At about 6:20 a.m., the door shut behind me at Pay Purix, the hostel that served as my base of operations in the last days on the South American continent. However, despite rehearsals and reconnaissance, the factor that I had failed to take into account in getting to the airport was just how full the buses are in the 6 a.m. hour in Callao. Indeed, in order to get to the area of the airport, people were taking buses in the opposite direction of their destination, and getting aboard at earlier stops.
The short of it is, if you are trying to get to the airport in the morning in Lima, plan on a taxi.
The trials and tribulations of flying out of Lima
The glass walls of the Lima airport stood like the Great Wall of China, keeping out the hordes of low budget travelers that would cross oceans to get to a new destination. Inside waited clerks that heard all the distress stories before, but who still showed little empathy toward a person who hadn’t come prepared for every hurdle imposed on them.
My pathway to the airplane gate went something like this:
First, I arrived at TACA’s desk number 1 at about 6:50 a.m., 10 minutes before the recommended time. The clerk listened as I explained that I had a ticket on Wednesday, but that I had to cancel and change to today, that I understood I was on a standby list, and that I needed to pay for an ongoing flight. After first trying to deny a ticket existed, I stood my ground and insisted it was in the system. I pulled out a slip of paper given me by the clerk the Wednesday before, which seemed to make all the difference, at least for a second. Then. I was directed to a desk at the far end of the terminal, a good couple of football fields away.
Trusting that I wasn’t about to be given the royal runaround (what other choice did I have?), I dragged my bags across the crowded hall, refusing to even notice taxi sharks asking to take me to the center of the city, or the tour groups filing in to their own airline desk. I didn’t even slow that much for the guard keeping non-ticketed passengers from the ticxeting counter, a security move that probably made sense in some remote architectural office someplace.
I arrived with about five minutes to spare before the witching 7 a.m. hour. However, arrived before me was a couple with as big of troubles as I, a pair of Australians trying to get to San Jose, Costa Rica. Try as I like, I couldn’t spare them the obvious impatience I was feeling about not being able to get to the one open ticketing desk. After about 30 minutes of the woman typing in route after route after route to get them on an available plane, they finally turned to me apologetically about the delay. I mentioned that it wasn’t their fault, that they were simply trying to get through the system, following that up with an open criticism of the system that the clerk had to deal with. That was my most diplomatic response.
Apparently the diplomacy worked, as when I finally got through (something like around 7:40 a.m., the clerk proved quite helpful in getting me a ticket aboard a TACA/Avianca flight to Madrid. However, it wouldn’t be through Quito and Medellin, but rather through Bogotá and Cali, departing at 11 a.m.
The exit route arranged, all that was left was to get the onward ticket. The price for this, however, jumped dramatically from Wednesday. Rather than 135 USD for a flight from Madrid to Milan, the cost for getting me through potential questions at both check-in and at Spanish immigrations about my one-way passage was 440 USD. Needless to say, I wasn’t prepared for that.
With about two hours and 15 minutes to spare before gate time (the gates are declared open 55 minutes before departure, whether they are actually open or not), I had to go from ticketing office to ticketing office in hope of finding a price that was under 200 USD. Many offices wouldn’t open until 9 a.m., a little over an hour before gate time. With that in mind, I camped out in front of Air Europa, hoping for a cheap onward flight from them.
At about 8:45 a.m., a guy in an official looking shirt and tie approached me and said that the Air Europa office wasn’t going to be open, and that if I wanted a ticket, I’d have to follow him. I did. When he led me away from the terminal and toward the “shopping center” across the street from the airport, I started to get a bad feeling. However, another instinct suggested I trust my luck. I wasn’t getting very far in the terminal anyway. Maybe a travel agent could do better.
I was brought in to an office just above the Western Union office that I had gotten all my US dollars at late the previous week. I made a point to the guy dragging my baggage ahead of me that the guard there could recognize me, having been there two days in a row. On arrival, I was sat in front of a travel agent, who promptly showed me an option for an onward ticket, at about 440 USD.
After saying that anything more than 200 USD would be a waste of time, the travel agent, who saw his commission diminishing and was noticeably frustrated by this, started plugging away at the computer in search of any option that I could afford. With about 30 minutes to spare before gate time, he finally found a flight from Barcelona to Milan at 249 USD. I paid my money, he gave me an official looking piece of paper with all the appropriate information. The guy who dragged my baggage to this travel agent, was then summoned to drag it back to the terminal, where I checked in with maybe 10 minutes to spare.
I had promised myself that I would celebrate if I could find a ticket for under 200 USD with a Starbucks mocha. However, 249 US left me with only 27 USD (along with my Euros), and the dwindling available time left that out of the question. I passed through the security checkpoint, stripping of belt and shoes and pulling out my laptop before going through the metal detector (all standard US security measures). I then put myself back together and rushed off to my flight, five minutes into the official boarding time.
Knowing that I still had another 20 minutes before a typical US plane would close the gates, I rushed into a book store to get post cards for my little one. It seemed a shame to pass through Peru without getting my daughter anything to educate herself eventually about the countries her father passed through. It cost about 4 USD, but I left the store with 4 high quality post cards and some hard candle to act as a makeshift lozenge on the coming flight.
With all that, I arrived at the gate while another plane, running late, was still boarding for a flight through Guayaquil in Ecuador to Medellin. I could have taken it much slower and still arrived on time.
Colombia – not quite the 51st U.S. state
The flight left Lima fairly smoothly, albeit a little late. It banked as it went through the cloud layer and emerged into the blue, where ridges formed above the layer of white fluff that blocked light to the desert below. Where the clouds did open up, the desert country of Peru showed, an exotic reminder of a continent rapidly shifting into past tense.
TACA’s entertainment system, which still lacked the mapping capabilities seen in northern hemisphere airlines, showed some interesting movies, such as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (the 2012 Hollywood remake of the 2009 Swedish film). Listening through shoddy headphones on a screen too dark to really see much of a picture, I dozed and watched, and dozed some more. Interested, I’d try to see if the film was played when crossing the Atlantic.
After a short while, the desert turned to noticeably jungle-like streams with meandering brown water like from the cover of Dead Can Dance’s “Serpent’s Egg” album. As the film reached its climax, the entertainment system turned off for the descent into Bogota.
Passing through the cloud layer, the countryside appeared lush green farmland, all highly developed, with jungle-covered mountains looming in the distance. At that moment, it became clear how the Spanish had arranged their colonial empire in South America. This was the center of it all. Peru, the pre-Columbian great empire of the continent, was merely a mineral extraction point. Further south, Chile, was a far-flung holding. This was where the center of European civilization in the New World held sway, and would have continued to do so if the other countries hadn’t established rival empires in North America.
However, landing at the airport, it seemed as if little had been done to improve Colombia’s air infrastructure. The airport appeared to have been contemporary around the time that Denver’s Stapleton Airport held sway over most routes in the western United States (circa 1970s), and most appalling of it all, the country appeared to have taken on the worst habits from the United States, namely having to go through customs and enter the country in order to transfer onto an outbound flight. Apparently a lot of people do this, as the word “transito” flowed off the lips of the person at passport control just before stamping my passport.
This wouldn’t have been so bad, but Avianca was already boarding their flight to Madrid when we landed. Passengers making this transfer had to run from security checkpoint to security checkpoint in order to even hope to get aboard. Thankfully, the plane was late in departing.
It was at check-in that I was finally asked if I had an onward flight, and grilled about it. It was here that had I not convinced the clerk of the feasibility of my travel, I’d have been turned away long before ever passing through passport control in Spain. The official-looking paper that cost me 250 USD cleared me from worry about being rejected.
Bogota was only the second to last stop on the continent. About 300 kilometers after passing out of the center of the old Spanish empire, and after a brief drinks service, the plane descended again below the cotton gauze of thin clouds into Cali. The airport reminded me of Honolulu as I drifted into fitful sleep, shortly after the Italian girl sitting at the window traded seats (she apparently tired of my coughing) in an exchange that left me in her original place.
After an hour, the plane filled completely with new passengers, so that there were no empty seats on the flight to Europe. As the sun crept toward dusk, the plane jumped off the runway and up into the skies. The fading green disappeared into a white that quickly turned grey. The sun setting in the west eventually changed the whole scene to black as I settled in to watch “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” in its entirety, interrupting the action only to check out the window at the coast of Venezuela, the lights of the settlements and offshore oil platforms being the last view I beheld of South America. I said goodbye quietly to the continent under my breath before the steward asked that the shades to the windows be pulled down for the night.
Return to Europe – arrival at Madrid and a pilgrimage to Atocha
After watching the movie “Chronicle,” and taking amusement at the combination of the old legend of the “200 Pound Club” (supposedly a Cold War era secret society consisting of those who were telekinetically enabled, enough to be able to lift 200 pounds through telekinesis), Pacific Northwest tales of alien visitations, and images of the city near to where I grew up, Seattle, being destroyed by a police-mishandled teenager turned psychotic by his unique mental powers (that city never could constructively handle its youth culture, it always seemed to me), daylight returned to the world outside the plane’s window shade, and people inside started to wake up.
After the opening images of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” showcased Budapest, the city to come if everything succeeded, the first promontories of Iberia, apparently somewhere on the Portuguese coast, began to show some 9,000 meters below. Farms and arid country passed under the wings, and after the Budapest images morphed into spy mystery, the real Europe below easily won the distraction war.
The descent into Madrid left few outstanding impressions – the use of what I call circle farms, an agricultural innovation developed in the Pacific Northwest in the 1950s that uses a central watering point and rolling water pipe to create these huge circles of green on desert landscape, mirrored the arid zones near where I was born. After the plane touched down, the modern “petroglyph” of a cross placed on a hill above the runway spoke in no uncertain terms “Catholic country.” The wave-like configuration of the new terminal the plane pulled up to spoke “Europe.”
Once out of the plane, I followed the main group of passengers to passport control. Here, I was ready to present my onward ticket, purchased for 250 USD of would-be food and shelter money, a requirement that Avianca Airlines required before I could even get aboard the flight. The woman at the passport control desk didn’t even bother asking me anything – she gave one look at the US passport cover, and after running it through her bar-code reader, unceremoniously stamped my entry point into the European Union as Madrid. I was somewhere between grateful and livid as I pocketed the useless throw-away ticket with my passport and continued on to the outside world.
Negotiating the transfer between airport and city at Madrid was made worlds easier by the extension of the Madrid Metro in 1999 to the airport, joining the city with the ranks of Frankfurt-am-Main as being convenient to use. I made a beeline for the lodging I had selected back in Valparaiso, one called Hostel Sol, near the bus terminal in the southeast part of the city. Described as a place for all manner of travelers, including eccentrics such as myself, I checked in and then got online to inform everyone by Email of my successful arrival.
Shower turned to collapse on bed, which later turned to waking up and wandering around the neighborhood. Fruit seemed the cheapest option at the green grocers, which seemed to be on almost every corner. I grabbed a couple nectarines, a kiwi, and dates to keep me going as I sought out the location of what was once an important pilgrimage site, the Basilica of Atocha.
The story of Atocha is one built into the Spanish national character. In its wars against the Muslim Moors, at one point Madrid was on the front line of Catholic Spanish advancement. The fighting left Moorish authorities less than empathetic to those Christians it captured – the only visitors that jailed men could receive were children under the age of 12… no wives, no adult brothers or sisters, no parents.
This left the women of captured Christians in a desperate state. They would go to pray fervently at a nearby field shrine for some form of deliverance for their men, as the Moors of course fed prisoners with little to nothing. For women without any children to bring in food to their captured men, jail was a sentence of death by starvation in a dark cell.
Inside the shrine was a “santo,” or a small image of the Baby Jesus, which apparently was a popular thing to have in many such churches at the time. Women would come in with baby shoes for the santo, which they would put on the little statuette. Atocha, having so many women praying, had of course many such changes of shoes as each woman donated a pair in a desperate plea for divine intervention in the freeing of their men.
The real story is lost to time, but at some point, a mysterious young boy would visit the most desperate of these women, the ones with no children, and would offer to take food to their incarcerated loved ones in the evening. As a result, many men who had not the chance yet to be a father managed to survive.
No one knew from where the boy came from. He was nobody’s son. But every morning, on the santo in the shrine, the shoes of the Baby Jesus that had been brand new the day before would be seen covered with dust on the morning after. This gave rise to the legend of the Santo Nino de Atocha, the Holy Boy of the field shrine near the Moor jail in present southwest Madrid.
Such santos, statuettes of Baby Jesus, spread far and wide after Spain evicted the last of the Moors in 1492, the same year that America was “discovered” by Genoese-born Christopher Columbus on behalf of Spain. One such santo eventually made its way to New Mexico, shortly after the construction of a small church in the hills above the Espanola Valley north of Santa Fe. With the popularity of the Santuario de Chimayo, one of the neighbors of the man who built the shrine decided that he too should create a pilgrimage site, and to this day, the church of the Santo Nino de Atocha takes in pilgrims, albeit in lesser numbers than the main site.
The original basilica site is marked out on maps in the placement of a modern landmark, the Atocha commuter rail station. From the train, a person can look out and see the old tower of the basilica, which still stands above the tracks. Walking from the terminal, two domes of the original basilica today stand as a sort of pantheon to Spanish cultural figures.
However, the basilica no longer stands. It alternately grew and suffered over its history as the turmoil of Spanish history caused its importance to wax and wane. Finally, though, during the uprising of July 1936, on the same day that the military-held Cuartel de la Montana was reduced by worker’s militias, the basilica was apparently attacked as well and burnt to the ground. The parts of the structure that survived to today still stood, but it would take another three decades before a church would again stand at the site, the present Nuestra Senora de Atocha parish church built in the same year I was born, in 1965.
For the first time since leaving Belarus, I decided my visit to this important site would be a good occasion to sit through Catholic mass. There was a lot to pray for – travel is never easy, apparently particularly so if part of the travel involves dealing with a Colombian airline. The catechism, even in Spanish, was still fairly easy to follow, if it was something in which you grew up with. After the mass ended, I shared with the man begging outside of the church on the street a nectarine, a kiwi, and two dates, the same amount I ate walking there. It seemed the right thing to do at the time.