Tuesday, February 15, 2011

I'm Home

My dear Jim has shared with you that I traveled back to the USA to see my family and take care of some personal business. It was a wonderful trip from the hugs and kisses received from my granddarlings, Cole and Brady, in Texas to seeing that my parents are continuing to fare well in their retirement home in Tulsa. The record snowfall that occurred the night before my scheduled departure back to Ecuador caused a three day delay in my return trip that allowed some extra days with my daughter, Bianca and her husband, Blake, in Broken Arrow, OK. We played in the snow. It was wonderful and took us back to days in West Chicago, IL, where Bianca and her brother, Brooks, were born.

When Jim initiated this blog he hinted that I should be a contributor. People write for a variety of reasons and sometimes that reason has nothing to do with the desire for others to read the product of our thoughts. I engage in therapeutic writing and that is what I do best, however, I promised him one entry. That is a promise fulfilled with this post. We shall see how this goes…perhaps more to come.

My experience with international travel is not virginal but is from many years ago when I worked as a flight attendant for American Airlines.

For a long time, however, I stayed put to raise my children and complete my degree in nursing. Time and the events of 9/11 have tightened security and customs everywhere since those fly days. You have to learn to go with the flow, or panic and frustration will constantly be your travel companions. The trip back to Oklahoma had that potential and I learned that being armed with a strong faith in God, my husband’s desire to have me return and tremendous patience with the process got me through what might have been a deterrent to ever crossing a border again.

Am I a shady character? What is it about me that ignites in the security folks the need to look past my non-threatening exterior to see if there is more to me than meets the eye. I have known that I carry this burden since 1973 when I drove my Karmann Ghia from Buffalo through northern Canada and was stopped at the Canadian/U.S. crossing on my way to Detroit. Customs emptied my Ghia of all my worldly possessions so it and luggage could be searched and sniffed. Since then, with the exception of the times I was able to bypass security as part of a flight crew, I have been stopped, patted and searched ad nauseum. I have learned the two hour rule of arrival at the airport doesn’t apply to me because to process me through will take at least three. I have learned to wear only slip on shoes, no belt and be absolutely sure my luggage is within established weight guidelines and even then I know it will be a long check in. Consider the gut reaction to hearing your name over the loud speaker to report to a search area in the airport of a foreign country. Yes, it did happen…my first flight out of Ecuador. The area I was taken to was under a jetbridge, dark and dank and secured by police and soldiers carrying automatic weapons and bag sniffing dogs. I was the only person in this group of hostages that didn't speak Spanish.

“Gooood doggie! Want a treat?”

It was obvious this was NOT a place to apply humor…not even the kind to ease angst. I have just entered the Twilight Zone. When bags are ripped open with knives and personal articles are sniffed by dogs and officials alike you know you'd better not blink. There was no touching of my person but somehow having my lingerie dumped and sniffed really did feel invasive. Don’t get me wrong, the times we live in require absolute vigilance in travel security, but, give me a break...

So, the foundation for my story has been set.

Knowing I was going to Oklahoma I played the game of guessing when and where the “let’s pull Rachel out of line for further investigation” card would be played. Would it be in Guayaquil on the way out? Would it be in Dallas on the way in? Would it be in Tulsa? The possibilities were staggering. Jim and I have applied for our residence visa. We were advised by our attorney that the application itself stopped the clock on my tourist visa which at the time of departure had exceeded the 90 day limit. Customs would pull up the information on the computer to confirm my pending change of visa status. Wonderful! No sweat… maybe for someone else. What we weren’t privy to? There had been a major upheaval in the Department of the Interior throwing the whole visa process into utter chaos.

I traveled to Guayaquil by myself feeling very confident that I was seasoned and I could handle anything until ... "Surely you jest!"... I was told by Customs that I wouldn’t be allowed back in the country because I had overstayed the limit of my tourist visa.

“If you would please just check the computer I’m sure you will find I am quite legal and that I am nearly through the process of becoming a resident.” I suggested, smiling innocently.

“No hablar Ingles, Senora.”

Oh, this isn’t going well. Do I get on the plane? Do I get on the van and return to Cuenca? Three weeks of visits to family and friends are on the line. I can't NOT go but my husband and my life are here in Ecuador and not being able to return for six months was unacceptable.

I went. As soon as I arrived in Dallas I contacted Jim and shared with him my/our problem. He said he would be on it as soon as the sun came up. I had a sudden feeling of calm that all would be righted and my return to him would be without trouble.

As I mentioned earlier my visit in Texas and Oklahoma was marvelous and the people who weren’t sure about my move to Ecuador were able to see that I was adjusting well and very happy. It was all good. I also knew that there were ongoing efforts to insure that all would run smoothly on my return trip. My darling Jim and our very capable attorney were looking out for me. I relaxed and just enjoyed my visit.

It wasn’t until a couple of days before my departure that I started planning the strategies of how to pack and how to dress to cause me the least grief at the airport. Slip on shoes, check, bags weighed and weighed again, check, check. All is well. This will be a piece of cake! Even the cancellation and rescheduling of my flight hadn’t tempered my positive mood.

The eve of my departure an additional six inches of snow fell so as I stepped out the door at five thirty I was faced with the possibilit the roads were going to be nasty. Glad I had an early start because I also had to return my rental car. The roads were bad but my earlier years in Chicago had taught me how to drive in winter weather. Slow and steady. When I arrived at the airport I knew I was on a roll. I grabbed my bags, made my way to the baggage check counter and was in line before the wave of passengers arrived. The curse, or so it seemed, had been broken. Just one more hurdle and I could breathe easily and that was to get through security. I was so within all the rules and regulations.

“Madam, you can step through the scanner now.”the agent instructed me.

“Just hold your hands over your head like the picture.” Time to exhale.

“Now please stand over here and place your feet in the yellow footprints.” No sweat! But why are these other people going on through and I’m still standing here.

“Madam, are you wearing a money belt?”

“Duh! Doesn’t everyone?” I thought.


“Oh, PAALLEEAASSEE stop calling me that.”

“Madam we are going to have to take you to another place.”


I knew it was futile to protest. I wanted more than anything to get on the plane and get back to Jim and making a scene was the easiest way to insure that wouldn’t happen. I obediently followed the woman in the official uniform to an area about the size of a large closet. The short walk gave me time to decompress. My things were inspected and again I was patted down. The women that were handling the inspection were very pleasant and even a little apologetic for the inconvenience. At least no one or no thing was sniffing my personal stuff and I didn’t see any automatic weapons. That was a major improvement. At last after deeming me a non-threat I was allowed to proceed to the flight gate. I was finally in a stretch that I could relax and enjoy the flight and move as freely as any passenger. I was through security.

The flight from Tulsa to Miami and then Miami to Guayaquil was uneventful…blissfully uneventful. About forty-five minutes from landing in Guayaquil the crew passed out declarations papers. For those readers who don’t fly internationally they are forms that tell you what you can and can’t bring in and require you to declare value of incoming goods. No biggie. However, it was at this point that I began to feel a resurgence of anxiety knowing I would be going through the dreaded Customs area shortly. Jim had sent me a document provided by the Department of the Interior declaring me legal to reenter Ecuador but what is official and what is interpreted by the Custom’s agent may very well be different. I could be in for a long night. I had my phone charged, Jim waiting outside and our attorney’s number on speed dial. I was as prepared as anyone could be.

"Okay, I am standing in line."

Heart beating. Heart pounding. Breath shallow. Breathe deeply.

"Don’t call attention to yourself."

My turn.

“Yes, here is my passport.”…thump, thump, thump…”No, I haven’t been issued my Cedula.”….thump, thump, thump…”Sir, here is a document issued by the acting Minister of the Interior regarding my visa status. My husband is outside with the original.”…THUMP, THUMP, THUMP…”I will get him on the phone. He speaks much better Spanish than I do."

"Yes, I will wait here."

He leaves. He comes back. He looks at me. He looks at my passport. He looks at me again and drums his fingers on the counter then makes the gesture of a phone to his ear.

“Call esposo.”

I dial. “Jim, I am going to have to call Galo. They aren’t going to let me through.”

Just as suddenly as he tells me to "call esposo” he looks at me then waves me away and says in Spanish what I understand to mean I can go. OMG! I have always believed in the possibility of divine intervention and I have no doubt God worked out the details in this scenario. As I exited the customs area all I could see was the face of my beloved Jim ahead of me and the “I Love You” balloon he was carrying and I knew, "This is what really matters."

You might ask, will I continue to travel? Absolutely! Life is full of adventure and surprise mixed with challenge. Will I continue to be a suspicious character…probably. Must be something mysterious about me and that's kinda' cool. My philosophy is this: We live in dangerous times and I would prefer an extra measure of caution to the possibility that dangerous people have a chance to hurt others. Is it inconvenient? Of course but when you get “pulled over” as much as I have you begin to see humor in it and realize it's great fodder for conversation. The only thing I am going to change as I move forward in this great adventure is to pack my good underwear before I cross the boarder.