by Susan Schenck
One of the things that makes Ecuador stand out as a favorite place for expats is the variety of ways in which one can obtain residency (pension, investment, property) and visas (tourist, student, work, professional, volunteer, and a few others). But what happens if you switch residency plans in the middle of the road? In the case of my husband and me, we had a work visa at first, but when my pension came through, we wanted to switch over to the pensionado residency.
We had to get much of the same paperwork redone, but our lawyer said the paperwork wasn’t being prepared properly, so it had to be returned to Sacramento three times. This delay meant we had to leave Ecuador for at least one day, then get stamped back in with the T-3 tourist stamp, good for 90 days. In Cuenca, the most popular destination for people who have to leave the country for a tourist stamp is one of the beach cities of Peru, since they're close. A bus ride to Máncora costs a mere $15 one way.
The eight-hour ride went surprisingly fast, since I read Mutant Message Down Under, a book I got at Carolina Bookstore (the main place for getting English books in Cuenca), which I'd been meaning to read for 20 years!
Máncora is a town of nearly 10,000 people. The price of gas is so high that taxis are motorized rickshaws, reminiscent of India. As in Ecuador, the beach is breezy and rich in sand, delicious to bare feet. But go one block inland and it’s over 80 degrees F. A real surfer spot, Máncora is dotted with young foreigners. Salsa music blasts from restaurants serving truly raw ceviche, cooked only in lime juice. Coffee and chocolate are scarce, so all I found were Nescafe and Hershey’s—low-quality brands from the U.S.!
After three nights we’d seen enough and tried to get a bus back to Cuenca, but they were all filled up. One tourist shop assured us that we could take a van to the border town of Aguas Verdes (Peru) and from there take a taxi to Huaquillas (Ecuador).
We arrived in just a couple of hours. Two very friendly men grabbed our luggage. Allen had an intuitive feeling not to go with them, but I said, “Relax!” They told us they provided a service of taking us to the Peruvian immigration where we'd get stamped out, then to Ecuadorian immigration and the bus stop to get our return ticket to Cuenca, all for $28 each, including the bus fare. Sounded good.
The guy who wasn't driving, Alberto, chatted us up and we felt very comfortable. He explained that he'd never been to Machu Picchu as it’s too expensive for the average Peruvian, even the bus fare to Cuzco. We felt sad for them to live in such poverty. He showed us the gasoline contraband sold on the streets for a dollar less than the $5.80 they pay per gallon. He warned us about all the theft in this area and sternly admonished us to hold on tight to our backpacks. He explained that the car can't go across the border, so we’d have to go by foot and they’d carry our small suitcases.
We got to Peruvian immigration for our exit stamp, only to find the line very long—we’d never make it to the 3 o'clock bus! But Alberto talked to the guard and found that a $7 bribe would be enough to get quick service. But that was for the immigration officer; the guard needed his own $7.
Allen, anxious to get back, was relieved. “We’ll pay you a nice tip!” he assured Alberto.
Suddenly we were out in the desert. I had a bad feeling that was apparently shared by Allen as he whispered, “Get your pepper spray ready!”
We sighed in relief, however, when we were back into a town. The alleviation was short-lived. Alberto became shockingly intense as he explained, “Look, we need to have security guards with us as we cross the border on foot. I need 20 dollars from each of you!”
“Whhhaaaat?” I protested. “This wasn’t part of the deal!”
Alberto got fiercely in our faces, amping up the intensity. I gasped in disbelief as Allen handed him $40. Then Alberto said that the taxi driver also needed $20 for his driving, which Allen forked out. Alberto then went up to the security guards, but we didn't see any exchange of money. Instead, he grabbed some young man off the street and explained to us that he'd be our guide, showing us where to go.
Allen made the mistake of telling our new escort about how we got basically robbed of $60, minus the legitimate taxi fare (probably around $5). So he naturally expected a good fee and we bargained him down to $15. At least he was a local, so he was able to get a decent taxi fare for us. Finally, it was time to get the ticket. The longest and most important part of the journey turned out to be the cheapest: only $7 each.
We added up all the money we paid on this return trip: $114. If we’d gotten the bus from Máncora, it would have been only $40 for both of us. I handed Allen $30 for my share of the extortion, though I disagreed with how he handled it. I asked him why he paid that guide in what we considered a new kind of robbery.
“Things were heating up. We could have been robbed of everything, even held captive for our ATM cards. I think we got off easy, all things considered.” How ironic, I thought: a bargain robbery.
Still, we reminded ourselves that when Ramana Maharshi (the most enlightened sage of the 20th century) was robbed, he explained to his followers, “Give it to them. Karmically, it’s theirs!"
Of course, you can get your tourist stamp without an Peruvian vacation. My attorney's office, for example, contracts with a driver who takes you to Huaquillas, Ecuador, then to Aguas Verdes, Peru, to get your passports stamped in one night. The driver and van cost $210.
But for me, the whole adventure of being on the beach, and even the “hold-up” was worth it. Being from San Diego, I savor any moment I can get to the beach. Next time, however, we are flying or taking the bus … no border-town taxis!
Susan Schenck, LAc, is a raw-food coach, lecturer, and author of the two-time award-winning book, The Live Food Factor, The Comprehensive Guide to the Ultimate Diet for Body, Mind, Spirit & Planet, which has gained a reputation as the encyclopedia of the raw food diet, as well as Beyond Broccoli, Creating a Biologically Balanced Diet When a Vegetarian Diet Doesn’t Work. Go to www.livefoodfactor.com and register for the free newsletter to get a copy of the first chapter of The Live Food Factor.