Monday, October 14, 2013

This Way Out, Maybe

One way. To do it.

I used to live in Ecuador, in Cuenca.

That was a while ago. Not that long ago, compared to the age of the Earth, or of even the Eiffel Tower, but a while ago, and not for very long – for five months, plus change.

It didn't quite work for me. Maybe there is something wrong with me, and maybe not. It could be that something is wrong with Ecuador, but considering that so many other people live there, and seem to be doing fine, then maybe the problem is mine. I am prepared to accept that, and, in truth, I don't care.

Not that this matters – I felt I had to leave, regardless of whether I ever go back and try again, or instead sit on a porch somewhere and pick my nose, or take up noodle racing. Regardless of whether I am terribly inadequate as a person. It didn't matter then and it doesn't matter now. I left.

I had to leave, and so I left.

But it wasn't that easy.

Some things that should be, aren't. So easy. For me.

I made a reservation. Check. OK there. That went fine.

I packed. Fine also. I had done that before too, and it worked as expected, once again.

I was in one place and the airport was in another place, and a taxi connected the two of us. That part also worked. So far so good, I thought at the time.

Eventually, after some waiting at the Cuenca airport, but not after too much waiting, I shoved my two duffel bags through one of those airport counters and, a bit later, boarded a plane. Check.

We took to the air.

One connection, just one switch of aircraft in Quito, and then I could sleep and not worry about anything for hours on end. I could give up consciousness and let the plan unfold itself. After all, I had made it from North America to South America without incident, barely more than six months earlier, so this return flight would be like a yo-yo climbing its own string, and strings do not have incidents, so that would be fine, I thought.

I arrived in Quito. Good. Quito was exactly in the right place at that moment. Check.

When the plane's wheels reached for Quito, Quito reached back, and the two of them worked together quite smoothly, as though they did this often. I was pleased with that. Quite pleased. The cogs of my plan were snicking into place, one after another.

After leaving the plane, I walked, and then walked some more. All of us passengers were going in the same direction by the same route, so it was pleasantly easy. I flowed with them. By that time I had stayed up at least an hour and a half past my bedtime, but it was easy, and a nap waited on the far end of my walk that evening. So.

I kept walking.

After not too long a time we all went into a large room with two luggage roundabouts in it. Luckily for me, I was continuing, out of Quito, past the border, and off the north end of the continent, and didn't have to bother with that. My luggage knew where it was going, and so did the airlines, and all was well.

Once through the door at the far end of the room, I was out in the main terminal. A quick look oriented me and told me that I needed to be on the second floor. I went there.

I had come in on LAN. I was to leave on Delta. Fine. I found Delta. Check.

At the Delta counter a staff member on duty spoke enough English to help me out. This was good. They started by asking where my luggage was. I said I had checked it in Cuenca and was going to Seattle, which seemed reasonable to me but not to them. Not so much.

They said, unreasonably, I thought, that I needed to fetch my own luggage and bring it up to the counter so that they could put it on the plane. I thought they were better at that sort of thing than I was, but they disagreed, and sent me back downstairs to get the luggage myself.

This plan had a flaw. That flaw, of course, was that the baggage area was on a one-way route. For those coming off a flight, it was a simple stroll to pass through the area and out the door, and off to wherever it was that they wished to go. For those trying to get into the baggage area from the main part of the terminal, the story had a radically different plot. One which involved uniformed security.

The security man outside the door to the baggage room would not let me in. It was his job to keep me out, and he did, completely.

He asked me for my stub – the little bit of paper that would prove I wasn't a thief or an idiot by verifying that I had checked luggage. Or that I had had checked luggage at some recent time. If I could produce the paper receipt for my luggage I would prove that I was only temporarily stupid, and that might be allowed, but not without the receipt.

Which I could not find. Not even once. No matter which pocket I checked, or how many times I checked it.

But, although I had no stub in my pocket, I did have an ace in the hole. This would be the Delta staff at the counter upstairs, the people who had sent me there. They knew what to do. On my way up to see them again, I kept looking for the baggage receipt, which kept finding more and more ways of eluding me. No matter how many times I checked every single pocket on me, all of these pockets all remained empty.

I went back to the Delta staff at the check-in counter, and they did have an idea. Finally.

They said I should see other Delta staff at a different counter, downstairs again. I went there and stood in line.

But, ah, no. These other people had no idea what this was about, and sent me back to the Delta staff at the check-in counter on the second floor.

Luckily for me I had been to that second-floor counter so I knew where to go (heard this already, have you?), but walking, though great exercise, didn't seem to be helping much that evening. I was carrying a heavy knapsack containing two laptops, two cameras, two external hard drives, many cables, an audio recorder, all my legal papers, and five lenses. Plus another, smaller bag with snacks and a few gifts. And wearing a travel vest under my windproof and waterproof jacket. So I was damp, with my own sweat, and more than pleasantly warm.

But I did find my way back to the first Delta counter. The route was by then and still is now, more than five months later, wedged tightly into my permanent memory store.

The Delta Counter – a beacon, a beacon in the night. That helped. I was tired. By then it was over two hours past my normal bedtime, and much sweatier. But I had a beacon.

The Delta staff at the check-in counter had good news. Finally.

They told me that they had called someone in one of the back-alley rat holes deeper inside the terminal, and this person would meet me outside the baggage area, and would help me. Great. I went downstairs again. Third time, I think now, reflecting fondly upon that evening.

When there (downstairs, outside the locked baggage-room door), I met Daniel Perez. He worked for Delta, but he was leaving. He was done working for the day and had to a bus to catch. Other than that he seemed to know nothing about me, but he did tell me I should definitely go to the third floor and talk to the Delta baggage people. He pointed to the other side of the terminal and told me to go that way.

I did.

The third floor, if there is one, was beyond my reach. I think – I can't say for sure because I actually never got beyond the first floor. I did, however, find my way into a hallway, and made a couple of turns, went past one or two closed offices, noticed raised heads and turning eyes, all on me. And then, finally, I came to a blank, locked steel door with a notice on it. I couldn't understand the notice, but it was definitely official, and was not welcoming. I decided not to touch the door.

There was no point, and I would have left fingerprints. Never leave fingerprints where yours don't need to be. Remember that.

But I did have a plan.

Which was to go back to the Delta check-in counter. I knew how to do that, if nothing else, so I did that.

The helpful staff there told me that they had no idea who Daniel Perez might be – never heard of him. But they did say that they had called someone who would definitely meet me outside the baggage area this time, and then they sent me back downstairs. (Fourth time? I think so.) Honestly, if I may be honest yet again, I don't think Daniel Perez he had ever heard of anyone at the Delta Airlines check-in counter either – so things were a draw on that score.

But back to our story.

Once at the baggage area again, I noticed something. There was no one outside it, waiting to welcome me. There was only the locked door and the guard, as before. The guard did not welcome me back any more than he had not welcomed me before, though he did keep one eye on me, and he had a spare, in case he needed it.

Then something happened, but not for me, so that doesn't count.

I kept searching for my luggage stub.

Another guard arrived from somewhere. I had been there long enough to witness a shift change but forgot to dig out my camera to bring you a picture. Sorry.

The time by then must have been approaching midnight. I think my flight was to leave at 12:30. I could look up the exact time by why bother? You know? Why?

The new security guard did come on duty, and he spoke English, and he went inside the locked door and found someone who could help me, though she was definitely not expecting me, but the guard did offer to let me into the baggage area. This was a new experience. I decided to go with the flow and went through the door.

The person inside the baggage area kept telling me that it was all very simple. All I had to do to get my luggage was to just pick it off the conveyor roundabout thingy, even though there was no luggage there.

I pointed that out to her.

This may have been a mistake.

It is possible that she took it as a challenge to her authority because she kept telling me to go pick up my luggage.

The conveyor was all shiny steel and all empty, each and every inch of it, and I was at least an hour too late. The woman could not seem to understand that if my luggage had been there at all, ever, it had been there over an hour earlier. And now it wasn't there, and the metal of the conveyor was not even warm any longer, only empty.

Hmmm.

She went to talk to someone.

I hoped that her talk wasn't going to be about an upcoming office party, or about her retirement plan. I hoped that it would be about me. I did.

Then she came back. She had no idea what was going on. I mean, really – that is what she told me, you know?

Talking, it seemed, was not the way to resolve this situation.

And then I found my ticket stub, or baggage receipt, somehow, and as soon as she saw it, she asked if the black bag and the red bag were mine. Well – yes. I guess that was the key right there.

Assuming that I had a long needle in each hand, and had wanted more than anything else in the world to poke both my eyes out? Faster than even that, she had a door unlocked and told me I could take my two duffel bags. She told me this without checking that my stub matched anything. I didn't bring it up either. Why poke needles into the eyes of success? I grabbed the bags.

Which wasn't easy.

These two duffel bags – you see, they were bolted to the floor, by gravity, because though I had thrown out everything I could possibly get along without, before I move to Ecuador, whatever was left was what I had brought, minus the extra things I had thrown out before trying to leave Ecuador, but it was still a lot. So I had to pull harder, which I did, and eventually both duffel bags came off the floor in a tentative though vertical direction.

These bags weighed, say, 40 pounds each, give or take a thousand pounds. Even in metric it sounds unreasonable. Maybe it's the "kilo" part of "kilogram". I don't know. Something. With metric you don't even need to know the numbers, and definitely not then. Things are heavier in that system. There was weight enough for everyone in the airport, but it was just me at the time, listening to my sinews creak, but when I pulled hard enough, it all budged. And then I was staggering toward the door.

I got out the door – out of the baggage area, and found someone waiting for me – a small woman in a dark uniform. She was from Delta, possibly from Delta Force. Things were blurred by then. She told me to wait, which seemed like a fine idea except that I was supposed to be boarding an airliner at about that exact moment.

Someone was coming, she said, coming to carry my luggage. A big guy. Strong. I should wait for him. It would be worth it.

There are no carts in the Quito airport, as far as I know, and if there were, carts don't work on escalators. Or stairs.

We had our choice of how to get from the first floor to the second floor, and it was either the escalator or the stairs.

After thinking through the situation thoroughly, and weighing all my options (both pro and con), and after wasting two or three milliseconds on the issue, I finally decided to wait and have the big guy do the duffel bag carrying. Plus, you know, I saw him coming by then. Hey.

And even more luck was on my side. I got a story out of it.

The Delta representative said that since every single other passenger had already been processed – except for me – she had been sent to help. Which explained where she came from. Then we waited some more.

Sure. Why not. We waited some more on top of that.

Then the guy finally reached us.

He took my two duffel bags and walked across the sort of lobby area and onto the escalator. This distance was around 50 feet. When we got to the top of the escalator, he sort of collapsed under all the weight, which was too heavy to hand-carry across the airport. So I did it. All the way from there to the Delta counter, or around another 100 feet, where I paid $84 in baggage fees (like winning a reverse door prize) and something like $53.87 exit tax to get out of Ecuador. (They do that.)

I think I may have caught sight of the big guy being wheeled out to an ambulance with his unnaturally and prematurely elongated arms dragging on either side of the gurney. But maybe not. Maybe I was hoping that would be me. If I was lucky.

OK. Finally. Set. All set. I headed for the hallway leading to the whatsis tunnel which led to the plane.

But got stopped.

The young Delta woman had suddenly received a communication – by phone or radio or implant (I couldn't tell) – and informed me that because I was coming through so late, I had been selected to have my luggage intensively searched by the National Security Police, who were waiting, and I should follow her.

Which makes sense in one of that infinite number of universes that are said to exist if we only look for them very, very carefully.

She led the way, and, of course, I followed.

I don't know where we went exactly, but we did end up outside, in the cold night air, under the terminal, in a crowd of people all having their luggage savaged by gangs of muscular men with large hands. My duffel bags were there on the concrete, like two old, long-lost friends recently found after a long search, and then even more recently sentenced to death.

I waited my turn. After six months of living in Ecuador I should have known that leaving would never have been as easy as boarding a plane and sticking my nose against the window. So I waited some more.

I asked my guide and protector what would happen when I missed my flight, but she had no answer. Neither did I, but life, you know? It never hands out scripts. I would have to keep waiting, try to hit my marks, and then improvise. But I knew I was not leaving Ecuador that night, not by airplane out of Quito.

My bags were lifted up onto the stainless steel table. Their turn had come. And they could not be opened.

Well, duh.

I had the handles cinched up with plastic cable ties, which were then wrapped with tape to prevent the cable ties from cutting into anyone's hands. This was so the bags could be handled easily, and would (clever me) show if anyone had gotten into them, because no one could really open the bags more than an inch or so with the handles tied together, even if they knew how to get past the locks.

Locks? Yes. Each duffel bag also had its two zipper sliders padlocked together. I unlocked the locks, and one of the goons found a knife and cut the cable ties as though he'd been living only for that moment, and then he and others reached in, up to their elbows in my carefully folded and packed belongings.

Which they ripped out in great handfuls.

It had taken me half a day to get it all positioned and repositioned, packed and repacked until everything finally fit, and now it was all pulled out into piles and the men were digging around inside the two duffel bags, feeling for what they could feel, which was all my completely innocent stuff.

If I hadn't been sure before, I was sure by then – this would take hours. I would have to find food and drink, not just a place to sleep. I would need a room. I could become homeless in Quito, abandoned by fate, wandering until eaten by ranging dogs or fierce, cunning urban rats.

Then we were done. Free to leave. Nothing found except underwear and socks and pants and shirts and the ordinary useless things only a normal, pointless, random person would want to have along on a trip.

All of it somehow got stuffed back in somehow, (somehow) though it took two men built like bulls straining together in unison to re-close each duffel bag. I wanted to duck in case the zippers exploded and sent shrapnel flying, but decided I would rather be ripped by zipper shreds than gunned down at the last moment by National Security Police itching to score, so I stood still, waiting to taste zipper-flavored death.

Which drove past, oblivious, waving a beer and smoking a cigarette, not even glancing our way. So I had to keep playing along.

My guide took me back in tow and led me around and up and then to the left, and around and back and down and to the right and up and back around to the left and either up or down and possibly to the right or more to the left.

Then we were searched.

We passed through metal detectors. My passport was requested. We were searched again. More passport presentings. More metal detectors.

We bypassed a long line of people being asked for their passports before being allowed into the metal detector. We went up and down and right and left and my passport was requested, again and again. It began to smoke from the friction of being pulled out of my pocket so many times.

Then, suddenly, we were at the plane. My passport was requested, and my boarding pass. A crew member told me what seat I was in, and I immediately forgot what he said.

Then I did something stupid.

I thanked my Delta Force guide. And then I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. I should have kissed her hand, or shaken it, but I don't think any of that mattered. By then she had forgotten who I was and had switched off and was staring into space, waiting for reprogramming, and then I was inside the plane, looking for my seat.

We left Quito.

An hour later, in the dark of night, thousands of feet in the air, the passenger next to me and the one in front of him began yelling. Then the fight.

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