Have you ever had an airline employee scream into your face while tearing up your boarding pass in front of you? I hadn't until last week when my plan to board a plane to Paramaribo, Suriname was thwarted by none other than my own damn self. Which, my hand to God, is probably the most "me" thing that could have happened. Despite being what I would say is a reasonably well-traveled individual, one of my calling cards is an overwhelming tendency to miscalculate and overlook the obvious. For example - going on a trip without the mandatory documents to ensure you're not trapped in a foreign country.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's start from the beginning......
THE FUCK UP
2018 was designated as the year I was going to commit myself to a goal I've toyed with for many years but never made a priority - visiting every country in the world. My desire to set foot in all 193 UN countries (plus the Vatican and Palestine) has been the Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez of my adult life - on again, off again madness. Something clicked in the last few months of 2017 where I decided I'd truly pursue this goal even if I knew that the likelihood of actually accomplishing it was pretty small. I'm not one of those location-independant Instagram celebrities with nothing but time and sponsored trips to fill their day, nor am I a wealthy heiress or married to a sugar daddy. I lack the body and face for either of those options. Still, why let not having time, money, or abs stop me from chasing a dream? I figure even if I haven't made it by the time I die (presumably from old age or being shot by Lewis Tan's bodyguard) just trying to visit every country would provide me with a lifetime of fun and adventure.
So that was that, a done deal. Time to get organized and plan.
I ran the numbers to figure out where I'd been and where I had not. For the first time in my life I started putting more thought into the planning of my trips. In the past I would simply know the dates I would like to travel and troll the internet for cheap flights and see where I ended up. That wouldn't work with my new travel goal in mind because obviously I needed to go to specific places. So at the end of 2017 I laid out a travel schedule for myself that identified exactly what countries would be visited over the course of 2018.
February was my first trip under this new scheme - a little more than two weeks in Romania, Cyprus, Lebanon, and Albania. Planned it, booked it, took the trip, had a blast (with one minor exception which will come up later). Next up? The trip I just wrapped up last week - Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, and Suriname. T&T and Guyana were up first, and I enjoyed both quite a bit. Suriname though. Ahhhhh, Suriname. That's where fate and my idiocy kicked me right in the cooter.
Wooden houses decaying under the sweltering tropical heat are common sights in Georgetown, Guyana.
After three days in Guyana's much maligned (unjustifably in my opinion) capital city Georgetown and one day exploring the country's tourism crown jewel of Kaieteur Falls, I confidently sauntered into Cheddi Jagan International Airport to check in for my 50 minute flight to Suriname's capital - Paramaribo. I was excited because I'd be flying with Suriname Airways, the national airline of the little Dutch-speaking nation on South America's Caribbean coast. I'm not only a avid traveler but a bit of an aviation nerd as well. I love flying new airlines, especially relatively obscure and small ones like Suriname Airways.
Before you can even get to the check-in counter for the airline, you have to present yourself to a podium in the middle of the check-in area where two staff members from the airline took my passport and did some preliminary questioning. Using a pen and some paper, they went through my passport and wrote down information in a giant ledger. They asked me if Paramaribo was my final destination and then asked one final, fateful question - "Have you been vaccinated against yellow fever?"
I answered truthfully - "Yes." I have been vaccinated since 2013 when I made my first trip to Africa and needed the documentation for my explorations in Botswana and Zambia. They nodded and even made some joking small talk with me when they noticed my passport lists my birthplace as Japan even though it's a US passport. They asked me to speak Japanese, which I did and this brought on some laughter from both the man and the woman. Things seemed good.
They handed my passport back and directed me to proceed to the check-in counter for my boarding pass and to have my luggage weighed. Still quite happy and naive I skipped (probably) up to the counter and handed a woman my passport. She promptly issued my boarding pass and printed out a luggage tag for my bag before asking me the question that ended up ruining my night and the last three days of my trip - "Can I see your yellow fever vaccination?"
"Well shit", I thought to myself. I normally travel with my International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis (vaccine card) on every single trip I take. Guyana was my 58th country and certainly not the first destination where the chance of contracting a disease was high. Because of this it wasn't unheard of for airline and immigration staff to ask me to prove I'm not a walking patient-zero. But as I stood there quietly choking on the humid air in the suddenly claustrophobic check-in area, I realized that on this trip I didn't have it.
Proof that I do indeed have a vaccine card.
Because of the previously mentioned trip in February. On my last day in Cyprus my hotel required me to check out of my room at 10AM, but my flight to Beirut wasn't until almost 11PM that night. I left my luggage with the hotel but decided to lug my backpack around for the day while I explored the Turkish side of the divided island nation. I should have known better than to carry my overstuffed bag around for over 12 hours because I'm 36 years old and even if I'd really look my age (thank you Asian genes!) my body definitely is starting to feel it. I have those days where I wake up in the morning and parts of my body are already telling me "Oh no sis, you're gonna be hobbling today hunny." I arrived in Beirut with a slight twinge of pain in my left shoulder/neck but nothing too serious.
The next day I threw a few items into my backpack and went out exploring again, wandering Beirut on another 12 hour marathon. By the time I got back to my hotel my slight twinge had escalated to a full blown spasming, debilitating muscle apocalypse. The pain was so intense that I laid in bed from 10PM till 4AM writhing in agony trying to fall asleep. I needed to be well rested for my 7AM departure to the ancient ruins of Baalbek on the Syrian border, so fought against the pain seeking a tiny ounce of rest and relaxation through sheer willpower. But how that turned out is a story for another day. How it impacts my attempt to visit Suriname is as follows though - to make sure I stopped carrying around too much weight on my back when traveling, I switched my travel bag from a relatively average sized backpack to a much smaller bag. While doing so, I removed my travel kit (a collection of things I take on every trip) from the bag and put it away till it was time for the next trip. This kit included my vaccine card and was left in the bottom drawer of a dresser inside my closet where I keep travel-related odds and ends.
To quote Vivian from Pretty woman ......
Back at the Georgetown airport, I stood at the counter with what I can only assume is a ridiculous grimace of hope and terror. We then engaged in an awkward dance I like to call the "Bribery Bachata" that all the cool kids in Guyana are doing. This went on for a good fifteen minute, starting with demands for me to produce a vaccine card that we both knew I didn't have and finishing with an offer by the man who had spoken with me at the podium to let me on the flight if I could have someone send me photos of my card and give him a lot of money to let me on the flight. I'm not above saying I made some phone calls to see if two people I knew had access to my house could locate the card. But sadly the pictures couldn't be produced and my fate was sealed. Proof of yellow fever vaccination is mandatory for anyone traveling between Guyana and Suriname and without the photos the airline manager felt he had no footing to stand upon to justify putting me on the flight. Case closed and bribe not given.
And that's when my former friend who loved hearing me speak Japanese yanked the boarding pass out of my hand and made a huge show of tearing it into tiny pieces while screaming at me about how I was wasting everyone's time. In a final act of dramatic flair, he threw the torn pieces into my face and then had me escorted out of the airport to the curb outside. In another time and place I might have been really into an authoritative man screaming at me and trying to put me in my place (heyyyyy) but tonight I felt nothing but defeat and honestly .... panic. What was I going to do?
Proof that I actually have my yellow fever vaccine - too little, too late.
Long story short - I called the taxi driver who dropped me off and asked if he'd pick me up and take me back to my guesthouse. He did so graciously, my guesthouse gave me the same room I'd been staying in at the same rate I'd been paying, and I did a little research to figure out how I could salvage the trip. I already knew I wasn't going to get a refund on my flight nor was I going to make it to Suriname this trip. That much was apparent. But I had other concerns. I was supposed to fly from Paramaribo back to Trinidad & Tobago to catch my return flight home, which wouldn't be happening either. Even worse, my internet research showed I couldn't fly from Guyana to T&T since they require proof of yellow fever vaccination for people arriving from a country in the yellow fever zone, even while transiting. With my current itinerary and set of booked flights I was unfortunately stuck in Guyana.
I'm currently drafting this from a flight that departed Georgetown (three hours late) as I make my way back to Chicago, so there's definitely a solution. Let's go through the "lesson learned" portion of the post so I can explain what I should have done to prevent this and how I eventually figured out how to get back to Chicago.
Clearly this all could have been avoid if I simply hadn't forgotten to throw my standard travel kit into my bag for this trip, but it's actually a bit deeper than that. I didn't even think about my card because I made a fatal mistake when I was researching the entry requirements to each of the countries on my trip.
Let's dive deeper .....
Vaccines are the forgotten realm of mandatory travel documents. Everyone concerns themselves with visas and their passport pages/expiration but vaccines (particularly yellow fever) and documentation of having them can often be just as vital to ensure you can enter a country. In many situations without the yellow vaccine and documentation to prove it you'll end up like me - a sad, sad explorer standing outside an airport with his bags wondering what he did to deserve this.
So how do you best research what vaccines you'll need prior to making a trip? Let's look at some resources ....
Depending on your citizenship(s), one of the best resources is likely your country's foreign affairs agency. As an American citizen I often use the State Department's website which has an entire section dedicated to each nation of the world and information US citizens would need to know to enter and stay in each location safely. Most countries have an agency that provides the same information to its citizens, though that's entirely dependant upon where you call home. I've also used the UK and Australian versions of this site to find information in some situations, so I can vouch for their quality.
To find relevant information, simply navigate through the alphabetical list of nations and click through to the country you're interested in researching. One of the first things that will pop up on the country's travel page is the "Quick Facts" box which will list the most vital of entry requirements for US citizens including any vaccination requirements.
Above is the quick facts box for Suriname, which as you can see lists yellow fever as a potential mandatory vaccination and indicating a traveler should proceed to the health section below for further clarity. Immediately below the quick facts section are a variety of topic areas that may be of interest to potential travelers.
Health is just one of the options you can choose from. On a broader scale, I find this whole section extremely helpful when researching entry requirements, health information, and unique/quirky local laws to be aware of when on the ground in a new country. The info here is generally very up to date and reliable. On the other hand in my personal opinion the safety and security concerns sections are only semi-useful. It will provide you with an broad overview of what terrorism and crime is like on the ground, but often gives an unreasonable and unfair depiction of danger when traveling. But I can save that critique for another day. Let's focus on the health section.
The health section gives information on a variety of topics such as access to healthcare, quality of healthcare, medical insurance regulations, and of course any diseases to be aware of and mandatory vaccinations. The above screen capture is for Suriname, which clearly states that people traveling to Suriname from Guyana need proof of the yellow fever vaccine. Clear as day, and easy to understand. So how did I mess this up?
First thing to note is that I was pretty lazy when researching the entry requirements for this specific trip, and did not actually go to the State Department page - mistake number one. Mistake number two was that the page I did look at gave entry information for US citizens to Suriname in the same way many travel pages do - as if you are traveling directly from your country of citizenship. This is problematic as it doesn't give a full view of entry requirements that may or may not apply to a traveler like the State Department website did.
Let's use my itinerary an example. I flew from Chicago to Miami and then on to Trinidad & Tobago. After stopping there a few days I flew onward to Guyana for another few days. Then I would fly to Suriname for three days before hopping back to T&T to catch my return flight home to Chicago. When traveling from the United States to T&T, Guyana, or Suriname, documentation of yellow fever vaccination actually is NOT required. The US is not in the yellow fever risk zone so none of these countries requires proof of the vaccine. That's why the State Department's website says the yellow fever vaccine is mandatory "in some cases". If I flew from Miami to Paramaribo, I'd be fine. On the other hand Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, and Suriname ARE all in some portion of the risk zone for yellow fever and therefore travel between these three countries (and a lot of others in the region actually) can require proof of the vaccination.
The yellow fever risk zone with an arrow indicated where Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, and Suriname are located.
I made the mistake of researching the entry requirements to each of the countries as if I were coming from the United States. When I looked online for entry requirements for US citizens to Suriname on a random website that popped up on a Google search, it's presented as if you're traveling there directly from the US. There's no mention of the mandatory yellow fever vaccine for anyone arriving from Guyana, Brazil, or French Guiana because it assumes you're flying from the US and thus aren't impacted by the vaccine requirement. Residents of Guyana wishing to travel to Suriname know they're required to show the vaccine document and when I mentioned this to my taxi driver and the hotel staff they all exclaimed that this was indeed something they all knew and could have warned me about if they knew I didn't have my vaccine card.
If I had dug a little deeper or simply used a more reliable website when doing my research for this trip I would have seen the requirement. Generally speaking a good number of countries in the world require you to show proof of yellow fever vaccination if you're coming from a country in a yellow fever risk zone - even if you're only transiting through the airport. Yes, that means even if you only plan to be on the ground in a country's airport for an hour or two to catch your onward flight you are, in theory, required to show proof of vaccination in some locations.
I say in theory because needless to say enforcement of this travel requirement, like the enforcement of a lot of rules and regulations, can be a "your mileage may vary" situation. And don't think that because you're traveling far off on the globe from the yellow fever risk zone that you're safe and sound. Many countries such as India and Australia, which are thousands of miles from the yellow fever zone, require proof of vaccination if you're coming from or transiting through a country in the risk zone. So if you were sunbathing on a beach in Tobago one day and then off to enjoy some sexy accents and Bondi beach boys in Sydney the next, you could be in for a surprise without a yellow fever vaccine.
Curious about yellow fever requirements specifically? The World Health Organization keeps an easy to read file that lists entry requirements for each nation and territory in the world that can be accessed online.
Another thing to note - sometimes having the vaccine isn't good enough. Many countries will note that you need to have been vaccinated for a certain amount of time before entering the country to ensure you've had enough time to let the injection provide the desired immunity. For example I debated trying to get the vaccine in Georgetown and taking another flight or going overland to Paramaribo, but Suriname requires the vaccine to have been administered at least 10 days prior to arriving in the country. Additionally, there's a bit of a global shortage on yellow fever vaccines right now and the wait to get one in Guyana is several weeks up to several months (!!!). Getting the vaccine again in Guyana clearly wasn't going to be an option for heading to Suriname.
Looking online for stories from other travelers that faced issues related to vaccines when traveling, I saw many people noting that airline officials never checked their documents on trips to countries with mandatory requirements only to arrive and be told they'd be required to get the vaccine right there at the border/airport. Some countries have health clinics right in their airports/border crossings where you'll be given the mandatory injections and forced to pay for them. Keep in mind that many of these countries are locations where the quality of healthcare (particularly injection safety) is often questionable. The last thing you want is to show up somewhere and have your first experience of your trip be a $100 vaccine with an unsterilized needle.
So to summarize, before you show up to the airport for your next big adventures make sure you have .....
Researched the vaccination requirements to enter the country/countries on your itineraries
Use quality and in-depth websites to research entry requirements, avoid being lazy when looking up vital information
Dug a little deeper to see if there are any vaccination requirements that are specific for transiting or moving between the countries contained within your itinerary, including any time requirements for showing proof of vaccination if you've been to a country within a risk zone recently
Given yourself enough time to get any required vaccines from a healthcare provider and have had the vaccine long enough to satisfy any entry requirements for a country on your itinerary
So how did I solve my little dilemma?
Guyana is a small country and has very few airlines operating flights into and out of Georgetown. As I hinted above my flight returning home to the US for this whole trip was departing from Port of Spain in Trinidad, but unfortunately Trinidad & Tobago requires a yellow fever vaccine when arriving from countries in the yellow fever zone, including Guyana. So there wasn't a way for me to return to T&T and catch my return flight home unless I was banking on the airline and immigration officials to overlook the requirement. I wasn't willing to risk it.
I needed an alternative way home, but my options out of the country were limited. Suriname was clearly off the table, as was returning to Trinidad & Tobago. Transiting through Jamaica popped up as an option but .... yup, they require yellow fever vaccination for transit. Barbados and Panama popped up as options as well and neither require yellow fever vaccination for those arriving from Guyana but flights through these airports were several thousand dollars, well beyond my travel budget. It started to look like I'd be taking up temporary residency in Georgetown, renting a wooden house on stilts and selling soursap juice at the infamous Staboek market.
And then, the solution appeared .....
There are several countries that have zero mandatory vaccination requirements for returning citizens and visitors and one of them just happened to have flights available at a reasonable (enough) cost - the United States of America!
If I could fly directly from Guyana to the United States I shouldn't have any problems getting onto the plane. Georgetown has two flights directly to the United States - one on Suriname Airways to Miami and one on Caribbean Airlines to New York. Sadly the price for tickets directly to the US on both airlines were three times as much as the ones going through T&T, Suriname, and Jamaica, but I really didn't have any choice, did I?
So I'm currently writing this post at 35,000 feet above the US's eastern coastline on my way to New York City with Caribbean Airlines. After the dominant airport daddy threatened, extorted, and screamed at me the previous night, I opted to leave Suriname Airways off my list of airlines traveled for the time being and choose the flight to NYC instead. I spent a little over $600 for my flight to New York, around $200 for a last minute hotel in New York City on a Friday night (you'd think I'd know someone in NYC who's couch I could crash on but no), and then another $170 for a last minute ticket back to Chicago from New York. I probably could have gotten a much better deal by waiting a day or two in Guyana before heading home but unfortunately I had booked a business trip that was taking place on Monday morning and absolutely needed to be back in Chicago on Sunday, so I opted to pay the costs to ensure I was home in time.
Take off from New York on my way back to Chicago on my way back from Guyana.
I'll be honest - my travel fuck-up cost me quite a lot of money. It cut a nice little hole in my annual travel budget and will impact how I'm traveling for the remainder of the year. I'm already taking a look at the hotels, guesthouses, and AirBnBs I have booked for my upcoming trips to see if I can reduce those costs further to make up some of the $1000.
Suriname will sadly not be #59 on my list of countries visited, that honor will fall to Russia when I arrive in Moscow at the end of May for a few days of exploring the city before taking the famous Trans-Mongolian railway through Siberia to Ulaanbaator, capital of Mongolia (which now will be #60). I'm hopeful I can still get to Suriname this year though, perhaps leaving Chicago on a Friday before a long holiday weekend and coming back several days later. We will have to see what pans out now that I have a massive $1000 deficit in my annual travel budget.
Either way, you can bet your ass I've already been doing a ton of research on vaccination requirements in Russia and Mongolia and the very first thing I'm going to do when I get back to my house is put my vaccination card back in my travel kit.
I hope you found this useful and as always please travel safe (and get your damn vaccines in order)!