An even more unexpected twist of events

When I titled my previous blog entry ‘An Unexpected Twist of Events‘ I had no idea what was yet to come. The events of these last few days have made for quite an unforgettable visit to Argentina. I’ve been traveling around South America on a motorcycle for the last 6 months and have seen just about everything that I’ve wanted to see in South America (really the only place left is the Galapagos Islands). As my wish list was winding down, I listed my motorcycle for sale on the internet, see what offers I would get.

Traveling around without a set itinerary made it a bit difficult to coordinate the sale, but I found one guy that was going to be more or less crossing paths with me and we arranged to meet up in Formosa, Argentina. He was traveling by bicycle and wanted to switch to a motorcycle.  Being in Foz do Iguaçu, getting to Formosa meant a 500km drive, crossing through Paraguay and then into Argentina. Not knowing what to expect, I gave myself 2 days to get there, as I would have to cross the Brazil-Paraguay border and then the Paraguay-Argentina border.

I had been to Paraguay one time before, with the sole intention of buying a new front tire for my motorcycle, as taxes are extremely low as compared to surrounding areas. Where I bought the tire was in Ciudad del Este, a border town with Foz. From what I could tell, there wasn’t much more going for the town than cross-border commerce—people came from neighboring Brazil and Argentina with the intention of buying cheap goods. As such, it had a slightly seedy feel to it and I didn’t care for it much at all—the kind of place to visit, get what you came for, and leave as soon as possible.

The first time I entered Paraguay, I just followed the motorcycle lane across the border and found myself dumped right into the city, not having passed through immigrations and customs of either country. This time I actually needed to get my passport stamped out of Brazil, get my bike officially out of Brazil, get my passport stamped into Paraguay and my bike temporarily imported. The first step went fine—I was stamped out of Brazil and then went to get my bike noted as exited. Unfortunately that process took about 1 hour—not because there was any line, but because they were incredible slow. Once I had it taken care of, I went to the Paraguay side of the border and received my entry stamp. Next I went to customs to have my motorcycle temporarily imported. While I was there, I witnessed the agent receive at least 3 bribes from others delivering stacks of paperwork for him to process. In all of my travels, this was the first time seeing such blatant and open bribery. Fortunately I was able to get my motorcycle imported without having to grease the works.

After that I was free to roam legally in Paraguay with my motorcycle, but it was raining and getting dark and I only drove about 100kms before looking for a place to stop for the night. In the town I picked to stay, there were only 2 restaurants; one with only deep fried empanadas and the other with rotisserie chicken. For me it was a relatively easy choice. Unfortunately the chicken was only tepid and its accoutrements of rice and boiled yuca were actually cold. Thinking back—this is exactly the kind of food that could cause food poisoning. I was tired and not thinking about it, but fortunately I didn’t come down with anything!

The next day I awoke and hit the road, fortunately the rain had stopped, and looked for a place to grab some breakfast. Unfortunately the first place I found only had hamburgers for breakfast—not exactly what I had in mind. A little further down the road I did find a place that was willing to serve eggs instead of only hamburgers. After eating, I kept continuing on the road toward Asuncion, where I would have to cross the border into Argentina. Down the road I stopped at another restaurant and chose milanesa de carne—breaded flattened steak. Once again, it was served cold. I still can’t figure it out, but I found it quite uninspiring to eat food that had been prepared earlier and had been sitting around for however many hours.

I usually try to avoid big cities because they tend to be confusing, especially driving around in a car or motorcycle. Asuncion was no exception… at one point I was on a 4 lane highway entering the city, but without making any turns, it dwindled into little more than an alley. Finally I turned to a reliable source to get me back on track—a cabby. I got back on the right track but still had to stop multiple times to get all the way out of town.

Once at the border, the process was quick and painless—I was stamped out of Paraguay, exited my bike, and went to do the same in Argentina, a familiar process ad I’ve entered Argentina many times now during my trip. Fortunately the process was relatively quick and I was back on the road toward Formosa in no time. About one hour later, I arrived and began looking for the hotel, Residential City, where I was to meet the future owner of my motorcycle, Dylan

I found the place, checked in and soon saw that it was pretty grimy, especially for the price they were charging. It looked like the place hadn’t received any attention in years. I don’t have any problem staying at places like this, but usually the owners realize what they’ve got isn’t gold and thus charge accordingly. Not this place, though.

I met Dylan, the buyer, who unfortunately had eaten some bad empanadas and wasn’t able to venture too far from his bathroom. I went to the supermarket to grab some fruit and bread to hold me over. Later, I unloaded everything off my bike and took it to my room with plans to go through everything and sort what I would keep and what would go with the bike.

The next day, I awoke, had a quick breakfast, and jumped in the shower. The shower-head was the electrical type, something that I’ve never seen in the USA, but common in Latin America. In the middle of my shower, I noticed that the unit was actually smoking and then I saw flames, so I immediately got out of the shower and cut the electricity to the unit. This was only the start of things to come.

A run in with the Formosa, Argentina Secret Police

After I got dressed, I started going through my things when someone came to the door of the room and identified herself as a police officer. She was wearing plain clothes but showed me her badge and then started asking me questions about where I had come from, what is my profession, and what I was doing there. I told here that I came from Paraguay the night before, am a guide, and that I was just there passing through, relaxing a bit. I didn’t want to tell her that I was there just to sell my motorcycle. She then told me that it is mandatory for visitors to the province to check in with the police, just showing their passport, etc. I told her that I would go (not really planning on sticking around long enough to do it, though). She also talked to Dylan and told him the same thing as me.

A short bit later, she came back and told me that she would arrange a vehicle to take us to the police station and that we only needed to bring our passports to identify ourselves. I still had a few things to take care of on the motorcycle but wanted to search for another hotel. Unfortunately, the policeman was at the front of the hotel and wouldn’t let me leave. I quietly asked the hotel receptionist if this person was indeed with the police—she said yes and that they come by every day looking at the hotel’s books to see where people are from, etc.

When the police vehicle arrived, it was a Ford Ranger pickup truck and we were instructed to climb into the bed. We drove through town, getting odd looks from townspeople as we headed to the station. When we arrived, it wasn’t actually the police headquarters, but rather a nondescript building on a side street. We were escorted inside and taken past the front desk to the back of the building to an ad hoc processing room. The place didn’t feel like a police station, but there were a few wanted signs and some of the people had guns, even though everyone was in plain clothes.

After waiting for some time, before anyone talked to us. I was taken in a room and very briefly questioned about why I was in Formosa. I told them that I had entered from Paraguay the afternoon before on my motorcycle and chose to spend the night in Formosa. They reviewed my passport and then typed the information in a computer and then took a series of mug shots and a full head-to-toe shot. After that, they returned me to the waiting area and said it would just be a few more minutes.

About an hour passed and I asked if I could go and they said not yet. At that point, which was a good 2 hours into the process, feeling completely misled by what the officer told me in the hotel in the morning, and not liking where things were going, I asked to contact the US Consulate. They refused.

After waiting for some time more, they said they wanted more information and would be taking my fingerprints, but I would have to wait until the fingerprint person arrived. At this point I again asked to contact the US Consulate and they refused. As a result, I sent a text message to a friend in the USA asking him to contact the US Consulate on my behalf.

Eventually the fingerprint administrator arrived and I gave 2 full sets of fingerprints and had even more questioning–but very basic such as the name of my parents, my profession, marital status, etc. Afterwards, I was taken back to the waiting area and told that it would just be a few more minutes.

After even more time had passed, an officer presented a document written in Spanish and said I had to sign it to be able to go. The heading said that it was from the department of ‘Robos y Hurtos,’ Robberies and Stolen Goods. The document was about a page long and had a lot of terminology that I had never seen or used and I didn’t feel completely comfortable signing it. I asked them for an English version but they refused, so I signed it, also writing in a note in English that I signed it unwillingly. They told me that if I didn’t sign it then I would have to wait for immigrations to come and pick me up—maybe a bluff, but the last thing I wanted to do was spend more time in police custody. They then said it would just be a little more time before I could exit—something I was growing accustomed to hearing but hadn’t seen it to be true.

Another hour passed and I was told that I needed a medical examination. I had to wait behind several others but when it was my turn, the officials explained to me that it was a compulsory examination to verify that I had not been beaten by the police while in their custody. The official asked about bruises or wounds, but I had none to explain.

After I left the medical examination, I was told that I could leave—really. And so I did. I had helped Dylan in translating requests of the police, so I waited for him and we left together. The entire process took just shy of 6 hours. I was very glad to leave and glad the procedure did not take longer (they told me that it could take up to 24 hours).

When we arrived back at the hotel, I took care of the few things left to fix on the motorcycle—when I adjusted the valve clearance, I couldn’t find the exact gasket for the camshaft tensioner. Unfortunately the one I found wasn’t doing its job and was allowing a little oil to leak. I decided to fix it with some silicone gasket maker. The other item was that the rear tire was low on air, so I took it to a tire shop to patch the innertube. It turned out to only be the valve, which was an easy repair.

Later we found a notary who notarized the sale documents to allow Dylan to circulate freely with the motorcycle. The notary business in Argentina is where I need to be—to notarize 2 documents, we were charged just shy of $50—something that would be done for free in almost any bank in the USA. After that, we transferred things—including him giving me his touring bicycle. So now I’m traveling by bicycle.

After everything was complete, I found another hotel and spent the night. The next morning I went to the bus terminal looking for a ticket out of the province. I chose to visit Rosario, Santa Fe.