Update 8/26/2013: I made it to Mendoza, Argentina by bus to make up for the loss I incurred during this ordeal with LAN Airlines. Not only did the bus company have a warning on their website when I purchased the ticket about the visa tax, but they also verified it during check-in and boarding. I was in contact with LAN and they did not make any attempts to help reconcile the matter. As the largest airline provider in South America, the customer service I received was sub-par and I warn others about using them in the future. Only they benefit from experiences like this as you`re required to pay for your return flight.

I´m writing this post partially to vent and partially to seek options on what I can do considering what happened yesterday.

In short, I flew into Buenos Aires, Argentina and was forced to leave the country for not paying their Visa tax beforehand. They would not let me use the phone or Internet, go to the US Embassy, or even grab something to eat.

Here`s the longer story.

I caught my flight from Medellin and flew into Ecuador for a hellish 10-hr layover. Because Quito is 1.5 hours from the airport, I stayed overnight and took my connecting flight at 6:55am. After another stop in Guayaquil, we set off for Buenos Aires at 8am and made it to the airport at 4pm (UTC time zone). At the customs window, I was asked if I had paid the Visa tax. I replied no, and inquired if I needed to pay her or go to another window. She said I should have paid it before arriving and left to get a supervisor. After a few minutes, she came back and motioned me to follow her into the Immigration office. I was put in a small, cold room and told to wait for someone to see me.

At this point, I´m tired but a little antsy. I had barely slept at the airport and was looking forward to checking into my hostel. I also had not eaten much besides the eggs they served during my flight and was overdue for lunch. I thought they would just have someone take my payment and I would be sent on my way.

I was dead wrong.

First, I´ve been learning Spanish but I am in no way fluent. I could hear them talking about me but I couldn´t understand their accent besides a few words here and there. About 20 minutes later, a woman from LAN (the airline I took) came down and explained that because I had not paid the Visa tax, I had to return to Ecuador.

¨Seriously? Why can´t I just pay it here?¨

“You can´t. Their policy is you must pay it before you enter the country. You must go back to Ecuador, pay it there, and come back.”

“You want me to fly another 8 hours and back, 16 in all, to make a payment? I don´t understand.”

This went on for a few more minutes. I asked if I can have a friend in Colombia or Ecuador pay the tax for me while I was there. No.

I asked if I can pay double there to stay. No.

I asked if any exceptions were made to that rule. No.

I asked if I can go to the US embassy. No.

I asked if I can make any phone calls. No.

When it finally sank in she was telling the truth, that a hidden camera crew wasn´t going to come out and say it was all a bad joke, I asked if I can go to another Country instead of enduring another long flight. She came back, presented me with options and I ultimately decided to head to Chile because it was closest and my next destination after Argentina. She found a flight that was leaving in 30 minutes and made arrangements to get me on it.

I don´t like to cry, ESPECIALLY in public and as much as I tried to resist I could feel tears well up in my eyes out of frustration. I inquired about the rule. My Lonely Planet guide said I could pay at the airport. When had the policy been altered and why had it changed? As upset as I was and as much as I wanted to be angry at the Argentinian officials, her answer made sense. It`s because the US government has the same regulations and forces Argentinians to go through it as well. When I asked how often this happens, how many times a day she has to send Americans away, she responded, “all day, at least a dozen times.” And that´s just one airline.

When we found out the flight was delayed for 20 minutes, I tried to get online to make hotel arrangements in Chile. At first, they would not let me. Finally, I appealed to their human nature, “What if your sister or daughter was alone in a foreign country, barely spoke the language, and had to go somewhere unprepared at the last minute? Would you send her off at night to find a place to stay?” We found a terminal that had free WIFI, and with a slow connection, I  made a reservation and cancelled mine in Argentina.

I was chaperoned like a criminal, with the woman from LAN directing me on where I can go. Exhausted, spent, cold and hungry, I boarded my fourth flight in the last 24 hours to made it into Chile around 8pm. They require a Visa too but have a window at the airport where you can pay. They call it a reciprocity fee because the US government makes them pay the same amount to visit.

I looked into the regulations to try to make sense of them this morning. I had two options to pay for the tax: at the airport I was departing from or by credit card. The US government does have the same policy and Argentina recently changed theirs to match it. I don´t understand the benefit. Why make someone go back to where they were to pay the tax? Who benefits besides the airlines? I had spent almost $1,000 to fly from Colombia to Argentina. My flight to Chile wasn’t free either. I had to pay to leave.

What am I missing here? Did they have a right to deny me a phone call/visit to the US Embassy? Did I have other options I didn´t consider? A friend told me it was the airlines responsibility to make sure I had paid the tax before leaving. Is this true and what can I do about it? Will my travel insurance cover my expenses? Some of these answers I need to look into myself but I am still tired and don’t have the energy to fight anyone on the phone.

Lesson learned: Double check entry requirements before leaving the Country.

I became a US citizen last year and as happy as I am about it, I wish I would have been more patient and applied for dual citizenship so I can use another passport for countries with visa requirements. Because we make it so hard for foreigners from some countries to enter, they´re fighting back by implementing similar regulations. I can´t blame them for that.

For now, I´m going to figure out what to do in Chile. Maybe, just maybe, I´ll try Argentina again. I snapped the pictures below from the airplane. It looks too beautiful to miss despite all the trouble.

View of Andes Mountains

View of Andes Mountains

View of Buenos Aires

View of Buenos Aires

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central perk coffee shop sign

On a given week, I frequent at least five coffee houses. My record for most visits in one day is four. I use them as “my office.” I can’t sit still for too long and I get bored easily so I hop around from one place to another allowing the current location to pique my short-lived interest and then I move on to the next spot.

Yes, I could visit my office at Temple University (we’re their newest incubator company) but I enjoy the short walks from my new place in Center City and they’re great for meetings. I can also easily indulge in my new-found addiction to chai tea lattes.

One of my best friends recently told me he wants to open his own coffee house and we briefly entertained the idea of getting into the venture together. We talked about the aspects that would make it the “perfect” coffee shop. I can’t help thinking about it now every time I set up “office” and so I thought I’d jot down some of my thoughts.

  • I imagine the decor to be in warm tones and possess a homey feel. It would be stylish, keeping with Feng shui practices and local art would be strewn across the room.
  • There would be a fireplace with comfortable leather couches around it for the winter months.
  • A special “Foursquare” mayor seat would reside in a methodical location that even Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory would approve of. It may even be a throne. The mayor would also be able to cut in line during busy periods.
  • It would have at least two private meeting rooms in the back that business people can rent in an hourly basis. They would fit four people and include a whiteboard.
  • The lighting would be adequate. Who goes to a coffee shop for a romantic date? Oh, you do? Go somewhere else!
  • The WIFI would work. And it would be fast. Enough said.
  • There would be power outlets at every other table and they would have more than 2 sockets.
  • The baristas would be friendly and trained to remember the patrons’ names. Preferably half-naked men with six-packs (Did I really just that? Just kidding!).
  • Tip jars would only be allowed if they had a humorous sign.
  • We would not play any house music. I haven’t been to a place that plays anything I’ve liked, it’s usually too loud and everyone listens to their own iPod anyway.
  • The place would be divided into a coworking place/coffee shop. More on that below.
  • The tables would be square. That’s right, circular tables would not be allowed. Or in other words, they must be able to fit a laptop comfortably.
  • The bathrooms would be impeccably clean. I find many places around Philadelphia are coed. There would in fact be separate rooms for men and women. In addition, the women’s bathroom would have a seat that cannot be lifted just in case.
  • I can’t stand it when other patrons talk loudly on their phones (why is it always old people that do this?) so there would be some kind of cell phone policy.
  • The hours would be suitable depending on the location. I don’t understand why certain places close at 8pm in the City. It would stay open until midnight.
  • Bookshelves would line the walls organized in different genres and everyone would be able to swap books.

Oh I haven’t mentioned the coffee yet, have I? Well, see that’s the funny thing. I actually DON’T drink coffee. I know, I know…my family are late bloomers, my Mom starting to drink it in her 40s, my sister when she turned 30. That aside, I would find a way to ensure we had the best around by partnering with or hiring a coffee connoisseur. A few friends have recommended La Colombe coffee. Because I know my chai tea lattes, I would employ the same women who mixes them for the Last Drop at 13th and Pine in Philadelphia (try it, it is absolutely delicious!).

There would also be plenty of coffee alternatives such as Teeccino and protein smoothies. The food would be healthy, tasty, made to order and the portions would be satisfactory but not too big (TWSS). As an aside, one of my pet peeves is the ample portions provided by restaurants. The same with the pastries. The cafe would definitely have some kind of chocolate bar (because coffee & chocolate go well together, not because I’m a fanatic ;-)).

I have a couple of ideas to combat turnover issues. One is to limit internet usage depending on the purchase amount. Another is turn it into a coworking/coffee shop hybrid (If you’re not sure what coworking is, check out this great coworking FAQ page by Indyhall.org, one of the most popular ones in the East Coast). One room would be reserved for frequent patrons who want to pay a monthly fee. The other room would be for “normal” customers.

As far as the name, I’m not sure yet. My pal, JP Toto came up with a few possibilities. As you can see, I was clearly enamored with them.

What would make YOUR ideal coffee shop?