It all started after my 6-day trek to Mount Roraima.
We arrived back in the border town of Santa Elena at 3pm, and I was contemplating to stay for another night or head back to Brazil, where I was before.
I was in the office of the tour agency, and Hairim, one of the staff, offered to drive me to the border. Should I rest here in Venezuela where everything was cheaper, or find an expensive place to stay in non-touristy Boa Vista?
Hmm decisions, decisions.
I had ZERO Venezuelan Boliviares left. Due to the political situation in Venezuela, getting money was complicated. ATMs have no money, and if I pay with card, it would cost 10,000 times more expensive (no joke). I’d also have to find a way to the border by myself, which is around 17 km away.
Fuck it, let’s just go back to Brazil now. There’s a free-of-charge hassle-free ride there.
So, after getting changed, saying farewell to my group mates, and waiting for Hairim to be done with her errands, we drove to the border.
The exit procedure was fast enough at the Venezuelan immigration office (which is a metal container). Adios, Venezuela.
Then, the horror appeared: two long snaking queues at the Federal Police, aka immigration office of Brazil. It was early 2018 and this scene was common at the border of every country near Venezuela; be it Brazil, Colombia or even Ecuador. People were leaving the country in hordes to seek better opportunities elsewhere. It was sad, but it was a reality.
“Good luck, and thanks for choosing us.” Hairim said as she dropped me at the queue and said goodbye.
It was 4:30pm and I’ve officially exited Venezuela, but not yet entered Brazil. I’m technically in no-man’s land.
I looked around, and not surprisingly I was the only Asian. Heck, I was probably the only non-Latino. I have never felt more foreign, alone and even... anxious.
I walked to the shorter queue on the right. A lady came behind me and asked a question in Portuguese. I couldn’t speak Portuguese, but I knew she asked if this was the queue to exit Venezuela.
“Eu não sei,” I replied.
She continued asking more questions and I gave her a blank look. Portuguese sounded so foreign and different from Spanish. She got annoyed at my ignorance and walked to the front to get her answers instead.
After a few minutes in the line, I somehow figured that I was in the wrong queue by eavesdropping on other people. But was it really eavesdropping if they were discussing openly?
I picked up my backpack and went to the end of the longer queue.
It was a long wait. The queue hardly moved. Some queue-cutters walked in and out of the office like they had an express pass.
I swear; at 5:45pm I was still at the same spot in the queue.
The federal police officer controlling the flow of the queue made an announcement in Portuguese and people all around started groaning and - judging by their movements and tonality - protesting. I did not understand a single word.
The Venezuelan man standing in front of me probably noticed my confusion and spoke to me in – surprise, surprise – English. “The office closes at 6:30 pm. Those that have a queue number may stay in the queue, the others will have to return tomorrow.”
Firstly, I’m thankful for his translation.
Secondly, “What?! There’s a number system?! I knew nothing about it!”
There was movement everywhere. People were making a ruckus. The queues were broken. It seemed like people really wanted to flee the country.
I saw a dark-skinned man telling a family of four – complete with luggages in tow – to use their passport as a bargaining chip. He seemed like a regular here (for whatever reason) and knew what he was saying.
I walked up to him waving my passport in his face and tried to explain my predicament in broken Spanish. He told me the same thing; to talk the federal police and use my passport for negotiation.
There were two groups of people at the border:
His reasoning was that as a tourist (showing my passport) I could try to persuade the federal police that I had nowhere to go to and to play the sympathy card.
I was desperate and there was nothing else I could do. So, I took his advice, mustered up my courage and forced my way to the front of the queue right up to the steps of the immigration office.
All eyes were on me - or at least that was how I felt. I mean, I was the only Asian and I couldn’t speak any Portuguese. They must be thinking: “Who’s this weird Asian dude walking past all of us?”
With my broken Portuñol (Portuguese-Spanish) and a little bit of dramatic acting, I explained that I had nowhere to go (which was true) and asked to remain in the queue even though I did not have a number.
The federal police must have pitied me or couldn’t stand my killing of either language and finally gave in and allowed me to stay.
I walked back to a new queue that formed which somehow seemed… longer than the previous? Like an orderly Singaporean, I stood in the queue and waited... and waited… and waited.
Entering Brazil Illegally
It was almost 6:30pm.
The light of the setting sun casted the dire situation in a gentle, warm orange glow. As much as I’d like to appreciate the sunset, I realised that the queue hadn’t moved much but more importantly, it’d take 3 hours to reach Boa Vista in Brazil – where I had booked a hostel for the night.
Let’s be honest: I would not want to be wandering around in either Venezuela or Brazil at 9:30 pm at night.
Like many immigration borders in South America, there were many opportunistic taxi drivers hovering around waiting to pounce on travellers.
Since I was (still) at the end of queue, I could easily make a conversation with the drivers. I asked the cost for a ride to Boa Vista and if there were any taxis ready to leave (they only leave when full).
I did not want to wait any longer in the queue. Neither do I want to be stuck here without a place to stay. After the second ‘fuck it’ of the day, I left the line and followed the taxi driver to his car.
He noticed I left the line, realised I was entering Brazil illegally and cleverly doubled the price of the ride. I couldn’t argue since he could turn me in to the police.
And there I was: in the backseat of a 7-seater shared taxi with a bunch of Venezuelans, leaving a country that we were all glad to say goodbye to, but not before a guard stopped our car and looked through the window with his torch. Luckily, he let us go without any questioning.
My heart stopped for a moment, but quickly recovered as we drove towards Boa Vista. Night fell, and thoughts of ‘what ifs’ swam in my mind. But alas, I managed to get some sleep before arriving at my hostel.
I officially entered a country illegally.
Two Anxious Days
The next two days in Brazil were the most anxious of my life.
I searched the internet for consequences of an illegal stay in Brazil – they were not encouraging. I combed through blog articles hoping to find stories of people exiting unscathed – and found nada. I asked my host if the federal police check through the passport stamps, and he assured me they wouldn’t. I held on to that hope – however slight the chance seemed to be.
To make matters worse, I needed to apply for a Guyanese visa at the consulate in Boa Vista. It was a Friday, which meant that if I did not do it on that day (who knows how long it takes?), I had to wait till the following week and I did not want to waste any more time in Boa Vista. It was my second time here and there was NOTHING to do.
I initially thought to head back to the border to get my entry stamp but a 6-hour to-and-fro journey, a depleting bank account, and the thought of delaying my visa and wasting a few more days did not appeal to me.
So, I went to the Guyanese consulate and applied for my visa. Fingers crossed, I prayed that the officer and Consul wouldn’t check my passport for a Brazil entry stamp… but she did! However, she must’ve seen the stamp from a previous entry because she accepted my passport and gave me my visa.
I decided to extend my luck and enter Guyana the next day. I knew that the border between Brazil and Guyana is an open-border and I could simply walk over without getting a Brazilian exit stamp. You see, the stamps work in pairs. I figured, if I had an even number of passport stamps from my previous visits to Brazil, I might get away with it.
And that’s what I did.
Denied Entry to Guyana
On the bus to Bom Fin, the border town, I rehearsed the potential lies I could tell. In my mind, I played and replayed all situations that could happen, and all the excuses I would give.
I got off the bus, walked confidently towards Guyana, skipping the Brazilian immigration office and even took a selfie at the Brazil-Guyana bridge. After 2km under the hot sun, I stepped into Lethem, Guyana and headed straight to the immigration office.
Just act confident, amigo. Just act confident.
The officer welcomed me in English (yes, it’s the official language of Guyana!) and accepted my passport and visa. He filled up a form, told me to sign it and was ready to stamp me in.
All going smoothly. Fingers crossed.
Then, it happened. The thing I feared the most: he flipped through my passport, page by page, with a quizzical look, looking for something - obviously my Brazilian passport stamp.
Crap! Just smile and reply confidently if he asks anything. I thought to myself.
“Did you get an exit stamp today?”
I couldn’t even lie to this question. The evidence was literally in his hands. I went through the mental folder I had prepared while on the bus but they were all blank. My confidence faltered, my voice quivered.
“Look… I have an exit stamp for every entry stamp.”
“You need an exit stamp for today before I could let you in to Guyana.”
“Please… You don’t understand. The queue at the border was too long and it was getting too late…” I tried explaining, but couldn’t complete a sentence without choking on my own words.
We weren’t even on the same page. He didn’t realise I entered Brazil illegally. He just wanted me to get an exit stamp for that day before entering Guyana. I realised it was futile explaining my situation. I bowed my head in disappointment and left the office.
I couldn’t enter Guyana illegally because I intended to fly to Georgetown, the capital. They would obviously require my passport at the airport.
So, there I was, having entered and left Brazil illegally, and got denied entry into Guyana.
What else could I do?
As I walked back under the relentless hot sun carrying a heavy backpack, I kept asking myself: to tell the truth and risk getting deported, or to wing it again?
A taxi driver picked me up and drove me across the border, ripping me off along the way. Way to attack a man when he’s at his lowest point.
It was still lunchtime so there was a long queue forming outside the federal police office. I stayed at the back on purpose, and looked through the windows once the doors opened.
As the queue was long, the officers stamped each passport quickly without checking thoroughly. That was my green light to wing it once more.
I joined the queue to enter Brazil, pretended that I came from Guyana and crossed my fingers again. I was hoping to get an entry stamp, and worry about the exit stamp later.
“What are you planning to do in Boa Vista? Do you have friends or family?”
“Yes, and I am visiting them.”
It wasn’t an outright lie – I couchsurfed the first time I was in Boa Vista so I had friends.
“I will give you 10 days, is that enough?”
Holy shit. It worked! Even though Singaporeans should receive 30-days visa-free stay, I couldn’t be happier.
I was legally in Brazil again.
Now, all I had to do was to leave Brazil legally and I would get an official exit stamp. Should I stay one night in this empty border town? I couldn’t leave immediately and ask for an exit stamp, could I?
So, I lied again.
I walked around town for almost an hour. Actually, I just sat at the pavement like a homeless person for an hour.
Then I went back to the federal office and explained that I “left something important in Lethem (Guyana) and had to return”. I ‘apologised’ profusely for the inconvenience and lo and behold, the officers bought it and stamped me out of Brazil officially.
I was finally free to enter Guyana!
And free from all my troubles!
I walked back across the bridge and punched my fist in the air. I have never felt more relieved, triumphant and lucky in my life.
Every long term traveller has an interesting story to tell; mine was an impulsive decision that resulted in an illegal stay in a country. Even though I managed to lie my way through, with some luck, I wouldn’t recommend anyone to do it as the anxiety for two days was just too much. And there was a chance of getting deported.
Instead, go find an interesting story for yourself!
This is the account of a fictitious traveller who illegally entered Brazil. Fascinating story, but as the title suggests, still illegal. The traveller will remain anonymous in the unlikely event that said traveller wishes to go to Brazil/Guyana one day and the immigration officials subscribe to My Turn to Travel blog.
And now, it’s your turn.