August 10, 2006
Today was my big day. Time to fly home. In many ways, it snuck up on me quickly. Maybe I was just mentally putting aside the fact that my trip was about to end. Or maybe it was the knowledge that the next week in the US would be as unpredictable as any week I spent in South America. Only it turned out to be even more unpredictable than I had expected.
Amongst my pre-departure tasks was checking my email one last time. My friend Rohit was supposed to meet me at the airport, but I learned from an email that his wife had gone into labor, so that was no longer possible. Obviously I hoped all went well and tried to think of another plan. It turned out that I had a lot of time to think today.
I walked to the airport in plenty of time for my first flight to Panama City and started the long process of waiting to check in. The line didn't go anywhere for over half an hour. Someone told me that there was only one flight on my airline this afternoon, so everyone in line would be on my plane. So there was no way I'd miss my flight because of the long check-in line and all I had to do was wait. And wait I did.
When the line finally started moving, a lady working for the airline started shouting "Anyone continuing to the United States?"
I told her that I was and she inspected my luggage.
"Is that all you have?"
"Yes, just my backpack to check in, and a book and a bottle of water to carry on."
"Very good, but you'll have to drink the water now."
I never seemed to remember not being able to carry water onto an airplane. In fact, I once read that you should drink lots of water during your flight because airplane air is drier than the driest desert.
"Am I still allowed to read on the plane?" I asked sarcastically, not understanding the seriousness of the situation.
"Yes, that's still OK, but all carry-on luggage needs to go under the plane. It's a new order from the US government."
It took over an hour to get to the front of the line. When I finally got there, the same lady checked me in. She asked if I had read the news today. I told her I hadn't. Then she explained the thwarted terror plot to me. Details were still pretty sketchy, but it seemed that the US government was on edge and didn't want to take any chances. That's why they weren't allowing any carry-on luggage. It was going to be one of those days.
While waiting to board the plane, I heard some kids playing near me. I glanced in their direction and saw six boys, all around eight years old, laughing and being encouraged by an adult. I didn't think anything of it, but then I got up to go to the bathroom (I had to down an entire bottle of water just to get through security). When I walked past them, I noticed a chessboard. I thought maybe they were just using the pieces like action figures, but then I noticed a timer. They were actually playing a game, faster than anyone I've ever seen play chess before. Each move took two seconds or less. They must have been a bunch of child prodigies. I thought about challenging them to a game, but I knew they'd destroy me within five minutes, so I just watched in awe. That's not exactly the kind of thing you'd expect to see waiting to board a plane.
My first flight left on time and went without a hitch. It was only two hours to Panama City, and the coach section, while very simple by American standards, was far nicer than most of the buses I'd ridden on my trip. We began our descent over the ocean, and solid didn't appear until we were close to landing. Even when we were over land, all I could see was jungle. At first it seemed strange that there were no houses around, but then we landed and everyone clapped. People always seem to clap here as if to thank the pilot for not crashing us.
At the airport, I had about an hour to kill before my next flight to Miami. I walked through an electronics store and marveled at the prices. The memory cards I had paid $200 for before I left were now only $70. Either technology had advanced very quickly while I was gone or that store was just really cheap. I began to wonder what other new advances I had missed out on.
I sat down in the boarding area and waited. And waited some more. There seemed to be a lot of confusion over how to board the passengers because my plane was going to the United States. Rumors began spreading about the terror plot. Like me, most people had gathered bits and pieces of information, but nobody had the complete story.
Eventually, the employees reached a consensus that it was indeed OK to have carry-on luggage, but no liquids would be allowed. They walked around the waiting area, asking people if they had any liquids with them. I heard conversations like "Is fingernail polish too liquidy?" "What about lipstick?" "Toothpaste?" The employees began filling up clear plastic bags with any questionable items to throw underneath the plane. I seemed to be the only person not carrying at least five bottles of some sort of liquid with me. The process was long and slow.
We finally started boarding the plane after we were already supposed to be in the air, but we couldn't just start walking aboard. Instead, the airline employees donned rubber gloves and began meticulously inspecting everyone's luggage for any forbidden items. I just sat back and waited while the line slowly inched forward.
After about an hour, the line finally died down and I jumped in. When I got to the front, the employee seemed surprised that I wasn't carrying anything.
"No luggage at all?"
The plane was over an hour late, but everyone was calm. They all seemed to understand that it was a necessary delay. Then again, flying at night meant that there probably weren't many antsy business travelers trying to make it to an important meeting on time.
When I got to Miami, I was greeted by a long passport control line, just as I had expected. The Homeland Security employee had a lot of questions for me, like exactly where had I been. He had never heard of the Falkland Islands, but that didn't surprise me. I gave him a brief explanation: 3000 people, 600,000 sheep, big war in 1982. When I told him I'd been gone over ten months, he asked if I was a millionaire. If only he knew. At my last stop in Peru, I was paying $3 for a hotel room 50 meters from the ocean, and I thought that was expensive after traveling in Bolivia. That conversation would've lasted way too long to have with a passport agent, so I let it go.
The final step in the airport security process was customs. I picked up my backpack and waited in line. The customs lady in charge of my line was terribly slow, explaining in painstaking detail to everyone that they had to walk to the right in order to exit the airport. There were still about a dozen people in my line when I noticed the other line was now empty. The customs guy shouted "Come on, do you wanna be here all night?" In fact, that was looking like a distinct possibility. I moved to his line and he waved me through without even looking at my customs form. I was free to go.
It was now after 1:00 AM and the info desk was closed. I got a brochure listing taxi prices, but a taxi to downtown was over $50. I didn't want to disturb Rohit in his life-changing moment, I didn't have any other friends in town, and I didn't have a map of the city or any info about buses, so I figured my best bet would be to hitchhike to St Petersburg, where I had another friend. But 1:00 AM was not the appropriate time to do such a thing.
As I walked through the airport, I saw a bunch of people sleeping and decided to join them. The airport employees didn't seem to mind people sleeping there, but the airport was not exactly the ideal place to have a snooze. The chairs were uncomfortable, the floors were hard, there were bright lights everywhere, the air conditioning made it cold, and every thirty seconds there was a loud, repetitive announcement either about airport security or telling everyone what time it was. About the only thing the airport didn't do was hire someone to fart on you every time you dozed off. I had a few weapons at my disposal, though: An air mattress as comfortable as a bed, a warm sleeping bag, earplugs, an eye mask, and the knowledge that I had been through much worse. Yeah, that time I was on a rickety bus in a remote area of Paraguay on a gravel road for two days straight was a lot worse than this. After my long day, I had no problem falling asleep to a deafening announcement that it was 2:30 in the morning.