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Stories
5. Travels in the Carribbean

We knew we were not going to have a very good day when we presented our travel documents to the American Airlines ticket agent at Washington’s National Airport the morning of our planned departure and, after searching through them for a moment, she paused, looked up, and asked, "Have you changed airports, sir?"

My brain locked up. We had been planning and anticipating our trip for more than a month. Two wonderful pre-paid weeks at Club Med on Guadeloupe in the French West Indies. We NEEDED this vacation. We did not need complications. I was finally able to respond "What?" I said. Brilliant.

"Have you changed airports?" she repeated. "Your flight" she continued, "leaves from Dulles Airport."

So there we were: two weeks worth of baggage at our feet, a tropical island calling to us from the Caribbean, a long line of impatient travelers stretching out behind us, standing at a ticket counter at National Airport with a flight leaving from Dulles Airport 40 minutes and 50 miles away. "Can we make it there in time?" asked Nancy.

"No way," I mumbled. It would take us 40 minutes just to get back to satellite parking.

"Will they hold the flight?" Nancy asked the agent. She responded with a sympathetic look, turned back to her computer and began tapping keys. That was it. Show’s over. Might as well just go home, regroup, try to rebook our flight for the next day, and salvage as much of our vacation as possible.

There were two explanations for what had happened.

The first was simple: Confusion. Nancy was our designated contact with our travel agent. They had done all the planning. Because they had trouble finding a flight which would take us from Washington to Puerto Rico in time to connect to a flight on Air Guadeloupe to our destination, arrangements had changed several times. Nancy, of course, updated me on a daily basis. One day it was National. The next it was Dulles. For a while it was Baltimore-Washington. The last airport I "heard" was National. Nancy was away at a business conference during the three days prior to our departure date. She arrived home very late the night before we were to leave and immediately threw herself into unpacking and re-packing and briefing our house sitter on the care and feeding of our pets and where things could be found around the house. Nancy’s faith in me was such that she never thought to question our route to the airport. My faith in my memory was such that I had not checked the tickets when they arrived in the mail from our travel agent. Shame on me.

The second was that we had somehow ticked off the travel gods, and, as punishment, they had altered our travel documents magically to make it appear we had gone to the wrong airport. I have always liked this explanation. In fact, I think what attracted their attention was Nancy talking about how great it was that all of our recent trips had gone so perfectly, without a single mishap. Complacency. Travel gods don’t like complacency. Shame on them.

"I can put you on a flight through Charlotte to Puerto Rico," said the ticket agent. "I’m not seeing any open seats on to Guadeloupe at this time, but you might make it in time to catch your connecting flight. If not, there are two flights a day, and at this time of year you should be able to fly standby." An optimist. The travel gods don’t like optimism either.

We probably should have just gone home, licked our wounds, and tried to find another way. Instead, we boarded what turned out to be a very long and quiet flight to Puerto Rico.

We arrived in Puerto Rico mid-afternoon, obtained our baggage from the carousel, and headed directly for the American ticket counter in the main terminal. There we were informed that there were two flights a day, one in the morning and one in the evening, and that all flights for the next five days were over-booked. We could fly standby, but we would have to check most of our luggage through and then hope for empty seats. We could live at the airport until we got a flight. We could rent a car, stay in a local hotel, and try to see some of Puerto Rico between twice daily trips to the airport waiting room. We could abandon our pre-paid Club Med vacation altogether and just stay in Puerto Rico. We could take the next flight home, lick our wounds, regroup, and try to salvage some of the trip later. Or we could find another way.

We asked the agent if there might be regional carriers with unlisted flights to Guadeloupe or charters which might fly there. She nodded toward the glass doors at the end of the main terminal lobby.

The lobby beyond the glass doors was reserved for local carriers. It was small, dimly lit, and lacked air conditioning. Our flight had departed. Air Guadeloupe had gone home for the day. We called their number from a pay phone and got a message in Spanish which was incomprehensible to us. No one else could help. We asked an agent where we might find a private charter. She nodded toward the glass doors at the end of the lobby.

There was no third lobby through the glass doors. Instead, we found ourselves outside the terminal building in front of three simple outdoor ticket counters. Behind them on the wall of the terminal building were placards advertising various charter businesses. A single bare hanging lightbulb cast a gloomy glow over the area. Two of the counters were empty. Behind one, reading a newspaper, was a young man with a pony tail down his back and an official looking badge on his pocket. His name was Pedro.

We told Pedro our story.

He told us that the charters about which we were inquiring did not normally fly to Guadeloupe. He said it was too far. He said that local charters generally just ferried people to and from closer islands like St. Thomas. We wouldn’t stay in Puerto Rico. We would go home, lick our wounds, try again later. He said he might be able to find a private pilot willing to take us that far. We told him to please try. He pulled a well-used rolladex and a phone from under the counter and began making calls.The computer age had apparently not reached Pedro and the local charter flight area of the airport terminal.

We left him to his business and returned to the terminal lobby for a cold drink. When we returned, he had found a pilot and a plane. The flight would cost us $1200. Cash or travelers checks. We were heading for an all-inclusive resort. We were not carrying much money. Fear and panic were closing in. Nancy began to negotiate. We would agree to $1000. He grimaced and said he would try. The pilot with whom he was communicating refused to negotiate and accepted another job. We decided we needed to find something to eat.

By then it was late afternoon. We found a small restaurant where we could sit, have a sandwich, and plan our next step. I suggested to Nancy that negotiating was best done from a position of strength and that I thought we should just take the next flight we could catch back to Washington. We could go to a tanning parlor, not answer the phone, duck our friends and family, have a nice safe vacation in our own little home. Pedro found us at the restaurant. He had found another pilot. The price was $1400.

To get to our intended destination, we were going to have to find a quick source of cash (my job) and then trust our lives to an unknown pilot in an unknown small plane on a voyage more than twice as far as any of the local charters cared to fly. At this point we realized we had been off our travel itinerary since 8:00 that morning and that no one would be able to trace us if we disappeared. Wonderful. Could things get much worse?

While Nancy headed back to the charter counter with the luggage, I began a frantic search of the airport for a money machine. I had a credit card: good. I had left home without memorizing my pin: bad. The banks were all closed: very bad. We would go home. We would lick our wounds. Then I noticed that the ATM in front of the closed Banco Popular displayed the same symbol as the one on my check card. OK. I used the card at home all the time to make checking account deposits and withdrawals so I KNEW my pin. I inserted my card into the machine, selected English as language of choice, entered my pin, and, bingo, was recognized by the machine. Not only did it know who I was and how much money I had in my account, it was willing to give me as much of it as I wanted. Things were looking up.

Carrying what was now a large wad of small denomination bills and traveler checks, I hurried back to Nancy and Pedro at the charter counter. We gathered up our bags and headed as Pedro instructed toward the terminal’s departure gates. We were back in the mainstream, joining the throng of travelers departing for other islands large and small. We were forging ahead on our vacation. Everything was going to be OK.

This illusion lasted as long as it took us to reach a three-way split in the main corridor. The large happy throng was heading for corridor "C". Nancy and I had been directed to corridor "A".

We found ourselves abandoned and confronting an X-ray machine which blocked the corridor ahead of us. It looked capable of handling purses, camera bags, and other carry on belongings, but clearly not the load we were hauling. The machine’s attendants exchanged some concerned sounding words in Spanish and then one of the two ladies informed us we had to return to our ticket agent and check our luggage. We explained that we did not HAVE a ticket agent and were flying out on a small plane, not a large air liner. Five minutes later we were stuffing our luggage down the conveyor belt. And not long after that, we were again on our way - this time down a wide, empty corridor with not another human being in sight.

About three quarters of the way to the end of the corridor, we found the gate we were given, to the right and down a flight of stairs. We sat. We waited.

After what seemed like an eternity, a small plane taxied up outside and a couple disembarked. It was about 7:30 by that time, had grown dark, and a light rain had begun to fall. Wonderful. The couple from the plane came through the door, passed through our waiting room, climbed the stairs and disappeared down the corridor toward the main terminal. Was this our plane now? We waited. The scenario was repeated twice before Pedro finally arrived on foot outside the building. Immediately after Pedro arrived, a small white plane taxied up to the gate. Two engines. Six seats. A Toyota Corolla with wings. We waited while a gas truck pulled alongside and fueled the aircraft. Finally Pedro came in and told us the plane was ready to leave.

He said there were two men on the plane, the pilot and the owner who was also a pilot. We never knew which was which. He said we were going to fly first to a small island just off the Puerto Rican coast to drop off the owner. The pilot would then take us by himself on to Guadeloupe. Sure. We were convinced they would be tossing our dead bodies into the ocean minutes after takeoff.

I paid Pedro the fare, counting $1400 in small bills and traveler’s checks into his waiting hand. No tickets. No receipt. No paperwork. Off we went.

Our crew helped us load our luggage into the nose of the plane. They then helped us up into the plane, stowing the two middle seats and seating us at the rear of the small cabin. In moments they had climbed aboard and started the engines, and we were taxiing out into ground traffic. The co-pilot opened his door and stuck his head stuck out into the rain. The pilot turned around and smiled at us. "No wipers!" he claimed in pretty good English. I looked up as a HUGE 747 taxied by in front of us.

We bounced along in the dark for a few minutes, door open, co-pilot shouting directions to the pilot over the noise of the plane’s engines. Finally, the door was closed and latched, final checks were completed, the engines were brought to speed. We lurched down the runway, bumping and swerving until the small plane hopped up into the air and we were soaring out over the Caribbean. It was at this point in our voyage that Nancy turned to me and said calmly, "Paul, I don’t know if I can handle this. I have never been in such a small plane. This is nothing like the big jets. I have never been so terrified in my life."

Obviously, we would have to turn back. How was I going to tell these people to whom we just gave $1400 in cash that we had changed our mind and wanted to return to the Puerto Rico. We would go home. We would lick our wounds. We would deny to our friends that we had ever gone on vacation. We would tell them it was a deception so we could spend a couple of weeks around the house without distractions.

"Do we need to turn back?" I asked.

"I think I will try some self-hypnosis." Nancy had learned self-hypnosis from a fellow psychologist several years before when she was looking for non-pharmacological solution to a chronic pain condition. It worked for her then. It might work for her now. I hoped it would.

For twenty minutes we sat quietly, huddled together at the rear of the plane’s small cabin, Nancy focusing her sight on the lighted instrument panel forward, me peering out into the dark of the night and occasionally re-focusing on our faint reflection in the plane’s window. I could see nothing outside. Finally, Nancy came out of her trance and turned to me. She seemed relaxed. She had eased the death grip she had maintained on my hand since takeoff.

"I think I’m going to be OK," she said. "I just needed to relax and pull myself together."

About then, the co-pilot turned to us and explained we would be flying directly to Guadeloupe, not stopping as planned. He said the owner had decided he would rather fly than go home to a party he was not interested in attending. He then took out and unfolded a map which spanned the front of the cockpit and blocked their vision ahead. They took turns pointing to islands and tracing our planned route with their fingers. When her hand began to tighten again, I rapidly assured Nancy that they didn’t need to see out front to fly the plane. "Instruments," I said.

It had been 12 hours since we had left our carefully contrived itinerary. Most of this time we had spent exploring emotions like fear, panic, hope, dread, hysteria, sadness, and depression. Nancy and I like to think that things happen for a reason. We suddenly realized what had to be our justification for spending 12 hours on the very edge. The storm clouds had cleared. Above us there were only stars, millions and millions so clear you could reach out and touch them. And below us in the dark were the islands of the Caribbean. Lighted by the development around their coastlines, each island was a diamond necklace tossed casually onto the black velvet cloth that was the sea below us.

For more than two hours we followed the island chain first east over St. Martin and then south toward Guadeloupe. Our pilots named each one for us so we could keep track of where we were. We had visited many of these islands on previous vacations to the islands. We had never anticipated having the opportunity to fly over them as we were doing at the moment.

The time we had, holding each other on that small plane, reflecting on the activities of the day and reveling in the beauty of the moment, passed far too quickly. Too soon we saw the lights of the runway on Guadeloupe out before us. Too soon we touched down, the co-pilot opening his door again to guide the pilot through a light rain to our arrival gate.

When we were safely in the small airport building, our crew told us they normally made private planes park at the end of the runway and passengers and crew walk a long distance to the terminal. In our case, they had given us gate 1 - next gate over from an Air France jumbo jet. When we rolled up next to the huge plane, Nancy and I thought we would be queuing up with the hundreds disembarking and heading for customs. Instead we were instructed to follow our crew through a separate entrance into an empty office area. They completed paperwork and we said goodbye to them. They would be taking off immediately for home.

We walked through a doorway at the end of the room where we were greeted by two uniformed men who in French asked for our passports and expressed their curiosity regarding how we had gotten there. They seemed very surprised that we had arrived by small plane from Puerto Rico. They were also pleasantly surprised that we had a French surname and that Nancy spoke easily with them in French learned in college and polished to fluency during a school year abroad in Southern France. In minutes we were through the door and into a waiting taxi which whisked us off without further delay to our resort.

All in all, we thought, not a bad way to start a vacation.