How to Travel With the Refugees
The promos for the bus trip from Machala to Piura said it took about six and a half hours. Right. That is travel time. What wasn’t included in the information was the 14 ½ hours at the border crossing into Peru.
No, not me. Or the guy from Peru. We had stamps within 10 minutes.
It was the 48 refugee seekers from Venezuela who had to be“processed.” And it wasn’t pretty
Yes, concrete can become your new best friend.
You just have to learn to appreciate it when there aren’t any chairs, benches or other places to sit, relax or stretch out. Making it is difficult as possible to cross the frontier is done on purpose. It is for poor people who are herded through. Those with money fly.
Spending time with cement also teaches you a good lesson about what it is like to live on the street. Alas, that is what awaits many of the people from Venezuela when they get to Colombia, Peru, Argentina or one of the islands in the Caribbean.
Since 2014, 2.3 million people have fled from Venezuela. For Canadians, that is about the population of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. For New Zealanders that is about most of the people on the North Island. For Australians, that is more than Queensland.
As the situation gets worse, the poorest of the poor are now crossing the border, desperate to survive.
These are the cooks, the cleaners, and the gardeners. Educated people left years ago. Or had places overseas and one in the country. With a private jet or flying first-class, visas and borders are not a problem.
I started to meet the refugee Venezuelans when I lived in Medellin—many of them on the street. It was the first point of entry as it was close to the border. The ones with an education kept going to Peru or Chile. That was 2015 and 2016. They were smart and left early.
As the rat who has often been the first to abandon a sinking ship, I applauded their ability to sniff the air the get the hell out.
Flash forward and I am in Ecuador and it is 2018. The government closed the border to all people without a passport. The poorest of the poor are lucky to have identity cards. A passport in Venezuela costs $500USD plus bribes and there is no way these people can rise that sort of money.
“Just find a clinic and get the vaccine,” The Nurse advised. Via a friend, Elaine, I had learned that there was an outbreak of measles in northern Peru and someone she knew had to get a shot at the border.
Good advice as the measles, mumps & rubella (MMB) isn’t to be ignored, even though I have had all of them as a kid.
Note to anti-vaxers: grow up as there was a reason these vaccines were developed. People – mostly children – died. In the developing world, if you don’t have the shots, you don’t cross the border. End of discussion.
It was yet another adventure. Remember my Spanish is basic, but I can get by. Sort of. Pharmacy? Go to the clinic down the street. Try another place. We don’t have the shot, but we think we know a hospital that does.
After a $3 taxi ride that seemed half way to Quito, I found the facility. I was directed through the doors and down the hall to the vaccination room. There I got to line up with the babies. Yes, babies wrapped up in blankets and waiting for their first shots.
When it was my turn I had to stand up for the shot. Why? Mothers hold their babies and the nurse sticks the needle into them. She was very gentle, and I almost wondered if I had the vaccine. But it is stamped in my WHO yellow book, so it is done and dusted.
Since I was a foreigner, nobody knew what to do with me as they had never had to deal with one before. So, the shot was free. When I later checked, it would have cost me $150 in Canada.
La Tina Frontier Crossing
I rocked up early to catch the 10:30 bus that didn’t leave until after 11:00 as it had come from Guayaquil. My bags were hastily stashed in the bowels of the vehicle and we were off.
An hour and a half later we arrived at the border between Ecuador and Peru. The 48 other passengers piled off the bus and collected their luggage as they were from Venezuela and have to go through the refugee line. That included a bag seach.
But before they got there they all had to have the MMR and the yellow fever shots. Then they lined up for the refugee papers.
I’m white and western so nobody asked me for my WHO card. I didn’t have to do much of anything except wait – and learn to appreciate concrete.
There was a sort of restaurant there so I ordered rice and chicken and sat at a table with people wearing uniforms. They must have worked with customs. When they sauntered off, a young woman carrying a child make a dive to pile her bags on a chair and sit down.
The kid started to eye my food. I told her I wasn’t hungry anymore and pushed the Styrofoam container towards her. Then her sister came along and took the happy snap.
There was nothing to do but wander back to the bus and wait on the concrete for another 13 hours or so. The woman who was the sort-of conductor announced it would be “at least another hour” every hour. That started at 15:00 and continued until 22:30.
People who had been processed started to filter back. Jose – who sat next to me on the bus – was an early arrival as he was travelling alone. He hoped to hook up with some people he knew in Peru. I gave him a bottle of water and some chocolate and peanuts. He smiled and showed me his papers.
A group of about 10 or 12 who were travelling together returned with cartons of food. They steaked out a place in front of the bus and had a picnic. Then they had a prayer meeting.
Eventually all 50 of us were accounted for and we headed out for the five-hour trip to Piura.
The bus pulled into the station in a walled-in compound about 04:30. The conductor told me it was too dangerous to take a tuk-tuk to the hotel I had booked. Her advice was to bed down until daylight.
The refugees had quickly claimed all the available space. I would have been stuck in some small area of concrete with my three bags. So I decided to live dangerously and go to the hotel. By this time, I was totally over concrete.
When Francisco tried to teach me to dance salsa at the Polenasia in Medellin, he taught me the process of taking a photo of the taxi and driver. He worked in security and said it was just an extra precaution.
When I snapped the shot, the tuk-tuk driver was clearly confused as he told everyone “she took my picture.” We arrived at the hotel without incident as the first cracks of light appeared. The bed was worth the effort.
I don’t claim to even begin to understand the situation. I suspect the government in Ecuador might be paying for bus tickets to get people across the country and into Peru, which seems to be the destination of choice as over 400,000 Venezuelans are already there.
It is a human tidal wave of desperate people. And there isn’t any easy solution. I will do the little I can to help. I just hope it doesn’t mean spending another 14 and a half hours on concrete.
But that said, I shouldn’t whine about is as the refugees get to do it everyday.