One-Way Ticket to Trouble

To everyone who contributed their 2011 Travel Wish Lists: THANK YOU! Great lists. Go ahead and check out the comments to see where other people hope to travel this year. It’s always fun to get you all participating. I knew I couldn’t possibly be the only one daydreaming about vacations, especially this time of year.

Oh look, another snowstorm. I am not amused, winter.

It’s that time of year when winter begins to take its toll on me. It becomes not just a season, but a state of mind. The cold dark days hold my spirit down like a snowball and chain. Some days, I forget what a little warmth and sunshine could do for my soul. The idea of tulip buds springing out from the blanket of winter is a distant memory, a fantasy of a world hidden from this one. The sun is an afterthought, the warmth – a dream…

Bah! Enough sulking! Things are good! Dreary, but good. I can already taste the happy-high I get on that first spring-like day. It makes all this winter crap WORTH it. Vale la pena, people. Vale la pena…

In the meantime, there is one travel story that I haven’t written about yet… I’ll call it: One-Way Ticket to Trouble

Love in the snow. Central Park, NYC.

Before returning from Quito to NYC, I did something I will avoid for the rest of my life: I bought a one-way ticket from a South American city to JFK International Airport. (You just can’t get away with this stuff anymore!) Now, I’m used to getting pulled aside for security checks at airports (apparently my combination of visas and stamps from Japan to Turkey to Belgium to Argentina several times to Ecuador to Mexico to the Dominican Republic to… (you get the idea)… is a bit suspicious).

All was off to a good start until I got to the front of the line at the Quito airport. I had one large suitcase (afterall, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be living in Quito for 1 or 2 years), one small suitcase/duffle bag thing, a backpack, a purse (god I hate that word), and only one suitcase lock. In South America, most people have their suitcases wrapped in plastic so that no thieves can get in. I never bother. If they want to steal my cheap socks, power to them (actually no, please don’t do that). I was dreading this trip because it was probably the most luggage I have ever had to travel with (by plane), and I was alone (eh, I’m used to it) with a layover in Bogota. Have you ever tried to use a restroom in an airport with that much stuff? Yeah, good luck.

As soon as I entered the airport, my body covered in luggage (ugh), an Ecuadorian man began walking beside me insisting that I get my bags wrapped for security. It, of course, would cost me $10 plus more for the extra weight my oversized suitcase was carrying, so there was no way. I knew my bag was going to be overweight (the suitcase itself weighs a ton — it’s an old one, and I borrowed it from my parents but let me tell you people: invest in a really GOOD lightweight suitcase, even if it’s a little more expensive: the over-weight penalties aren’t worth it, and if you’re as professional a packer as me, you will need it!).

Anyway, I was not into the whole Saran-wrap thing, and I was not forking over the money. I had a lock, and a couple paperclips. I locked one suitcase and unfolded the paper clips to create makeshift “locks” for the zippers of my other suitcase, twisting them in such a way that maybe a thief would look at the tangled clips and go “forget this nonsense, onto the next one.” I’ve learned that if you make it just SLIGHTLY inconvenient for someone to rob you, they’ll pass. I do what I can.

I get in line and eventually make it to the front of the check-in pack. I am told that the combined weight of my two suitcases is over the weight limit for the Colombian airline, and I couldn’t bring everything.

HA. No.

I do my usual nice begging and ask about my options. They say I have to remove some stuff. I see an Ecuadorian guy next to me with the same problem, starting to empty out the insane amount of t-shirts he has in his suitcase while a friend tries to put them in his own bag. I ask the woman, “What can I do? I need to bring my stuff home….” She looks at me and sighs. Then says to give her a second. I do what I’ve learned to do and say: “How much will it cost?” She comes back with a number, and my bags are good to go. First crisis: averted.

Winter in Central Park. NYC.

I’m about two hours early (oops), so I buy the most expensive magazine I’ve ever purchased (don’t ask — let’s just say I hadn’t seen a Vanity Fair in seven months and I was beyond excited to be on my way home). I go through security, buy a little snack, and park myself at the gate, my heart buzzing uncontrollably with excitement for my too-good-to-be-true anticipated return to NYC. All I need is for the voyage to be smooth.

Twenty minutes before the flight was supposed to depart, I see a man from the airline start walking around the 40 or so people sitting at the gate, asking to check everyone’s passport and name. When he gets to me, he asks if I will come with him for a few minutes… Not to worry, this was “a standard safety procedure.” Oh crap. Here we go…

Luckily, two other people were also selected form the crowd. We walked through everyone like we had already been convicted of a crime, left the gate behind, and headed down a dark, long hallway. I asked where we were going (of course!), and he told us they were going to do a thorough security check of our luggage. Curses. My suitcase packing-job was a work of art, I tell ya. I don’t think anyone could possibly fit more in that thing than I did, and now I was going to have to watch them open it, dishevel my shit, and remove each item one at a time, in front of four armed Ecuadorian officers (one of which kept flirting with me… grr).

They took us up and down staircases, around corners, through doors, and eventually, we were outside and practically on the runway. We ended up in a garage behind the airplane with our luggage sitting there, waiting. Luckily, they only had one of my two suitcases – the smaller one. Yippy.

One by one (I was last), they opened our suitcases and removed every single item. As the police officer took out each pair of my underwear, the wooden hand-painted bowl, an alpaca blanket, etc. etc., I stared uncomfortably. All the Ecuadorian cops were just watching and I just wanted to get this overwith. I was a little alarmed when the guy started sniffing my bag (hey!), but what can ya do? He found my large, external hard drive (cords dangling off and all) and asked suspiciously what it was. I explained, he had another guy check it. They moved on.

Finally, we were all cleared and were sent back up to the gate. Whew, I thought. Got that overwith!

The short flight from Quito to Bogota was a rough, bumpy ride over the Andes. I knew it would be; you can’t fly over mountains without a healthy amount of prayer-inducing turbulence — but whoa. Let’s just say I was happy to land in Colombia. That happiness was then short-lived.

Immediately, after we got off the plane, we were somehow in line for something else. None of us knew what, since the line was so long and it passed through a tiny, hidden doorway. But, sure enough, it was a security check. I had already been through security TWICE since I was randomly selected for an additional full security check in Quito, and there was nowhere I could have gone (and nothing I could have done) between the last security check and this one, having only been on the airplane in between, but there we were, getting thoroughly checked one by one, again. Fine, it’s Colombia, I get it.

As you can imagine, this took some time. Luckily, I had a 3 hr layover, so things weren’t too desperate. I open every single pocket, remove laptop, etc., put it all back, put shoes back on, clear security and start walking to my gate.

I get to the gate, buy a water to drink in between flights (I was still about 8,500 feet up and you need to keep hydrated… I was totally lightheaded from the altitude). I buy my water, go to walk into the gate, and the woman who had been sitting next to me on the plane and I decide to sit together. She was Ecuadorian, but had family she was visiting in NJ, so we were on the same two flights and both happy to have an in-transit buddy. After getting comfortable for about 20 minutes, we were told everyone at the gate (an enclosed glass room) had to exit the gate and re-enter through a security checkpoint designed only for our flight. Annoying, but fine.

We go out of the gate, they say no food or water beyond that point. I’m forced to chug the water bottle I just bought before i re-enter, but am in good company as the young French guy next to me had to as well. We commiserate. Then, we have to open every pocket of every carry-on bag, remove all of our stuff, put it all back in, take off shoes, get frisked, and put everything back together as quickly as possible to get back into the gate. I still have two hours before the flight, but after just chugging a water, I know I will want to use the restroom before we board (I avoid airplane bathrooms when I can). I dread this moment, because they informed us that if we leave the gate again, we’d have to repeat the security process. You’ve got to be kidding me, I think.

The sweet Ecuadorian woman has to get food and asks me to watch her bag while she runs out, to keep the security measures to a minimum. I agree (something I was hesitant about doing, especially in a country like Colombia…) but decide I’m being paranoid and it’s ok. While she is gone, I am left there alone for about 20 minutes. A couple cops with drug-sniffing dogs make their way through the rows of chairs. I start getting scared — what if there is something in this woman’s suitcase and this was all planned?!? SHIT SHIT SHIT. Suddenly, over the loud speaker, I hear my name called and I have to go to the front desk. My name is NEVER called! HOLY SHIT. My heart starts racing and I remember that I didn’t lock my suitcases. What if someone planted cocaine in one of the unlocked pockets on the outside? GAHHH.

There I am, with all my stuff and this woman’s stuff, she is not there, and I’m being called to the front. I run up, keeping one eye on the bags, and ask them if it’s ok to wait until my “friend” comes back from the restroom, as I did not want to leave her stuff behind. They say that’s fine, and I’ve got all eyes on me in the quiet terminal. Wahhh.

The woman comes back, feels bad for keeping me waiting, and is shocked (and probably suspicious) when I tell her I just got asked to the front. Two Colombian police officers take me to a back room, where my OTHER suitcase is sitting, and tell me that they need to do a security check on my bag. I get a little flustered and whimper, realizing this is my completely over-stuffed suitcase — the big one — and worry that they won’t be able to close it afterwards. In a sad voice, I just tell them that there is so much stuff in that bag… (Did I really have to go through this again?!) Big mistake. I was just trying to be human with them, but they immediately looked me in the eyes – no humor – and said, deadpanned, “What kind of stuff ma’am? Is there anything suspicious in here?” Wait, no! I say “No no, nothing! Just, I was living in Ecuador so I packed the suitcase really tightly…But feel free to go through it, you just have to promise me you’ll help me close it up!” I was trying to be myself, but not the time and place I guess. Heh.

They proceed to remove every item, one at a time…. AGAIN. And I have to helplessly sit there and watch. Then, they start asking me if I am traveling alone, if I am single, asking me where I learned to speak Spanish, etc. When he goes in for the sniff, I am not surprised this time around. The dog comes over, starts sniffing around too, and I start wondering what the heck it smells like. I want to sniff it now (ok not really). I panic a little again. I have this fear of having someone plant something on me while I’m traveling and getting taken into custody in another country (I’ve watched too many of those ABC specials, “Locked Up Abroad,” I think). I promise myself I will never travel without a lock after this experience.

Winter sunset over the Hudson. NY, NY.

Just as I begin to let my worst fears take over, they told me everything was ok, and helped me put all my stuff back into the suitcase — the once pristine packing job was now a dumpster. It took three Colombian police to close it back up. Finally, I was free to go — but I had them secure every single zipper with these little plastic snappy things they had, just for peace of mind.

When I got back to the waiting area, I was so relieved. Then, I realized we were boarding in an hour, and I had to pee. SERIOUSLY?! I rushed out, and proceeded back through the security check — removing shoes, emptying my bag, etc. — for hopefully the last time. Total carry-on security checks: 5 (2 in Quito, 3 in Bogota). Total “additional” security checks: 2 (1 in Quito, 1 in Colombia). 1 for each suitcase. Finally, I was on the plane home for the last leg of the trip… and I could rest with ease.

At one point during the flight, about 45 minutes before landing, one of the pilots stepped out to use the restroom. While he was in there, the cockpit door swung open. Everyone on the plane was sleeping, and I was in row 9, staring straight into the cockpit, realizing there were no flight attendants in site. Hello!!?? (I mean HOLA?!) Does anybody see this?! I wasn’t sure what was going on, but this New Yorker does not like seeing a cockpit door fly open with no flight attendants anywhere near it. I stared into the cockpit, through the front window of the plane, and watched the little blinking lights in the distance as we approached NYC. I was honestly pretty nervous, and decided without hesitation that, if something were to go wrong, I am a fight not flight person (proven over and over, for better or worse), and I would be trying to tackle someone before I sat and watched something bad happen.

Relief came over me when the pilot left the bathroom, went back into the cockpit, and securely shut the door. And suddenly, I appreciated the unique and beautiful view I had just gotten. It was all going to be ok: I was almost home.

I made it through immigration just fine, although they asked me more questions than the usual “what were you doing in Ecuador?” and I was shocked and happy to find that my bags were among the first to tumble around the belt. I breezed through the final gates, holding my breath in anticipation of something stopping me from the freedom that awaited, but nothing got in my way.

After six months in Ecuador, and numerous intense security checks along the way, I was HOME.

Rose in Argentina. Palermo, Buenos Aires.

It’s been two and a half months since I returned from Quito, and it’s getting harder and harder to believe the whole experience ever happened. The memories are so vivid and real, but nothing in my day-to-day life connects me to the people and adventures I had when I was there. The whole experience feels like a shot of something strong and powerful was dropped into one big drink I’ve been sipping slowly for years. But the ripples continue to spill out from my adventure in Ecuador. I’ll just keep watching until the ripples are too far away to count.

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13 Comments

Filed under Ecuador, Life Stuff, New York City, Uncategorized, Winter

13 responses to “One-Way Ticket to Trouble

  1. Pam Rogers

    Great story Rachel! Kept me on the edge of my seat…I was sweating with you!

    • travelswithtavel

      Thanks Pam!! I know it would have probably been a better story if there were drugs involved or if I did get arrested, but hey… I work with what I’ve got 🙂

  2. missy

    i wonder what was in “your friend’s” suitcase! let’s just hope that this travel annoyance (and that you experienced with hawaii a few years back) don’t repeat themselves…
    treat yourself to a chai! 🙂

    • travelswithtavel

      Hehe – I don’t wanna know! Glad you remember the Hawaii fiasco… I was thinking about that one when I wrote this post! AYAYAY!!!

      Big hug, and will-do on the chai! Let’s make that two (one for you, one for me)… soon I hope 😉

  3. terry rogers

    Well told. Totally believable. You’ve what seems like a natural talent for writing about this experience so that it feels to me as if the baggage checks and rechecks just took place. Not at all that it occurred more than two months ago. Also liked your photos of Central Park. Simple. Dramatic. love, terry

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  5. Exactly where is the facebook like button ?

    • travelswithtavel

      Unfortunately, no Facebook page… But you can follow me on Twitter at @travelswtavel or hit the Twitter button at the top of this page. Thanks!

  6. Deke

    I am so grateful you made it through ok. I mean I’m sure being in a Colombian prison would be bad for you, but it would be worse for your readers– no more Travels with Tavel!

    You weave such a suspenseful tale! The twists, the turns…just when I thought you were in the clear, WOW another twist. It’s just like a Michael Crichton novel, but shorter and with photos.

    • travelswithtavel

      Haha! I know… what would my readers do if I ended up in a Colombian prison!??! JUST kidding!! Thank you so much, Deke, for the kind words and for tuning in. I truly appreciate it!

    • Deke, are you out of your mind? I think being in a Colombian prison, only for a few days, would make a fantastic blog post. Can you imagine the hard-hitting investigative journalism — it would be the Travels with Tavel blog post of the century! And in the spirit of being Colombian, the comparison should not be with a novel by Michael Crichton, but rather it’s like a novel by Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez (but still shorter, though not much, and also with photos, often of people jumping a lot! — which are my fav because I do that also. I have a dream of doing a jumping photo in every country in South and Central America, then making a collage of it. I already have Machu Picchu, Argentina and Brasil photos with me jumping — does Travels with Tavel do guest photos? I would love to send you one if you would like to post it!).

      • travelswithtavel

        Haha! You do have a point there… And I’m not sure I deserve anything even remotely close to the comparisons to Michael Crichton or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but HEY, I’ll take ’em both!

        L Briggs: I do accept guest photos — usually in the form of Mystery Snapshots – but why don’t you email them over to travelswithtavel@gmail.com and I will see what we can do! I love having contributors, so thanks for your interest!

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