Monday, February 06, 2012

the longest day

I have traveled enough that I recognize before a trip even begins to expect the unexpected. Trains, planes, weather, traffic and glitches in the alignment of the stars can trigger minor bumps and annoyances or result in catastrophic scrambles to optimistically well-planned itineraries. I try to go with the flow with these experiences by maintaining a good attitude and not yelling at anyone. Especially not the people who are experiencing the disaster along with me.

On December 26, 2011, I believe I managed to maintain a good attitude and I did not yell at anyone despite the fact that I think the universe needed a good chastisement with a "was cancer not bad enough?" thrown in for effect.

Our flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate was scheduled for 4:45 am. Of course that means one must count backwards and factor in arriving at the airport an hour in advance, taxi driving time, getting ready time and a little buffer. I packed and showered the night before and was the last one up at 3 am. Yup, last one up at 3 am. How often do you say something like that? We were in our taxi by 3:30, the time the hotel promised gave us more than enough time to get to the local airport and make it through the lines and get on our flight.

They were partially correct. The taxi ride was quiet with no traffic and just a few extra long red lights but it went as expected. The hotel had provided us with a yogurt and granola breakfast before departing but I couldn't stomach more than a couple of bites. It was just too early. We were all silent throughout the ride.

When we arrived at the two roped off lines to check in a woman directed us to the line to her left because the line to her right was for people who had already checked in online. We had tried that the day before but the system wouldn't check us in for some reason. There were only a couple of people ahead of us in line but no one was moving. A sign said we had to check luggage 40 minutes prior to our flight. After standing in line for what felt like forever (but had only been 15-20 minutes), it was getting dangerously close to 4 am. I tried to plead our case with the woman directing passengers to the painfully slow line or to the speedy-aren't-you-lucky-you-were-able-to-check-in-online line. She told me to wait. I then spotted some ticket kiosks on the far wall and tried to check us in there. No luck. After a total of one person had been helped ahead of us, the line director woman moved us to the counter right around the 40 minute cut-off time.

We were then told the flight was overbooked and our seats had been given away since we failed to check in online.

Let me take a small step backwards and tell you that my traveling companions and I had spent a ridiculous amount of time communicating with this airline over the last several months for a variety of absurd reasons, a few of which I will list: 1) booking flights that refused to be booked online, 2) trying to understand the shifting, contradictory descriptions of luggage fees online, and 3) attempting to reconcile the contradiction in flight times listed on the boys' itinerary as 5 pm and mine as 8 pm for the same flight number for our flight from Punta Arenas to Santiago (yes, we were on the same flight but the time had been altered by 3 hours with no notice to the boys who booked a few days before me). Not to mention the ridiculous number of emails I received that were constantly shifting the times of our flights (some by as many as 3 hours and others just by 5 minutes here and there). So, if there was some warning about checking in online or risk losing your seats, one of us would have seen it. The website does allow passengers to check in up to 48-hours in advance. But when we weren't able to check in, we really didn't worry about it too much.

Add this to the "Lesson Learned The Hard Way" category for overly paranoid, cautious traveling. And we did in fact check in for the rest of our flights at the earliest possible hour. One particular subsequent flight (from Easter Island to Santiago) the boys were unable to check in online once again. But this time the hotel reception explained this happens all the time and spent a considerable amount of time calling the airline to get them checked in. Z was able to spend the afternoon snorkeling in blissful ignorance not realizing John was convinced the two of them would be bumped again and stranded on Easter Island while I flew home.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Once we were told we had been bumped we were told to wait for the ticket agent's supervisor. We were clumped awkwardly near the ticket counter with all our bags near some other forlorn looking travelers with all of their oversized baggage as other lucky travelers were able to turn over the large bags and granted tickets, free to walk away unencumbered towards security.

Before long an efficient, navy-uniformed clad woman approached, spoke to the people next to us in fast Spanish and started leading them away. With my non-existent Spanish and hand gestures and general look of despair, we were told to follow as well. All of us traipsed along the aisle between the ticket counters and the roped-off lines wheeling our suitcases down the terminal to another airline's ticket counter. I believe I had already taken over as manager of the tickets and passports and after some wait I was handed some freshly printed standby tickets along with our passports and we were relieved of our luggage. Only one of our three names had been spelled correctly (hard to mess up a name like John too much) and those of us whose names were mangled were so bad as to be mistaken for different people. I asked the supervisor woman about this and she waved me off as being overly worried and indicated it wasn't a problem. Our bags were checked and we were then told to follow a second uniformed airline employee up to security. No one ever looked at our passports or tickets and while Z got hung up in security briefly when he was asked to unpack a stuffpack, there wasn't much of a line or wait. We were taken to a gate and sat down to wait. Anxiously.

At this point no one had really told us what was happening and we were just assuming we were on a standby flight to our destination of El Calafate. I handed the boys their tickets and passports and after a few tense minutes of sitting Z asked me why our tickets said "USH". Without looking at the ticket I told him that meant Ushuaia, the city in Tierra del Fuego where the plane would land before continuing on to El Calafate. I then looked at my ticket - it read USH and that was all, no indication that we were to continue to El Calafate. I looked at the gate and sure enough, the flight was going to Ushuaia. I approached our original airline representative who was kind of hanging around waiting to get all of us on the flight. She confirmed that yes, we were going to Ushuaia and it took some back and forth before she realized no, that was never our intended destination.

We were told to go down to the luggage area, request to have our bags taken off the flight and go back to LAN's service desk (our original airline) and request further help. We were devastated. We all briefly questioned whether it would be easier to just straighten it out in Ushuaia or here in Buenos Aires but ultimately realized our best option was to try again from BA. When we got to the luggage area we agreed to split up to be more efficient. John agreed to talk to the luggage people so I handed him our claim tickets and I went to the LAN service desk. Z remained with John so he could help with luggage and act as the go-between. I once again collected everyone's passports and itineraries and tried to sort through my limited Spanish phrases - how to explain this? Where to begin? So I started with "habla ingles?" Unfortunately I got a feeble answer in return and a blank look when I tried to explain my situation. The woman next to the one helping me spoke English and turned to help but both agreed I needed to once again wait for the supervisor.

They handed me three vouchers with Breakfast checked off and pointed me to a cafe and told me to wait there, they would come find me. I was a little skeptical of their promise to look for me but went to the cafe anyway. I sat down and tried to figure out how to order. No one was coming to me so I wondered if I needed to go to the counter. I stood at the counter trying to interpret what I could have with this voucher and was ultimately waved back to my seat. A woman then brought me a plate with two small, sticky croissants and a coffee. I was a little confused but assumed this was just what was covered and I apparently did not get a choice. I was starting to get hungry so I ate one of the croissants and watched for my friends and tried to read.

Z wandered up after I'd been waiting for a while and I asked him to sit with my things while I went back to the service counter. No luck. But as I walked back toward the cafe I spotted the uniformed supervisor. She had a genuinely sympathetic face and shook her head and apologized. Her English was, thankfully, excellent. She asked what happened and I explained how we were ticketed for the wrong destination. I get the exact sequence of events confused around this time (since this was still pre-5 am) but at some point Z went back to get John from the luggage area and when the two of them returned they only had two suitcases. Z's bag was on its way to Ushuaia, under my luggage claim ticket. Or at least, under the luggage claim ticket that most closely resembled my name. All of this was explained to the supervisor and she clucked her tongue and shook her head and asked us to follow her once again to the other airline where we once again went to the front of a line, handed over passports and luggage and were granted standby tickets (to El Calafate this time!) and luggage claim tickets. The supervisor wished up luck and passed us off to yet another LAN employee. This one was around our age, pretty and also very sympathetic to our situation. The boys liked her the best. But then, so did I. She once again took us up the stairs and through security where we were recognized and the only hiccup was they wanted to look at the trailmix I had in my bag. We then waited at a gate for a flight we did not get on.

To say we were disappointed and deflated is an understatement. We were exhausted, angry, sad, upset . . . a whole list of emotions. At one point, Z - not normally the empathetic, comforting type - came up to me and patted me awkwardly on the shoulder and said "there there, there there." It made me laugh and almost cry.

Z "Tebowing" for us to get on a flight
We had to start all over again - Ground Hog Day style. John took the bag claim numbers and went to the luggage area, Z and I went with the blonde woman to the ticket counter. She had spoken with her supervisor and tried to offer us guaranteed seats on the first flight the next morning as well as a hotel. We asked for a list of all the flight times and said we weren't ready to give up. Z asked if we could drive. I tried to explain how far it was and that there weren't exactly normal roads - so I did a google map route and it calculated that it would take us 1 day and 9 hours to drive there. Our original flight was supposed to land around 10 am in El Calafate and we were to be picked up by a guide and taken to the Perito Mereno Glacier for a trek across the glacier. John had sent an email or two to the tour company and I believe left a voice message as well. We were only scheduled for one day in El Calafate and at 8 am on the 27th we were supposed to be picked up and driven to our hotel in Torres del Paine in Chile. Waiting another day to fly to El Calafate would just continue to destroy our itinerary.

Between flights two and three Z decided to use his breakfast voucher while we waited. We were at a cafe near the gate that was almost empty. John asked for a coffee and I sat at the table with all our carry-on bags while Z attempted to order with the vouchers. But he wanted water. I don't know if I just really needed some comic relief right then or if I was so tired and annoyed that pretty much anything was funny but I watched him stand in the middle of this cafe repeating "agua" to a woman who responded "cafe? cafe con leche?" over and over. Z kept pointing to the voucher and saying agua and the woman kept shaking her head no and telling him he could only have coffee. Exasperated he turned to me with his arms in the air in defeat. I walked over and somehow told her he would pay for the water but we needed one coffee. Z looked at me and said, isn't that what I just said. I laughed about this interaction the rest of the trip. But we didn't make it on that flight so we still had to do this whole thing over again.

After we were ticketed for our fourth attempted flight of the day we went through security again and were told to meet the LAN agent at gate 5 at a certain time. This was our longest break so I chose a long row of seats that wasn't near any departing flight. It was facing a bright sunny window. I put my bag in the end seat, removed my eye mask, neck pillow and headphones, selected a playlist called "In A Funk" which I made years ago to soothe sour moods and stretched out to try and sleep. I took three or four seats and didn't say a word to the boys. I don't believe I actually slept but the act of closing myself off from all external stimulation helped settle the panic that was rising deep inside me. The panic that wanted to shout "EVERYTHING IS RUINED!!!!!" The panic that wanted to scream and yell and throw a fit. Instead I listened to selections from Beck's Sea Change album and Radiohead's "How To Disappear Completely" and "Exit Music (For A Film)" followed by Me'Shell Ndegeocello's "Bitter" with bits of Moby and Death Cab for Cutie thrown in. After a while I sat up but continued to listen to the music, then I went on a hunt for water and tried not to get angry when a woman refused to accept the equivelent of a $20 bill for a $3 bottle of water and instead went to the Duty Free store and bought a box of alfajores cookies to take home to break the bill and went to a different counter to get water - all the while listening to my music to soothe me.

As the time for our latest standby flight grew near we packed up our things and moved to the departure gate. I left the boys there and went back to gate 5 to meet our LAN guide, we were back to the first one Z had named "the little chubby one." She wasn't as nice as the pretty blonde and seemed annoyed she had to babysit us. I tried to be cheerful and nice in return, hoping this would help somehow. She hung out near the gate agent as the flight boarded and the boys and I kept our expectations in check but longed for this to be the one. John had informed our tour company in El Calafate of our latest flight attempt. It was nearly 11 am.

When the line had dwindled to just a handful of people I hovered near the counter hoping to overhear what our odds were of getting on. The LAN woman was hopeful. I am pretty sure she was begging to be rid of us at this point and get back to whatever her normal job duties were. I started to fill with hope and I secretly cursed each straggler I saw make their way to the ticket agent.

Then, finally, miraculously, we were told we could board. We were given seat numbers and we felt like we had won the lottery. I thanked and thanked the LAN woman but refrained from hugging her and the boys and I practically skipped down the jetway. Near the end there was a sign - I forget what it said - but I reached up and tapped it in farewell and for whatever reason the boys each did the same. We were just beyond elated that we were finally getting on a flight we didn't care about the other details. And the other details were bad. We were in the next to the last row near a bathroom that reaked of urine despite the shut door. I was at the window but any possible view was blocked by the engine. John was in the aisle and Z was across the aisle but joined us when no one sat between us. Each of us was crammed in there with our knees touching the seat in front of us but we were just so happy to be on the plane we didn't care. The flight was about 5 hours with a stopover in Ushuaia where we weren't allowed to get off the plane but did walk up the aisle and look out the window at the beautiful mountains. We wondered whether Z's bag might get loaded on our current flight and John continued to tease Z about how we would share our clothes with him (offering up sundresses from my wardrobe, of course). We did receive some food on this flight - although I am at a loss for how to describe it. We were handed a ziplock bag with a spongey square of cake-like bread that Z said resembled corn bread but I cannot attribute any known flavor to it. It was closer in color to ginger bread but there was almost no flavor, just dry-ish texture. We both ate it anyway. And that was lunch.

The view of Ushuaia out the plane window during our stopover
e finally landed in El Calafate around 4 pm and John and I were reuninted with our luggage. We looked around for a lost luggage window for Z to discuss his situation but there wasn't one. This was a very small airport and we had previously been given a number to call so we agreed to just go to the hotel and try from there. Our tour company had a guide waiting to collect us and we soon arrived at our hotel. The guide agreed to return in 15 minutes to take us to the glacier. We wouldn't get the much-anticipated (and, of course, already paid for) tour on the glacier, but at least we would still get to see it.

I asked the receptionist for help calling about Z's lost luggage. She dialed the number and handed me the phone. It was soon clear this was not the right number to call. I asked the woman for more assistance and she brushed me aside. So I went up to inspect our room and get what I thought I would need for our visit to the glacier - a fleece and my camera.

By this time I think we were all running out of niceness and were getting snippy with each other and just misreading each other. But you never realize that in the moment. While we waited for the guide to return I went on the airline's website to try and track down Z's suitcase. I was able to update our hotel information and track the bag - it was supposedly en route. Z was not feeling overly optimistic and did not share our enthusiasm about arriving in El Calafate knowing his suitcase was still out galavanting around the ends of the earth (Ushuaisa is literally the southern-most city in the world).

Our driver and guide - the landscape looked a lot like Utah - dry desert with mountains in the distance
The drive to the glacier was long and conversation felt a bit forced as we tried to overcome our fatigue and frustrations. It didn't help that our pert little guide kept telling us how unfortunate it was we weren't able to stay in El Calafate longer and that we really should have done a trek on the glacier. Apparently she did not understand our situation.

Perito Mereno Glacier

Perito Mereno Glacier Calving #1

Perito Mereno Glacier Calving #2

The glacier was beautiful and the boys occupied themselves by taking lots and lots of photos with their fancy new cameras and I congratulated myself with my ability to walk up and down all these endless flights of stairs at the viewpoint of the glacier without too much trouble. The place was empty since it was so late in the day. The sound of ice cracking as the glacier calved into the lake was immense. We tried to imagine what it would be like to have crampons strapped to our feet and be walking on that massive, living hunk of ice. We lingered and admired the ice under the late summer sun before reluctantly returning to the car for the long drive back to our hotel. We bickered a little and I realized for the first time how little I had eaten during this excessively long day. I made Z sit in the middle seat for the return drive claiming I couldn't face the discomfort again.

an attempt to capture the immensity of the glacier

me with the glacier
I have no idea what time it was by then but my guess is it was close to or after 8 or 830 pm. We were mostly quiet, including the guide, when the driver pulled off to the side of the road. Something was wrong. It wasn't a flat tire but something was wrong - loose lug nuts or axel or something that was never really explained. Another vehicle stopped to help. We sat where we were feeling defeated by the entire day. There wasn't a way to ask one more time "what else could go wrong?" because there always seemed to be one more thing. I have no idea how long we were pulled off on the side of that desolate road. John mostly pulled into himself while Z and I played Uno on my phone for a while and then he or I poked at the compartment in the ceiling above him and discovered a tv. Our guide offered to show us some videos of the area and we accepted. I don't think it occurred to any of us to get out and try to help. We felt so helpless and just resigned to whatever obstacles fate was delivering. I rummaged in my purse and longed for the giant bag of trail mix I had left in our hotel. I found some old Starbursts in a side pocket and shared them with Z and John declined. We watched a movie about the glacier trek we should have done that day and it made us more depressed. Z was especially disappointed when the movie showed the guide chipping ice off the glacier and clinking it into glasses he then filled with whiskey. Z asked if they would have done that on our tour and our guide said yes, it was a tradition. Z loves whiskey. He knew he would have had a double portion when I declined mine so I think this made him doubley sad.
At some point we were told we could resume driving again but that we had to go more slowly - for safety. We shrugged our shoulders and remained quiet in the back. We arrived back at our hotel at 10 pm. Our hotel was located a little ways outside of town but had a complimentary shuttle. Z asked the front desk when the next shuttle was (10:15) or, alternatively, if there was a way to just order pizza (he was told no). We were told there were two items delivered to our room. Z had a joyous reunion with his bag wherein he got down on the floor and hugged it and John read us the letter we received from the driver who would be picking us up at 7:45 the next morning. We were back out front waiting for the shuttle before 1015. We waited and waited. While we waited a truck drove up, a man got out and walked inside with pizza. The shuttle didn't arrive until 10:30. We were just not doing anything right since we couldn't even get proper information from the front desk. I tried not to blame Z. I knew he struggled to communicate here, no need to blame him.

The shuttle dropped us in a parking lot just behind the restaurant that had just delivered the pizza. Pizza sounded like the most amazing thing in the world to eat right then. I asked the shuttle driver when he would be back and a couple who overheard us showed us the schedule they were given by the front desk. One more thing to make me feel like the world was out to get us - no one had offered us a schedule. I memorized the times and thanked them and bee-lined for the restaurant. We were told there was a 15-minute wait which felt like an eternity. I asked in broken Spanish mixed with pantomime if there was a way to just get a pizza to go. They said yes. John waited outside. I ordered a pizza and Z got a glass of wine while we waited. All around us people were enjoying their vacations and I wanted to fall into bed.

We got our pizza and returned to the parking lot to wait for the shuttle. John confessed to a stomach ache and Z and I stood in the dark eating the pizza from the box. We were hoping we could laugh about this day someday - the day we got up at 3 am and didn't eat anything until 11 pm standing in a dark parking lot. Looking back, I'm amazed we didn't turn on each other that day. That was the real miracle.
still smiling!


trpultra said... have been quiet for far too long. I hope and pray you are doing well. I miss you.


lorrie said...

Did you quit blogging? Hopefully you're doing well!!

Kelly said...

I'm worried about. Can you please let us know if you're doing all right? Thank you.

Misty Fowler said...

I haven't seen a blog post in a long time, and you have me worried. I hope it's because you feel fabulous and you're way too busy to write about all of the awesome things you've been up to.

Anonymous said...

I will echo others' thoughts here.

Hope all is well! Miss hearing your updates.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Almost a year since your last post, Alyssa.

Please share something... anything... with us.

Anonymous said...

Still holding onto hope that 1) you are well and 2) you will return to blogging.

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