Ian Pike noon, Dec. 8
Because it was 4:45 in the morning when I left the hotel, I was put in a taxi with a night shift driver. At least he was supposed to be. After we started driving, I began to panic, realizing I was doing a really stupid thing, getting in a cab with no seatbelts, alone, at that hour. We went down darkened, deserted side streets, until we finally get on the freeway. Careening down the freeway at 160 kilometers per hour, I noticed that my cab driver's eyes were at about half mast. I then noticed that they would occasionally shut for a second, then jerk open. After about fifteen minutes, he put music on, loud, and started punching his arm out to the side, as if in an attempt to awaken a limb that had fallen asleep. Mind you, by now, I am certain I am going to die. When he finally veered off the freeway and was startled back onto the freeway by the bumps put there precisely for this purpose, I asked "Senior, are you okay?!" He grunted a sort of "yeah, why?" response, but thank God he slowed down and I saw the first airport sign. He almost missed the turn off the freeway, which we took on two wheels after I pointed it out. When I got out I was shaking with relief. It took forty minutes door to door. I gave him a huge tip just as a token of my appreciation for not killing me.
On the plane to Dallas-Fort Worth, they start calling the gates for the connecting flights. No mention of San Diego, but I think "no big deal, happens all the time, it's just not posted yet". I go through customs, and am greeted by the sight of the huge departure sign blinking numerous "cancelled" next to a very large number of flights. Mine included. Not yet too worried, I have a little lunch (which at the airport took a twenty dollar bite out of my stash), and I make my way to a gate clerk to inquire what I should do about getting on another flight. He tells me to go to the ticket counter. It's getting a little more serious. There is a huge line. I get into the wrong one, and wait two hours to be told I have to go to the other line, this one is for checking bags only. Now I start to panic. Let me fill you in on a couple of details. I have flown out of this airport many times, without incident. I had a terrible problem thirteen years ago that left me stranded for two whole days, but time had erased most of the memory. It now came back with blunt force trauma. I was about to have a repeat. When I left the hotel that morning, I was dressed in white linen pants, high-wedge sandals, a tank-top and a light sweater. I also had about 800 pesos for taxi and tips, and maybe seventy American dollars. I left my wallet at home because I never travel with it anymore. We brought one credit card, because everything was already paid for and we only needed it for incidentals, never anticipating that I would go home early. My husband needed it to check out, and I, stupidly, never even questioned the absolute idiocy of being by myself with no credit card. My cell phone was almost dead, and is useless anyway, because I do not have an international plan and cannot call my husband at the hotel, who would most likely not be in the room anyway. I was given the option to enhance my plan when I called to inquire about being connected to a hotel in Playa del Carmen, but it would have taken several minutes, and I needed what little juice I have left in my phone for reasons I will get to.
I get into the second line, which takes another hour and a half. A women starts passing out slips of paper with an emergency number to rebook cancelled flights on American, which I immediately recognize as a ruse to get people out of the lines. I call the number anyway, and am shuffled through a series of automated requests that by now I am in no emotional state to negotiate. I figure I will tough it out in line. I finally get to the counter, and I get a sympathetic agent. She is no-nonsense though, and tells me all flights are booked through the next day. I know this can't be true, but they try to weed out the people who have the option to stay in a hotel and are willing to take it now. She offers me a distress rate at a Holiday Inn fifteen minutes away. I am in sandals and white pants, and there are white out conditions outside. This is when I really start to lose it. I told her my predicament, that I have fifty dollars to my name on me, and I cannot even cover the cost of a cab, let alone the $79.00 distress rate. I point out my clothing. My luggage is long gone, having been whisked away after customs. She starts tapping the keyboard, that crazy tapping that only ticket agents can do that seems to make no sense, but suddenly she says "here we go. A seat just opened up". I literally tear up with relief. It is at a gate clear on the other side of the airport, so I go back through security, take the skytrain over and rush to the gate, only to see the overhead sign flashing "cancelled". I almost consider giving up, but something made me keep going. I got back on the train, went back to the ticket counter, and this time waited another hour and a half. I was exhausted, thirsty, hungry and scared. I was afraid to spend what little money I had left, because I was hearing the whisperings. "They're saying we could be here through Valentine's Day" and "no more flights are going out until Saturday". This time I got a woman who was all business. She could not, would not even try to get me on a flight. Until the woman who helped me before looked over, saw me, and had a quick word with my new agent. Within a couple of tense minutes, she too was able to get me a ticket on another flight. Again, I was so grateful I started getting choked up. I ran through security, got to my gate, and again, the flight cancelled. Mind you, during this entire ordeal, a continuous loop played through my head - "what the HELL are you doing? You left a RESORT for this?!!?? Are you crazy?!??!" I was second guessing myself and my decision, which only exacerbated my fear and anxiety.
By this time, a little group of us had bonded, all of us refuges trying to get to San Diego, and we were bolstered by each other's plights. We immediately high-tailed it back to the ticket counter, and waited again. This time I was not so lucky. I was given a stand-by confirmation. My heart sank. Another couple was given two seats. It was basically a crap shoot. The snow was really coming down. I asked for an actual ticket on a flight as well, because they tell you you need to rebook, even if you are on standby (because the likelihood of getting a seat is next to none), and she tells me there are none until Saturday. I saw myself three days from now, a homeless, starving crazy woman in white pants, with no ticket. Something in me said "just go to the gate. See what happens. If you can't get on stand-by, then go make a reservation for whatever is available. You may have to sleep in the airport. It's out of your hands". I go through security again, get to the gate, and am rejoined with my peeps. I get in line and wait to talk to the gate agent. I finally reach him. I look at him and my eyes start to water. I must have looked like hell at this point, having been afraid to even use the restroom for fear of losing a place in line or a seat assignment on stand-by. I told him this was my last chance. Mind you, there was a very real chance that this flight could cancel as well, but I really needed that seat assignment. I started to tell him what happened to me, and I think he just took pity on me because his words were "would a seat on this plane make this better for you?" I thought I had misunderstood him and said "excuse me?" He repeated himself and I could barely muster a "yes". I whispered it. He produced my ticket and I waived it in the air as my already ticketed new friends cheered. We sat and waited. The time changed for departure. 6:05, 6:35, 7:00, then, a gate change. The plane headed to Miami that was at our gate never left and was eventually cancelled. Our plane was directed to an open gate. Gate 29. We all race-walked to Gate 29, where we waited again. 7:16, 7:30, then, the flight at the gate next to us bound for Vegas, that was almost ready to board, cancelled. A chill ran through us. We were convinced we were next. The incoming people on our plane were just coming out. Oh, God, this still is giving them time to cancel. The snow would not stop. An announcement - we just need to get the plane cleaned and we can begin boarding. We had begun to get clued into signs that a flight was actually going to take off, this time being the presence of the cleaning crew coming out of the boarding doors. I started thinking we may actually get out of here. And then, finally, the first-class passengers were being let on. I was never more grateful in my life to be with my people in steerage. As I walked through the first-class cabin, I smiled at the passengers and gave them a thumbs-up at MY good fortune. I sat in my seat, took my shoes off my swollen feet, and sighed. It was the first time I sat in nine hours.
We sat at that gate for one hour. Panicking. Conditions were terrible. This is where you start to doubt the safety of flying in weather like this, but you're willing to risk it. Finally, the plane backs out of the gate. The captain announces wearily that we first have to get in a queue to get to the de-icing pad. This would take at least two hours. There were people on that plane that were bitterly complaining, on their cell phones shouting "this is fcking bullsht" and "I am never flying American again". I wanted to tell them to shut their stupid, selfish, spoiled mouths, because all I could be was eternally grateful to the crew and the personnel in that airport who, through no fault of their own, where put through the ringer just to get us home safely. Every one of the complainers was under the age of thirty. The girl sitting behind me was miffed when we were told the air conditioner would have to be turned off while we de-iced so as not to bring fumes into the cabin. She was on the phone with her boyfriend. She says, "Oh, my God, NOW they are turning off our air!!" I wanted to punch her. We get to the de-icing pad, and I have to tell you, if you ever think you have the hardest job, I will beg to differ. The guy that de-iced our plane goes up in a basket similar to what phone wire repairmen do, attached to a truck filled with anti-freeze. In a blizzard. In a yellow, water-proof slicker and matching pants, much like a fireman. With a face mask, so as not to breath in the fumes. I was filled with so much respect for this airline and this man at that moment that I was truly moved. They could have just cancelled the flight and not had to go through all this work. But they knew they had to get at least one flight through to San Diego, and they did. Suddenly, the girl behind me, still talking to her boyfriend, looked out the window and saw the de-icer. She had a change of heart. She told him how grateful she was that they were getting us home.
By now some of the people on the plane are starting to get out of their seats, and the captain had to threaten them with returning for fuel and possibly missing our place in the lineup if they caused us to delay any longer by not staying in their seats. I've never seen such obedience. Even the surly ones knew not to be responsible for pissing off our captain and him taking us back to the gate. We were still not in the clear.
The taxi to the line up is slow because of the snow. It is slippery. We idle. I suddenly hear the familiar sound of the turbines spinning and the plane accelerates. Faster and faster, and finally, I am off the ground and on my way home. It is now that I realize that I grew up a little today. I faced a serious situation, kept my cool, never lost my temper with anyone, and I was rewarded with a ride home. I also realized that I have become lazy and allowed my husband take care of a lot of the smaller details that I used to, and I vowed never to let that happen again. He sometimes jokes about what I would do without him, and alone in that airport with no resources, I know now he was only half-joking. When confronted with the situation I was in, I realized my own dumb mistakes caused me the most stress and I promised myself that even though someone else may have the details taken care of, never take it for granted that you may need to take care of yourself. I left our hotel at 4:45 A.M. and arrived at my door at 1:00 A.M. San Diego time. 22 hours.
As I sit here alone, missing my husband, but never more happy to be home, I can't wait for him to come home so I can tell him my story about how I managed to somehow get here against all odds. It should make him proud, and maybe just a bit more aware that at one time I was able to take care of myself. I may suck at vacation, but I am now a world-class traveler.