By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

The Lectern: Google and my Brazil adventure/nightmare

I arrived in Brazil the day before yesterday, after several plane changes and over 15 hours of travel, to speak about procurement at the first-ever public management conference in Brasilia and to meet with national government officials about procurement issues. The conference was organized by the national government, but most of the 1,000 participants come from state governments.

At passport control, the immigration official looked carefully through my passport, two or three times. Finally, he asked, "Where is your visa?"

Yikes, I thought! Nobody from the Brazilian government told me I needed a visa, and I didn't have one. The police brought me into a room. After a few minutes, an English-speaking woman appeared, whom I soon discovered was a United Airlines representative. I showed her my printed-out emails with Brazilian government email addresses, and explained that I was in Brazil as a guest of the Brazilian government.

She informed me that without a visa, I could not stay in Brazil. It was l:30 Sunday afternoon (following a national holiday the previous Thursday and Friday). The return flight for Washington DC would leave at 6:30 pm Sunday evening. Unless I could get my Brazilian government hosts to get somebody appropriate at the Foreign Ministry or the Ministry of Justice (my hosts were in the Ministry of Planning, which runs procurement policy) to provide an emergency entrance document, I would be deposited on that plane and sent back to the U.S. (I later discovered that I was a minor pawn in US-Brazilian relations. Brazil is very adamant in treating foreign nationals the same way the foreign government in question treats Brazilian nationals -- given the hyper-vigilance of U.S. border officials in the post-9/ll and illegal immigration world, the idea of trying to work something until my Brazilian hosts could be contacted was not something the immigration officials had any intention of doing.)

My problem was I had email addresses for my hosts, but no phone numbers. The United Airlines representative looked at me with puzzlement when I asked whether there was any version of telephone directory assistance. Fortunately, United Airlines arranged for me to enter another airline's business class lounge (I could have been placed in an isolation cell, I guess), which meant I had computer access. The first thing I did was send an SOS email blast to all the people (about 6) I had been dealing with in Brazil. But these were all office addresses, and it was Sunday afternoon. (Okay, I know that half of my friends in the US government would probably be on their office emails on a Sunday afternoon, but I wasn't optimistic this would be the case in Brazil.)

Suddenly I came up with an idea. Just on a chance, I googled the name of my lead Brazilian host.

And guess what I found? His Google entries included a curriculum vitae with -- a home and office phone number.

I called the United Airlines lady and gave her the phone numbers.

The lady succeeded in reaching my host's wife. My host was on a flight to another city. She would call him when he arrived, about an hour later. Pretty soon, an email came from my host saying that he had gotten the message and would be working urgently to help. After that, he called the business class lounge at the airport to ask for my passport number. He was speaking personally to the Vice Minister of Justice.

Thirty minutes before the plane for Washington was to leave, my permission to enter Brazil came through.

An interesting example of how the Internet has changed our lives.

Posted by Steve Kelman on May 27, 2008 at 12:10 PM


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