The Beanstalk


by David N. Townsend


May 27, 1998
8:30 AM

Travel trivialities (Pt 2)

(If you missed Part I, maybe you should go there now.)

John F. Kennedy Airport, La Paz.  Okay, here we go again.  Precisely 72 hours after coming in, I'm heading out of Bolivia, to Lima, Peru for a change of planes, then on to Bogota, Colombia.  You can travel the world all your life, and never get past capital cities, it seems.  At least you can do well in Geography Bees.

The highlight of my 3 days in La Paz was an earthquake.  Seriously, three days before coming, I learned from the news that there had been a serious quake (6.5 Rickies) about 200 miles from La Paz.  Serious devastation to isolated farming villages.  Then, at 9:00 PM on Monday night, I was sitting in my 7th floor hotel room, when suddenly I felt like I was in a rocking chair.  I swayed back and forth for a good 5 seconds.

That's the second time I've had that experience, and if you've never felt it, it's absolutely bizarre.  You're not sure if you're just dizzy somehow, and 10 seconds later, you wonder if you imagined the whole thing.  But knowing there had been an earthquake just days earlier, I had no doubt this was another.  I won't deny it was pretty scary; I looked out the window for a long time to make sure no buildings were falling down, wondering if I should get to a doorway somewhere.

Sure enough, the headline in the next day's paper said: "Otro terremoto!"  This one was only 5.5 Rickshaws, and far from La Paz, but unnerving enough for me.

= =

Here are two amusing thoughts that have stuck in my mind about Bolivia:

8:45 AM.  Some more people I don't want to know: First Class passengers on a 45-minute flight.  An extra $1,000 to sit in a 5-inch wider chair and save 60 seconds exiting the plane?  And if they actually drink the champagne at 9:00 AM, I really don't want to know them.

= =

Not to say this plane makes me nervous, but it looks like a hand-me-down from Eastern Airlines, circa 1980.  (For some reason, it's actually an Air Ecuador plane, although it's an Aeroperu flight.  Maybe they borrowed it for the morning.  Or maybe they lost it in a poker game.)  I guess they're trying to spruce it up, anyway: it smells like paint.  And only two of the overhead compartments fell open during takeoff (including the one above me).

Oh, and here's another novelty: cigarette smoke in the air.  It's been a long time since I've sucked down that aroma in an airplane.

10:15 AM.  Whoa, I almost lost you for a minute, there.  

The Lima airport is a lot smaller and, um, underdeveloped, than I expected.  Just a big hallway with half a dozen gates, and no airconditioning.  Certainly the JFK Airport in La Paz (no relation to the JFK behemoth in New York, except that it was paid for by the U.S. government, hence the name) is larger and nicer.

Anyway, I managed to have a little adventure here during my stopover.  I was about to write the above observations, when I dicovered that I had left my cherished journal notebook (the privileged first recipient of these parables), as well as some fairly important business documents, in my seat pocket on the plane from La Paz.

I panicked a little, but I soon realized the advantage of the small size and, um, informality, of this airport.  The plane was still sitting outside the door where I'd come in -- I could see it.  (No, thoughts of making a quick run to retrieve my things didn't occur to me: spending my summer in prison in Peru is not high on my agenda.)  Luckily, after pleading pathetically in slow English and weak Spanish with 3-4 different overworked flight attendant types, they let me go back on the plane and grab my stuff.

Whew.  The documents I can live without, but my journals are my link to the world.

11:00 AM.  Okay, I'm cursed.  And I apologize for bringing my ill fortune upon my felow passengers.

We've boarded the plane.  We're all sitting here, ready to leave more or less on time.  And what have they just announced?  Try to act surprised . . . there's a mechanical problem, and we're going to have to change to a different airplane (or "equipment," as they say in the biz)!  I just know that this is happening because I decided to write about this trip.  "It's my fault, everyone!  Please, stay away from me before I attract locusts!"

So, how long will we have the pleasure of lounging in the Lima airport?  It's not as if there's a lot of extra planes, standing around like taxi drivers, hoping to pick up some passengers.  It took 3-1/2 hours in Miami to get a new plane, and that place is a freaking breeding ground for airplanes.  Maybe they should see if they can borrow that Air Ecuador plane again.

12:05 PM.  Surprisingly, we are on a new airplane and about to depart, only 1-1/2 hours behind schedule.  This is aindeed a much newer aircraft; perhaps they've been keeping in wrapped up in the hangar, like a new suit, awaiting a special occasion, only to be forced to use it when the old one got a rip in the pants.

4:00 PM, Bogota.  You know, Colombia has about the worst gap between reputation and reality of any place in the world.  The perception in the (U.S.) media, and among mainstream Americans, I sense, is of a fairly poor, crime-ridden, overall unpleasant place.  Anyone who thinks this and then comes to Bogota would be in for quite a shock.

For one thing, the airport is so new and modernk, it feels like they just took it out of the delivery crates last week.  It's clean and beautiful and comfortable, with very cool pre-Colombian art displays along the corridors.  The city itself is as impressive as, say, Cleveland or Detroit, with some lovely parks, numerous modern office buildings, a commercial center and shopping mall to rival anywhere.  There is a lot of traffic, yes, and it's not such a great idea to go for a midnight stroll while counting a roll of $20 bills . . . but this is a quality place.

I'm staying at the Bogota Howard Johnson hotel.  This is a little hard to absorb.  When I was growing up, my family used to stop at Howard Johnson restaurants whenever we went on vacations.  I would always order a "3-D" burger, which was a direct ancestor of the McDonald's Double Cheeseburger.  It remains a sweet childhood memory, which clashes rather starkly with this 5-star luxury establishment.  Imagine 10 years from now staying at the Fabulous McDonald's Suites Hotel and Conference Center somewhere.

Well, on with the conference.  I wonder if I can get a milkshake during the luncheon banquet.

= =

Saturday, May 30, 1998, 1:30 PM, Miami.  Sitting on the tarmac, back in Miami, on the way home.  (Where'd they get that word, by the way?  "Hey, where's the plane?"  "It's out on the tar, Mack.")

I didn't write earlier on this phase of the trip, because the plane left Bogota at 7:00 AM, which means I left the hotel at 4:30, which means I got up at 3:30.  Effectively manipulating a writing implement was not within the scope of available motor skills during the Bogota-Miami flight.  I shall review the highlights.

The super-modern Bogota airport has instituted super-modern security procedures as well, heightened, I supposed, by the impending Colombia presidential elections this weekend.  If you want to downplay a reputation for danger and crime, group strip-searches and random cavity probes are probably not the best choice.  On the other hand, I felt really safe on that flight.

Here is a quick summary, for reference by officials in other terrorist/crime lord dominated nations, of the Bogota airport security procedures:

  1. Make passengers get up at 3:30 AM to get to their flights, thus weeding out 75% of potential terrorists to begin with.

  2. Stand in line holding your bags for 20 minutes.  Go to Security Check #1:
    Q:  "Whose bags are these?  Who packed them?  Have they been with you ever since you packed them?  Did anyone give you anything?  Do you intend to explode a bomb on the plane?"

    This process eliminates a handful of other threats: really stupid terrorists, and people who allow suspicious strangers into their hotel rooms to pack their bags for them.

  3. Get in another line to get a form that allows you to pay onle 1/2 of the airport tax.  This aves you about $32. You may ask, why don't they just charge half the tax in the first place, and avoid the separate line?  It's actually a clever tactic to spot terrorists, who are by now getting nervous, and figure they'll skip this important step: what use is 32 bucks if you're about to blow up the plane, anyway?

    So, the security guards immediately seize and pummel anyone who goes straight to the tax line, without seeking the aoutomatic discount.  This also has the advantage of abusing excessively wealthy passengers, including most who would be flying in First Class.

  4. Get in the line to pay the 1/2 tax.  Passengers seeking to pay using Life Insurance vouchers as collateral are escorted to the security room.

  5. Get in line to check in, get yor boearding pass, and naively think that you may now proceed unimpeded to the gate.  This lulls the bad guys into false relief, and helps snag a few who may carelessly confide to their comrades, "Whew!  I'm glad that's over -- have you still got the bomb?"

    At this stage, also, you can watch as your suticases are wrapped for extra security in this tight plastic ribbon, which ensures that any delicate souvenirs you've bought will be crushed.

  6. Get in line to go through the hand-luggage X-ray and metal detector.  Get felt up by security guard.  This has no safety value; it's just a perk for the airport employees.

  7. After wandering through the terminal in search of your gate, you encounter yet another security check:
    Q: "Have your bags been with you all the time?  Has anyone given you anything resembling a nuclear device in the past eight minutes?  Who do you like to win the World Cup?"

    The funny part is, it's the same guy who asked you the questions before.  There's some secret passageway from the baggage check to the gate, so he gets there before you.  I suspect this guy is trained to notice if there's an increase in beads of sweat on a customer's forehead.

  8. Go through another X-ray and metal detector.  A surprising number of would-be terrorists have been caught at this stage, because they lose their composure: "Oh, come on!  You guys are no fair!  I made it through the other one, for crying out loud, give me a break!"

  9. Walk down the ramp, get one last quick check of your passport and boarding pass as you enter the plane:
    Q: "Has your bag been with you all the time as you walked down the ramp?  Have you talked to any strangers?  Liar!!  I am a stranger, and you're talking to me!  Guards!  Shoot him!!"

    This effectively eliminates all remaining dangerous persons, also makes for very uncrowded airplanes.

So, having successfully negotiated this obstacle course (it turns out, all you need to do is offer the guards some Starburst candies, and they wave you right through all the procedures), I dozed through an uneventful flight to return to the site of last Sunday's Campout in Miami.  We're now already back in the air, heading toward Boston, and wouldn't it be anti-climactic simply to get home on time, and finish this Odyssey without incident?

4:40 PM.  So, you know what happened?  We were almost there, just about to land, when the pilot came on the intercom and said, "I'm a-sorry, folks, we run outa gas.  So, we gotta go back.  But don't worry, next time, we take a-plenty gas."

(apologies to Chico)


1998 David N. Townsend

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