So here is the exciting story you've all been waiting for... The title gives it away a bit...
It all starts on my first day in Georgetown.
In fact, it started months earlier, when I'd e-mailed the Suriname embassy about getting a visa (the only country in Latin America I needed one for) and had received a reply saying I just needed to turn up at the embassy in Georgetown and they would do all the paperwork there and then.
So on the afternoon I'd got to Georgetown, after my first shower in 3 days, I headed straight for the embassy. I figured civil servants are the same all over the world and they wouldn't be open too late, so I hurried and got there at 3.15pm. Upon arrival, I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the sign saying it was closing at 4pm. It was only when I got to the gate and the security officer told me the visa department closed at 3pm that I thought maybe I shouldn't have had that shower after all. But in the next breath, he said the visa woman was just about to leave and to run after her to see
if she'd help me. So that's what I did. Horrible woman... I should have taken a picture of her so I could use it as a dart board. When I asked her about getting a visa, the conversation went something like this:
“You're late, we're closed.
But I've just arrived and I've come straight here. Please? I wanted to leave tomorrow, I only came to Georgetown to get the visa.
It's 3.15 and we finish at 3.00, you're late.
So what do you want? Me to go back in and do your visa now?
That would be nice...
Well, that's not going to happen. We're closed and you're going to have to come back on Wednesday.
Wednesday? What day is it today?
So what? NEXT Wednesday?
Because we only issue visas on Monday, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. But Monday is Easter, so we're closed and Tuesday we're exceptionally closed.
But I can't wait a week! When I e-mailed the embassy, they never told me about this.
Well, we changed the days and we've put notices on the wall and in the local paper so you should know.
But I live in England! How can
I see your wall or your paper???
There's nothing I can do, you have to come back on Wednesday.
And if I go to the border without a visa, can I get one there?
Oh... Errr... I'm not sure... No... I don't know. You have to come back here on Wednesday to get your visa.”
That was the end of that, but her hesitation on my last question made me think that maybe there was another way. Something along the lines of you're not supposed to get it done at the border but it might be possible. So I was still hoping.
I spent the afternoon trying to look at options. There was no way I could wait a week as I had flights booked out of Northern Brazil to go to Rio on the Friday and there would be no point trying to get from Guyana through Suriname, French Guiana and into Brazil in 2 days, I might as well have gone back the way I'd come and spend a week travelling around Brazil. The other problem with waiting was that I'd only been given 1 week to stay in Guyana, so I would be over my limit
if I stayed that long.
After an afternoon of hard work (including a visit to a travel agent, some internet research, and Skyping home to vent my frustration) I came up with the following possibilities:
1.Try to go to the border and see if I could get a visa there
2. Fly to Belem (in Northern Brazil) and then go back North into French Guyana (roughly one or 2 days trip)
3. Return to the embassy the next day to beg some more
4. Go back the way I came and spend a week travelling through Brazil (including a 4 day boat trip on the Amazon), but missing French Guiana where I really wanted to go and see one of my friends
I decided to sleep on it...
The next morning, I woke up thinking number 3 would never work, so wrote that one off. I figured I could ask the tour agencies offering the Georgetown – Paramaribo (Suriname's capital) trip if I could get my visa at the border rather than go all the way to find out. So option 1 wasn't exactly what I was going for but it was the nearest. If that didn't work, option 2 would be my next move and I would keep option 4 as an absolute last resort if it was the only way to not miss my flight.
So I left the hostel, not quite full of confidence, but with some hope. I arrived at the tour agency which had got me from Brazil to Georgetown and asked about getting a visa at the border, but the man said it was impossible to do that.
After some more talking (including maybe some begging and a few tears) and me saying that I had to be in French Guiana by the week end (life or death kind of situation), the man felt sorry for me and said “well... You could go backtrack.” I was intrigued:
“Backtrack, I don't understand, what is backtrack?
Backtrack means you go without a visa.
So how does that work?
You don't cross the border, you go backtrack.
OK, I'm interested, tell me how it works.
The guy picks you up and takes you to a boat. The boat gets you to Suriname and you get picked up on the other side and taken to Paramaribo.
OK... And how much does that cost?
That's $75 for the transport and $100 for the police.
And you're sure I can get to Paramaribo?
Yes, we can definitely take you there without any passport check, but once you're in Paramaribo, you're on your own.
OK. When do we go?
Can't we go tomorrow?
No. Tomorrow is Good Friday, the people who drive the boats across the border don't work on Good Friday...”
I was amused to see that the “smugglers” had to have a day off for Bank Holidays, but sort of relieved to have an option. It wasn't ideal and I wasn't so keen on breaking the law, so I was still hoping to be able to fly to Belem instead and went on my way to speak to the travel agent.
There, the nice lady explained that it was a shame I hadn't asked the previous day because there was only one flight a week to Belem and it had been that morning so I had missed it... She checked other options and said I could fly on the Saturday from Boa Vista to Manaus, then Manaus to Belem and Belem to Macapa but that would be US$1200... Err... Thanks but no thanks...
So backtrack it was... Just to be sure, I went to another bus company and asked the same questions. I got the same answers, so went back to the first guy and told him I wanted to go ahead. Bobby would pick me up at 3am on the Saturday and I was to pay him at the time.
That was that sorted and my next move was to tell some close friends (but not my parents!) about the plan and all the details I had. I think my e-mail ended with something like “If you haven't heard from me by Sunday night, I'm probably in jail.”
I waited for the next day and a half and on Saturday, I was stood in front of the hotel at 2.45am. Just as the clock turned to 3.30am and I was thinking Bobby wasn't going turn up, the minibus pulled in. I joined a mix of varied people, young and old, males and females, Brazilians and Guyanese... There didn't seem to be much logic to who wanted to cross illegally. I'd read on the internet that a lot of people went this way because it was much quicker than going through the border, so I figured most people on the bus probably didn't even need a visa and were just shopping or visiting friends for a day or two...
I was a bit nervous but tiredness still got the better of me and I managed to fall asleep for 2 or 3 hours. At around 7am, we stopped on a car park. Bobby turned round and called me: “You, this is where you get off!” I grabbed my bag, jumped off and gave Bobby the money as he said to me “OK, now you have paid until Paramaribo, whatever happens, make sure you pay nothing else until then.” On the car park, a man changed my last few Guyanese dollars for Surinamese ones and then I got ushered into a taxi. The driver took me to a location about 5 minutes away and stopped in front of a house. There, another man grabbed my bag and signalled to follow him. We crossed the house's garden and when we got to the back, there was the river, with a full boat waiting. I pretty much ran on the boat whilst my bag got thrown on and we were off. This was so fast (it must have taken 10 minutes from getting off the bus to getting on the boat) and well organised, I was very impressed and thought maybe legal transport could take some lessons there!
The river crossing was only about 15 minutes. At the other end, lots of people were waiting to carry people off the boat (otherwise you had to walk in calf deep the water). I knew this would be the case thanks to my internet research and had already taken my shoes off and pulled my trouser legs up, but I didn't even get the chance to get a toe wet that some guy had already grabbed me and my bag and carried me to shore. I thought it was part of the Bobby service until he asked me for a tip. I refused to give him anything and as the taxi I was in drove off, he shouted at me “I will get you on the way back!” Good thing I wasn't planning on returning... I had told the taxi driver about 10 times before I got on that I'd already paid, so I was confident he wasn't going to play any tricks on me. Unfortunately I was wrong... After driving away from the shore for a few minutes, he said I had to pay him. I didn't want to argue too much because I had no idea where I was supposed to go (all I knew was that it was a petrol station) and I didn't want him to ditch me at the side of the road. I asked how much and he said he wanted 150 Suriname dollars (75USD) as it was a long way. I thought to myself “you must be having a laugh” but didn't tell him that. Instead I played the usual haggling outraged face and he straight away went down to 75S$. I still had no intention of paying and now I understood why Bobby had been so insistent on the fact I should pay nothing else. So as I chatted to the driver, I explained that Bobby had told me not to pay anyone and if he wanted, maybe we could call or wait for Bobby when we got to the petrol station. He answered that Bobby wouldn't be there to pick me up until 1 or 2pm and he couldn't wait for that long (it was before 8am), so I told him maybe he could come back... In the end, we got to the station and after retrieving my luggage, I just told him straight that there was no way I was going to pay him anything and that he'd have to take it up with Bobby if he wanted anything. He drove off without making a fuss, so I guessed I was right and he was just trying his luck.
In all this, I had learnt that I had about 6 hours to wait for my onwards transport... I wasn't so chuffed, but now I understood why it was to take all day to get to Parbo (that's what everyone calls Paramaribo). Thankfully, there were some benches and tables and I had some food and a book so I managed to keep myself entertained... The bus turned up eventually and some of the passengers gave me funny looks when I got back on. I hadn't realised at first that I was the only one on the bus going backtrack and that all the other people there were honest “catching the ferry and going through the border” customers.
Bobby had also disappeared, replaced by some other guy who may or may not have been his brother... I sat almost at the front (the only space left) and the driver asked me when I was coming back. When I said I wasn't he seemed surprised. The conversation went something like:
“But you have to come back.
No, I'm going to French Guiana.
But you haven't got your stamps.
I know, but explained this in Georgetown and they said it was fine.
No, you have to come back, otherwise they won't let you in French Guiana.
But I'm French, how can they not let me in?
Yes, but officially, you're still in Guyana. Once you start to go backtrack, you have to keep going backtrack until you return to the start.
But I can't come back... So what happens next?
Well, you have to go backtrack into French Guiana and then speak to them at the border.
What happens if I go to the Suriname border and tell them I have come backtrack with no visa and I'd like to leave. Won't they just extradite me to the nearest French county, which would be French Guiana?
Oh, no, you can't do that! They'll arrest you and probably put you in jail for 2 days. Then they'll send you away but I don't know whether it will be to French Guiana or back to Guyana.
And is it easy to go backtrack into French Guiana?
Yes, very easy. You get to Albina, the border town and there, you take a small boat instead of the ferry.”
I wasn't too happy as I feared I might make it to French Guiana, only to have to go all the way back as I might not be allowed into Brazil (I wasn't worried about not being let into French Guiana). But that was as much as I was going to know until I got to the other side and I wasn't that far yet... Indeed, just as we finished our conversation, the bus got stopped for a police check. My first thought actually was “Well, if I spend 2 days in jail, at least it will be a good story to tell...”
They asked everyone to get off the bus. I was desperately trying to make eye contact with the driver who was already off, as I didn't know what to do. I was at the front so let everyone get off first. I could already imagine my next night spent behind bars... Some other girls hadn't managed to get off yet (mainly because I was in their way), so one of the police officers walked around to the window to look at their documents. The driver was next to him, so I handed him my passport with a questioning look. He took it and handed it straight back to me saying “Just sit down.” So I did... And that was that. Everybody got back on and we drove off. So that was my well spent “$100 for the police.” The other people sat nearby and myself started having a laugh about how scary that had been for me, but thankfully, I'd made it through that one. Now I just had to hope I wouldn't run into troubles later...
A couple of hours further, the bus dropped me off by the bus station in Parbo. It was about 5 or 6pm by then, but I wanted to try and push on towards Albina as much as possible, even though I was starting to think I wouldn't be able to get across to the other side the same day. In Parbo, I was handed to some other guy who in turn passed me onto a taxi driver who was taking some supplies at KFC. The car was full and I ended up squeezed between 2 fat Surinamese girls who didn't speak a word of anything other than the local dialect, which I didn't speak. After multiple stops to all the takeaways around town (no wonder why they were the size they were), we finally set off for Albina. This was a 3 hours drive away on piste (3 hours at crazy local speed that is) and I was hoping the night driving might mean I'd avoid another police check. A bit more than 3 hours (and a tyre change) later, we finally arrived in Albina without any security concerns. About half an hour before arriving, I asked the driver if it was easy to go backtrack into French Guiana. He asked me why and I said I had no visa. He translated for the rest of the passengers and they all burst out laughing and kept on going for a good 5 minutes, while talking in their local tongue. I had no idea what was going on and whether it was what I'd said which was funny, or the fact that they had an illegal immigrant on board... Eventually, the answer came: “yes, it's very easy”.
I decided to stop for the night in Albina as it was already 9.30pm and also because I knew the accommodation on the French side would be dearer. So the taxi driver (I really liked him actually and even though he drove like a possessed man, it wasn't too scary, it felt like it was fast but controlled driving) dropped me off at a hotel where the owner wanted S$60 for the night. I knew that was reasonable and I just wanted to crash so I agreed straight away. I didn't even register that there was a police car on the car park until she started showing me around and said pointing at a group of guys sat in the kitchen “and you don't have to worry, you'll be very safe here because we have the police staying with us tonight.” Funny how some seemingly innocent comment can make you freeze when you're on the wrong side of the law! So that was me done for the night. After that, I quickly locked myself away in my room and hid until the next morning...
I was up early as I didn't know how long it would take to get through and into French Guiana. The woman at the hotel looked at me funny when I said I didn't need to go through customs and asked where I could get a small boat, but she didn't ask any questions and pointed me in the right direction. On the shore, a French boat driver invited me on board for 5 Euro, which was probably too much but I wasn't in the mood for haggling, I just wanted to leave Suriname as soon as possible... The crossing took all of 5 minutes and he dropped me off right by the French border control, as instructed.
Now was the moment of truth.... As the man from the PAF (border police, not immigration officer as he corrected me) asked me if I was coming or going, I handed my passport and said “coming, but there's a problem.
I haven't got any Suriname stamp or the Guyana exit stamp.
Well at least that's clear... And why is that?
Because I went backtrack
And how does that work?
You don't go through the border...”
I ended up sat in his office explaining the whole backtrack story, as well as telling him all about my travels so far. He wasn't bothered in the slightest about how I'd made it there and assured me that I would have no troubles with Brazilian immigration either. He was actually probably one of the nicest border people I have met (on par with a Canadian one a couple of years ago in Calgary) and gave me lots of travel tips for French Guiana and Northern Brazil, after which he offered me a lift to the bus station (1.5km away) in his little police car. He even drove around St Laurent to show me all the sights! I was relieved, pleased and happier than ever to be in France!
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