As you’ll recall, we were sleep-deprived and denied our exit from Airport Hell when the cat inopportunely meowed and we were exiled to the green-folder line—with a blue folder!
We found the green-folder line and assumed our place behind two Nigerian ladies swaddled in colorful cloth and turbans, whose luggage seemed comprised mainly of large plastic bags and fabric bundles. One of them had apparently claimed something belonging to the other, but the other vehemently denied it. One of the uniformed employees was attempting to referee the argument without much success, but the loud Yoruban squabble provided some entertainment while we waited. And waited.
Finally, we reached the front of the line. “You have a blue folder; you are in the wrong line,” the USDA agent greeted us cordially. Fortunately, my explanation about the cat and the guy being out of green folders was accepted. The agents directed us to heave all our baggage onto a belt running through an X-ray machine, then walk to the end of the belt coming out of the machine. I refrained from pointing out that our luggage had been X-rayed already. I offered them the paperwork for the cat, and they were uninterested. I asked if they needed me to take the cat out of her carrier, and they said no. They then returned our luggage, without ever looking at the cat or her papers, and we were off. Such a useful procedure!
Rather than load everything onto the rental car shuttle bus, I left Steve with the luggage and cat and went to get the rental car. Little did I realize: so huge is the Atlanta airport, that it is a 20-minute drive from the international arrival gate to the rental car counter! I located Alamo and rented the car, after learning to my shock that liability insurance (because we no longer owned a car) would be more than the cost of the rental! I pulled up in a snazzy Toyota SUV almost an hour after leaving Steve there. I would regret my plan later, since it meant Steve was not on the contract, so I had to do all the driving.
We pulled into the Ritz around 8:00 am, ready to fall asleep just as the city of Atlanta was waking up to a cool, sunny Fall day. At the check-in counter, I pointed out that I was traveling with an Emotional Support Animal (now meowing robustly) and asked if she wanted to see my certification; she said, “No, of course that won’t be necessary,” and handed me the keys. This is what I had hoped for, based on my prior experiences with the Ritz-Carlton, decades ago! We went up to the room, where the maid was cleaning next door, and I pointed out that we had a cat and asked her to clean with the door closed so she wouldn’t get out; she smiled and agreed. We set up the litterbox, much appreciated by Tapioca (who’d not used one in almost 24 hours), and the water dish, and fell asleep.
The Ritz, Ain’t the Ritz No More
We got up around 3:00 pm and explored Atlanta’s small walkable downtown Peachtree area. I spent an hour or so filing online complaints with the FTC and the Better Business Bureau over Dollar’s refusal to rent us the car we’d reserved, and Expedia’s refusal to honor their trip delay insurance. We had dinner and leisurely baths, and went back to bed early, and woke the next morning feeling refreshed and caught up on sleep.
We drove to the nearby suburb of Conyers for a nice long visit with Steve’s oldest daughter, Amberly, and when we returned around 10:00 pm, the voicemail light was flashing frantically. The messages were three from housekeeping, saying our room couldn’t be cleaned completely because there was a cat (though she had made the bed and deposited fresh towels in the bathroom), then one from the day manager, saying that we were not allowed to have a cat and that a pet fee was being added to our bill. I called the desk and spoke to the night manager, who assured us that they did not realize she was an ESA and the charge would be removed. When the folio was slipped under our door, guess what? We were charged $150 for having a pet! We packed for check-out, and I took the cat, in her carrier, with her paperwork, to the desk. After I boarded the elevator, an obvious plainclothes security guard in a blue polyester blazer with a coiled headset cable from his ear to his collar just happened to get on at a lower floor, “casually” greeting me and asking me what I had in the carrier, then followed me up to the counter. There, I calmly showed the manager the Emotional Support Animal paperwork and explained, again, that I’d identified the ESA on check-in. She was tolerably polite and apologized for the error of having let me check in at all; she did agree to remove the $150 charge. As we climbed into the car, I inconspicuously shook the dirt off my shoes, just to say to myself, “We won’t be back.”
My Airport Home
The route from Atlanta to Tallahassee passes through Thomasville, Georgia, a small Southern town in all the best front-porch-and-lemonade senses of the phrase. Thomasville is also the home of KTVI, my former airport home when I owned my Cessna N8064L. We stopped by the airport around mid-afternoon to drop off gifts for the office people, flight instructor, and the mechanic who kept my Baby Lima running for three years. Alpaca scarves and jackets, and embroidered cotton blouses, and hugs all around, and they mentioned that they were having the annual potluck for the October fly-in a week from that Saturday. I put it on my calendar. With a last, wistful glance down the runway, we drove off.
You Can’t Go Home Again
We finished the familiar drive to Tallahassee. Our hotel in Tallahassee, the Baymont Inn and Suites, was basic: outdoor entrances, small pool, breakfast buffet of bagels and cereals. However, it was clean and well-maintained. They greeted us cheerfully, scanned the ESA paperwork, and were polite and helpful for our entire 17-day stay. What a contrast!
I was back in the city where I’d lived for 28 years, had an entire career as a chiropractor, borne and raised my two children, and where I’d once imagined I’d eventually die. Driving into town, we observed a few new businesses that had opened, a few older ones which had closed, but not too much had changed. That so little had changed was somehow surprising to me, because it felt like the five months we’d been gone had transformed us completely. The familiar was now unfamiliar.
The sensation of driving American highways and roads was especially strange. I had readily become used to walking everywhere in Cuenca, or taking buses or taxis when the weather was bad or my hands were full. Sitting in the car, looking straight ahead, mile after numbing mile, at terrific rates of speed, passing the occasional horrific car wreck with ambulances and police at work, felt simultaneously boring and terrifying. Once we were at the hotel, we could only visit the Waffle House next door on foot, or take our lives in our hands to visit the Taco Bell across the 4-lane divided highway; no shop, grocery, or café was within walking distance. And how annoying that I could not have a second glass of wine at dinner, or go home before my husband if he was enjoying himself and I wasn’t! How odd. How isolating. How constricting.
We had lost two days of our 9-day packing project, so we rushed to catch up. Our dear friend Susan helped us. Thank goodness for Susan! I had to drive to Orlando to get my CEUs that Saturday to maintain my chiropractic license (just not ready to give it up yet) and Susan drove Steve to the locker and they worked a whole day without me!
Ecuador requires that household goods for import be inventoried. It is one of the few countries in the world requiring an extremely detailed inventory. I.e.: one cannot merely say that Box #55 contains “kitchen implements.” Oh, no! One has to specify: “Three spatulas, two ladles, one pair kitchen shears, ten skewers…” etc. So every box which we’d packed back in April when we sold our house had to be unpacked, and all its contents entered into a spreadsheet, which finally contained 1,057 individual items in 132 boxes. What a relief when the crew finally had it packed in the shipping container and the container was sealed!
The repacking was an emotional experience, because every item had had a place in our home. It wasn’t just the photos and drawings, souvenirs and letters; even the most quotidian items had poignancy. Most had been handled by us, and our children, during high times and low. Some bore little chips and scratches which reminded us of particular days. Some were things we used to see and touch in private every day, now looking somehow exposed and vulnerable in the concrete and steel of the storage facility.
One day we decided to drive by the old house itself, just to see how the new owners were doing with the huge, sloping, tree-blessed yard. As we drove by, the woman of the house, mother to nine adopted children, was in the yard. We honked and waved, and she invited us in.
She had done a lot of repainting and put in new flooring. With the new family’s furniture and the inevitable clutter from nine kids, who were swarming around the dwelling, making it look like a huge kinetic sculpture, it did not look the same any more. Every now and then, something pinged a familiar note in my heart, but no. I abruptly received a closure I didn’t even consciously know I was waiting for. It wasn’t home.
Food and Junk
In Ecuador, while soda and snacks are certainly available in every tienda and almacen, the normal diet is grilled meats, whole grains (mostly corn of varying types), potatoes, and lots and lots of fruit and vegetables. Beverages are usually fruit juice, water or seltzer. Whipped, flavored egg white meringue sold in ice cream cones is a popular treat.
Once in the US, I had to have some Diet Dr. Pepper and some Cool Ranch Doritos, my two junk food favorites not available in Ecuador. Diet Dr. Pepper was on sale, three cases for two, so we bought three. That first Diet Dr. P was heaven! “Ohmigod this is the most delicious thing I’ve ever drunk in my entire life!” I exclaimed. By the end of the three-week trip, when I downed the last can on the way to the airport, it didn’t even taste good anymore. The Doritos also were as delectable at first, as I’d fantasized. I gorged myself on an entire bag of them. By the end of the next day of packing in the heat, I couldn’t put my shoes back on to go get dinner, they were so swollen. I had one more Doritos binge a few days later, but by the bottom of the bag they tasted pretty bad. Not worth the swelling, which repeated itself the next day.
We had a Five Guys burger, a Steak-and-Shake milkshake, and several Sonny’s Barbecue meals. But none of it was as good as we’d remembered. Our tastebuds had changed, and when we got back to Ecuador, the grass-fed beef and simple vegetable-rich food here tasted more delicious than you can imagine.
People enter your life in various ways: some work alongside you until you realize you are looking forward to coming to work, because you get to see them. Others, you connect with in clubs or activities. Still others you meet through family or other friends. When you come back to an area after being apart for a while, you realize who really mattered: these are the ones you can’t imagine leaving town without seeing.
Susan, I’ve already mentioned. A dynamic whirlwind and Southern as pecan pie, she has an infectious laugh and was a huge help in our packing. We met up with her and Gayle and Sidney, all former co-workers at my chiropractic clinic, at our favorite night spot, the Bradfordville Blues Club, for a night of fun.
Bruce and Amanda, I’ve been friends with through thick and thin: my divorce, his brain hemorrhage, the birth of their son Jordan, and so much more. They become dearer with every passing day. Amanda and I had a mani-pedi together, then later we all had dinner together at an Italian place I’d been visiting since 1987.
Carolyn…well, she’s more or less a hermit these days. I couldn’t coax her out, but we had a nice long phone talk.
Michael is my ex-husband and the father of my two children. We were horribly ill-suited as mates, and only our liking for each other, our love for our children, and our shared sense of humor, along with plenty of marriage counselling, enabled us to stay together for 18 years before calling it quits in 2005. He is still one of my favorite people, and I gave him my handguns for safekeeping when we left the US for Ecuador. He and I, and my husband Steve, met at the range and had a nice afternoon’s shooting. I can’t shoot right-handed since my wrist
disability, but I’ve discovered that, being left-eyed, I actually shoot better with my left!
Steve’s beautiful, brilliant 15-year-old daughter P. was excited to see us. She kept telling us she wanted us to meet her new boyfriend S. while we were here. She was really insistent that we needed to meet this boy. “Are you in love?” I asked.