Saturday, September 25, 2010

A HEART ATTACK OF CONVENIENCE IN ECUADOR

GUAYAQUIL - ECUADOR'S LARGEST CITY

Following on with the subject of money during my misspent youth, I’ll fast forward a number of years, actually make that decades, to a rare joint trip, this time in South America, made with the aging and increasingly reluctant traveller.

We had been three months in Ecuador, you will read more about that delightful country in the Cuenca Series, but right now, at the end of our visit we were joining the queues at the International Airport in Guayaquil.  So far we had experienced the very best of travel, and unfortunately the very worst, so by now we were anxious to just hop on that plane and begin the 25 odd flying hours back to Oz.

The very best parts I've detailed elsewhere, but I’m sure your eyes have hovered on the very worst part so I will briefly explain.

We were in Ecuador to visit our daughter and son in law, both Aussies, who had taken up residence in Cuenca.  Two months had passed, all wonderful and pleasant, when we began to plan our return trip home.  I wanted to see Machu Pichu, Stan was eager to explore Chile’s vineyards, additional stopovers were required.

So exactly one month before our ticketed departure date we walked into the Lan Cuenca office to firstly confirm our flights home, and then to enquire about changing our return itinerary to leave perhaps a fortnight earlier from Ecuador but still making the original departure from Santiago in Chile.

The upshot of this simple request was a nightmare.  Lan Cuenca put our particulars into their computer and then clearly puzzled, told me we had already changed our flight and what’s more hadn’t shown up at the airport in Guayaquil three days previously to fly out!  We were in other words the untouchables of the flying world, we were ‘no shows’.

How on earth could we catch a flight we had no knowledge of in the first place, our return tickets were still clutched in my hand and they clearly showed our departure date for exactly one month hence.

The tickets had been changed unbeknown to us by our booking agency in Brisbane. This was a nightmare of gigantic proportions. Voice to voice contact with the agency in question was difficult, time zones, language problems and unreliable phone connections only compounded the issue.  The airline helped as much as they could at the same time warning all flights out of Santiago were fully booked for months ahead.

 In due time, a fortnight and many frustrating emails and phone calls later our original flights were reinstated by our Brisbane travel agency with no explanation nor apology.  By then I was numb with worry and the reluctant traveller no longer wanted to take any detours.

Which brings me back full circle, a fortnight later, to boarding that return flight in Guayaquil.  We had spent a day exploring the city, soaking up the humid tropical atmosphere, a change from the high Andes where we had spent the previous three months; and now we were starting our return flight home at Ecuador's second international airport.


The queues and bureaucratic nonsense in booking through luggage and paying airport taxes had already taken up a good two hours of the three hours we had allowed ourselves to board that plane.

Then we faced the huge snaking queue of passengers from other flights waiting to pass through immigration and customs.  Boarding time was inching closer and I was becoming a tad anxious.  Finally our turn came, and there began the nightmare to end all nightmares.

The immigration officer inspected our passports then beckoned me to follow him to another officer who spoke English and told us we had overstayed our visa by three days, and must pay a fine of US$200 each.  

That in itself was no problem.

The money must be paid in cash, the officer advised, in person to a Government bank situated in a shopping mall opposite the airport (and across a busy six lane highway) then you must return to me with the receipt.

That was a problem.

By now boarding time had elapsed,  passengers on our flight to Santiago were already being shown to their seats,  at the most we had half an hour to accomplish the impossible.

Can you imagine two elderly Australians with only the most basic Spanish, negotiating the traffic for a start, locating the bank, breaking into their queues, explaining our urgent need, then retracing those steps, handing over the necessary receipt to immigration, and still making that flight.

We had Buckley’s, but worse, no amount of pleading nor common sense suggestions would sway the officers.  Cash in hand meant nothing to them, the only item they would recognise was a bank receipt.

With time ticking away and in full view of hundreds of other poor souls impatiently waiting their turn at immigration I did what any red blooded Aussie sheila would do...I went into cardiac arrest.
All those hours viewing medical soapies on the box had finally paid off.  I had everyone convinced I was at deaths door, the two nurses who appeared out of thin air, the airport manager, and the reluctant traveller who anxiously whispered in my ear as he tried to support my slumping, gasping body “ I hope this isn’t for real.”

The immigration officers were worried but not enough to back down on the receipt business.  But the Airport Manager saved the day;  with no jurisdiction over the government people, he suggested they take our money, stamp our passports, and later when all the backlog of passengers had been processed, cross over themselves to the bank and obtain the necessary paperwork.

I’ll give the immigration people the benefit of the doubt because we’re still waiting for a receipt. Grudgingly they  finally did stamp our passports and we made a run for the boarding gate.

The fault of course was all mine, obviously in all the panic and upset of the previous month I had allowed my wits to wander. A 90 day visa is not 3 months.  But don’t let my mistake and its consequence influence your travels.  Ecuador is a paradise in South America, and the Andes mountain city of Cuenca is without a doubt its most priceless jewel.  

Just keep an eye on your passport and the visa dates stamped inside!
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©Robyn Mortimer 2010

There is a postscript of sorts to this story.


CUENCA'S TOURIST POLICE BROCHURE

During our stay in Cuenca we were approached in the city’s central park by a young female police officer in company with two older officers liberally adorned with the gold braid insignia of seniority.  Top bosses in other words. 

She asked would we mind posing with the gentlemen for a photo shoot.  I was halfway through an icecream but I didn’t mind, nor did my husband, and we happily joined the game of appearing interested in various activities around us.  We all shook hands and then walked off in different directions.

My daughter was mystified when we told her about it but promised to scan local papers and let us know if anything appeared after we returned home to Oz.

Months passed, some seven or eight in fact, and by then daughter and son in law had opened their Kookaburra Cafe and Accommodation in Cuenca and were doing a brisk trade.

Then one day some transient backpackers left some brochures behind amidst the remnants of their meal and son in law Chris took a double take on one official government brochure offering advice to tourists.

On the front page there we were, me holding the dripping remnants of my icecream cone, my husband appearing deeply interested in gosh knows what, while the top echelon copper towered over us offering protection and concern to two visitors to their fair city.


If only those friendly cops had been with us at the  Guayaquil airport!

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