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

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.

  • Malcolm Reding

    Unfortunately, there is no legal malpractice law in Ecuador, so they are stuck paying for something they did not need–a lawyer to help you with immigration in Ecuador is not needed and Immigration will tell you that. Copa was correct in refusing to board them because if Ecuador refused them entry Copa would have had to fly them back at the airline’s expense. Copa could have and should have sold them a refundable one way ticket out of Ecuador to someplace like Bogota Columbia. Ecuador Immigration does not care where as long as you have a ticket.

    • Mike

      Actually it’s not Ecuador immigration that cares if you have a ticket out of the country should they refuse entry. It’s the airline who would be responsible for getting you out of there.

  • Dena Jo

    Two good lessons for all Ecuador-bound expats. The first is to carry proof of application for residency, just in case, even if it’s not required. But the second one is not to take the sleeping pill until you’re on the plane and in your seat.

    • Mike

      Just buy a round trip ticket and be done with it. A “residency application” might not work 100% of the time. An application won’t get you out of the airport should you be refused entry. That couple was lucky.

    • Burt Johnson

      Yeah, that was my first thought — taking the sleeping pill BEFORE having luggage stored and sitting in the assigned seat? Sounds like someone who has not traveled much before…

  • Burt Johnson

    I hear this constantly, and don’t understand why it causes more than 5 minutes of distress. Simply yank out a credit card, buy a fully refundable return ticket. The airline will then you board with no further question. Once you arrive, cancel the ticket.

    Since the purchase and refund are so close together, you won’t have to actually pay a single penny — they will both be on the same billing cycle. (Even if the payment date falls between, the refund then acts as payment on the card)

    This is probably the most common panic we read about, and the absolute easiest to fix.

    • OJ

      Burt you are so smart. I never thought of this. I think I love you 🙂

  • SpiffyHeart

    I found this very entertaining and laughed out loud a couple of times!!
    WE had similar experience, but in Miami. Our problem was that we fell for the Gringo advice to only take $20 bills or smaller, and a butt load of Susan B Anthony rolled dollars! Because we had TWO little dogs in carriers, we boarded early to get them and all our carry on settled!

    About half the other people are boarding, and we are excitedly anticipating our take off! (Our doggies were the ones who had been given the anxiety, sleeping pills! Over the speakers, we hear our names and to come front with ALL our CARRY ON stuff! You see…..the money sniffing German Shepherd dog had sniffed out all this money…..$2,000.00 worth of small bills and Susan B’s and we were grilled by four security police…..for money laundering! What actually saved us from that, was the cop who was given the task of counting money…..still in bank wrappers, got tired of counting all the $1 bills Tom had put in his carry on. They counted what was in my purse…..but my hubby…..not sure how trustworthy the cops were, didn’t tell them about the bills in a ziplock, underneath the puppies soft mats inside their little airline approved crates!

    The entire plane was held up 30 minutes as we two “old white haired old farts” were grilled about how much money we were taking to Ecuador! Gosh! We could have taken $10,000 legally, but the money sniffing dog can’t tell what denomination is on that paper!!

    By that time, my husband’s dog, who was ill, started crying and barking to get out, and the red lipped gate agent said, “we can’t have THAT!” So I told her his dog knew she was upsetting her Daddy, and wanted out, to take care of him!” He could have a stroke! We showed her the Service dog papers! She reluctantly relented.

    My hubby is gone to heaven now, and that experience…going on five years now, is a memory of part of the excitement and adventure of moving to Ecuador! I wouldn’t trade it for anything!!

    Yes, we used an attorney! He made our lives much more calm and reassuring as we proceeded getting our Visa’s! God bless Carlos Heredia!

    • mark cheslk

      I am delighted that the story made you laugh! That was the entire reason for sharing this story. Laughter always makes each day better. Thanks for the reply! Mark

  • Carrie Speckman

    My husband and I flew from Phoenix to Miami to Guyaquill last July. Then had Jack Abacrombie and his large truck meet us at the airport and drive us to Cuenca. We came with 9 suitcases, a dog and a cat on American Airlines and we never had a residency application nor did anyone ask for one or a return ticket. I researched Ecuador extensively before we came and never saw that requirement. After we got here, we got our Visas through Visa Angels, Ray Lewis…a true gentleman. He never charged us a dime even after driving us to Asoagas a couple of times.

  • Steve

    I really don’t mean to be mean spirited because I hate those responses, but Copa was being overly accommodating with considering and finally accepting copies of your things. Intent to apply for a long term residency visa is never enough to enter any foreign country without a return ticket out. Not all people are granted a visa. Technically the only way in any country, that you can enter without a return ticket or at least a ticket out of the country is with an exit date that is within whatever length your visa states otherwise you have to have the visa stamped in your passport. You got lucky once you got to Ecuador as well because we had a friend that was flown back out of the country who was in just your situation. It sound’s like you were trying to save a few dollars. We flew here with 10 plus pieces of luggage paying first class so that we could have the extra baggage knowing that we would probably not use the return ticket and if we did we would have to pay $350 each to change the return date. We too had copies of everything and a great attorney. I know you will probably not have to go through this again but I write this for anybody who is considering trying to do what you have done. Good Luck here in Cuenca.

    • Mike

      The Copa employee is lucky they weren’t fired. It’s universal airline policy to require an exit reservation when flying to a country you aren’t a resident of.

  • Sharon

    That was a fun at the end read! Thank you! Everything you felt, I felt the wow, didn’t-see-this-coming-at-all…shock; the feelings, that groggily and totally powerless gut punch. After your diligent planning and deleting a lifetime of possessions, at few really special!! (mine were eight photo albums I took iPhone photos of before tossing them in the trash¡)
    What courage you had and then ‘whack’!
    Very happy your ‘red neck’ Ricky angel from southern Idaho, where I’m from,hahaha, used his brain to get you a solution.
    Welcome to Ecuador where a good sense of humor and the ability to be grateful and very flexible will serve you well. Your story, with a few added twists could be a halarious movie.
    Wish you good travels and a home sweet home with your ten suitcases:))

    • mark cheslk

      Sharon: Glad you enjoyed the story. This story is true, but so much more happened that night. I simply had to cut the story short to make it readable. I wrote this article simply as something fun. Fun for me to write and fun for the reader to read. I had no idea there would be such a serious bunch of replies. That was never the intent. Regardless, your experience (as stated above), your perceived empathy, your ability to “live the moment” was what I hoped to create. A fun read, an adventure, shared with words that I hoped would allow you to stand beside us and feel the emotional ups and downs of the nights events. I am so glad that you enjoyed the story! Should I write another story?

  • Ricki

    We took a ship from San Francisco , Calif. to Chile with only a air ticket from there to Panama, then to GYE, n no one ever said a word. At that time you could only have your Apostilles but not a residence application untill you got here. You can keep traveling and staying at countries around the world curious how you could have a return ticket without knowing your ongoing plans.

  • Joe M

    This argument goes on and on. Do you need a round-trip ticket? The simple answer is no, but you need a ticket out of Ecuador, just in case. All the people telling us they’ve never been queried about a return ticket didn’t do this poor couple any good, did they? Why fight it? Buy a fully refundable [read expensive] one-way ticket to Lima or Bogata, or wherever. Once safely in Ecuador, apply for your refund. You lose nothing and you gain peace of mind.

  • Retro_Gringo

    I bought a return ticket from an online travel agency (O____z) with a 24 cancellation policy. I printed out the flight info shortly before leaving for the airport. While we had our layover in Panama I cancelled the ticket. Never had a charge on my credit card.

  • Marlon Cartagena

    The only error I see is flying Copa.

  • Globetrotter

    Having a return ticket when going to any country where one is not a citizen, or a ton of documentation making that unnecessary is ABCs. I cannot see how any court would hold a lawyer liable for not mentioned something so basic.

    Additionally, it takes a mere minute to note that return tickets are often close to the same price, or cheaper than one-way tickets. (I booked a ticket for a friend last week with COPA from Guayaquil to Havana, $1100 one-way or $586 return on the same outgoing flight!) If these people had simply asked to change their one-way to a return, the hassles would have ended.

    Travel experience makes all the difference.

    And 10 suitcases! (sigh)

    • Beth

      RE- “And 10 suitcases! (sigh)” LOL What’s funny is if they don’t make it as expats they’ll be selling their “junk” here before they leave. Happens every time.

  • Rick Heysquierdo

    Mark and Debi – glad it worked out for y’all – I’d like to keep in touch if you wouldn’t mind as I’m on my path to Cuenca myself..

    • mark cheslk

      Is this the Rick from the COPA counter at LAX?