LAX New Year’s Eve Nightmare: An expat couple’s Ecuador plans are almost derailed

Jan 21, 2017 | 21 comments

By Mark & Debi Cheslik

Debi and I spent four months preparing our travel plans to Ecuador. Not an easy task when you consider we had to condense a house-full of “stuff” down to 10 suit cases.

Debi and Mark before the LAX drama began.

I attempted to leave no stone unturned in developing the perfect plan that would transport us from the U.S. to Ecuador, safe and sound but, at least for a while on New Year’s Eve, it seemed it was not meant to be.

Here is my best recollection of our “LAX New Year’s Eve Nightmare,” that nearly derailed our trip to Ecuador.

Our flight to Ecuador started in Phoenix, Arizona, USA and eventually ended in Guayaquil, Ecuador. The first leg of the journey was a flight from Phoenix to Los Angeles. No problem. What remained was a three hour lay-over in LAX, an over-night flight to Panama City and, the next morning, a final flight that would take us to Guayaquil.

This particular night, December 31, 2016, New Year’s Eve, LAX was not that busy and we made it to our Copa boarding gate just fine. Like wary travelers always should, we approached the gate and checked out the boarding information to make sure we were in the right terminal and sure enough, all was well.  We had three hours to burn and being in a festive mood, since it was New Year’s Eve, we decided to go back to a concourse restaurant we spotted earlier and celebrate the new year’s arrival. We ordered fish tacos and a sixteen-ounce bottle of wine.

As we ate tacos, sipped wine and made merry with the festive Alaska Airline flight attendants sitting next to us, we whiled away the next couple hours. Afterwards, we returned to the Copa gate where we took our seats and waited for boarding. Since it was an all-night flight, we took our sleeping pills and settled in to wait for the boarding call.

Just as we got comfortable, an announcement over the intercom summoned us to the gate. Wary, but determined, we approached the desk.

“Passports, please,” requested the smiling, red lip-sticked, blue-shirted, and overall properly appointed gate attendant.

No problem. We turned them over. We waited as her fingers clickety-clacked on the computer keyboard.

Without looking up, she politely asked, “Return tickets, please.”

“What! What return ticket?” Debi stammered. “We don’t need a return ticket. We are applying for residency in Ecuador. A return ticket isn’t necessary for Ecuador travelers applying for residency.”

“Do you have your residency application with you?” the gate attendant asked. “I need to see you application papers,” she said, the smile never leaving her face.

Foolishly pushing the panic button, and in true gringo fashion, I erupted, “We don’t have the application papers. Our lawyer in Quito, Ecuador has the papers. He never told us we would need a copy of the papers at the airport.” (I personally love deflection, it always makes me feel better to blame someone else.)

The attendant’s smile disappeared, replaced with a blank face and a steely eyed stare. “I’m sorry sir, but you must have a return ticket, or show me proof of your residence visa application or you will have to return to the Copa ticket counter and make other arrangements.”

This is where our festive mood disappeared and our nightmare began.

Imagine, you are standing at the open edge of the Grand Canyon and you decide to jump. On the way down, your stomach churns into a thousand knots, your mouth goes dry, and your knees buckle. Gravity assures that you will eventually hit the bottom, but the distance down is so great you have plenty of time for a panic attack. And to aggravate the moment, you just consumed sixteen ounces of wine and ingested a sleeping pill. We wanted to sleep, not battle the gate attendant.

To make a long story short, the gal at the gate dutifully quoted the rules of travel to Ecuador and told us that with no return ticket and no visa application papers, we were denied access to board.

Whoa Nelly!! At this point, and with a great deal of help from the sleeping pill, the wine, and the gut-knotting panic, mental delusion kicked in. I imagined I was Dirty Harry, (After all, we were in Los Angeles, close enough to Hollywood for me.) and I pulled out my long-barreled .44 Magnum, Smith and Wesson … .

“Go ahead, make my day, punk.”

But, alas, as always, my delusion quickly gave way to muddled sanity and we slowly turned away to find our way to the Copa ticket counter.

Thank God for a strong-willed and sharp-minded spouse. Or maybe it was just because I drank most of the wine, but Debi remembered that our eight pieces of checked luggage had already boarded the aircraft — without us. Debi quickly turned back and pleaded that the luggage could not fly to Panama City without us. The harried attendant got on the phone and, amazingly, had the luggage removed from the belly of the airplane. They actually held the flight to remove it.

“Your luggage is waiting for you at the Copa ticket counter downstairs,” the tired gate attendant told us.

The sleeping pills had really kicked in by this point and we slowly limped back downstairs to the Copa ticket counter, our carry-on luggage heavily yoking our shoulders, our minds clouded by wine, over-the-counter drugs and the burden of inconsolable boarding rejection.

On the slow walk to the ticket counter, our drug-deluded, wine-addled conversation turned into a series of incredulous exclamations.

“How could this happen?”
“Why didn’t that stupid lawyer tell us we needed those application papers?”
“Will we spend the night in the airport?”
“We have been planning this for months!”
“We just spent over $800 on tickets that we can’t use!?”
“Will we ever make it to Ecuador?”
“Why did we ever take those stupid sleeping pills!?”

Eventually, we hobbled up to the Copa ticket counter. The attendant, Ricky, was all smiles. As we began to tell our sad story, his smile slowly faded and a slightly pained expression of empathy took over. Or, at least I thought it looked like empathy. Either the guy was well trained, a natural born saint, or perhaps my blurred brain was simply imagining that he was feeling our pain. Regardless, as our conversation continued, my depth of despair slowly diminished. Did I sense a smidgen of hope?

In a most maternal manner, Ricky quietly asked, “Please show me the email correspondence that proves you have contacted a lawyer in Ecuador and have began the visa application.”

No problem!! We had multiple emails over many months of conversations that could easily prove such a relationship. Out came the trusty Chromebook, and we were back in business. Or so we thought. Unfortunately, it just so happened that on this particular night in LAX, one of the biggest airports in the world, the Wi-Fi decided to go on the blink. No Wi-Fi, no emails, no proof. Travelers’ trauma returned with a kick to the gut. I could clearly see the rocks at the bottom of the canyon, as my free-fall from the edge of sanity pulled me closer to the inevitable splatter on the rocks below.

To make a longer story short, Ricky, Debi and I, engaged in a spirited conversation which lasted for many distraught moments. At the end of it, overcome with despair, I spilled my guts,

“Ricky, the Wi-Fi dosen’t work. Look! Here is the computer screen. See this big, red, flashy, thingy? It says there is no Wi-Fi service. So I cannot show you the emails, but here are our notarized and apostilled FBI reports, our Washington State police reports and our marriage license. We really are applying for a resident visa in Ecuador!”

I can only imagine how pitiful I must have looked standing there with a handful of papers — a poor traveler’s soul, naked, and exposed at the Copa ticket counter, on New Year’s Eve. For a man raised in a small red-neck town in southern Idaho, USA, I’m sure I was a sight for sore eyes.

Maybe it was a gift from God, or maybe it was the sleeping pill and wine, but I swear that I saw a small halo of light appear over Ricky’s head at that moment.

“This is what I am going to do,” said Ricky. “I am going to issue you new tickets for the next flight to Panama City, put your luggage on the airplane, and you will arrive in Panama City tomorrow morning in time to catch your flight to Ecuador.”

Suddenly, there was complete joy! Debi and I looked at each other and almost started a happy dance right there, in front of Ricky. Can you imagine a couple of old fart gringos happy dancing at the Copa ticket counter at LAX?

One cannot describe the relief. We quickly struggled back to the Copa gate, our carry-ons feeling much lighter, and who was smiling at us but our favorite, red lip-sticked, attendant. (It’s a good thing I did not shoot her.) She cheerfully accepted our boarding passes, (we could see Ricky standing in the foyer behind her) we found our seats and settled in for the over night flight to Panama City.

Mark and Debi were back on schedule. Ecuador, here we come!

_________________

Mark and Debi Cheslik quit their jobs and sold their house in Phoenix, Arizona and moved to Ecuador in search of adventure and a more relaxed and fun way of life. No more living to work and, hopefully, lots more time to play.

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