Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Back in the!

December 7, 2011 – Back in the U.S.S…. er, A!

I'm watching the weather!” my mom messages me. “Winter storm possible for Monday. Arghhhhhhh!
I’m flying standby thanks to a ticket my aunt secured for me through some kind of powerful magic. Getting on my scheduled flight is dependent on seat availability, which is dependent on the whimsy of the travel gods, the weather gods and the karmic gods of life. I might have been lax in pouring out libations to all of them so I have a little worry eating at the back of my mind. When I came to Peru I got delayed four days from my original leave day because of some insanely magnificent thunderstorms in the Dallas area. Then it was a good thing. I needed the extra days to repack my bags twenty more times and throw out several more pounds of possessions so as not to exceed the airline checked bag weight limits. Now, with my bags already packed and my travel “game face” on, I can’t bear the idea of being delayed. I’m ready to go.

I call my aunt. “Mom said there’s the chance of bad weather. Maybe winter storms. Do you think there might be any flights sooner that I could get on? It’d be nice to beat the storms. I’m ready to come home.”
“Let’s see what we can do,” she says. But the rain clouds already hovering over the DFW metroplex are blocking their satellite signal and she can’t log on to the airline website. “Your uncle David is trying to bring up the site on his computer. We don’t have to keep you on the phone for this, but we’ll see what we can do to get you home. Call me back in half an hour,” she says.

“Okay, thanks!” I pace in front of my computer watching the clock in the lower right hand corner of the screen. I go stare at my bags. I come back into my study. It’s just after 9:15. I pace some more. That thirty minutes is taking its own sweet time.
CALL ME PLEASE!!! an email message suddenly pops up and screams at me.

I call my aunt maintenant.
“How far away from the airport are you?” she asks on answering.

“About thirty minutes.”
“If you can get to the airport I can have you on a flight at 11:55.”

“Tonight? Right now?” My heart picks up. I look at the time and calculate hours. There’s nothing I want more than to leave right this instant. “Let me call the taxi company.”
I’d scheduled a secure taxi to take me to the airport at an unreasonably early hour on Monday morning and it makes my life easier that the company already has my contact info and address. “I had a taxi scheduled for Monday morning,” I babble in Spanish to the guy who answers the phone. “But do you by any chance have a taxi that could come get me right this very instant and take me to the airport?”

“Will you still need the Monday pickup?”
“No, this would replace it.”

“Let me call a driver, I think he could be there in twenty minutes.” He and I calculate hours and both think I might just make my flight. Traffic willing, I would arrive at the airport with only two hours to get through all the stop points. It could just work.
I zip up my bags, make sure I have my passport and money, put on my travel clothes, chicken-scratch out a (hopefully comprehensible) note for my roommate, turn off lights, lock the door and take the elevator down.

The cab driver knows I’m in a hurry. He winds through the streets and around cars and buses. The traffic is unusually light. But I still find myself thinking, Can’t you honk more, speed it up, go a little faster? I can’t believe I just thought that, I think. The transportation line into the airport is long. “Do you think it’ll be faster if I walk from here?” I ask the driver.

“It’ll be quicker once we get past the checkpoint. Don’t worry, I’ll get you to the door.”

And he does.
I pay him, thank him, and rush inside.

There’s a line to the bag check counter. I mutter, “Come on, people, hurry up,” under my breath. Patience is the wrong virtue when you want to travel rapidly internationally.
When my turn comes I throw my bag up on the scales and hand over my passport.

“Are these your bags?” the man behind the counter asks me.

“Did you pack them yourself?”

“Where did you pack them?”
“In my apartment in Lima.”

“Your apartment? But you’re here on a tourist visa, right?”

“The apartment I stay at with my friend when I visit Peru,” I amend. There’s nothing like security questions to make me feel like a criminal, like a country fleeing fugitive.
Apparently I don’t raise too many red flags because he gives me a standby boarding pass and puts my checked bag on the belt.

The next hour and a half is a blur of lines and questions and sublimated impatience. As if by a miracle (and only slightly out of breath and sweaty), at 11:42 PM I find myself past customs and security and buckled into a business class lounge chair in a huge jet set to leave the ground in thirteen minutes.
Not having many chances in life to take advantage of the benefits of wealth, I stay awake long enough to enjoy a glass of wine, munch some mixed nuts, eat a salad, and have some pecans and dried apricots for dessert. Then I press the button that declines my seat, wrap a soft blanket around me and doze for the next four hours.  

Juan, my Lima to Miami seat companion, is also on the same flight from Miami to Dallas. “It’s going to be really close,” he says. We only have one hour and forty-five minutes from touchdown to flight #918’s takeoff. He explains that I’ll have to go through passport control, get my checked bag from the baggage claim, take it through U.S. customs, recheck and then go from there.
It is going to be close, but I’ll give it all I got.

From the moment the cabin door is opened and I’m let off the plane I run.
Or speedwalk.

Or stop to bend over and huff for breath before repositioning my computer and carryon bags over my shoulders and sprinting on. It’s about sixteen miles from our gate to passport control. Maybe seventeen. After I make each turn of the long-halled corners and think, Ah, this must be the end, another sign points me down yet another long hallway. This is a cruel joke. There is no end. I’ll be rushing through airport corridors for the rest of my life. No air moves in these halls except what I stir up as I whirl by, and soon, I’m pouring with sweat.
I’m right behind Juan at passport control. I feel suspicious, don’t guilty people always sweat? I pull some tissue out of my pocket and towel off.

“Are you a U.S. citizen?” a security guard asks me.
“Yes, sir,” I say. Look American, look natural, look less sweaty, I tell myself.

Satisfied, the guard moves on to make sure people are at the correct entry points and I breathe again.
The lines seem to be taking forever. Juan looks back at me and shrugs as if to say, “Well, we’re doing our best.”

He gets stamped in and then it’s my turn.

The passport control lady is uniformed, official and efficient. After a few questions and the computer’s checking of my travel life and background she stamps me in and returns my passport to me. “Welcome back,” she says.

Welcome back.
But I don’t have time to reflect on what this means to me. I’m on American soil, but I have a long way to go before I am actually home.

Another mile or two gets me to the baggage claim. I snatch up my bag and hightail it. Juan is just ahead of me and I use him as a GPS to steer me the right direction. Following the yellow arrows I arrive to customs.
“Where are you coming from?” the guard asks me. He has a friendly smile. I wonder if I look as gross as I feel.

“What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a writer,” I lie. Unless living means something other than how do you bring in money.
“What do you write?”

“Fiction,” I say.
“Do you have any alcohol in there?” he points to my bag.

It’s probably a normal question. Why do you ask? I think, Do you assume all writers are alcoholics? But then I laugh at myself. Because I do have alcohol.
“Just some Pisco,” I say.

He shrugs and waves me through.

Home free. At least that’s what I believe until I round a corner and see the very long line for Miami security. I hadn’t realized I’d have to go through security again on the U.S. side. All my things have already been x-rayed, sorted through, questioned, how much more secure could I be?

I take off my necklace, pull off my belt, get my computer set to put in its own separate container, wipe more sweat off my face, check my pockets, pull out my toiletry quart-sized see-through bag, and step out of my shoes.
My flight leaves in less than forty minutes. I don’t think I’ll make it. Especially when I see the cylindrical full-body x-ray machines.

One of my health-minded friends, Pinklady Apple, had messaged me several days ago to say, “Safe travels. Remember to get a pat down at the airport instead of going through that xray machine. give yourself an extra 10-15 minutes and you should be okay.”
I don’t really have an extra ten or fifteen minutes. But I’m going to follow PLA’s advice. I’m not sure if I want the pat down more for health reasons or for principle of the matter reasons. Whatever my reasons are, when I get to the front of the line I tell the female TSA guard, “I’d like the pat down.”

“One to opt out,” she yells behind her and waves me forward.
“Female check,” the male TSA guard calls over his shoulder.

A uniformed, slightly intimidating female approaches me. She looks at me with a You silly girl look. “You’re supposed to say, ‘Female opt-out,’ she reprimands the male guard. They exchange a light repartee and I bite my tongue from telling her to hurry it up because I have a flight to catch.
Finally she points me over to the corner. “Stand on the taped yellow feet prints and put out your arms palms up.” She tells me everything she’s going to do as she dons protective gloves.

You’re gonna need those as you feel me up, I think, I’m sweaty as heck.
The final sprint
Then she proceeds to do everything she said she’d do.

Thoroughly patted down and deemed safe enough to proceed, I get set for my final sprint.
I arrive at the gate twelve minutes before boarding time only to be stuck behind two family groups who are apparently trying to rearrange their entire travel arrangements right before the flight.

Eventually, the lady behind the desk takes my passport and standby boarding pass. She hardly glances at it before she hands it back. “It’s a full flight,” she says. “We’ll call your name if there’s room.”
I go sit down. I feel antsy, like if I stop moving the whole world will stop too. I stand back up. The kiosk screen flashes flight information and I see the standby list with my name at the very bottom.

I’ve been so fortunate. I mean, less than twelve hours before I had been staring at my computer screen in my study in Lima, and here I am humidly stinking up space in a Miami airport. It wouldn’t be out of the realms of luck to have to wait in Miami a bit longer for the next flight.
The flight gets boarded. The final calls are called. The standby list gets started.

“I feel like I’ve won the lotto,” a standby pilot tells the check-in lady as he boards.
I prepare myself to have to wait. He might have just got the last bit of luck left. I think about taking a sponge bath in the Miami Airport bathroom.

“Passenger White.”
I’m at the desk before she’s finished enunciating the T in my last name.

“It’s amazing,” she tells me, “but you’re on the flight.”
“It’s a miracle,” I say. I want to Peruvian kiss her cheek out of joy, but I refrain myself. “It makes all the running worthwhile.”

She smiles and waves me through the doors.
I’m the last one on the plane.

I pass Juan in the first class section. “You made it,” he said.

“I got the last seat on the flight,” I reply with a grin.
I head towards the back.

The couple in row 24 look up at me.
“I have 24F,” I tell them.

“Do you want the window seat?” the girl asks.
“The aisle seat is fine,” I say. “Actually I’d take any seat in the plane. I’m just happy to be on this flight. Oh, and I’m sorry if I smell. I ran the entire way.” I ran the entire way from Peru, I think in my mind because that’s how it feels.

“Don’t worry, we probably smell a little bit too.” She pauses as if testing the air. “You don’t smell.”
“Thank goodness,” I say. I settle into my chair and click my seatbelt on. I don’t fully relax until the plane is in the air. It’s real, we’re moving, I can stop hurrying.

When the flight attendant asks me what I’d like to drink it really hits me that I’m back in the States. I don’t have to ask for things in Spanish. And when I tell her I would like water I don’t have to say, “Agua, sin gas (without carbonation).”
Soon the landing gear is lowered and we touchdown in Dallas Fort Worth.

I head to the baggage claim and hope that my aunt and uncle told my mom I was on my way home. My phone is completely out of saldo (minutes) and I don’t even know if my pay-as-I-go Peru plan would have worked in the States.
I go through the revolving doors. There’s a little old man sitting at a stand, I’m not sure if he’s security or some kind of customer service. “Excuse me,” I say, interrupting his nap. “Do you know if the airport has payphones?”

“Has what?” he asks.
“Payphones,” I say a bit louder.

“Who do you need to call?” he asks.
“My mom.”

“Your mom? You’re coming to visit your mom?”
“Yes, sir.”

He digs in his pocket and pulls out his cell phone. “Here, you can call her from here.”
“Oh my god, you don’t mind?”

My mom answers after what feels like a million rings.
“I’m at baggage claim C12.”

“I’m about five minutes away,” she says.
I’m so grateful to my new phone friend that I give him a Peruvian cheek kiss after I hand him back his phone. I think it made his day. He glows and I go to wait for my bag to trundle down the belt and for my mom to arrive.

Welcome back.   
Was there ever anyone as lucky as me?

1 comment:

  1. Wow. What a great race against time, taxis, check-in counters, security, boarding, customs, security (again), boarding (again) and tracking down your mom in the airport with a stranger's cell phone.

    I can totally see you racing down the terminals in Miami with a floppy leather fedora on your head and a whip on your hip. You should dress up as Indiana Jones for next Halloween. You'd make a good one!

    Congrats on returning home. I just wish it was in Colorado, so I could see your beaming smile again before you run off to exotic Peru.

    Enjoy the time with your family!