We Need to Talk
Dear followers, all 300-plus of you: I am sorry. It has been a long time since my last post on this blog. I look back and see that the past posts have been all about the process of relocating to a new country, Ecuador, and the beautiful city of Cuenca. Everything is full of freshness, exploration, discovery, homesickness, and adaptation. I think there are two reasons I petered out with the postings: First, the newness has begun to wear off; each morning I get up, brush my teeth, drink my coffee, and check the weather. I shop for groceries, take walks, run errands, and so forth. In short, the new and exciting has become everyday, and perhaps not dull, but no longer novel.
Second, I was so looking forward to my trip home to the US! I missed my family and longed see them again; I missed many items stashed in the storage lockers; I yearned for a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and a Diet Dr. Pepper. It was hard to focus on my locus here in the South American Andes when my will was tugging me towards the piney woods and live oaks of North Florida. This blog post will be about that trip, the renewed connections, the experience and insights of visiting home-that-is-no-longer home, and the Delta Airlines Torture Trip from Hell. It was a very experience-rich three weeks, so I am posting it in three parts, a few days apart.
However, the tales of exploring a new country are wearing thin now that I’ve lived here half a year. The subtitle of this blog is “Seeking A Brighter Homeland,” and a brighter homeland is what I have literally found, here in the cool mountain air and the fierce equatorial sun. That Ecuador is brighter than the US in many figurative ways is also undeniable: the easygoing manner of the people, the warm family ties and friendships, the colors and flavors of the Latin culture and the beauty of the Spanish language, the foot-friendly milieu of the historic city. Yet, aren’t we all seeking a brighter homeland? A place where we can thrive and share, prosper and grow? I think so.
So, after this post, this blog may wander a bit. The slower pace of life and the linguistic isolation here encourage rumination. In the future, you may read here a seemingly random item of information about Ecuador, and that item is likely to be a jumping-off point for a meditation, reflection, or rant (or all three!). My dear readers, this is why we need to talk: I value our relationship and I want to be quite frank: I am an opinionated person and I may veer into subjects which challenge or even anger you. If you wish to unfollow me, I understand. Good luck and godspeed to you! But if you want to stick with me, I welcome you and your civil comments. Let’s ramble together!
Flying to the USA
Once we got our visas, Ecuador’s customs rules allow us to bring in one shipment of household goods duty-free.
Since Ecuador’s import duties are very high, making imported goods very expensive, this one-time opportunity is one it makes sense to take advantage of. I had researched the customs rules online and read many social media posts and blogs by immigrants who’d been through the process. Some of the tales were hair-raising! Ecuador is very picky about inventorying the shipment, and container shipping can be very rough on one’s possessions. People had had their shipments shipped to the wrong country, held at customs for months, running up thousands of dollars of storage fees, opened their containers to find their belongings smashed, had ground truckers steal their stuff, and other mishaps. I started the search for an international shipper before we came here and was in touch with two different companies with experience in shipping to Ecuador, good web reviews, and good responsiveness during the estimate process. However, once we were here, we met Joe Spotts, an Energizer Bunny of a man who runs a popular Gringo supper club, and also a shipping company called Containers to Cuenca . We attended his monthly free lecture about the process, and I realized: he’s our man. He has an office at the port, knows all the customs personnel and procedures well, and has a crew of truck drivers and movers who do nothing but move several containers to Cuenca every week. We signed an agreement, I put down a deposit, and Joe made some international calls in his charming Southern accent and scheduled a pick-up at our storage locker on September 24th. Game on!
I had booked our trip on Expedia many weeks in advance, getting a great deal on a package including two nights at the Airport Marriott, a car rental with Dollar, and first-class airfare, as well as trip delay/cancellation insurance. It had been years since I’d used Expedia, and perhaps I should have become suspicious when, after I clicked, “PURCHASE,” a pop-up informed me that the website had found the same trip at a lower fare. I got the confirmation e-mail a moment later, and it was for coach-class tickets! Now, my husband and I both tip the scales at well over 200 pounds, and an international trip in a coach-class seat is torment for us: we must sit with our arms crossed over our chests and our ankles crossed to avoid crowding our neighbors, and we cannot lower our tables to drink, eat, or read. (Besides, we would be bringing many things in our suitcases that we did not trust to the container, and the added baggage fees in coach class almost made up for the higher first-class ticket cost). I promptly called Expedia customer service (at 10 cents a minute, long distance international) and told them I wanted the first-class trip. They fixed it, but now the airfare was not showing as part of the package any more.
We arrived very early, around 4:30 pm for an 8:15 Friday night flight, at the one-runway airport in Cuenca to begin the first leg of our trip, on Delta airline’s partner airline, Tame. Our flight was due to land in Quito at 9:15, and our Delta flight to Atlanta was due to take off at 11:35. We had our passports and paperwork, as well as our cat’s paperwork from Agrocalidad (the Ecuadorian counterpart of the USDA). The check-in counter didn’t re-open until 6:15, so we waited at the airport with our luggage and my sweet Siamese cat
until the clerks arrived, looking snappy in their skirt suits, hats, and scarves. We surrendered our luggage, negotiated as usual with the supervisor about the cat (they don’t always get the “Emotional Support Animal” idea we crazy Americans have, so we had to pay $20), and then then proceeded to the gate (losing my tiny, bladeless multi-use tool to the security checkpoint along the way).
At the gate, we waited. The gate area filled up. Still, we waited. The entire airfield is visible from the gates at Cuenca; there was no airliner on the entire airport. At 8:30, an aircraft finally landed, but it had another airline’s logo and it loaded the passengers for the 8:55 flight to somewhere else and took off. At 9:15 (the time we were supposed to land), the gate agents gave out little packets of crackers and juice boxes. This was especially calming to the many small children who were plainly getting cranky, but we adults were not feeling at all cheerful either! Tapioca just slept in her crate, uttering a meow or two whenever she was moved. One of the agents/flight attendants came over to us, unasked, and explained that she was on her cell phone with a friend of hers at the Delta counter in Quito. She photographed our passports and messaged them to him, saying that someone would meet us at the arrival gate and hustle us to our flight; if our luggage didn’t make it they’d bring it to our Atlanta hotel. We were quite impressed with this motivated,
can-do approach to customer service! A major volcano, Cotapaxi, had been sending up ash plumes for weeks, causing some flights to take the long way around, so I understood about the flight being late.
We waited some more. Finally, at 10:05, the plane landed with a load of arrivals. Our helpful guardian sadly told us (and we agreed) that we wouldn’t make our connection. They yanked our luggage and sent it up to the check-in counter, where the clerk let us know that the earliest she could rebook us for was Sunday, September 13, at 1:05 p.m., with a 9-hour layover at Quito, catching the 11:35 Delta redeye to Atlanta. She offered us transportation to a hotel and meal vouchers, but we said we lived here in Cuenca so we’d just go home. Our frig was emptied, our toothbrushes and phone chargers were packed, and we had no plans, on a chilly, drizzly weekend. We collapsed, discouraged, into bed.
The next morning, I opened my e-mail to find the e-mailed ticket from Tame. It showed: a Cuenca-Quito fight, check; Quito-Atlanta, check; Quito-Cuenca, um… The gate agent had failed to reconfirm our Atlanta-Quito flight and it had dropped off the itinerary! After half a dozen phone calls and circular voice menus, I decided to hop a cab to the airport, where check-in was just wrapping up for Saturday’s Quito flight. The very capable Erika Brito wrangled the Expedia-Delta-Tame reservation interface, using legacy software in a DOS window, and after some difficulty got it all straightened out. Nobody was passing through security, so we stopped and asked if the supervisor could open the drop bin and give me back my multi-use tool; to my delight, he simply turned the bin upside down and dumped it on the floor, then handed my tool back. As we walked towards the door, Erika flagged us down with a piece of paper: a new receipt for the cat, so we wouldn’t have to pay again! (I went home and wrote her supervisor a very complimentary email).
Next, I called (10 cents a minute, long distance international) Expedia’s 800 number to delay my car rental pickup in Atlanta from Saturday morning to Monday morning. The Asian-sounding representative told me they could not change it; I had to call Dollar rentals directly. More 10-cents-a-minute hold music, and the Dollar representative told me that their policy was only to hold cars for 24 hours. I explained that I would be on another continent until 48 hours after the pickup time (for a prepaid 3-week rental), and here is what he said: “I am sorry, but the only option is to rebook the entire rental. Unfortunately, that car is not available for those dates, but I can offer you a different car for more money.” Yes, that’s right: They had the nerve to claim that the car I had reserved for 3 weeks was “unavailable” as of the second day after my reservation began! I might add that the representative said this without laughing. I called Expedia back and their representative was not so professional; he laughed in my face, “You know this is just a way so that they can make more money off you, right? You have to book the more expensive car now.” His supervisor refused to make any effort to get Dollar to honor the reservation either, and offered to book the other vehicle at twice the price. So, I went to Booking.com and booked with a different rental company. Same high price, for a last-minute, non-package booking. But I’d be damned if I’d let Dollar and Expedia rip me off that way!
After that experience with Expedia, I called the Airport Marriott myself. They charged me a cancellation fee of half a night’s stay and told me they could give me a room for one night only, not two, and at twice the original price. A quick check told me that that price was the same as a night at the Ritz-Carlton, so I decided why not? and booked the Ritz, specifying in the comments that I had an Emotional Support Animal.
Finally, late Sunday morning, it was finally time to leave again for the airport. Our apartment is in a very secure complex with 24-hour guards and fingerprint scanning to get in through the lobby. The lovely marble-tiled lobby is accessed at both ends by two frameless etched-glass sliding doors. Elegant, sleek and modern. Steve and I had three rolling suitcases, a carry-on, and the cat. We rolled the wheeled cases towards the first set of doors to the lobby, and one of my cases got hung up on the doorsill. With the cat’s carrier hanging by its shoulder strap, I stepped to the side of the case to dislodge it. The glass door closed silently on my back, barely bumping me, and suddenly I heard a crash and felt a cascade of glass rush over my neck and back. I stood, head down, eyes closed, afraid to move, sure when I opened my eyes I would be dripping blood. I was relieved to see it was not so. I had some scratches on the back of one hand, and I had to go into the bathroom to shake all the glass particles out of my clothes, but I was relatively unscathed. The cat had tiny shards that had fallen through the mesh of her carrier, so we took her out and replaced the carrier liner. The building superintendent came and heard the story, and then we were off in our cab to the airport once again. Good thing we like to get there early!
While we were waiting, I got into a conversation with a sweet old widowed abuela next to me, and Steve put a hand on my neck, which made me yelp. I had a row of glass splinters embedded in the back of my neck! Steve and the lady picked them out, sitting there at the airport, waiting to check in.
Fortunately, the rest of the trip to Atlanta was uneventful and went as planned. The Quito airport center is not exactly Thrill Central, but it was reasonably comfortable, and the cat was well-behaved in her carrier. We even managed to sleep a few hours on the airplane.
Arriving Back in the USA
We got off our flight, bleary-eyed, and shuffled through Atlanta immigration. A flight from Lagos was arriving at the same time. We collected our luggage on a giant cart and trundled off to Customs. Due to fatigue, I had checked “No” for the “Are you bringing any animals, plants, or seeds into the country?” on the Customs form. My exhausted brain thought the question was referring to farm or wild animals, not my certified Emotional Support Animal who had been examined and certified by private and government vets and sat at my feet the whole plane ride. Silly me, what can I say? Anyway, as we trundled through the customs checkpoint to hand in our forms, Tapioca chose that moment to meow loudly. The man at the counter frowned and gave us a blue folder. “I’m out of green folders, but go stand in the green-folder line,” he said.
To be continued…