Sometimes, you have moments that you never want to forget. They may not be the most exciting or impressive, they might not be anything much, but they somehow touch your soul and you try and grab hold of them, desperate to never let go. For me, crossing the Argentina-Bolivia border was one of those moments.
I disembarked, bleary-eyed, from the bus and immediately began to shiver. I gathered with the crowd in the dark, waiting for my backpack to appear from the depths of the luggage hold, pulling my coat more tightly around me. It was 5am and I’d just arrived in La Quiaca, the Argentinean half of the Argentina-Bolivia border town. It was several degrees below freezing. There were a few shacks representing various bus companies, a small building and a couple of roads veering off in different directions. People were milling around, setting luggage down and stamping their feet. Somehow, I had to find out how to get to the border, but first, I really needed the loo. I can’t have been gone for more than two minutes in total, but when I returned, almost everyone had disappeared. Just a couple of stragglers remained,with fixed expressions of disinterest. I looked around, but I was clueless. I didn’t know how far the border was, or even in which direction. I had vaguely expected that there would be taxis or something, but there was nothing. Getting colder by the second, I approached a kindly-looking older lady and asked her if she knew how to get to the border.
“I’m going to the border, it’s not far” she said. “But we’ll leave it for a minute or two. It doesn’t open until 6.” She indicated a short, sturdy-looking fellow, appearing all the shorter because he was pushing his head down into his scarf. “He’ll take our bags. He charges 10 soles, so just give me five.” I appeared to have been temporarily adopted. I smiled at the man, who just looked at me, and I put my backpack onto wooden trolley he indicated. A few minutes more, and the woman decided it was time to go. The man set off at quite a pace, pushing our luggage down the hill. We followed at a more sedate speed. As we walked, the sky grew lighter, still a dark velvety blue at the horizon, but rising to a royal blue. Stars pricked the blue, twinkling and clear. Bare, wintry trees were silhoutted black against the sky. If was as if someone had painted it in watercolour. The whole time we walked, the lady and I exchanged light, gentle conversation. For the briefest moment, I wanted to dig out my camera and take a photo, to remember that sky forever, but I knew I would never capture its beauty. It was something undefined and ethereal. Besides, I was too cold. So I just stared and stared at it as we walked, trying to commit it to memory.
Just as the lady had said, we soon arrived at the border crossing. A huddle of travellers were waiting, looking miserable. They’d raced down and the office was still closed. However, as we arrived, a flourescent light flickered into life and the window was opened. My companion seemed oblivious to the queue and marched to the front, dragging me with her and narrowly avoiding backpacks which were being swung around with free abandon. She whacked our passports down on the desk and we were out of Argentina before the sleepy German guys at the front of the line had even realised that we’d queue-jumped.
A few metres further, we arrived at the Bolivian immigration office, where I had to fill in an entry form and a customs declaration. My passport was stamped and I was in. I rejoined the lady and picked up my backpack, thanking her for all her help. I began to wonder where I needed to go now, but she had already hailed a cab and told the driver to take me to the station. I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to go to the train satation at that particular moment, but I didn’t have any better ideas, so I turned to say goodbye to my Bolivian friend. She took my face in her hands and kissed my cheeks. “Que Dios te bendiga,” she said. May God bless you. And then she was gone.
Have you ever been helped by a kind stranger? What did they do for you?