The Problem with Flying (a.k.a. Adventures Getting To / Out Of Oaxaca)

Playa Zipolite, Mexico

Playa Zipolite, Mexico

 Hello, Airplane Drama #1.

I spent half of Valentine’s Day in transit. Though I was totally packed by 11:45 AM, I still left my house in a panic half an hour later, forgetting my cell phone on a window ledge and requesting my sweet roommate to play Crazy Taxi to get me to BART on time for my hour-long train ride to the airport. Since I had checked in the night before and packed light (around 13 kg, split between my nearly-empty 70L Gregory pack and my smaller CamelBak backpack, originally intended to pack into the other), I thought I was being ultra-responsible by arriving at SFO 2 hours and 15 minutes before my flight.

Now Here’s Airplane Drama #2.

Admittedly, that’s usually a safe bet, and even more impressive for a perpetually-late Indian. However, I wasn’t totally sure if I’d be able to carry on my odd-sized backpack, and I didn’t see any kiosks to print my boarding pass. Getting into the crazy long check-in line, I started to worry that 2.25 hours might not be sufficient time. Weighing my options, I swung into the priority line and nervously watched the clock, cursing the two morbidly moronic groups of people holding up the available desks with questions about lost cardigans and meal plans.

Luckily, I made it to the front of the line within a minute of the 90-minute window, and like always, my stress was unnecessary – though the attendant quickly printed my ticket, she also breezily told me that my bag was totally fine to bring on-board (the waist straps protrude a bit, but that wasn’t evident from the steel cage design of the suitcase-fitter). Relaxed, I strolled through security, grabbed a chai, called my mom, and sat down at the gate with time to spare.

Oaxaca City, Mexico

Oaxaca City, Mexico

Enter Airplane Drama #3.

It turns out that different tickets had different schematics, so no one could figure out which “zone” referred to (or didn’t refer to) which “group.” This led to a general mob, as no one could reach a consensus about where we should stand for each corresponding group, and there were no Aeromexico staffers around to help. Everyone was also getting annoyed that we were quite clearly going to be late taking off (see previous note about no staff), but this was a mixed blessing, as it allowed me to befriend the Peruvian man who ultimately helped me catch my next flight (of course, if the original flight had been on time, I might not have had this issue, but..).

With the crowding, I was a bit concerned that there wouldn’t be space for my bag above my seat, but like everything, it worked out fine. On top of that, I had a pair of nice, interesting seat-mates: a sweet young Mexican girl, traveling from Gilroy to console her boyfriend after his brother died in a car-racing accident, and a jaded but funny Californian-Salvadorian woman, who was en route moving permanently to El Salvador from Marin after disenchantment and COL increases set in. We talked about the environment and politics and culture, and only near the end did I reveal that I could speak some Spanish, which entertained the Mexican girl so much that I almost felt guilty for not having switched earlier.

Oaxaca City, Mexico

Oaxaca City, Mexico

My Favorite Scene: Airplane Drama #4.

Since I didn’t want to disturb my new seat-mate friends, but I had been drinking free liquor the whole plane ride, it became evident that a quick bathroom break would be necessary upon disembarking. Those of you who have flown through Mexico City know how stupid that previous sentence is: I ended up rejoining the immigration line 12 rows deep, with each row was only moving along every 5 – 10 minutes. Our flight had landed around 40 minutes late, and my layover was less than two hours, so math was definitely working against me. I patiently waited in the line for 20 – 25 minutes, but after seeing absolutely zero airport staff walk by, consulting with my new Peruvian friend, and steeling myself for an act of incredible hopefulness, I eventually ended up cutting through eight rows, helped along by mother-types who shared my story with the row forward and repeated my departure time until the whole line was rooting me on. (Looking like a small child certainly has its benefits, I must admit.)

Oaxaca City, Mexico

Oaxaca City, Mexico

With 33 minutes until my flight was scheduled to leave, I ran to the immigration desk, gasped out my flight details, and witnessed the sweetest sequence of airport personnel run me through the system so that I could make it on time. The immigration officer speedily stamped my passport, shouted instructions to the next guy, who ran with me through to baggage claim, double-checked that I didn’t need to pick anything up (he was quite impressed and incredulous that I carried everything on), then passed me onto customs. When I told the customs officer about my flight situation, he quickly buzzed me through to another gaggle of officials, who again sounded amazed at my lack of luggage. They relayed me upstairs, where I had to go through secondary security, but when my backpack triggered the signal, all I said was “I need to catch my flight” (in Spanish), and they not only let me go, they also gave me directions and cheered me on.

Sprinting and sincerely freaked out that I would miss my flight and spend Valentine’s Day on the floor of the Mexico City airport, I started to doubt the security staff’s casual estimate of how far away this gate was, as it turned out to be literally the last gate in the terminal. I passed shop after shop and wondered how much further it would be, and then like a dream/nightmare heard my name announced over the loudspeaker, attached to the warning that this was the final boarding call. I was almost losing hope when out of nowhere (or in reality, the gate, where he had been successfully pushing the staff to stall for me after hearing another SFO passenger’s account of the immigration line fiasco) Alex hurtled towards me, grabbed my backpack, and shoved my passport at the gate control. We raced down to the tarmac, where our plane was waiting on me, and we collapsed in our seats, sweaty, exhausted, stressed, but so happy to have made it.

San José del Pacífico, Mexico

San José del Pacífico, Mexico

Going Back to Cali: Airplane Drama #5.

The remainder of our flight to Oaxaca was eventless, but that wasn’t the case when returning to Mexico City. We got to the Oaxaca airport with plenty of time, but found that – unlike at SFO – our bags would be weighed cumulatively. Unfortunately, this made it pretty much impossible for us to carry everything on (I was at 13 – 14 kg, Alex much more with his laptop and camera). However! This drama was pretty much averted with the help of my trusty Sea to Summit Pack Converter, which ironically I had included the previous day in a short list of things I packed that I hadn’t used. Considering all I had in my pack was a small amount of clothes and a gallon Ziploc bag of toiletries, Alex had plenty of space to offload some precious kilos, and the resulting stuffed bag was wrapped up and locked in my cover. Always be prepared!

On the bright side, the attendant had been very sweet to inform us that for whatever reason, our carefully chosen seat assignments had changed, and we were no longer seated next to each other. Since the flight wasn’t too booked, she was able to find another set of two contiguous seats, and we returned to our destiny of always sitting above the wings of planes.

Oaxaca City, Mexico

Oaxaca City, Mexico

Mini-Airplane Drama #6.

So we’re walking to security when I realize that the reason my pack was a few kilos heavier was because my CamelBak and water bottle were completely filled with clean water. In a country where purified water is a luxury (I’m talking about both Mexico and the States), it’s ridiculous to waste water – so like champs, both Alex and I chugged 2L+ of water within five minutes, then rolled our way through security.

We waited patiently for the flight, but we began getting antsy when the plane still wasn’t on the tarmac within 30 minutes of the planned departure. When it finally did arrive, mechanics and technicians swarmed one engine, and Alex – who was meditatively leading stretches against the wall – noted that the announcement of a 40 minute delay indicated that the plane was damaged, and that required “repairs” are more likely the reason for the delay than “routine maintenance.” Then, oddly enough, the airline reversed their estimate and started letting people board, a decision that once on board started to worry me more.

Pluma Hidalgo, Mexico

Pluma Hidalgo, Mexico

Potentially Going to Die Airplane Drama #7.

To give you a picture, we’re on a small plane at this point. It has about 40 rows, 160 seats total. Although I’m confident in its ability to fly, I’m not so confident about its ability to also resist breaking. It’s a sub-hour flight though, so I had expected the biggest excitement would be seeing Oaxaca City from above, not fearing for my life. (That being said, we spotted both the miniature Monte Alban and the active volcano Popocatépetl, so that was pretty cool.) As we flew over the smoggy metropolis of Mexico City, the turbulence began to worsen to the point that I genuinely thought crashing was an immediate reality. I began alternatively biting my nails and digging them into Alex’s arm, whereas he took a Buddhist approach to death and began meditating instead. The plane dropped altitude as we approached the Mexico City airport, but we still were facing unprecedented turbulence and – as it became extremely evident only meters above the tarmac – the plane was at a tilt. Sitting above the wing, witnessing it at a sickening angle to the ground, is probably not the thing I needed when I was on the verge of a heart attack, but our fearless pilot pulled us out of it in the final crucial seconds and we skid to safety. Needless to say, I could not get off that plane fast enough.

Playa Zipolite, Mexico

Playa Zipolite, Mexico

Encore: Airport Drama #8.

The name of the game is turbulence, which joined us again for our flight back to San Francisco. As Alex taught me, increased turbulence is linked to global warming and is particularly pronounced over metropolises, a fact we experienced firsthand over both San Diego and Los Angeles. Sick of turbulence and more than happy to get back to the terrifying unpredictability of shitty Bay Area drivers, the second bout of air shivers had me temporarily swearing off planes for good – which, all things considered, definitely is better for the environment anyway. To end this story on a high note, I ended up somewhat successfully distracting myself with Argo, one of many excellent movies on this new plane’s media center. Despite its equally scary depiction of plane antics, it was nice to have the comfort of a level-headed boyfriend and the gluttony of television to soak up some of my unexpected flight anxiety.

This whole experience gave me a migraine, so upon landing and collecting my backpack, we skipped BART, splurged on a taxi, and sped back to San Francisco. (…where, now that I think about it, ground turbulence in the form of massive deadly earthquakes occur…) While I was sad to leave Mexico, I was certainly glad to be back on solid ground.

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