To most people, Rio de Janeiro is beaches, mountains, thong bikinis, sun and beautiflil visitors, but for me this August it was one long nightmare. I was sent there to attend this neat conference put on by an international bank. Everyone I thought I wanted to meet would be there. I brought along plenty of handouts and business cards, so I wouldn't run out, and my bathing suit to get a little swimming in as well. Alas, none of this came to pass.
Although I used to travel to Brazil frequently, I don't now. In fact, it had been at least 10 years since I had been there. So I relied on my travel agent to keep me abreast of travel and visa requirements. Similarly, I rely on airlines to tell me what's up. I should have relied on the post-em note on top of my desk, which says, "Assume nothing."
I assumed the travel pros knew it all and cheerfully boarded my flight in Minneapolis for Newark and then on to Rio. In Minneapolis, an agent affixed a checklist to my ticket that indicated all my documents were in order. Then, an uneventful flight, food and movie.
When the plane arrived, I couldn't wait to get to the hotel on Ipanema Beach, go to sleep and then later wake up and go exploring. Bookstores, restaurants, the sights, sounds and smells of Rio awaited me. I handed my passport to the customs guy, and I wearily watched him flip through it once and then through the other direction. I thought he was looking for a unique place to stamp it.
"Visa?" he asked.
"I didn't get a visas Okay, I'll buy one," I replied.
He led me to the customs office. It was 8:30 a.m. on Friday morning.
"You can't get a visa here," a surprisingly cheerful agent noted.
The airline agent volunteered that I had two choices. The first choice was to go to Buenos Aires (four hours away), go through customs (another hour), go into town to the Brazilian Embassy (another hour), get the visa (shouldn't take more than a half hour), and then come back. Since the flight she referred to left at 11:00, I figured I would show up at the Embassy when it closed its doors for the weekend. Then I would have to reverse the process-all this assuming flights would be available back to back. With luck I could get the visa and be back with no problem. Perhaps 20 years ago I would have done this after cursing at the hapless customs agent. However, the worst case scenario would have been spending the weekend in Buenos Aires, getting a Brazilian visa Monday morning and getting back to attend the closing banquet for the conference No wonder there are so many illegal immigrants in the world. Who wants to go through all this legal crap? Assume nothing!
This was not Nigeria, where you can buy yourself out of almost anything. These guys were enforcing their sovereignty. This time I decided not to put my body and mind through the process of fighting anyone. I chose the second option, to fly back to Minneapolis. So I flew 12,OOO miles in 48 hours and got nowhere and saw nothing. Okay, I missed the conference, but I did call the host and explain my misfortune and/or stupidity. Maybe he will feel really sorry for me and like me more as a result. You know, showing your vulnerability and all that.
Strangely, I am not mad at the Brazilians for doing this-for this is what we do to Brazilians. If you show up at JFK without a U.S. visa, you will go back on the next flight. In fact, the U.S. visa regimen led to this response by Brazil. Wouldn't it be a wonderful world if nations got even with each other via their own visa wars?
I had one last hope. I also have a Latvian passport and hoped Latvia didn't have a visa requirement. But alas, Latvia - country code 5207 - also had one. There was a notation that Latvians should apply through the Brazilian Embassy in Germany.
The airline people told me the next flight out was at 8:15 p.m. and that I would have to stay in the transit area. The one good thing about spending the day in transit was that it was raining. So I didn't feel like I was missing anything.
So what follows are my observations on Rio's transit area-you have probably read about Rio's beaches, so this will be something new.
* The escalators are neat. They don't operate all the time but activate when you approach them. Saving electricity.
* The bathrooms are not neat. I won't say anything else about them.
* The handicraft stores are okay. I bought a bunch of stuff that will serve as Christmas presents. Can't you hear he recipient say, "How sweet, you brought this all the way from Rio?" I did buy an up-to-date tour book, so I can tell people all about Rio.
* The grilled cheese sandwiches are good.
* The air is not good - everybody smokes. Lucky Strike's logo adorns all the trashcans.
* The bookstore is okay. I did load up on all the latest newspapers and magazines. So I am getting a sense of what is going on there. I can talk authentically about things for, "I was just in Brazil." The most prominently featured books? Anything having to do with Viagra!
* Brazilian travelers are better dressed than Americans. Travel is a big deal to them. Brazilian women wear clothes that, by my standards, are too tight for them.
* Brazilians coming back from the United States have very heavy carry-ons.
* The transit lounge was deserted much of the time, but whenever Brazilians came in to wait, they would inevitably come over to sit next to me. I eventually had to move to a far comer, as I wanted to be left alone.
* I sat next to a group of KLM stewardesses whose wing span seemed to be as wide as the 747 they were getting into.
* There is no CNN TV service blaring at you in the terminal. Boy is that nice.
* The carioca (Rio) accent is unfathomable. One of my goals in life is to understand a carioca. You would think the Regente Hotel is pronounced "Ray-gen-tea." Wrong. It is pronounced "Hay-genck!"
So, when I got back, I wrote to my travel agent (enclosing the itinerary saying I just needed a passport) asking that I get reimbursed the $958. Not stopping there, I also wrote the airline, which put a documentation checklist on my ticket and marked "no" for visa. I asked for travel credits to the tune of $958.
So the best case scenario is I would have "enjoyed" this trip to Rio's transit lounge for free and gotten travel credits to boot. Now, about those bags under my eyes.
You could say this is a stupid policy - they send me home and forego the money I would have spent there. But Brazil comes out okay, for the airline is fined U.S. $3,000 by the government for each visa-less passenger they transport to Brazil.
I really felt emasculated in the transit lounge, where I was essentially helpless. Although I called the airline's office in the airport and was assured that a ticket and boarding pass would await me by the time the plane left, I had no assurance that this would indeed be done. People would appear, say they would take care of things and then disappear. This was the same sensation I had the last time I was in Moscow. You are told to sit, wait and hope something turns out well. As an American, you are used to instant gratification; you give and you receive immediately.
I did fly back on Business Class, and the last question I heard the stewardess say was, "How was your trip to Brazil?"
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