By Sidney Robin
I am standing in line with my wife at the Puerto Vallarta Airport waiting to check in for our Delta Flight back to Los Angeles. We had finished an idyllic two week Mexican vacation, spent in a one bedroom apartment we had rented at the PlazaMar Condominiums on the Malecon, near the center of the Old Town, with a balcony overlooking the Pacific.
To my horror, I discover that I do not have my passport, which I am sure I had put securely deep into the inside pocket of my Blazer. To this day I believe that I was the victim of a deft pickpocket. My wife, who is not famous for giving me the benefit of the doubt, is convinced that I either carelessly misplaced the passport or negligently allowed it to slip from my pocket. Wherever the truth lies, I donâ€™t have the damn thing, and am solemnly advised by the Delta Official that I will be barred from boarding a U.S. flight without a passport.
My wife, of course, has her passport secured in a silk pouch that hangs from her neck and isÂ safely tucked deep into her shirt in an area few are permitted to enter. She wants to stay with me, but I urge her to fly on to Los Angeles. I assure her I will join her there as soon as I get my passport.Â Â We part tearfully like Humphrey and Ingrid in Casablanca.
I go to the Security Office in the airport in the hopes that my passport has been found and turned in, but no such luck. I retrace my steps from the time I entered the airport, carefully examining the floor and all accessible waste baskets, earning a lot of funny looks but no passport.
The manager at the Delta Counter had given me a sheet of paper listing the name, address and phone number of the U.S. Consulate in Puerto Vallarta. They handle all lost passport problems for schmucks like me, he says. He doesnâ€™t use the term â€œschmuck,â€ but that is how he looks at me.
I call the Consulate and get a recording saying they are closed for the week-end, but will reopen at 8:30 A.M. Monday morning.Â This is Saturday afternoon and it is obvious I will be unable to get anything done on the weekend. I call Plaza Mar, and they have a two bedroom apartment available for Saturday and Sunday nights. I grab it.
I take a cab back to PlazaMar with all my luggage. Because of terrible traffic it is a oneÂ hour ride. Fare is 250 pesos.
I review the sheet Delta has given me more carefully, and notice that at the bottom of the page they list an emergency phone number for the consulate. To me this is an emergency. I call the number and after several attempts reach a consul employee who condescends to take my emergency call. He instructs me to go to a police station, make a report, and bring a copy of the report to the Puerto Vallarta consulate Monday A.M. to get new passport. â€œMake sure they give you a copy of the Report,â€ he emphasizes. I ask if it is really necessary to make a police report and he says it will Â make things much smoother and easier to get my passport if I have the report.
I ask if he can give me the address of a police station near me where I can make the report.Â He doesnâ€™tÂ have any address, but says, rather dismissively, that I should be able to ask any police officer to direct me to a police station.
I ask what time I should appear at the Consulate on Monday. He says that the Consulate opens at 8:30 a.m., but that Kelly, the lady who took care of emergency passports, normally doesnâ€™t get in until 10:00 a.m. Â I sayÂ IÂ am hoping to get my passport quickly on Monday so I can book a flight home later in theÂ day. He says he will call Kelly and see if he can get her to come in earlier.
Saturday early evening I walk along the Malecon and try to ask patrolling police officers where I can find a police station. The first few I encounter have no English and cannot understand what I need. My Spanish is limited to ordering Tacos and Dos XX. I am not the most interesting man in the world.
Finally, an officer in broken English and many hand gestures directs me to a local station in the center of town, just above the square by the main cathedral. I walked the five blocks to the station. They tell me they donâ€™t take reports of stolen passports.Â Â I left feeling frustrated, but a commander of police who happens to be standing in front of the station and speaks good EnglishÂ directs me to go to either the Federal Department ofÂ Justice or Federal Police Station to give my report. I was at a local police station, and matters of lost reports are handled by Federal Departments. It was Saturday evening, but he assures me that the Federal Departments would be opened.
Unfortunately both federal places are out beyond the airport, a very long drive from where I am standing. The commander hails a cab for me, and we get a cab driver with at least limited English. The commander takes the time to explain where I need to go to make the Federal Report, and the cabbie agrees to take me
We take the forty-five minute drive to the Dept. of Justice, fighting traffic the whole way. When we arrive the building is dark. I try the door but it is locked. I pound on the door, hoping to rouse a late night worker, but nobody responds. They are closed.
So we drive fifteen minutesÂ further to the Federal Police station, which is opened. I feel some relief, and my spirits rise. But the officers speak no English. Â With the aid of the cab driver and many hand signals we explain that I Â want to report a lost or stolen passport. When the police officer finally understands the report I want to make he shakes his head and says that this Station does not take stolen passport reports. I have to make that report to the Department of Justice. We explain that the department of justice is closed. He says they will be open Sunday from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
We drive back to the department of justice so that I can write down the exact name and address of the department as it appears on the door of the building so that I will be able to give it to the cab driver I will have to find the next day to take me back at 8:30 a.m. Â Then we take the forty-five minute drive back to PlazaMar. I give my driver 400 pesos for the rides.
After freshening up I have a late dinner (fish stew & three jumbo margaritas) at Daquari Dicks. Then home for a little sleep.
At 8: 00 a.m. i walk over a block and find an English speaking cab driver (Saulâ€”a real godsend), and show him the paper with the address I had copied the night before. I ask him to drive me there, stay with me while i make out the report, and then take me back home. He agrees to do so for 300 pesos.
As it turns out, Saul and I spend an awful lot of time together during the next two days, and we become true comrades, his Sancho to my Don Quixote. Â Saul, he pronounces it saool, is a 41 year old bachelor who inherited a house from his father. He shares it with his mother and a divorced sister and her two children. He is also deeply involved in caring for another sister who is addicted to drugs and alcohol, and is trying to recover, but keeps falling off the wagon and goes off to sleep with any guy who asks her. I tell Saul it is time for him to concentrate on his own needs. I suggest that he should find a good woman and marry. With the house he owns, hisÂ Â steady job, and his cute good looks and outgoing manner he would be a great catch, I assure him.
I notice he flirts with the girls as he drives the streets, shouting friendly greetings to the lady traffic officers and pretty women along the sidewalks. Â He confesses, somewhat shyly, that he has a crush on a waitress who works at the Italian restaurant near PlazaMar, and that he likes to park there and order coffee from her. That is why he is there when I first find him. He talks to her but hasnâ€™t yet worked up the courage to ask her out. I urge him to go for it.
At any rate, I first find Saul parked in front of the Italian Restaurant and show him the address of the department of justice I had copied down the night before. We take the forty five minute drive and get to the department at about 8:45. Â Nobody at the department speaks English, Â and even with Saul interpreting it takes the receptionist more than fifteen minutes to understand that I want to report a lost or stolen passport. Finally she catches on, and steers us to the lady hidden in a little room on the second floor who takes the reports of this type.
She, of course, speaks no English. She has the form on her computer. She asks me questions in Spanish that Saul translates for me, I answer in English and then Saul translates to Spanish and she enters the information in her form. She types hunt and peck style. It is like a game of â€œTelephoneâ€ with similar results, I am sure.Â It takes almost three hours to get the report finished and completed. An hour of that time is trying to get their printer to work, and correcting misspellings of my name.
Saul sticks with me through the ordeal, and without him I would probably still be there. We finally finish and I get my copy of the report, in Spanish, of course, and I sign it, having no idea whatsoever what i am signing. For all I know it could have been a confession that I was plotting to kill the president.
Saul returns me to PlazaMar. Another forty five minute drive. I pay him 500 pesos and make arrangements for him to pick me up Monday morning to go to the consulate. I have the paper in my room given to me at the airport when I first noticed my passport gone, which lists the address of the Puerto Vallarta U.S. consulate. I will show the address to Saul the next morning when he picks me up
I hang around the beachfront for rest of afternoon, have an early giant steak dinner and 2 martinis at the Riverside CafÃ©, and then return to my apartment to relax and prepare for the next ordeal.
Saul picks me up at 8:30 a.m.Â I put all my luggage in his trunk, figuring that when my emergency passport is issued we will drive directly from the Consulate to the airport and I will hop a flight to Los Angeles. We drive to the Consulate which is no longer in Puerto Vallarta, they having relocated a few years earlier,Â but is now inÂ Nuevo Vallarta, Â a drive of about one and a half hours from my apartment. The consulate is located in a remote area on the second floor of a large shopping center about the size of the Beverly Center in Los Angeles.
Nuevo Vallarta is in a State separate from PuertoVallarta, and Saul tells me that he can drop me off at the Consulate but will be unable to drive me out of there because of local licensing regulations. There is no way I am going to lose Saul, and go dragging around the shopping Center with my eighty pounds of baggage, so I spread Pesos around among local cab drivers, give Saul something extra, and arrange for him to stay with me, keep my luggage in his cab, and follow a local cab driver who, when I am through with the Consulate, will drive me to the border of the State where Saul is licensed. Then I can shift back to Saulâ€™s cab.
I am greeted by an armed Consulate Guard in the front foyer who takes my camera and cell phone, waves a metal detector wand along my body, and passes me through to a room where the public is separated from the consul officers by bullet proof glass.Â I have to talk to Kelly, the consul officer, through a bullet-proof glass window with a little slit to allow us toÂ converse, and we have to put our mouths almost into the slit to be heard.Â A bevy ofÂ unsupervised Mexican kids are running around and screaming in the background.
I present the copy of the police report and spend about an hour filling out an application for the new passport. I am sent to a Book Store in another area of the shopping center to have my passport photo take. There is a little room in the back of the store where the Book Store clerk takes the passport photos. She is the only one working in the store, and I have to wait about twenty minutes while she discusses book choices with a very fussy customer. Then we go to the back room and she takes my photo with a little digital camera. Thirty minutes later my passport photo is ready. I pay her one hundred pesos for the pictures. I look at a weary and drawn image of myself. I had tried to pose with a slight smile but it was just not possible.
When I come back to the Consulate and present the photo, my application, and the Federal Police Report Kelly breaks the news for the first time that I will now have to go to Guadalajara to have the passport issued.Â Puerto Vallarta doesnâ€™t issue passports, she explains. They only take applications.
The Guadalajara Consulate only accepts the passport applications at 8:00 a.m. each weekday. If the Emergency Officer had told me this when I phoned him on Saturday, I could have flown to Guadalajara Sunday and been there at 8:00 a.m. Monday instead of spending an extra day in Puerto Vallarta. I bite my tongue and struggle greatly to refrain from making this complaint to Kelly. I donâ€™t want to get her upset so that she screws up my application.
Kelly hands me a sealed envelope with all my papers addressed to the Consulate in Guadalajara. She has made an appointment for me to appear there Tuesday morning at 8:00 A.M. She tells me Guadalajara is only a five hour bus ride away. Â She gives me a paper with the bus schedules, the address of the Consulate, and the name and phone number of two hotels in Guadalajara within a block of the Consulate. One, she says, is a dump, but the other, the Lafayette isnâ€™t too bad. She suggests that I stay at one of those hotels so that I can be sure to be at the consulate promptly at 8:00 A.M.
I opt to pass up the bus and elect to fly to Guadalajara instead. Saul and I leave, I take a local cab and he follows with my luggage, and I rejoin him at the State border. He takes me to the airport. We bid fond adieus, I pay him an extra 500 pesos, and I go in & get a flight on Aeromexico to Guadalajara, leaving at about 5:00 p.m.Â I have three hours to kill at the airport before my flight departs. I use some of that time to reserve a room at one of the hotels listed on my sheet. Obviously I try for the Lafayette because I donâ€™t want to stay in the dump.
I spend twenty minutes trying to reach the Lafayette, but for some reason I cannot Â make the reservation. I keep dialing the number listed, but the person at the other end speaks only Spanish, and we are unable to communicate. It seems strange to me that the Lafayette would have a person answering phones with no ability to speak English.
A kindly masseuse at the airport in a booth across from the phones sees my frustration and comes over to help. She calls the number on the paper, and reaches the same person I had been speaking to. It turns out to be a phone in a medical laboratory. The consulate listed the wrong number. She tries to get the number for the Lafayette through information, but canâ€™t get a listing. The hell with it. I have her reserve a room for me in the dump.
My airfare to Guadalajara is $120.00. The dinky little jet we fly is about as bad as the bus—a Mexican bus with wings, and passengers eating sloppy aromatic food. We hit every air pocket in Mexico, and all in 45 minutes. We land in a shabby Â little local airport.
The cab from the Guadalajara Airport to the hotel in town costs 270 pesos. As we near the location of the hotel I notice the Lafayette hotel up ahead and direct the driver to take me there instead. I have him wait while I go in to make sure there is a room available and that the Consulate is only a block away. The lady at the desk doesnâ€™t understand English and finally we get a manager who does. He assures me the consulate is a block away and I check into hotel ($68.00 for the night). The room is good but there is no plug that will accommodate the power cord for my computer. I can live with that. There is a Starbucks a block away. The room has Â two beds and a shower. This is sufficient.
I walk out to the consulate to make sure I will be able to find it in the morning. Then I go to nearby restaurant, the only one that seems opened, Ruebenâ€™s Carne Asada, which is terrible. I have a triple vodka on the rocks to wash down the lousy food. Then I go back to the hotel and collapse, leaving a call for 7:00 a.m.
I get wake at 6:00 a.m. to be sure I will get there on time. I take a pass on the free breakfast at the hotel, I have no appetite anyway, and lay in the room watching CNN until it is time to leave.Â I get to the Consulate a little before 8:00 a.m. with the envelope of papers prepared in Puerto Vallarta. The place is a fortress with armed guards, and looks like a high-security prison. I slip my envelope in the slot of the ever-present bullet-proof glass Â and an armed guard looks it over and check against some type of appointment list he has before him. He has me escorted to a security room where I will be searched. I am not admitted any further because I have my cell phone with me. Â No cell phones permitted in U.S. consulates, and there is no place to check them. I am given the choice of having it thrown in the trash, or bringing it back to my hotel and returning without it.
I run back to hotel to deposit my cell phone & then rush back to the consulate. They escort me back to the security room and ask me if I am bringing in any foodstuff. Foodstuff Â is prohibited. I laugh and tell them I only have a roll of lifesaver candies. A dour guard Â says that is foodstuff, and I can bring it back to my hotel or have to throw it in the garbage. This time I opt for the garbage, and after a thorough search I am admitted to the next room to see a passport officer. Â I wait in that room for 20 minutes to see an officer who takes my papers. Again we are separated by bulletproof glass. Things seem to go smoothly, & she promises me that if I Â return at noon my passport will be ready.
I am charged $100.00 for the temporary passport. They accept credit cards in payment, but when I give her my Visa Card and she swipes it, she finds that her system is down. She says I will have to wait. I ask if she accepts cash. I always carry a one hundred dollar bill in a corner of my wallet for emergencies, and I figure this qualifies as an emergency. She says they take cash. She examines the hundred dollar bill but refuses to accept it because it looks too wrinkled. I ask her if she is kidding, and she says she is not. We wait about ten minutes and their computer comes to life and she accepts my visa card.
I go back to the hotel and retrieve my laptop and walk over to Starbucks. I make a reservation on Mexicana airlines for a flight back to LAX at 6:30 p.m. The airfare is $270.00. At this point I would pay anything to get home.
Shock of shocks, my passport is ready at noon.Â I go back to the hotel to retrieve my things, but my room key no longer works, and it takes 20 minutes to re-program it. The cab to the airport costs 200 pesos.
I go to the Mexicana airlines check-in gate with my luggage and passport but still cannot get a boarding pass because I donâ€™t have the visa slip I was issued when I entered Mexico. It was with my old passport and disappeared at the same time. I am sent down to Immigration which, mercifully, is located at the airport, although at the far end. I hurry down there, am charged 260 pesos to replace the lost visa, gratefully pay, get the visa, return to Mexicana and present the visa.Â They give me my precious boarding pass. I sail through security, and have three hours to kill before my plane departs.
The Mexicana flight is smooth and we land at LAX on schedule. I stand before the luggage carrousel on United States terra firma, breathing in good USA Â air, almost hypnotized by the Â baggage rotating round and round. For the first time in three days I am feeling relaxed. In about twenty minutes it dawns on me that all the bags are out, and my suitcase is not among them.Â Mexicana has lost my luggage. I am not surprised.