Get a bunch of travelers together and you’re bound to hear stories. While the uninitiated might expect to be regaled with tales of museums and monuments, exotic food and even more exotic locales, what you’ll often hear is a whole lot of bitching, and most of that centers around transportation.
Of course, I’m always game to join in these types of conversations. There was the seven hour bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap that was a fun-fest filled with puking children, 100 decibel ring tones, and a driver who honked the horn relentlessly at the empty stretch of highway ahead of us. It was as if the road was full of ghosts that needed to be loudly reminded to give way.
Then there was the night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. As I lounged in my terribly uncomfortable seat beside a half open window that coughed sporadic puffs of humid air, a beetle the size of a healthy 4 week old kitten flew in and landed on my chest. My literal knee-jerk reaction was to flail my feet wildly, and I made solid contact with the seat ahead of me and knocked it loose from the bolts that fastened it to the floor, which unceremoniously dumped its sleeping occupant in an unflattering sprawl.
I typically don’t include air travel when I complain. Despite my morbid fear of flying I can’t really find fault with air travel itself, save for the random time when I’ve been seated next to someone of questionable size, or I’m right in the middle of a toddler party in the back of the plane. If I have a particularly terrifying flight I usually just keep it to myself.
On July 3 we left Boquete, Panama for Montevideo, Uruguay. This involved an all day bus ride to San Jose, Costa Rica then a flight to Montevideo with a connection in Lima, Peru. The bus ride was uneventful, as was the flight to Lima. After a brief layover we boarded our last flight and took off.
I don’t remember crossing the Andes Mountains on that flight. It was pitch dark so I couldn’t see the mountain tops at all, nor was there any turbulence, at least until we hit the Argentinian plain. The plane began to shiver and shake, and the lights flashing out of the corner of my eye weren’t attached to the plane’s wings.
I alternated between fascinated glances out the window at the lightning storm that raged around us and clutching the armrests and moaning. As I fought and lost a battle with tears I told myself that this couldn’t go on for two more hours, but it did.
When we successfully made the bumpy landing into Montevideo the passengers erupted in applause, as some are wont to do. The last two hours of terror faded quickly as my mind became newly occupied with exploring another country. My last thought was simply to assure myself that it couldn’t be that bad on our way back.
I was so wrong.
We arrived at the airport in the stupid early hours of July 22, ready to reverse our course back to San Jose. The sky was dark and clear, and a few stars twinkled overhead as the plane barrelled down the runway. As we began to climb and the light from the sun became slightly visible through the clouds, the bumping started. Then the lightning started. Then it all went to hell.
As I methodically picked apart the rubbery omelet and tried to maintain some sort of sanity through the turbulence, the pilot’s voice clicked through the intercom. I tried to decipher as much of the Spanish as I could, impatient for the English version that would follow. I got nothing.
While he droned on in Spanish, the flight crew had sprung into action. They frantically gathered breakfast trays in carefully balanced stacks in their arms and hurried to the galley. My fellow passengers were scrambling for seat belts and securing bags.
“Passengers, this is your Captain. We are now entering the turbulence zone. Please fasten your seat belts tightly and remain in your seats. I regret to inform you that we will not be offering duty free shopping at this time. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
I cinched my belt as tight as it would go, and marveled at what I had just heard. The captain apologizes profusely for the lack of duty free shopping, but not for the turbulence zone? What is the turbulence zone, anyway?
Then it started. The flight crew buckled up behind me. I glanced past the Japanese woman sitting in the window seat and spied the peaks of the Andes looming out the window, almost close enough to touch. The plane began the first of a long series of lurches, and my seatmate grinned widely and held her hands up, roller coaster style.
I wanted to punch her.
The plane continued on, like a meth-addled Pegasus gleefully bucking and leaping on big, silver wings that flailed through the air. Muffled shrieks and gasps echoed through the cabin, and I think I added my voice to the chorus once or twice.
As the plane maintained its predetermined course to hell, filled with sickening dives and sways from side to side, I just knew it was the end. I found myself in a terror-induced trance of sorts, unable to move a muscle save the ones in the hand that had a vise-like grip on the armrest. I tried to recall if the film Alive had any practical tips on surviving a plane crash in the Andes, outside of eating my fellow passengers.
The plane would level off occasionally and I would find myself at the brink of a relieved sigh, but then another nose dive would take place and my hopes were dashed. I kept glancing over my shoulder at the flight attendants in their seats, deep in some funny conversation and oblivious to the fact that we were all teetering on the edge of disaster.
I wanted to punch them too.
This nightmare continued for almost an hour. When I had the courage to glance out the window I could still see the Andes, taunting me with their beautiful, snow capped, turbulent glory. Shouldn’t they be long behind us by now? It’s been an hour! How big can a mountain range be, anyway?
When the skies quieted down and the flight crew left their seats I finally allowed myself to relax, which translated into an only slightly decreased level of vigilance. I kept looking out the window at the rapidly retreating Andes, going over my South American geography carefully in my head. Nope, no more mountain ranges. We should be okay.
As we broke through the perpetual cloud cover that shrouds the city of Lima, I breathed a sigh of relief. The wheels gently touched down onto the runway and I was poised to join the round of applause that I was sure would follow. You see, I placed these pilots on a pedestal reserved for those who manage not to kill themselves or the people around them while in the line of duty; people like doctors who perform experimental surgery during a power outage or day care workers.
The applause never came. Just the typical grumbling and shoving, as if it were any other flight.
Really? Those pilots just saved us from certain death and none of you fucks can clap for them?
Then it occurred to me…
They never got their duty free shopping.