Arbiters of the Arbitrary

Immediately following the completion of the Rock 402 course, I was charged with driving our erstwhile chariot, an electric blue Nissan Juke, some 4300ish kilometres from Bozeman, Montana to Wasilla, Alaska. This, of course, necessitated two border crossings, as there seems to be a rather large country sandwiched inconveniently between the two locations. In what turned out to be a total reversal of my expectations, re-entry to the USA was remarkably smooth (the fact that I had to surrender my capsicum to customs notwithstanding), whilst the Canadian border crossing played out like an overly polite Spanish Inquisition.

The experience brought to mind other amusing anecdotes of border crossings gone wrong. I’ve always found the whole process to be somewhat curious. If you travel a lot, you’ve likely got some stories of your own, but here are a few moments that are etched into my memory. Keep in mind that the following have occurred entirely during my time at MTS, and in a span of less than 6 months…

January 2013 – Santiago Airport, Chile
To say that my New Year’s Eve spent in Buenos Aires had been uneventful would be the ultimate exercise in understatement. I flew out shortly afterward with a brief layover in Mendoza before arriving in the Chilean capital. It never crossed my mind to procure some Chilean Pesos before leaving Argentina. Even if I had remembered, it would most likely have been impossible with the city a veritable ghost town in the midst of the holiday season.

So it was that I arrived in Santiago Airport with an empty wallet and a credit card which was “too new” in the words of the immigration officials. In a triumph of efficient planning and customer service, there are no ATM’s whatsoever between where you disembark the plane and where they demand an exorbitant entry fee be paid by Americans, Canadians, Australians and, bizarrely, Albanians. There was talk of sending me back to Argentina before I tried my old debit card in desperation, knowing the account to be empty. By some miracle, it worked. Whether it allowed me to overdraw my account or I received some last minute deposit from my old job, I’m not sure. Either way, I paid the fee and walked into Chile for the first time a quivering wreck.

January 2013 – Chilean/Argentine Border, Chile Chico
Mere weeks later, I had the opportunity to once again enjoy the fruits of South American bureaucracy. Having time to kill before the commencement of GS7, a friend and I decided to hitchhike to Argentina to catch a glimpse of El Chalten and the nearby spires of Cerro Torre and Fitzroy. Our journey began well. We were given a punnet of cherries, a toothless smile and a ride to Puerto Ibanez by a friendly local, after which we embarked on the ferry and made it to the border at Chile Chico within the day. At the Chilean outpost, we were warned that the Argentine side would be closing in an hour, but we felt that we had plenty of time to get through that evening. We hitchhiked the 8 or so kilometres to the next border, watching the light fade and the landscape around us become desert with implausible speed.

At the border crossing, the guard demanded evidence of my entry fee. I explained that I had paid this, having been in Buenos Aires only two weeks ago. In turn, he explained to me that I must pay this fee EACH AND EVERY TIME I WISH TO ENTER ARGENTINA (by comparison, Americans pay once for the entire life of their passport). He continued to explain that the fee can only be paid on the internet and that this border outpost had no internet. Keep in mind that I was trying to comprehend and speak Spanish for the entirety of this discourse, and that observing me speaking Spanish at the time was kind of like watching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (which if you haven’t seen, don’t. It’s not worth the two hours of your life that you’ll never get back just to understand that analogy).

I was hosed. The Chilean side was closed, and the Argentine side wouldn’t let me in. I asked what the alternative was, to which he responded we could camp in the desert. He ushered us into a truck, drove us about halfway to the other border and unceremoniously dumped us by a bridge over a small creek before disappearing into the night. Luckily, we had a tent on us, so we quickly set it up and spent the only night of my life in which I’ve camped in the No Man’s Land between two countries. We walked back to Chile the next morning. I never went to Argentina again.

May 2013 – Canadian/USA Border, Vancouver
After driving from Anchorage to Vancouver, I needed to embark on a short train ride to Seattle where I had a flight booked. The immigration officer at the Amtrak station seemed confused. Why had I left the USA, if only to return a week later?

“Why are you coming to the United States?”

“To catch a flight. I fly out of Seattle.”

“But why did you leave in the first place?”

“I drove here.”

“But why did you leave the United States?”

“Because Canada is kind of in between Anchorage and Seattle…”

“Well… hmmm… maybe that’s true. Well… gee. It’s going to cost you $6.

“Fine.”

June 2013 – Madrid Airport, Spain
Not all my memorable border crossings were heinous. This one was the best I’ve ever experienced. I flew from Seattle through every airport known to mankind to arrive in Madrid, the most dishevelled airport I’ve ever seen in a developed nation. I waited patiently at the baggage carousel as the remainder of the passengers slowly departed with their baggage, a feat that eluded me. It had been left somewhere in Boston I believe, but that’s neither here nor there.

Once I realised that my gear was missing, I proceeded to the customs checkpoint where I apparently awoke the officer from a well-deserved nap. He eyed me sleepily and gestured me vaguely onwards before returning to sleep. I then moved to the immigration desk and handed my passport to an uninterested clerk. He took it with an undisguised display of impatience, stamping a random page without even a cursory glance at me to prove that I matched the photo before waving me through the gate. It was the quickest exit from an airport I’ve ever made, baggage loss notwithstanding. I found his non-chalance toward border crossing uniquely curious, but it’s not like Madrid has seen any terrorist attacks in recent times…. Oh, wait…..

In an added bonus, the lost luggage meant that instead of lugging 50kg of gear through the city streets, they were delivered by courier to the door of my accommodation in Potes. Score!

When travelling, insane border crossings are all part of the adventure. Granted, I’ve never had to bribe a border guard or had my cavities inspected. It’s easy to get stressed when things don’t go exactly to plan, but take a deep breath and do what you gotta do. It will all work out in the wash. See you on the other side.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
Originally published in May 2015

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?