Dominican Republic / Other

Our Illegal Border Crossing(s)

The night before we left for the Dominican Republic we got yet another email from the US State Department about planned protests in Port au Prince the following day. We spent the afternoon trying to get in touch with the Embassy and talking to people at Espwa to decide whether or not it would be safe for us to take the bus into the city that day–we’d already moved our trip to the DR twice by then. Ultimately, we decided to go. Our friends at Espwa said the protests probably wouldn’t start until 10 (we were set to arrive at the bus station at 9) and that the drivers would know better than to drive us through one anyway.

So when we arrived at the bus station in Port au Prince, past the protests that we never saw, I thought we were good to go. I never expected all the trouble we had at the Dominican border. It turns out Port au Prince wasn’t our biggest obstacle after all…

Our bus pulled up to the first stop at the border and we all unloaded and formed a line to get our bags checked by security. We held our passports in hand because we weren’t sure when they would be needed. As we passed through the line and had our bags checked, no one stopped to look at our passports. We thought that was odd so we lingered a bit by the security building before following the other passengers back onto the bus, figuring there’d be another stop for passports.

A short drive later the bus rolled to a stop again. The hostess got off and we waited patiently in our seats. After a few minutes she climbed back on and addressed the whole bus in Spanish. I caught something about having passports and got nervous. The rest of the passengers were looking around the bus as she stood there waiting for an answer to a question we didn’t understand.

A few rows up a man read the confusion on my face and pointed at the flustered gringa, telling the man next to me to translate.

“Do you have your passports on you?” he asked.

“Yeah…” we said, figuring we were stating the obvious.

“You were supposed to give them to her,” he explained.

I still don’t know when the entire rest of the bus had forfeited their passports without our knowledge and by this point the hostess had left the bus again. We dug our passports out of our bags and began the walk of shame from the back of the crowded bus to the door in the front, past all the people who’d followed the instructions we missed.

Outside, the border crossing seemed less than official: surrounded by huts with merchants selling items and a small building with kiosks to get your passport stamped. The hostess carried our passports away and we waited in line with the rest of our bus–the people had now disembarked and were waiting to get their stamps at the kiosks. After a few minutes she returned and told us we’d have to go with her.

We followed her behind the building to a seemingly-temporary trailer set-up. Inside was a tiny cramped office. She pointed us through the door to the left and we went into a room where a man was sitting at the center of a desk skeptically looking over our passports. I heard him say something about Haiti and our first arrival in the country in May. We thought he missed the Peru stamps from September and was concerned we’d been here longer than our three month allowance. We knew better than to say anything. He grunted and held the passports out to me. As soon as I took them in my hands he waved at me to give them back. And we spent a few more flustered minutes being ushered around the tiny space from room to room. Eventually our passports were returned and we were shooed out of the office back to the bus hostess.

“You have to go back to Haitian immigration,” she said. “Go with the man standing next to our bus.”

“But we’re not Haitian,” we whispered to each other as we walked back to the bus. “Why doesn’t anyone else have to go to Haitian immigration?”

The man at the bus led us through the informal marketplace and pushed us to his side as we passed through a guarded security gate and couple men looked like they were reaching out to grab us. He whistled to a couple of his friends who pulled up alongside him with motorcycles and he gestured for us to get on.

“We’ll walk,” Kelsey said, shaking her head.

He shook his head back and pointed out in front of us and up the mountain. It’s too far he was saying, you have to get on.

We quickly studied the faces of the two motorcycle men, smiling at our confusion. Getting on the back of a motorcycle inbetween the border with strangers didn’t feel very official, but it didn’t look like we had another option.

“Fine, but you’re coming with us,” Kelsey told the man from the bus pointing to the back of her motorcycle.

He saddled up, smiling, and I was sure he was going to jump off the second we started moving, I hopped on the back of the second bike, my first time on a motorcycle, and we sped off.

I was in the lead and couldn’t tell if the other bike was even following behind. The dirt road ran along the ocean and the dust from the road whipped through my hair. Lord only knows where he’s taking me, I thought.

Ah well, I figured, at this point there’s nothing I can do. Whatever’s going to happen will happen. And I looked out at the ocean to enjoy the ride.

I was so grateful when we pulled up in front of the first bus stop where we’d had our bags checked an hour ago. It turned out we didn’t have the stamp indicating that we’d left Haiti. We had crossed over the Dominican border illegally without it and then crossed back again illegally to get it.

After receiving the long-awaited stamp, we got back on the bikes for a much less anxiety-ridden drive to the DR and joined our fellow passengers on the bus.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt more like a stupid American than in that moment. I still don’t know what instructions we missed on the way over, but we certainly won’t miss them on the way back across on Tuesday.

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