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BASILE: Three lessons from a harrowing trip to Paraguay

March 27, 2010

Our trip to Uruguay and Paraguay did not get off to a good start. And it went downhill from there.

At the airline ticket counter in Indianapolis, we were told we needed a visa to visit Paraguay. I showed the agent my printout from two Internet sites, one of which was the U.S. Department of State, which showed visas were not required.

The agent said the airline’s computer shows it is required. To make matters worse, visas for Paraguay must be obtained in the country of origin ahead of time and are not available for purchase at the arrival airport.

I requested that she call her supervisor, who was located in Dallas, but, of course, the phone wasn’t answered. We were changing planes in Dallas, so I asked her to allow us to board the flight and, upon arrival, we would locate the person in charge and get it straightened out. She asked me to sign a form stating that I was doing that at my own risk and if I was denied boarding of the flight from Dallas to Montevideo, Uruguay, I understood that I would have to buy another ticket back to Indianapolis and we would lose the money we paid for the ticket from Indianapolis to Dallas to Montevideo to Asuncion, Paraguay, and back to Dallas and then Indianapolis.

I signed.

When we arrived in Dallas, I spoke with the supervisor, who also insisted a visa was required. I suggested we call the Paraguayan Embassy in the United States.

It was a Saturday. They were closed.

But after further discussion and pleading, they relented and let us board the flight to Montevideo with the written understanding that we were doing this at our risk, etc. And all of whatever happened would be at our additional expense which, for last-minute flight changes, she estimated would be another $6,300.

And, of course, we would not reach our final destination.

I signed.

When we landed in Montevideo, we immediately took a taxi to the Paraguayan embassy and found that, indeed, a visa was required. And that it must be obtained in the country of origin for entry into Paraguay. This rule was placed into effect between the time we checked the required documentation and purchased our tickets and today. We later learned it was a sudden move in response to a similar requirement that the United States instituted for Paraguayan citizens coming to America.

Ah, politics.

Through persistence (translation: refusing to leave the building), we were finally able to meet with the number two person in the embassy. During the next hour, between his broken English and my broken Spanish, we were able to communicate our situation and he very reluctantly agreed to have the two visas issued the next day, just three hours before our flight to Asuncion.

Lesson 1: Recheck all other entry requirements for all countries on your itinerary before the trip to see if they may have changed since you bought your tickets. The best places to check are the embassy of each country and the airline you are flying.

The trip had to get better. Or so we thought.

We regretted our success in obtaining the visas when we encountered very bad weather on our flight from Montevideo to Asunción. Twice, the pilots tried to land the plane but were unable to do so. As we circled in the storm, I recalled reading that the airport where we were attempting to land did not pass FAA standards—which is why no U.S. airlines flew there.

Suddenly the captain’s voice came over the PA system: “Because of bad weather and poor visibility, we are unable to land on the strips that we normally use. However, there is another longer landing strip that we will try since we don’t have enough fuel to fly to an alternate airport. But, I want to assure you that this landing is within the capabilities of this crew and equipment!”

This, of course, did nothing to reassure us. Neither did the eventually bouncing landing

Lesson 2: Research which airports meet minimum standards and avoid those that don’t.

The third crisis and second life-threatening incident on this trip occurred in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, when I left Katrina by the sidewalk and walked over the massive lawn to approach the presidential palace to take a picture.

“Stop!”

It was Katrina yelling at me.

I looked up from my camera as policemen with guns drawn closed in on me from three sides. The only thing I could think in Spanish to possibly ward off an attack was, “Amigo! Amigo!” which I shouted as I dropped the camera on the grass and held my hands up high.

The policeman in charge went through my pictures in the digital camera, erasing not only the two I took of the palace, but also those of the slum area right next to its opulence. I felt fortunate that I got away with just losing the pictures and experiencing a stern lecture in Spanish because we later learned a tourist was actually shot a year or two earlier for the same offense.

Lesson 3: Be alert to potential problems by reading and heeding warnings.

By the way, the scenery and historic and cultural sites in these two seldom-visited South American countries were marvelous. But that’s another column.•

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Basile is an author, professional speaker, philanthropist, community volunteer and retired executive of the Gene B. Glick Co. His column appears whenever there’s a fifth Monday in the month. Basile can be reached at FrankBasile@sbcglobal.net.

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