“What do you mean, you can’t tell me whether it’s been cancelled or not?” The nice receptionist at the fancy red carpet club I totally snuck into at the Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chávez
in Lima is enunciating far more than is likely necessary for the airline employee on the line to understand her. It is 3:30 AM, August 19, 2011.
“I’d like to speak to your supervisor.” I hear the man on the other line explain that there is no supervisor for his airline at the airport. She asks when they will be back. “Well, we don’t really know.”
It has been seven hours of dancing around three security checks, a set of botched boarding passes, and 500 passengers trying to get from Lima to the States. I had a passing thought as I headed out the door that evening with my bags, Maybe I should check and make sure that the flight isn’t delayed. Lima to Houston—CANCELLED. A momentary panic. Six months of living in the boonies of South America plus three weeks pulling 24-hour bus rides through the Peruvian altiplano had robbed me of what traveler’s optimism remained.
Nothing for it. I walked to the ticket counter, past the guys standing around supposedly keeping out non-passengers, negotiated a flight to Miami and an eight-hour layover before a flight back to Denver.
Ten o’clock rolled around and no one at the other ticket counter appeared to be able to help us. Ten thirty. Ten forty-five. A group of other passengers and I banded together to pressure them into giving us some form of information.
“Excuse me, ma’am, are we on this flight or aren’t we?” I asked an official-looking employee in Spanish, trying to make inroads with my language skills and politeness if nothing else. “We don’t know. We’ll tell you when we have that information available.”
Eleven thirty. A woman from our recently-formed passenger union demanded that someone from our original airline come fix our tickets. An awkward interaction at the computers between the two companies ensued, and the braided woman behind the counter told me in Spanish, “All right, we’re just going to make the tickets and fix it later.” I noticed that the ticket she handed me had said 1:00 AM, whereas the ticket from the other company said 12:00 AM.
“Excuse me, when is the flight?” I asked. “I appear to have two different departure times.”
“It’s at….2:00 AM. Si. Two o’ clock.”
“But, excuse me…that is different from the time on my tickets.”
“We will tell you when we have that information.”
Through security and into the terminal, which was the nicest mall I’d been to in South America. A bottle of water cost 10 soles?! Nevermind, I thought, We’ll be on the plane soon.
At the gate, everyone was sitting comfortably and waiting to board. I took out my phone to check if this new flight is on time. It didn’t appear in any list on the airport website or that of the airline. Mystery flight, apparently. It might exist, it might not. We’ll tell you when we have that information.
1:00 AM came and went. 1:30 AM. 1:45 AM. The plane still had not appeared at the gate.
“Miss, miss! Where is the plane?” demanded a Peruvian woman in her fifties at high volume. “Where is it? We should be leaving in fifteen minutes, and the plane is obviously not here.”
She moved toward the gate, a small crowd gathering behind her.
“I’ve been here for three days, and my flights have all been cancelled! I demand to speak to your boss right now! Where is the plane? Where is it?” She was now yelling. Others began chiming in.
“Where is it?”
“We want information!”
“Tell us where the plane is!”
People were chanting “Que llega el avión! Que llega el avión!” clapping and whistling. The poor bewildered gate attendant was forced to announce that the flight had been cancelled. All hell broke loose. The foreigners broke rank immediately to try to escape and be the first to change flights for the morning. The South Americans closed in on the gate attendants, shouting, “Mentirosa! Liar!” I stood frozen to one side, wondering which side was likely to win in an airport brawl and how effectively I could turn my carry -on into a shield. I decided to side with the foreigners for the moment and rode the coat-tails of a man in the group we’d formed earlier into the fancy lounge, despite not being in first class.
The phone rings in the reception area. Apparently an employee of the first airline I tried to get out of Lima with wants to talk to me.
“If this flight is cancelled, we could try to get you out tomorrow night…but the Houston flight has been cancelled for the last few days.”
I groan a little too audibly into the receiver.
“Or we could try to get you on another flight tomorrow afternoon. You could go through Panama City, but you’d have to stay the night there.”
“And your airlines would of course provide a hotel room and offset my food expenses.”
“Actually, we have no representative in Panama. You would have to find a hotel and then be reimbursed when you arrived in Denver.”
Another audible groan. It is rapidly approaching 4:00 AM. I’ve been in the airport since 8:00 PM.
“We could also route you through Mexico City, but the same is true there. Oh, there is a flight to Buenos Aires tomorrow afternoon. Then you would fly to Miami, then to Dallas, and finally to Denver. You’d have to switch planes four times.”
“Reserve that one for me, please.”
Ten minutes pass. The phone rings again.
“Miss,” says the receptionist. “Your flight is boarding.”
They’ve crammed us all into the basement gate of the terminal, and every employee the airline has appears to be manning the gate and providing crowd control. The gate attendant begins, “We will be ready to begin boarding in five minu…” and suddenly it’s the last plane out of Saigon. Grandmothers half my size are pushing me out of the way. I trip over a bag on the floor and nearly upend the security table where everyone’s bag must be checked by hand one more time.
The employees shuttle us into a small bus and we roll out across the tarmac. Jumbo jets lumber past us attached to the aviation equivalent of tugboats. Our driver goes one direction, then reverses and changes his mind. The passengers share a few choice eyebrow movements as he drives us through a field of cargo waiting to be loaded, nearly scraping the sides of the bus on the containers as we pass.
Our plane comes into view, and it is obviously something straight out of the 1980s. I swear that the paint was peeling off just a little bit on the tail. I wait for all the mosh pit grandmothers to push their way onto the stairway before dropping my passport on purpose to genuflect.
Adios, South America. I whisper it to the ground, silently imploring the Andean mother goddess Pachamama to watch over us. Then I climb the stairway to get out of the golden mist of Lima, lit up by the orange lamps on the tarmac.