Saturday, September 17, 2011

Planes, Tour Buses, and Taxis: I've Arrived!

Yesterday, I took off on another adventure to South America. This time I will be visiting the countries of Argentina and Peru. I am really lucky to have an awesome employer that works in Latin America and is willing to send their employees all over the world to learn and share their skills. That is exactly what I will be doing over the next two and a half weeks. But first, let me tell you the story of how I got here.

Yesterday morning, my Dad was very kind to drop me off at SeaTac airport to begin this journey. I was on time and everything was good. I definitely had my apprehensions about the trip. This one involved so many more travel logistics than the last one to Chile and my Spanish speaking hasn't improved dramatically over the last two weeks. If only it worked that way. I said a couple prayers to get me started that everything would work out alright. I prayed that my flights would be on time as well as the flights of the others that I would be meeting up with once I landed in Buenos Aires.

At this point in writing, I have traveled non stop for 36 hours. That includes four plane rides, two taxi rides, and two bus rides. I've never done this kind of traveling before, especially on my own. It is exhausting. It took tolls on me physically, but psychologically as well. My brain was paying attention every step of the way as to the logistics of where I should be, the timing to plan for where I needed to go, and the discipline of keeping myself calm in situations that were stressful. It was a test I was up for in order to get to this beautiful place.

My first stop took me to Chicago. I had just 45 minutes to deboard and change to the next flight from there. Luckily, the next gate wasn't too far off once we landed. My second stop took me to Miami, Florida. The sun was setting as we flew in, it was quite nice. However, the minute I got off the plane and looked for my next flight, the gate number was no where to be seen. How could I be lost in the Miami airport of all places? I was calm though, I had about an hour before my next flight started boarding. But ten minutes turned into twenty minutes of roaming and still nothing. So I finally had to ask someone. Where the heck is Gate J? They told me, I had to go outside of the airport, back into the international side, recheck my bags, and proceed to my gate. What!? I was down to about a half hour at this point. I quickly picked up the pace, bolted out of there, added a little skip to my step, and started on my way. It took me awhile and I had to go out into the humid Florida air. I was sweaty and a little on edge as I made it into the international area, but quickly made it through security, even with puffy hair. Once on the other side of security, I walked to the gate and had just enough time to go to the bathroom and make a few last minute calls before use of my cell phone would be off limits because of international roaming charges.

One thing I can mention that I really liked about my flight from Miami to Buenos Aires was the service. I flew LAN Airlines. The plane was new, there was lots of room for luggage (I took carry on luggage on all my flights), the flight attendants were nice, and I got to watch free movies and TV. They fed us well. Dinner was served on real plates and with real silverware! Everyone got little flute glasses filled with wine. This was a perk I wasn't expecting! I was also able to sit next to someone from Belize who was traveling to Argentina to give a thesis presentation. I am really glad I met him because once we landed we walked together through the various steps of entering the country.

Like Chile, Argentina was really easy to enter. I had to pay $140 fee (because that is what the US charges people entering from Argentina) and then I got my passport stamped. When we went through security, they didn't even take our customs forms. Very strange. Otherwise, I've been properly documented.

This is where the fun part begins. It is at this point in my story that I plan to meet with two coworkers traveling from Boston. Once I exit the airport into the main entrance area, we determined it was my job to track down the taxi driver holding a sign with our names on it. I did one sweep and nothing. Keep in mind, there are hundreds of people walking around and about thirty different taxi drivers at any one moment holding up name cards. Some of them completely suck too. They definitely didn't have the viewer in mind. Imagine looking for your name from afar on a piece of notebook paper written with a fine tip pen? After my initial unsuccessful sweep, I decided it would be wise to check up on the arriving flights to make sure my coworker friends were not far behind. I browsed the airport arrival reader and all the flights are on time, except the last one: DELAYED from Dalles/Fort Worth. It was displayed on their so bright like it was laughing and pointing fingers at me. Grah! This whole trip, this was the one part I was counting on to go smoothly, so I could have peace of mind traveling the rest of the way and now a major glitch. How would I get a hold of them? Who could I get a hold of? Why didn't I ask them for their cell phone numbers? Why didn't they have mine? Should I wait for them and miss my next flight? What was I going to do!?

As you can see the questions in my head were flooding in. I walked around again and again and finally at a quarter to nine I gave up. My next task was to figure out how to get from the International Airport in Buenos Aires to the Domestic Airport, some 45 minutes away. I wasn't sure if the taxi driver was coming, but I decided before I arranged my own taxi I would check my email to see if anyone at work had sent an update since we didn't exchange phone numbers (which is just silly). I talked to the friendly lady at the information desk to ask about wireless. No wireless she said, but you can use the communications center off to the right. Luckily, before I left the baggage area, I turned in twenty five US dollars for 90 Argentina pesos. That was all the cash I had to exchange. I learned they don't take credit cards to do the money exchange. A good thing to keep in mind for all future trips! I was feeling uneasy that 90 pesos wasn't going to cut it for my travels, but I didn't really know what was ahead of me.

I managed to get online, a half hour of internet for 5 pesos. I thought, surely my work friends will get a hold of me with an update there. Sure enough they did. Their flight was canceled and they were flying the next day. Now it was even more apparent that I needed to get to the other airport and travel the rest of the way on my own. My next flight now was less than two hours away. I wanted to respond to them them through email so they knew what I was up to, but my gmail account would not let me log in for a reason I blame on the communications center. My work email wasn't allowing me to send emails either. How frustrating! A little panicked, I was able to find the Patagonia Program Director's cell phone in his email that he offered in case I needed to call. That was my lifeline. Next step, figure out how to call. The ladies at the communications center were really helpful. I must of said thank you a dozen times for all their help. The cell phone number was like twenty characters long and I had no idea how to dial to reach him. Thankfully, I was able to reach him on just the second try and he told me where to go to get a taxi. Sure enough, I was able to get a taxi (after waiting for twenty more minutes as my next flight got even closer and after a big disappointment: the pop machine took my money for some much needed water). Anyway, I was off. And boy was I. The taxi driver I had buzzed through Buenos Aires like it was nobody's business. He flew by car after car. At one point I thought, this is just not safe. And my other thought, sweet I just might make it!

He dropped me off at the Domestic Airport with an hour and fifteen minutes to spare before the flight I've been trying so hard to reach departed to Esquel. Entering yet another new airport, I had to determine where to check in. The kiosks were not too hard to find. First step, not so smooth. The instructions were not in English this time and after guessing a couple times I was rejected from the system. At this point, I was feeling like the actors on the reality show Rat Race, and had to stop a moment and think of my next strategic step. The minutes are quickly ticking by and I have no time to go stand in the airline's check in counter. The line was simply too long. Thank goodness I still had carry on baggage so I could skip the long lines. There was a really nice old man sitting on a chair patiently next to me so I kindly asked him if he spoke English and could help me. He shook his head no and said he didn't know how to work the machines. I must of gave him the poor look of helplessness because in no time he got up and started helping me. He still didn't know how to do it, but he said, wait right here I will be back and he ran off into the mass of people. Then he came back through the crowd with his wife and son so they could help me. Wasn't that nice!? I thanked them again profusely. There were so many nice people helping me along the way.

I found my way to the gate after going through another round of security. And, wouldn't you believe it, you don't even have to take your laptop out, or liquids, or remove your shoes for these security lines. I couldn't decide if that made me feel happy or not? Regardless, I was in. I once again had just enough time to go to the bathroom, grab my much needed drink, and head to the gate. Boarding the plane involved riding a bus to stairs everyone would climb to board the plane. I climbed the stairs, gave Buenos Aires a presidential wave, and plopped into my seat so exhausted by that ordeal of events. But it was daylight, I had a window seat, and I could at least relax for two hours before figuring out how to connect the rest of the dots of my trip. Flying over Buenos Aires was amazing. It is a huge city on the water. As the city became less dense, agriculture fields abounded for miles, before the landscape looked more and more desolate. I imagined wild horses and Argentinian cowboys riding through the shrub and grasslands I was seeing stretch out before me. Not too long after that I saw the majestic snowy peaks of the Andes Mountains. Landing in Esquel was absolutely beautiful. It is hard to describe. Parts of it reminded me of eastern Washington, where the forests become drier and eventually disappear to sage brush.

The airport in Esquel is so tiny. There is one little building and the fact that they even had a luggage belt made me smile. The lady I sat next to on the plane, helped me to coordinate the next stage of my trip. About four months ago a huge volcano erupted near the town of Bariloche where I was headed so the airport was closed. This left one option, a four hour bus ride from Esquel to Bariloche. The thing was, I didn't have a ticket for the bus. I did the week before, but the airline called and told me the connection time between the flight and the bus wasn't long enough. This I will never understand, because the connection time was less than five minutes. It was literally a hundred or so feet. The buses were parked in the lot outside the little airport and there was not another building in site. I talked to a LAN flight representative and he told me to just get on one of the buses, so that is what I did. Free of charge.

The bus ride was on one of the prettiest stretches of highway I think I've ever been on, and that is saying something. The desert brush and grasslands seen in Esquel turned gradually into forests and mountain passes. Snowy peaks disappeared and reappeared again as we undulated by on the road beside them. Large tranquil lakes reflected their images and the evening light made the their rocks at their summits look sharp and dramatic. I saw trees I've never seen, birds that were completely new, and vast stretches of landscape that not a one person lived on. It was beautiful! Patagonia became alive to me.

Once to Bariloche, the bus dropped us off at the closed airport. Now there was just one more dot left of this journey, finding a taxi ride to my hotel in Bariloche knowing I only had 55 pesos. I knew having few pesos would come back to haunt me. The taxi driver that I picked, didn't speak English, but we managed to communicate the fact of how much money I had and how much I needed, a difference of about 12 pesos. I got in the car anyway and he drove me on my way. Remembering I had ten dollars stashed away in my little emergency kit, I felt good about the rest of the trip. He dropped me off at my hotel in Bariloche, I paid him, and the minute I checked in I had a phone call waiting from the front desk from the Program Director I talked to earlier in the day. He was checking up on me and it just so happens it was the very second I walked in the door. Good timing. I had arrived. I did it on my own and with the help of lots of kind strangers.

I am thankful for the events of today. I may of spent the last 36 hours traveling, but I am in an amazing part of the world. Somewhere I never thought I'd ever get the chance the visit. For all the stress I endured, I also became more confident in my abilities to problem solve, communicate in Spanish, and travel in unfamiliar places. I am looking forward to my next week and a half here. I am excited to finally meet up with my coworkers and explore this unique area of South America.

Now, time for some sleep! Below are some pics I snapped from the tour bus on the way to Bariloche. Nicer pictures to come!


  1. Very nice Erica. Aren't you glad you had some experience in Chile before traveling to Argentina. I got very familiar with the buses and taxis while in Chile. Just wait until you find yourself on one of the mom/pop run buses that the only why you know where they are going is by the sign in the window, they run on their own schedule and there really isn't a formal stop to catch them. You have to ask the locals where the stop is. btw on those buses you pay once you're on the bus based on how far you're traveling. Argentina might be different. That was my experience in Chile. For helping out with communication I actually had phrases to common question written out in advance so even if I couldn't speak it, usually people were literate enough to understand what I was asking. I"m totally envious of your travels, have a great time!

  2. Wow that's quite a story. You're amazing for traveling to this foreign place all on your own. Enjoy your time and relax now that you're there, in what sounds like a beautiful place! Can't wait to hear more stories.

  3. Thank you guys! I am having a blast. So blessed to have this opportunity and so glad I am able to share it with you.