We get an early start. After weeks in the flat, we’re excited to be on the road again, and looking forward to what we’ll see in Chile.
About an hour from Arequipa we stop at a toll booth. Just beyond it, there’s some sort of police check-point. As we move slowly past it, a policeman waves to us. When we stop, he first confirms that we’re going south toward Tacna, not out to Mollendo, then asks for a ride. Of course we agree. He says – if I understand him correctly – something to the effect that we will be serving the country for the next two hours.
He’s a nice young guy, but harder than most folks for me to understand. He’s our companion for the next couple of hours’ drive through varied terrain, mostly desert and arid hills, with occasional drops into green river valleys. Eventually at another toll booth he leaves us. As near as I can tell, I was wrong in my initial impression that he was catching a ride home after his shift or back to work after his days’ off. I now think he uses this method as a low-budget way to patrol this stretch of highway, and will catch a ride back the other way with someone else.
Shortly we have another hitchhiker for awhile. For some reason he’s much easier to understand, and tells us more than I need to repeat about the local economy, which hills have what kinds of mines operating in them, and the like. Still, it’s pleasant to chat with him.
We glance at Tacna on the way through – at the Plaza de Armas, nice colors, the blossoms of some tree or trees, catching the sunlight above the plaza – and continue to the border. We arrive in almost exactly the five hours Andrea had predicted.
Unfortunately, at the border we’re told we can’t cross because we don’t have a piece of paper from customs authorizing us to take our Peruvian-registered car out of Peru.
We must drive the 40 km. back to Tacna and go to the customs department. We turn back, but I don’t know where customs is or what exactly we need. I drive back to the Plaza de Armas, figuring I’ll see a police station or a tourist information office or the customs office somewhere in that area, and when we do see an information office I turn off the main street and park as soon as I can. At the tourist information office, this problem – a foreign person who owns a Peruvian vehicle and needs to take it out of Peru temporarily – is a new one for the two nice ladies who help me. They are diligent, and one even makes several phone calls to customs offices, finally telling me that to drive the car out of Peru I must pay a fee that is 70% of the value of the car. I am of course disappointed to hear this, but also politely disbelieving. She figures that’s just Perú, but makes a few more calls. Finally she tells me that there are shipping companies that can get us the permit we need, for a modest fee, and gives me directions to drive to the office of one of them.
Thus begins a difficult effort that features visits to a couple of such companies, a new [and not unreasonable] requirement that we have with us a document showing we have clear title to the car, and the payment of a fee. I rush across town to SUNARP, but to get the document proves impossible in the vehicle office in Tacna because we can get it only in Lima, where the car is registered. Another guy waiting there tells me the only way is to get a friend in Lima to go to the office, procure the piece of paper, and fax it to me. We call our friend in Lima, who is willing to do that, and check into a hotel for the night.
Tacna itself is actually a pleasant town, but for the fact that we’d rather not be there at all.
In the morning we have time to kill, waiting for the paper from Lima. We walk down to the Plaza de Armas and back. The walk includes a very pleasant visit to a small museum in the former home of a local hero who was instrumental in sparking the 1929 referendum that brought Tacna back to Peru from Chile, which had won it in war forty years earlier. It’s now partly an art museum, and worth a stop if you’re in Tacna.
Tacna, perhaps because it is so close to the border, has a market area filled with acres of foreign electronics and other goods, including what we need: warm coats for the high, cold country we hope to visit. We kill some time over there. Then there are two developments with regard to the paper we need: the first is that we learn we don’t really need it, because we can say that we will only visit Arica – and, once we’re in Chile, Peru’s customs people have no way of knowing where we actually go, and the Chileans don’t care. The second is that we won’t get the paper today, because in my e-mail to Aldo I’ve mis-written one number of the car’s license plate.
So – 24 hours later than we’d intended – we’re off to Chile!
As we’re driving through Tacna, a pedestrian crossing the street points vigorously at the front of the car, as if pointing out that we have our lights on or something, but we don’t. After another block or so another pedestrian points, with an urgent expression on his face, but I can’t catch what he yells to us, and continue, wondering what’s up. The fourth time someone reacts that way to our approach, I stop. The fellow says the left front tire has been wobbling wildly – though I hadn’t felt anything – and is instantly down on his knees taking a look at it. He turns out to be a mechanic, from a nearby shop, and we make for there – slowly and carefully, so as not to aggravate the problem.
It turns out that we need certain parts. I am a little suspicious, and want to walk with one of these guys to the Mitsubishi place to buy the parts. However, one of them returns with the fellow from Mitsubhishi, who has the parts with him – and the prices he’s asking seem way out of line, although I know nothing about car-part prices, in the U.S. or in Perú. At this point, I am in a difficult position. The wheels are loose, waiting for the new parts. I believe the price of the parts is way too high, but am no mechanic. All discussion is, of course, in Spanish.
I am like a fish flopping about out of water. I know something is wrong, Even as ignorant as I am about cars and car parts and prices, I feel sure that the price for these parts is inflated; but I can’t reach anyone to confirm that; and I can’t leave Ragna alone with the car and all our things while I go in search of assistance; and I can’t send her anywhere to ask anything, since she doesn’t speak the language (and, as a woman alone, might have difficulty reaching the main street, if these guys are in fact cheating us); and the two of us can’t really leave the car where it is, either. Too, these guys might actually be telling the truth.
So I sit there with my foot on the goddamned brake trying to call every Mitsubishi place and every Peruvian acquaintance I can think off – but without my computer, I don’t even have all the phone numbers I wish I had. I do manage to reach the Mitsubishi place in Yanahuara, but the guy who runs repairs is out, and I make no headway with the woman on the phone. I do manage to reach Aurelio, our landlord, and he undertakes to try to figure out the proper prices for those parts; but that may take some time, and it’s late afternoon. I know that I can’t still be dealing with this problem when night falls.
They do give me another cell-phone and a number in Lima, which I call. Whoever answers purports to be a Mitsubishi dealer in Lima, and more or less confirms the prices they’ve stated; but I’m still unconvinced, and want to call someone with my own cell-phone to be sure it’s not somebody’s cousin playing along.
This is an interlude I do not much wish to write about. Being so stupid and helpless is not part of my self-image. It’s a rare experience and not a pleasant one, not something I’m dying to announce to everyone.
People often ask, and will continue to ask, “But didn’t you have any problems, driving around so much of Peru alone?” Mostly it has been wonderful. Or difficult in the usual ways, but rewarding. I have enjoyed saying, “Not really” – not because it sounds cool, but because it seems in a little way to vindicate this country I’ve grown fond of. Now I must say, “Mostly no, but . . .” and tell everyone how stupid I was.
We drive to the border again. I feel subdued and a little tuned-out as we go through a lot of Peruvian paperwork to get the car out of Peru, then get subjected to the Chilean border guards’ careful efforts to keep Peruvian drugs out of Chile. By now I´m getting tired. When we finally drive away, the man at the last checkpoint determines that the Chilean document regarding the car, which requires five signatures, has only four signatures on it, and he sends us back to procure the fifth.
Finally we are across. In darkness we make the short drive on to Arica. We like the feel of the place, even in darkness, and it’s exciting to be in a new country; but our efforts to find an affordable and acceptable place to stay are as protracted and disastrous as usual. Once again we inspect various hotels, one of which is appealing but full and others of which don’t pass muster with Ragna.
Ultimately we stay at the Costa Pacifico, a cavernous, bland sort of place. The room is huge but doesn’t have a chair or table. The hotel is clean, but too antiseptic and characterless for my taste, and costlier than I might like. (But there may also be a psychological barrier involved in spending 35,000 of anything.)
To get supper we walk to a street that’s been turned into a pedestrian mall. It’s loud with bars, but thin on restaurants that look appealing — particularly if you don’t eat meat. We finally do eat somewhere, but my stomach is worse. I have a rare bout of diarrhea. Ragna, who is happy to be in Chile and likes the feel of Arica, wants to stay up and drink and be merry, and seems angry at me for not being too enthusiastic. We walk home. She’s quite put out with me. I just want to sleep. Chile seems nice, but life doesn’t.