California Quest
Seventy-One Hours and Reroutes

Kara Carlson

© Copyright 2009 by Kara Carlson 

Photo of a traveler sleeping on a bench in an airport.

As every other unemployed entity with sense, I am currently collecting unemployment and traveling. Since being laid off earlier this year, I've visited Las Vegas, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Austin, and San Antonio, as well as Peru, Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia.
This story comprises my journey in getting back to San Francisco from Lima, Peru and includes canceled flights, money and food deficiencies, crying, laughing, and the usual chaos that embodies airports.  I leave for the land of Simpson's Apu and Slumdog Millionaire in a few weeks. I learned some important travel lessons in South America that will influence my packing expertise for this next adventure to India. Learned Lesson Number 1: I will not pack my commonplace California short summer skirts or dresses, as I will be mistaken for a prostitute.

 The morning of my flight home to San Francisco from my two-month South America adventure I awoke as elated as Tom Cruise during his Katie Holmes couch caper on Oprah. I jounced around the room like a hyperactive monkey on crack, gathering my life and positioning everything in my backpacker's backpack. I clenched a cab without even bargaining for the ride. Since my wallet had been stolen weeks earlier, I only had the remainder of the money my mom had wired to me. This equated forty soles ($13.33), supplemented by two twenty dollar bills for Peru's $30US departure tax. Fifteen soles to the taxi left me with twenty-five for a bottle of water and some food at the airport. The departure tax was $30US, so I would have $10US to exterminate during my twelve-hour layover in Mexico City. I deemed my money planning as perfect as Jennifer Aniston's hair.

 I pranced in to Lima’s airport at nine in the morning to encounter a scene from the show ER. 97.7% of the multitudes milling about wore surgical masks. I wasn’t sure if this was the O.R. or the airport. I queried a masked employee why everyone looked like medics. He had the approachability of Jack the Ripper and yelped at me it was because of N1H1. I vaguely recalled reading the news a few days prior about N1H1, swine flu.

I approached another employee in a surgical mask, said I was flying to Mexico City and asked what counter to go to. He replied that every flight to and from Mexico was canceled because of the swine flu outbreak. I needed to catch a cab to Miraflores, a fifty soles ride, go to the office the next day - it was closed today, Friday - and see if I could get a ticket re-issued to Mexico, hopefully for sometime within the next week. I looked at him as if he had just offered me a donkey as a future sex partner. I explained to him the impossibility and that I didn't even want to go to Mexico, I needed to get to San Francisco. He said that as it was the morning, the airlines hadn't yet adjudicated what to do for people like me, and to wait two hours to speak to anyone behind a desk.

 "Should I talk to anyone specific?"

 "No," he replied, "Just any one of those people," with a gesticulation toward a line of people behind kiosks.

 I called my mom, told her I had no flight and not to go to the airport, and then ate a sandwich at Starbucks. Two hours later I sidled in line behind forty-seven people (I counted) - the shortest line I could locate, and waited. Three hours and sixteen minutes of people-watching and iPod-listening later, I got to communicate with an airline worker. I explained the situation. She motioned across the room and told me to go stand in another line.

 "Are you joking?" I asked, sounding as macabre as Hannibal Lecter. "I just stood in this line for over three hours."

 She apologized, pointed to the wall, and motioned for the next disgruntled person.

 "Goddamnit!" I screamed, swinging my luggage on to my shoulder and stalking off, nearly battering a baby who looked like it was taking its first steps. I positioned myself in line against the wall. Fifty-three minutes later the woman attendant pointed to the end of the line next to us and told me I needed to wait there. I cried. Another hour revealed me explaining to the airline employee that I didn't care where in California I flew to, they could leave me in L.A. if they wanted, I just needed to get to California. She handed me tickets for a flight to L.A. departing Lima at 1am with a connecting flight to SFO. I hugged her.

 I called my mom and apprised her of my new arrival time (11am). Overwhelming feelings of love for my mom as strong as the only time I’ve tried shrooms overcame me. With the last of my money I bought her a bottle of Chilean wine in the Duty Free Shop as a love expression, and sat down to wait.

 At 12:20am I advanced to my gate. My flight was canceled. A man escorted me back through customs and security to the line I had been in fifteen hours earlier. An attendant issued me a ticket to Miami and told me that I would have to fly to Miami and catch a connecting flight an hour later to San Francisco. I felt as gleeful as an innocent Guantanamo Bay prisoner. The airlines subdued me with a Sheraton Hotel stay, complete with dinner and breakfast. I hadn't eaten in eight hours (because I spent money on wine instead of food) and was exhilarated that I would get dinner. To appease my consternation at flying to Miami, the employee handed me $20US.

 I penetrated the hotel with an awe rivaling that of Pocahontas when she entered Whitehall Palace. I had been residing in hostels for $3-$12 a night and had forgotten amenities such as provided towels and toilet paper. I checked in and requested the promised dinner voucher, my stomach feeling as satisfied as Aron Ralston, the hiker who amputated his own arm. I was informed that the kitchen ceased serving dinner at 2am. It was 2:10am. No amount of pleading for the kitchen to issue me food, the snack bar to open, or the non-existent vending machines to materialize accomplished anything. I went to bed with a cavernous stomach, but gratified to be in a white bed as sizable as Pamela Anderson's breasts.

 I barreled around in creamy down. I was as astonished about the uncustomary fluff as I was the first time I actually ran the mile. In 4th grade I had been a corpulent child and my most accelerated gait was a slow walk. And that was ambitious. In 5th grade the class had to compose goals for the year. One of mine was to complete the mile in 11 minutes or less. The first run I was surprisingly physically capable of jogging and terminated the four laps in 8 minutes and 50 seconds. Over the previous year my limbs had extended like Jessica Simpson's lips and our family had procured a devil dog. Every time the dog escaped (at least once a day), my mom requested I chase after her. Chasing the dog, supplemented by growing a few inches, I lost as much weight as Kirstie Alley and felt fantastic. That was the year I adapted from Fat Goalie to Field Runner.

 It took me minutes to discern that I was not truly in a cloud, but a luscious bed. I bound from bed blithe that I would be in San Francisco in fifteen hours. The Sheraton, supposed to provide a shuttle to the airport, refused to do so unless ten people or more required a ride. My scheme to arrive at the airport at 9am for an 11am flight was annihilated like Hiroshima. We waited an hour and fifteen minutes for the appropriate numbers. I entered the airport at 10:20am.

 First blockade: departure tax. I had paid the day before and received the sticker. However, the sticker had become invalid because I had already used it. As the system was electronic I had to go back downstairs, reactivate the sticker, and then return. Time elapsed: twelve minutes.

 Second barricade: security. I confidently clumped through security, praising the airlines for having checked me in at 1am and already obtaining my bags. The security officer demanded I stand aside for some minutes. They removed the bottle of wine in the sealed bag I had purchased from the Duty Free Shop the day prior.

 "You can't take this in. It's liquid."

 "But I bought it yesterday in the Duty Free Shop when I was stuck in the airport for eighteen hours. It's a gift for my mom. It's sealed in the bag the Shop put it in. It's not my fault South America doesn't want me to leave and canceled my flights twice. I need that wine for my mom!"

 After speaking to seven different people in fifteen minutes it was concluded that I had to continue to my fight without the wine. My love gift for my mom was lost, and I was as disappointed as I imagined I would be if I were a penguin - a bird that can't fly. Time elapsed: fourteen minutes. My flight departed in ten minutes.

 Third obstacle: customs. I inserted myself in the shortest line: behind two twenty-something males. In retrospect, this was as astute as George W. Bush asserting, "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family" (Greater Nashua, N.H., January 27, 2000). The first approached the desk and then attempted to locate his passport. I stood, rigid, passport in hand, staring at the wall clock, willing it to move slower. Finally he perceived it in his back pocket. Don Juan was next. He had his passport, but not the entrance/exit paper required to leave the country. I exhaled loudly and tapped my foot, hoping this would be code to the customs worker to ask him to step aside while she registered me. This didn't happen. I shot Don Juan a glance as welcoming as Stalin and ducked under the lane divider. My backpack caught and impelled my weight backward. I clattered to the carpet as gracefully as Gerald Ford, the line dividers plummeting with me. The hollow metal stands and thin retractable flexible dividers entangled me. I emitted a grumble redolent of a debilitated cow's and propelled myself to my feet. I wordlessly strode directly to the front of another line. Time elapsed: six minutes. My inaugural airport run ensued.

 Hours later I arrived in Miami grateful to be in the United States. Miami was no California, but at least I was in my own country. Where people spoke English. I had never been to Miami before, but departed the plane with Will Smith's "Welcome to Miami, bienvenido a Miami," replaying in my head accompanied by apparitions of bathing-suit-clad adolescents with Mai-tai's and Sex on the Beach in hand. I promptly perceived that everyone here spoke Spanish. I may as well have still been in South America. I visualized arriving in San Francisco in seven hours. San Francisco, the city of homosexuals, Asians, and fog. My city. A smile spanned my face as I envisioned the maniacal drivers. My driving abilities are tantamount to the rest of the city's drivers. After seven years of driving with six tickets, two hit pedestrians, and three accidents, I feel unequivocally at home among SF's motorists.

 The flight from Lima landed at 6:10pm. My connecting flight to San Francisco was at 7:15pm. I considered this consummate timing, as I had been in an airport the entire previous day and would have limited time here. I proceeded with my fellow passengers to the baggage claim. Eighteen minutes later luggage ceased ejecting. My backpacker's backpack was absent. Cognizant of the clock, I approached an airline employee and annotated the situation.

 "Your bag has to be here," he informed me.

 "I would like it to be, but it's not."

 "No, it has to be here somewhere."

 "Ok, but it's not."

 At my repetition he snatched my baggage tag from my hand and examined the numbers, cross-referencing them with those of the excess bags in front of him. Two feet from the baggage, I easily discerned that none of them were mine, and told him so. He ignored me.

 "It is here somewhere," he told me, still perusing numbers.

 "Ok, that's nice, but I'm looking at what you're looking at, and none of those are mine. I watched every bag and never saw mine. It's probably in L.A. That's one of the flights I was supposed to take yesterday."

 Mao Zedong notified me that I must be mistaken and it was here somewhere. Twenty-three minutes later my luggage was declared lost. I proceeded to check-in to my next flight where I was told that I was too late to board the plane and would have to wait until tomorrow for a flight to SF. My San Francisco fantasies fled faster than Michael Phelps' 100m butterfly. I was ushered like a mentally disabled sea lion to another line to reschedule my flight.

 I felt lost in this situation because the two aspects I am most proficient in - eating and drinking - were about as useful as George Bush's public speaking abilities. I stood in line vacillating between laughing and crying. I rarely cry and this paroxysm was perplexing because I was laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation but crying at the overwhelming hopelessness that was attacking me like the swine flu. To assuage this nonsensical reaction, I placed my iPod earphones in my ears and stood, shaking, my fingers covering my face. I hoped if anyone observed me they would think whatever I was listening to was emotionally provocative. Like Harry Potter. That's when I felt something between my legs.

 I glimpsed down to distinguish a two-year-old’s dark chocolate pig-tailed head smiling up at me. I contemplated whether her hair was actually the color of dark chocolate or whether I was delirious and exceedingly craved chocolate as something that would provide sanity. I dissolved in laughter, removed my feet from either side of her head, and played a game with the child. She lay on her back in the American Airlines line, legs in the air. I shook her legs alternately, one of her feet to one of my hands. This was as sporadic as me quitting Spanish on a whim two years ago and signing up for bartending class. I had no idea what this game was but Pigtail giggled and I was content to be shaking a small child's legs. When I subsequently spoke to a service rep I was as serene as the time I got handcuffed outside my own house.

 "Hi. Ok, I have a problem because I missed my flight to SFO because the airline lost my luggage. I have been trying to get home for two days but the swine flu has not allowed me to. My purse got stolen in Peru so I have no money and no access to money. I have no money to eat and I am very hungry. I don't even have money to call my mom to tell her not to come to the airport. And my sister's getting married tomorrow and I need to get home. I'm the maid of honor. Even though right now I have no money and no clothes, not even a toothbrush, because of the lost luggage, I just need to get home. For the wedding. And I need to eat. Preferably soon."

 My wallet did get stolen on a Peruvian overnight bus from Nazca to Cusco.

My sister is nineteen and does not have an impending marriage. I am not usually one to lie and didn't know where this development derived from. I shrugged at myself but concluded a little motivation didn't hurt as I had originally intended to arrive in San Francisco the morning before and for some unknown reason was currently on the opposite side of the country.

 The airline rep looked at me like I had suggested she inject pig excrement in to her eye. I smiled and contemplated crying to augment the significance of the situation. My face must have reflected this because she slid her cell phone to me across the counter.

 "Ok. Since you have no money I won't charge you for the flight alteration. Call your mom and tell her your flight was changed. What time is the wedding?"

 "Well, everything starts at 10am," I said, thinking that was a reasonable time to fly in. For the second time in three minutes she looked at me like I belonged in the California Institute for Mental Health. I recalled weddings are generally in the late afternoon/early evening.

 "Everything meaning I have to get my hair and nails done and begin preparing my sister for the biggest day of her life," I followed up with as convincingly as the time I told my teacher my brother had peed on my homework.

 "Ok, call your mom, I'll see what I can do," she said.

 I proceeded to call my mom and somehow integrate the imminent wedding. My mom's response: "What? What wedding? Did I forget about a family wedding again?"

I recollected the time in college I had arbitrarily asked my mom how Great Aunt Addie was doing, as I hadn't seen her in three years.

"Honey, she died last year. You went to her funeral," was my mom's response. I was relatively certain I would have remembered had I attended her funeral. I called my brother, also in college, and asked him if he knew Aunt Addie had passed away. His reply: "Aunt Addie died?"

 After obtaining a ticket for the following day, being shuttled to Miami's Marriott, cherishing a steak dinner, and drowning in another white bed, I discerned that though I wasn't home, I was as pleased as the time I secured first place in a coloring contest and received a box of crayons as a prize. The following day I arrived in San Francisco, forty-nine hours after I had originally intended and seventy-one hours after first arriving at Lima’s international airport. I was thrilled.

At the moment I'm as homeless and unemployed as the used grocery bag in my mom's trash can. Before I was laid off from my very lucrative position of Everyone's Bitch, with the very misleading title of Executive Assistant, I graduated from the University of San Francisco with a degree in English, Creative Writing emphasis. Aside from my extensive, extraordinarily prosperous part-time background in California real estate (been a licensed agent since 2005... and have yet to complete a sale), I write with the dedication Lindsay Lohan demonstrates to her college education. However, I recently received notice that In Travel Magazine, an online mag, published a bus story of my Chile to Argentina jaunt.
My hero is Beth, Dog the Bounty Hunter's wife.

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