First, I want to recognize MLK Day and my gratitude for a day of remembrance, action, and unity.
“I’m here! I’m here!” I shouted as I leapt off the airport go-cart.
“Hi, hi, I’ve got to get on the plane, I’m the last passenger” (I’m not sure when I decided this fact), I said as I stumbled over to the airport boarding and security person, my backpack flopping to and fro.
“Goodbye Jorge! Thank you!” I turned and yelled to my friend who shook his head at me and motored the cart a few feet away.
“You’re too late. The plane is gone. Nothing we can do.”
The airport guard said all these statements in a rapid montage that I like to call, ‘The most painful one-liners a hopeful traveler can hear.’ It was as if he’d practiced the exact combination of phrases that would shut down all hopes the quickest.
I was crushed, like a peanut shell on the sidewalk. Yet, shockingly, I remained undeterred by this obstacle. Somehow, the run had made me confident in my choice to get on the plane to Miami and embark on the first leg of my journey. The adrenaline coursing through my veins made me feel like I was in the sort of adventure where the protagonist overcomes incredible odds and ultimately completes her goal.
I said, “Nooo!”
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “I have to get on that plane. I have to go to BOLIVIA!”
“I said there is nothing we can do. The gate is closed. The plane has left. You were too late.”
At the repetition of those words I was filled with shame. I had let the plane go by. I was too late.
The moment passed and I decided to try arguing again.
“But I can see it! I know it’s there. I can see the plane!” I exclaimed, pointing out a foggy wall-length window.
“This is an airport. That’s not your plane.”
I realized then, the flaw in my argument. I realized too, how fixated I had become on this goal, as if it were the only way that my plans, my life, could work out.
I began to sob. Heaving sobs. I think it was that I hadn’t been able to really breathe for some time now. That and, up until this man, everyone else had been SO supportive, as if they were sent to help me along on my journey. Now suddenly it felt as if he’d slapped me in the face with a wet fish of reality (just trying that metaphor out).
“Stop crying. You don’t need to cry. People miss their flights every day. It’s not like somebody died, you just have to go over there and rebook your flight.”
Now this struck me as simultaneously cruel and also useful. He had reframed what was a complete disaster, to me, as a normal, everyday ‘oops’ from which there was a recovery protocol. And it was, right over there, at a counter where I noticed a little more than a dozen other passengers talking anxiously among themselves.
I looked back at him. “I do need to cry. I appreciate what you’re saying, and I’ll go to do that, but first, I just need to cry for a second.”
At this I saw his eyes soften, almost imperceptibly, but it was there. He walked away as I exhausted the rest of my adrenaline, still strapped to my backpack in one of those little hard blue chairs. I looked over to see Jorge, staring at me with sympathy in his eyes from the other side of the hall.
I thought about going in search of food, or to make some calls, or something before jumping right back into the mess that I’d created. But instead, after a few minutes, I got up, blew my nose (and then washed my hands because I was in an airport and that’s the right thing to do), and walked over to the ticket counter. I was in line behind a beautiful couple who were holding what appeared to be a wrapped painting as their only carry-on. I sniffled as I listened to the conversations around me in Spanish and tried to contact my friend in Bolivia (who I actually hadn’t met in person yet) through Whats App.
‘Lo perdí (el avion)…voy a ver que pueda hacer ahora. Hay muchos aqui que perdieron.’
She replied: ‘Que pena.’ I agreed.
‘Estoy en Miami. No se adonde esta mi otra maleta…’
‘Que complicada – no creo que puedas viajar hoy en Bolivia.’
The other problem was that my friend was flying from her hometown to the capitol, La Paz, to meet me. She would have been on the verge of going to sleep to wake up just a few short hours later for an early morning flight. And by early, I mean 3 am.
‘Estoy en la linea para hacer otro vuelo, pero no pienso que puedo volar hasta manana.’ – 10:33 pm
I heard another Whats App message come in from her, but I was too distracted by the sound of an airline employee speaking into her walkie-talkie: “What? What about the plane? Pasajeros a La Paz! Passengers going to La Paz! Passengers going to La Paz, come over here.”
That was me! I ducked under the stretchy cord that was creating our queue, got stuck because of my backpack, fell to my knees and crawled, heaved myself up, and made it to her, right behind the elegant couple with the painting. It was just us three. She wasn’t looking at or acknowledging us at all, but rather, still communicating over her walkie-talkie: “The plane is coming back?” she queried into it. “Well, should I send them over?” “Send us over!” I said, quietly, but audibly, eyes wide. “Yeah, send us over,” said the man with the painting. She finally looked at us. “Ok, I’m gonna take you over to the gate. It looks like the plane may be coming back. But nobody get excited.” I was NOT excited. Promise.
We got back to the gate, and she walked us up to the yellow tape line. She said, “Nobody step in front of this line. If you step in front of this line, you’re not getting on the plane.” We stood several feet back.
I heard her talking to a male airline employee who looked to be dressed for a technical occupation, building, repairing, etc. He was very nice and started to talk to us, in Spanish, and by us, I mean the couple in front of me. He looked at me and asked if I understood. I said yes. I had called my friend in Bolivia on Whats App as we hurried over to the gate moments before, to tell her that I thought I was maybe getting on the plane, and so, to not cancel her flight and to continue on with the plan as we’d laid it out. I told her I would let her know. I also told her that the plane had come back just for us. That was, after all, the only explanation I could think of. I wondered if my tears had anything to do with it.
“Problemas tecnicos,” the airline worker said. “El avión tenía problemas tecnicós.” Technical difficulties. Hmm. In one way, this was extremely lucky, in another, a little disconcerting.
The woman reappeared. She said that the plane was now back at the gate while they fixed the issue, but they had to check to see if there were still seats available (plausibly they had given away our seats to standby passengers because we were late).
The man of the couple put me in between him and his wife, which I thought was one of the kindest in the string of kindnesses I’d experienced that day. Obviously, they were not going to split up a couple.
The female airline employee found a seat for woman of the couple and she walked through the door, which had reopened, to board our plane. The employee looked back to her computer. A minute passed, I was sweating. She looked at me, and she said…
“Are you ok with a window seat?”
I would have been ok sitting on one of those fold out platforms that the flight attendants use during shuttling and take-off. I would have been ok pushing the carts of beverages up and down the aisle. I probably would have sat for 8 hours on the lid of the toilet in one of the bathrooms. So I said, “Yes, that should be fine.”
I stepped onto the jet bridge and was shortly followed by the man of the couple who’d also been found a seat. Moments later, at 10:55 pm, I sent the following Whats App message: ‘Estoy en la avion!’ Which means, sort of, ‘I’m on the plane!’
I was on my way.
Stay tuned for the epilogue (as it currently stands), coming soon.