Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Mission….Not Impossible

I am not a seasoned traveler. Not by plane anyway. I think in all of my nearly 58 years on this earth I have flown on seven round-trips. I think I have flown alone twice. Two times alone on a plane. So I was a bit nervous when the time arrived for me to fly alone to Ecuador. It didn’t help that I began the trip with about 2 hours of sleep under my belt. Dean had rolled his eyes and accused me of not trusting him when I set my iPod alarm in addition to the travel alarm he had brought. “I don’t want to lay awake all night worrying about missing my flight. I want a backup so I can sleep without worrying,” I said to him. Fat lot of good that did me since I spent most of the night checking my iPod every half hour or so to see what time it was. I did that by hiding it under the covers so when I clicked it to see the time, the bright light wouldn’t wake Dean up and cause more eye rolling. It turned out I didn’t really need to worry because my cell phone rang and scared the bejezus out of me just as I was getting dressed. Apparently I had signed up for reminder calls from Orbitz and an automated voice was calling to remind me about my flight time.

When you don’t fly much, you don’t know or remember all the things you need to know and remember. Like having your passport ready to show people, or how to work the stupid boarding pass machine, or even which ticket counter is yours. Did you know that you have to put your carryon liquids through security separately now? I didn’t. I’m not the person you want to be behind when it’s check-in/security time if you are in a whoppin’ hurry; especially when I’m a zombie walking around on one or two hours of sleep. I managed to get myself checked in and I was happy to see that the hours I’d spent paring down, repacking, rearranging and redistributing all my stuff between my suitcase and huge purse paid off when my suitcase came in at .75 pounds underweight.

Everything went smoothly until I arrived in Houston. Well, the arrival part went fine. It was the departing that became an issue. It started pouring buckets. I could see the worry lines in the brow of the woman at the counter growing deeper and deeper. She was giving secret-code looks to the other counter people.  Then there was thunder and lightning in addition to a torrential downpour. I didn’t need to be a seasoned traveler to know things weren’t looking good for making my connection in Panama. I overheard a stewardess tell someone that one bolt of lightning hit a plane as it was beginning to taxi out. I think that must have been when the airport powers said, “Huh, maybe we should ground this airport for a little while. Let’s divert the plane that’s supposed to come here and then fly to Panama to San Antonio instead. And when the storm’s over we’ll bring it here and then spend time cleaning it. That ought to take about four hours and 15 minutes.”

My hope that I would still make my connection in Panama turned into fear that my 2 ½ hour weekly Spanish lessons weren’t going to be enough to help me survive being stuck, alone, in Panama City overnight. I went into survival mode. I started listening to my fellow delayed passengers. I sat in one place for a while and listened, then as another seat opened up, I would move there and listen some more. It wasn’t long until I discovered two women who spoke both Spanish and English. I visited with them about the weather, the delayed flight, and the odds of making our connection. One of them was a mechanical engineer from Venezuela (whose name I never could pronounce so I can’t remember) and one was a recently graduated Biology/Spanish major, Lindsey, from Minnesota who had come home from a summer college program in the Galapagos with more than a tan. I cooed over the 9-week old baby, Diondre, she was taking back to meet his dad for the first time. I stuck to them like duct tape on cat fur.

Once the Houston airport was ungrounded and we were finally on the way to Panama City, I sat by a seven year old boy from Canada who was heading to Columbia with his mom to visit family. He spoke fluent French and Spanish and pretty good English. I figured an innocent little boy would be the perfect victim to use my newly acquired Spanish with. I wouldn’t have to worry about rolling eyes or stifled giggles or making an idiot of myself trying to talk to an adult; especially when his mom was sitting next to him telling him to “be nice to the lady.” He put up with me for a while and then in his own special seven-year old way, he told his mom that my accent was “really, really bad”.

When we finally landed at the Panama City airport at nearly midnight instead of 7 p.m., I not only had two new best friends, I had friends who were fluent in Spanish.  We walked into a Panama City airport that was

empty except for the few employees forced to remain and get rid of  take care of us. It was a bit surreal and eerie. I half expected to see Stephen King lurking in the corner. We gathered into a group and a very nice gentleman told us (in both Spanish and English) that some of us would be able to fly out the next day (Saturday). He then squared his shoulders, took a big breath, and bravely told us that many would not be leaving until Sunday because the planes were full. He made a point to tell us that the employees there didn’t know any of us personally; they hadn’t shown any preference as to who would be leaving Saturday or Sunday, and almost pleaded with us not to be mad at him. I felt almost as sorry for him as I did for me.

First he handed out boarding passes to the people leaving on Saturday. When he came to the big stack of Sunday boarding passes and my name had not yet been called, my new best friend from Venezuela took me up to the ticket counter person, talked away in Spanish, and next thing you know I had a boarding pass for Saturday. As it turned out, the boarding passes were all mixed up and my name would eventually have been called for Saturday anyway, but it was nice not to have to wait and worry until the end of the stack to find that out.

After we got our boarding passes, they herded us all into vans and drove us to the one hotel near the airport where there were 30 empty rooms waiting for 93 passengers. They told us we could pick who we wanted to room with or we could stand in a line that snaked out the door and take our chances. My new best friends

and I were so in tune with each other by then that all it took was one look to each other and my friend from Venezuela marched up to the hotel counter, filled out the form, and by 1 a.m we were in our room. Lindsey and Diondre took one bed. My Venezuela friend and I shared the other bed. I can only assume that there were multiple men sleeping on the hard, cold, tile floor since we all know men will not share a bed….even if they know each other. We women, on the other hand, had no qualms about sharing. For a while every now and then during the night I would hear a rumbling that I first thought was thunder. But then I realized it was the wheels of suitcases rolling down the tiled hallway as people finally got their rooms.

The next morning at 9 a.m. I was in the van on the way back to the airport. The hotel had told us the van left every half hour and Lindsey had slept in and wasn’t ready to leave yet so my Venezuelan best friend walked me to the van (she couldn’t fly out until 7 p.m. that night, poor woman) and I left while Lindsey was still in her pajamas. I know that sounds heartless. How could I leave my new best friend behind? But survival mode kicked in again. There was no way I was going to miss that van ride and be late checking in. Turns out the vans left whenever anybody happened to be ready and Lindsey made it in plenty of time.

On the flight from Panama to Guayaquil I sat next to a very nice gentleman who was returning to Ecuador for a visit with his family. We had interesting discussions about politics, business and kids. When he heard my story about the missed connection and bringing Abby’s wedding dress to her, he told me he “would not leave me at the Guayaquil airport until he knew Abby was there waiting for me.” He was true to his word and it was a good thing. He beat me through customs and was there waiting for me at the baggage carousel. He had already bought a cart for my luggage and wouldn’t let me pay him back. He loaded my cart with my bags and off we went. Abby had warned me to keep track of my baggage claim ticket because they would check. They did. The people in front of me had two carts loaded with so many suitcases that when the man checked their claim ticket against their luggage he discovered they’d missed a piece. When he checked my ticket he discovered that it didn’t match my luggage tag. They hadn’t given me a new one in Panama. All I heard was “blah, blah, blah, blah” as he looked at my claim ticket and my bag. I had no idea what he was saying. I dug out every piece of paper I had and nothing was what he wanted. My newest best friend came to my rescue and explained the whole story. I showed Mr. Baggage Checker my passport, signed a paper and he let me through. All I could think was, “at least I have the wedding dress in a carryon bag, at least I have the wedding dress, I have the wedding …”

Finally, one flight delay, one missed connection, one unexpected night in Panama city, new friends from around the world, and approximately 30 hours after I left Denver, I saw Abby and Jorge’s smiling faces. My third best friend shook my hand, we wished each other well, and he went to his family while I went for a big hug with Abby and Jorge.

Throughout all the delays, van rides and unexpected stays, the only time my hand was not touching my carryon bag containing the precious wedding dress (the delivery of which was reason behind this trip) was when it was in the overhead storage bin on the planes. And even then I made sure it was in a bin I could keep my eye on. I’d had a nightmare a few nights before I left that somebody was chasing me trying to get the dress away from me so I was happy and more than a little relieved to hand over the responsibility for it to Abby. My mission had been accomplished.

Coming up next … Quevedo and the family.  And pictures.◦


Amber said...

What an adventure! Thank goodness for people who speak multiple languages. When I was in France there was a Canadian woman who helped me get to the correct portal. It's such a relief to know people are helpful and kind.
You are so funny! The cat and duct tape comment made me laugh out loud. And getting the wedding dress to Abby sounds like a relief! I bet you were so happy to see Abby and Jorge at the end of your arrival. When I first arrived in Paris, my friend was 1 1/2 hours late to pick me up. I just sat and waited and figured she would show up sometime! And when I left Paris I set my alarms, hardly drank any wine, and worried about arriving at the airport on time (since my friend was late when she picked me up!). I understand why you set so many alarm clocks! I look forward to your future posts about Ecuador.

Abby said...

It was a relief when you finally made it. I felt so sorry for you when I realized you would be sleeping in Panama, but you managed just fine.

Art Elser said...

My goodness, but adventures follow you everywhere you go, Cathy. Next time I'm up in Casper, I think I'll just follow you around taking notes so my blog will have some zip to it.

Glad everything turned out so well for you. If you need an even better stick-to-um analogy, you can use Herman hair to anything within twenty feet. ;-) It doesn't just stick, it jumps at you as you walk past.

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