Adventure Travels With “The Iron Lady”: Getting to Costa Rica (Barely)

“Iron Lady” is a term of endearment used to describe Margaret Thatcher, the first female prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1979-1990, who was known for her toughness and perseverance, often against great odds, not losing her cool, and a person admired both by friend and foe. While Embry is very different from Thatcher in many ways, the following story will allow you to understand why she too is an “Iron Lady.”

This post and the one which follows is about our recent trip to Costa Rica. The only reason we were going to Costa Rico was because we cancelled a flight on Jet Blue last summer, as a result of our cruise line cancelling the cruise due to Covid.  Jet Blue gave us a credit for the tickets. The tickets had to be to a foreign country and had to be used within a short time period, which was about to expire. There were only three foreign countries that Jet Blue flew to that we were interested in—Bermuda, Cuba and Costa Rica. We chose Bermuda only to be informed that Jet Blue no longer flies to that country. Then we chose Cuba, which the Jet Blue agent strongly advised against for reasons she did not fully explain, and happily ended up with Costa Rica. We knew very little about the country, and due to the short time frame for using the free ticket, Embry had not done her usual research ahead of time—arbitrarily choosing two hotels, one for the first evening in San Jose, the capital of the country, and for the rest of the week, a “resort hotel” in the northwestern Pacific coastal area called “Guanacaste,” the most remote region in the country. The final ahead-of-time piece was to reserve a rental a car. That was about it. We were looking forward to being surprised.

How important was this trip? Well, very. I will turn 81 on April Fool’s Day and am starting to feel my age. Embry is four years behind, but we both know that our traveling days are nearing an end, at least our adventure traveling days—heading off to a new and mysterious destination without the benefit of being on a guided tour. This could be our last shot. In fact, this was the reason I had set the alarm clock to ring just after five in the morning so that we could be certain to make the flight, which was scheduled to depart from National Airport at 7:38 A.M. I did not want to miss this one.

There was no problem getting to the airport by cab. We arrived at 6:15 giving us almost an hour and a half before the gate would close. I was relaxed and confident as we approached the international desk of Jet Blue where there was no line. A smiling, uniformed gentleman in his forties with a funny name and what sounded to me like an Eastern European accent welcomed us. I could almost taste the coffee and fresh croissant that I planned to have at the coffee shop area near the gate where we would be waiting to board the plane.

He looked at Embry’s passport and smiled and then took mine and paused.
“I am sorry,” he replied, “but you will not be able to board the plane. Your passport is invalid.”

Neither of us said a word and looked at each other in stunned disbelief.

“What do you mean it is invalid?” I demanded, “It was fine to get us into the BVIs two months ago.”

“You are not going to the BVIs. You are going to Costa Rica. This is their rule. Your passport expires on March 25. Today is March 6. That is not enough time. You must have at least 90 days on your passport past the time you enter the country, or you are not allowed in. You have less than three weeks left on your passport. That is not enough.”

When situations like this happen, I automatically morph into my outrage act. I did not shout but came close to it, frantically gesturing with my arms, and asked what the point is of an expiration date if the passport becomes invalid three months before the official expiration date. I went on to add that the policy was wrong, stupid, ridiculous, made no sense, outrageous, and dumb and that he must not understand the regulations and should call his supervisor.

(I have since learned that many countries have such policies, and some require as much as a six month cushion.)

The poor guy looked embarrassed and said that he was sorry, but there was nothing he could do about it. It was the policy of the U.S. State Department. If he did not follow the proper procedures, he could lose his job.  Embry commented calmly that what counted was the policy of the Costa Rican government and that we had heard nothing from the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica about the 90-day requirement. He excused himself for a few minutes and returned with a printout of what appeared to an official notice from the U.S. State Department showing that the 90-day rule applied to Costa Rica. The only option would be for me to get a new passport and then apply the credit to  the next flight, but since that needed to happen within a few weeks before the free ticket expired, it was unlikely to work out. He then proceeded to go over all the other options, including  rebooking to Costa Rica several months from now, the cheapest flight being about $1,500 person and involving overnight layovers. He then tried to come up with flying to U.S. locations like Houston or Orlando or New York or Chicago, or Puerto Rico– some “fun place” that we could have an enjoyable location.  

The time that it took for what I will call “the  encounter” was over 45 minutes. He suggested one option, then another, then another. All would cost us several thousand dollars, and none made any sense. He was empathetic and obviously trying to do the best he could, but the situation was hopeless. When customers behind us complained, they were reassigned to other lines. During the middle part of the encounter, Embry said few words and then mysteriously disappeared. I was left staring at the befuddled agent, who was desperately trying to find some way to satisfy us and get me out of his way so he could assist other customers.

I reverted from my outrage mode to my despair mode. I realized that our chances of getting to Costa Rica, possibly our last opportunity for adventure travel, were close to nil. I glumly stared at the floor.

At 7:00 A.M. Embry reappeared and gently thrust her cell phone toward the weary agent.

“Look at this,” she said softly but firmly.  “This is from the Costa Rican Embassy website in Washington, D.C.  It says that you have to have at least one day remaining on your passport before your scheduled departure, not 90 days. Please confer with your supervisor.”

“Well,” he replied, “What you have says one thing, and the instructions I am following say something else. I must follow my instructions, or I will lose my job.”

“I understand,” she said, “but could you please consult your supervisor?” Her tone was polite but firm, and she had a slight smile and seemed more relaxed. He gave her a puzzled look, reread what was on her cellphone and the official policy on his printout, shrugged his shoulders, started looking at his computer screen again, and picked up a phone. I presumed he was calling his supervisor.

We glanced at each other with hopeful looks.

I then noticed the time. It was now 7:15. We had exactly 23 minutes to make it to the gate for a 7:38 departure. Still no decision.

Embry placed her bag on the scale and motioned for him to tag it, warning that we were going to miss our flight if he did not act immediately. He put down the phone, had a concerned look on his face, and began to fumble with the with tags. He motioned for help from an assistant and the bags went onto the belt. I do not recall that he said one word to us.

Yes!  We were   going to Costa Rica after all. Victory!

We thanked him as we bolted toward the security check-in area. He managed a faint smile and waived back.  Then it occurred to me: What would be the chances of anyone getting through security in a very crowded airport in less than 20 minutes? Our bags would happily be on their way to Costa Rica. We wouldn’t. 

We charged toward the escalator, reached the bottom, turned the corner, and then stared at a line for security clearance that was so long it spilled out into the vast lobby area. In fact, I had never seen a line at National Airport this long. I remembered there was another security check-point area which was more remote but often had shorter lines, and we charged toward that with Embry leading the way with me hobbling along as best as I could with two bad knees. The clock was ticking. The second line was even longer, at least 150 people, probably more. The wait had to be at least 20 minutes, probably more like 30. I did not look at my watch, but I knew it had to be close to 7:30.

We looked at each other. “No choice,” I said, “Let’s go for it!”

Embry ducked under the first rope and barged in ahead of an astonished ticket holder, who had probably been waiting for several minutes.

 “Sorry, excuse us,” she said, “Old folks trying to make a flight.”

Before the person had a chance to object, Embry had ducked under the second rope, saying the same thing to another surprised passenger. I followed, ducking under the ropes, saying “elderly emergency, elderly emergency!” In all we ducked under five ropes in a minute or two, receiving puzzled looks and occasional smiles. There was not a single protest or a “what the hell do you think you are doing?” One guy cheered us on, “Go for it, guys, you can do it!” Another asked me how much time we had. I looked at my watch and said, “eight minutes before the doors close,” to which he answered, “No way.”

By the time we reached the head of the line, the word was out, and the people who were in the process of getting their IDs checked moved aside and let us get ahead of them. The officer quickly screened our passports, checked our boarding passes with a skeptical look, and sent us to the shortest line for the carryon check. The personal screening went quickly. When the bags came out on the conveyor belt, I checked my watch. It was 7:35—three minutes to make it.

Embry charged off. I hobbled behind her encouraging her to run as fast as possible and get them to keep the doors open for me, then yelled, “What number is the gate anyway? She hollered back, “Gate C-22.”

As I stumbled into the C gate area and scanned to see where Gate-22 was, all I could find were Gates 23 and higher. Gate C-22 must be in some other location. What do to? Doomed again.

Suddenly, Embry appeared panting, “I made it just before the doors closed, and they are holding the plane for us. By the way, there is no C-22. What I meant was C-24. Hurry, hurry!”

We stumbled into a fully packed plane with only two seats remaining. The doors closed behind me. We were off to our adventure in Costa Rica. The Iron Lady had come through again. The actual takeoff was delayed a few minutes to allow for late baggage to be loaded (our bags for sure) and we landed on time in San Jose around 3:00 P.M. after a three-hour layover in Orlando.

Now is there any doubt in anyone’s mind why this could well be our last adventure travel where we try to do it all on our own?  We are too old for this. But wait! You do not know what was awaiting us when we finally arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica. That will be the subject of the next blog post.














6 thoughts on “Adventure Travels With “The Iron Lady”: Getting to Costa Rica (Barely)

  1. It could only happen to you, Joe.
    I’ve said it before and I say it again – “thank God for Embry”!
    But you certainly write a good blog!

  2. Jo, you and Embrey are the best!
    And what a great storyteller you are… Of course you know that already, but I’m just saying…
    Can’t wait to read your next posting!

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