Today on the #Indie30 we asked:
Have you ever been helped by strangers while traveling?
(which also implies: Can you trust strangers when traveling?)
And yes, yes I have!
(warning: this is another really long post)
Remember that horrible bus ride from hell story I posted a couple days ago? Well even though that ride was hell, I was helped by some of the nicest people when I was in the worst part – alone, without money or food, at night, on the streets of Venezuela, still an hour outside of Colombia, and quickly filling with total, utter despair that I am stranded in a very dangerous place.
This is what happened after I finally got my exit stamp from the Venezuelan office in San Antonio:
After getting my exit stamp, and tasting my freedom from this beautiful country of Venezuela, that lack of food, warmth, and cleanliness has turned me against….my hopes of escaping into Colombia were once again shattered.
The customs officer asks, “Where do you go now?”
“Im taking the bus to Colombia!”
“There are no more buses to the border tonight”
And my heart drops.
It is now 11pm, and there are no banks or money exchange offices open anywhere. I suggest a walking to the border, but I’m told I’m still about an hour drive away, and it is not something I can walk, especially at night, especially alone, and especially a gringa. He suggests a taxi, but it costs more than I have. The only hotel within walking distance, which also happens to not accept credit cards, is over $50 USD a night, and will leave me without enough money to take a bus to the border in the morning.
I just stand there, blank, too emotionally spent to feel anything. “Ok, I’m spending the night on the streets. Maybe I can hide in the corner of one of these doorways. Maybe if I’m, careful I won’t get seen. Maybe, oh my god im sleeping on the street, and I’ll be lucky if I only get robbed! And no one knows where I am!”
I almost cry.
All I want to do is get the hell out of horrible-evil-stupid-dirty-violent-crime-ridden-gringa-extorting-decrepit-downright-piece-of-shit Venezuela! I’m hungry, I’m tired, and I’m so close to Colombia, yet don’t have enough money to escape. The exit office is closing in 15 minutes, and my foreign bank cards are useless here, so I can’t even pull cash from an ATM if I do stay in town. I’m crushed. I’m just standing in the office, ready to curl up in the fetal position and weep.
Just as I’m about succumb to what I’m sure is an inevitable fate, three sisters come strolling into the exit office. It turns out they are here a few times a week, because their parents live in San Antonio while they all live across the border in Cucuta, Colombia. The customs officer starts chatting with them in Spanish, obviously, and also, obviously telling them of this poor gringa’s predicament. I’m just standing against the wall of the exit office, waiting until the kick me out, and one of the sisters (it turns out they all speak English) starts chatting with me. I’m trying to feign calmness (I don’t know why) and seem presentable, and the girl starts chatting with me (this is how I know about her and her family). Then,
“Want a ride to Cucuta?”
What? Wait, what? I am totally and obviously flabbergasted. I am also acutely aware that my jaw literally dropped as my heart fluttered into my throat.
“Really?…Yes! YES! THANK YOU! GRACIAS!”, I choked. I was so incredibly overjoyed and as much as I attempted to tell myself I don’t know these people and this could be a scam, they seemed so nice, the customs officer seemed to totally trust them, and honestly, at this point, I had no other options. It was either definitely sleep on the streets, or throw all my trust into these strangers with the hope they are good people and will actually bring me to Colombia.
I went with hope.
We (the 3 sisters and their 3 kids, their 2 parents, a carload of luggage, and my luggage and I) pile into a tiny sedan and drive away. I smell, my teeth feel fuzzy, I’m trying to be as small as possible and not breathe on people, but they never mentioned my obvious semi-homeless stench and just kep making small talk that calmed me down. First we stopped at the parents house, where the sisters were dropping their kids off for the night. The middle sister who had been checking bus schedules to Bogotá on the ride to the parents, found the last bus for the night, but it left in an hour. We had to hurry, but they allowed me to take 10 minutes to use the bathroom to brush my teeth, take a quick sink-bath, and change my shirt, socks, and underwear into the cleanest (yet still dirty from the Orinoco Delta tour) things I could find. I threw my toothbrush and deodorant in my carry on, profusely thank the parent and sisters again, and we (the sisters and I) raced out of the house and to the Colombian border.
“We just crossed the border. You are now in Colombia” the youngest sister says.
“I AM?!?” (IM FREE!!!), I say (and think).
“But we need to stop to get you the entrance stamp so you don’t get in trouble in Colombia”
Oh yea, I have to check in with customs. Luckily the entrance office isn’t too far out of the way of the bus station. Although I learned during our chitchat that this whole trip to help the gringa is very out of the way of the nightclubs these sisters are heading to. We pull into a very nondescript building and the middle sister says, “This is where you get the stamp. Hurry up.”
I go to grab my bag (because as a traveler you are never supposed to leave your backpack anywhere, especially not with 3 strangers).
“No”, they tell me, “Go in. We’ll wait. Then the bus. Luggage takes too long”
I hesitate with my hand on the car door. They, these three girls, strangers I literally met an hour ago, want me to leave all my bags in the car, and head into the customs office, possibly never to see them or my stuff again.
“But these girls put me in the car with their small children and parents. They brought me into their home, and are currently driving out of their way so I can legally enter Colombia.” I don’t want to seem distrustful after all they’ve done so far, so I grab my camera bag, with the excuse my passport is inside, and against what every bone in my body is the smart thing to do, I leave my luggage in the car and head into the Colombian entrance office. I figure if they take off, at least I have my camera and laptop. Screw my dirty, smelly clothes.
I enter the office, and within 5 minutes have 60 days in the country.
“OH MY GOD! IT’S OFFICIAL! I’VE ESCAPED VENEZUELA!!!!” In my head I am screaming this on repeat while jumping up and down and doing happy dances.
The biggest smile comes across my face. I’ve finally made it to Colombia. But now I’m in, what the sisters have warned me, is one of the most dangerous – especially for gringa foreigners – cities in all of the country. I turn around and head out the door.
“Oh my god, oh MY GOD, OH MY GOD!!! WHERE ARE THEY? I KNEW IT! NO ONE IS THAT NICE! THEY LEFT WITH ALL MY STUFF!!!!
“Oh wait, no they didn’t. They just parked.”, as lights flash and the youngest sister jumps out the car door waving her hands in the air. I try to pretend I wasn’t worried but they can so read my face, and are trying to comfort, not laugh at, me.
We race for the Cucuta bus station and arrive just minutes before the last bus for Bogotá leaves. These sister won’t take any money for help or gas or anything either. I keep offering, and they keep refusing it, repeating “Colombians are nice people”, and “We didn’t do it for money”.
This is my first experience in Colombia.
The bus station in Cucuta, is a tiny, one room office, with glass walls, on what the sisters tell me is a not-so-safe corner of Cucuta. We arrive on time for the bus to find out there isn’t anymore tickets left. The youngest, and feistiest, sister starts arguing with the ticket-ladies to sell me a ticket, stating it is too dangerous for me to stay alone in the bus terminal overnight. As a heated argument erupts between the sisters and the ticket-ladies, a random mother, who is waiting for the same bus with her two small daughters; one 4 months and one 4 years old, pulls the oldest daughter aside.
The oldest sister turns around and says to me, “She (the mother) is offering you her oldest daughter’s ticket.. for free…and it is good for a 3rd of the way to Bogotá. All you have to do is pretend one of her daughters is yours and you can all sit together.”
Again, flabbergasted. I can’t believe that this mother, who refuses to tell me her name (saying that it doesn’t matter with a wave of her hands), is literally helping me at the expense of her and her daughter’s comfort.
So as this is going down, the ticket women are arguing I am not allowed to take this stranger’s woman’s seat, the youngest sister sneaks off into the back, where it turns out, she has talked to the bus drivers and gotten permission from them, to not only use this ticket, but ride all the way to Bogotá before I have to pay. (Because remember, I only have a few Bolivares left, no dollars, and there is still nowhere to exchange money into Colombian Pesos).
The youngest sister, grabs my hands, pushes us past the still objecting ticket ladies, and brings me into the back where the bus is. One bus driver grabs my large backpack, throws it under the bus, and I say goodbye to the sisters (who I wish I could remember their names, but I suck at names) and I walk across the street with one bus driver. this has to be done, because once the bus is off property, the bus company has no authority over if the bus drivers stop to pick people up (which they do all the time, then they pocket the cash from these ‘extra passengers’, I have since learned). It’s a legal-ish way to allow me to become a stowaway for the ride to Bogotá.
Finally, I am heading to Bogotá. Its been almost 35 hours since I left Maturín. I’ve had some crazy luck, in that every time I’m pretty sure I’m about to die on the street somewhere, someone has come to my rescue, namely Colombians. I am already in love with Colombia. I am no longer in Venezuela , the-worst-country-ever-but-now-that-I’m-in-Colombia-Venezuela-was-actually-really-beautiful-and-maybe-not-quite-as-bad-as-im-making-it-out-to-be-but-that-I’m-still-not-going-back-to-anytime-soon.
I am on a bus, for free, heading to Bogotá.
About Dani Blanchette
I am a freelance travel and music photographer and creator of GoingNomadic.com.
I love music, food, and exploring cities without guidebooks. I’ve flown a helicopter, hitchhiked down the east coast USA, and once snuck into the back of a zoo (in Serbia) and pet a lion.
I am always up for an adventure, and sometimes I videotape them.