Don't Rock My Boat (Part 5)


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South America » Ecuador
November 30th 2008
Published: January 25th 2010
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Pan and the Art of Motorcycle Smuggling



A few minutes later, Fernando and I are standing in front of the customs office. Next to the closed door and down at waist level, there is a wide, open window. A thin-faced man in a white polo shirt sits at a small table just on the other side and looks up from my passport.

"The purpose for your visit to Ecuador?"
"Just passing through on my way to Colombia," I say.
"Anything to declare?"
"Nope."
"Ok," he says as he finishes copying the pertinent details from my passport onto a registration clipboard. "Don't forget to swing by the police station so they can stamp you in."
"Got it."

He hands me my passport and takes Fernando's.

"Ok, and you?" he asks, flipping through the pages.
"Just going to be here for a few days to sell some pan rosco, some soda, and my motorcycle."

The guy behind the window pinches at his nose for a second, sniffs, and looks up.

"Motorcycle?"
"Yeah."
"Hang on."

The guy stands up, walks around to the door, and steps out onto the concrete landing. He shoves his bony hands into the pockets of his khaki shorts and nods to the little RTM cycle sitting by the curb.

"That it?" he asks.
"Yeah."
"Did you apply for a sales permit from Quito?"
"A what?"

The customs official takes his hands out of his pockets and folds his arms over his chest.

"Look, the bread and the soda and all that crap is fine. But if you want to sell a vehicle, that has to be registered with the government. Now I can put in the papers for you, but it will take about a week."
"Uf," replies Fernando. "I really only brought enough money to stick around for three or four days. That won't work."
"Look," says the customs guy. "If you come across the border and you tell me that you have the intention of selling a vehicle and you don't have a permit, I have to confiscate it until the papers are done."
"Oh, um."

Fernando begins to fidget. But the customs official isn't a fascist and Fernando isn't a hustler, so they shoot straight with each other.

"Do you have the title proving that the motorcycle is yours?"
"Yeah, yeah," says Fernando. "It's right here."

Fernando pulls a folded document from his back pocket. The customs official holds up a hand in a halting gesture and wags the fingertips back and forth.

"It's ok. If you tell me you've brought the vehicle as a means of transportation during your stay in town, then there's no problem."

Fernando looks down at his feet for a moment and thinks.

"Well, ok. I don't need to sell it right now. I'll just use it as...personal transportation while I'm here."
"Ok, good," says the official. "If you change your mind about staying, let me know and I can send the papers up to Quito."

The official looks at his watch.

"Oh, by the way. The other guys from aduana are off playing soccer with the police. So they won't be around the station. Give it a few hours and then go get your passports stamped."

We thank him and head back to the RTM to leave.

"Well, what now?" asks Fernando.
"I would love to take about five showers, but I guess that isn't an option at the moment."
"Nope," he pauses and then goes on with a crooked smile. "Wanna help me sell some pan roscos?"

With nothing better to do and unable to resist doing something as odd as selling dehydrated bagels in an Amazonian village, I agree.

We cruise back to the woman's house for four or five bags of the bread. Fernando hangs a few from the handlebars and I clutch the rest in one hand and hold on to a metal handle mounted on the back of the RTM's seat. With that, we head down the street to the other end of the village to where most of the houses are.

We stop in front of one house where an old woman stands at the kitchen window.

Without getting off the bike, Fernando holds up one of the bags and addresses her.

"Buenas tardes señora. Would you like some pan roscos? Good price and very fresh!"

Fresh? They've been sitting on the Cabo Pantoja for six days.

The woman gives a barely perceptible shake of the head.

"No? Ok."

We continue on. At another window, a woman asks about the price.

"Well I'm selling them for ten cents a piece. But there are fifty in a bag. So I can give you a bag for $4."

The woman waffles back and forth over the decision and asks all manner of odd questions. In the end she says she needs to think about it.

"Can you come back later?"
"No problem," says Fernando. "We'll be back in a bit."

We stop in front of another place surrounded by a white picket fence. A kid on a bicycle is in front. Fernando nods to him.

"Hi, is your mom home?"
"She's inside."
"Could I talk to her for a second?"

The kid lets the bike fall onto its side and leads us through the wooden gate. Around the side of the house, there is a large gazebo built over a round concrete foundation. A toddler sits on one side pushing a few plastic trucks around and making the universal gnashing and crashing sound effects that all kids know. Watch them sometime and all the impossible, slow-motion acrobats their toys make in mid-air and you'll see elaborate choreography straight out of The Matrix.

At the other end a husky woman fanning herself with a dilapidated magazine sits in a plastic chair next to an ancient old woman who must be her mother.

"Buenas tardes!" she calls in a booming voice as we enter the shade of the gazebo.

We say hello and Fernando makes his sales pitch - showing her a bag of bread and rattling off the rate structure.

She nods and listens. Occasionally, she glances at me with a bemused smile.

"Oh," says Fernando. "This is my friend from the US."
"Associate?" she asks.
"Apprentice," I correct her.

She cackles and agrees to buy a whole bag of the pan roscos.

A little way up the street, we stop in front of another house with a tall wooden porch. A teenage girl leans on the railing and Fernando repeats the request to speak with her mother. An older woman with short, curly hair and thick glasses ambles out.

"Buenas, señora, would you like to buy some pan roscos?"
"Oh," she responds slowly. "I suppose. But who is this?"
Fernando glances at me. "This is my friend visiting from the United States."
"Well I can see that," says the woman. "He's as red as a beet. You two get up here in the shade and have something to drink before he melts."

We walk through the gate and up the steps. Fernando looks back at me again.

"Didn't you put some sunscreen on?"
"I did. This isn't sunburn. Just my natural reaction to the equator."

The girl pulls a few plastic chairs over for us to sit at the small table and the woman brings out a few glasses of juice. As always in this part of the world, the juice is made from some alien fruit I can't begin to identify. And, as always, it is delicious, sweet, and cold.

After a second glass of juice and a few bags of bread sold, we head back to the main street along the river. Fernando brings the bike to a stop at a corner. In front of us is a small, modern building with aluminum siding. Mounted on the wall next to the front door is a large government seal of some kind. A few young men are sitting in plastic chairs on the porch sipping from cans of beer. They are both wearing red polo shirts with a white replica of the same seal on the breast pocket.

Fernando waves at them and they stand to walk over.

"Afternoon guys, just out selling some bread. Some for you and the men?"

I take a second look at the seal on the building and realize these are military personnel - albeit tied to desk-jobs or otherwise inactive which gives them the luxury of red polo shirts.

The taller one on the left with a buzz cut gestures to the RTM.

"Nice bike. You brought it from Coca?"
"No, Iquitos," says Fernando, pointing up the river toward the border.
"Ahhhhh ha, a Peruvian."
Fernando nods. "Yep. Just here for a few days to sell some stuff."
"Ya huh. And you?" says the other one. His speech is slightly slurred.
"I'm from the States," I say. "Just on my way through."
"To where?"
"Colombia."
"Well welcome to Ecuador."
"Thanks."
"But you know," he pauses and points at Fernando. "You know you know you know. Your country helped these guys back in the war. We weren't too happy about it."
"I don't know about that. I was just a kid at the time."
"Meeee too. But you know. We are here, and we are proud to be here. Because we are warriors!"

I nod and just barely snatch manual control away from the muscles in my ocular cavities before they have a chance to send my eyeballs rolling.

"We are here to defend our families!" he says.

From what, you twit?

Eventually they buy a few loose bagels and we take off.

"They were a little drunk," I say.
"You think?"

We stop by the first woman's house again to see if she's made up her mind about buying some bread. She's still in the window, and after an exasperating minute of conversation she decides she doesn't need any.

So we return to the far end of town to see if Fernando's friends are back. As luck has it, they are. A man in his late fifties stands on the porch and greets Fernando with a hug. We stand around talking for a few minutes and discuss the finer points of the little red motorcycle as men universally tend to do.

The house is very nice - a fairly large two-story cottage nestled in to the trees at the very edge of the village. The backyard is essentially jungle. The man's wife comes out and gives Fernando a big hug and greets me.

"Still want your five showers?" asks Fernando.
"Yes, please."
"Ok, you get settled. I'm going to start moving the stuff over from the woman's house. When you're done we can run over to the police for passport control."
"Chevere."

The woman shows me upstairs to a small room with a full-sized bed. The room is minimal, but has been decorated with care - paisley-print pillows on a matching bedspread and frilly curtains neatly drawn to the sides of the single window. Beyond the window, I can see the thick wall of jungle in the back yard. After a week of living on a crowded cargo boat, these quarters are sheer luxury.

Things only get better downstairs in the bathroom equipped with a hot, high-pressure shower.

Gloriously clean and wearing a fresh set of clothes, I find Fernando to see if he's ready to head over to the police post.

We hop on the bike again and cruise over to the opposite end of Rocafuerte. We walk inside where three tall guys with buzz cuts and sweaty tank tops are talking over their recently-played soccer game. They take our passports and look them over. They mutter to each other for a moment.

One wheels an old computer chair over to me and points to it.

"Sit down."
"Alright."

I sit.

They instruct Fernando to sit in another chair in front of a desk in the corner - the only major piece of furniture in the entire building as far as I can see.

One of the guys sits behind the desk and the other two stand off to the side. The officer flips through both passports again.

"Peruvian....and American. How do you two know each other?"
"We don't, really," says Fernando. "We met on the boat up from Iquitos and have just been hanging out."

The cop looks at me.

"You speak Spanish?"
"Yes," I say.
"What brings you to Ecuador?"
"Just on my way to Colombia."
"And then where? What's the plan for your trip?"

I explain the whole thing, where I'm coming from, where I'm going, and no, sir, I don't plan on staying anywhere to live, and yes, sir, I'm returning to the United States, and no, sir, it isn't any of your goddamned business anyway.

The cop taps the surface of the desk with a pen for a few moments and looks up at his colleagues.

"Speaks good Spanish, doesn't he?"
"Extremely good," one of them responds.
"We don't get too many tourists like you coming down here speaking that well. Seems kind of strange."

Now I have to explain my time living and working in Spain. I go so far as to push my accent back into Castilian to drive the point home, but fight the urge to add a nice solid 'JODER!' at the end of my spiel.

Giving up on me for the moment, he turns his attention back to Fernando.

"And what are you doing here?"
"Just here for a few days to visit some friends and sell some pan roscos that I brought."

One of the others has walked over to the window and is looking out at the RTM.

"Is that yours?" he asks.
"Yes," replies Fernando.
"You're here to sell pan," says the first cop. "and the bike?"
"No, no. Just using it for transportation while I'm here," he says.
"Is the bike registered in Ecuador?" asks the other cop, still looking out the window at it.
"Well...no," replies Fernando. "I bought it in Perú. It's registered there."

The guy at the desk shakes his head.

"You can't bring a vehicle across the border without having registered it. We'll have to confiscate it."

Fernando begins to look nervous.

"Yes, he can," I say. "As long as he brings the title with him, he can pretty much take it anywhere. That's standard international law, and we already talked to customs about it."

The cop looks back at me.

Time freezes just long enough for every person I have ever known to walk slowly into the station one at a time, place a hand on my shoulder, and say with the utmost patience "Tony, shut the fuck up."

As soon as that's over, the guy stares at me for a few seconds, then looks back at Fernando.

"Ok, so let's see the title."

Fernando pulls the title from his pocket and hands it to the cop. The cop unfolds it and reads it over - matching up details on Fernando's passport. After a few minutes, he hands the title back.

"Ok, so let me get this straight," he says. "You dragged a motorcycle six days up the river just to sell bread?"
"Yeah, and visit some friends."
"You mean to tell me that selling a few bags of bread pays for that?"
"Yep."
"How much did it cost to get here?"
"Usually it's about $30 for the cargo boat. But I made an exchange with them for some bread, so I paid half that."
"And the boat across the border?"
"I paid the guy around $8."

I jerk my head around to look at Fernando. "What do you mean $8? I had to pay 20!"

Fernando looks at me with his eyebrows raised to remind me that this really isn't the time.

Good point.

The guy behind the desk continues to grill Fernando, trying to poke holes in his story and find evidence for some crime he has fabricated in his mind. Meanwhile, the tallest of the three snatches my passport up off the table, and stands to my right

"How long were you in Perú?"
"A few months."
"That's a long time. Why?"
"I don't know. I like the food?"

Self-preservation filters somewhere in my mind add the question mark to the end of that statement to strip the venom from its sarcasm and make it benign. The unused venom seeps down my spinal column and puts the taste of iron at the back of my throat.

The guy looks through my passport again.

"Wait, when did you leave Perú?"
"We left Pantoja this morning at about 7."
"7? This morning?"
"Yes."
"But your passport stamp is for today."
"Well....yeah."
"You mean to tell me the immigration office in Pantoja was open that early this morning?"
"Oh. No, he stamped it for me last night."
"You were stamped out last night?" his eyes widen in alarm.

The shorter of the three steps forward.

"So where exactly were you all night if you weren't in Perú?"

I sigh and answer as patiently as possible.

"I was in Pantoja. I was sleeping with a noisy rooster on the deck of a cargo boat. I left this morning."
"But you were stamped out last night."
"Exactly. And the stamp is for today, because that was when I was leaving."
"You can't do that. You can't just get a stamp for whatever day you want. You've entered Ecuador with an invalid exit stamp."
"Look, I just did what they told me to do. There's no way I'm the first person to have left Pantoja at sunrise. If there is something illegal about it, you need to get on the radio and call Pantoja, because I have no choice in the matter. When I'm on their side in their office, I have to do whatever they tell me to do. Which I did. Just like when I'm over here, I have to follow your procedures."
"That's right," snaps the shorter one. "You're on our side now."
"Yes. Here I am," I say.

I fold my arms and lean back in the creaky computer desk chair and relax.

This isn't about catching Peruvian and American cocaine smugglers. This isn't about illegal motorcycle sales, or even some bureaucratic glitch in passport procedure. It's about a bribe. These guys have nothing on us. They know they have nothing on us. They just want us to think that they think they have something on us. Then you pay a bribe to get out of it.

But these guys are the Keystone Cops of corruption - just a couple of kids bored witless in some jungle outpost. The real crooks over on the coast would have skipped the intimidation pleasantries and simply planted a bag of powder or oregano on my bag and I'd be screwed. Furthermore, they have sorely underestimated my level of arrogance which enables me to put up with all kinds of excruciating circumstances just to put someone in their place.

So the trick here is to convince them that I would rather spend a night in some murky jail cell in the jungle than give them the satisfaction of taking my money. I'm betting they aren't actually willing to push this ethical boundary. But we'll see.

I take a deep, easy breath and maintain steady, but nonchalant eye contact with the guy.

The cop glares at me for what feels like a full minute - the tendons standing out on his neck and his upper torso subtly arched forward and tense. I wonder if people ever realize what they look like in this state - hulking over and ready to attack. All that ancient neural circuitry bottlenecking human thought and preparing you to shred someone to ribbons over something as meaningless as a parking space dispute at Wal-Mart.

The cop finally turns and slaps my open passport up against the wall next to him. He pulls a pen out of the pocket of his shorts and begins to scribble on one of the blank pages.

"How many days do you want?" he mutters into the wall.
"Sorry?"
"For your visa," he snaps. "How many days do you want?"
"Oh. Thirty should be more than enough, thank you."

When he's finished writing, he walks over to the desk, stamps the passport, and tosses it into my lap.

All three inquisitors then turn their attention on Fernando. They haven't quite finished with him yet. The guy sitting at the desk is still grilling him over the bike, his legal status as a worthless Peruvian, and the multi-billion dollar cocaine smuggling operation the cop has fabricated in the more creative crevices of his little tadpole brain.

But Fernando has more control over his composure than I can ever hope to develop. He answers all the questions politely - his big brown eyes relaxed and patiently looking from one policeman to the other as they speak to him. The look on his face is one of exemplary meekness and cooperation.

The head interrogator finally sits back and rubs his face.

"Well, ok. But wee need to take a look at this bike."
"Sure, ok." Fernando shrugs.

He and the guy behind the desk stand and they all head for the door.

"Let's go," the guy says to me with a gesture of the hand as he passes me.

I stand up and follow.

Outside, the three of them stand around the bike and inspect it - fiddling with the clutch and break levers. They are muttering to each other, but I can't make out what they are saying.

The one in charge looks up at Fernando.

"Key? Start it."

Fernando quickly walks over, straddles the bike, shoves the key into the ignition. The engine instantly jumps to life.

The cop flutters a hand at Fernando's arm for him to get off the bike. Fernando gets off and walks over to stand next to me. He clasps his hands behind his back and looks on in silence.

The cop revs the engine as high as it will go a few times and puts it in gear. He then flies down the empty street about three hundred meters and stops. He makes an about face and cruises back at full speed. He brings the bike to a screeching halt in front of the station - leaving trace amounts of the tires on the concrete. The cops take turns riding the bike up and down the street. Each one guns the engine and redlines it before shifting. Fernando stands there and looks on with astonishing patience.

I almost wish we were smuggling drugs - just to put one over on these creeps.

The two taller ones call Fernando over to the bike when they've finished to nag him a big more. The shorter one stands with me on the side of the road.

"So from the US?" he asks me.
"Yeah. Oklahoma. It's in the center more or less."
"American football is big there?"
"Oh yeah. We have one of the best university teams in the country. Well...sometimes"

He goes on to ask me all sorts of questions of different teams and how the game is played. I tell him all about it and start to think I'm making some sort of diplomatic headway. I'm always willing to bury a hatchet or two.

Meanwhile, Fernando is straddling the RTM again and turning the key to restart the engine.

It doesn't start.

He walks the bike down the street a way to try and give it a rolling start, but nothing.

"What's wrong?" asks the head cop.
"Nothing," responds Fernando, looking over his shoulder. "But you flooded the engine on that last one."
"No we didn't. It's a piece of shit."

Fernando tries a few more times, but the engine refuses to turn over.

The head cop looks at the shorter guy I'm talking to. We are standing between them and Fernando.

"Have to give it a push," he says.

The shorter cop looks at me and jerks his head over to the bike.

"Go push it," he snaps.

So much for diplomatic headway.

I walk over to Fernando and rest the palms of my hands on the back lip of the seat, bend down to Fernando, and mutter in Portuguese.

"Filhos da..."
"I know. Just push and let's get out of here."

I lean into the little red bike to get it started down the street and jog behind it for a few seconds. When it feels like enough, I plant my feet, give one more shove and send the bike off. Fernando pops the clutch, and the engine clears its lungs. It starts and whines happily. Fernando gives it gas for fifty meters to be sure, then stops and waits for me.

The cops head back into the building as I climb onto the bike.

-

Back at the house, dinner is ready - slow cooked beef, rice, and fresh limeade. We are joined at the table by Susana from Quito. She works for Ecuador's tourism department. She has just finished a week of training sessions with some villages in the jungle who are interested in bringing more tourists to the area. We'll be taking the launch together to Coca the day after tomorrow.

Fernando and I describe our run-in with the police. The old man rubs at the back of his head and sighs.

"That does tend to happen. They're good kids, but I guess just get a bit bored sometimes and try to see if they can get some money out of someone. All you have to do is not give them any."

After dinner we sit in the cozy living room and talk for a few hours. At around 11, I drag myself upstairs and climb into bed. A real bed.

I lie looking up at the ceiling and listening to the buzz of the small electric fan in the corner of the room. Just after midnight, the town generator is switched off and the sound of the fan withers away. It is replaced by the hypnotizing drone of insects that soon pushes me into sleep.



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