This story will forever be embedded in my book of memories. It was my buddy Hayden’s first time backpacking and I say this because he put full faith in me and all of my experiences. I had planned the trip, reserved and booked all of our transfers and even sent him a “must bring” and “leave at home” list. With that said, picture this…
After hiking Machu Picchu and spending a week exploring the beautiful city of Cusco, we arrived at the airport to make our way North to Costa Rica. Walking with confidence and speaking in my advanced (broken) spanish we approached the ticket counter to check in. Passports, yep. Tickets, yep. Yellow fever card? Hmm….
“I choose not to get shots, but thanks for asking”. I said politely.
“Lo siento señorita, su necesaria para viajar” (sorry miss, it’s necessary to travel).
“No sir, I’ve been to Costa Rica before and I didn’t need a yellow fever card then, why now?”
Turns out coming from the north you don’t need it, but coming from the south you’re at a higher risk, so the shot is required before entering Costa Rica.
At this point, I’m still relaxed regardless of Hayden’s face expressing the “we’re doomed” look. “Where is the nearest doctor? We’ll go get the shot right now and return for the flight”.
Fun but not helpful fact: the shot must be in your system for 10 days prior to travel. This was unacceptable due to the fact that Hayden had his flight back to the states out of Costa Rica in just 8.
The man at the desk replied with a “best we can do” scenario and puts us on a flight to Lima which is the capital of Peru. He suggested that we might have more options there. So here we go, boarding a plane with no guarantee that we can connect to our final destination.
While sitting on this little transfer, my mind is searching all options. We could ditch the final flight and just take a bus over the border to try and sneak our non-yellow fever card carrying selves to Ecuador. Maybe we could hitch hike north until another opportunity presented itself or why not just jump to Mexico? They have beautiful beaches!
Landing in Lima, we gathered our backpacks and decided to approach the ticket counter as if there was nothing was to be concerned of. As the story goes, the same conversation began with the employee confirming that we will not be flying out of the country without our yellow fever card.
Turing to walk away with several thoughts running through my mind, we were casually signaled over by a woman who appeared to be a apart of the airport security. “You need your yellow fever card?” She asked.
Eagerly I responded with a guilty nod, “Ci!”. She gazed away ever so slightly as to avoid eye contact as she suggested we find a man in a red vest and tell him we’re in need of “Air Sanity”.
No time for questions, we’re now on a hunt through the Lima airport desperately looking for a red vested jolly man with, what I imagine, having a stash of yellow cards we can buy off him and be merry on our way. Wrong.
In our search for this “hombre de rojo”, Hayden spots a symbol resembling a Red Cross. We had nothing to lose as we approached a counter that was clearly a medical center. “Hola, necesitamos que nuestros… uhhh… amarillo uhh…”. She cuts me off, “You need your yellow fever card?”
She asks us to wait before returning with an elderly woman that had to of been at least 85 years old or 110 and looking great for her age. We followed her into a small room with a tiny business desk covered in several binders and random knick-nacks.
She proceeded to ask if we had a doctor from the United States that could confirm we have received the shots. The entire conversation went something like this:
“You have note with shots?”
“No señora, we don’t have the shots or a note.”
“Some Americans have doctor send paper in machine with card. Do you have a doctor?”
“No señora, I don’t. I’m sorry.”
By this time she is giving me the look of “I know you’re young, but come on lady, get my drift!”
“…but you can have a doctor with note?” She implied.
“Ohhh, ci señora… I do have a doctor with a note!”
“Good then, go with her” she said while pointing to a kind looking woman wearing an outfit that was nothing resembling a nurses outfit.
As Hayden and I made eye contact, I giggled with a shoulder shrug and scooted along behind her with relief knowing we’ll make our flight. Expected to be given a yellow fever card with a wink, I had another thing coming.
We ended our short walk in a room containing a deep freezer, a desk and blank walls decorated with graphs and a few disturbing posters with images of tropical diseases. She rolled out a dusty chair and proceeded.
“Please sit down. Who’s first?”
“I’m sorry, excuse me… what?”
All things became clear as she started to lay out two needles with a substance that, to this day, I have no idea what it really was.
“I’ll go!” I took a seat, and looked at Hayden as she whipped out the syringe. With no hesitation, I was being punctured in the upper arm and injected
with the mystery liquid. Now it’s Hayden’s turn!
To the best of my memory, I believe his words were something along the lines of “Erika, I knew your travels were crazy… but this is insane!”
A needle poke and a few bandaids later, we were sent back to the ancient woman’s room where she had two yellow cards. I watched as she turned back the dial on the date stamp confirming that indeed, we were in the USA 15 days prior and yes, our doctor sent a fax to her. On the way out, our unofficially-official nurse suggested we remove the bandaids before landing in Costa Rica to ensure they wouldn’t be suspicious of a recent shot.
Forty American dollars later, we had cards, tender arms and a half hour till our flight departed. Hoping for a different person at the ticket counter to avoid any awkward moment, we were not so lucky as we approached the same man who had previously turned us away. I walked up as if we had never been there before and plopped up our Passports, tickets and 2 brand new shiny yellow cards.
He looked everything over and glanced up at us, then stamped a few papers and concluded with a “Have a nice flight”.
With sweaty palms and the heart rate of a race horse, I walked away in relief that I had not completely let my pal down. If anything, just given him another story to share back home. Sweet victory!
Here’s the only photo from that day.