Monday, November 23, 2009

Extreme Peru: Part One

A Process in Surrender

Before this trip, I never had a bad airport experience. Perhaps my luck changed, or perhaps the statistical law of averages simply drew my number for something different.

My flights were supposed to follow a relatively easy series of connections from Spokane to Salt Lake City, Salt Lake City to Atlanta, and finally Atlanta to Lima, Peru. The final segment was planned as a straight-shot, six-hour flight that would have gotten us to Lima just before midnight of the same day. No problem, right?
Our luck began to spoil in Salt Lake City.

Sheli and I arrived in Salt Lake from different flights, but we would travel together for the remainder of the trip. We boarded our connecting flight to Atlanta filled with excitement for the adventures yet to come. But we never guessed the ordeal we would have to endure before our arrival in Peru.

A few minutes after the airline boarded everyone onto the Atlanta flight, they announced a gate change. Some mechanical error had occurred, so they filed everyone off the plane and onto a different, smaller aircraft. We had a full flight, so some people lost their connections altogether, but the airline seemed to understand the special predicament of those connecting to Peru. We thought they were getting us to
Atlanta as quickly as possible, with just enough time to make our connection.

But once we boarded the second aircraft, they discovered a thin layer of frost on the wings, so then we had to wait for the de-icers to do their job.

Up to this point, no one can be blamed for the problems we encountered. Mechanical errors happen all the time, and certainly the weather does not accommodate human schedules. For me, the real human problems began once we arrived in Atlanta.

As the aircraft made its final descent into Atlanta, the captain announced that our arrival would occur only minutes before our scheduled departure to Lima. When Sheli and I explained our situation to the flight attendant, she smiled and said, “Oh don’t worry about that. You’re not the only ones on this flight making a connection to Lima. The captain has already called ahead and instructed the other flight to wait for you.” She told us to go directly to the ticket counter where a new boarding pass would be issued.

The plane landed and we did exactly as the flight attendant instructed. A woman at the ticket counter gave us a new boarding pass and told us to run to the next gate. We had only gotten a few yards when another passenger stopped us. “The plane left,” she said in Spanish.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Because I’m making the same connection and the airline told me the plane has already gone,” Rosi was the name of the woman who said this. Her name is important because she appears in the story later.

“Why would they tell us something different?” I asked. My trust had not yet been shaken. But sure enough, the reader board indicated that the flight to Lima had indeed departed on the original schedule. They had not waited at all.

Sheli and I returned to the ticket counter, with anxiety and betrayal beginning to build. The ticket agent looked positively frazzled, but she politely informed us that she would print us a new itinerary that we would take to our original gate. “I’m sure they’ll get you on the next flight,” she said. We thanked her and continued onward.

But when I looked at the document she printed, no gate was listed. We finally had to stop at an electronic kiosk where we scanned the form. The faceless computer then spit out a boarding pass for our new flight to São Paulo, Brazil. “This has to be a mistake,” I said. We tried to get a flesh and blood human being to give us an answer, but every agent we found told us we had to proceed to the gate indicated on the boarding pass.

We finally arrived at our new gate and stood in line to speak with yet another agent.

The woman at the gate was having a bad day. As she helped the people ahead of us, she stood with her cell phone wedged between her ear and her shoulder. She hardly even looked at the customers as she complained to someone about working at this particular station. “That’s rah-t,” she whined into the phone, “I ain’t ever workin’ this gate agin. It’s ba-ad.” We must have interrupted her call, because she seemed put-out when we demanded her full attention. She glared at us as she ended her call and began typing into the computer.

After several minutes, she said there was no mistake. We had to catch a connecting flight from the airport in São Paulo to Lima. Sheli and I pushed her to find a different flight, perhaps through someplace closer like Panama or Ecuador, but there was nothing. “This is the only flight,” she said.

I thought I could accept the change, but then the same woman made an announcement over the PA system requesting that all US passengers going to Brazil present their tourist visas for inspection at the gate. I got in line again to inform the woman that we did not have tourist visas. She looked at me down her nose and said, “If you ain’t got no visa, you ain’t goin’ to Brazil. Period.”

“How could you expect us to have a visa?” I asked, “We were supposed to go to Peru, not Brazil.”

“Don’t matter,” she said, “If you ain’t got no visa, you ain’t gettin’ on this plane.”

At that point, I thought one of us was going to blow a fuse. “How do you expect us to get a visa when the plane is boarding in just a few minutes?” Sheli demanded, “Didn’t Delta consider that before they routed us through Brazil?”

The woman seemed to miss the point. “You should not have gotten a ticket to Brazil if you didn’t plan on getting the visa,” she said, “I’m sorry, but I cannot allow you to board this plane.”

“And what about our connection?” Sheli asked, “This was Delta’s choice, not ours.”
From the tone of the argument, I think she actually planned to let us miss the flight.

Finally, I jumped in, “Are you sure that we need a visa if we are only making a connection? I always thought the visa was necessary only to leave the airport.”
“I’ll find out,” she said and walked away. About ten minutes later, she returned and said that we could indeed board the plane without a visa.

By then, Sheli had noticed the timing of our flight. Instead of our original six hour plan to Lima, we would have to take a nine hour flight to São Paulo before we even got to transfer to the final flight to Lima. By the time we arrived, we would miss our connection to Puerto Maldonado. When Sheli brought this new realization back to the agent, I thought the agent was going to blow a fuse. She said, “Look, your connection happens through a different airline. We can’t control that. Delta Airlines has agreed to get you to Lima and we will get you there.”

“But you have forced us to miss our connection. Once we arrive in Lima we’ll be stranded.”

She was unmoved. “Delta will fill its obligation to get you to Lima. What you do after that is your problem.”

In the end, we boarded the plane en route to São Paulo, Brazil hoping for a safe and timely connection to our final destination. With all the anxiety, frustration, and uncertainty of our day, Sheli attempted to offer some comfort in the midst of our powerlessness. “This is an exercise in surrender,” she stated as we flew into the unknown.

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