Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Back in the "real" world

Long ago and far away - this morning in Santiago, Chile - I woke to the excited chatter of students on the playground. School is back in session just outside my window. What a change from the dead quiet of past weeks! But it's a an exuberant, happy sound.

I was still without plan or inspiration. Went downstairs for breakfast, then back upstairs to log in. Maybe there would be an inspiring e-mail? There wasn't.

I felt a heavy sense of failure. (Yet, after all this, it seemed silly to consider a brief lack of direction a "failure". Still, it was difficult to dispel the emotion.) U2's song echoed through my brain: "and I still haven't found what I'm looking for..."

Facing weakness has been a perpetual challenge, and a continuing lesson in itself.

Something started me moving, packing. "I'm going to the airport. Miami. I'm going there, then drive across the U.S." (Where did this "plan" come from?) "I'll drive through New Orleans, and have a look at conditions following Katrina. I'll decompress in a land where I can understand the language." (The South???)

I had just told the clerk I needed another day, now I was telling him I'm checking out within the hour. It didn't take long to pack up. I was ready for something to move me. 11 days and $440 spent here (in this latest visit.)

I was out by noon and traveling west on Avenida Kennedy. It goes directly to the airport, a very convenient connection for those in the up-scale Las Condes district.

When I went to LAN's office last week, Jorge Nunez, laid out the steps for shipping the bike: first go to Teisa and have it packed, then to LAN to secure a flight, finally aduana to clear it through customs.

Checked in at the aduana office at the entrance to the cargo terminal. Told them I needed to go to Teisa. They sent me on through. At Teisa, I told the fellow in charge I have a motorcycle to send to the U.S.

He mumbled something and disappeared. I stood there for fifteen minutes wondering how long it would be before someone paid any attention. I went to another fellow wearing a tie. Maybe I could get a better response.

But the first one came back and waved me outside. A pallet have been placed on the ground and he told me to put my bike up on it. Soon, he had a crew working to strap it down. They weren't too experienced, but he was directly supervising.

Watched as they dropped the bike off the pallet, onto a concrete curb. A strap broke as they tightened it and the supervisor tried but couldn't prevent the bike from falling. The crunch of turn signals. No problem. The bike has seen worse.

Disconnected the battery. He asked about gasoline. I said there were about two liters (though probably more like four.) I offered to drain it, but he seemed unconcerned. Lowered the air pressure in the tires.

Took about an hour to get it strapped down, all the gear stuffed around it, padded a bit with cardboard, then wrapped in plastic. They charged about $60, less than I expected to pay. But they would only accept cash, and I didn't have enough Pesos left. Found an ATM nearby and withdrew enough funds to cover the fees.

I held back my Ortlieb bag with computer, camera, change of clothes, fleece jacket, toothpaste and brush and some water.

Took some photos of the bike, as much to document its condition prior to shipping, as to record the event for posterity.

Next, I walked a few hundred yards to LAN Chile's air cargo office. I told them I had a motorcycle all ready to ship. "It's at Teisa." The agent asked to see my papers. "Do you have a reserva?"

"A what? A reservation? No."

"This is not correct," he said pointing to the shipment number on the papers. "You need a reserva."

"Okay. How do I get one?"

After consulting others, he shook his head. "No. Teisa is fine if you're from Chile. But you imported this motorcycle from Argentina. It's not the right warehouse." It seems it has to go through customs inspection first.

"Fuck! I just paid to have it all packed up!"

But he raised his hands to halt my protest. "No problem." I showed him the clear written instructions from Jorge and told him to call Jorge. He did so.

In a very calm manner, I was instructed to go back to Teisa and this time ask for Oscar Bravo (who I had actually asked for in the first place.) Before going, he logged my shipment on their register, thus creating a "reserva". (It was that simple!)

At Teisa, Oscar was waiting for me. He gave instructions to the supervisor who had packed the bike. We would be moving it to another warehouse. A forklift picked up the bike and, as we walked ahead, it followed us to a freight-forwarding warehouse several buildings away. There, I was handed off to another gentleman. He told me to have a seat. He was going to prepare proper documentation.

Waited perhaps half an hour. At 4:00 p.m., he returned. "Listo!" The paperwork's ready. Then I was told to take the documents to a cashier for "cancelado", payment. Again, cash only. About $44 for their services. I had just enough Pesos. Okay, I was prepared to pay about $100 for packing. And it looked like they weren't going to unpack everything again.

Once the bike was received into this warehouse, LAN Cargo could start their paperwork. It took over three hours to complete! I finally had to help create a declaration, in English, that the motorcycle had been drained of gasoline to comply with "packaging regulation 900."

This little project had taken an inordinate amount of time and energy, with so many agents involved, it could not possibly have been a profitable transaction for LAN.

Spending so much time inside these offices, I enjoyed seeing how everyone greets one another with a kiss or hand-shake. When a co-worker enters the office, they make the rounds, even if it means interrupting whatever people are working on. No one is overlooked. The human acknowledgment is more important than the task.

All this time, I was becoming more anxious about securing a seat on tonight's flight to Miami. Until I was assured of the bike's shipping, however, I couldn't buy a ticket. I recognized the risk that these cargo arrangements could still stretch out a day or more, requiring my presence here in Santiago.

The agent helped me call the airlines several times, but there was confusion whether I actually had to go to the airport or whether it could be handled over the phone. He kept telling me to be patient. They were almost finished. Once that project was complete, he would help me buy the ticket. This went on for over an hour, time was running out (and seats were no doubt slipping away.)

Several times I said "I'm going to the airport. I'll be back." Each time, he urged me to stay. "Just a few minutes more." The stress was building, and this ridiculously inept bureaucracy was whittling away at my nerves.

Finally, at 6:00, he called to make a reservation. $1,345! "How much is a round-trip ticket (thinking it would be less)?" $2,200. This was almost twice as much as the fare quoted in Buenos Aires a few days ago!

I felt I had no choice.

Now that the paperwork was ready, I could pay for shipping the bike, about $750. They sent me to a cashier several buildings away - "they accept 'Visa'." When I found the cashier and handed him the documents and my card, he said "cash or checks only." But, but...

Back to LAN. This time, the agent escorted me to the cashier. There was a second cashier window that did accept credit cards. (Why couldn't the first cashier say "the other window takes credit cards". But no, all he can say is "cash or check only." This is so typical. People can't think beyond the end of their noses.)

Next, I was escorted to a gate leading out to the tarmac, where we had to deliver a copy of the airway bill.

The young fellow there turned out to be an asshole looking for a problem. It didn't take long for him to find something. "This document needs to have a warehouse phone number. I can't accept it." He handed the papers back.

We started to walk back to the freight-forwarding warehouse to obtain this information, when I remembered I had a receipt with the number. The young man was clearly annoyed that we had found such a quick solution. Jerk.

I asked my escort "what's his problem?" I don't think he understood me.

I was finally starting to relax, as everything seemed to be working. But the fare was killing me. I realized later the "impatience penalty" I was paying could have bought me another week in Santiago, while awaiting a lower-cost flight.

For all the trouble, I was still surprised that everything was wrapped up today, especially in comparison with the Buenos Aires fiasco.

After seven hours, I walked over to the passenger terminal. I had another three hours until boarding.

For a large city, the Santiago airport is quite compact and easy to walk around. Though the terminal was not particularly crowded, check-in was excruciatingly slow. I couldn't understand it.

Time to feed the animal. At an airport bar, bought a sandwich and beer. The ubiquitous Telefonica offers wi-fi in the terminals, no doubt with registration required. But LAN offers free "no questions" service in the same area. The wi-fi war! Spent my last Pesos, leaving Chile with 45 Centavos.

The smokers here! It's such a socially-acceptable habit, which will have this nation paying serious consequences in the years to come. It's like 1950s America, where, a generation is now dying from smoking-related illness.

In the airport, I'm sickened by the sight of yet another new market created by the plastic film producers: stretch-wrapping luggage. Somehow, somebody created a need, and we have yet another way to waste resources. "9-11" appears to have been the catalyst. With only our heavy-duty lockable nylon bags and indestructible Samsonite, how did we ever get by before plastic film wrap?

Our jet tonight, a nice Boeing 767-300. Window seat (though the flight would be all nighttime.)

It was a sold-out flight, and some seats were even sold twice! It took quite a while to resolve the confusion and get people settled in. Still, we departed on time, around 10:30 p.m.

Once in the air, I could finally make some sense of the Santiago geography. Despite all the hassles of airports, security, long waits, etc., I love flying. It never ceases to amaze me that humans can sail aluminum cans through the ether at mind-boggling speeds. And live to tell about it.

An eight-hour flight to Miami, almost straight north. Several hours into it, we plunged through a storm front. Off to the east, lightning flashed, illuminating the clouds above some dark landmass, probably Colombia.

There was a sadness that I would be missing what's down there on the ground. The roads winding through a myriad of villages. The colors, the smells, the uncomfortable strangeness of it all. Above, I could tell by a few bright stars, the Northern Hemisphere constellations were rising, the Southern Hemisphere stars lowering behind.

I may have dozed off, but didn't sleep much. Mind busy, buzzing with fleeting thoughts, body uncomfortable, being unused to such confinement.

Out of the darkness, we were suddenly over a large city. It must have been Panama City. Not long after, an island, I figured was Cuba. In the vast darkness, to see small clusters of lights below, is really remarkable. It seems there is nowhere on the surface of this planet that is beyond the reach of humans.

At about 3:30, the cabin lights came on. Time for breakfast! With 45 minutes left to go, a map appeared on the video monitors. We were directly over Cuba. The last island must have been Jamaica.

The view approaching Miami, a REAL American city: an almost perfect grid! Brilliantly-lighted highways and boulevards stretched in straight lines off to the horizon. It's so simple!

We landed about 4:40 a.m. I had been in this airport once before, but had forgotten what a sprawling complex this is. It's about a half-mile hike from the gate to customs! It's cold in the terminal, the air conditioning on full blast, I think.

I was immediately struck by how nice people are! Friendly and helpful. If you look like you have a question, they don't avoid you. They actually ask "can I help you?" And yet I it was as if I never left Santiago. "Everyone's" speaking Spanish!

A simple processing through customs, the officials bright and cheery (at 5:00 a.m.!)

Starbucks: $6.50 for coffee and muffin. Ouch.

The convenience of a hotel information desk is a luxury. Pick up the phone and call any one of about 30 hotels for free! (I try to imagine how difficult it might be if I weren't English-speaking. Is it only because I speak the language that everything seems so much easier? Or is it really that different?)

Pricing out hotels, I'm in for a shock: the Holiday Inn Express is $179! No vacancies though. I worked down the list. A Day's Inn - Airport North advertises $59 rates and free internet. Of course, they "don't have any left at that rate." But even the $79 I was quoted sounded like a bargain. I made a reservation.

By 6:00 the airport is filling up. I enjoy the activity. Despite the layers of inconvenience and bureaucracy, I still enjoy the excitement of travel, even when I'm not the one traveling.

Out at the curb, I asked about a taxi: $14.00 for the ten-minute ride to the hotel. I would rather wait half an hour for a scheduled shuttle.

The taxi and shuttle drivers don't understand me, and I don't understand them. For me, it's nothing new. The Cuban Spanish is different from any I've heard. It will take time to adjust!

The Days Inn turned out to be a dreary, aging hotel with perfumed stale air. They gave away the room I thought I had reserved, and another wouldn't be available until 9:00. But their only internet turned out to be a coin-operated lobby computer! I was annoyed at being "suckered", but quickly got over it. Decided to go back to airport and start over, but outside I spotted a Holiday Inn Express and Comfort Inn up the road. The Holiday Inn had one room for $109 plus 13% tax. That was their "best rate."

The hotel was a (remodeling) construction zone, but I didn't want to fight. I could check in early and help myself to their breakfast buffet. I'm back in the land of abundance: cinnamon rolls, bagels and cream cheese, cereals, fruit, juice, coffee, etc. My impulse, of course, is to "stuff" myself.

In the room, a sign acknowledges that guests may want to take a souvenir of their visit and provides a price list for the various items: towels, wash cloth, shower mat, ice bucket, remote control, etc. $50 per item, to be added to your bill.


Rested for several hours.

Outside again at 3:00 p.m. Incredible weather: sunny cool (low 70s) and a fresh breeze. I see why people love it here!

And then, the perpetual question: "now what?"

Definitely New Orleans.

Then there's the South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) in Austin starting March 14th (though I've just learned it's more of a music and film convention and costs over $500 for a pass to the music venues.)

Guy Le Roux has extended an invitation to re-visit Corpus Christi.

And the great American Southwest offers some of the best riding country anywhere.

Back to airport to exchange currency and look for a U.S. Road Atlas (and because it's convenient hub for buses out to other locations.)

Exchanged currency from seven countries for $276, a lousy rate I'm sure, but it was expeditious.

The Miami Airport is a wild, colorful place! A unique crossroads. I can think of no other place quite like it.

Stopped at one of the airport restaurants for a bagel and soda. The foul-tasting fountain Coca-Cola reminded me I'm "back in the land" of chlorinated water.

Unable to find the atlas, outside the airport I caught a city bus bound for one of the local malls.

My sense of direction is back on track with the sun where it should be.

It took 1-1/2 hours to make the five-mile journey to the Miami International Mall. I was told this was the premier mall in the area. No book stores. Nothing of interest. (It's a Simon Mall - the two I'm now familiar with seem dying properties.)

On the mall's perimeter, I went to La Carreta Cuban Cuisine restaurant, interested in seeing what this Cuban food was all about. The building had the stale grease smell of restaurants with inadequate sanitation practices. Jerked beef, white bean soup, rice and beans. The food was good but the $20 price, exorbitant.

Back in the "land of plenty", I just want to eat, eat, eat! And here, we make it so easy to do just that!

Walked to the Dolphin Mall a mile or so further. It's a huge outlet mall and entertainment center, and appeared much more popular than the International. (I wonder if the message is getting through that these are the type of malls people prefer and the old "retail" malls are a dying breed?)

And I'm "back in the land" of cars and cell phones. If you don't have a car, or a cell phone, you're in trouble. The infrastructure is now "assuming" people have both. Payphones are relatively rare now. Sidewalks don't exist on the roads I was walking. Why would they? Everyone has a car!

On the ride out to the first mall, the bus driver took three calls on his cell phone. On foot later, I was trying to cross a street as a cement truck was making a jerky attempt to turn. I saw the driver steering with one hand, the other holding his cell phone. We are becoming ever more distracted by our technology.

What if airline pilots were on their cell phones (maybe they are), talking to friends and family. Would we tolerate that?

("Dear, could you hold a moment? We've nearing the end of the runway and I just need to get this baby off the ground.")

People with things hanging out of their ears, with phones on leashes around their necks. (Do they have phones yet you can wear while swimming?) God forbid, we should be out of contact for ten minutes.

At Dolphin Mall I was amazed at the vitality. This is a "happening place". (And someone had said "it's just an outlet mall. The Miami International Mall is the best." Wrong.)

Among my top priorities was getting some new jeans. At the Levi's outlet, I finally bought some pants ("irregulars") after beginning a search for them in Costa Rica six months ago! ("Irregulars" cost more here than "regulars" in California, about $35 a pair.) These and a couple t-shirts from the Polo store for $10 each. I feel like a new man.

The "shopping clock" ran out, as I wanted to catch the last bus back to the airport at 8:00 p.m.

I waited at the bus stop, but the bus I wanted didn't show, so at 8:15 I took another, which turned out to be a much more direct one, going right past my hotel. The $1.50 fare is not cheap. Service for the overlooked in our population is slow, ponderous and not very convenient. Urban sprawl really works against the disadvantaged. I guess I should be thankful there is even a service.

It took just under an hour to get back to the hotel (about 5 miles.)

A first quarter moon right overhead.

Already missing the REAL South!

Turning on the TV, I suddenly realize the months of deprivation I've endured, without the vital insights of intellectual giants Bill O'Reilly and Hannity and Colmes.

And I hadn't heard a traffic report in six months!

And the endless weather reporting!

How did I survive out there???

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