Traveling always comes with a price. Maybe it’s an uncomfortable sleeping arrangement, maybe it’s a mechanical complication or maybe it’s delay. When I flew into Chile, I had a bunch of connecting flights: RDU > DCA > DFW > SCL. My first flight out of North Carolina left around 2:00 p.m. and I arrived in Santiago at 9:00 a.m., so I had almost a full day of airport trams and in-flight food. Despite the millions of things that could have gone wrong with so many connections, my trip was perfect. That is, until I landed.
Unlike the U.S. and Brazil, Chile doesn’t require visas for visitors to wander the country. What it does demand, though, is a reciprocity fee of $160 USD. Prepared for this initial step, I went to the bank and retrieved $200 before I left the states just in case the price skyrocketed while I was over Peru or Ecuador. Strolling happily to the window after exiting the 767, the reciprocity teller (who spoke minimal English) checked my passport and took my cash. After a few moments of flipping through the handful of bills, she stoically returned four of my twenty dollar bills and, with a thick accent, said they were invalid and I couldn’t enter the country.
Chile has an extremely high standard for acceptable American bills. They won’t take bill that are old, bills with even the smallest of tears, bills with writing on them or otherwise suspicious looking. They must be pristine, crisp and clean. Now, keeping in mind my cash was dispensed from an ATM in the U.S. not 24 hour before, I was stunned. On three bills there were small rips, barely even noticeable, and someone had scribbled on the other one with red ink. I instantly regretted my cheeky 17-year-old self writing my telephone number on a $1 bill at Sonic; I think I even made the amazing decision to write “call for an intellectually stimulating conversation.” Uggghhhhh. (Thank god no one ever called me.)
Standing in the Chilean airport, I knew I had to think fast.
“Can I use my debit card?” No. Credit cards only, and I don’t have one. (Later, I found out that this was a communication error and that debit cards work in the same way they do in the U.S.- you can only charge up to what you have in your bank account. But in this moment, I was S.O.L).
“Is there an American ATM I can use to get more cash?” It’s on the other side past customs, which I can’t get to.
“Is there an exchange station where I can exchange my bills?” It’s upstairs, but they probably won’t take them. And sure enough, they didn’t.
“Can I access the wifi so I can get in touch with my family who can give me a credit card number?” Wireless is past customs, and you still can’t go there.
I walked away from the counter and collapsed onto an empty chair. It was actually impossible for me to contact anyone- my phone wasn’t set up for Chile yet so I couldn’t call anyone I knew in either America or Chile, and since wifi wasn’t available, my computer and online text apps were absolutely useless. My mind started racing. I don’t even have enough money in my American bank account to buy a plane ticket home if worse came to worse. I’ve seen The Terminal. I KNOW WHAT CAN HAPPEN WHEN YOU GET STUCK IN AN AIRPORT!!
After taking a minute to calm down, I wandered all over the airport trying to figure out a solution. Most of the workers only spoke Spanish (go figure) so I talked to flight attendants who were guiding their patrons to connecting flights. I asked to switch currency with them, but unfortunately no one had cash. One flight attendant was even nice enough to speak to the currency exchange attendant, but to no avail. So, I was left with one option: go back to the reciprocity desk and plea with a different attendant.
When I was motioned to come forward at the desk, a younger lady took my bills and handed the exact same ones back to me as the first attendant did. I told her my situation and asked if I could speak to her manager to get advice about what to do. I’m not sure if she fully understood my explanation, or if she could pick up on the panic that edged my words, or if I just looked terrified and took pity on me, but the lady ended up taking two of the bills with the teeny tiny rips and I was good to go.
I practically danced with relief and bounded past the desk through customs. I didn’t even mind tracking down my checked bags in the baggage claim since at this point it was almost two hours past my landing time or searching the airport terminal to meet my new family. I was finally in the in country. In Chile.