Above: clouds obscure the 19,347-foot Volcán Cotopaxi, approximately 30 miles south of Ecuador's capital city of Quito, as seen from Bosque del Panecillo.
No one likes to travel. Traveling, by and large, is unpleasant – especially international travel, and especially during the holidays. Seriously. Airports, overly-handsy TSA agents, over-booked flights, crowds, thirteen-dollar beers, "All I want for Christmas Is You" blaring through the overhead speakers for the millionth time, and redeye flights are just not fun.
But, unless you’re traveling for work (or being transported via ConAir for a government-funded, all-expense paid stay at ClubFed), you are most likely subjecting yourself to the wild monkey shit fight that is air travel, because there is a person and/or destination that makes it all worth it.
And so it came to be, on December 23, 2017, two days before Christmas (which was a Saturday for those of you reading this in the year 2216, when gingers have evolved to have golden, bronzed skin, developed an immunity to melanoma, and ascended to every single high office in the world), after subjecting my friends and family to months of excited/terrified talk about my sabbatical, that I found myself crammed into a fully booked flight from Austin-Bergstrom to Dallas-Fort Worth. Few things in life are as pleasing as a 38-minute flight and a two-hour layover to embark on an intercontinental journey. My destination: Patagonia, via a couple of months of meandering through Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.
While a quick layover through DFW for an international flight is far from uncommon, my lead-up to it was. On Thursday, I had to drive from Austin to Fort Worth to leave my car and other worldly belongings at my mom’s, and then have a friend drive me back to Austin (thanks, Josh!) on Friday, only to take a connection back to DFW for my connection to Quito, Ecuador, by way of Lima, Peru. Simple, right?
Upon arrival in DFW, I realized that, in Austin, American Airlines had not issued me a connecting boarding pass from DFW to Quito. After speaking with the attendant at the departure gate, and the attended told me I would have to wait for a boarding pass, I then realized why: I had been racially profiled. I couldn’t believe it. There, 20 miles from my hometown of Fort Worth, being profiled. Now, it’s not unusual for people to give canelos a second look or two in, say, Okinawa or Tulúm; but damn if I’d ever fallen victim to straight up profiling in Texas.
How do I know I was profiled, you ask? I know because as I turned away from my conversation with the attendant, there stood behind me another, equally beautiful ginger. We locked eyes, but said nothing, because gingers have the ability to communicate via an extra-sensory perception that is built into our DNA (specifically within the hair follicles, of course).
“They got you, too?” my brother thought to me.
“Sure as hell did,” I transmitted back.
We were simultaneously outraged and terrified. If there had been a couple more of us, we could have recreated the music video for MIA’s Born Free. (DISCLAIMER: NSFW nor for the squeamish). After another moment or two, we suppressed our mutual urge to burn the place to the ground, and instead opted to wait it out at the “Irish” pub that conveniently, stood only a few feet away from us in the terminal. (I kid you not. Next time you’re in terminal D, near gate 20 at DFW, look for it.) Profiling gingers, and then forcing us to sit together and drink Guinness at a wannabe Irish pub? Such injustice!
After much introspection, my ginger brother man and I decided we had not actually been profiled. We arrived at this decision after we returned to the gate and the attendant informed us that the flight had been overbooked, and they were just waiting to see if we would be among the few who no-showed, so they could issue our seats to someone else. Makes perfect sense, right? Whatever.
Eventually, the airline issued our boarding passes; I made it from Lima to Quito without further incident; and, everyone lived happily ever after… No, not really. Not. Even. Close.
Upon arrival at Lima, around 6:00 AM, I was informed that, wait for it… wait for it… the airline, this time LATAM, overbooked the connection from Lima to Quito. This time though, my physically standing at the gate had no effect on the attendant, and she informed me I would be bumped to a flight leaving at 4:15 PM. However, the airline was “kind” enough to provide me with a voucher for a round trip cab ride and a hotel room for the day.
If you’ve ever traveled in a large South American city, or even Tijuana for that matter, you know that driving and pedestrianism is less of a rules-based activity and more of a let’s-all-honk-our-horns-at-the-same-time-walk-into-traffic-without-regard-to-the-presence-of-cars-or-buses-and-ignore-all-traffic-signals type of activity. Lima is no exception.
After about 25 minutes of my taxi driver, Roger Falcon, according to the credentials hanging in the cab, reenacting the chase scene in Ronin, and being absolutely sure to reach over, touch the rosary hanging from his rearview, genuflect and, presumably, say an internal Hail Mary at unknowable but very frequent intervals along the way, we arrived at the Hotel Delfines, in the neighborhood of Miraflores.
Now, this having been my first time in Lima, I cannot say for certain that this was the Beverly Hills of Lima, but Miraflores is the Beverly Hills of Lima. Pulling into the neighborhood, I was amazed by the carefully manicured lawns, palm trees, absolute over-abundance of highly waxed German-made automobiles, and ornately strung electrified fencing over each residential security wall.
Before Roger could even slip his taxi out of gear and engage the parking brake, a bellhop from the Delfines opened my door, handed me a cold bottle of water, and offered to help rear my first born when the time came. I politely declined the latter, but gratefully accepted the cold water (it was a sweltering 72F/22C degrees, after all), and finished making arrangements with Roger for him to return at 2:00 PM to return me to the airport.
The Hotel Delfines is… ¿Como se dice?... Ah, yes: “fancy as hell.” The receptionist quickly accepted the voucher the airline provided me and I was in my room, stripped naked as a newborn baby, and enjoying a nice hot shower in 10 minutes flat.
Having washed away the trauma of the seven-hour flight from DFW, getting bumped off my flight to Quito, and the car chase – er, cab ride from the airport, I decided to catch up on some work and some writing. I propped myself up on a pile of pillows in the cozy queen bed of my room, opened up my laptop, and promptly fell asleep. Babies don’t sleep as well as I did. (Although, I am told, sometimes babies don’t sleep. At all.)
I woke up famished, and went downstairs to the hotel restaurant, where I enjoyed a simple, but tasty, lunch of grilled chicken, vegetables and chicha morada. If you’ve never had the pleasure of drinking morada, you must getcha some. I had no idea what I was drinking at the moment, but it could have been battery acid and I would have gladly accepted a second helping.
Appetite and thirst satiated, I took a stroll around the neighborhood. The surrounding homes were immaculate, the hotels even more grandiose than the Delfines, and the towering palm trees majestic. While the neighborhood was, indeed, very nice, I was particularly shocked and disappointed that there was a golf clinic, but no archery range, polo club, or F1 track… Such savagery.
I returned to my room; Roger showed up and whisked me back to the airport; and, I boarded the flight to Quito without further incident… Until the flight reached cruising altitude.
Those of you who know me well and/or have flown with me know that I am not a fan of flying. Like I said, no one likes to travel; but, I seriously dislike the actual act of flying. It’s not so much that I actually think the plane is going to fall out of the sky; but, when there’s turbulence, not even an elephant-sized dose of Xanax and a fifth of vodka could sedate me.
Speaking of vodka: the flight into Quito shook more than James Bond's martinis. As thoughts of crash landing in the middle of snow-covered, bitter cold, Andes Mountains raced through my head, I closely analyzed my equally terrified co-passengers to determine which one would be weakest, and therefore the first to die and be cannibalized by us survivors, a al Alive. Then, without warning, the turbulence abruptly abated, and we coasted into a nice, soft landing at Quito’s Mariscal Sucre International Airport.
Remember that whole part above about the airline’s odd reticence to issue me a boarding pass in DFW, and then getting bumped from my original flight out of Lima? Assuming so, you may not be surprised to learn that the airline lost my luggage. Yup. That beautifully functional Osprey Aether AG 70 (liter), which held virtually all of the worldly belongings I am going to need to get by for the next several months, is lost, and I haven’t so much as carried it outside of an airport.
Fortunately, I made full use of the Osprey’s detachable daypack, and used it as a carry-on for my computer, other electronics, toiletries, and a light jacket. But, suffice it say that being handed a little piece of paper and told “someone will call you within 72 hours” is not how I wanted to start my time in South America (or anyplace else, ever).
With my spirits sunk to subterranean levels, I had no choice but to get in a cab and make my way to the Airbnb I reserved.
The cab driver seemed, quite understandably, confused that his six-foot, pellirojo passenger was carrying only a small backpack.
“¿Vivas acá en Quito?” he asked.
“No,” I replied.
“¿Tienes familia en Quito?”
“No,” I moped.
¿Cuanto tiempo se quedar?”
In my broken and, to date, saddest Spanish, I explained I was here to start a months-long trip through South America, and that LATAM had lost my backpack.
“¡Ayy!” the driver exclaimed. “¡Que pena!”
“Estamos en acuerdo,” I said.
He proceeded to assure me everything would be okay, and that, if a person has to be stranded without luggage, Quito is a good place to do it, because everyone here is nice and there are lots of things to do. Looking in the rearview, I suspect he could tell by the dejected look on my face, that this was of no solace to me.
“Tranquilo,” came the oft-heard refrain of South America. “Tranquilo.”
We arrived at the Airbnb, and my host, Cecilia, greeted me warmly at the front door of her high-rise condo building. Communicating with one of her daughters via WhatsApp -- seriously, y’all, if you’re not yet using WhatsApp, you are wrong -- I’d explained earlier in the day that I’d been bumped from my flight; and, upon arriving in Quito, that my luggage had been lost. Cecilia’s warm smile ensured me from the start that, at least as long as I am a guest in her home, everything would be okay.
We took an elevator to the top floor of the building to her condo, and Cecilia gave me a quick tour, showing me my room and the facilities. By this time, I was hungry again and asked if there was any chance of someplace being open on Christmas Eve. She replied that I could likely find a sandwich or something else in the tienda just across the street. I went to my room, unloaded my gear (what little of it I have, that is), and started to head down to the store. As I did, Cecelia stopped me.
Speaking English to me for the first time (and the only time, so far), she said, “Like your mom say, don’t eat much.”
Seeing the puzzled look on my face, she explained that she, two of her daughters and one of their friends would be having Christmas dinner at 10:00 PM, and I was expected to join them.
The fact that my host invited me, a complete and total stranger, to eat Christmas dinner with her family certainly reinforced the cab driver’s declaration that the citizens of Quito are nice people. Of course, that would be a wild understatement when applied to Cecilia and her family.
I was asked to sit at the head of the table and Cecilia presented a plate of food that looked and smelled so good I wanted to weep. All seated, we feasted on homemade hallaca (a Venezuelan recipe akin to the tamales we eat in the States), polo al orno (oven-roasted chicken), and ensalada de papas (a type of potato salad, but not what anyone who is reading this in Texas is thinking of); and, of course, red wine.
Surrounded with the warmth and kindness of complete strangers, I enjoyed one of the tastiest Christmas dinners I’ve ever had. The conversation and atmosphere were equally delightful. Cecilia’s condo is decked out in full Christmas regalia and reminds me much of the decorations in the homes of my mom and aunt in Texas. We ate, and drank, and laughed; and, at least for a couple of hours, I forgot all about my backpack being lost somewhere between Austin, DFW, Lima, and Quito.
My hosts explained to me that, in most South American cultures, Christmas festivities all take place on Christmas Eve, so that everyone can rest and recover from la cruda on Christmas Day. I explained to them that, even if my backpack does show up, I am moving in with them.
Full and exhausted, I excused myself from the table and retired to my room, where l settled my brain, and enjoyed a long, long winter’s nap.
Today, I plan to roam around and do a little sight seeing, while the streets are quite and the crowds absolutely non-existent... all while wearing the same underwear I've had on for the last three days, of course. (Pro tip: invest in some Smartwool Merino wool underwear. I washed them out whilst showering yesterday, and they were smell free and dry within 10 minutes. Thanks, Mom!!)
No matter whether you are Muslim, Catholic, agnostic, atheist, or none of the above; no matter if you are surrounded by friends and family (or if you’re just going to watch Netflix and chill); no matter whether you are stuck on an airplane or in an airport; no matter if you are missing your luggage: Merry Christmas, y’all!
From Quito, with Love,