I continued ambling northward through town, from whence I had come. The historic district behind me, I encountered a few smaller crowds in the numerous parks that I passed along the way, with nary an eye paying me any attention.
Before I knew it, I stood in front of my Airbnb, where I’d begun the day. Not only had I not been robbed at knifepoint, I had really, really enjoyed the 6.5-kilometer stroll. (Yes, of course, I went back and Googled how far I'd walked.)
The next day, December 26, the city returned to its routine, which, in theory, meant someone would actually be working at LATAM and might answer a telephone. With this in mind, I sprang out of bed at 4:00 AM, only to learn that Quito is much like Austin, in that 4:00 AM is still nighttime and no one is yet working. I tried, in vain, to force myself back to sleep. Around 7:00, I heard Cecilia moving about in the kitchen.
I eagerly asked if she would mind assisting me in contacting the airline, as my previous attempts through my US cell phone had been completely unsuccessful. She willingly assisted, dialing the Ecuadorian 800-number from her phone, which – get this – was a land line! It was a cordless phone, sure, but it still had a base that plugged into the wall. I gazed in awe.
Cecelia made a valiant attempt, but soon grew annoyed with LATAM’s cumbersome automated answering system.
She handed me the phone and told me there was an option to “marque dos” for English. I re-dialed the number, and quickly found myself also annoyed with the automated system.
“Please enter your claim number,” the recording instructed.
The piece of paper that the luggage attendant handed me 48 hours earlier didn’t have a claim number. Thnking myself clever, I entered my passport number instead.
“You have not entered the correct amount of numbers. Please enter your claim number,” the dastardly machine again directed.
“I don’t have a fuc—!” I caught myself a syllable short, as Cecelia sat next to me on the couch, watching expectantly.
A friend of mine has “breathe” tattooed on the top of her – if memory serves – left foot (in Elvish no less). She has no reason to know this, but when I catch myself about to scream and/or start shooting my Springfield Armory XD Sub Compact 9mm into traffic, I (sometimes) remember her tattoo, and remind myself to take a moment, calm down, and breathe (or respirar, when I’m in a Spanish speaking country).
I took a deep breath and steadied my brain. Then, I remembered: I have an extensive amount of training and professional experience navigating automated systems! Knowing then exactly how to fix the problem, I marque-d (don’t ever go around saying that, please) “0” this time, and waited for the operator to answer…
“Welcome to LATAM Airlines. Please enter your claim number.”
Skynet had won.
I became enraged and screamed, “DIE, YOU EVIL, NO GOOD, LIVER-LIPPED, SPAWN OF SATAN!” and launched Cecelia’s cordless phone out the living room window of her eighth-storey condo. We watched as it fell and smashed into a million little pieces on the street below.
Okay, I totally didn’t do that. Calm down (Mom).
I hung up, defeated… Then, the phone rang.
“What in the world?” I thought to myself. “Could LATAM actually be star-sixty-nining us, to help?”
“Ahlow?” Cecelia answered in a combination of “hola” and “hello.”
“¡¿Ahhh, como estas, amor!? ¡Feliz Navidad!” Cecelia exclaimed to not LATAM airlines.
She gave me a “sorry ‘boutcha” look, a shrug of her shoulders, and turned toward another room to have her conversation.
Then, she paused, turned back, told her friend on the phone to “espera, por favor,” and said something that I understood to mean, “Oh, BT-dubs, there’s a LATAM office two corners over. Maybe they can help you.”
My jaw dropped.
Forty-three seconds later, I’d flown down the eight flights of stairs and made the sprint up the very, very steep hill to what was, in fact, a LATAM office.
I entered and saw that there was a short line, with several, extremely-not-unattractive attendants, each with a different shade of devastatingly gorgeous mocha-toned skin, dressed in crisp, form-fitting skirts with equally impressive blouses, jet black hair pulled into smart, tight buns atop their heads, dark brown eyes…
Whoa. Hey. Sorry. What was I talking about?
The attendants were all helping other customers. About 10 excruciating minutes later, one of the extremely-not-unattractive attendants called me over.
Using my ever-gringo Spanish, I explained how my backpack had disappeared on Christmas Eve, likely stolen by one of Santa’s bad elves. She looked at me blankly.
“¿Tienes la papel?" she asked.
I handed her the “luggage discrepancy” paper.
She dialed a few numbers, put the phone on speaker, and began clicking away on her computer. The phone rang. And rang. And rang… and rang, and rang, and rang. I’m not even close to kidding. At least five minutes later, the attendant hung up and redialed: more of the same.
“¿Es normal?” I asked. ("Normal" is Spanish for "normal.")
“Sí,” she replied, not rudely, just indifferently.
What seemed like hours later, a voice finally answered. The voice and the attendant exchanged a few sentences; she clicked some more buttons on her computer; and then hung up. About 90 seconds had passed since the voice answered.
I looked at her, wondering what in the world had gone wrong.
“Señor E-bahns. Your maleta es here, in Quito.”
My sight tunneled to black, and I fainted.
Apparently, I fell and hit my head, because when I woke up, my head was cradled in the lap of one of the extremely-not-unattractive attendants; one held a cold compress to my forehead; another fed me delicious, frozen grapes; while the others fanned me with palm tree fronds.
Okay. Fine. None of that happened, except the attendant telling me my bag was, in fact, in Quito.
She then told me if I returned "a las dos," my bag would be there.
Three hours later, after wondering around and having enjoyed a tasty lunch of chicken, rice, and vegetables (for the smoking deal of $2.75, including a $0.25 tip), I returned to the LATAM office. My bag was there, as promised, unharmed, still wrapped in the unnecessary bungee cords I’d stolen out of my dad’s truck three days before.
The rest of the day passed, much to my relief, without event.
I woke up the morning of the 28th, wide-awake at 5:30 AM. Cecelia apparently heard me rustling about and met me in the kitchen. She asked where I was headed and I told her “Cotopaxi, y despues Guaytacama.”
We exchanged fair wells, and she wished me safe travels.
Finally ready, I loaded (all 108 pounds of) my backpack onto my shoulders, crammed myself into the elevator down to the first floor, exited, and promptly found myself locked in the small lobby of the building.
I failed to explain this earlier, but it took four keys to get into Cecelia’s condo: one for the door to her condo, one for the elevator, one to get in and out of the lobby, and one to get in and out of the gate at the front of the driveway. Prior to departing, I surrendered my keys to Cecelia, of course, with her explaining that she would watch me from her entry way window and would use her “clicker” (a traditional Spanish word for “clicker”) to open the front gate when I approached it. But, when I got into the lobby, the concierge was not yet on duty; the door up to the (very optional) stairs was locked, as was the elevator, now that I had exited it, as was the front door.
I looked around, in vain, for an escape route, but I was stuck. I would have to wait for someone to come along and let me out. I unloaded my pack and sat on the small bench near the front desk.
“Damn,” I thought. “I’m never going to get out of here.” [“And this story is never going to end,” you’re thinking.]
I glanced around the increasingly tiny, claustrophobic lobby, hoping for a condo bulletin, emergency evacuation route, or something else interesting to read. Then, my eyes locked on it: a buzzer that deactivated the front door lock. I sprang to my feet, wrestled my pack on, hit the buzzer and flew out the door, finally free.
I walked down the driveway, elated – nothing but the open road and adventure in view… But, as I approached the gate, nothing happened. I looked back up at the eighth-storey window of Cecelia’s apartment, but, alas, no one was there. I can only presume that I had taken so long to get out of the building that she figured I had jumped out of a back window (as opposed to getting locked in the lobby due to the fact that, you know, NO ONE TOLD ME THERE WAS A BUZZER).
After a few minutes of pondering whether I could heave my backpack (which now weighed approximately 172 pounts) over the stiletto points of the cast-iron gate and crawl over without permanently injuring my unborn children, luckily a car entered from outside. As I stood there in the mist, waiting for the gate to ever, ever, ever, so… slowly… open, the vehicle’s occupants and I just looked back and forth at each other. They could only presume – rightfully so – that I was a bearded, tobogganed thief, who had loaded up his satchel with stolen Christmas goods and found myself trapped.
Fortunately, they let me pass without questioning and I, finally (for real this time), made my way to the bus station in the cool, foggy morning haze.
Beyond the city sat Volcán Cotopaxi, hidden behind thick, gooey layers of clouds. Unseen, but not unknown, it beckoned me.
It was time to get out of town.
From Baños, with Love – and wishing you all Feliz Año Nuevo!