The Flight: Miami-La Paz.
The SFO-MIA flight arrives on time, rather in-time for me to catch the Bolivia plane. No hiccups. I sit next to a Dutch-Bolivian gent (his mother was Bolivian). Quite an impressive character! Larger than life if I can say so. None of his responses were direct - he was talking in phrases. Later I learnt (from him) that 'proper' Dutch makes extensive use of phrases wherever there is one available. When I asked him if Dutch is close to German in structure, he said "What Germans speak is not German... its the wrong Dutch" and laughed away heartily... :-)
Mr G (name hidden for privacy) works for an American Telecom company. He has a 6000 sq meters yard with a mansion on it somewhere between La Paz and Santa Cruz. Upon a few mutual personal revelations, he started talking very openly and started giving me tips for safety, for which SIM cards to buy, how to pick a cab, how to travel in public transport etc etc.
La Paz - Arrival & Visa
What they say about altitude sickness is true. La Paz is one of the highest airports in the world, and you can feel a dearth of air as you exit the airplane. We landed at about 5:20AM local time, and everyone immediately lined up for immigration checks. A police/military officer was checking if everyone had the documents in order. As soon as he flipped through my Republic of India passport(s) and could not see any visa to Bolivia, he took me aside, saying and gesturing things (I only understood the latter), then took me to an immigration officer's window. The officer looked at my passport, my application, the hotel reservation etc., and asked for 135 Bolivianos as visa fee. I took out US Dollars which is an acceptable way of paying for the visa, but he refused. He said - give me Bolivianos please (I later confirmed from fellow US citizen travelors that they paid in US Dollars for the visa fee at the same airport).
I was instructed to leave my passport, and luggage at the immigration window, and go get the money exchanged at the terminal. The police officer accompanied me all the way through the exits, and showing me the exchange window, he disappeared behind the 'Do No Enter' door where the passengers walk out after the formalities.
"WTH!" - I thought to myself. "So I am standing here - technically on Bolivian land - with a lot a cash - but with NO passport or luggage... there's so many ways God could play this. But perhaps it is not worth speculating.. ", and so I immediately started focusing on the exchange process. After getting a shot at the window, now I was left with only one choice: approach another police officer and explain to him/her why I don't have a passport and why I need to get back in to the airport, the 'wrong' way, so I could collect my luggage, get a visa stamped, and be on my way.
As I was about to embark on this brave mission, a passenger exitted from the door that only opened from inside. I took the liberty of rushing right back in to face a stout officer with a gun whose barrel alone was enough to cause me a heart attack:-)
".............".. he said something in Spanish, slowly.
I said "Visa, passport inside, visa fees..."
"..................".. he said something else.
"No habla Espanol Senor.", I said.
"... Boarding Pass..", he demanded.
Fortunately I had taken the boarding pass out of the passport, so I showed it to him. And he let me go in....
.. except... there were two more similar checkpoints I had to repeat the trick. I felt like a daredevil marching through the airtight security of a South American nation's most famous airport... I really did.. esp when I made it back to the same window. The officer took the money, non-chalantly stamped my passport, and off I went.
"Welcome to Bolivia!!!" - a road side sign said as I hailed a taxi at 6:30AM in the morning.
And thus began my grossly unplanned journey to Bolivia!:-)
(To be continued ...)