for the rest of the trip. It was late when we stepped off the bus at a square in the city of Latacunga into some kind of festival. There were crowds in the streets, and a gang of costumed clowns running around the park with rag-stuffed “clubs”. They were chasing pedestrians and beating them with the clubs to the music of a brass band. Peggy was feeling ill, so we avoided the festivities and checked into a hotel.

In the morning we went to a small restaurant for breakfast, and then wandered about the town and markets. Several snowcapped volcanic peaks could be glimpsed through the clear air. As we walked up one street, we passed a man wearing sunglasses and a three-piece suit, haranguing a crowd from the sidewalk. We stepped up to take a look. Our Spanish comprehension was still such that we didn’t understand completely what was being said. When we first arrived the man had his hand inside a covered basket on the ground. He had secreted something there. An open box of cornstarch sat next to the basket, and the man had drawn a square with the white powder. He directed the small crowd to toe up to the line. On the ground was a cloth with a book on it, and severals rows of identical medals. At first we got the impression that he was a magician advertising courses of instruction. He talked constantly and, as he talked, his hands were moving busily. He tore pages of a newspaper into long, wide strips, and then rolled these strips end-to-end into a tube. He made some tears in the side of the tube, bent it in half, and then pulled it out like an emerging periscope until it was about three feet long. He extracted some matches from a pocket and set the end on fire. When it had burned all the way down, we left. It had been a very elaborate sales pitch, and we still didn’t know what was in the basket.

We passed piles of fruits and vegetables, all of them bigger than what we were used to buying in Gualaceo. We stopped in front of some people to buy some small baskets. I asked if it would be OK to take their picture and they said yes, but by the time I was ready to shoot, all but one had walked away, and this one had her hat drawn down over her face. At a square nearby was a row of men working at their treadle-operated sewing machines. They were all busy mending clothes, and sewing patches for customers, giving fresh life to the old clothes of the poor who couldn’t afford to buy new ones. One handcraft in particular was different from any we’d seen in other towns. It was the weaving of baskets of various sizes from the dried fibers of the leaves of the penco cactus. The material had been dyed in bright colors before weaving, and the finished baskets had straps attached to them for easy transport.

We spent the morning in Latacunga, but we had to be out of our hotel by noon. Our journey had been an exhausting one, and after several more bus connections and a midnight taxi ride, we were grateful to be home again in Gualaceo.