Last weekend, in order to keep myself from being an outlaw, I was obligated to flee the country and cross the border into Chile. Argentine law gives any traveler a 90-day tourist visa that comes free without any strings attached. This system of tourist visas is a little bit of a joke seeing as I literally left the country for less than three hours, spent that amount of time waiting in a bus station in some non-descript border town in Chile (non-descript in that I can’t describe it seeing as I remained in the bus terminal), only to pop back on a bus going in the opposite direction. I later understood another reason that this system was flawed when I calculated that my round trip bus ticket across the boarder cost me more than if I had just overstayed my visa and eventually paid the corresponding fine. In any event, this entry does not aim to look at the silliness of Argentine tourist-visa policies and rather at the silliness of Argentine border crossing, and its vast contrast with the Chilean equivalent.
The passage from Mendoza to Chile begins with gentle incline towards the jagged mountains and rapidly transforms into a treacherous, zigzagged slope. The double-decker buses that transport passengers from one side to the other are frighteningly top-heavy; they heave and wobble around each new bend threatening to hurl their precious, human contents over the snowcapped cliff-side. On my first traverse of this mountain pass over a year ago I had purchased tickets on the top level in the front row, for the panoramic view I imagined I would have. The view turned out to be more terrifying than spectacular, and with the first taste of the bus hurtling around tight, s-shaped curves like some archaic, hell-bound rollercoaster, I realized why these seats had remained empty—they were the closest to death. Needless to say that this time around, I picked a seat safely in the middle of the bus; although if we were to fly off a cliff, I seriously doubted the row I was in would make much of a difference in my chances of survival.
The point at which Argentina meets Chile occurs at the precipice of this mountain pass. Our bus pulled up behind a line of vehicles and we were told via loudspeaker that we would have to wait a while. Ahead of us, also in line to cross the border, were more than six double-decker buses identical to my own, and four times as many cars, trucks and motorcycles. We waited for more than two hours, at which point our bus was ushered into a grandiose hanger. Once inside, there were several more lines, our passports were stamped, stamped again, and then all possessions and vehicles were searched. This search involved a series of dapper canines, x-rays, physical revision of backpacks and purses, and strange pole-shaped devices with mirrors fastened to their ends so as to enable their users to search beneath cars and seats more comfortably. All in all, quite a production I had to admit. Some of my countrymen who had clumped together in the back of the bus agreed (like true Americans), congratulating Chile on its desire to protect and defend its borders.
My experience re-entering Argentina after my brief stint in Chile was just about as opposite as a border crossing can be. There were few cars or buses in sight as we pulled up to the control. We shuffled out into the frigid mountain air, hand luggage and documentation in tow. A few tranquil workers meandered about the dimly lit space, calmly sipping maté or chatting in soft voices. The atmosphere was devoid of tension and urgency, so different from the foreboding importance and momentous speed with which the sharply dressed Chilean border-workers had darted about the facility. With a mere glance and a shrug, the bus had been searched. The check-in baggage underneath the bus was revised in a similarly nonchalant manner. We were told to hang on to our carry-on bags and line up along a low table, supposedly so that they could be physically searched. We waited in this position, shivering in the brisk mountain air for about fifteen minutes. Then in the typical Argentine fashion after waiting in some kind of line, nothing happened. We returned to the warmth of the bus, possessions as un-searched as they had been when we arrived. This experience appeared to me like a microcosmic jewel of the Argentine culture that I had observed over the past months: a denial of or simply the nonexistence of the urgency of things, the unserious quality of laws and their repercussions, and lastly the futility, yet ever presence of lines.