Never, on the course of this journey, did it ever cross our mind that after traveling over 4000nm we would be forced to ship Gidget back to California so close to our final destination . After the sudden and cruel end of our adventure it was something that we now had to deal with. Of course, once you’re thrown off track, getting back on is usually neither smooth nor easy but the only thing to do is keep moving forward and do your best to take everything in stride.
We thought it would all be downhill once we got to Cartagena but because of our unique situation nothing was easy. It didn’t take long to figure out that apparently you cannot book a dog on flights out of Colombia (out of concern of drug cartels using dogs to smuggle narcotics, we were told). The only possible way to fly a dog out is through a freight forwarding company who will take care of the necessary paperwork and official procedures. It is a process filled with tiresome bureaucracy and extra costs that in the end will result in your dog ending up in a commercial airline cargo hold, in the same flights anybody would take to the States. So our first step was to contact one of the companies approved by Copa Airlines; we emailed back and forth with one of the agents, named Jose, to try and get everything figured out – all done in Spanish of course, with some help from Google translate. He let us know what we would need (the usual excessive copies of all paperwork plus pictures of Gidget and her kennel) and that his office was in Barranquilla – two hours north of Cartagena. The fact that we found no company in Cartagena that could arrange transport for our dog surprised us, especially since the airport is located in Cartagena, but there wasn’t much we could do about it. He advised us not to take a regular bus, but instead to take this door-to-door shuttle service called Mar Y Sol (thank goodness, we weren’t exactly ecstatic about the prospect of another bus ordeal in Colombia).
After making copies of all the needed paperwork, we set up the alarm clock before going to bed to make sure we were ready when the van would pick us up at 5AM. During our entire journey, even with my cellphone’s touch screen occasionally non-functioning, we never had a problem with the alarm clock – not once, until that Saturday. Jerrad leaped out of the bed and frantically told me it was, according to my cell, 5AM. We hurriedly got dressed, got Gidget ready and ran downstairs with the kennel to make sure the shuttle didn’t leave us. Well, nobody was there and we waited thinking maybe we would be the last one to be picked up before they were supposed to leave Cartagena at 6AM. Lo and behold, after waiting nearly an hour, we noticed a clock on the wall and figured out that the cellphone was somehow one hour BEHIND (it was correct the day before). By the time we realized this it was nearing 7AM. Slightly panicking, muttering repetitions of “shit” to myself and pondering on why my trusted cellphone decided to pull a prank like this, I had the hotel personnel call Mar Y Sol again and thankfully they had another shuttle nearby to pick us up.
Once the van came, the baggage man took one look at Gidget’s kennel and started spewing words angrily at us because the kennel wouldn’t fit in the van. He seemed so angry with us and acted like we were doing this on purpose solely to make his life difficult. Luckily, being the more reasonable party in this scenario, we came up with a brilliant idea. We still had the old, small kennel from the village – so we put Gidget in this one, took apart the bigger one and managed to fit everything inside the van. Off we went.
After a bus change and a taxi ride we arrived at the Vet’s office to meet with Tatiana and to drop off Gidget. It would be the last time we would see her in Colombia. Then Tatiana took us to meet Jose at his office. A young and energetic guy with hair so short it could have been painted on, he looked like he could be in a Colombian boyband instead of working for a freight company. We all went to Jose’s office waiting around while he prepared all the documents, switching between his computer and typewriter and printing a large stack of paper between calls to Copa Airlines. This went on for about an hour while Jerrad, Tatiana and I sat around twiddling our thumbs.
It was approaching noon when he finished, and I was getting anxious about getting to the notary which was supposedly closed at noon. Then he calmly spent some time to explain to us what was going to happen: the ICA (Colombian version of USDA) has a policy of holding a dog for 48 hours before shipping it out. This meant that after Gidget received her international health certificate from the Vet, she wouldn’t fly out with us the following Monday and would have to stay until Tuesday. On Tuesday, he would bring her to Cartagena and she would fly on the same itinerary we had only a day later. Unfortunately she would have to clear customs and quarantine in Panama City, even for only a lay-over. The five-hour-long process would ensure that she would miss her connecting flight to Vegas so she had to stay overnight in Panama City and continue on Wednesday. Gidget would be all alone for 5 days inside that kennel on her very first international flight. All sorts of worst-case scenarios were entering my mind and I badly wished that somehow we could just cancel all this and bring her with us on our flight. Damn you Colombian drug cartels for making this so complicated. Seeing that there was no other choice, we agreed to continue. So he took us to the public notary – which closes at 1PM fortunately – where Jerrad was fingerprinted and all the necessary paperwork as well as copies of identifications stamped. At this point, Tatiana left us to go back to the Vet’s office and we breathed a sigh of relief as everything on this side was nearly done.
Then Jose gave us the bill: a whopping $692 to ship Gidget back, equivalent to 1.3 million Colombian pesos. We found it slightly amusing that flying Gidget back to the States, with the agent’s fee and the giant expensive kennel we had to buy, turned out to cost more than our own plane tickets. She is the most expensive free dog we’ve ever had.
“Oh, and we only take cash,” Jose said. What?! He was not kidding – we needed to pay him over 1 million Colombian pesos in cold hard cash.
Back in Jose’s office, we dialed our bank in the US and told them that they needed to raise our daily withdrawal limit because we needed to withdraw a large amount of money from a Colombian ATM. Next we went to the nearest ATM, inside a mall, where it took 3 separate transactions to get the 1.3million pesos out of the machine. I am sure a young Colombian with a backpack conducting a large cash transaction with two foreigners in an area void of tourist activity is totally normal, and didn’t look shady or suspicious at all.
I then asked where we would be able to pick up Gidget on Wednesday. Jose, looking as serious as ever, answered, “at the airport”.
No kidding. Really?!?! I thought maybe I was supposed to pick her up at IHOP.
Seeing his first answer was unsatisfactory, he then proceeded to tell us, “when everything’s done, I will email you all the documents and you can print them out. All you have to do is go to the airport to Copa Airlines counter, give them the papers and they will tell you where to go.”
It was still vague but better than his first answer. It was the best he could do and we figured once we got back to the States things would be more clear. We went to spend what pesos we had left to eat empanadas, while Jose walked away with 1.3 million in his backpack and our dog in his possession.
Monday came, and with it our second attempt to leave Colombia – this time by plane. We left with two duffle bags, one weighed 88 lbs with an outboard engine and the windvane paddle inside, two backpacks, a guitar case as well as the metal frame of the windvane wrapped in bubble wrap. Realizing how odd our luggage collection was, we were pretty sure things were going to get interesting once we got to the airport. We left early.
The check-in process , turned out, was quite painless perhaps only because the counter personnel gave up on trying to figure out what the hell we were bringing. I would be too if I were him: I told him, to the best of my ability of explaining the concept of a windvane in Spanish, that the weird metal frame wrapped in bubble wrap was to help with the navigation on a sailboat. He shot a skeptical look at me. He didn’t even charge us the overweight baggage fee, even after his startled look at our 88lb bag. He was probably just trying to get these crazy Americans away from his counter as fast as possible.
After going through the security check, which included a complete pat-down and a very thorough search of our backpacks, we arrived at our departure gate. Once at the gate they called Jerrad back, had him remove everything from our duffle bags and grilled him over the contents of our luggage, in Spanish of course. What is this, does it work, where is the receipt? Luckily, just knowing about the isolatad area of Cabo De La Vela and the strange Anulado stamp in the passport gave him enough credibility to continue our trip with all of our luggage intact. They released Jerrad just as the plane was boarding and we were Vegas-bound to meet up with our family. What took us 6 months to accomplish on Vento Dea took only a mere 6 hours by plane. It was very surreal as we landed in US soil – a land that now felt foreign for us: the big lanes, the orderly traffic, everything is in English and the assault on the eyes that is Las Vegas. It made us miss our stick hut in Cabo De La Vela.
When Wednesday finally arrived, we headed to the airport after Jose emailed us all the paperwork we needed. Following his advice, we tried to find Copa Airlines counter. Of course there was no Copa departure at that time and therefore no Copa counter. We went to lost and found and the guy was nice enough to call Copa, after a few wrong extensions dialed. Finally we were told to go to the Customs office at the International arrival to pick up Gidget. The Customs officer then told us to go to Worldwide Service, 1.5 blocks away from the airport, to pick up paperwork that we needed to bring back to Customs so he could stamp it and cleared Gidget into the country. By the way, Customs was closing in 20 minutes.
We ran back to the car, drove to Worldwide Service and picked up the paperwork.
Not to be forgotten, of course, was the $40 fee that Worldwide Service apparently charged us to pick up our dog. While we had to pay almost $700 only in cash in Colombia, here in Las Vegas we had to pay the $40 fee…. money order only; no joke.
Finally, the final mad dash to the Customs in the airport. Then with all the paperwork stamped, money order bought and fees paid appropriately with money order, we were reunited with our Gidget. The joy and relief we felt to see her again was indescribable, however her condition was a bit dismal. She has relieved herself inside the kennel, she stank like poop and there was no water in her bottle. And she very likely has not eaten in the last 48 hours. But knowing Gidget, none of those would stop her from the usual superbly excited greeting she has for us: her little stumpy tail wagging hard back and forth, her whining, her jumping up and down to lick our faces, her running back and forth and spinning. She was ecstatic. And so were we.