So the family left on Wednesday, December 12th out of Tampa for Coloumbia. I stayed behind to take the dogs. Spirit Airlines doesn’t take dogs internationally, or only takes tiny ones that fit under your seat, or something like that. So I had to fly on Avianca, the national airline of Colombia, which was the next cheapest alternative. Also, the inexpensive hotel we are staying at doesn’t allow dogs, so they have to be boarded at a vet around the corner until we get the van and trailer out of customs.
My flight left out of Miami. To fly out of Tampa meant turning a three hour direct flight from Miami into a 9 1/2 hour one stop through Bogata. Also, the dogs needed a new APHIS (http://www.aphis.usda.gov/library/forms/pdf/APHIS7001.pdf) form to get on the plane (required by Avianca) and to get into Colombia (required by Colombia). The form could be prepared by any vet who is state licensed nationally accreditted and willing to do it. Then it had to be stamped by the USDA. It turns out there was only one vet (that I could find) in the Tampa are willing to do the form, Air Animal (www.airanimal.com). To get the USDA stamp, I had to go to Miami.
My sister Sara and her boyfriend Jeroen had arrived from Amsterdam the night before the family left and helped get them all to the airport the next morning. After the family left, I spent Wednesday and Thursday tying up loose ends, repacking, mailing stuff to people and places, and generally freaking out. Then everyone proceeded to help me out anyway the could to get me ready to go, often without me knowing it was happening. Thanks for everything, guys! We did get in a great meal Thursday night at a local steakhouse in Dunedin whose name escapes me. Thanks, Jeroen!
On Friday morning I picked up the rental car, packed it up with the two bags of everybody’s stuff (Michelle took only one bag with her and the kids as it cost money on Spirit and mine were free, sorta, as my ticket was twice the price), the two dogs and their kennels. I left about 10:30am. I had a 3:30 pm appointment at the USDA office in Miami, the last of the day. So five hours to drive what the GPS said was five hours and ten minutes away. Needless to say to those of you that know how I drive, I got to the appointment a half an hour early. I got the stamp, which took about ten minutes, then had nothing to do until my flight left the next day. I found a dog park on Miami Beach and took the dogs there for about two hours. I got there at dark and was the only person there the whole time. The dogs had a great time sniffing around and marking everything.
Then plan was to spend the night in the car and head to the airport in the morning. I found the closest Wal-Mart to the airport, which was back in my old stomping grounds in Doral (see Shipping Adventures part 1 and 2). For those of you that don’t know, Wal-Mart is often a great place to stop for the night. They usually don’t mind, figuring you’ll spend money there. They are generally pretty safe because they are open 24 hours a day, have well-lit parking lots, security cameras, and even police hanging out. So I found a spot away from the entrance, tucked under a couple of trees and next to somebody from Michigan “overnight parking” on there way to somewhere. Safety in numbers. It turns out this Wal-Mart was also conveniently located about 300 feet under the flight path to one of MIA’s runways. This ensured I was awake early enough to get to the airport by 10:00am, my required car rental return time.
Even more conveniently, a Hooters was located in the parking lot. My inaugural visit (yes, really)to Hooters took place on my last night in the U.S. What could be more fitting? I was starving. I tend not to eat on days like this when I have a lot to do and am carrying a lot of stress. It was about 9:00 pm and I needed some food. It was Friday night at Hooters in Miami (well, Doral). I heard Hooters girls sing the Hooters birthday song about seven times to different parties of bellowing, screaming man parties around the restaurant. I got to watch some basketball, each some quality fried food, and generally enjoy America for a few hours before heading back to my overnight parking (key phrase here, not “camping”) spot for several hours of jet landings, solitaire and a couple of hours of sleep.
My alarm clock, er, landing came at 6:32 am, courtesy of LAN Airlines. I headed into Wal-Mart (see, they were right, I did spend money) to get some packing take to de-doghair the rental car before turning it in. After that and a couple of lengthy dog walks around the parking lot, I headed out to the airport. I got there about 9:45 am. It took me about 20 minutes to get everything out of the car and organized enough to begin the big trek to the Avianca ticket counter. The Miami rental car return is a 5 level parking garage about a mile from the terminal. You drop off the car, walk about 300 yards to the elevators, take them upstairs to the rental car counter area, find the monorail, and take that to the terminal.
I got a little help from a couple getting on the elevator who had traveled with six dogs before (Really?! Why?! WOW!!). Mostly it went like this. Two kennels on the cart with dogs inside, with coffee (which I should have been drinking) and carry-on in the little basket thingy, and the two 45 lb bags over each shoulder. After about 35 seconds of travel by the rental car counter area, the dogs started whimpering. I got on the train about five minutes later. By now they were crying. Five minutes later we got to the terminal. Now it was time for yelping and howling. The Avianca counter was located in the J section of the terminal, the furthest possible (of course) location from the train. Also, at least half of the speedy walkways were not working. HOORAY!
It turns out dogs are really popular when you’re hauling them through an airport. Everyone wants to stop and see, especially kids. Twenty minutes later, my whimpering, yelping, crying (dogs), sweaty, muscle burning (me) parade arrived at Avianca. I was three hours early for the flight, and SOOO ready to turn the dogs over. The line was short and I was done in a bout twenty minutes. However, I had to keep the dogs until 11:30pm, so they didn’t have to drive the Avianca luggage crew crazy with their collective unhappiness.
I took them outside and walked them around as much as I could for the next 40 minutes. Then took then in and dropped them off. Louie was $80, Trek $130. The total price was cheaper than the $125 each I was quoted on the phone, so there’s a small victory. Security was a breeze and I got to the gate an hour before the flight left. I just sat and relaxed for a while, eagerly looking forward to being back together with the family.
I was very happy to get on the plane. I had a great window seat. HOLY COW!!! I’m going to Colombia!!! The flight had great food, nice people, wonderful service and a great entertainment selection. The view flying over the Carribean was awesome. I feel asleep for the last 40 minutes or so of the three hour flight and woke up when we touched down. No for some real fun.
It was about 90 degrees when I got off the plane. The customs receiving area was lacking air conditioning, and many I was fairly worried about how this process would go. I had a one way ticket into Colombia and had heard that generally, this was pretty frowned upon at customs. The line moved pretty quickly for the amount of people in it. I got to the agent in about 30 minutes. It was easier getting into Colombia that transferring flights in the Amsterdam airport. Very few questions, a passport stamp, a finger print scan, and that was it. Maybe three minutes.
Al the bags and the dogs were waiting for me in the baggage claim area. Trek and Louie were making a racket. I got everything together and hired a porter to help me with all the stuff. A woman came up to me and said she needed to see the paperwork for the dogs and I needed to come to her office. The dogs and I passed through inspection (there was no inspection for me) and I then spent about 20 minutes getting new Colombian paperwork for the dogs. She kept the original APHIS for her records. I tried to give her a copy, but she said no. Then she brought in an english speaking young man to translate. He explained that the new very official looking document was all I needed for the dogs inn Colombia and to get them into Ecuador, she had to keep the APHIS for their records, and all was good. The whole time this paperwork process was going on, the dogs were whining, crying and yelping in the hall with the very nice porter, who was trying unsuccessfully to distract them. Then off to the taxi.
I was wondering if there would be a taxi big enough for my stuff and the dogs kennels. Not quite, but close enough. It was $15 for the taxi from the airport to the vet where the dogs were to be boarded. Louie started howling (like a wolf at the moon) about 10 minutes into the 15 minute taxi ride. I still don’t know if he was happy or not. The taxi driver was quite popular with all his other taxi buddies. We stopped next to many taxis full of passengers on the way so they could see Louie on the roof. Kids were especially enthralled. We found the office easily enough and the whole family was waiting for our arrival. What a great moment!
The dogs were placed in their accommodations, we walked around the corner to the hotel, and I had officially arrived in Colombia!!