Saturday, October 2, 2010
A VACATION TO FORGET
If anything simply cannot go wrong, it will anyway.
During life as a Peace Corps volunteer (PVC), another volunteer, Lucy St. Cyr, and I saved our living allowance money for a grand vacation. We gave up smoking and buying American canned food, our only luxuries, and we saved a bundle. We took a bus from Cuzco, Peru to Tacna, a border city. It should have been as simple as walking across the street from Peru to Chile, but it was a holiday on the Chilean side.
Chile was celebrating its retention of Arica taken during a dispute between Peru and Chile in the early 1900s. It was a dispute settled in 1927 by U.S. President Herbert Hoover who made a proposal that both countries accepted. Under Hoover’s proposal, Chile returned Tacna to Peru, but retained Arica. It was our misfortune to arrive in Tacna on a day that Peru had little to celebrate. Accordingly, the border was not open, but we were assured that since we were Peace Corps volunteers, that we would be allowed to cross into Chile. First, we had to hunt down the official to stamp our passports, and to authorize the border opening. Since we were PCVs our search was made easier, and we quickly found the official who stamped our passports after wondering aloud why we would want to go to Chile. Finally we walked across the border to Arica to get a plane to Santiago. In Arica we had an indescribably delicious five-course meal, including a marvelous Chilean wine, for about $2.00.
Our plane was five hours late leaving Arica because of bad weather in Santiago. I thought if the plane couldn’t leave Santiago, how was it going to get back? I hoped the airline would cancel the flight, but to my chagrin they did not. Finally I told Lucy that I would fly only if none of the arriving passengers looked upset. They all strolled into the terminal looking very relaxed and quite happy. Too late it occurred to me that they were probably so relieved at setting foot on the ground that of course they would look happy. And so against my better judgment I flew, and the flight was wonderful. We didn’t hit one air pocket. Of course I stayed awake because everybody else was sleeping and I didn’t want the pilot to get any ideas about napping too. The cockpit door was open, and I actually rattled the pages of the magazine I wasn’t reading, cleared my throat, and even coughed a bit so that the pilot would know that somebody was awake and had an eye on him.
Santiago was a lovely city. People stared at us, but not in an unkind manner. I assumed it was because we were so different. Lucy was blonde and white, while I was black and brown. We definitely stood out. People everywhere immediately identified us as Peace Corps volunteers and welcomed us. It was as if we wore signs. Hotel rates, restaurant prices, and even train rates were reduced for us. It was incredible. Those were the days that the Peace Corps name was magical and opened all doors. We walked and toured the city and thoroughly enjoyed being in Chile. I also noticed there were no other black people around. Once again I stood out. Later I learned that years ago Chile killed off its Indian and black populations.
I looked forward to flying from Santiago to Buenos Aires, Argentina. The morning was clear and the skies were bright. It would be a short trip, only two hours and 45 minutes. I sat in the air terminal and began a mystery story about a plane crash. I felt great. My fear of flying was over. And then I got on the damned plane. Five minutes out of Santiago we started dropping. We climbed back up and dropped again. Something was obviously wrong. I wondered why the pilot didn’t go back to the airport before we got too far from it. The skies darkened and he gamely continued. Fool! I thought. Soon I noticed something new. We no longer dropped straight down, we were now dropping sideways. I wondered if we were about to spin. So I closed the curtain at the window and looked at Lucy. She was sprawled in her seat napping. The two stewardesses had retired to the rear of the plane and sat down. Only the tall, handsome steward patrolled the aisle. I kept peeking over the seat ahead of me to see if the “fasten seat belt” sign was on and it remained on. Finally I held my stomach with one hand and clutched the seat with the other. With each drop I would snatch the curtain back, glance out, rip the curtain shut and collapse against my seat.
Suddenly I looked up to see the steward smiling down and saying something silly, “What’s the matter?”
I managed to show a tooth or two and said, “Heh, heh, is it always like this?”
He played innocent: “Like what?”
“This bumping up and down.”
“Bad roads,” he grinned and walked on.
I wondered why the pilot didn’t go up. I didn’t want to consider his going down! The steward kept taking little bags to the woman seated in front of me. I wondered if she was sick or writing farewell messages on them. Finally that damned seat belt sign went off and we sailed along smoothly. The crew brought out lunch trays and began serving. I couldn’t eat, but I managed to enjoy two glasses of delicious Chilean red wine.
Lucy surprised me by saying, “Whew, was I scared.”
Suddenly the stewardesses snatched away the lunch trays as the plane started hitting “bad roads” again. I wondered how much more buffeting the plane could take, not to mention me. I closed my eyes, gritted my teeth and prayed. Soon the steward announced our landing in Buenos Aires. As we descended, I opened the curtain and peeped out. It was early afternoon, but outside it was pitch black. On our first attempt, we overshot the field. That means we were almost on the ground, not the runway. We could clearly see airport personnel standing in doorways waiting for our plane to crash. We zoomed back up. The steward announced that due to a bad storm we would have to circle for a few minutes. We circled for 30 minutes. I decided that in the event that they had to return to Chile, they would probably have to knock me out. I wanted off that plane.
I never did believe the song, “All God’s Children Got Wings” and I certainly wasn’t ready to test it then. Lucy and I clutched hands as tears streamed down our faces. We were thinking of our families so far away. The steward leaned over us and said something. I didn’t hear what he said, but I had had enough of him. I waved him away. Let us die in peace.
Just before our third attempt to land, the steward announced, in a voice that I can only describe as one of certain doom, that the pilot was going to land. His voice sounded like this is it! Somehow we landed safely. Lucy and I staggered off the plane on jelly legs. For some reason in Latin America often there are photographers at planeside when one lands. True to form, in Buenos Aires there was a photographer who took a picture of us as we descended the steps of the plane, and we looked like two wild, wild women who had escaped from an execution squad. Lucy and did not discuss the flight because we both were painfully aware that we had to return to Cuzco. But I knew what she didn’t know: that my return would not be on a plane.
That evening we went to see Alfred Hitchcock’s, “The Birds.” In the middle of the movie Lucy, who had been relatively calm during that wretched flight, suddenly became ill and we had to leave. She was having a delayed reaction, whereas I, who had nearly whooped and hollered throughout the flight, was perfectly fine. The next day I called our director in Cuzco and told him about the flight. I said we were making train reservations, but some of the passes the train had to cross were closed due to snow, and I frankly didn’t know when we would get back to Cuzco. I told him that we might have to stay in Buenos Aires till spring.
Buenos Aires was a gorgeous city. It looked exactly the way I imagined European cities looked. Here was the home of the famed Argentine gauchos (cowboys), pampas (prairies), incredible beef, and the tango. There were lovely boutiques, fine wines, wide boulevards, and the stunning Casa Rosada, The Pink House, the equivalent of The White House. I could have lived there happily until spring or until our money ran out.
We strolled down the world’s widest avenue, Nueve de Julio, with its centered Obelisk that resembles the Washington Monument. We bought souvenirs such as mate (an herbal tea) cups trimmed in silver, along with a matching silver spoon/straw, some inexpensive leather goods, including a leather stationery case with the map of Latin America on the cover. What better place to hunker down until spring? I bought tons of souvenirs, my plane and train tickets, hotel rooms, food, etc. and I only spent a grand total of $250! We took a fabulous five-day train trip from Buenos Aires to Cochabamba, Bolivia. We played cards, chatted with fellow travelers, ate, and napped. We were just going to overnight in La Paz. What a mistake that was!