Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Travails of Travel

Running an Errand
Originally uploaded by katzeye.
The Travails of Travel

In John Steinbeck’s novel, The Winter of Our Discontent, there is a character who, when asked how he is, responds with, “Can’t complain, but I will.”

It is human nature to complain, to find the fly in the ointment; the trouble in paradise.

But sometimes, it seems like our complaints are pretty petty, don’t you think? And so, having said that, now I will tell of our adventures in the Dominican Republic.

We got up at the crack of dawn on the 14th and rushed to LAX. As we were taking our bags to x-ray, a guy with a cart came by and said he’d take them for us so we wouldn’t need to stand in line. As he wheeled them toward the x-ray line, I thought to myself facetiously, “if I ever see my bag again, I will kiss it!”

I had one checked rolling bag, not a huge one, just a bit over the limit for carry on. Mark had a bigger rolling bag, and he was dragging one more bigger rolling bag which was full of things requested by his parents. His parents have been living in Santo Domingo where, as temple president and wife, they are not weary in well doing. They are serving and befriending the people. Some of the things in the extra bag were full of items for the people, including things to go into humanitarian aide kits being made.

Our flight was on time, and we flew to Miami. I pretty much looked out the window the entire time because, as much as I have flown, even my stint working for an airline a long time ago, I do not ever become jaded about that view! In Miami, we rushed to our next gate and immediately boarded our flight for Hispaniola.

As I was getting on the plane, I realized that I hadn’t taken out my quart-size zip lock bag for inspection. Mark said, they don’t care when you are going to Santo Domingo. But if you don’t take it out on the way back into the states you could be in big trouble. (Somehow that wasn’t all that reassuring.)

As soon as we got on the plane, we were in a foreign country. It wasn’t just that all but a very few of us were speaking rapid Spanish, it was much more than that. There were exotic smells, exotic colors, exotic people, and the plane was pretty much in disrepair. My seat pocket was hanging by a thread, and the plastic thingie that is supposed to be on the floor to cover a seam was not there, but it was on the side of my seat, etc. I removed the plastic thing in order to seat myself and said a little prayer that the mechanical parts were in better shape than the aesthetic and practical parts.

We arrived in Santo Domingo without incident, and went through the tourist card/immigration process, customs, passport, etc. And then we wearily stood around the carousel waiting for our bags. Around and around they go, whose bags are these? No one knows!

The carousel stopped and all we had was Mark’s big bag, and I watched it as he rushed over to fill in the forms to track our lost bags.

Okay, so I used to only travel with carry on only. I loved the convenience of walking right out of the airport from the plane and getting on with life and not waiting around for or losing luggage. But until I can find some sterile contact lens solutions in 3 oz. containers, it’s kind of hard to do that. And so, of course, my contact lens solutions, and pretty much everything else was in that bag. I had only the clothes on my back, the lenses in my eyes, my camera and lenses, a book, and a water bottle.

So, I spent the first day or so, borrowing clothes, borrowing lens solution (not the one that my doctor wants me to use, of course, but what can I do?). I did discover, though, that if you wear slightly damp, just washed underwear when traveling in the tropics, it does keep you cool like built-in air conditioning.

We called the airport frequently to track our lost bags. They’d be on the next flight from Miami, we’d be told. I’d get my hopes up, and then they wouldn’t arrive and then we’d be told, next flight, next flight, there’s a flight tomorrow, etc.

Finally, they arrived one evening. We rushed off to the airport to get them. We went to the exit where people come out after getting their bags, and going through customs. We spoke to the guy standing there, or rather, Mark did, and I strained myself to try to understand their rapid Spanish. The translation: we were to go to the lost luggage office at the other end of the airport. So Mark, his dad, and I marched off to that office, only to find it closed about an hour earlier than its indicated closing time. (Later we heard, “but it sometimes closes earlier.”) We marched back, tried again. The guy guarding the exit had a guy on the other side bring out a trolley or two of lost luggage being kept there, none was ours and he said that was the extent of his abilities to help us. We could come back tomorrow.

We went upstairs to the airline’s ticketing desk. Couldn’t help us there either. Mark’s dad spoke to a supervisor and she had some sympathy and started the wheels rolling toward our obtaining our wheeled luggage. Supposedly. It still wasn’t showing up. By now, we’d been standing around in the airport for an hour. Maybe we should fly back to Miami and get it? Mark and his dad alternated in speaking to more and more people who seemed to know what they were doing and eventually, after many said they would get our luggage brought up to us, and never did, one big guy in a blazer (meaning he is powerful, Mark’s dad said), told us to go with him and he would get our luggage. The men went with him, and I stayed upstairs, just standing there, tired of wearing the same clothes and trail runners everyday. I was not totally trusting that if I went with them, someone wouldn’t finally show up there, as promised, with the two bags, and seeing no one there to claim them, take them to yet some other dusty corner where bags go to die.

After what seemed like roughly two weeks, Mark appeared in the distance, waving to me to come. Still, I wondered what next. He said we had the bags, and they were being loaded into the car. Still I didn’t believe it. When we got to the car, Mark’s dad was sensitive enough to know exactly what I would be wanting to do. He stood there with the trunk open so I could inspect my bag and make sure all was intact. Thanks. Finally, I could sigh a sigh of relief and offer a prayer of gratitude. That night, I showered and washed my hair and used all of my toiletries and put on clean clothes and flipflops!

Oh, and by the way, you may ask where were our bags all that time? They were just inside that exit where the guy was standing, you know, that first guy we talked to?

Then our days were filled with being immersed in Dominican Republic traffic, which is an entity in and of itself, perhaps another blog entry, and the colors, and the smells, and the sounds of it all! It’s a cluttered, colorful, and busy place, with people all over the streets and on motorbikes and motorcycles and crawling into taxis that were transporting 8 people already, and little buses and big buses, people everywhere carrying bundles of sugar cane, chickens, pigs, guinea hens, coconuts, eggs, beach toys, etc.

The people are beautiful, with big brown eyes and they look you right in the eye with a great deal of friendliness and humor. They speak rapid Spanish, and many also speak French, and some English, too. The children, shy, at first, are eventually also friendly, as are the many dogs that wander about, seemingly beholden to no one.

There are vendors with pushcarts or on burros selling massive amounts of plump fruits and vegetables, there are shoe shiners (who even tried to sell a show shine to Mark when he was wearing flipflops), sellers of cell phone time, windshield washes, and art.

The signs of poverty are abundant amongst the colors and sounds of Caribbean music, which seems omnipresent. There are homes without plumbing, electricity, doors, or windows, homes with corrugated metal for roofs, meat markets swarming with flies, people walking everywhere. It’s a beautiful country, with beautiful beaches that are almost too difficult to fully enjoy because one has in one’s head the hauntingly poor living in tiny spaces, and breaking their backs in the rice paddies.

We gave out a fair amount of pesos. Sometimes to some who were in need, sitting on a sidewalk, often to those who were shining shoes, or watching a parked car, filling in potholes (children), or washing windshields. We patronized vendors of crafts and fruits and foods. I wished that I had a big sack full of pesos and could buy from as many crafters and parking space watchers as I could. I’d have bought from the people painting and carving and creating art from hub caps and manhole covers. I would have bought squawking chickens and carts full of sugar cane. These people were finding all kinds of ways to earn a peso, and I would have liked to have more fully supported their industry.

The people in the hills of the jungles had their clean clothes hanging on lines, and chickens ran lose through the undergrowth. Children played and rode on the backs of motorbikes, chewing on sugar cane. Adults sold fruit, roots, meats (yikes, those pig heads!), and played dominoes. They’d wave and smile as we passed by, they’d cut up fruit for us to taste, they seemed, well, happy. Could they actually be, happy? Certainly, if one of us tried to live there, we might have some complaints, like, wouldn’t it be nice to have a bathroom? Or a front door? They might have some complaints, too, like, “Who let the chickens in?” Or “The roof is leaking!” Or, “We have run out of pesos and so we can’t all get on the motorbike and go down to the baseball game tonight!” Or, “There is nothing to eat tonight.”

There are people living in mansions who complain more than people who live in one-room cinder block homes with dried palm fronds for roofs.

And so, I felt rather silly for complaining about not having my bag.

And then we got the sickness. That horrid intestinal thing that happens when travelers go to third world countries. Complain, complain, complain!

We got better pretty quickly, thanks to modern medicine and how readily available it is to tourists. And then, off on our adventures again, in the cities, in the jungles, in the cathedrals, and in the home built for the Columbus family.

We met and conversed with several Dominicans and found most to be happy with their lives, despite the challenges they each faced.

Eventually, it was time to go, and we packed our bags and got up early last Wednesday morning. We left at 8:30 in the morning for an 11:00 AM flight to Miami. Arriving at the airport at 9, we did the customs things and the bag checking things and the getting water and food things, and went to our gate.

We sat and waited, as one must do when flying internationally. Hurry up and wait. Complain. Finally, we boarded. This plan was even worst than the last one, and while we had requested a window seat when we got the ticket, there was no window! It was a seat next to the outside of the plane but there was just a wall there and no window. We managed to trade with a woman seated behind us because she wanted to sleep and didn’t care if she had a window or not. So, settled into our seats (no seat pocket in front for me, it had been torn off) we prepared to take off.

After a while the pilot came on, in Spanish, and said that some valve was missing from the cargo hold and they were going to need an hour to replace it. We were to remain on the plane and they would show us a movie. Mark predicted it would be two hours.

After an hour, they invited us to leave the plane, if we wished, to walk around, eat, shop, or whatever and that we should just keep our boarding passes to get back on. About 95% of the passengers quickly vacated. Mark took a nap and I walked up and down the aisles, brushed my teeth, etc.

Soon there was a frantic message in rapid Spanish. Mark was dozing with headphones so he didn’t hear it. I saw the remaining people on the plane quickly gathering their things and vacating. I saw a woman, with a sleeping child, and all of the family’s luggage (her husband got off the plane when they announced that one could leave and come back after the repairs were made) struggling to handle it all alone.

I woke Mark in time for the English announcement: “We are ready to install the part but the plane must be empty before we can do that, everyone leave the plane!”

We gathered our things, and I hung around to see if the mom needed an extra hand or two. She made it, but she looked a little annoyed that they announced such a thing after her family had left.

Off the plane, we sat, with all the other passengers, near the gate, waiting to get back on. Some passengers, who had gone to other parts of the airport, were let on to get their stuff.

“We leave at 2 PM,” they said. Mark hung around the desk to keep up on updates. When he got the impression that it wouldn’t be 2 PM either, he booked us on another flight, 4 PM.

Next they cancelled the flight, and all of the passengers were crowding around the desk, trying to get the 4 PM flight.

I looked at their faces, and they looked stressed and worried. Many had little children in tow. Some were elderly. The 4 PM flight was filling up. Having gotten our ticket turned over, we went and sat where we could see them taking luggage off our disabled plane. We saw our bags! Hey, they were really on the plane! They put them in the back of a blue pick-up truck. We hoped that it was an official airport truck with no markings of any kind and not just some guy’s truck, and he was driving away with our bags.

After about half of the harried and weary travelers had booked on the 4 PM, they announced that it was time to board (it was around 2:45 by then). Oh, okay, we went to get in line, but we had the wrong tickets. They were boarding the original plane! The half of the passengers who hadn’t booked for the 4:00 PM flight could get back on the plane, and they did. Crazy!

So, Mark went to speak to the agent about how we had been in the airport since 9 AM, waiting, and getting on and off the plane for a flight that was delayed, cancelled and then reinstated. They gave him a voucher to get some food, but we had to hurry since the 4 PM would be boarding soon!

We rushed past the duty-free shops and got some food, and some bottles of Perrier, and hurried back to board the 4 PM. The 11 AM flight to Miami, meanwhile, was getting ready to take off, finally, and we would have been on it, had we been at the back of the line.

But, soon enough, we were back on another plane and ready, at last, to take off. We had, of course, missed our 3 PM connection out of Miami to LAX, even with the extra hour for the time change.

When we arrived in Miami, we had to get rid of most of the food that we got with our voucher, in order to clear customs, and get our bags, yay, they were there, and take them to send them on to LAX. It was kind of a casual area, with string to mark it off, and we slid our bags under the string and a lady asked, “Where are these going?” Hmmm, that seemed a bit too casual. We asked if the tags were clear enough, etc.

When we went to show our passports and get them stamped, who would be in the line ahead of us but the lady who willingly traded seats with us so she could sleep and we could have a window seat on the plan that never took off with us in it. The agent was not very kind to her because she didn’t know any English and she was a resident of the USA. He explained to us, after she left, that he was from another country, too, but that he was an American citizen now, and spoke English, and expected her to also. He refused to deal with her, and sent her to another agent. I wanted to say, “But she changed seats with us!” But I have learned to say very little when dealing with passport and customs agents. They have a lot of power.

So cleared, and secured, and checked, we went to our gate to, oh yeah, wait again. We got water, again, and food again, and waited. I saw the female, redheaded pilot enter with her luggage, and then the fight attendants, too. We waited some more.

Later, I saw the pilot come back out again, with her luggage. Huh? Did she change her mind? Shortly after that, it’s announced that the windshield wipers weren’t working and because it is a federal regulation that they work, they needed to be repaired. Mark went to the desk and asked if there were any other flights to LAX that night.

We had the 7 PM flight, which was a switch from the 3 PM originally booked. We rebooked on an 8 PM flight to LAX, and then moved swiftly, pretty much the entire length of the humongous airport to get to the other gate. (Mostly, we ran!) When we got there, they said that it was a wide open flight. Good, we requested a window seat and she said, sure.

Then, we sat to wait for the flight, Mark was on his laptop and making business calls since it was still the work day PST. I looked at the ticket to see what our boarding group would be. Number 1? Huh? And what was our row? I showed it to Mark, it was confusing, it was, it was, hey! It was the front emergency exit, and the window was about 2 inches square and way up on the wall, more like a peep hole than a window and one would need to be standing to see out of it.

Complaint!!! The plane was wide open, we asked for a window seat, and of all the window seats available, she gives us this! I tried to look old and weak so that they would take me away from the emergency doors and put me by a real window. It didn’t work. I scrutinized the passengers getting on. I said to Mark, “There’s an athletic looking couple, why don’t you see if they would like extra leg room?” He didn’t ask. We were stuck there all the way from the East Coast to the West Coast.

We were soo tired. We arrived at LAX just around midnight, PST. We were directed to carousel one for our bags. In a replay of our arrival in Santo Domingo, the bags went around and around and no one from our flight was claiming them and we never saw ours and there were no new bags coming. Then, after Mark had already started to wander toward other carousels, an announcement came, our bags were arriving at the carousel farthest away, of course, from the one that they originally assigned us to.

I struggled through the crowds, with Mark’s computer bag, and my backpack and joined him in time to find our bags arriving. Imagine that!

Then, after a wait and a call to get a shuttle to our parking lot, we finally got to our car, around 1 AM PST. We’d been awake and traveling for 24 hours. We were really, really tired and so glad to see my car. But what’s this?

Mark turned the ignition and the alarm went off and the car would not start. The parking lot guy tried and couldn’t and the alarm kept going off. I didn’t get it. I hadn’t set the alarm and hadn’t used it in years. I sat in the car with my ears plugged each time it went off. We had to call Auto club. I didn’t have my card and Mark’s was no good because his kids had already used it too much, so Mark had to explain to them that I was there but, well, anyway, they agreed to be there by 1:30 AM. We sat there, shivering in the cold. It has been really cold, and even snowing in SoCal, and that is probably part of why my car was dead. Auto club called with delays, lots of people with dead batteries in the wee hours of a Thursday morning. We might have fallen asleep if we weren’t so busy shivering in a parking lot near LAX at 1:30 in the morning.

At 2 AM, they arrived, disabled the alarm system and got the car started. YAY. We got home at 3 AM and fell into bed and didn’t wake up until 7 AM!!!

We wandered around with horrid jet lag all of Thursday, grateful to be home, and haunted by our memories of the people of the DR with so little and yet able to smile and be happy and uncomplaining.

We can’t complain, but that trip home was grueling, Soon it will fade and we will only remember the good parts.