Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

Grab this related post Widget!
This is a story for all of you who are under the misguided impression that everything about living abroad is a piece of cake. Actually the first part of the tale takes place in the US of A, so let’s get started there.

I’m in the process of changing the type of visa under which we reside in Ecuador. Part of the drill is to obtain apostiled documents relating to your particular visa. In my case it is the award letter from Social Security.

Unless you are involved with these shenanigans you are forgiven for not knowing the word “apostile.” It is a special seal applied by an office of the Secretary of State from whatever state your document applies. What exactly this seal implies is unknown to me but I’m guessing it makes your piece of paper “official” in some way.

I called the office in Trenton, New Jersey (my state of residence) to make sure I knew and understood everything required, created a cover letter exactly as instructed and mailed the information to them long before leaving for the States. This was because when we were visiting my daughter in Hoboken I needed to take this official document to the Ecuadorian consulate to have them do some unspecified mumbo jumbo before returning to Cuenca.

I was excited when my envelope arrived the day after we arrived in Hoboken. I was not so excited when I learned my application had been rejected. Why? Because the rejection stated that I was supposed to have specified in my cover letter what country needed the apostiled document.

It would have been wonderful if the person with whom I had spoken had mentioned this little tidbit in her instructions because I would have been more than happy to comply, but that obviously didn’t happen. No Plan B existed so it was time to create one.

Actually the plan created itself because there was no alternative. Because of time restraints I had to go to Trenton, NJ and get this handled personally and quickly.

Now Trenton has never been on my “bucket list” of places to visit. After arriving there on the train from Hoboken (actually a pleasant ride through some lovely countryside and within spitting distance of Princeton) I understood why.

This is a really drab city with no architectural interest that I observed. And the people. Without going too much into detail let’s just say it was a rough crowd-----.

I was chatting it up with an Hispanic lady on the train and lamenting how hard it has been to learn Spanish in Cuenca because so many Cuencanos and the gringos (of course) speak English. I found it amusing that she said, “Well, if you want to learn Spanish you should move to Trenton.”

Anyway, I made it to the Secretary of State’s office without problem and presented my award and rejection letters to the receptionist. I had called the day before and was told, “Sure, bring it in and we can take care of it for you.”

She looked at the documents and said, “OK, no problem. Come back tomorrow around this same time and it will be ready.” Wait a minute, the guy on the phone didn’t tell me that!

I explained that I had come all the way from Hoboken, a 90 minute train ride each way. I explained that I was heading back to Ecuador soon and still had to visit the consulate after I was done there. When I was finished she explained that yes, there was an expedited 2 hour service---for an additional $500!!

Gulp. I wasn’t prepared to or interested in ponying up that kind of cash, leaving me with one choice----come back tomorrow.


Understand I was visiting my daughter for the first time in months. I intended to visit some museums in New York, maybe wander around Greenwich Village or something. Instead I was going to Trenton, New Jersey two days in a row. Plus, if all went well, Newark (the location of the consulate on Day 2).

Now you’re probably sitting there thinking, “Boy, Edd, I bet you were really pissed!” That is a valid assumption and I will answer you honestly. No, I was not.

You see, there’s something about living here awhile that changes your attitude. You experience so many minor (and sometimes major) frustrations that you learn getting worked up about them improves nothing and just makes you feel lousy. Why would you choose to do that to yourself? (This sage knowledge would serve me well in the next part of our story—remember, this is about two cities. We’re just getting warmed up.)

So, guess what, I got back on the same train at the same time the next morning and headed to the Promised Land, Trenton, New Jersey. It was weird how on only the second day everything felt so familiar. I was a “regular” like all these other folks who board trains, light rails, and subways as part of their daily routine.

I knew immediately I was not in Ecuador when the apostiled award letter was ready as promised. I jumped on a bus, rode back to the train station, and was on my way to Newark. The finish line was in sight!

I woke up feeling like this was going to be a good day and I was right. I walked out of the Newark train station and there the Ecuadorian consulate was just a block down the street. I took a number, went next door to a dive of a sandwich shop and enjoyed the most amazing and enormous sub sandwich (“hoagie” to my northern brethren) that has ever touched my taste buds.

I came back, soon sat down with a woman who-spoke-zero-English-but-it’s-OK-I’ve-done-this-many-times-before and in a matter of minutes I’ve got a document that I-can’t-read-with-some-seals-on-it-that-I-paid-$40-for-and-I-don’t-care-because-I-have-it and I’m outta there!

Done! Finished! Well, until the day before we leave for Ecuador when I get an email from my lawyer saying the rules have changed and the Immigration Office is now requiring an apostiled police report and can you get that before you return? Uh---no----------. We’ll deal with that later.

Let’s move on to the second city, Guayaquil. The plane on which we departed from La Guardia was an old-school number with hardwood floors in the bathrooms, ashtrays in the bathroom doors, and limited overhead storage. The gate agent announced that we were on a totally full flight and normal roll-on-boards were not going to fit in the overhead compartments, so anyone with those type carry-on’s could gate-check them for free. We were, like, why not?

I’ll tell you why not. None of the gate-checked bags arrived in Guayaquil. We were all scammed into giving up our bags when airline personnel knew full well that there was not room for them on the plane. How do I know that? Because we sat on the damn plane for half an hour when it was discovered there wasn’t enough fuel to get us to Atlanta. Could bags sitting in plain view at the bottom of the ramp have been overlooked for that long? I don’t think so.

It’s midnight in Guayaquil and an angry mob is swarming this one poor girl who looked all of twenty years of age, shouting and waving pieces of paper at her. To say she was overwhelmed is a gross understatement. Considering the circumstances I guess she did the best she could, and I walked away with a form that she assured me would get our missing bag to Cuenca.

And that would have possibly been true if she had filled that form out correctly. Or if she had entered my, and probably everyone else’s, claim in the system. But unfortunately neither of those things happened, so when I went online to track my bag it of course wasn’t there.

Over the next three days, speaking to 4? 5? 6? people at the airline I learned 1) the bag had been forwarded to Guayaquil, 2) the airline and I both knew the bag was in Guayaquil, and 3) if the bag wasn’t processed five days after arrival it would be forwarded to the Tomb of the Unknown Suitcase.

No problem, right? It’s there; we all know it’s there; just forward it, right? Well, no.

The last (and only honest) person I spoke with informed me that no matter what, the airline’s procedure is the bag would not, could not be released for delivery without a tag reference number, which had not been created because the claim had never been entered. She said the only way we were ever going to see that f&+#@g (no, she didn’t say f&+#@g, I did) bag again was for me to personally go to Guayaquil and retrieve it.

(Extra-long Sigh)

Wow, so you’re thinking, “This time you had to be jacked, right, Edd?” No. Once again, there were no more options, so literally five minutes later I was out the door. Fifteen minutes after that I was on a van for the 3 hour ride through the Cajas to Guayaquil. Fifteen minutes after arriving at the airport I was walking out with our bag, and a few minutes after that I was returning on another 3 hour ride to Cuenca. Don’t get me wrong—it was a VERY bad day. But we now have the missing bag back, which most importantly contained a multi-year travel journal in which I’ve been chronicling our adventures for about the past decade.

This long, sordid tale isn’t about my heroic deeds or heightened state of enlightenment. It’s to demonstrate that doo-doo happens in this foreign world and when it does you decide it’s all worth it and deal with whatever comes up or you don’t.

Sometimes your patience can be pushed to the limit, but for the Staton’s so far it’s well worth it.

1 comment:

Terrydarc said...

Hi Edd,
We loved Cuenca when we stayed for 2 months in 2010 and look forward to coming back. Maybe we'd make that permanent if the US doesn't become a bit more reasonable.

I like the bit about the $500 special processing fee. Nice to know that rich folks get treated just like the rest of us. Also looking forward to your next episode and will subscribe if I can find a spot to do that.

Keep up the good work!
-Terry Doyle
-Ashland, OR