I remember a knock on the door of my $2.50 per night hotel room in La Paz, Bolivia, where I was lying sick in bed, having retreated alone from high on a nearby Andean mountain. I had come down with some awful combination of altitude sickness, vomiting and diarrhoea, and my Bolivian climbing companions had abandoned me in my tent to go on to reach the summit. I made my way down the icy then rocky slope, hitched a ride back to the capital, and fell into bed.
The knock was purely a matter of form. No answer was required. Six men in suits walked into my room, and rather filled it up. It was more than a little intimidating, me lying in bed naked and sweating, with 6 burly besuited Bolivians yelling at me in Spanish. I gathered that there was some irregularity with my passport, which they were brandishing at me. I didn’t have an entry stamp. I was in peril of being arrested.
It was a set up. I had seen the official take my passport at the ramshackle little hut on the border with Chile, which I crossed on a crowded bus. He returned it to me and I expressly asked him if I had everything I needed to continue my travels. He must have notified his colleagues in La Paz, and they had arrived for the shakedown.
I asked how I could go about getting the requisite stamp. They told me I would need to go back to the border where I crossed. But I would need to take my passport, which they would not return to me, on account of it not having a stamp.
Was there anyway I could get a stamp in La Paz I asked, wondering how they managed at the La Paz International Airport, 15 minutes drive away? No, that would not be possible they said, … unless …. And then the negotiation began. Fifty US dollars would do the trick. This was 1987 and my budget was less than a shoestring, so I told them I didn’t have $50.00, which wasn’t strictly true. “How much do you have?” they asked. “For a stamp that should have cost nothing at the border? Nada” I replied.
So they told me where to come to collect my passport, and filed out of my room, leaving me wondering whether I had succumbed to some kind of delirium.
New Zealand had no consular representation in La Paz, but the embassy in Santiago told me the British Consul would act on their behalf. I called her, and was amazed and hugely relieved at how efficient and helpful she was. “How much did they ask for? she said. I told her. “Well we’ll make sure we get a receipt” she said. This was not exactly the response I was hoping for, but it turned out that such bureaucratic banalities are exactly what are required in such circumstances. She accompanied me to the office, where a succession of men in rumpled suits explained that there must have been a misunderstanding, that they were not able to give me back my passport today, but that if I returned the next day all would be resolved. The diplomat assured me that she would be happy to provide further assistance if necessary, and we parted company.
The next day I went back to the office. “I’m sorry, but we can’t give you your passport back, it doesn’t have a stamp in it” they said. “But you said I could have it today” I quavered. “Have you got $USD50.00?” they responded.
Then followed a tantrum, the likes of which I have never seen from my or anyone else’s children. Tears of rage and frustration punctuated what I am sure was an unintelligible tirade of profanity in Spanish and English. Between sobs, they must have understood the words “Consulado Británico”, and have quickly calculated the cost benefit of continuing with their extortion. Another official appeared after a time, and handed me my passport, the ink from the locally unattainable stamp still wet.
New Zealanders love to travel, and many have a story like this. Alone, sick and subject to the corrupt and criminal conduct of others, there is no substitute for having someone there, in the same town, or at least country, or hopefully continent, who is on your side.
Anecdotes make for terrible policy, and I don’t really know enough about the proposed changes at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade to comment, but if what Phil Goff is saying is true I would feel very concerned at the level of support that will be available to my kids from a depleted and already stretched consular service, if they were to find themselves in trouble abroad.