A recent hikerchat prompted a few conversations about how to handle difficult and unpredicted situations while traveling. For some unknown reason; the majority of my airport debacles have taken place in Florida – thankfully always on the return leg of the trip.The layover in Miami while on route to Cusco Peru was the first time I had ever flown into Florida – I’ve driven there 3 times, but never previously arrived by air. All went according to plan: I left Newark, NJ, arrived in Miami, sat around for a few hours, got my flight to Lima, hung out for a few more hours, and finally connected to Cusco without any issues. While in South America I traveled by many different means – taxis, busses, trains, a Land Cruiser, and the amazing veggie oil powered diesel Volkswagen Rabbit that Elizabeth and Brady had driven there from the states. The only transportation “issue” we had was that whole bus/boat thing (you can read about that here).
The trouble started after completing our three day overland trip through Salar de Uyuni. You see, I made a huge mistake while traversing the salt desert (stay tuned for a future post), and wasn’t feeling well enough to take the final 10 hour bus ride to Santa Cruz to get the first flight of my journey home. After talking it through with Elizabeth, I purchased a plane ticket from Cochabamba to Santa Cruz, to get my flight the next day back to Miami.
I said my goodbyes to Brady and Elizabeth, walked out to the small prop plane on the runway, and was on my very long way home. I landed safely in Santa Cruz and had to walk outside to a different part of the airport for international departing flights. This part of the airport wasn’t open yet, so I sat myself outside and just hung out. As I was finally checking in, the attendant told me that I would have to check my backpack (I had been on 6 flights with this pack and never been asked to check it). After a few unhelpful attempts, I took what I needed and reluctantly checked it.
I had a few hours to kill, so I found a bench and started to read. As boarding time neared, I heard an announcement that my flight had been delayed, I had a two hour layover in Miami, so I wasn’t too worried. After about an hour of waiting the gate was announced and we were allowed to enter the boarding area. We were then told it would be a little longer, yet. I found an attendant who informed me that they had already moved my connecting flight out of Miami because there was no way I’d make it. Well at least I won’t have to worry when I get to Miami I thought.
We were delayed again on the runway, but I finally left Bolivia, several hours late, and was headed to Miami. By the time we landed I had already missed the rescheduled flight, and would have to find a different flight back to New Jersey. I grabbed my stuff, went through customs, and searched for someone to help me get home.
I found the airline counter, and after a few minutes of pleading with the man who said he could not help me because this was a departures counter for a different flight, he stopped, looked at me, leaned over the counter, and said: “where’s your bag?”
I was confused and replied: “I don’t know, on its way to New Jersey?” He laughed, loudly, without even trying to stifle it, and told me my bag was probably already being destroyed if I didn’t get it before leaving customs. He told me I was on my own, and that there were no flights into Newark until the following day (I found it hard to believe, but I had bigger problems).
Having never checked a bag for a connecting international flight; I had no idea I was supposed to get it, and re-check it for the second flight. I assumed it would have met me in Newark.
I panicked, called my girlfriend (now wife), and told her what happened. She agreed to look for another flight for me, and told me to go back to customs to talk to someone else to try and get my bag.
I went inside, and found a super nice, super helpful woman who felt bad for me. She was able to sweet talk me back into customs, against all policies, to locate my bag. My heart leapt as I saw the green Northface bag still spinning on the carousel. I grabbed the pack and she escorted me back to the customs officers.
I put the bag on the counter, stood up straight, handed the officer my passport, and tried to answer the questions as honestly as possible. I know that exceptions were just made for me, and I wanted to make sure this went well. The officer was drilling me about why I was in South America, why my sister was still there, and why I didn’t get my bag the first time I went through customs. I thought I was doing well until the next round of questions…
Are you transporting any food or vegetables?
Are you bringing back any soil samples?
I froze, not knowing how to correctly answer the question. I was sure if he dumped my bag out on the table (and I thought he might), there wound undoubtably be a huge pile of dirt. Not wanting to lie, I said very seriously: “my clothes are really dirty, sir.”
As he put his hand on his sidearm, I realized that wasn’t the right answer. He told me to stop being a smartass and answer the question.
“No sir”, I said, and I was on my way. I thanked the woman who helped me, read the text from Michelle about a flight into Philadelphia, and once again found my “friend” at the counter. Seeing my bag, he was a little more helpful this time – I think he was just curious. He was able to get me on the flight, which started boarding five minutes later, from a terminal on the other side of the airport. I grabbed the boarding pass, and my bag, and ran across the airport to make the flight into Philly. I made the flight, and vowed to never fly through Florida again.
Fast forward three years to Michelle and I planning our honeymoon. After our original plan of a Portland OR honeymoon fell through – we decided to go to Key West. Neither of us were really looking for a tropical type honeymoon, but looking back, it was a really awesome trip – I’ll have to work on that post about the hound fish. I said I would go to Florida, but I would not fly into Miami – and we would drive through the keys after landing – I thought it would be a cool drive, and didn’t want any layovers.
The trip down to Key West was without a problem: we flew into Ft. Lauderdale, rented a car and drove to Key West. The drive through the keys was great, and I’m glad we did it, but if we ever return it will be by boat. While there we took taxis, Jeep Trains (read about them here), kayaks, and a rented moped for a few hours one day.
When our trip was over, we rented a car to drive back to Ft. Lauderdale. We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to get checked in for our flight. We checked the big bag we had taken with us and made our way to security. Michelle went through the body scanner and was told she could put her shoes back on. As I exited the scanner, a TSA agent pulled me to the side near the x-ray conveyor belt that my bag had not yet come out on.
“Is this your bag?” (pointing to the image on the screen)
“Yes sir, it is”
“Come with me please”
I shot a look to Michelle to make sure she saw what was going on as the agent showed me an image of the scan of my bag and asked me to identify an object.
With flashbacks to Miami I answered: “That’s soap sir.”
“Yes sir, soap” I said.
He picked up my bag as if it were full of explosives capable of leveling the airport. I stood very still, and remained calm. He carefully placed it on a table, unzipped it, wiped some kind of alcohol pad on the inside, then proceeded to carefully pull out the brown paper Starbucks bag that contained the two bars of ‘fancy soap’ that Michelle bought at a boutique shop the day before. He removed the bars from the bag, and examining them for a minute. He informed me that they were going to run my bag through the scanner again, and if all went ok, they would let me go. Thankfully, the bag cleared. Michelle and I boarded the plane and got home safely.
I might give Florida one last chance, Orlando maybe? But if that goes poorly I may just give up on flying in or out of the sunshine state for good.
Each of the agents in my two encounters were not at fault and were simply doing their jobs – but sometimes I feel like Florida doesn’t want me to leave.