The Gods of Planes, Trains and Automobiles
My five week summer holiday to Peru was a learning experience in many, many ways. Yes, I learned about the ingenuity of the Incas, discovered what it was like to camp in the snow at an altitude of 4,000 metres, and encountered the all-encompassing warmth of Peruvian hospitality. But, the lesson that left the greatest lasting impression and perhaps changed me in an indecipherable way, is one of a more practical nature. I discovered that a bargain plane ticket isn’t always a bargain but that if you allow it, it can lead to an amazing adventure.
I was flying home one week before I had to return to my job as a high school English teacher in Canada. My flight with Delta Airlines left Lima at midnight on the 25th of August. I had spent the last two weeks of my five week holiday in Cuzco. Cuzco was the heart of the Inca Empire and today is the hub of Peru’s tourism industry. People come to Cuzco to see Peru’s jewel of tourism: Machu Pichu. Wanting to squeeze every last minute out of my holiday, I was planning to take an early morning flight from Cuzco and then spend the day seeing some previously missed sights of Lima. Lima had struck me as a large, polluted and somewhat characterless city. Instead, I wanted to spend as much time in the cobblestoned Incan streets of Cuzco rather than getting to Lima a couple of days before my flight home. This had seemed like a good plan at the time.
At 5 a.m., I am waiting in a growing line for the 7 a.m. flight to Lima from Cuzco. While there are clerks at the check-in counter, they seem to be working very diligently trying to ignore us and the line grows longer behind me. Then the news comes: the rain, or what was really more like mist in my opinion, had cancelled all flights out of Cuzco that day.
An airline clerk with a red blazer and matching Sally Jessy Raphael red-frame glasses, hands out a list of phone numbers, telling us there was nothing she could do to help us. This does not bode well for my connecting flight at midnight. I walk out of the airport into the grey misting conditions of the morning wondering what my next step should be.
I take a taxi to the city center of Cuzco and walk into the first travel agent I come along. I explain my dilemma and ask if the agent might ring Delta Airlines for me and plead my case. She dials the number and hands me the receiver. I dramatically pitch my plight to the agent, but she is not as empathetic to my dilemma as I had hoped. She tells me there is not another flight in that particular class of ticket until September 8. This doesn’t make the least bit of sense to me until she explains that there are eleven different classes of seats on every plane, and if you have the rock-bottom, cheapest ticket available, (which I do) it does not allow you to upgrade even if missing the flight was not your fault. I form a vague picture of myself phoning my principal in Canada.
“Uh, yeah that’s right. I’m going to need a sub for the first few days of school. Well, you see, I’m in Peru at the moment and having a few problems getting home.” Oh, but not to fear the travel agent tells me. You can buy a new ticket, for $1,200 US. I let out a little squawk and then become hostile.
“But this isn’t my fault, I can’t control the weather,” I whine with righteous indignation.
“Well, it certainly isn’t our fault,” she retorts with what sounds like smug satisfaction. “You could also go standby and pay a fine of $100 US for missing your flight.”
Well, I thought, why wasn’t that mentioned before?
I am now a woman with a plan: I can fly standby. I just have to get to Lima somehow. There is more than one way to skin a cat. I could hire a mule and take the scenic route, permanently kissing my job goodbye. Or…I could take the bus. For the most part the buses had been reasonably comfortable. However, I had discovered something very disconcerting about myself while in Peru for the last month. The same instinct that caused me to throw up at the fair after riding the Tilt-a-Whirl when I was twelve years old, is the same stomach defect that had made me nauseous on almost every single bus trip through the Andes in the last month. I never went on a bus without Gravol and a plastic bag. Although I had never had to use the bag so far, I had learned how to pronounce nauseous in Spanish just in case I had to make myself understood to the bus driver.
I try phoning the numbers Sally Jessy had given me, but to no avail. Two are out of service and with the other the phone is continually busy. Of course, if I were her, I would have also written also made up a few bogus phone numbers if I thought it was going to get some angry foreigners off my back.
I go the head office of LanPeru in Cuzco and I am greeted with a scene of foreigners sitting, standing, and spilling out of the building. Some have looks of resignation, and some are clearly panicked. A husband and wife from Atlanta need to get back to their kids. A businessman from Miami needs to be back to work in two days for an important meeting.
I am instructed to take a number as if I were lining up for the deli. I strike up a conversation with two American women, Jennifer and Shelley. Shelley is a very ebullient missioner that has been in Cuzco for several years setting up a mission for multitudes of poor and homeless in the city. Shelley had taken a deli number for herself as well, even though they only needed one, as it is only Jennifer that needs to get to Lima. She tells me they have been waiting for over an hour and gives me her number, warning me that otherwise I would never get to speak to anyone that day with the back-of-pack number I had. She explains in her casual “oh-this-is-typical-Peru” manner that it isn’t unusual for flights to be cancelled from Cuzco to Lima when it is even mildly raining.
“This happened last week, and people were so angry there was almost a riot at the airport. They actually had to call the police in to keep order.”
When I finally get to speak to someone after almost two hours, the news is not good – no seats on LanPeru flights for almost another week. If you miss your flight with LanPeru because of the weather, it is apparently not their problem either.
“I’m sorry, but is not our fault,” says the harassed clerk says to an angry Swede in front of me. She looks like she is only the brink of tears and when it is my turn I feel my anger dissolve into sympathy.
“This is really awful,” she confides to me. “There is nothing we can do though except give you a refund.”
I don’t want a refund yet, because that means I’m either taking the mule or the bus. The mule sounds more appealing. I also wonder if this happened only last week, shouldn’t there be a plan of action that they company slips into? Is it a crisis every time when flights are cancelled? Peru however, seems to be a land of drama. Every human interaction is spiced with sorrow, anger and joy. I have certainly seen and felt plenty of the anger and am rapidly moving from a state of panic to one of hysteria.
I take a break in a street café overlooking the colonial arcade of the central Plaza de Armes, Cuzco’s central square and the heart of this former Inca city. I find myself reminiscing about the last month. I had been nervous to take this trip by myself, not having traveled out of the country for five years. In beginning the trip I had acutely felt my age, being at least ten years older than many of the 20 something backpackers I had met. After a month I had developed my own rhythm of travel, and now felt more confident and at ease than I ever had when I had been on the road several years earlier. This had not been an easy trip: Peru had proved to be a challenge in many ways. I had lost my temper a couple of times when I felt like I was being taking advantage of, but this was mostly in the beginning of the trip, when I was still feeling unsure and insecure. Now, it seemed that getting home was going to prove to be the ultimate challenge and test of my newfound patience.
My mind drifts to the mummy child of Juanita who sits in a museum in Arequipa. She had been preserved in the ice of Mount Ampato for the last 500 years, discovered by a local climber in 1992. The Incas believed the mountain gods determined their destinies: displeased gods brought catastrophic weather. A child was considered the ultimate sacrifice and would therefore make the gods happy. Perhaps I also had to make a few sacrifices if I was going to be left with any of the patience or enlightenment that I had found on the road. I had to give up my need for order and control that my busy life had led me to expect, and just sit back and curiously watch this event unfold. Maybe these gods of the Andes had determined that I still had a few lessons to learn.
With a somewhat renewed sense of tranquility, I decided I had to see what could still be done to get me home without taking that damned bus. I spent the rest of that afternoon bouncing from one travel agent to another and meet a Polish woman and her Argentinean friend who were taking the bus to La Paz, Bolivia. They also missed their flight to Lima and suggest I take the bus with them and fly out of La Paz. I consider this option until I meet Yudy, the uber travel agent. She takes on my case as if she is my lawyer and I am facing the death penalty. She tells me she has found out there is an additional plane that is being sent to accommodate passengers tomorrow morning at 7 a.m., but that not everybody is going to get on that flight. It is the Darwinian reservation system.
“You go there early to airport, real early before anyone else. You cry, scream, no matter what you say you must fly today.”
“Cry, scream?” I laugh nervously.
“Yes, you must cry, scream, be angry. Or mibee you ask for my friend, Claudia. She is good friend, she work at airport for LanPeru. You tell her you my friend. She help you.”
She writes down a message to Claudia on her business card in Spanish. Most of the night I am awake, practicing what I will say to get on that flight. I have slept very little and am feeling great anxiety. Throwing a fit does not come easily to me. I am more the type who says nothing and then spends the next four hours rehearsing what I should have said in the moment of conflict. But I am at the airport at 4:35, and amazingly there are about five people at the beginning of the line already. I am not the only person who has heard about this secret flight either. I am armed with a message to Claudia. I am feeling so uptight I have no doubt that the tears will come easily. My plan is to plead poverty. “If I miss my flight tonight I will have to pay $1,200. I do not have this money, what can I do? How will I get home?” I wonder if I look young enough to seem vulnerable, if my tears will induce pity. I think about the problem of dealing with Air Canada once I get to Toronto. I hadn’t even thought that far ahead, since Air Canada does not fly to Peru, travel agents hadn’t even heard of it.
The staff arrives a few minutes before 6 a.m. Which one is Claudia? Should I go ask? But then I’ll lose my spot in line.
At 6 a.m., it doesn’t matter who Claudia is anymore: the starting pistol has sounded. The same woman with the red frame Sally-Jessy glasses who gave me the bogus phone numbers yesterday, starts motioning to people at the front of the line. I can’t hear what she has said, but all of a sudden there is mass commotion. The formerly straight line has now morphed into two lines, with people suddenly rushing over to another check-in station. People from the back of the line are now at the front of this new line, and I am left with others behind me wondering what these people know that we don’t. Then the rumours start to spread out like waves from a pebble. Apparently this second line is for people who missed their flight yesterday. On hearing this I pick up my bags and hustle over to this line. I am not amused. I have now gone from being fifth in line to about fifteenth. I join others who are angry and bickering. We want answers. Others start voicing their anger. There is heated barking in Spanish between two men. I don’t understand much of what is said, but enough to know I am not the only one to have lost their place in line. Tempers are high and I remember what Shelley said about the police being called in last week.
For the next half an hour nothing happens except a barrage of insults to the clerks from the angry mob. Finally word comes down – no flights this morning because of the rain. Rain? There is no rain today, only heavy cloud. But nevertheless, my plans have been foiled again. So much for Claudia, so much for my fit. Now what? Do I spend another day waiting to see if later flights will go? I join a group of Canadian and American travelers and we discuss our options. Two couples decide to rent a vehicle and drive to Lima. Another couple decides to take the 18 hour bus ride through the switchbacks of the Andes. I feel mildly ill considering both options and decide to wait and hope the gods will be kind.
By 10 a.m. I realize with a tightening of every cell in my body that there is only one option left – the bus. I feel vaguely defeated when I arrive to the bus depot. I have learned enough about buses to know not to take the “normale” bus service. I had made this mistake three weeks earlier on an overnight bus trip. There is nothing normal about a bus trip that drives for ten hours before stopping for a bathroom break at 4 a.m. in the morning on the side of the road. I opted for the deluxe, hoping for a smoother ride and a toilet on board. Armed with Gravol and a trusty plastic bag, I settle in for 18 hours through the Andes.
This bus has a bathroom and is a double decker. There is a young woman who acts as a sort of bus attendant that distributes snacks, drinks and then later supper. There is also the option of playing bingo on the bus. If I wasn’t feel so ill I would have played along, but with every winding twist, with every rise and fall I feel bile rising to the back of my throat. I just have another five hours until the road straightens out. The Gravol has made me drowsy, but it is impossible to sleep when you feel as if you are going to fall out of your seat or be slammed across to the other side of the bus every few minutes.
I am seated next to a middle-aged stout woman from Cuzco going to visit her sister in Lima. We watch a pirated copy of Spiderman II, first watching the last 30 minutes of the movie and then watching the remaining hour and a half. Eva pities me. A foreign woman with her face hovering over a white plastic bag, clucking over me and making various maternal sounds in Spanish. She asks where my husband is and why he isn’t taking care of me. For the hundredth time in the last month, I explain that I am traveling alone. This induces another round of sympathy for me and she offers me a cocoa candy as a treatment for nausea. Cocoa tea is the standard homeopathic remedy for altitude sickness, but not necessarily bus sickness. But I weakly accept thinking at this point it could do no harm.
We reach the desert at some time during the night and my churning of my stomach winds down like someone has pulled the plug on the blender. At around 5:00 a.m. I manage to drift off until about 6:30 a.m. During an early morning stop, an elderly man dressed in a brown, polyester suit enters the bus. He paces up and down the aisle of the bus with a frantic energy and a booming voice advertising some naturopath tic remedy in pill form. From what I can gather, these pills will cure people of everything from osteoporosis, heart disease and cancer. Not only that, but the pills will leave your skin smooth and your hair shiny. He walks through the aisle placing the packages of pills in peoples’ hands. After he gives his exuberant speech about these magic pills he walks through the aisle again either picking up the pills or money from those who believe in the power of this wonder drug. I note that his hair is slicked back into a graying ducktail look, sort of a Fonzi look. Any minute I expect him to whip out a comb, running it through his hair and say, “Ehhhh.”
I am losing my mind. I want to get home. I want to sleep.
By 11 a.m., we pull into Lima. I get a second wind after some breakfast at the bus depot. My head feels rather cottony, my legs are heavy. My backpack feels like it weights at least a 100 lbs, and I am stupidly carting around a huge bag of souvenirs for family back home. My taxi driver to the airport strikes up a conversation. It is a long ride and I don’t feel like lying about my marital status at the moment. I tell him I am single, and yes, I am traveling alone. We have a discussion about the lack of dependable, eligible men in my home country. He tells me it is an outrage that such a beautiful woman as I should be alone. Beautiful? I spent the night on a bus starring into a plastic bag, and I don’t remember the last time I had a shower. He tells me I should stay in Peru and marry his brother who is an engineer. I consider the offer. I tell him if I can’t get home to Canada I’ll think about it.
The rest of the afternoon and evening at the airport is spent in a sort of hallucinatory shift between reality and sleep. I am able to get at least an hour of sleep at the airport, quite a feat for someone who almost never sleeps anywhere except in a bed. I will not know until 11 p.m. if there is a flight for me to Toronto, and must be prepared to make a mad dash for the terminal if there is a seat. I see the couple who drove to Lima from Cuzco. They had to buy new tickets to get home to Miami. This is still an option I may be forced to look at as well, if I cannot get on standby.
I spent the day reading, journaling, trying to sleep and wondering about what travel tales other people have to tell. A month ago when I arrived in the country late at night, and had to take a taxi through the dark streets of Lima, I had felt unnerved and out of my element. I was too old to be doing something like this, especially alone. I wasn’t a kid anymore; why was I still traveling alone, still backpacking? Now, as I sit on the hard concrete of Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chavez, the answer bounces back at me: why not? As Paul Theroux says, travel is a lesson in self-preservation. I had preserved this sense of my own self that needed a world without parameters. I needed the exhilaration of knowing I could manage in this topsy-turvy, funhouse world that Peru had been. Nobody else had made these decisions but me, and there was no rightness or wrongness about anything I had decided in the last two days. In fact, perhaps it was not so much a decision-making process as it had been an unrolling of fate’s palette. Maybe it was more like me and those Andean gods had been partners in this artistic process of painting in colour my experiences of the last month. Whatever happened now, whether I got on that plane or not, I felt triumphant. The gods had demanded very little of me – only that I give up my insecurities and replace them with faith and trust in myself.
Koralie Mooney is a high school English teacher in Brandon, Manitoba Canada. She did get on that plane that night and made it to Toronto. After spending the night in a Toronto hotel, she had to buy a new ticket with Air Canada to get to Winnipeg. It was approximately an extra $500 CDN for her to get home, not reimbursed by her travel insurance.