Monday, December 1, 2008

A Philosophical Dilemma while Leaving South America

What exactly is a criminal? Is it merely someone who breaks the law? Is it a normal person backed into a wall so they see no other reasonable means of escape? Are Joo and I criminals?

It was the Russian nightmare all over again, but this time Joo was subjected to it as well. Backpacking inevitably subjects travellers to a very awkward situation now and then, and perhaps our most trying one of this honeymoon took place a couple days ago. It should have been one of our easier travel days, as we only had to take a short flight from Colombia to Panama (as opposed to 10-12 hours of grueling bus rides and transfers).

As I generally research countries before entering them, I had found out months ago of the Panamanian police scam at the border where they made all tourists coming from Costa Rica pay an extra $10-$20 if they lacked proof of onward travel (which backpackers very rarely have, in order to remain somewhat flexible). Therefore, I had willingly compromised our generally spontaneous travel approach and picked an exact date to get a bus ticket from Panama to Costa Rica. Unfortunately, neither of the 2 bus companies would sell me a ticket by phone or internet. So I contacted a hotel owner in Panama City for advice and he assured me that he had lived in Panama for years and that this clause was never enforced for people arriving by air (like us), only by the land border. And so I forgot all about it.

Until the lady at the Pereira, Colombia airport asked me for it. I showed her our flight ticket out of Costa Rica, which would clearly show that we had no intentions to secretly migrate to Panama, but this didn't suffice. I think the problem was that no one knew what to do with us since we were some of the first foreigners to fly out of the little Colombian airport. In fact, the well-informed Scottish hostel owner who has lived in Colombia for years had asked me incredulously, "Pereira has an airport???" Whatever the case, she wasn't about to budge on the onward travel rule, and we weren't about to settle for her proffered Plan B which was $1200 in plane tickets that we wouldn't even use. We reasoned, then pleaded, attempted to creatively provlem-solve (buy a refundable plane ticket, pay them the full fare for a bus ticket, etc.), but all to no avail. She demanded a ticket that literally was non-existant. And so she finally denied us our flight and we stood there helplessly as our plane soared towards Central American soil. Before sending us back into the bustling city of Pereira, the ticket counter lady did say she would give us 24 hours to resolve the issue, or else we would lose our plane ticket for good.

Now, making the situation significantly more desperate, my sister Heather was scheduled to arrive alone in Costa Rica only 4 days later on her first trip to an underdeveloped nation. For Heather's sake, my mom's sake, and my own sake, I NEEDED to be in Costa Rica within a couple days. And I knew the bus ride from Panama City was at least 16 hours, plus extra time for rain delays or the chance we couldn't get a ticket for a couple days. Direct flights to Costa Rica would have been about $1600, and I can't effectively communicate to you how much money that is for budget backpacking.

I called the bus companies again, but they refused to sell me a ticket. I called around to hotels and travel agencies in Panama City and only one manager offered an idea... bring the imaginery required ticket into existence. We had already concocted that same idea ourselves before even setting foot out of the airport. Ironically, I had a high school computer teacher who had spent an entire semester teaching us how to realistically counterfeit documents and, although it was a blast, I never thought I would actually use the information in the real world. But 15 years later, it came in very handy and we designed the following ticket...

Was it ethical? I reasoned that the whole purpose of proof of onward travel is to prevent people from illegally entering and residing in a country, which of course we had absolutely no intent to do. Furthermore, I was disgusted by the fact that they made a completely illogical entry requirement, as the bus companies didn't sell advance tickets. (Although granted, it probably wasn't as illogical as when I crossed into Cambodia at a remote point and the policeman simply locked my passport in a drawer until I bribed him enough to give it back to me.) But most importantly, I didn't see any other way to meet Heather in time, and Joo was starting to panic also as to whether we would ever leave Colombia, regardless of its status of our favorite country on the honeymoon so far. All to say, I was much more concerned with covering all the bases and making sure we could pull it off without getting caught than with the ethics of the decision.

I didn't sleep well that night, frustrated that we were stuck in this situation where we had no viable option but to do something that was prohibited. I felt a bond with other criminals from across time and literature, such as Jean Valjean (Les Miserables - a guy who went to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family), Jesus (One of the most law-breaking guys the Pharisees ever came across), Emerson (with his legendary civil disobedience), Ghandi (with his stubborn refusal to acknowledge the existing authority), etc. Granted, our case was nowhere near as socially productive, but I did feel we were doing the right thing. JooYeon spent her time preparing for the quickest way for us to make it to Costa Rica in time once we had arrived in Panama...

Meanwhile, the city of Pereira celebrated their own anniversary of breaking Spanish law by asserting their indepence. The streets were filled with firecrackers and dancing and the Christmas-decorated mall was filled with cheer (even if they do live near the equator)

Other men who had been labelled criminals on posters around Colombia were not as happy as they had already been turned in for rewards (the men with X's)...

The next morning came... show time. When we awoke, there was a downpour outside and our hearts sank... not only did we have to get past customs, but we had to hope it would be dry enough to fly. As we pulled into the airport, the airstrips were closed down and our driver told us there would be no flights for that day. In any case, we stood in line behind the ticket desk and waited nervously trying to prepare ourselves for any question that might be asked of us.

We first went through the hard-core baggage check where they were ripping everything apart. They punctured out Marisol's eye (JooYeon's favorite doll that she sets out as female company in every hostel room) as well as our vacuum-sealed coffee checking for cocaine. I didn't feel too bad as they were much stricter with the several people before us. We stepped up to the ticket counter, faced the same girl, told her we had arranged everything while acting very relieved and she smiled and said, "Okay, great!" And that was that.

I'd love to hear some of your comments on how you would handle a similar situation, or any thoughts on legal philosophy in general and how to handle crimes that people commit because they passionately believe they are doing the right thing (as opposed to brutal crimes that are intentionally designed to hurt people). In the meantime, with our bags smelling deliciously aromatic from Colombian coffee and our hearts full of all the 99% wonderful experiences we had in the country, we headed off for the final leg of our Latin America journey, Panama and Costa Rica.

Here you can see the street lined with Colombians petitioning for our release. :) Actually, they were supporters of President Uribe. The night before there had been some riots where guerrillas filled the town square and threw rocks at the policeman and so this crowd moved in the next day to peacefully protest against the lingering remnants of violence in Colombia.


  1. I'm just glad you figured a way out!!!! Mom

  2. Don't worry, I would have rowed us across the Caribbean if I had to to get home by Christmas after missing the past three!!! Daniel

  3. We shared your delimma with our Sunday School class and it appears you made the correct decision. One person likened it to civil disobedience. -Dad