Welcome to the driest place on earth!
Welcome to the driest place on earth!

When I was planning to cross the border overland between Peru and Chile, there were so many things that could go wrong. We Indians need visas for most countries, and even with the right visas, things can go crazy; for instance my friend was recently detained in the Singapore airport for over an hour because her picture in the passport did not look ‘right’. In my own case, while entering Peru, the immigration officer had checked my visa with a UV scanner before letting me through. To add to all this, I had never crossed a border overland before and all I had to guide me was a lone blog post (This one). And what happened to you if they stopped you at a land border? Do they send you back? (My Peru Visa was about to expire so that wasn’t an option). Do they make you wait at the no-man’s land forever? Did they have loos in the no-man’s land?

My stomach was rumbling from all these uncomfortable questions as the bus rolled into Tacna, the southern border town of Peru.

Tacna is in the middle of the desert. It had the distinct feeling of a town from a Clint Eastwood western. Following the blog post to the letter, I crossed a street and entered the international bus station. It felt like I had fallen through a wormhole and landed in a station in India. It was nothing like the neatly arranged and brightly lit bus stations of Peru that I had been getting used to. A wide covered plaza stretched out before me, with clumps of people squatting everywhere, surrounded by piles of produce, like a roving band of hunter-gatherers jostling about with the day’s catch. Seedy little travel company offices were arrayed along the walls with peeling posters and disinterested looking staff absent-mindedly swatting at flies. A dim sunlight filtered through the dirty skylights above. I asked around a bit, and queued up at the designated gate. According to the post, I had to get on a bus to Arica, the next town across the border.

At the gate there was a guy yelling “Arica! Arica!”. I went up to him and he promptly took my passport and went about his work. Normally I would press the panic button at this and run behind him yelling profanities in Hindi, but the post had warned me that this was normal. He was holding a bunch of other IDs and this reassured me a bit. Still somewhat alarmed at handing over my passport to an absolute stranger who spoke no english, I boarded the bus. It was none of the reclining-seat-footrest-curtains affair of the plush buses I had enjoyed so far in Peru. It was only a minor improvement over the tin-boxes that ply the roads of Mumbai. Crowded with noisy locals carrying sacks full of tissue papers, paper plates, stationery, groceries and vegetables, it felt like we were carrying a bit of the station with us. The blog post had explained this as well: hordes of locals make the daily trip from across the border to shop since Peru was five times cheaper than Chile.

Once on the bus, my passport was returned to me, along with a standard immigration form. I filled the form in barely legible writing as the bus lumbered through the desert roads of Tacna towards the border. With rising alarm I noted that I was the only one brandishing a passport; everyone else carried a smart-card-like ID which was supposedly enough for the residents of the two countries. I sat on the bus sweating and getting slightly queasy as the desert scenery rolled past; dusty brown plains stretching up to the horizon, ending in rolling dry hills, shimmering under a clear blue sky. Not a speck of green anywhere. This was Atacama, the driest place on earth. What a place to be stuck in, I thought as my heart sank a few more inches.

If the immigration officer at the Peru border felt any surprise at my presenting a passport, she didn’t show any signs of it. She promptly stamped it and let me through. Phew. Leaving a country is always easier than entering.

A hundred meters ahead was the Chile border. Now this guy was thoroughly confused when I presented a passport and a visa.   He looked at me as if I had handed him a goat instead of the standard ID that everyone else carried. He conferred with his co-worker in hushed Spanish, followed by a call to – I’m guessing – his superior. There was a lot of shuffling of sheafs of paper, some typing at a computer keyboard, and more troubled looking discussion between the two officers. After a while, the superior himself arrived on the scene; I could tell because he had a bigger belly and a cleaner shirt. All this while I stood at the window smiling nicely and drumming my fingers, steadfastly ignoring both the long queue of impatient locals behind me and my rising blood pressure.

Anyway, the superior seemed familiar with the concept of a visa. There was a lot of smiling, maybe some cracking of jokes at the only Indian they had ever seen in their lives, couple of more phone calls, and then they stamped my passport. Not a single word was exchanged between me and the officials. I silently thanked the blogger who had explained a similar experience, thanked the internet, thanked the twenty-first century for being the information age, and stepped into Chile.

As I waited near the bus for the rest of the people to clear immigration, I looked around, and saw the same desert blazing around me. The flag of Chile fluttered noisily in the warm, dusty wind. A little behind I could still see the border post of Peru. And all around was the dreary, dead desert, pockmarked with the signs of humans drawing imaginary lines on the face of earth.

Arica's a neat little town between the desert and the Pacific
Arica’s a neat little town between the desert and the Pacific