Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Border Crossing – Puno to Copacabana (Peru to Bolivia) with a Malaysian Passport

One of the most nerve wrecking time during travels is always crossing borders from one country to another especially when it’s through a tiny border town. Information is always scare for border crossing town somehow and even when there is, its bare minimum enough that you have to think twice if the information is reliable. Everyone crosses the border differently (due to different passport) and crossing like a local is always the aim.

Some errands needed to be run for entry to Bolivia as a Visa is required for a Malaysian visiting Bolivia even as a tourist. No Bolivia embassy in Malaysia so even if one wanted to he could not obtain a Bolivian Visa in Malaysia. Fortunately thou traveling around South America there are plenty of Bolivia Embassy in neighbouring country.

I got my visa in Cusco, Peru where the embassy was situated in town a short taxi ride away for 5 Sol. The very first thing I did when I was in Cusco in fact for I wanted to know if I could get in to Bolivia else the whole journey, route would need to be reconsidered.
Arriving at the Embassy the following was pasted on the wall

Bolivia Visa Application Requirement in Cusco
Minimum Requirement needed for a Bolivian Visa if your Country is listed under Category 2 (Malaysia Is Fortunately)

1. Passport Photocopy
2. Yellow Fewer Vaccination Photocopy
3. One Passport Photo
4. Itinerary Copy (Flight Ticket out of South America)
5. 1st Night Accommodation Booking in Bolivia
So back to the city to get the necessary stuff prepared. Plenty of shops in Cusco offer photocopying, Internet and Printing, Passport Photograph and I could understand now why for many tourist use Cusco as a gateway to Bolivia and all of them needed the same things.
Itinerary copy was a tricky one for a hand drawn copy of where you are going was not going to work but if you don’t have a flight ticket it’s just ridicules to get one. However there are many ways to fake a flight ticket booking. I had my round the world ticket which was essentially just a plain printout of the flights and times with nothing that makes it look like an official ticket. It looked so much like I just typed it out of MS Word but I used it anyway.

1st night booking was about USD 1 on hostel world, a deposit I was prepared to burn and that’s was enough for the Visa application
Heading back to the Embassy the following day with the five items above the officer did not even glance though the documents. He just counted them, one, two, three, four, five … ok. He passed me a form to filled up which we filled and for question such as route through Bolivia I just write a few city in it. Passport was handed to them and they took it upstairs for a while and returned later with a 30 days Visa stamped into the passport.

Easy peasy, no payment required, no bribe required. It looked more like a documentation process than a visa application process. The officer was pretty strict to have that 5 items which I notice some people trying to negotiate a leeway but he held firm. Once you have that 5 items thou regardless if it’s real or not you get the visa no questions asked.

Puno to Copacabana

Bolivia Entry Form
The trip from Puno to Copacabana was easier than I thought. Bought a bus ticket for 25 Sols which takes you across the border pretty slowly since it’s a whole bus load of people and they have to wait to clear immigration. The bus company was Huayrar Tours which has a nice person on board to help you with the immigration crossing and she spoke English as well as Spanish.

After dumping all the bags into cargo, with no tickets issued whatsoever we boarded the bus and it was a 2 hours bus ride to the border. Along the way the bus attendant gave us the forms to be filled up and help us along when in doubt such as the front page of the form had English translation but the back side had only Spanish. Weird but she said just leave it blank since it was not important. I gave my best shot at reading it and understood it was questions with a yes or no answer like, “ are you a terrorist” , “have you ever been rejected from a country” etc.

Money Changer at Peru Border
After most of the passengers had settled down filling their form and falling asleep she came to me and said for Asian people there will be an additional form to fill up for Bolivia crossing and it will cost 2 Sols. If it was a scam to get more money out of me I was not bothered since it was only 2 sols. I paid her and fall asleep only to wake up at the border. 
Peru side of the border and there are many money changers around to get rid of unwanted Peruvian Dollars. Exchange rate was fair (2.1) close enough to the internet rate that I checked the day before but nowhere as good at the rate I got in Puno (2.5). I got rid of the last few notes 14.10 Sols in total and got into the line for the immigration building.

There is no real checkpoint that you must clear before going into Bolivia. If you wanted you could just stroll along the road all the way into Bolivia and no one will stop you. Immigration was more of a self-obligation thing if you don’t want to get into trouble in future. Queueing up for the exit stamp of Peru the bus attendant came to me and pass me two more forms to be filled up for Bolivia. Seems like she was honest about the additional forms for I saw her only dishing it out to Asian people. 2 Sols was more of the photocopy cost of the form.

Peru side of Imigration
Ola … bye bye Peru …. And he stamp out my passport after a long wait verifying through online that I was legal tourist in Peru and had not overstayed. Walk across the border all this time with only my day pack bag with me. The bus had already gone over to the Bolivia side with all the cargo inside the checked compartment.
As far as I know there is no screening at all done. No customs … just immigration so you can take whatever you wanted from Peru to Bolivia and vice versa. I also took a mental note that if you left something in cargo and got stuck in immigration there is no way to get your bag out at all so luckily anything important was packed on hand carry. Some people I notice even left the day packs in the bus ….. but like I thought if you needed it … its probably gone or stolen while you are queuing in immigration

Walking over to Bolivia
Hello Bolivia ….. Where is the immigration office …. Look closely at all the signs and one gave an arrow to a small building on the left hand side. Now if you wanted just board back the bus or walk on ahead into Bolivia. No one is going to stop you really. Like I said immigration is a self-obligation thing. Going into the small building the officers looked at my passport with a frown. He asked the person in the next counter …. Malaysia ??? This is going like the border crossing in Peru I thought.
After many chit chatting in Spanish they establish that Malaysia is under the second category of visa requirement.

Bolivia Immigration
You Need Visa, he said
I have Visa … that’s the page you are looking at …. The Bolivia visa I got in Cusco in your consulate

He look at it dumbfounded ….. I figured he either don’t recognised his own country visa stamp or he was just trying to be funny and charge me money for not having visa at the border. After much scrutinizing gaze at my Bolivian visa he finally started processing it, scanning the passport, keying in some data into computer and STAMP ….. Passed back my passport without a glance or a word of welcome ….
Hello Bolivia …. no payments needed and no bribes thankfully
Back onto the bus and towards Copacabana


Friday, 20 February 2015

Puno & The Floating Island of Uros – Lake Titicaca

Reaching Puno at 5am in the morning I ignored all the touts at the bus station and headed out of the bus station relying on my sense of direction to find the main plaza. Some locals I asked along the way for the main plaza and they nicely pointed me in the right direction. I however did got caught by a nice tout along the way to the plaza. He was waiting in the middle of nowhere I guess he knew to catch tourist walking around lost easier than trying to catch the fishes at the bus stop.

Elantris I would call him was a nice tout thou never trying to rip me off too much. He did try in the beginning but once he learned I was not Japanese nor Chinese from China his price was more reasonable. Since I was not dead on going dirt cheap I followed him while battering the price of the hostel down along the way.
25 Sols for a single bed with attached bathroom. Good price, Elantris said.
I said no for I was having 17 sols in Cusco for a single bed but without attached bathroom. 20 sols he said …. Sure why not but let’s have a look at the place first ok?
The hostel is actually an inn or B&B which is quite common. I took his offer of 20 Sols for the night and even succumbed to buying a tour from him, half day to floating island Uros for 25 sols. Puno is really just worth one day visit. Not much to do but a nice place to slow down.
Things to do in Puno included visiting the main square, walk around, visit the floating island and change money. I mean it … change your Peruvian sol to Boliviano here in Puno. I was shocked for I checked the internet rates before hand and it was 1 sol = 2.25 Bol but the money changer gave me an exchange rate of 2.5 I dumped 80 Sols and kept the balance being careful to not run out of Sols before I really get to Bolivia. At the border the next day I dumped all the Sol I had which was 14 Sols for 30 Bol …. Exchange of about 2.1

Floating Island Uros
Interesting as it is, I hated the tour. The tour guide speaks English, Spanish and the local language and explain to us about Lake Titicaca giving us all the data and facts about the lake. The highest navigable lake in the world, blab la bla length, width, depth ….. blab la bla … I was sleepy from the overnight bus ride.
Floating Island of Uros - Lake Titicaca

Miniature Model of the Floating Island 
First stop at the floating island showing us how the community live. The so called president of the community greeted us and I notice he was the only man there young as he was. A presentation was made of the floating island and how the culture and community live. Four families for that little island we stopped, local food of reed, fish, how the island floats and a visit into the huts or houses, the kids all around us, laughing and just playing around happy to see strangers.

Kids being kids ....
So cute, they would sit next to you during presentation and then after pull you by holding your hand to visit their huts. So innocent …. Till one of them ask for money

the boy could barely even be 5 years old ….

I was shocked and disgusted at the same time. It’s all good and fine when the adults try to sell you souvenir and try to sell you a boat ride on the traditional reed boat but when a kid asked you for money …. I had enough of the tour …
More stops of the same nature and the group of us just ignored everything and even stopped taking photos …. Just look and observed and eventually the guide got the hint and brought us back to Puno. 


Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Happy Chinese New Year 2015

Chasing festivals around the world, seeing Christmas in England, New Years in London, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Christmas Market in Germany, one could not appreciate more a festival back home that one grew up with.
I have known travellers that would plan their whole long term travel only to go back in time for Christmas or Thanksgiving and some would even buy a special flight ticket back home just to celebrate the festival with family before flying back out and resuming their journey. Then there are those not so fortunate and will have to spend their cherished festival moments with hopefully great random strangers.
For me being a Malaysian Chinese, the celebration of Chinese New Year would be the most important one. Growing up in Malaysia it was always a celebration regardless of which festival it is. During CNY, muslim, indian, or any others for that matter would visit the Chinese community houses, eat delicious food and of course collect the customary red packet. Vice versa, during other celebration such as Deepavali (Festival of the Light for Hindu), or Hari Raya (Muslim), or Christmas, I on the other hand would be visiting friends’ houses for the same reason.
I used to joke with my boss at work … we Malaysian Celebrate all Festivals regardless if it’s your religion or not and I guess it’s true in a way but there is always one that is more meaningful, more important than the rest.
While I sit here in Porto Alegre, Brazil watching TV showing Brazilian celebrating Carnival at its peak, back home the first day of CNY would come to rise and I would missed it.
Miss the reunion dinner with family where once a year family will use all means to gather together for a dinner the night before the new year  ….
Miss the bickering that would happen eventually as we rub nerve on each other …… and being a family one learns the best ways to rub nerve on another
Miss the endless delicious food … and of course drinking
Miss the sly gambling that would take place eventually. Even the pretend innocent will gamble during this festival. For the gambler that I am, this is the period where I sometime become a rented gambler …. Money given to me to gamble as an investment where I would eventually have to return with very high interest in the end of the day
Miss the gossips and catching up
But of all the endless things I miss during CNY period there will be one that I am glad I am far far away which is the endless questions of why I am still single and the pestering of matchmaking from good hearted or rather just bored aunts.
For all the dreams, envy and hope that I have given people through my journey’s photo posting traveling the world, during this time of the year it will be my turn to dream and envy of delicious CNY food and envy the celebrations of not being home. No doubt I will follow friends and family on facebook of the celebrations and reunion photos or even excursions and long to be there.  

I wish everyone a Very
Happy Chinese New Year 2015 of the SHEEP …. Baaa …. Baaa ….. HUAT AH !!