My Bolivia Experience – Written in the Theme of “A Series of Unfortunate Events”

Hello watchers, readers, students, and teachers. I am here to recount a rather melancholy tale of 18 high school students and their attempt to travel to Bolivia in order to assist the struggling staff of a small daycare in Santa Cruz. In this circumstance, the word melancholy means a gloomy state of mind, especially when habitual or prolonged. It is a dreary tale full of cold airports, missed flights, and whole fried eggs. I must advise you to look away now, before this story ruins your evening, your whole life, and your day. There. You have been warned. Look away.

 

It was barely four in the morning when the students set out from their Dallas hotel; all droopy eyed and weary, shambling towards the two 18-passenger vans, dragging their belongings behind them and weakly tossing them into the backs of the vans. They had driven the whole day before, not arriving at their destination until late the previous evening. They had moaned and groaned as they dragged themselves into their beds the night before, dreading the prospect of waking up only four hours later to begin their travels anew.

It wasn’t only the early hour or the lack of sleep that was renewing the moaning and groaning of the night before; it was the torrential downpour of thick, globular raindrops. Jesse, the youth pastor and de facto leader of the disheartened group, went back into his hotel room and turned on the TV just in time to see an early morning weather report.

“And now to Pete with the weather. Pete, how’s it looking out there?” said the overly attractive news anchor.

“Well Steve, it’s a torrential downpour out there. The drops are thick and globular, and it doesn’t seem to be letting up at all,” said the slightly less attractive weatherman, “It doesn’t look good for travellers out there today.”

“Not good at all,” said the attractive news anchor, “Coming up next: Why bad weather on the first day of a long trip is considered a bad omen! We’ll be right back.”

 

Omen, in this case, means anything perceived or happening that is believed to portend a good or evil event or circumstance in the future and portend means an indication or omen of something about to happen; so as you see, these words are directly related.

 

Jesse shut off the TV and returned to the group, ushering them into the vans. Windshield wipers on high, they set off towards Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport, and the first in a long series of unfortunate travel mistakes that would ultimately lead to the students being stranded in a cold airport with nothing to eat but empanadas with whole fried eggs inside.

The plane at DFW taxied out to the runway. All 18 students were belted safely into their seats. All their luggage was tucked away in the cargo hold. All seatbacks and tray tables were in the upright and locked position. The engine’s hum increased, a crescendo of power that would soon propel them into the sky and onward toward the airport in Houston, where they would board their next flight, and the next, and the next. The engine noise was now a dull roar, vibrating the seats and walls of the plane. Just when the students thought it couldn’t get any louder and were expecting the lurch of the brakes releasing any moment, the engines suddenly died.

A collective murmur rose in the passenger cabin. Futile questions like “What’s going on?” and “Why haven’t we taken off?” could be heard circulating through the plane, just like the air conditioning moments ago. The murmur was silenced by a voice with a stereotypical Texas drawl on the intercom.

“Howdy there folks, this is Captain Anders up in the cockpit. We’ve just been informed by the tower that, as hard as the rain’s coming down here, it’s ten times worse in Houston. No other flights are scheduled to leave for the next 45 minutes, so we’re just gonna sit here for a few minutes until they clear us. I’ll let you know if anything changes. Sit tight, y’all.”

The collective murmur was replaced by a collective groan. Jesse began run through a mental itinerary.

Okay. The students are supposed to split into two groups once we get to Houston. One group goes straight to Panama, and the other flies to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and then to Panama. It’s just over an hour to Houston from here. The flight to San Juan leaves at 10:15 am. It’s – he glanced at his watch – 8 am now. So as long as this flight leaves by 9 am, we’ll be fine.

 

In lieu of foreshadowing, I will simply tell you: the flight did not leave by 9 am.

 

The few minutes mentioned by Captain Anders soon stretched into 30 minutes. Anders’ voice emitted from the cabin speakers again.

“Howdy folks, it’s Captain Anders again.” The plane engines began to rumble softly. Excited chatter rose in the plane, almost covering the captain’s distinct voice. “We’re still delayed, but there’s 747 scheduled to take off from this runway in about 15 minutes, so the tower is telling us that we need to skedaddle on back to the terminal. They’re saying it’s gonna be another hour before we can leave, so we’re gonna let y’all sit in the terminal until we’re cleared. Thank y’all.”

Once again, a collective groan swept through the cabin. Jesse, finishing the mental calculations in his mind, slumped in his seat. He turned to Stac, his right hand man on this trip. Stac was a well travelled man and Jesse hoped that his skills at navigating airports and overly complicated travel bureaucracy would come in handy.  

“This is going to be a problem.”

“It’s already a problem,” Stac said, “How do we fix it?”

“I’ll call the airline.”

 

For legal purposes, the airline in question shall remain anonymous. For narrative’s sake, let’s call it something random, like United Airlines.

 

After being on hold for almost the entire time the students sat in the terminal, Jesse was finally connected to a United Airlines representative. He seemed reluctantly helpful, but he eventually informed Jesse that the flight to Panama that half the group was already on could now accommodate the entire group. The representative transferred the students’ tickets off of the flight to San Juan and onto the flight to Panama. Jesse sighed in relief as he hung up the phone and picked up his carryon. Stac looked at him quizzically.

“Everything okay?”

“Everything worked out,” Jesse said.

“There’s always one hiccup in travel plans. It’s good that we got ours out of the way near the beginning.”

 

There may only be one hiccup in travel plans for normal people, but some mystical force was working against these unfortunate students. There would, in fact be several more hiccups before the end of their trip, which, as I alluded to before, would not end at their destination. The next unfortunate mishap would occur at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston.

 

The airport in Houston was by far the most luxurious airport the students would experience on this trip. It had high, arching ceilings with skylights that normally would have shined with sunlight, had it not been for the continuous torrential downpour of globular raindrops. The concourse smelled of foods from many different cultures. There were shops full of trinkets and souvenirs. The group found their terminal and settled down in comfy seats to wait out their two hour layover before continuing on to Panama.

 

I should interject here, for the purposes of clarity. The students had a two hour layover in Houston, after which they would board a four hour flight to Panama. In Panama, they had a six hour layover, after which they would fly to Bolivia. All told, they had twelve hours before they would board their flight in Panama to Bolivia.

 

“I’m sorry folks, your flight’s been delayed,” said the woman at the terminal desk. The way she spoke, she might have been Captain Anders’ sister. “The rain’s too heavy right now. It’s a torrential downpour out there.”

The students grumbled their way back to their comfy chairs. There was an air of indifference. There was no way that this flight would be delayed long enough for them to miss their flight from Panama to Bolivia. Not because of the torrential downpour. It was supposed to stop in two hours or so.

The rain did stop. However, it delayed the flight long enough that there was now a different problem. “The wrong kind of food was loaded onto the plane,” said the terminal desk woman, “It was supposed to depart during the breakfast period, but now it’s time for the lunch period, so the crew is in the process of unloading the breakfast food and loading up the lunch food.”

The group moaned a collective “We don’t care!” and shambled back to their seats once again.

They boarded the plane after another few hours. Jesse glanced down at his watch. It read 6:30 pm. Their flight from Panama to Bolivia would depart in four hours. He grimaced and quickened his pace, as if his increased gait would force the plane to leave more quickly or even turn back the hands on his watch and give the now-despondent students more time.

 

Jesse himself was despondent, you see, because a flight from Houston to Panama takes approximately four hours. Their plane to Bolivia would leave in four hours. So the reason for Jesse’s despair was plain – plain here meaning clear or distinct, rather than an aircraft – they may miss their flight to Bolivia.

 

“Stac, go!” Jesse shouted as the group stepped out of the plane. Athletic in build, Stac leaped into action. His eyes glided over the marquee, searching for outgoing flights to Bolivia. He found it, located the gate on the map, and took off like a bullet from a gun. The students and Jesse followed as best as they could. As they rounded the corner into their terminal they immediately saw three things: Stac, hands on his knees, breathing heavily; a terminal desk attendant looking at them sorrowfully, and through the window, a plane pulling away from the terminal and turning around preparing for takeoff without them.

 

I wish that I could tell you that that was the end of the 18 students’ misfortune. I wish I could tell you that they caught the next flight to Bolivia and were only a day late to the daycare. I wish that those things had happened. But the students’ misfortune didn’t end there in that small, dingy airport in Panama City. Although the next part of the story is one of the happier moments in it. To quote the old sailor’s maxim, it’s always calmest before the storm.

 

“What we can do for you is this,” said the Panamanian man at the United Airlines desk, “We can send you to Peru tomorrow morning. From there you can get tickets for a flight to Bolivia.”

“What about tonight?” Jesse asked, “Is there any way we can get a hotel?”

“I will see what I can do,” the man said, and turned around to make a few calls.

“I don’t like this,” Stac said, “They aren’t giving us tickets here. That means that once we get to Peru, we have no lifeline. No way to ensure that we get on that plane.”

Jesse shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “What choice do we have?” he said. He looked at the group of flustered students. “We’ve got to get them there or we’re going to have a riot on our hands.”

Stac laughed – a small laugh, the way one laughs when they’ve got 1,000 problems and have to laugh at something or they’ll start to cry – but a genuine laugh nonetheless. “I doubt it. They’ve been awake for almost 20 hours.”

Jesse looked crestfallen. “It’s only been 20 hours? It feels like a couple of days.”

“Excuse me, Señor?” The desk attendant was back.

“Do we have a hotel?” Jesse asked.

“Yes. You have rooms at the Riande Airport hotel. And you have cab fare for transportation. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

The hotel was overly glamorous. The showers were perfect, water flowing like a gentle-but-firm waterfall. The beds had pillowtop mattresses and 1,000 thread count sheets. The pool, which was admired by the students but not used, had a lazy river and a swim-up bar. The dining room, to which all the students were given a free ticket to, served delicious filet mignon with scalloped potatoes and string beans. After eating, the students settled down into their beds, dreaming sweet dreams of comfort and easy living.

 

All-in-all, the students stay at the Riande Airport Hotel was by far the most comfortable experience they would have for the rest of the trip. The students’ biggest challenge was about to begin. I must advise you once again to stop reading. Put this poorly stapled stack of papers down and do something more productive. The next part of this tale is truly disastrous. You do not want to read it. Look away.

 

The next morning, the students woke up, dressed in their only set of clothing as they still did not have their luggage, and took taxis back to the airport. They boarded their plane and made it to Peru without a hitch.

Jesse searched for the United ticket desk while Stac and the other students sat in a terminal waiting lounge on exceptionally cold chairs and waited. The only thing of value Jesse found was the bathroom. There was no United Airlines desk in this airport. After some Google-powered research, Jesse found a United affiliate that did have a desk: Copa Airlines. After patiently waiting at the counter while the assistant went off to find someone who spoke english, Jesse finally was able to find out what was going on.

“So that’s the story,” Jesse said after he had finished relaying the horrible travesty of international travel he had just participated in.

“Uh-huh,” the bored looking, english speaking attendant said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know why the people in Panama sent you here. All of our flights to Bolivia are overbooked for two weeks.”

Jesse’s spirits sank. This was the end. No way they would get to Bolivia now. He soberly walked back to the waiting area where the students lounged and solemnly told them what happened. “I’m sorry everyone. We’re going to look for other things to do back in the states.”

While Jesse and Stac tried to secure tickets back to Dallas, the students quickly grew despondent. Some cried, some angrily paced the length of the airport, and some just gave up and napped.

Napping, however, was difficult. The chairs in the waiting area were all metal, and since the ambient temperature in the airport was around 55 degrees fahrenheit, the chairs were icy cold. The floor, with its shiny white tiled surface, was even less inviting than the chairs. Students tossed and turned, doing their best to keep their bare skin off of the frigid furniture.

Eventually, Jesse came back with news that they would be going home, but not until late the next day. He had asked again about getting a hotel, but apparently the airline was no longer willing to spring for the charges.

And so the terminal waiting room became the students’ home for the next day and a half. All told, they spent 32 hours in that airport, doing their best to pass the time, trying not to get frostbite, staring out the large pane window at the parts of planes that weren’t concealed by smog, and eating the only food available: empanadas.

 

You see, dear reader, empanadas are a type of pastry that is stuffed with meat, potatoes, cheese, and basically anything the maker of the empanadas sees fit to put into them. But the empanada stand in the airport had something different about it: no matter what kind of empanada the students chose, they would all find a whole fried egg in the center of it. Didn’t matter if they ordered a steak, a chicken, or a pork empanada; there would always be a fried egg in the center. Now this may not seem so bad to you. You may think “Fried eggs? I like fried eggs. What’s so bad about fried eggs?” Well, I’ll tell you what’s so bad about fried eggs. When you eat the same food, like fried eggs, over and over again, much like using the same phrase, like “fried eggs,” over and over again while writing, the fried eggs, either food or phrase in this case, become stale and you no longer want to eat them or read it. This is the situation the 18 students found themselves in. They had a choice: either continue eating empanadas with whole fried eggs in the center, or starve. They collectively chose the former. When faced with starvation, repetitive fried eggs no longer seem stale.

 

After 32 hours of cold, fried-egg-empanada-fueled existence, the students finally left that miserable airport and flew back to Dallas on another airline.

 

For legal purposes, we’ll call this one something random too: American Airlines.

 

And so ends the dismal tale of 18 high school students. They started with good intentions – trying to help a struggling daycare – but their story ended with dismay and cold.

 

Or did it?
In reality, this story does have a happy ending. In Dallas, a church was planning on hosting a Bible school for inner city children, but the church building had fallen into disrepair. Without the help of the 18 students, the bible school wouldn’t have happened. The students worked in the hot Texas summer with only one set of clothing. They repaired air conditioners, they painted, they re-tiled floors, and in the end, they helped run the Bible school. Some called it an act of divine intervention.

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