The tiny egg timer beside the bed beeped twice at 3:15 and I bolted upright. Our room was still cold from having the window open for our time exposure a few hours earlier and Vic wouldn't budge. I changed into my travel clothes, started packing the last few items left out then pulled all the blankets off the bed with Vic still in it. Such a sad, cold and sleepy creature he was. I wished I could just let him stay there and sleep, but we had a bus to catch for our ride home. We played tug-of-war over the covers for a few minutes before he came around to the urgency of our situation. I left him for a moment to do a last round on the room to check for anything left behind. I turned back and he was upright, dressed and ready to leave as if he'd been awake for hours.
This morning it was COLD. I had chosen to pack my winter coat, as we would return first to Miami in the heat of summer. We staggared down the steps and threw our bags on the bus as we headed for the dining hall to choke down some breakfast. It had snowed again the night before and as cold as it was, I was reconsiddering my decision about the coat. Duct tape barred me from changing my mind; and the bags were already loaded above the bus. So I pulled as many blankets from the overhead as I could to wrap in.
After we located Lou, our last missing passenger, we headed back out of the compound for the last time. I could see my breath on the bus and the windows had iced over; but the bus rocked along down the bumpy road in silence. Back to the airport where we seemed to already by tardy for our departure. I had no idea what to expect and throughout it all, was glad that others had been before. We all stood in this line and filled out our customs paperwork desparately trying to keep the bags moving as fast as the line. Next, we had to pay our token twenty dollars for an unknown stamp that would allow us to leave the country, and stand in another line. Confused at why the hotel's doctor, Stanley Blanco was still with us, we discovered that he was going to travel with us to Miamin, then on to Switzerland. After an immesurable amount of time waiting in line, we proceeded through to the customs checkpoint. More paper stamping transpired before Vic and I were each tapped on the shoulder and pulled individually into tiny little voting booth sized rooms. The woman repeated her speach to me about their search procedures while I was frisked for the first time in my life. I didn't know just how well they frisk travelers, but she was brief and professional and I was too tired and confused to care. Both Vic and I emerged, a little discheveled and shrugged, passing to the next hurdle. Our bags were run through X-ray where we found Scott standing with his arms crossed not looking very happy. "They took my ticket." He said with color starting to rise up into his face. "What?!" Says Vic. Scott had packed very late the night before and had included his office supplies of pens, pencils and apparantly a pair of scissors into his cary-on. "Hang tight. I'll see what I can do." said Vic. I had no idea what pull he thought he could have, but not even speaking the language, I figured it had to be something else he had in mind. We each scrapped a handfull of brainstorms before we thought of Stanley. A tug on his coat and some words brought him over to the officers holding Scott at the checkpoint. I saw Stanley whisper in the workers' ear and he dissappeared and an American Airline representative returned with Scott's ticket. Every star party in line stepped aside to let Scott ahead to the front of the line as he stood beside Stanley. The boarding call had gone out and the line started to move, when we heard over the loudspeaker that passenger, Scott Mitchel was to return to the ticket counter. I knew there was no way he could return to the counter and conduct whatever additional business was expected of him and still make the flight. We didn't see Scott ahead in line anymore. We boarded and still didn't see him. The airplane was moments from leaving before I saw him take his seat 5 rows ahead, and Vic and I dropped a giant sigh of relief.
The altitude made it impossible for our airplane to lift off with the full fuel load needed to fly the 10 hours to Miami. We, instead flew down further south to Santa Cruz and exchanged passengers and fuel. Three customs agents boarded and began to inspect the overhead baggage compartments. We watched as every bag was pulled and an owner assigned to each. One green duffle had no apparant owner and after a half an hour of scouring for it's owner, it was removed. I newspaper porter offered papers local papers and when I asked for my copy of the Santa Cruz paper, was told it's only in Spanish. I had seen an article on the cover of one in the airport leaning over the ropes about the international trade agreement signed at our hotel the night before and was frustrated not to read some details.
Vic had carried a cold with him to Bolivia and had a hard time at take-off with an exploding head. I noticed that the Texan beside me had no less then a 40 inch inseam and made himself comfortable by crossing his leg over his and mine. Ten hours is a long time to spend in the air in a cramped space, but add the fifteen infants and toddlers running and crying; mix in an overhead speaker that repeats each message in Spanish, then English. Naturally, when the pilot announced that Miami was under thunderstorms and would be delayed in landing, we were slightly discouraged. We, and probably every other traveler had connecting flights that needed to be met. So as the plane circled high in the clouds, tensions in the aircraft actually exceeded cabin pressure.
Then we touched down. We were on the ground in the United States and the huge burden of safe return was now reduced to the actual act of kissing the ground - were there any to kiss. We met Scott on the walkway and asked what the ticket counter wanted in Bolivia. "I have no idea." he said. "I just got onto the airplane and hid in the bathroom. I figured if they wanted me bad enough, they could come find me." "See you." was all we heard as he dissappeared into the thousands of now English speaking people flooding the terminal. More lines and more paperwork as we reported what we had brought to and from the foreign country before we could collect our bags.
Miami has a very complex, yet simple international baggage system. You are to go to the baggage carousel downstairs to claim your bags, pass through the customs gate (another) and check them directly on the other side to the special counters representing each airline. The system was tried and true and much needed with our now tightening flight schedule. We went to our assigned carousel and waited for our bags. We waited and waited. The dogs on short leashes came out and sniffed us all and left, but there were still no bags. Then, a notice was posted and announced about another flight's bags being moved to our spot. Now, there were two airplanes full of anxious, late passengers mobbing around the carousel with still no baggage. Then, a second announcement directed us next door to what had to be their old station to wait for our non- existant baggage. After Vic and I had each taken our turns passing out for impatience, the machine turned on and lots of other peoples bags came out and around. One case! We had one case and our flight was not due to leave upstairs for another 35 minutes. Then, more nothing. After lots more nothing, we decided to venture to the other side of the carousel and see if they had been removed from the machine for thier size. We found one trunk, but were still missing two other trunks. "Here." said Vic offering me his tickets and pointing toward the customs officer. "Take my tickets and get us checked in." Desparate, I ran ahead wondering how he terrible it could turn out if we were to become separated. I reached the turnstyles of customs where a man pointed to my top case and asked what was in it. "Cameras" I said turning over my paperwork. I remember packing socks between all the lenses the night before so we could put all of them into the one secure, metal equipment case we brought. "And this one?" He kicked the lower trunk. "Telescopes". "Aha!" he says. "You take pictures of the stars." "Bingo!" I said hoping under my breath that he wouldn't ask me to open them and use up all the rest of the roll of duct tape I carried in my backpack. He made a joke about not needing to travel to South America to see stars, but I didn't have time to do more than smile and nod. "OK. you're clear." he says, pointing me toward the river of baggage laiden carts moving toward the mythical counters beyond. I followed and as I approached and sorted out which counter was mine, I noticed that it was the only one of the bunch without lights on or an attendant. As I got closer and closer to the Northwest counter, my stomach sank deeper and deeper. On the counter was a small sign in red. "Closed. Please go to the Northwest ticket counter located in G-3." I'm completely paniced now. I knew of friends who upon returning to the US found their airline was out of business feared the worst. Thankfully, the attendant at the counter beside me explained that they had only closed down this one counter because of staffing problems. I sighed and turned around, finding Vic marching toward me. I headed him off and spent the next few minutes convincing him against his better judgement and experience that this was NOT where we needed to take our bags.
UP. We needed to get upstairs. Porters whized everywhere, but none were available. So, we took our carts and followed the up signs to an elevator. At the elevator, we found two foot high pilons blockaded the doors from our baggage carts. Terror and confusion abounded as to how we would now get our four 70lb bags up, over the pilons, and across the airport to the terminal. "Lift them up." I said. I could feel the adrenaline starting to kick in as the boarding deadline was approaching. I believe we exceeded the maximum allowable weight for the elevator, but we punched the up button and leaned for a moment on the heap to exhale. Upstairs, we had no idea what terminal we had been dumped in, but knew that we had to get over to G within 15 minutes. We had installed casters on the backside of the trunks before the trip, but by now they had been so badly abused that only 3 of the original 6 still turned. There were still no porters in sight, so we dragged the bags onward counting down the gates. "Woah!" cried Vic. I looked back to see him hunched over his bags with sweat streaming off his face puddling onto the trunks. I forgot that he still had his coat and vest on and in the Miami heat here was overheating. A porter magically appeared and drove our bags the other fifty feet to the terminal while I stripped the coats from Vic's back and cleaned his dripping glasses.
The Northwest ticket counter officaily had only two workers, but one of them was on the phone the whole time we were in line, so she didn't count. The overhead sign still showed the flight departing in five minutes, so we stood in line and angrily tapped our feet as others ahead in line asked every silly question a traveler could. Once up, we hefted the trunks onto the scales and announced that we were in a hurry for the flight to Memphis. "Oh, don't worry about that. The plane isn't even here yet." the attendant said. "WHAT!? Your sign says it leaves in two minutes and we killed ourselves getting over here..." "It's the storm." he says, picking up the phone again as he stamps, ripps and shoufles our tickets and bording passes. "Gate G-22" Well, at least we didn't have to cary the bags anymore. I had Vic's coat tied around my waist and we had traded off the heavier equipment backpack. We hurried along down the hall only to find a 2 mile long corridor starting at gate G-1 just past the x-ray baggage scanner. We unclipped, untied and dropped our gear onto the conveyor as Vic removed his belt again for it's buckle as he passed through. We collected our heaps again and jogged down toward the gate. A few minutes later at about gate 17, I noticed that I was NOT wearing Vic's coat! "It's back at the scanner!" This is the jacket he has been collecting travel and astronomy patches on for over twenty years. "Here. I'll catch you in a minute." I threw my pack over his shoulder and ran back toward the security station. As I approached, the hefty security officer began to shout that I needed to exit through the other passage. She kept pointing and shouting, but I was too far away and out of breath to explain my position when I knew she didn't want to hear it. I pointed to the scanner which now had the sleeve flopping out from behind the black rubber flaps. It was still stuck in the machine. I grabbed it up and ran the other way, wondering how many parcels had passed over it under x-ray without the attendant noticing. I met Vic at gate 22 surrounded by well over 300 people. "They have no airplane." he said pointing to the right side of the room full of angry people. "Ours is here, but they're lost." I turned and noticed a food stand behind us, and scurried away to buy a drink. We guzzled it together in less than twenty seconds before we boarded. I kept glancing at the man behind us in line. "He's from Kansas City." I said, nudging Vic. "He's in news or something. Does he work at the Star?" Vic shook his head. Neither of us could place him.
We boarded. Hurrah! Then we sat. The airplane rolled back and away from the terminal and all the necesary announcements were made again in both Spanish and English, but out on the tarmack, we continued to wait. After another twenty minutes, I pulled the Astronomy magazines from my bag. In the air, we noticed that we were not the only ones worried about our connecting flights. I heard whispers, nudges, whines, and threats from other passengers about their arival time in Memphis being crucial. By now, the stewardesses were beggining to get roughed up, so the captain made an annoucement to assure everyone that they were doing fine on the flight time and all arrangements would be followed up on. We were served over five announcements regarding re-arrangements of connecting flights. Fort Worth passengers were to stay and Detroit's disembark, then the other way around. As we approached Memphis, A status was given on each of the flights and we learned that we still had the chance to get to our terminal if we hurried. As the plane set down, we collected our last things and perched for our launch to blast the exit. We pushed quickly through the slower passengers and ran up the entrance ramp. Turning the corner, we quickly found our gate. Exhausted, I flung the ticket out on the counter and asked if we made it. "Oh, yes. Didn't you hear, the flight's been delayed. We don't even have an airplane yet." "AAAHHHhhhggg!"
Our flight had been moved back an hour and a half. I called to see if my ride had left for the airport, so she wouldn't have to wait. Luckily, she had a cell phone and I caught her in the car on the way. I turned around and grinned to Vic. "We can rest." As I headed off to the restroom to freshen up, I looked down at the ticket in the hand of the familiar man I saw in Miami. Chris Hernandez sounded familar, but I still couldn't place him. I returned to find Vic explaining our Bolivia trip to Mr. Hernandez who asked us who we were since I wore Vic's hat from the KC Star. He was in Miami for a hispanic journalist convention and we all three wasted the next hour blowing steam about our horrible times flying home.
Strangely, the flight to KC was now quiet and comparatively uneventfull. We were able to look down and try guessing the cities we were flying over and point out the landmarks we knew as we approached the airport. It was past 11 pm and in no hurry to exit this airplane, we sat and waited for the others to depart. Once outside, I found my sister with my five year old sleeping over her shoulder. Waiting for our bags, Libby finally woke up and after a groggy introduction to the nice television newscaster, she looked at me, rubbed her eyes and said "I'm tired, Mommy. We should go to bed."