When travelers complain about luggage getting lost or start packing 2 weeks before a trip, I’ve always told them the same thing. The only two things you really need for any international trip is money and a passport.In reality you can actually get by without money for a little while if you’re resourceful, but the passport is the key that opens the lock for international travel. In a paperless world, no one has really come up with a way to really identify you without this little magical booklet. All passports are not created equal either. An American passport makes traveling around most of Europe easy peasy. Countries like India and Russia are required to get visas for many places that someone from the states can breeze in and out of on a whim. So, knowing this, I’m surprised how many travelers don’t treat their passport like the treasure that it is. They’ll leave them on tables, absent-mindedly stuff them in pockets, and leave them in hotel rooms.
Having said that, my advice is take care of your passport! You can replace one but it’s not fast and it’s not usually cheap. I’m telling you this because I’m the traveling wizard. I’m an expert who would never lose track of my passport or anyone else’s….until now!
At this moment of writing I’m sitting in Nicaragua trying to figure out how to cover my “real life” commitments that are supposed to be happening today. They won’t happen with me unfortunately, because I didn’t get on my flight. This time it’s not my passport that’s MIA, it’s my traveling partner’s, a person who handed their passport over to me, trustingly, because I’m a travel “expert” that preaches to everyone about where to put their money and their passports and blah blah blah…..
How it disappeared is not clear. It was in a secure pocket on my person, buttoned firmly in place. Two days ago I know I had it, but that was 2 days ago and I have been island hopping, boat hopping, car hopping and even rented an ATV for the day to drive to a volcano. I’ve called the hotels we’ve stayed. I’ve tried to contact the police and no passport! The reason I’m putting this story in print is twofold: The first one is a lesson to be learned. DON”T lose your passport! Keep it on you, lock it up, or do whatever it takes to guard this precious paper gem. It is your “passport” to the world….Why did I even put that in quotations? There’s a reason for that expression. You’re going nowhere these days without it.
I should explain that if my passport was missing it might not be an international crisis. There are American Embassies around most of the world and they are for the most part pretty helpful. However my friend is from the mystical country of Belarus. Have you heard of it? If you haven’t, you’re like most people in the world. If you have, you’re probably a nerd like me who spends too much time looking at maps. Belarus is a country sandwiched between the Baltic states (Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia) and mother Russia. It was part of the USSR for years and even after it’s independence is still more like Russia than any other country in the world. Actually Belarus literally means “White Russian”. However, before you start mixing up that drink, let me assure you that the White Russians have never heard of that famous libation; like fortune cookies and Sudoku, White Russians are 100% an American invention. But, enough about cocktails……. bottom line is this: When you speak to people about Belarus, it’s a lot like talking about Narnia, except there’s movies about Narnia.
The first thing that travel experts tell you to do is to make copies of everything. A long time ago (20 years ago or so), you could make photocopies and give them to someone you trusted not to lose them or carry them in a spare pocket. These days the easiest way to keep copies of your important papers is to scan your stuff and email it to yourself. Better yet, create a travel folder in your email account. Use it to send your travel itineraries, your hotel reservations and scanned documents. There are also great phone apps that allow you to store documents, frequent flier numbers and other important things with a password. Having these documents handy will help officials get you new copies and serve as “proof” as well as keeping your personal identification numbers handy.
My Belorussian friend had copies of everything. As a citizen of that country, there are not a lot of western countries that you can visit without a visa. The visas usually require an entire page of your passport and have your photo actually printed on the visa. She had all that: USA visa, passport, work visa, etc. Guess what? It didn’t matter at all. No one would take these documents. In a world that has been changed by Photoshop, prints and copies just aren’t as believable as they were back in the old days (10 years ago). I will say that although you can’t travel with these copies, when officials ask you if you’ve copies of them, then at least you can pull them out and look cool.
The second thing travel experts will tell you is to contact your embassy immediately. Ha! Good luck finding a Belarus embassy in Nicaragua! The only ones in this hemisphere are Cuba, Venezuela and Washington DC. Guess what? You can’t get to any of them without a passport. We called Venezuela and were told that in a few weeks (yes….a few weeks) someone MIGHT be able to send over some papers to allow my friend to leave; not a passport, but a direct flight home. She would be better off stowing away on a ship….hey, wait a minute…that’s not a bad idea now that I think about it. So, when you’re Belorussian and the Belarus embassy leaves you hanging, it’s time to call your comrades at the Russian embassy. It took a while to find the Russian embassy yesterday. Unlike the other embassies in town, there is no Google listing or map or anything else to make it easy. I think I got the address off the Nicaraguan version of Yelp! But, let me not get ahead of myself, let’s start with the day before. Yes, the day before was when things started….
We were in Leon checking into our hotel when we noticed that there was only one passport (mine) and the first thought was that the missing document might be in the rental car. I searched it over and over, went through bags, pockets and anywhere else a passport might be hiding. It was late so we decided to resume our search in the morning. As soon as we awoke we searched online for the embassy and soon discovered the horrible truth that no embassy was anywhere around. Every travel website will tell you to file a police report,so we got directions and soon found the place down an alley off the main street. The station was an unlit dirty room with desks that looked like they were taken out of a dumpster, no phones, no fans, no AC, and no computers. The only device in the entire room was an ancient typewriter that looked like the kind my grandmother might have used. Las policia were talking to each other obviously about nothing crime-related and couldn’t be bothered to even acknowledge our presence. I had to go to the desk and explain why were there. One of the policemen begrudgingly typed up a report asking us the same questions repeatedly.One of our thoughts was that maybe the passport might have been turned in at another police station. Maybe the officer could make a few calls for us. We soon discovered that the officer didn’t have numbers to any other stations, a website or anything else that was even remotely helpful. Each one of the five officers had a clipboard, a pen, a gun and nothing else. It was without a doubt the worst police station I’ve ever visited, but at least we had our police report.
We went back to our hotel and started trying to retrace our steps. We had been a lot of miles in a few days and stayed in 2 different towns. In the town of San Juan del Sur, we had done some bar hopping along the strip of beach and were convinced that maybe the passport might have fallen out in one of these places. Fortunately the hotel where we stayed that evening was within walking distance of the strip and the daughter of the owner was very helpful. We got our Leon hotel to call her and I asked for her to check the bars, call the police station and look in our room. It took a few hours, but nothing was found. The woman was nice enough to look up the police numbers that I had been unable to find on the island of Ometepe where we had explored shortly after. We called and called all the numbers. No one ever answered. We thought about driving there, but it was 4 hours, an hour ferry ride and we had a flight early the next morning that we hoped to make.
The next step was to make some international calls and see if we could contact the embassy in Cuba or Venezuela. The hotel had no way of helping us on an international call, our cell phones were completely useless and the only option seemed to be what the locals call a “call center”, a place where you stand in a Plexiglas booth and someone dials a number for you and keeps track of your minutes. We soon discovered that the electricity wasn’t working so no international calls were possible.She explained that there was no electricity in the city. We pointed to the lit light across the street that obviously had power. She told us to come back tomorrow. Things don’t move very fast in Nicaragua.
We passed by a shop that specialized in passports, visas and offered divine help to any traveler who might need their services. It took only a minute to figure out that the 10 year old boy behind the desk knew very little about passports or anything at all really. The owner appeared with lunch in one hand and seemed intent on making copies for us when she saw that we were carrying papers. Once I explained our situation 3 or 4 times, she wrote down her solution on a scrap of paper: Catch the 3 hour bus to Managua and try the immigration office. While her advice was completely useless, at least we agreed that nothing was going to get done in Leon. Before we left, we found an internet cafe that allowed us to make a call to Venezuela from the boss’s cell phone. The embassy there agreed to email some forms that we could take to the Russian embassy. We finally had a plan. It wasn’t a great plan but at least it gave us something to do.
We started driving to Managua. I love Central America as much as the next guy and Nicaragua has some beautiful places, but the capital is not one of them. It’s truly one of my least favorite cities I’ve visited and unless you love having your windshield cleaned at every intersection…. and bananas, cashews and windshield wiper salesman coming up to your car incessantly, you might agree with me. The shops are made out of cement and/or metal and look as if the town was bombed and someone put them up overnight. If it’s not a tire shop, then it’s a copy shop or a key maker. Every street looks identical.You get the idea. The point is, you really don’t want to spend your vacation here when you can go to a cute town like Granada. Managua does have the international airport, the embassies and everything else official that you can’t find in the other towns. I booked a hotel close to the airport hoping that we could straighten everything out before our morning flight.
As we were driving towards the capital, my friend nonchalantly pulled a passport out of her purse. I was shocked for a moment and thought maybe the missing document had been found. In reality, she had filled up her pages with visas and the government had issued her a new passport. They had stamped the old one with a “canceled” stamp in several place. Here was a possible loophole! The passport date had not expired, the booklet was in great condition, and best of all, hardly anyone has computers and no one speaks Russian. Maybe we could get away with the canceled passport! There were a few problems with this idea. First, there was no entry stamp. Second, no USA visa, and third: If someone had a way of checking the numbers, we could be in trouble. I didn’t think the entry stamp would be a big deal. Show the police report, explain the situation and get another. The USA visa seemed to not be a huge issue. My friend’s ticket to Russia was on Singapore airlines 5 hours after we landed in Houston. We figured as long as she was in the airport, a US visa wouldn’t be necessary. Then we started thinking about the Tom Hanks movie, The Terminal, based an actual true story of guy who lived in the Paris airport for 17 years. We decided that 17 years in the Paris airport would be better than a couple of months in Managua so we’d give it a try. As far as looking up the numbers on an airport computer, we thought we had a good chance that a low-tech airport wouldn’t have any way of looking up a Belorussian passport. We felt our odds were pretty good.
The next morning we arrived to the airport early, turned the rental car in and noticed the masses of passengers were already there. We finally reached check in and everything seemed fine until the airline rep started flipping through the pages of the expired passport. I asked him if he was looking for a entry stamp and explained how the passport had been stolen and we had a police report and copies of the original and all that jazz. The problem wasn’t the stamp it turns out, but the US visa. I assured him that the passenger in question would never be stepping foot outside the airport. We just wanted to get her back to Russia. He left to call a customs agent in the US…… Time passed. Customers behind us were getting irritated. Lines were growing. He finally returned and told us that unless we had a visa for the passport, there was no chance of flying through the US even for a quick stopover. We went back to the counter, got the rental car back, booked a hotel across the street and started trying to figure out a new plan.
I’ve never been to a Russian embassy and as I mentioned before it wasn’t an easy one to find. We had gone to the American embassy as soon as it opened and were told to come back at 1:00 pm. My friend had filled out the papers that had been emailed to her and we decided to see if we could get the wheels rolling at the Russian embassy. There were no lines of people and the embassy looked more like a big gated estate house than an embassy. After ringing a few buttons and going through a few gates, we ended up in an office with a blonde Russian girl who ignored us until we pried her with questions. Eventually a tall Russian official showed up and started speaking to me in Russian. I nodded, smiled and felt like the village idiot. Once he realized I was clueless, there was a lot of talking between him and my friend, papers being passed back and forth and a lot of waiting in a dark office. After an hour or so, my Belorussian friend explained to me the situation. The diplomat wouldn’t be in for days and then maybe he could process some papers that would allow her to leave the country. There was a chance that it could take up to a month before the process could be completed. We decided to try our luck back at our 1:00 appointment at the US embassy.
At 1:00 sharp we were let into the embassy and asked to empty our pockets and check in our cell phones. We walked outside through a courtyard and another security scanner where we emptied our pockets once more. Next we went through a bullet proof door into a room that looked exactly like a passport office. We were the first ones in line and got to talk to a representative within a few minutes. We explained the situation and got worse news than we expected. We could not get a document that would allow my friend to pass through the airport. That had all changed since September 11. The new rule was: If you fly through the US, you have to have a visa. It doesn’t matter if you’re there just to change planes. The only way to get a visa is to have a real passport (and there was no fooling the US embassy with the one we had), make an appointment, pay hundreds of dollars, etc. The fact that we had copies of the old visa made no difference. The rep explained that unless we could get a new passport, my friend could NEVER leave Nicaragua. Things were not looking good.
The US embassy news was not very comforting. I thought about trying to get my friend back to the states overland but she needed visas for almost every country in Central America and being stuck in Mexico might be more exciting that Nicaragua, but not very realistic. We were pretty much down to whatever the Russian embassy could do for her. A friend had suggested that I talk to the airlines, so that was the last hope. Maybe they could stow her away in a food cart or dress her up like a flight attendant. I soon realized that I had a made a great choice by booking a hotel across the street from the airport. It was so convenient to walk across the street and be in the one room terminal without having to park or take a taxi. We went to the United counter (who had left our tickets open) and asked them if they had any ideas on how we could solve our issues. They suggested we talk to Copa Airlines, a central American based airline who’s logo looks uncannily like the United logo. We went to the back offices and met with the most helpful person we had encountered in 3 days. He had a remarkable plan. An amazing plan…..his plan was the ONLY plan that would work!
First, he called the airport security and got the whole exit stamp issue resolved. I wrote down the name of the head of immigration and was assured that we would have no problems getting a stamp out. He never questioned the Russian stamps and we knew that there would be no problem there. He explained that since flying through the US was such a problem, Copa could fly my friend through countries where she didn’t require a visa. The itinerary would be be through Panama, Cuba and then to Russia. It was a brilliant plan, but an expensive one. $2000 for a one-way ticket. You can go just about anywhere roundtrip in the world for $2000. I suppose it wouldn’t matter if the ticket was $10,000. It was the only way we were going to get my friend out of Nicaragua. The rep also explained to me that I was welcome to try to book this ticket cheaper online. I thanked him then went to United to set up my ticket to leave the next morning.
I was told that there was a $200 ticket change to my ticket which had originally been around $550. In addition to that there were some other charges for issuing the ticket not to mention the price difference for booking last minute. The changes would be a mere $800! I was shocked and the United people explained that their corporate office might be able to help me. They let me use their office phone, dialed the number and let me use their chair. I talked to a rep in Mexico, explained my situation and he worked a deal for me. He would rebook my ticket as a first class fare which allowed me to change my dates. Not only would I be in first class, but it would cost $350 instead of $800. Big Difference.
Next, I went across to my hotel to see if I could beat the $2000 price for the Russian ticket. I soon discovered that every travel website I have ever used would not allow a flight to Cuba. Wow! Every flight booked on Expedia, Cheapoair, Priceline, OneTravel or the others had a stop in JFK or Miami. My friend’s original flight was with Singapore airline. The only cities they fly out of were all US cities except for Rio and that flight went to Portugal. I decided to try some English websites. Since England doesn’t have an embargo with Cuba, it’s pretty easy to fly there and buy tickets. I was able to find flights to Cuba but it seemed to be impossible to get the search engines to go to Moscow via Cuba. Even the English ones wanted to go through Miami or JFK. I finally figured out if I booked it as 2 segments, I could get the itinerary I wanted. I was able to beat Copa’s prices by $300 if I flew her to Cuba in the morning and then to Russia that night on a different ticket. I went back to the Copa counter to double check that everything would be fine if I did this. We discovered that she would have to go one day later unless she was willing to spend the night in the Havana airport. Better the airport hotel for an extra day than a night in an airport. I went back across the street to my hotel, got out my credit card and booked it. I breathed a sigh of relief! We had tickets! I asked her to check her email for a confirmation.
As she checked her email, she gasped. Her passport had been found! It was dropped at a restaurant in San Jorge, a little place run by a Milanese man who had found it on the floor after we left. He had searched Facebook, made some calls and finally thought to email the Russian embassy. He was probably the only man we met on the entire trip who had traveled and knew the value of a lost passport. We were relieved even though we would have to drive 4 hours to get it. The second question was, could I get my $1700 back? It turns out that I could, I hope. We went back to United, changed her ticket to first class just as I had my own and headed to Cafe Elegante to get the passport. The Italian man who runs the place was our hero. He collects currency from different countries and has a list of about 50 countries that he has no bills from. I decided to help him with that. I’m pretty sure I can knock off about 10 off his list. As we left, we talked about how frustrating the last 3 days had been and how it was so nice to have a happy ending to the story.
We checked our rental car in. There was no charge for the extra day. We got up the next morning and walked across the street to the airport. We passed by the hordes of people and walked straight up to the first class desk. All the United and Copa airlines people smiled and said hi. We knew all of them by this time. Instead of sitting in the airport, we walked back across the street and sat by the pool checking email and then had a great breakfast. After breakfast we walked back across past the lines of people getting on the plane to the first class area and were ushered straight to our big comfortable seats.”What would you like to drink” the attendant asked me as I was sitting down. “What do you have?”.”Everything” she replied. First class is good. Really good. My Russian friend looked at me and said “This is like an American movie. Everything is all crazy and at the end there’s a happy ending”. SHE WAS RIGHT! The only thing missing was Bruce Willis.
What have we learned from this?
1. Don’t lose your passport. Ever.
2. Make copies of all your important documents and email them to yourself. Put them on your phone too.
3. Put your email address and mobile phone in your passport somewhere even if you have to use a paper clip. This would have saved us days of problems
4. Fly first class every once in a while if you can afford it. You’ll feel better about yourself.