Going Back, Part 3 (Conclusion)

“Are you in love?”

“Ummm…” She said.

“You hesitated too long.” I turned to Steve. “She’s in love,” P. turned beet red, but she agreed.

S. was supposedly interested in airplanes, so on the appointed Saturday, we picked him up and headed to the KTVI potluck. Steve voiced suspicions when P. seemed to know every turn to make to reach his house on the back country roads. The potluck was fun, but S. definitely seemed more interested in the girl than the airplanes.

Neither Steve nor I were terribly impressed with S.’s manners, personality, nor his conversational skills. After we dropped him off, P. asked us, “So, what did you think of S.?”

Crickets.

Finally, weakly, I offered, “What’s really important is that he makes you happy, sweetheart.”
A few days later, we called her mother, Steve’s ex, about taking P. with us to Saint Pete Beach, and her mother informed us that P.  had been caught: she’d been sneaking out to S.’s house all summer, unsupervised. P. lost her phone and computer privileges and was grounded “beyond grounded.” I offered her mom my sympathy: I remember all too well what it’s like to be the working mother of a spirited teenaged girl! Sadly, we did not see P. again while we were there.

One event which was a huge joy was a family gathering in Saint Petersburg. My 24-year-old daughter Amanda and her fiancé decided to finally jump the broom back in July. They exchanged vows at a Unity church with just them, the

The newlyweds
The newlyweds

minister, and a photographer present (and two church employees as witnesses). Well, Amanda’s grandmother wanted to celebrate with the family, so she hosted a little hors-d’oeuvres and cake reception at her home on the beach in Saint Pete.

I’d been more or less cut off from that side of the family after the divorce. That made me sad, because my original family was small and dysfunctional. I had loved being part of a big, noisy Italian family of aunts and uncles and cousins. Many of the 25 people at the party, I had not seen in over 12 years. Michael’s two cousins, whom I remembered as burly young students during the days when Michael and I first met, were now dads of nearly-grown children, with grey in their hair and beards, and grown-up jobs. Nina, our gracious hostess, had mellowed in her 80s and also shrunk; I used to be eye to eye with her but now I had to stoop for an embrace.

I got to meet my new son-in-law’s mother and formally congratulate the happy couple. It was a heartwarming event all around. My friends Jeff and Jana were there as well. We’d been friends since Michael and I were married; catching

Hotel Room on St Pete Beach
Hotel Room on St Pete Beach

up with them was fun. And of course, the setting, right by the lovely sand and surf of Saint Pete Beach, was a welcome change after months in the mountains! We’d booked a hotel room across the street, with sliding glass doors which literally opened up right onto the beach, where we could sit and watch the sunset.

My son Ben was not there; he has taken on a new conscientiousness about work since deciding college is not his thing and setting out on his own. But we saw him and his girlfriend Lexi for dinner once, and another time we went over on Sunday morning and I cooked him blueberry pancakes. Their kitchen is largely stocked with things from our kitchen at the old house, so it was a bit nostalgic, cooking there with familiar pans and utensils, and food and spice containers which I’d carefully labeled years ago. His roommates appeared at the smell of bacon, and there was plenty to go around.

Winding Down

Still in Saint Pete, the newlyweds, their parents, and grandma Nina met for brunch our last Sunday in the States. Steve and I were booked on a return flight Wednesday evening, planning a red-eye Delta trip to Quito and a transfer to Tame’s late morning Cuenca flight. So, after French Toast and scrambled eggs, we said our goodbyes. I gave Amanda a million kisses on her face, hugged Nina and Michael (I gave a Latin air-kiss to the waitress by mistake, startling her greatly), and we were off to Atlanta!

Have I mentioned that all the driving in the USA was a shock to my system? My body stiffened up and my mind dulled. My feet swelled. How could I have lived this car-bound way of life for so long?

We stopped halfway, in Tifton, Georgia, at a nice little pet-friendly hotel. The main excitement there was the next morning in the breakfast room. CNN was on the TV, and the sinking of the container ship Faro in Hurricane Joaquin was in the news loop. Faro was headed from Jacksonville (where our container was shipping) to San Juan. I couldn’t imagine why our container might be transferred in Puerto Rico, but I was a little nervous until I got an e-mail from our shipper saying our container was on a different ship! Those poor crew members! Their poor families!

We continued to Atlanta on Monday, got a horrible night’s sleep (due to the *%&*!# motion detector thermostat, which I suspect was invented by a sadist!) at La Quinta, and spent the next day visiting with Steve’s daughter Amberly and her mother Lisa (another ex-spouse/good friend). Her homemade pot roast was a welcome change after three weeks of road food!

We checked out the next day. Notice that I haven’t mentioned any difficulties about my cat, Tapioca, the Emotional Support Animal. That’s because there weren’t any. The only place that gave me any grief or stress about staying with her was the supposed master of guest service, the Ritz-Carlton. Everything changes, I suppose.

The Trip Home From Hell

Before we left, I’d gotten a resolution e-mail from the BBB (the FTC, being a government agency, did nothing, except tell me my complaint was “on file” and send me a link to their web page, “Renting a Car”). Expedia had, at least, refunded the price I originally prepaid for the Dollar rental car. No reimbursement for the higher price of the replacement rental; no reimbursement for the higher-priced hotel room. But still, it was something. I checked the news about Cotapaxi; still streaming the same level of ash with the same alert level it had been simmering at since August.

We were to board our Quito-bound flight on Delta at 5:41 p.m. on Wednesday, October 7, land at 9:54, clear Customs, spend the night at a hotel near the Quito airport, and then fly out of Quito to Cuenca on Tame at 6:40 a.m. We figured a flight delay or getting hung up in Customs might mean spending a sleepless night at the airport instead of a hotel, but we expected a 14-hour trip, start to finish.

We returned the rental car and hopped the shuttle to the Atlanta international terminal. We were waved through the “Pre-check” line and zipped through security with barely a glance. At the Delta check-in, I was a little anxious. Remember, this was the flight that had been accidentally cancelled the first day and then re-booked on our itinerary!  I had the printout of the corrected booking just in case, but we sailed through, cat, five suitcases, and all, and made our way to the VIP lounge (First Class tickets have their perks). We snacked at the buffet and put our feet up for a little while, but then it was time to go to our gate.
We got to our gate, surrounded by now-familiar brown faces and Ecuadorian-accented Spanish voices. As take-off time approached and boarding did not commence, I started to worry. Finally, at 6:00, a Delta agent stood up and made a speech, first in Spanish and then in English, saying our flight had been delayed…by 14 hours!  We were now due to take off at 7:00 a.m. I asked her why and she said it was, “because of the volcano.”

Now I was alarmed! Cotapaxi had been streaming ash for over a month without impeding flights in and out of Quito. If they were diverting flights, it must have finally “blown,” the dreaded explosive eruption Ecuador’s emergency services had been practicing for! I checked the news on my phone…no change in Cotapaxi. Another passenger checked the Quito airport website…no change in the the ash advisory. Now we were well and truly puzzled. We walked down the concourse to check with the Delta customer service counter. I was beginning to regret wearing my adorable new ankle boots on this trip. They were starting to pinch badly.

At the Delta ticket counter, there was a crowd of perhaps 20 Ecuadorians standing together listening to one English-speaking woman, who was talking to an agent and translating for the crowd. Another agent, a huge man with a shaved head, was watching in amusement. We caught his attention and asked him what the story was; weather delays, he said. No more information. The other agent began distributing overnight kits consisting of a blindfold, blanket, and toothbrush for use at the terminal. No hotel accommodations? The big man rolled his brown eyes and smirked. No, but they could offer a certificate for a $20 discount at a local hotel.

I explained to him that I had a connecting flight in Quito, to Cuenca, at 5:41 a.m. that needed to be changed. “Oh, that’s between you and the other airline,” he said, rolling his eyes again and turning away. I knew that was wrong because of the earlier experience. I was really starting to dislike this lazy jerk.

But I turned on the honey instead of the vinegar. “Oh, didn’t I mention it was a Delta codeshare? Won’t you please re-book the flight for me, sir?” He grudgingly tapped on his computer.

“I’ve rebooked you on the 12:30 from Quito to Cuenca,” he said.

“Umm…what time is this flight supposed to land?”

“11:04.”

“That won’t work. I can’t reclaim my luggage, clear customs, make it from the international terminal to the local terminal, check in, and clear security in under an hour.”

“There are two other flights, a 7:45 and a 9:00.”

“Please book us on the 7:45.”

“Ok.” Tap-tap-tap on the keyboard. “You’re on the 7:45 pm Tame flight from Quito to Cuenca.” Why I didn’t ask for a printout, I don’t know.

I was concerned for Tapioca’s bladder and we sought out the pet relief area…we finally found it and it was an eight-foot square of astroturf with a plastic fire hydrant. No sandbox in sight. Unsurprisingly, the cat was not interested. We had to go BACK through TSA after that, and during this time we had apparently transformed into terrorist threats, as I was singled out to empty my carry-on and have my hands swabbed. Hands swabbed? For explosive residues? I’d thrown away my used paper shooting targets from the car that morning, so guess what? I got to have the spread-your-legs search. Have I mentioned I’m a sexual abuse survivor? I was in tears by the time the uniformed TSA employee was done.

We went back to the Delta VIP Skylounge, where Tapioca was the belle of the ball. I sat out on the deck with her and made new friends, with her as an icebreaker. Everyone wanted to know what it was like to live in Ecuador, and all the international passengers had stories to tell of their own travels. We ate dinner from the buffet, and napped in the quiet room until midnight, when the lounge closed.

Steve and Tapioca napping at the Delta Skylounge
Steve and Tapioca napping at the Delta Skylounge

We then walked…well, I hobbled; those boots were really starting to hurt my feet…back to the departure gate. I sat upright and watched the same inane CNN airport newsclip about 200 times while Steve stretched out and slept on the floor. The walls of the departure area were lined with colorful sleeping bags full of snoring Ecuadorians. I pulled off my boots and socks: giant blisters on each little toe and red pre-blisters on the balls of my feet. I put the boots back on since they were snug enough at least to keep my feet from swelling.

At 5:30 am, a bilingual rumor spread through the boarding area that the gate had changed. I hobbled to the supposed new gate. An announcement corrected the rumor and I groaned and hobbled back; the McDonalds had opened and I bought a coffee.

At 6:30, the plane actually began to board, and joy of joys, it pushed back at 7:10 and we were in the air shortly thereafter. I put my blindfold on and leaned my seat back and slept through most of the four-hour flight.

We landed in Quito on a glorious sunny equatorial mountain morning. The pilot, an American, came out as we were deplaning, and I overheard him telling another passenger that he flew this flight regularly and he had no idea why it was delayed; he’d checked the airport advisories and they were unchanged, and the weather was good.

We got off the plane and collected our luggage. The cat passed through Agrocalidad with no problem. Customs X-rayed our bags (they X-ray all luggage), unconcerned. I was leaning heavily on the luggage cart by then, in pain from my blisters, having had three hours’ sleep out of the prior 24.

I was beginning to worry about the cat’s bladder. I grabbed a discarded newspaper and took her in a bathroom stall and tried to coax her to urinate, but she is a really good cat who never goes anywhere but her litterbox, so it was to no avail.

We made our way to Tame’s check-in. Can you guess? The Delta agent with the rolling eyes had not changed our flight; we were still booked on the 7:00 am to Cuenca, which had taken off as scheduled without us! It was too late to get us on the 12:30 flight; the 7:45 and the 9:00 were both full. I argued and implored in my lousy Spanish and finally we were directed to the ticket sales counter, where we were told the same thing.

In despair, we rolled our luggage carts over to a set of metal seats. I took off my boots and socks. The blisters on the bottoms of my pinkie toes were the same size as the toes themselves, and the balls of my feet were starting to separate into bona fide blisters as well. I opened one of our suitcases, took out a pair of flip-flops and a handful of dry cat food for Tappie, and put the boots in the suitcase. It lessened the pain to the point I could think. “What are our resources? Our Ecuador phones have both been suspended while we were gone. I cannot walk any longer. We have a few dollars in cash, our passports, our original itinerary. We do have friends in Quito who might be able to put us up overnight…”

We finally realized that this was all Delta’s fault, so Delta had an obligation to fix it. Steve set off to find the Delta office on the airport. He was gone a long, long time. Later he said reaching the office was like running a maze down long hallways. However, when he returned two hours later, he had a voucher for the 7:45 flight; we stood in the ticket line, barely willing to hope, and then the check-in line. The people at the check-in line tried to charge us hundreds of dollars for our suitcases. I had to ask for a supervisor and make several increasingly incoherent speeches in what I’m sure by that point was very comical Spanish, but I finally got them to realize this was an extension of a first-class ticket on a partner airline, so they relented. They once again copied the cat’s papers. Finally, we were checked in. Security was a simple metal detector; the cat walked through ahead of me on her leash. A small child laughed with delight and shyly agreed when I asked, “Quieres tocarle?”

We got a meal in the gate area, and finally boarding was called. The gate agent did not realize they’d copied the cat’s papers and asked to see them again, at which point I made the discovery that Tappie’s discipline had finally given out. The papers, stored in the carrier’s side pocket, had a wet stain at their edges, and the disposable crate liner, the waterproof crate bottom, and the water-resistant crate, as well as the cat herself, were… well, the gate agent didn’t seem interested in the papers anymore. Once on the plane, I threw away the disposable liner and put in a new one, so at least she had a dry place to lie down.

Finally, we landed in Cuenca. Home at last! The helpful maletero (skycap) at the airport called until he found us a taxi driver with an SUV and helped us load and unload at the elevator door in our condo. I sat in the back with the disgusting cat crate on my lap. I was so glad to see the door to our apartment again!

The cat’s carrier, liner, leash, and harness, along with all my clothing, went straight into the washing machine; then the cat and I shared a shower (I appreciated it a lot more than she did). We collapsed gratefully into our own bed!

Finally, Home

The next day here in Cuenca dawned sunny, warm, and glorious!  Ecuador had beat top-ranked Argentina to advance towards the World Cup, and Friday was a national holiday. My blisters hadn’t healed, so we took a bus downtown on some errands. Everyone wandered the street with a bounce in their steps, smiling at strangers. The hummingbirds on our balcony flurried around our newly-imported window feeders.

Colibri (hummingbird)
Colibri (hummingbird)

The cat lolled in the sunshine. I set up framed photos I’d brought from the US, and the apartment felt already more cozy.

Our hearts have finally migrated. While we deeply love our friends and family back in the US, Ecuador feels like home.

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