Thursday, November 29, 2007

Fighting to Fly

Kerri and I had worked our way south, almost to Peru, by bus, but decided that in the interest of saving time--getting to the Otavalo Saturday markets--and avoiding frustration, we'd splurge and pay $75 to take a 50-minute flight that, by bus would take 15 hours (and cost $15.) We did end up saving a lot of time, although for a bit it seemed like we wouldn't. But we still ran into plenty of frustration.

It's pretty easy to splurge down here. You can find a hotel room for $5, but when there's a tropical spa that includes organic dinner and breakfast for $20, how can you say no?
Why take a city bus for 25 cents when it's only a dollar to catch a cab? I vacillate between taking full advantage of the low cost of living by living on practically nothing, and, well, taking full advantage of the low cost of living by living it up.

After a very relaxing stay in Vilcabamba, we decided that paying a taxi $25 to drive us straight to the airport an hour-and-a-half away made more sense than switching between two local taxis and a couple of buses to save $15. Manuel would have been horrified.

The Catamayo airport is the smallest commercial airport I've ever been to, and at first I thought it was going to be a relaxing place to fly out of. There was a room with four ticket counters, though only two were in use, since there were only two airlines. Behind them, instead of a conveyer belt to carry away your luggage, a wall of windows and glass doors looked out onto the tarmac, which had room to park maybe three jets. There were no gates, just a security room with a door leading out to the planes.

The laid-back feel ended when we went to check in. The woman at the Icaro Airlines counter told us the flight was canceled due to a mechanical problem. They'd tried to call us to say we'd have to wait at least till the next day, but I had my phone off. She said we could use our ticket for a flight on TAME that left 45 minutes later. We headed over to the TAME line, where half a dozen other passengers from the Icaro flight were already waiting. No one showed up from TAME for another half an hour. When they did, they ignored the ticket line and checked everyone with a ticket in first. As the plane filled, Kerri slipped over to the Icaro counter and got a bit insistent with the clerk, who said there wasn't anything she could do. A couple of people behind us in line were carefully counting the number of people checking in. There were 104 seats on the plane, and by the time they had everyone checked in, more than 90 people were already onboard, with a couple dozen either milling around or in line. We were about 8 people back in line, which momentarily made me think we'd be fine, but earlier a pushy man had told someone in front of us that a suitcase sitting in line was his. When the TAME folks started taking care of those in line, suddenly he was back with half a dozen relatives. The people milling around pushed right up to the counter, ignoring the fact that people had been patiently waiting in line for more than an hour.

Lines aren't sacred here. I've been cut in front of at the drug store and ticket windows. Unless you leave no room between yourself and the person being served, it's like you're not there. If you wait to let people get off a bus before boarding, you'll never get on, because so many people will have crowded in front of you. Perhaps it's about personal space, and they honestly think that one foot of space means you're just standing there for some other reason. I've never been asked, "are you in line?" as you often are in the States. More likely though, everyone just knows that they have to take care of themselves.

So I quickly realized we had to be pushy ourselves, even though I already felt like it was too late. We quickly pushed our bags up to the front and tried to get the clerk's attention. Everyone was yelling. The woman next to us was waving money in the air. Fortunately, the woman from Icaro had made her way behind the TAME counter. Apparently she didn't want to deal with irate Americans who would insist on a free hotel room. She reached over, grabbed our tickets and passports and put them right in front of one of the clerks frantically entering people into the computer.

She told us there was only one seat left. My heart sunk. Kerri started raising her voice, and our clerk said something to the guy working the other station. With them both checking people in, they couldn't tell if there were seats left or not. But then, she put labels on our bags and handed us our passports and two tickets, numbered 104 and 105. We hurried to the security station. When I walked through the metal detector, the alarm went off. This didn't lead to me getting patted down and chemically tested--they just told me to check my pockets, set my phone on the table, and walk through again, the way it was at home in "the old days." We were the last ones to walk out to the plane.

Even as I climbed the stairs, I wasn't confident we'd really made it till I was sitting in my seat, and they closed the cabin door. We rolled down a crazily steep taxi-way to the runway, which, rather than running down the valley, was aimed right at the canyon walls. We took off into the sunset, and an hour later we were collecting our bags and jumping into a car that wasn't a taxi, just a car with the window rolled down and the driver yelling "taxi!" to people like us, waiting on the curb.

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