How an Ecuadorian pickpocket put a sudden end to our rtw trip

One of the most important things we learnt on this rtw trip is that it's worthwhile to always maintain a philosophical attitude to life no matter what happens to us, whether it looks good or bad, because such good/bad labels are only the result of how near-sighted we can be in seeing our real destiny. In short, the universe knows best, so it's best not to argue with it... Now here's the story of how at the end of our 33 months rtw trip the universe made us pass a really tough exam on the subject of "philosophical attitude to life". For those who don't know us, we are Jordi from Spain and Olga from Belarus who were travelling around the world from May 2010 till the beginning of 2013, and Atuk - an Alaskan Malamute puppy we got in Peru who's been travelling with us ever since.

So in the beginning of November 2012 we arrived in Latacunga, Ecuador, to do three things - admire the views of the Cotopaxi volcano - check, do a hike along the Quilotoa loop - check, and possibly attend the local fiesta Mama Negra (Black Mama)... On arrival we confirmed that this fiesta, which is meant to offer the occasionally restless Cotopaxi volcano its yearly dose of pacification activities, would indeed take place in just a few days. So we decided to do the Quilotoa hike and on arrival back in Latacunga wait a couple more days for the fiesta. You see, we thought the celebration would be in the style of all the indigenous festivals which usually have a lot of colourful performances and a truly authentic vibe. The Lonely Planet author of the Latacunga section made it sound like real fun. Who would've thought that the locals' way of pacifying the volcano was to get incredibly drunk and dance to the sound of clubbing music streaming to the streets from the huge loudspeakers placed in the trunks of their cars...

The day of the fiesta we woke up quite early and took a walk to the city centre with our puppy to try to find out a little bit better where the fiesta parade would take place (all the answers we'd got by then were too vague). We walked there for a while and could already see that the fiesta would get quite crowded, although this wasn't hard to guess judging by how all the hotels had increased the price and warned us to book that weekend in advance. At 9am the locals were still sending us "somewhere there" and telling us that the parade would start later. As the day would be very hot we decided to take our puppy back to the hotel and come back later. At around 10am we still couldn't see any action but the local women at the food stalls were insisting that we only needed to wait. It didn't look right, so to find this mysterious parade we had to act like private detectives - observe the human traffic, determine the main pattern in it and follow the people, and a short while later we finally found the place which without any doubt was designed as the parade route.

But to our huge disappointment after all the trouble we had taken to be in the centre of Latacunga well in time for the parade, by the time we got there the streets of the route were completely full. We also discovered that according to its brilliant planning the parade would pass through some really narrow streets only half of the width of which could be used by the pedestrians since the rest was covered by the countless beer stalls which seemed to be the main focus of the locals' interest. With such creative parade design only about one metre path was available for the human traffic which by that time was trickling at snail speed, with everybody pushing everybody else to try to get somewhere while nobody was getting anywhere. The brilliant design also included a couple of rows of chairs right along the parade enclosure which was effectively eating up quite a lot of space that could've been used for more comfortable walking and standing.

Our first instinct on arrival was to try to get to a quieter street (possibly with fewer beer stalls and maybe no chairs), so we joined the people stream and started our slow walk away from all the madness. We were squeezing/pushing and squeezed/pushed on our way through for about 10 minutes, when all of sudden Jordi told me he was getting worried for our bag. Now our waterproof bag from Thailand with its unusual roll-in closing mechanism is like a fortress of bags - pretty much invincible, so we briefly checked it and continued walking... Who would've thought that his flash of intuition was directed at real danger but at a wrong object!.. Just a few minutes later I heard his nervous "Wait! Our valuables!" At that instant I knew that in all the chaotic morning activities both of us overlooked one sacred rule of this trip - for a crowded event leave the small bag with our passports and cards which we affectionately call "valuables" at the hotel or put it inside our "fortress" bag. At the moment of that realization we both had a feeling that the time froze: as we stood there inside the noisy crowd the sound seemed to have fainted and the people - disappeared, as if somebody pushed the switch-off button for the party and left us in a kind of still silent bubble. I felt a weird mixture of despair and - strangely enough - relief! While Jordi was frantically going through our bag and trying to remember if he'd left the valuables at the hotel, I was telling him that we hadn't and that it meant only one thing - WE WERE GOING HOME!

Now I'd bet a lot of money that if you asked different rtw travellers what their worst nightmare was most answers would include a lost/stolen passport, and most of these travellers don't even come from Belarus - a country which doesn't make you a new passport abroad. We'd often joked with Jordi that out of all the things we carried on us during this trip my passport was without doubt our most and maybe only precious possession. We also knew that if we were ever to lose it, it would automatically mean the end of our trip. But we'd lasted so long and so safe that it seemed valid to joke about it :-). Once two Canadian guys we met in Vietnam asked us what our worst experience had been during our rtw trip - at that time our answer was "nothing in particular". Now we'd have a juicy story for them, and curiously enough it not only happened at the end but put an end to our rtw trip :-)! In one brief moment some Ecuadorian pickpocket undid our 29 countries/2.5 years impeccable rtw trip safety record, leaving us without a single document and with only one debitcard. Our valuables bag was so valuable and supposedly so protected that although we were not supposed to carry all of our valuables in one pack it seemed easier to keep all our attention only on one place, which on that day was pretty much the only place we both totally forgot about. In one word, for us it turned out to be a truly black "Black Mama" day...

Now earlier I claimed that this trip is teaching us more and more to not put any good/bad labels on any life occurrences, and that was the moment to walk the talk, which I think we did pretty fine, as in something like 5 minutes when all the pale ashes of hope to miraculously discover our valuables somewhere in the bag were extinguished, we shook off the momentary inaction and directed our mind at fixing the situation. The rest of the story is about what we had to do to get home - without any documents (in my case, passports and the Spanish residence permit) and with a puppy. Before I proceed to chapter two of this unplanned rtw-trip end story, I should mention only one thing: while we didn't really plan for it and were hoping to cross Central America before finally heading home, we had a lot of doubts about this plan (because money was getting scarce and the urge to get back to work - stronger), and I should confess that along with the disappointment over the loss of passports I felt a distinct sense of relief that all our doubts were eliminated in such a natural way by an Ecuadorian pickpocket,.. although I have to say Jordi didn't share this sentiment :-).

And here's what had to be done to get two people and one dog first out of Ecuador and then - into Europe. The first thing we did was roam the streets a little bit and look under our feet and inside the rubbish bins to see if we'd encounter our documents - an activity which was very difficult to carry out inside a drunk crowd which by that time was done with the parade (that had been merely a distracting nuisance from the beer-drinking anyway). We didn't find anything, so gave up because it was important to go and file a police report, which we did at some special remote police station. By that time the station was already full of locals who'd also been robbed and queueing to file a report. The funny thing is that there was plenty of police at the festival but they were all busy participating in the parade rather than trying to catch pickpockets which flock to Latacunga like bees to honey from all over the country on the Mama Negra day, as this drunken fiesta is like a bonus-payment day for them. Anyway, a half-literate female police officer took about 5 attempts to make a report and then we finally got a paper that listed everything that had been taken from us. She also told us that the chances of the cleaning people finding our passports were extremely slim and in general handled everything with an air that made us think that she'd seen hundreds of people who'd been robbed, didn't have any emotion towards them and for her we were just a number on a case which would never be solved. Out of many incompetent governmental institutions in Ecuador, police is probably the most appalling one.

Apart from getting a police report, we also went to check with the immigration office if we needed to do anything extra and got an answer to come back a few days before departure to get some pretty paper that would state that we'd been legal in Ecuador. (We did this in Manta later on and found out that no such paper was needed as the immigration officers at the airport would check the same database as any other immigration employee around the country). We also made a print-out offering a reward for our passports and plastered it all over the city, as well as put an advertisement in a local newspaper. However, deep inside we knew we were going home, so our next step was to get in touch with our consulates (Spanish and Belarusian) to find out what they could do for us. We spent a restless weekend waiting for Monday when we finally got a chance to talk to our consulates. Because Belarus has such few diplomatic representations around the world, I had a choice between Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela. I picked Venezuela and on Monday talked to the Belarusian Consul who told me to simply email him all the copies I had of all the documents I used to have and that he'd take a few days to do a check with Belarus that I was indeed a citizen and then issue me the so-called "Certificate to return to Belarus". It all turned out to be pretty easy, although in the end cost a lot of Skype credit spent on calls to the Consul who for some reason at that time was always busy with matters more serious than my silly document. Jordi's Consulate was right there in Quito and they informed him that he could either obtain a new passport which would last 6 weeks or come two days before departure to get the same certificate like me.

Now that we knew we both were covered with the documents to go back to our countries where we would make new passports, it was time to take care of our puppy's papers. It's funny, but our rtw trip started with trouble with our other pet's documents (in all the chaos of moving a country we shipped our cat Balu's passport from our home in Holland to Spain on a minivan that was transporting our stuff while the cat had to still take a flight) and finished the trip sorting out the documents but now for our new pet - our puppy Atuk. Luckily for us, the requirements of entering an animal into CIS (Russia and Belarus) are not very strict and include only a proper health certificate and a valid rabies vaccination, so because Europe is much tougher it was obvious who Atuk would be travelling with. We also needed to buy a proper crate for our quickly growing puppy and book the flights for all of us. The crate had to be solved first because we couldn't even leave Latacunga (Atuk was too big to go in his baby-sized one). We did a lot of research and finally ordered a giant-sized crate from a South American producer which would be delivered only in a week. We placed the order and spent the waiting week training our puppy and doing research for our next move.

Because we could see that all the predeparture activities would take at least another three weeks, we'd already travelled Ecuador by that time and wanted to minimize the living costs, we decided to try something we'd already done in South Korea and applied for a few volunteering opportunities through platform. We told ourselves that as always we would choose the place which replied first, and so we did. The place turned out to be the Donkey Den guesthouse located on the gorgeous Santa Marianita beach near Manta, and we got the reply from its wonderful owner Linda who sent us a brief "All three of you are very welcome here. Come as soon as you can." Just a few days later we arrived in Manta, loaded with stuff and feeling so immobile with our new giant crate for Atuk that we were wondering how we were thinking of continuing travelling at all. We took a pickup to the Santa Marianita beach (about 20-minutes drive from Manta) and soon found ourselves at a very quiet beautiful long beach with just three guesthouses and a few houses. Linda welcomed us while her 4 dogs were welcoming Atuk (the usual sniffing, warning growling etc.). For the next few weeks we'd help Linda take care of her many animals and do some of the usual guesthouse chores, in exchange for a great room, internet connection (which was really important given our situation and the amount of things to fix), access to an excellently equipped kitchen and the luxury of being surrounded by a lot of fun people and cuddly animals. Now one thing that should be mentioned about Donkey Den is that it's probably one of the few places so close to heaven on Earth for both animals and animal-loving humans - it's right at the sea so you see and hear it all the time, it's tranquil and happy and there's always someone furry to cuddle. Linda being one of the few genuinely kind people in this world keeps saving stray animals and backpackers alike, offering the former a permanent and the latter - a temporary home. Among such stray backpackers were Jordi and I, Trevor from Australia who claims to turn into super-Trev when powered by certain distilled liquids but from our point of view is pretty super anyway, two awesome Belgian guys Joris and Joost (J1 and J2 for short) who started their own rtw trip by walking Camino de Santiago and turning up in Santa Marianita on exactly the same day as us, Helena - a sweet Dutch girl on her own way around the world, Donkey Den longer-term residents Hungarian Gary and Colombian Vivi with their travelling cat Dexter and Oleg from Russia who'd lived around the world for the past few years off his rent in Moscow - Linda would justly and proudly call us the United Nations.

During our stay Donkey Den was always welcoming newcomers: on the day of our arrival it acquired 4 humans (us and the two J's) and one animal (a sweet dog named Daisy who was recovering from hew spaying operation and waiting for a new home), a couple of days later Trevor arrived, then two little deserted puppies from a neighbour's place joined the dog pack (Holly and Molly), then Helena arrived, then Eric and Chris from South Africa. In the meantime one puppy left (a poor little thing that had mange and died from most probably collapsed lungs), Daisy left for a new home, guests kept coming and going. During the time we spent together, we worked, cooked, ate, took walks on the beach, swam (and even tried to surf a few times) and had all sorts of fun together. As to cooking in order to introduce economy of scale we all ate together and only vegetarian food, as by some funny coincidence J1 and J2 were on a vegetarian diet, Jordi, me and Helena as well, so the non-vegetarians had no choice but to eat healthy :-). There were few splashes on the smooth surface of our peaceful routine in Santa Marianita: a few times the guys helped the local fishermen retrieve the huge nets and got a few kilos of fish as a token of appreciation, once we joined the fishermen party where whole families of fishermen danced to a live band and drank litres and litres of aguardiente (sugarcane rum), once we went to Montañita - the surfing mecca 3-hours drive away for some party time, once we saw quite a bad accident on the way from Manta back to Donkey Den only to find out that one of the two cars involved belonged to Linda's frequent guests who luckily didn't have any injuries in their escape from a crazy local driver who entered a dangerous curve somewhere between the middle of the road and the opposite lane but they needed help in getting their surfing boards back to Santa Marianita so it was funny how we happened to be there at the very right time. Our farewell drinking party over a drinkopoly (drink + monopoly) game was the last such splash...

And while Jordi and I could've thought of dozens awesome ways to spend our free time in Santa Marianita, sadly most of it was dedicated to finding a way to fly all three of us back home. While these days it's quite easy to get cheap flights, this time we had many more variables in the equation: first, our travel documents to go back home would allow us only to transit through any other country; second, Atuk couldn't get into EU because we didn't have the rabies antibodies test which has a waiting period of 3 months after the collection of the blood sample before an animal can enter Europe; third, we were flying with a pet which depending on the airline can be impossible/very expensive or on the contrary quite affordable; and fourth, in Ecuador we ordered two custom-made surfing boards, so we needed airlines that didn't charge for special equipment. Did I mention we also had a guitar? I don't think anybody ever travelled with a more complete special luggage package and with no passports at the same time :-)...

Anyway, after the usual look-up of flight combinations with the help of online flight agencies (like edreams) we got an idea of the flights that could solve our complicated equation and first tried to book them with individual airlines. After a few calls we found out that it wasn't as simple as it could/should be and that if we wanted to make sure we could be checked in to our last destination together with the luggage, we should book our flight with an online agent which would ensure that we only saw connected flights from airlines that have mutual passenger/luggage handling agreements. Along the way we also learnt that according to the so-called IATA rules on connected flights your excess luggage is charged only by one airline that has priority in that connected flight (in case of a trans-Atlantic plus a European flight combination the airline that would take you across the ocean would have an obvious priority).

Our first pick of an online agent was which we'd used many times before (although with some disappointments - hence our initial desire to avoid an agent). We tried to book a connected flight for me and Atuk which included three flights (Quito - Madrid - Moscow - Minsk) the first one of which would be with LAN, a Chilean airline that charges relatively little for a pet (180 USD for an animal above 23 kilos) and transports surfing boards for free. One of the reasons to choose edreams was that they had a fair policy of not charging the money for the flights before they'd get a confirmation for the animal from the airlines involved, but it turns out one good policy doesn't compensate for absence of professional employees, as what looked like a very simple transaction turned into a two-week waste of time and quite some money on countless skype calls. From the very beginning we had all the signs that our affair with edreams wasn't an example of the path of least resistance: their online interface failed three creditcards we tried to use to make a booking, we had to make a bank transfer and send a fax to confirm the transaction (luckily, Jordi's dad helped us with that one) and once they had the money they took two weeks to accomplish exactly nothing in obtaining the confirmation for our puppy from all the involved airlines. We made many calls and wrote many emails and every time we spoke to somebody we'd hear a different story of what was going on with our booking: now they'd tell us that one airline denied the puppy request and the two others approved it, then that two denied and one approved, then that all approved and they only needed to confirm the total fee, then again that somebody denied... When we finally had the courage to confess to ourselves that we were going nowhere with this wonderful agent, we already were just over a week away from our planned departure date (which couldn't be scheduled any later because it was already Christmas and the whole month around it meant totally different level of flight prices).

That's the time when we cancelled our booking with edreams (which would take a month to return us the money) and decided to turn to a Dutch company, Dutch for us being a synonym of professionalism and sanity. This time to simplify the whole booking, I decided to reduce the number of my flights to two, skipping the one from Moscow to Minsk, since in Moscow I'd have to enter the territory of the Russia-Belarus customs union (meaning I'd have to pass the passport and customs control in Domodedovo) anyway. The whole transaction with the Dutch flights agent was much simpler but not without its hiccups. On the positive side we were able to pay in seconds using our Dutch debitcard (the only one that escaped the thrifty hands of the pickpocket), but on the negative side their employees didn't possess the usual creative attitude of Dutch professionals we were used to after the few years we'd worked in Holland. When they started telling us that our puppy was denied on a LAN flight which sounded so similar to what we'd had from the Spanish edreams, we decided it was time to find out exactly what was going on directly from the airlines.

The answers we got struck us by how tragically stupid it all was: LAN didn't have any trouble flying an animal but their pet department would automatically decline a pet request if they didn't have an e-ticket number, the agent doesn't issue an e-ticket for a booking with a special request (so that the passenger doesn't pay before the animal is confirmed), LAN sends a simple "denied" answer back (probably because their Chilean employees don't speak a word of English and try to minimize the number of words they need to look up) and Vliegtickets ends the whole process by delivering the bad news to the customer. Well, the customer being us, we tried to push them to figure out with LAN what reasons they had to deny a pet but got a response that it would take a lot of time and was not likely to be successful. That's when we started calling and it took us just one short call to LAN to figure out the whole sad misunderstanding with the missing e-ticket number. So we asked Vliegtickets to revive our booking (which they cancelled automatically following a negative response regarding the pet from one of the airlines) and asked them to issue us the e-ticket and place the pet request again. Vliegtickets didn't have an option of returning the money for an issued e-ticket in case an animal wouldn't get accepted on a flight, but we took the risks of paying for the flights, because by that time we'd managed to get through to the special luggage department of LAN (something incredibly difficult to accomplish because of the airline policies according to which the employees of this department are treated as if they were special agents) and confirmed with them that there shouldn't be any problem with getting our puppy on the LAN flight. Based on our talk with LAN we expected everything to be fine but to our surprise, for the second time Vliegtickets sent us the "denied" response without any explanations.

By that time we got fed up with the whole agent-in-between nuisance and asked the Vliegtickets employees to leave the pet reservation to us, a suggestion they accepted gladly. We called LAN once again and this time managed to find out that our puppy was not really refused on the flight - they were simply lacking essential information to approve him, like his age, breed and weight. Having provided LAN with all these data, we called Vliegtickets to tell them that apparently they simply should have given the airline more details on our puppy, to which they replied that they always used a standard request form, and while I humbly suggested that it would pay off to adjust the request if a specific airline needed more information they told me "it usually works" - a brilliant attitude for an agent of any kind, don't you think? Luckily, after a couple more days of waiting when we were something like half a week away from the departure date we finally got our dog confirmed by both airlines and could breeze out with relief.

However, obtaining the flights was not the only part of our going home adventure filled with vicissitudes, as we also needed to collect a bunch of pretty papers for us and Atuk. This would cost us two trips to Quito: the first one for Jordi to obtain a new police report which was certified by a whole bunch of lawyer and judges whose signature would entitle the document to an apostille, and the second one - to collect our "temporary passports" from the Spanish and Russian Consulate correspondingly and to make another report for me with the same number of stamps and signatures from the lawyers and judges. Atuk's documents were another chapter of this long story as according to the Ecuadorian law we needed to obtain an export certificate for our puppy. This cost an extra day in Guayaquil - the city of our departure and sort of Southern capital of Ecuador and a lot of walking between various vets, print shops and banks... Now with so much effort invested into obtaining all the right documents, all the permissions, all the confirmations, you'd think we'd have smooth sailing from Ecuador all the way till home, but universe had another test of self-control for us right at the finishing line.

The evening before our flights we arrived in Guayaquil, loaded with two custom-made surfing boards which we picked up on our way from the workshop in Manta where Atuk managed to dip his freshly washed white fur into wax (thank God for dissolvent), two backpacks, a guitar, a giant-size crate and a puppy. In Guayaquil we took a local bus (with some help from a sweet local guy and some grumbling from the driver) from the station to the airport where we found a budget hotel and slept like babies till the next morning. The day of our departure was the one we spent running between all the vets to try to find one that could make us an international health certificate for Atuk, which was a waste of time - none of them could issue the right certificate. This was really disappointing as we arrived in Guayaquil one day before departure precisely to try to obtain this document which no vet could make us in Manta. Then we gave up trying to find it and obtained a simple paper from a disturbingly unprofessional vet who stated that Atuk was healthy and with that paper went to the airport where their specialized vet issued us the so-called export certificate which - hallelujah! - fulfilled all the requirements of an international health certificate. All set, we waited for a couple of hours at the airport and were among the first people in the line to register for our flights.

The plan was that we would all take the same LAN flight till Madrid where Atuk and I would get transferred to the flight to Moscow with Siberian Airlines (S7) and Jordi would take a flight to Barcelona where he'd get his new passport and spend Christmas with his family while I'd obtain an invitation from the local police for him to join us for New Year in Belarus. It all was looking very well with the registration - the sweet girl who started processing our booking really liked our puppy and was all smiles... until she checked her system and discovered that she couldn't check in the puppy for the S7 flight, because the system was giving her "Animals not allowed" error! We told her that it was impossible since we'd confirmed the pet (several times), and her first reaction was very good as she decided to issue a manual luggage tag for our puppy's crate which would mean that he'd get successfully transferred in Madrid because the only people who deal with the luggage - the airport luggage handling personnel - only need that tag. However, while fetching the manual tag from another desk, the girl must have dropped a comment about the whole thing to her colleagues and they must have gotten her all hesitant and worried, so in the end she decided to check it with the supervisor. Now our usual approach in case of trouble is also to ask for a manager, as the more decision-making authority the easier it usually is to solve the problem, but in this case it was all opposite: the guy was all about procedures, rules etc. He told us they couldn't check in our puppy till Moscow because while they did have agreements with S7, those didn't cover animals. He kept looking apologetic and not offering any solution, just mumbling excuses about how they'd get a fine till we firmly told him that we'd done plenty of homework regarding the flights: we learnt about the necessity to use agents to guarantee a transfer of luggage (including pets) on connected flights, that we'd personally confirmed the dog with both airlines, and that we'd also confirmed with LAN that on our connected flight the dog would get checked in till Moscow and transferred in Madrid, so we didn't feel like taking the responsibility for a flaw/bug in their special luggage check-in system.

This little speech got the supervisor a little bit more solution-oriented, as he told us they'd try to put us on Iberia flights without any additional charges (Iberia being their good friend). This didn't work out as Iberia didn't have the right combination of flights. By that time all the people had checked in and were about to start boarding. We pressed them to get in touch with S7 who we were sure would tell them they were expecting our puppy on their plane to Moscow and even gave them the S7 phone number as ridiculously enough they didn't have any... However, in the end as the flight was about to depart they offered us only one option - we could take that flight but they'd only check in the puppy and me till Madrid, but they'd get in touch with their colleagues in Madrid who'd try to do their best to arrange the transfer to Moscow. We had to take our chances, so we grabbed our boarding cards, left Atuk and the surfing boards with the LAN employees (without anybody charging us the 180 USD for the dog) and ran through the passport and security control all the way to the boarding gate. Because of my special travel document I also got special treatment from the crew who collected my pretty "certificate to return to Belarus" at the boarding gate and told me I'd get it back in Madrid once a Spanish police officer would have me checked and make sure I wouldn't try to sneak into Spain without a valid visa (although I live there and have a valid - but stolen - residence permit :-). And to make the flight excitement package complete, the universe also made sure that Jordi was one of the few passengers who were selected by the system for a random drugs luggage check so while I ran alone to the boarding gate and was taken by a steward to the airplane, Jordi was helping the LAN employees search his backpack, so we only met on board...

The whole long flight from Ecuador to Spain we had no idea how it all would go but decided that no matter what happened we'd sort it out, even if it would include begging the Spanish immigration and customs officers to temporarily let me and our puppy into Europe in order for us to catch our flight to Moscow... But it all went remarkably well in Madrid as on arrival we were met right at the door of the airplane by a LAN employee who picked up my pretty certificate from the stewardess and took us first to the police officer who instead of interrogating me like a criminal (as they would probably do in UK) advised us to make another local police report regarding our stolen passports. Then together with the LAN employee we went to the transfer desk where the more confident and more competent Iberia employees got in touch with S7 and issued a boarding pass for my next flight and a luggage tag for Atuk. The only half-expected surprise was that since we didn't pay to LAN which meant there was no payment slip I'd have to pay for the pet to S7 which would cost us 10 EUR per kilo and would amount to 160 EUR (the girl who typed in Atuk's weight put only 16 kilos into the system). Since 160 EUR was pretty much what we would've paid to LAN (180 USD), we accepted the deal... and that was it! Finally the doubts, the stress, the troubles, the documents hunt, the calls, the frustration with all the silly laws, procedures, buggy systems and incompetent people - it was all over! We breathed out, kissed each other a temporary good-bye and took our separate flights.

On arrival in Moscow I passed the immigration (which involved some long thinking and an attempt to reach a supervisor on behalf of the young immigration officer but a final entry stamp in my pretty certificate), got my puppy at the odd-size luggage spot (and almost forgot my bag at the normal luggage belt) and the two of us, accompanied by the admiring glances and comments of the other arriving passengers, reached the customs hall where I headed straight for an officer and asked him where I should go with the dog. To my huge surprise and relief he simply gestured "go-go" towards the door and I was out of that airport before he finished the gesture. It was closer to midnight but we managed to catch one of the last express trains from Domodedovo to Moscow. Once in the city, we took a metro to the Belorussian station where we spent a few hours waiting for our bus to Minsk, with the same admiring comments and glances like in the airport. I only wish by that time Atuk were already grown up and could be pulling his own giant 11kg crate, but since he wasn't I will always have the painful memory of carrying it around the Moscow metropolitan :-). The drivers of the bus to Minsk the next morning insisted that the puppy goes in the salon, so Atuk spent the next few hours till the last Russian city on the seat next to me and then when the bus got crowded - in the passage between the seats (a total of 10 hours!). The whole way he was inciting continuous admiration from the rest of passengers who all simply adored him for his stoic attitude (he can be a perfect dog - only when he wants to :-). And - here's the funny/tragic part - on the whole way from Ecuador to Belarus nobody checked our puppy's documents, not once! In fact, nobody has ever checked his documents and he's already crossed 3 borders! So a few days before Catholic Christmas the two of us finally arrived at our Belarusian home, while Jordi arrived at his Spanish home. A week later we all got reunited for New Year, and in another short while we'll all head for Spain which we'll be our temporary home and where we'll finally start working on the projects we've long been looking forward to, till one day we move to a place which we'll truly want to call a home.

On a finishing note, this long trip opened our eyes to the fact that a place to live just like anything in this world can be chosen and during our journey we discovered places and cultures which inspire us. Santa Marianita where providence brought us (using a pickpocket as a tool) curiously enough ended up in the top three of our potential home locations, so we even spent some time during our last days in Ecuador checking the beachfront/ocean view lots for sale all around the coast in Ecuador. I guess if one day we end up living there we'd confirm our intuitive guess that what happened to us with the stolen passports was - as it always is - just a piece of our lives' beautiful puzzle. And I'll finish this long story with one neat fact: just before the start of our rtw trip Jordi's dad gave me a National Geographic watch which by now has been set to the times of 29 different countries in 12 time zones for the past 33 months - well, it stopped exactly the day I arrived home in Belarus, which in my humble opinion is a definite proof of how it all makes perfect sense :-).

Last days in Latacunga. On the right - Atuk and Jordi chilling out in our puppy's giant crate:

First views of Manta:

Santa Marianita beach:

Atuk with his new friends - Daisy and one of the two puppies:

Atuk running with Jordi and Joost:

Fishermen retrieving nets at the Santa Marianita beach:

From time to time we saw big animals very close to the beach in Santa Marianita - dolphins, mantas. If mantas get entangled in the fishing nets, the fishermen always free them, like in this photo:

Atuk was always the first one to try the fish which the fishermen rewarded the guys with for their help with pulling the nets:

The views of Santa Marianita and La Tiñosa beaches:

Santa Marianita due to its unique micro-climate attracts kite surfers from all around the world:

A surfing/bodyboarding session:

Some views of Donkey Den:

Joost and Joris in the temporary "workshop":

Jordi learning to plaster the wall:

Photos by Helena - Jordi and Eric collecting the fish from the net, and me - cleaning the carpet which by that time had a lot of pee samples from all the three puppies:

The walk to the Latiñosa beach:

Atuk looking silly and half his usual size after some swimming:

Over the past 10 years the sea stole so much land at the Chanduy beach near Salinas that half-ruined foundations is all that's left of the whole first line:

Jordi at the Crucita beach:

Fishermen boats in Manta:

"I hate to see you go":

Atuk and Daisy drinking from the tap:

Atuk recovering his strength to later engage in more bullying of the little puppies, running with the other dogs, chasing cats and other important tasks:

Atuk, Holly and Molly:

"Three little kittens they lost their mittens...":

On the left - the one and only surfing boards master of Manta, Rene Burgos, giving a finishing touch to our custom-made boards; on the right - Rene's workshop where each board tells the story of its owner's personality:

A glorious sunset on one of our last evenings in Santa Marianita:

It's not our last post since technically we are still in travelling mode here in Belarus, but in this post we'd like to once again thank all the people who were very supportive and helped us solve the pickle we got ourselves into in Ecuador, with special thanks going to Linda for her enormous support and unrivalled kindness, to Jaume for his always being there and fixing things with just a simple skype call from us, to the guys at Donkey Den for being understanding regarding all those skype calls that would slow down their browsing and to Rene Burgos - the creator of our awesome surfing boards - for his invaluable tips and amazing (non-Ecuadorian) responsibility. Our heartfelt thanks go to all of you!