I wasn’t with the brigade that landed at Normandy… nor was I on the front line of civil rights marchers who faced the dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham… nor have I stood with any of the thousand-plus immigrants swept up daily around the country and brought into ICE detainment centers, who are cut off from family and friends and face deportation and the loss of multiple lifetimes spent stockpiling shared dreams. I don’t have any first hand experience in those situations. And I can understand how comparing my minor mishap within an otherwise amazing tour gaining exposure to Peruvian / Inca culture and spirituality could be confusing (at best) and insulting (at worst).
But my experience at the Lima airport was an experience that helped me understand the kinds of situations that bring a lump to the back of the throat and the the special brand of tingling paralysis that comes when you realize your name has just been called in a winner-take-all cage-match showdown. When it first becomes clear your name has been penciled in for drama, it registers somewhere between ‘sobering’ and ‘sickening.’ A quick analysis reveals that ‘playing to win’ is not an option. To believe you have a real shot at 47th place would be encouraging. It’s a game you’ve never played with players you’ve never met, using strategies you’ve never seen and explained in a language you don’t speak. There is no one else on your team and as you stagger down the runway, with the crowd chanting, it becomes clear the stakes being played for are all things you thought were part of your entitlement. Much of what you’ve come to love and hold dear is suddenly at stake. And you’re ‘opponent’ does not have anything at risk.
Explained to me, in broken English, by the fourth, fifth and sixth customer service agent at Avianca Airlines, that’s how it came across. And as I attempted to employ every angle to establish even a shaky foothold of leverage, I listened anxiously as every plea and appeal was calmly refuted and denied.
As I zeroed in on my status here is what became very clear:
- It was June 27th. I was in Lima, Peru. At the airport.
- My boarding pass for the next leg of my trip said, ‘San Jose, Costa Rica’ (in accordance with the itinerary I had purchased several months earlier – an extra leg on my Peruvian adventure that seemed worth the extra $300 to visit the rain forest). But that boarding pass had been taken away by the Avianca agent in Cuzco, explaining that she could not return it to me because I had no proof of my Yellow Fever Immunization shot.
- The Avianca agents at the counter would not change my intinerary. She explained that her computer and her phones were not programmed to make changes to existing flights. All she could do was purchase a brand new ticket for a new destination.
- She would not give me a new ticket to Costa Rica without the Yellow Fever Immunization Card.
- When I explained that if I wasn’t permitted to continue on to Costa Rica, I needed to return to the US, she explained that my return flight to San Francisco was out of San Jose, Costa Rica – and my reservation on that flight had been released when the agent in Cuzco cancelled my seat on the flight to San Jose. Then she, matter-of-factly mentioned that the ‘new’ (walk up) price for a ticket back to San Francisco would be $2100.00… and there was no room on any such flight for three days (June 30).
- Any negotiation regarding ‘changing’ my itinerary (as opposed to purchasing a new itinerary) would have to be done through the ‘call center’ or ‘in-person’ at the Avianca office (which was 20 miles away – a 50 Solis taxi ride).
- The Avianca counter would not allow me to use one of their phones to contact the Avianca call center – but, instead, insisted that I use the public phone (of which there was only one in the Lima airport).
- The public phone was 10 ft. beyond the area roped-off and separated from the Avianca counter monitored by an armed female guard. She made me ‘walk around’ (ie. go out of the airport, walk 150 meters to the other entrance and then walk back to the phone) rather than pass through the arbitrarily placed demarcation.
THIS was how ‘Operation Salvation’ began for me – with the feeling that seemingly pointless tasks were placed before me like hurdles to ‘prove’ my worthiness of rising above a demonstrable leverage of power. And, whether or not an organized conspiracy was every officially established, every detail which followed felt like it had intentionally been coated with three extra layers of difficulty.
Thinking I wouldn’t need it anymore in Costa Rica, all my Peruvian money had been packed in the bottom of my backpack, which meant using the space next to the armed guards in the middle of the airport as a public showcase for my vintage collection of dirty laundry while I looked or one solis coins required for the payphone.
And it was not until this particular moment on the trip that I had come to fully appreciate the true value of speaking Spanish. When I finally got through to the Avianca call center I heard a long list of prerecorded options being explained in a language I didn’t understand. I could recognize that they were saying ‘press or say [number]…’ before each option. When they got up to ‘cinco’, I knew I was beyond the realm where I could simply guess. With a spontaneous mix of frustration and desperation, I inadvertently mimicked the behavioral expressions of at least five different characters from the movie, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, which turned out to be a good strategy for gaining the attention of various airport personnel. Lucky for me, one of said personnel happened to be one of the fourteen thousand taxi-drivers littering the airport and trained to spot the lost and helpless tourist. You can always spot the taxi drivers. Any eye contact or unintended indication of distress will result in their issuing the airport taxi-driver mating call: “Need a ride, my friend?”
It was a relief to find, after just a short exchange, that this taxi driver was familiar enough with the comparative inefficiency of the South American aviation system to be able to offer a little empathy. And he had room for some extra pity for a one of the non-Spanish-Speaking pawns caught in the maze. Pulling out his cell phone, he looked at the Avianca card I was squeezing too-tightly between my fingers, dialed the number for the call center. navigated the recorded instructions to choose the ‘for english, press 27…’ option, and handed me the phone.
The Avianca Call Center agents – although quite a few strata above the category of ‘dehumanizing’ (which was what I estimated was the objective level of customer service targeted for Avianca agents assigned to work behind the counter) – had not quite hit the high-water mark of ‘understanding’ but had some training in appearing ‘interested.’ Still, after twenty minutes of explanation, the best I could do for a return flight to San Francisco was $600 on the 29th (and THAT was cashing in all my American Airlines – a Star-Alliance partner – frequent flier miles).
Again, more disbelief and exasperation eminated from my little corner of the airport which acted like something of a signal to attract the attention of not one, not two, but three different helpful ‘travel assistants’ who ‘worked in the airport.’ By far, they were the most interested and friendly of all the people I’d encountered to this point. And after listening to descriptions of my escapades to that point, there was unified, bobble-headed nodding with copious exclamations of empathy.
“They” do this all the time, was how it was explained to me simultaneously by all three of them in turn (sort of like the three stooges. They were clearly in cahoots). ”Do you need a Yellow Fever Immunization Card? We can get you one…” And, after just a few questions, one of them was on the phone. A few minutes after that, the second one walked stridently toward the exit where I witnessed the briefest rendezvous and exchange I had ever seen with another gentleman. In the next moment I was looking at a filled out Yellow Fever Immunization card with my name, passport number and birthday, signed by a doctor and stamped with a date of July 13th (three days earlier than when I had entered the country, if anyone bothered to check). Suddenly, I could feel a pervasive slimy-ness surrounding and saturating my moral senses. It seemed clear that it was emanating not from any single entity within the environment but, indeed, it was an essential ingredient in the atmosphere that each piece of the system was drawing from and dependent upon.
My own desperation to escape the tractor-beam pull of the slimy event-horizon prompted me to take the immunization card back to the Avianca ticket counter and explain – with as much earnestness and sincerity as I could muster – that I had only ‘temporarily lost’ my immunization card – not, in fact, failed to obtain one – and that I would like to buy a ticket to Costa Rica.
But, deep-seeded corruption is not so easily satisfied. I found out that not only would it cost me over $1200 to get to Costa Rica, my flight from there to San Francisco had already been cancelled and would have to be repurchased – another $1400.
The wake-up call, however, was in suddenly being able to recognize how easy it is to be pulled into the undertow of corrupt operations and how each minor moral compromise drags you further away from any semblance of moral integrity.
The irony seemed clear: after ten days of studying ancient spiritual practices of ‘ascension’ and ‘evolution of consciousness’ and feeling very drawn to new and higher ways of relating to the world, we can discover ways to substantially ‘grow our soul.’ We can expand our awareness to include vital, inclusive relationships with everything around us. We can operate from a deeper understanding of being part of the interdependent web.
We can also encounter situations where we encounter fear and doubt and suspicion – which are all common and even natural and appropriate responses to circumstance and the behaviors of people around us. What becomes ‘telling’ is when such fear becomes so consuming/compelling that in our reaction to it we adaptive and even adopting of it. We integrate fear and protectiveness as a coping strategy become willing – even conspiratorial – in realigning our moral compass to something other than a true north.