American Airlines launched a thrice-weekly nonstop flight Dec. 16 between its home base in Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and to show off its business-class service and introduce U.S. journalists to the big, vibrant home of samba and football and the Girl from Ipanema, AA decided to do a short media familarization trip.
I was invited to participate. I said sure, excited to be going. It would be my first trip to Rio and only my second to Brazil, which is hosting the summer Olympic Games in 2016 and soccer's World Cup in 2014, enormously popular events sure to attract scads of foreign tourists.
But first I had to get a visa, a routine matter, usually. It's a piece of documentation I have secured many times in nations around the world. The fee, $140 USD and non-refundable, seemed a little steep, but the Brazilian embassy in Washington, D.C. explained that was because it is the equivalent sum that the United States charges Brazilians to visit the United States. This tit-for-tat business seems a lot like schoolchildren kicking dirt on one another in the schoolyard, and it might be nice if one of them rose above it and showed how to behave hospitably, but since that isn't on, I thought OK.
That's when my problems began. I went to the consular Web site, filled out the online application form and clicked on the calendar to make the required appointment to submit my documentation in person. Clunk! Although it was December 21, 2010, the first available appointment was on Jan. 12, 2011, the day before the Jan. 13 trip starts. No problem, I thought, I'll pay an extra fee to expedite the visa. Nope. Brazil does not offer an expediting fee in the U.S.
Flummoxed, I went to both of the U.S. public relations firms representing American and the Rio Convention & Visitors Bureau, which were co-hosting the journey. They suggested contacting commercial visa-service agencies they knew in New York or Dallas to speed things up.
But there is a jurdisdictional problem in doing that, due to Brazilian regulations; I learned I would have to work through an agency located in the consular region where I live - in my case, Northern California. So, I went to the Web sites for two national agencies that have San Francisco branch offices. At the Travisa site, I discovered the application would take 10 to 20 business days; that didn't give me enough time. Traveldocs.com headed its section on Brazil in red text that read: "Due to a new software system installed by the Brazilian consulate in San Francisco, there are technical issues which are resulting in extreme restrictions with travel submissions to the consulate per day.''
Curses, foiled again.
E-mails flew back and forth between yours truly and the PRs, who very much wanted to be helpful, and tried to be. A fellow, Brazilian, from the Rio CVB suggested going to the consulate ahead of the appointment, telling them who I am (the new King of Pop, I mused, or at least King of Travel Writers); he felt certain they would get right on it. I took the first leg of the four-hour, 70-mile round trip ride on public transport from my home, took a number in the consulate's attractive, well-lit waiting room and when I got to the application window was told I would need a letter of invitation. I pointed out my letter of invitation from American Airlines.
"It needs to be a Brazilian entity,'' I was told.
I showed the Rio daily schedule I was given on Rio CVB letterhead.
"That's just an itinerary,'' I was told. "You need a letter.''
This was the first time I heard from any source that I needed a letter of invitation from Brazil.
Was Kafka Brazilian? I wondered. And did I somehow miss it?
E-mails flew some more. Yesterday, I got a voice message from a person on the consulate staff who didn't give her name, instructing me to show up this morning between 9 and 11 a.m., so processing of my visa could begin. Finally! Once again, I embarked on the four-hour, 70-mile round trip journey. I strolled in, a VIP. But wait a minute, not so fast.
The lady from the consulate who greeted supplicants - I mean, visa applicants - asked if I had an appointment. Certainly, I replied, showing her my printout for my Jan. 12 appointment while explaining that I had received a phone call telling me to come in right away. "I'm sorry, sir,'' she said. "You don't have an appointment.''
"I was invited, and told to come here today by the consulate,'' I said. She shook her head no. "I was!''
"I'm a journalist,'' I added. She shrugged.
"I need to talk to somebody,'' I said.
No can do, she replied in so many words. Nor could I take a seat in the waiting room. I didn't belong there. I didn't have an appointment. I could leave the premises. I left, embarking on the final leg of the four-hour ... well, you've heard that part.
I won't be going back, and thus won't be going to Brazil. I'll miss what will most likely be a superior new service from AA. A few days ago, not seeing more of Brazil would have sorely disappointed me. Now, it's fine.
The moral of the story: I'm not saying don't go to Brazil. Your experience may be very different from mine. I will say this: Be careful and be prepared. Start preparing well ahead of time. I would have done this myself, save for the inconvenient fact that I was traveling successively in Spain, Japan and China in the several months before the planned trip to Rio and had to have my passport with me. I couldn't leave it for an indeterminate time at a consulate.
Brazil is a big, developing, vibrant country with big ideas for itself and about itself. As mentioned at the top of this post, it will be hosting thousands of foreign visitors, many of them Americans, who will be eager to see the Olympics and the World Cup, and enjoy the famous beaches and landmarks of Rio such as Sugar Loaf Mountain. Brazil should be making it easy for travelers, including journalists, to visit. Instead, it's making it hard - ironically so, because almost every Brazilian I have met personally has been welcoming and warm.
If my experience is anything to go by, this proud, ambitious country has a long way to go before it is ready to welcome travelers, especially to world-class events. Here's hoping it gets there soon.