Death Trains, Yellow Fever, and Red Flags

When Life Gives You Lemons…

This is the story of the biggest problem I’ve ever run into during my travels. You may have heard me reference it before as “the huge brick wall I ran into in Brazil,” followed by, “I’ll save that story for another day.”

It’s not a violent story, I was not in immediate danger. It was more of a test of character and strength, and it literally stretched me to my emotional limits. It took place back in 2008, but I still remember it like it was yesterday, and the story needs to be told.

This story is the reason I preferred not to travel alone in the years following this experience, and the reason it took me so long to explore much more of South America. There are some big lessons to learn here, and my goal is to prevent you from ever running into a similar situation. Read on, take notes, and remember to learn from other people’s mistakes, because life is too short to make them all yourself.

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Lesson 1: Never Trust a Printed Guidebook (Alone)

The climax of this story wouldn’t exist without all of the things that led up to it (there were a lot of complexities involved, and all of these details play a part in the grand finale), so here we go:

December 2007: I returned from 3 months backpacking through Central America just in time for Christmas, which is when I decided to take off again in 3 months to study abroad in Brazil.

I got a brand new, hot off the press (as in, published that month) South America on a Shoestring by Lonely Planet, which I started reading to prep for my trip (first mistake, you’ll learn why later). Not only would I study Portuguese in Brazil, but I would then continue on to Bolivia, meet up with one of my best friends who would come to meet me from the States, we would spend two weeks doing part of Bolivia and hiking Machu Picchu in Peru, and I would then spend another month or so on my own before returning to the States. It would be a total of 3 months in South America.

February 2008: I drove harrowing roads over the summit from Tahoe to San Francisco, nearly getting in an accident during a snow storm (red flag #1?) before making it to safety on the other side of the mountains, all to make it to my 15-minute visa appointment at the Brazilian consulate. $130 later, I got my Brazilian visa and was “good to go,” or so I thought.

Red Flag
My mom sending me off to Brazil in San Francisco

The Adventure Begins

March 2008: With the greatest hesitation (red flag #2?) and least amount of preparation I’ve ever had going into a trip, I flew to Florianópolis, Brazil for a month of studying Portuguese in a language school.

I had some communication with my Brazilian host “mom” (turns out she was only 30) before the trip, some emails all in English, so it was very surprising to me when I called her from the airport and she only spoke Portuguese! I didn’t even know how to say “hello” in Portuguese, as I had just bought my first dictionary in the airport (totally unprepared).

Luckily, a nice airport employee facilitated the rest of that conversation for us, and in a few minutes I was in her car with her, trying to figure out how we would communicate at all. It turned out she understood Spanish, so I used that to speak to her while learning to understand her Portuguese with superhuman speed.

That was a Saturday, and I started school that Monday. I ditched the Spanish by Tuesday and was easing into my new language with great enthusiasm and, well… ease.

The fact that I learned Portuguese so quickly would be one of my saving graces in the end.

Brazil Homestay
With my amazing host Ariana, who didn’t speak any English, and whom I became very close to during my month living at her house.

I had one month to figure out exactly how I would get to Amanda, my friend who was flying into La Paz, Bolivia just three days after my program in Florianópolis ended. That’s when I hit the first brick wall.

It turns out that Bolivia had recently instated (recently as in January 2008 — just one month after my precious Lonely Planet book was published) a visa for American Citizens, and a law requiring that anyone traveling to or from Bolivia from Brazil or Peru (exactly where I wanted to go) would need proof of Yellow Fever vaccination.

The visa was $100, ouch. But the fact that the Yellow Fever vaccine was required was worse. Why? Because I already had my vaccine, but I had lost my International Certificate of Vaccination that had proof of that vaccine on it. I didn’t have it. I was already in Brazil, and I didn’t have my proof.

What I had done before I left was gone to the clinic where I had received the vaccine and had them print out a receipt or something stating that I had gotten it (the doctor wasn’t there to sign it), but the simple fact was that I didn’t have the official documentation showing proof of Yellow Fever vaccine.

Now, you may be wondering why this is such a big deal. “Can’t you just get another vaccine?” or “Can’t you just use your good looks and charming personality to persuade them to let you through?” Yeah, I was hoping so, too. So first of all, no. You can’t just “get another vaccine” because the Yellow Fever vaccine is only administered either once in a lifetime or once every ten years, and I had just gotten it within the last couple of years. I had heard about the side effects and rare but possible death from getting the vaccine and there was no way I was getting another one so soon.

What to do.

I decided I would try to use my good looks and charming personality to persuade them to let me through, after all, that would be Bolivian border patrol (or so I thought) and my Spanish is excellent. So I continued to research my route to Bolivia options.

Florianopolis, Brazil
View of Florianópolis from the plane. It is an island in southern Brazil, connected to the mainland by a bridge.

The Death Train

My first idea to get to La Paz was to travel to Iguazú Falls, cross the land border there into Bolivia, and continue over land to La Paz. Well, I am not even kidding you when I say, the option for the overland travel from there to where I needed to go was labeled the “Death Train.” (red flag #13?)

Try explaining that one to your mother as a female traveling solo.

It was apparently a dangerous train route that saw many accidents and, coincidentally, deaths. AND, after the death train arrived to its destination, I would need to take an overnight bus, which on that specific route was notorious for getting stopped and robbed of absolutely everything in the middle of the night.

Awesome. Brick walls everywhere.

The Paraguay Option

Option 2 was to travel south from Iguazú into Paraguay, and skirt the “dangerous” part of Bolivia, eventually crossing back up to La Paz. Then I learned that Paraguay had recently instated a $60 visa for US citizens, which seemed a little too steep for me if I was only going to be passing through for a day.

It really was the long way around, which didn’t seem optimal either since I didn’t have much time. It also meant I would still need to take at least one overnight bus in Bolivia, known for being stopped and robbed (more red flags and brick walls). Honestly, if I were traveling with someone, these things probably wouldn’t have scared me so much, but aside from the crazy women’s intuition warnings I was feeling in my stomach, I was also very much alone, and vulnerable. Great.

The “Safe” Option: Flying

Then there was the obvious option of taking a flight, but even the flight was not direct in the slightest. A flight would cost me $350 and get me from Saõ Paulo (a 15-hour bus ride away from Florianópolis) to Santa Cruz, Bolivia (an overnight bus ride from La Paz). It really wasn’t completely safe since I would still have to take that darn overnight bus ride to La Paz even after arriving safely to Santa Cruz.

But you know what? Time was running out, I needed to make a decision, and I knew my friends and family and I would all be the least worried with this option (skipping the Death Train), so I went for it. I bought the $350 flight, arranged to take a 15-hour bus ride back to Saõ Paulo, booked a hostel in Santa Cruz, Bolivia for one night, and I knew what bus I needed to catch for La Paz.

My friend Amanda had gotten her vaccines administered, had her passport (and her International Certificate of Vaccination) in hand, and was ready to come meet me.

Florianopolis to La Paz
My options. None of which excited me.

A Looming Shadow Over My Sunshine

Meanwhile, when I wasn’t dealing with the brick walls of planning my exit, I was really enjoying my time in Brazil. I had become fluent in Portuguese, moving from beginning to advanced and technically finishing grammar studies faster than my school had ever seen anyone learn the language.

I was loving being multilingual, learning new dances, eating amazing barbecue (churrasco), and staring at the Southern Cross at night. I had completely accomplished what I had come for up to that point, yet for some reason the rest of the trip just felt like a huge weight on my shoulders, or a rock in my gut, or both.

It was an inevitable journey looming straight ahead that didn’t feel right at all. I was hurtling towards it at an uncomfortable pace, as if I knew I wasn’t supposed to go through with it, or I wasn’t going to come out of it, or something.

Samba do Raiz band
Samba do Raiz band

The Grand Finale: Embracing Plan Z

I left Florianópolis after a tearful goodbye at the break of dawn, as ready as I could be for the long haul to La Paz that began with a 15-hour bus ride to Sao Paolo. My cell phone stopped working. I guess I had run out of credits by then. (This was before smart phones, before WiFi, so I didn’t have access to apps or anything back then anyway, my cell phone existed just to text and call and be in touch with people).

And so I began my journey, alone, and without a communication device.

After an uneventful but exhausting 15-hour bus ride, I arrived at the bus station in Sao Paolo, where I met a wonderful Brazilian woman and her horrible American husband as we waited for the shuttle to the airport. He was from Miami, had terrible things to say about Brazil and its people, while she, his wife, was so grateful for the trip they had made to see her family. She seemed embarrassed by his words and actions, and I was a little bit heart broken for her in that situation. We spoke in Portuguese, if nothing else than to spite her husband, which didn’t bother me at all.

Then shit hit the fan.

I arrived to the airport four hours before my flight was to take off, but little did I know the next four hours would be the most exhausting and trying hours of my travel life thus far, after an already long day.

Problem #1: They wouldn’t even let me check in to my flight. The airline personnel were checking for proof of Yellow Fever vaccination right there at the check-in counter. The woman didn’t even think twice about letting me persuade her of anything. She flat out turned me away and said, “there’s a clinic, go get vaccinated.”

Literally the next door over was a tiny clinic where you could get vaccinated, something I’d never seen in an airport before and haven’t seen since. But, if you remember, my problem was not vaccination, it was proof.

I didn’t WANT to get vaccinated AGAIN. I begged the doctor to write me off, showed him my printout (that was completely useless by the way) but he refused (freaking rules). The option at that point was to get vaccinated, then be detained for a few days for the vaccine to take effect before they would allow me to fly to Bolivia.

Seriously? Yep.

Meanwhile it’s about 7:50pm and the clinic closes at 8, not to open again until 8 the next morning, meaning a possible overnight in Sao Paolo. I was completely out of time to make a decision. I left the clinic, ran to the airline customer service counter (somewhere across the airport, WITH my giant backpack on the whole time) and started spilling my guts to the woman there, explaining my situation to her and asking what my options were.

At one point, I asked her if she spoke English, and she said “No, but you’re doing great, keep going.” Then she interrupted me and offered, “I speak Spanish?” And I stared at her, totally blank, unable in that moment to think of one single word in Spanish, a language I have mastered.

This is what happens when you put several languages into your brain. Do you realize that ALL of this was taking place in Portuguese? Portuguese, a language I had been speaking for less than a month. I was beside myself listening to me speak as if it had been years. This is the closest to an out of body experience that I have had. And I was thankful, SO incredibly grateful, in that moment to be able to have this gift of communication when I needed it most.

If I cancelled my flight within the next hour, I would receive an 80% refund. Great, it wouldn’t be a total loss. But wait a sec, here I am in Sao Paolo, a place I do NOT want to be by myself, stranded at the airport if I cancelled my flight. So I set out to figure out what the next option would be if I did that, clock ticking.

I found a pay phone (because no more cell phone credit and PRE WiFi/smartphones/apps days) and called Amanda (who was to be leaving in just two days to meet me in Bolivia) using my calling card, which had only a couple minutes left. The only thing I remember her saying, and what I am so thankful that she said, was, “Just do what you need to do, we will figure out the rest later.” Then she gave me her calling card info just before the minutes on mine ran out.

Why was this all about deadlines???

I was without internet. This was before everyone had convenient connective devices in our pockets with airport WiFi to boot. I had learned from the lady at the airline customer service that I would need to travel to another country completely, like Argentina or Chile, and then Bolivia, to avoid the Yellow Fever requirement.

Okay, yes I was in an airport, but without a nice computer screen full of options, what you are left with is an airport, with different ticket counters, different schedules, and really no clue what the true options are. I had now just minutes to decide whether to cancel my flight, and my brain simply couldn’t process creating a new travel plan to yet another country and then on to Bolivia after all the travel planning it had just been through. Not to mention all communication was in Portuguese, which is SO taxing on the brain to begin with. I didn’t even know what flights were available, nor did I have the budget for two more of them.

I ran all the way back to the clinic to try one more time to persuade the doc, but they had long since closed. The mean lady checking people in for my flight still wouldn’t give me the time of day. I couldn’t believe I was being cut off just like that after everything that had happened and all the research I had done, thinking the flight was the right choice. I then ran back to the airline customer service to cancel my flight with minutes to spare. It worked. But then I was literally in an airport with no ticket.

I called Amanda again, this time with her calling card numbers, and heard again, “Do what you need to do.” As I was fearing more and more that our trip together that we had so been looking forward to would not be happening, I felt the extreme burden of ruining my friend’s travel plans, her plane ticket, her vaccinations, her passport, everything she had put into this trip was very quickly going down the drain, because of me. I was completely letting her down. And still, “just do what you need to do.” I felt like I was talking to an angel in that moment.

After running into so many brick walls that I couldn’t possibly get around, I realized something. Someone or Something did not want me to continue on this trip, and it was time to start listening to all the signs and red flags and brick walls.

I changed strategies.

I went to the American Airlines counter as a last resort. I had purchased my multi-city itinerary through them in the first place, and currently the only ticket I possessed was out of Lima, Peru in 2 months. I asked how difficult it would be to change that to the present moment, and I also asked what my options were for getting out of there.

You know the feeling when things start to fall into place, and you understand that fate, destiny, the Universe, is leading you (and has been trying for a while…) in that direction?…

The man behind the counter took all of 2 seconds to answer all of my questions. I could change the flight with a simple one-time change fee, plus a difference of fare fee. There happened to be a flight leaving in 20 minutes to Miami and I could continue on to San Francisco…

I gave him my credit card.

Cue the angel choir and golden light shining down on me. A gentleman escorted me through rush security and all the way to the gate to Miami. I didn’t even have to think about where I would find the plane. Everything was laid out for me, with a guide to lead the way.

But there was one last problem.

I found the nearest pay phone and used up the last 2 minutes of Amanda’s calling card to call my mom. “Mom, I don’t have time to explain,” I said as I watched the last person file through the door to board the plane, “Everything’s okay and I’m okay, but I need you to pick me up at 10am tomorrow in San Francisco, call Amanda.” This was a 3 1/2 hour drive for my mom, but I remember she said, “Okay, I’ll be there.” And we hung up.

I was the last one to board the plane. Then I realized something absolutely wild.

This plane was packed. It was entirely, completely full. There was one, only one remaining seat on the entire plane, one of those in the middle of the middle row of five seats. It’s as if it had been reserved just for me, this whole time. And as I rushed down the aisle, sweating and anxious, you’ll never guess who I saw sitting in the seat next to mine: the lovely Brazilian woman I had met at the bus station.

I laughed and cried at the same time.

The only other soul I had met in the city of Sao Paolo was my seat mate. The second I saw her, I knew that I was exactly where I was meant to be in that moment, and all of my fears and worries disappeared instantly.

Make Lemonade

As promised, my mom picked me up in San Francisco the next morning. She and Amanda had spoken and gotten on the same page, and within minutes of being handed my regular cell phone, which my mom had reactivated and charged for me, Amanda called to reassure me that she was okay with my decision.

Within an hour of that phone conversation, during which we had realized we had two weeks, a budget, and nowhere to go, she had booked us both flights to Hawaii and arranged for us to spend 10 days at a friend’s house on Oahu.

Wow, so that’s what Plan Z looked like.

After everything that had happened, I knew that I was not meant to be continuing that South American adventure at that time. Who knows why or what might have transpired, to this day I shudder to think about how strongly everything worked against me in that plan.

What I know, what was very clear, was that I was meant to go home. The four hours of running back and forth across the Sao Paolo airport, after a 15-hour bus ride, making big decision after big decision, always against the clock, feeling the responsibility of ruining my friend’s long-awaited trip to South America, communicating in a language I had just learned, and dealing with all of it by myself was all the stress that I could handle, knowing it was fully up to me to get myself out of it and I couldn’t give up.

Three days later, Amanda and I took ourselves on vacation, because at that point, we both needed one. We spent 10 perfect days in Hawaii, during which I heard the song “Southern Cross” for the first time, an ironic memento.

It’s worth it to pay attention to your intuition. It’s worth it to note all the red flags along the way. It’s worth it to learn the language of the place you are in. It’s worth it to make friends with people who will stick with you through thick and thin. But ultimately, it’s worth it to double and triple check visa and immunization requirements online, not in a guidebook. Oh, and get travel insurance.

Oahu vacation
Amanda and I on vacation in Hawaii

fun with the tower of Pisa
We still haven’t made it to South America together, but we did get to travel in Italy in 2009, and Costa Rica and Panama in 2014

I ended up spending three weeks in Peru and hiking Machupicchu in 2011, but still to this day I have not been to Bolivia…

Thanks for reading all the way to the end. Here are a few related travel tips to wrap up my Brazilian adventure:

Travel Tips to Accompany This Situation

Getting a Brazilian Visa

As an American citizen, you will not be allowed entry into Brazil without first securing your visa. There is no such thing as Visa on Arrival. How I figured this out and missed the fact that Bolivia also had visa requirements can be traced back to one thing: My brand-new, out-of-date, guidebook. A guidebook writer will be the first to tell you to never solely rely on a guidebook, and this is precisely why. Rules change. May the internet be your guide for visa and immunization research.

Update 2019: According to “As of June 16, 2019, U.S. citizens do not need a visa if they are traveling to Brazil for tourism, business, transit, artistic or sport activities, with no intention of establishing residence.” (i.e. Brazil has updated their visa rules – and it’s good news for US citizens – everything is easier now! This does NOT affect vaccinations though, only visas, so be mindful of that).

Booking Directly Through an Airline

I mentioned I had booked my multi-city ticket through American Airlines. You might now be able to understand why I say that was the single best thing I did during my preparation for this trip to South America.

Why? Because if I had booked it through a third party (i.e. Expedia, Orbitz, etc.) I would not have been able to change it when I needed to. Walking up to the Expedia counter at an airport does not exist, and a one-time change fee would be translated across however many airlines are on your itinerary, plus all of their individual leg change of fare fees.

If I had not made the decision to book directly through American, I would have had to buy a new ticket home. Refer to my 8 Secrets to Finding the Best Deals on Flights podcast episode for more on that.

Up The Creek Without Your Yellow Fever Vaccination

I have since learned that it is not as risky as I believed to get vaccinated twice within the normal period for Yellow Fever. I still don’t want to volunteer to test it out, but I wanted to share that. I have also learned, and I should have thought of this myself, that if you find yourself without your proof of vaccination, whether it becomes illegible or you lose it, you may contact that clinic where you received your vaccination and they can send you a new one. You do not have to physically present yourself at the clinic to get a new Certificate. If I had really been on top of things, I may have been able to contact the clinic and have them send me a new one to my address in Brazil, but who knew.

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8 replies on “Death Trains, Yellow Fever, and Red Flags”

I’m so sorry you had to go through this, but it was a great story and I definitely learned a lot. Also, I definitely laughed out loud at the end when you saw the same woman on the plane.

[…] This is a very important step in planning your trip, especially if you are headed to the Third World. There are airlines that won’t let you on the plane without specific immunizations. It is very important that you a) get the immunizations, and b) DON’T LOSE YOUR IMMUNIZATION CARD. It can cause some very big problems if you lose it, and unfortunately I know this from experience. […]

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