The gorgeous seaside town of Santa Cruz, CA
Unexpected upheaval on the way home
I was really tuckered out after a month-long stay visiting my family in California and was looking forward to an easy flight home to Guatemala. Billy (that angel of mine!) was waiting for me in Antigua and he had arranged for our private driver to meet me at the Guatemala City airport about an hour away and bring me to our hotel.
Traffic was smooth riding over Highway 17 from Santa Cruz to San Jose Airport this Tuesday morning and I arrived in plenty of time to go through TSA pre-check security and catch my flight.
Everything was going as I expected, and once I boarded the plane and settled into my seat, I ate one of the sandwiches I had packed to get me through the long day of travel ahead.
Just a moment please
I didn’t even blink twice when the airline pilot said we would be having some repairs done to the fuel gauge before we left the hanger. I figured he’d pick up any extra time we needed while in flight. I had a tight 40 minute connection in Dallas that would take me to my next flight to Guatemala City, but I tried not to stress about it.
The captain again came on the intercom to tell us that the fuel gauge had been repaired and that we’d be on our way…
Except he didn’t say that.
What? Wait a moment, what did I just hear?
Dallas had requested at least an hour grounding of all planes – nothing and no one were leaving or arriving to Dallas Fort Worth airport due to a major storm and flooding to that city.
I confidently pushed the service button above my seat, anticipating a flight attendant to come and answer questions about my connecting flight to Guatemala. After all, there were several flight attendants in the aisle already doing this for others.
Oddly, no one was coming to my seat as they all disappeared to the back of the plane.
The woman next to me suggested that I take all my belongings with me and be prepared to de-board the plane. “You’ll probably have to reschedule your flight” she said to me matter-of-factly.
A sinking feeling came over me as visions of Billy waiting in Antigua and my private driver waiting in Guatemala City flashed across my mind. I wondered how this was going to play out. I endeavored to maintain my peace of mind.
I made my way to the back of the plane where the flight attendants seemingly were hiding from the passengers. That couldn’t be true… Could it? Asking what I needed to do about my connecting flight, the attendant responded in a high, shrill voice, much louder than I had expected someone in charge to speak to me.
“YOU’LL HAVE TO SPEAK WITH A TRAVEL AGENT ABOUT THIS. IT’S NOT OUR FAULT THAT THE PLANE IS GROUNDED!!”
Okay… And where might I find this agent?
“AT THE FRONT OF THE PLANE BUT HE’S VERY BUSY RIGHT NOW AND THERE IS ONLY ONE OF THEM! JUST GET IN LINE! WE CAN’T HELP YOU!”
I struggled up the crowded aisle of the plane to the front where there was, indeed, a line, but no one was moving.
I couldn’t believe how quickly things drifted down from order into chaos.
I noticed that the pilots in the cockpit were looking over charts and maps laid out between them and another flight attendant was asking over the intercom for everyone to remain seated. No one was moving in or out of Dallas and we had to stay here and wait until we were cleared to fly.
So I asked this young woman what I needed to do about my connecting flight, realizing that – with flight time, even if we left this moment, I had already missed my connection.
The line to speak with an agent wasn’t moving. Someone in the front was speaking very loudly that she had to be rerouted to Madrid and had to arrive today because she had an 84 year old woman with her. She could possibly stay the night somewhere, but it was too much to ask of this 84 year old woman, so therefore, she needed to have this arranged right now. Her urgent needs took precedence over the increasingly long line of those waiting for service.
People continued to back up behind me and still, with the one agent working, no one was moving. Another man going to Guate City had rescheduled himself by using his smart phone and he was going through Miami. He suggested that I might do the same.
I felt like a digital dumph. How did he do that? Oh Gawd.
I needed to speak with a real human being and quickly.
The Santa Catarina Arch in Antigua
The instructions from the flight attendant at the front of the plane varied from moment to moment. Yes, get off the plane and reschedule. No, stay on the plane and stay overnight in Dallas. No, we don’t compensate you for your room, that’s on your dime. Yes, you must get off the plane now, as everyone is getting off the plane, we aren’t going anywhere, we are cancelled. Bags will be returned to baggage claim. If you do get off the plane, we can’t guarantee that you can get back on. If you want to reschedule you’ll need to get off the plane. Maybe you should stay on the plane.
I took a look at the woman who monopolized the one agent’s time in rescheduling her flight, and if she was any indication, thought I had better get off the plane before the full flight deboarded. Or else I could be here all night rescheduling myself to my destination.
Off the plane and back at the airline check-in gate, the lady with the 84 year old passenger is still yacking away with another agent while people in my line are actually moving forward.
Why is this bedlam happening?
This kind of stuff never happens to me!
Everything always runs smoothly for me, because that’s what I tell myself, and that’s what I tune into. It’s what I look for and that’s the wave I ride… yet here I am at the airline gate rescheduling myself – and my bag is still on the plane.
I was confused. This is not how my life normally goes.
Mild internal panic
The next thing I know there’s a flurry at the gate, and we are told that the plane is leaving in 5 minutes. Get on the plane or your bag leaves without you.
Oh No!! My bag goes to Guatemala City in Central America? Without me?
In my mind I see a ravished bag, devoid of contents as I arrive in an international city of over 17 million residents.
I freeze in place for a moment, mentally let go of my bag that’s on the plane and speak with the travel agent facing me at the desk.
I get myself rescheduled for two days later, and head on to the baggage security desk to make a claim about my now orphaned bag.
The baggage claim man seemed like he was 10 years too long into this job and there was no engagement with me coming from him. We make arrangements for my bag to be collected in Dallas and flown back to San Jose, where I’ll pick it up two days later when I come to board the plane on Thursday.
Meanwhile, in Antigua, Billy has caught wind of the news about my flight and Skypes my cell phone. I give him the skinny, and understandably, he’s disappointed.
Family came from an hour away to pick me up once again and take me back to Santa Cruz.
Luggage, luggage, who has the luggage?
Over the next 2 days I call the baggage claim several times to be assured about the location of my bag only to find that it has already been flown to Central America.
Arriving Thursday morning before the Baggage Security Office opened, I prepare myself to have the necessary documents or claim numbers to show that I own this particular bag, once I arrive in Guatemala City. This security agent shows me the computer screen that tracks my bag and promises that my bag has been received and scanned at the airport in Guate City.
Should be smooth sailing.
After a long and uneventful flight (with the same tight connection in Dallas where I literally run to catch my then boarding connecting flight) I arrive in the big city, go through Immigration and Customs and then begin to ask around for the Baggage Security Office. Finding my driver waiting for me outside the International Arrivals doors, I enlist him to help me find my luggage.
Everyone I asked had a different idea. Go across the street, go upstairs, go downstairs, go back across the street, go to this office and then that one. Finally, in a very roundabout way, I am at a desk in a dark corner where a young woman with a distanced attitude tells me to wait here until another agent arrives.
My driver, Hernan, says to me, “Wait here, don’t move. I’m going to go get the car.”
Digitally and financially naked
The remarkable AND reliable Hernan, my cab driver
It was no longer than a moment when another humorless woman meets me at the desk and tells me she has not seen or heard of this bag. It’s not here. If it were here, she would know about it.
I grab Hernan and with my eyes, pleaded that he not leave me.
I hung onto the view I had of the computer screen that morning which showed me my bag had arrived and had been scanned. It was here, I kept telling the agent.
That’s impossible, but we’ll see. Come with me. You cannot take anything with you. These are our security instructions. You can have nothing with you. Leave your passport at this desk.
I hesitate for just a moment as I realized that I had my credit cards and my birth certificate in my daypack. There was all my money; left-over Dollars from my visit to the States and all of my Quetzales to help ease my transition back to Guatemala. I had new solid state hard drives, new SD cards, memory cards for computers, my smart phone, camera, my thumb drive, and every other digital gadget I owned, along with personal medication that I take on a regular basis.
In a second, I whirl around again to Hernan and give him all my cash, all my digital equipment and all my IDs. I say to him, “Wait here. Don’t move. I’m going to get my bag.”
Following this woman into the baggage retrieval area I felt digitally and financially naked. I hadn’t a cent or piece of identification to my name and I was in a foreign country. I had just given everything of substantial value to my driver.
A thief’s dream?
The treasure in my daypack and travel bag was worth far more than Hernan would be making on this cab ride to Antigua…
It was a thief’s dream come true.
My luggage was not on the carousel and I looked around the desolate and dimly lit area.
It had been an hour since I began this luggage search and nothing much had moved forward.
I was mystified as this was definitely not the norm for me, but chose not to panic.
Eyes darting around the gloom of the room, I finally see a young man rolling what looked to be my bag. Rushing up to him, I verify (along with all the scanning information) that it was my luggage and now I needed to return to Customs and go through the X-ray machine.
I had forgotten that in exchange for all my gear and passport, the emotionally cool young woman gave me an airport ID badge that was clipped to my blouse. Relief and confusion must have been all over my face as I was led to the security machine. People were smiling now, and a man helped me lift my heavy bag onto the moving belt. I was in pleasant shock as I realized that the flimsy lock I placed on the zipper was still intact.
I was almost giddy with relief.
Gracing through security I find my way back to Hernan, who, thank God, had not abandoned me. I return the airport ID badge and collect my passport and other gear. Hernan’s son comes up with the taxi and we all take our seats.
Rain falls on the windshield and the wipers slap it away. Traffic is horrendous and the streets are slick reflecting the colored lights of advertisements as we head through the maze of cars and trucks.
Hernan calmly reaches to the back seat and locks that door, then his own. Following his lead, his son locks his door, and then I lock mine.
After all, we are traveling about 5 miles an hour, in the dark, in a city of 17 million.
What could go wrong?
Always carry your necessary medications with you in case you get separated from your luggage.
Pack the items of most value (digital equipment) with you to carry on the plane. Do not place in your checked-in bag.
Put an ID and a little extra cash in a pocket so at least you have proof of who you are, and some cash in case you need a meal, or to pay for transport or hotel until things settle down. If Hernan would have betrayed me and left with my gear, I would have had nothing.
Do not let go of your baggage claim tag even if you are rescheduling your flight and you get a new print-out. Get a tracking number for your gear.