Scams – Travel Warnings

Here is a true story about a recent experience that every traveler should know. This shows how our tax dollars can work to make our travels more dangerous, expensive and frustrating!

Last week, Merri and I left Quito for San Antonio, Texas where I was speaking at a conference. Everything in Ecuador was friendly, efficient and smooth. No problems anywhere.

Then I arrived in the Houston International Airport. I should have known. To show the delegates at the workshop some of the incredible values in Ecuador I brought 100 just cut fresh and beautiful roses (they cost $1 a dozen here) and correctly declared these plants on my customs form.

The immigration officer was prompt and friendly, swiped my passport through the computer. All was fine but he informed me that because of the roses I would have to go through a customs inspection.  We were directed to a large XRay machine with a long line of people (many returning from Ecuador bring roses).

I handed my passport to an Afro-American woman customs agent with the name Love on her name tag. She passed my passport onto another agent who swiped my passport (again) through the ubiquitous passport computer.

Then I placed my bags in the XRay machine.  The roses were handed to another agent with the name Wendt on his name tag. Agent Wendt was very helpful and friendly and carefully but quickly inspected all the roses. Then he ended with “Welcome back Mr. Scott. You are free to go.”

They Lost My Passport!

“Thanks,” I said. “May I have my passport?” He seemed confused but went back to the XRay machine and spoke with the other agents. He returned and informed me that they had given me my passport.

“Nope”, I said. “You have not”. The search began. They had my customs declaration but no passport. “Sorry’’ was their reply. “Just get another one.”

“Nope,” I said. “Let’s talk to a supervisor”.

The supervisor, according to the sign on his office, was “Mr. Otto K. Boetticher – CBP Supervisor”.  I had to get this data on my own because he refused to help in any way. He said, “This happens here sometimes. Nothing we can do about it.” He refused to give me a statement, note, telephone number or even his business card so I could call and see if the passport was returned.

I refused to leave and agent Wendt was kind enough to escort me back to immigration to see if we could get some advice from the people there. We spoke with a gentleman who appeared to be in charge and had an insignia on his shoulder board that looked like a Colonel’s Leaf to me. His only concern seemed to be that it was not one of his immigration people who had made an error. Once this was voiced, his only advice was the same, “Just get another passport.”

He then led me further astray by saying, “You can do this in San Antonio. Every big city can do this for you.” This as we’ll see in a moment was ever so wrong.

I returned with agent Wendt to customs and in the time we were gone (Merri had remained there with our bags) another traveler had lost his passport. He was not as courteous as I and began shouting and swearing, “I am not leaving until I get my (explicative deleted) passport.” They miraculously found it and from this moment on I have been suspicious.

I attempted one more time to get the cooperation of CBP Supervisor Boetticher to no avail.

Since my obligation at that time was to speak at that workshop, we left for San Antonio expecting (as we had been told) to pick up a new passport in San Antonio.

One extra note, the roses which we rechecked from Houston to San Antonio did not arrived because they were then delayed by TSA (so Continental Airlines baggage complaints office in San Antonio explained.  Are terrorists now attacking the public with rose thorns? I am still at a loss as to what security threat a box of checked roses is, but there you have it.

Of course when we reached the San Antonio office we were told that they only dealt with cases of death or illness and questioned me “What had you done that customs had taken your passport anyway?” Plus we were informed the only place where we could apply for a fast passport was at one of the 13 national passport offices. The nearest was in (you guessed it) Houston.

After completing our duties at the workshop we returned on Monday (first day it was opened) and applied for a new passport. This took the best part of the day and because of the rush and because I did not have an old passport or certified copy of a birth certificate there was an extra charge of $120 ($60 for expediting and $60 for a file check).

I had a photocopy of my lost (or stolen) passport but this did not help.

In the end this error on customs part cost $300 to change flights, $216 for the new expedited passport and two extra days in Houston not to mention the travel to and from the passport office.

In this case my quick weekend trip turned into a long week trip, but consider this.  When we left Quito, I almost left our driver’s licenses in the safe. “Why bring them, I am not driving!” Had I not thrown them in at the last moment I would have not had photo ID to carry on from Houston to San Antonio. I also had to have this photo ID to get the new passport.

The silver lining in this cloud is that we have very dear friends who live in Houston who offered us their wonderful hospitality and friendship. This gave us time to spend with these extra special people. Ed and Phyllis Sabo! They are also our neighbors in the summer in the High Country of N.C….but it was a wonderful experience to be in their beautiful Houston home.

So here are the warnings. First, always take extra photo ID with you when you travel. Second, bring a certified copy of your birth certificate and a copy of your passport to store separately from your passport. Third, if you give your passport to any government official, KEEP YOUR EYE ON IT!

Finally, be careful if you carry roses. You’ll look dangerous!

Until next message, good travels for you.

Gary

P.S. Once back to Ecuador everything worked smooth and easily again. The people are so sweet and there are so many hidden wonders. Today we hiked Cuicocha Crater Lake which was formed by a massive volcanic explosion 3,000 years ago. This is very similar to Crater Lake in my home state of Oregon with pure, azure waters are 600 feet deep and the scenery just breathtaking.  The big difference is that there is no one here. You can walk the entire rim which rise up over 10,000 feet and never see another soul.

Here is a picture of Cuicocha.

This treat is about 20 minutes from our home in Cotacachi. This crater lies at the foot of the extinct volcano, Cotocachi, which rises above us to 15,000 feet here in the Western Corridor of the Andes. This area is home to several dormant volcanoes: Mojanda, Imbabura and Cayambe.

All those volcanoes contributed with their historical eruptions to the fertile valley and makes this the most productive agricultural region in the Andean highlands. So not only short term devastation do volcanoes bring but also long term benefits to the environment and nature.

This is the beginning of Carnival so there are many festivities in the village including fireworks at night (our hound dog Ma hates this) and the children carry squirt guns and throw water balloons, fun but a bit of a shock on these warm winter days!

P.P.S. Join Merri, me and Thomas Fischer of Jyske Bank for our International Business and Investing Made EZ course.  Review where to invest and do business now and learn which markets and currencies may be strong in the year ahead.

Or focus on Import-Export with Merri and me and tour Ecuador on our Import Export Expedition.