Chile, being long and skinny, has a lot of long distance domestic travel supporting a vibrant airline economy, with five national carriers each flying used 737-200s (which are too loud for the US now) into a dozen or so small airports. When I say small airports, I mean small. Calama, for example, is a town of 120,000 with a mining business that keeps enough engineers and businessmen coming and going to support four or five flights a day to Antofagasta, the regional capital. Until very recently this traffic traveled by turboprop or long-distance bus, and the terminal is sized accordingly: a baggage room and a ticketing room of about 500 square feet each, a rolling stairway for the plane (only one fits in the terminal area at a time) and a donkey to pull the luggage cart. The whole arrangement is dwarfed by a 737; the way you find an airport in Chile is to look around for the tail of the airplane that's parked at it, since it's so much taller than the low, single-storey buildings around it or indeed anywhere in town.
The airline business being so new means that schedules are constantly changing, without notice. I had called a few days previously to "reconfirm" and between then and my departure the flight schedule had been moved an hour and a half earlier. Fortunately, I got to the airport extra early as I'd heard that this kind of thing was likely.
This turn of events got me to Santiago early enough that I could make the second-to-last flight out, through Miami, which would get me to Boston five or six hours earlier than the Dallas connection would. I tried to arrange the change of flight but my bad Spanish and the local American Airlines agent's bad English made this effor frustrating and fruitless. So rather than ask for someone else, I gave up. The plane for the flight to Dallas had arrived in Santiago already, so I wasn't worried about it. After an hour or two hanging out in the Au Bon Pain (!) in the International terminal, I got on the flight to Dallas, we pushed back from the gate on time at about 11:15 pm, and all seemed well.
After two or three hours of waiting on the runway (for some mechanical issue) we were told that the pilots hadnow been awake for too long to fly all the way to Dallas without violating the shift regulations, and that we now had to wait for eight more hours for the pilots to sleep and reset their shift clock.
Another American agent (with much better English) put us all on a bus downtown to stay in the swankiest hotel I'd ever stayed in (and still the second-swankiest even after a high-end European junket or two). By now the theoretical earliest takeoff time for the plane was 9:30 or 10 in the morning, which would get it to Dallas too late to catch the last flight to Boston, so if I stayed on this flight American would be paying for not one but two nights hotel. I inquired about flights through Miami and there were three that could catch the last flight from there to Boston: a 6:30 through Lima on AeroPeru (which the agent heartily disrecommended) and two LanChile flights, one direct at 7:30 and one through Lima at 9:30. Great, says, I, put me on the 7:30 LanChile flight; that will get me four hours of sleep which is better than nothing and no one will have to pay for hotels in Dallas. A couple of very clean-cut guys with a large number of identical high-security suitcases agreed with my assessment and we shared a van back to the airport the next morning.
I got to the airport a bit before 7 the next morning, observed the crowd of people still waiting for the equipment to arrive for the AeroPeru flight, and got my boarding pass for the LanChile flight to Miami. A few minutes later, though there is a plane ready, we are told that the flight is canceled and we'd all be put on the next one. I hang out with the other folks from the American flight and determine to my complete lack of surprise that they're flying in to BWI. I watch the AeroPeru flight from Lima continue not to arrive. 9:30 comes and goes. By 11:00 when we get on the plane, the folks waiting for passengers on the early morning flight are still there. Boarding takes only a few minutes; I count 17 people on the 250-passenger plane. We each have our own row and settle down to nap on the center section seats.
The connection to Boston from this flight is only about 90 minutes even if the flight is on time, so things don't look good for getting home today. But the flight has a three-hour layover in Lima. Great, I think, we can make up time. But this is Latin America and the crew are not going to give up their siesta. I stay on the plane for three hours rather than stamp into Peru; it doesn't seem worth it to mostly just see the airport. We finally arrive in Miami around 8:30 PM and I clear customs without a bag check.
By the time I make it to a ticket counter, there are three flights yet to leave the Miami airport that day, all on American Airlines. One is the flight to Santiago -- that's right out. One goes to Dallas -- that's no good either. And the third one, leaving at 9:15, goes to Laguardia. Gold! It misses the last shuttle flight, but the weather in Miami is gross and I want to get as close to home as I can. The ticket agent tells me to run as they're pushing back soon, and I listen. It's a mistake -- the gate is the first one on the stalk, so I'd have made it easily. And running for it, I trip and break a bottle of brandy all over the inside of my shoulder bag. On board the flight I soak up most of the brandy, but the smell convinces some of the passengers that something is dreadfully wrong with the airplane.
The New York flight makes it to LGA around midnight. I find an eastern seaboard train schedule and see that the sleeper train to Boston goes through Penn Station at 11:45. So close, I say, and hail a cab for the Port Authority. It's my third mistake of the trip; I could probably have made the train anyway and plus at the time there were Krispy Kremes at Penn but not at the Port Authority (this deficiency has since been rectified). The next bus leaves at 4 in the morning. It's not really any better than taking the first shuttle in the morning. But by now the sooner I get moving the happier I'm going to be. And really I'd much rather have three hours to kill in Manhattan in the middle of the night than a good night's sleep in Queens (or worse, Miami). I wander down to St. Mark's Place and flirt with the waitresses at Yakitori Taisho until they close at three.
My bus arrives in Boston a bit after 8 and I head straight to work, on schedule except for having missed a day to recuperate after my journey. I'm not good for much -- but I wasn't going to get much done that day anyway, not with all my stories to tell.
So (o best beloved), this story has not one but three traveling lessons:
- Never take the last flight of the day
- Never run for a plane
- Never assume a train is running on time