So we all know that misery looooves company. Whether it is a traffic jam on I-66, a blocked Holland Tunnel, or “Weather Challenged” drivers that freak out at the mere mention of the frosty stuff – sometimes getting around requires Herculean amounts of patience and perseverance. When it comes to air travel, it can be worse. Tack on International air travel, and the stakes get higher. Now imagine trying to complete a roundtrip from a third world country to the states in under 48 hours. I just barely barely managed, and in doing so, believe I earned a Ph.D. in Advanced International Air Travel.
First things first- get your essential checklist in order: cellphone, charger, passport, credit card, cash. Everything else can be managed, bought, or shipped eventually. Be sure to wait until the last minute book your ticket. This way the tickets are much more expensive and the seating limited. It almost guarantees you’ll get the only seat that doesn’t recline. I really like catching the first flight out. Let’s say the 0600 if you go domestic, or 0700 internationally. This means getting to airport by at least 0500. So do the math: 30 minutes to the airport, minus time to wait for a cab, hit the snooze button, hopefully brush hair & teeth, and quick swipe of deodorant. So you set the alarm for 0345. Double check that it is set for AM and not like what I did which was 3:45PM. Luckily Ahab had his backup alarm set for 0400. It’s also super helpful to have one extra gin & tonic the night before so you wake up at 0200 to take Tylenol, and then toss and turn worrying you will oversleep until approximately 12 minutes before the actual alarm is supposed to go off. Side Note: Extra under eye concealer is added to my essential list for early morning flight.
As an American returning to the US, immigration and customs are not too much of a challenge. I was however greeted by a nice German Shepherd on the jetway as the plane’s doors were opened. Lucky for me, I was only traveling with empty bags, a comb, and toothbrush (plus obviously my essentials). My quick turn around was a total success. I was able to spend a really nice time with my folks, collect our mail, various supplies and parts, and most importantly, BIG BLUE. The Whomper made it out of reconstructive surgery and back from Germany in the nick of time. The next challenge was to get her back into Panama…
After using all of Gramma Sheesh’s gallon ziplock bags to repackage six boxes of tampons, 400 packets of Emergen-Cs, various oil filters, water filters, zincs, alternator belts, 5 pairs of Keens (you get the idea), I managed to get everything stuffed into two checked and two carry-on bags, plus a really nifty grocery cart, that folds up like a stroller. Popeye had me dropped off at Miami International Airport (key word: International) almost four hours before my 7pm flight back to Panama City. Plenty of time, no traffic, empty airport, zero lines at checkin (I guess everybody was getting the Super Bowl parties going).
I strolled leisurely up to the check-in of a certain airline. (I hate to name names, but let’s just say it rhymes with “Bamerican Bairlines”).
“Where are you heading today?” she smiled.
“Back to Panama, thanks” was my reply. Her fingers blazed across the keyboard at supersonic speed (what are they typing anyway?). And now the fun begins.
“Hummph” the agent exhaled as a scowl slowly spread across her brow. “I can’t check you in.”
“Hmmm. Really? What seems to be the problem?” Sweat beginning to line my underwire bra.
“Well, as a US Citizen, you can’t purchase a round trip ticket that originates in a foreign country.” she replied with a confused twitch.
“Gee, I don’t think that’s the case, because I did buy a round trip ticket originating from Panama and came in yesterday.” Oh Man- this could be a problemo. The real issue here is that the airlines are not supposed to let US folks travel to a foreign country without a ticket back to the US. I get it. I tried to explain to the ticket agent that I was crew on sailboat, and would be departing Panama via boat. Cue the look of confusion….and then, “Hmmmm….let me see if I can find a manager.”
“Great. Thank you so much. I’m sure we can figure this out.” The key here is to breathe, relax, be nice, and have patience. It was really helpful that I didn’t OJ it into the airport with an hour until take off. Another agent came to her aid, and was able to comprehend the immigration issue, but now I gotta get BIG BLUE into the belly of beast. While she was not overweight (just 48lbs), technically she was “oversized”: Really no different than say a surfboard, skis, or set of golf clubs. However, in the agent’s drop down list of athletic gear, there was not an option for “Catamaran Downwind Parasail”. Again this required some “out of the box” thinking by my team of ticket agents. Eventually we all agreed that The Whomper most closely resembled a kite board sail, so BIG BLUE got a berth aboard Flight 959 to Panama City. “Thank you Mrs. Moseley. You will be departing from Gate D7, boarding at 6:10pm, and can head through the TSA screening over to your left.”
I gathered my small backpack and computer satchel, along with the handy dandy grocery cart that collapses up and looks like stroller. My plan was to just gate check the cart, no big deal. So I thought. I was wrong.
To quote an unnamed friend, “You know what the best part about Miami is? It’s so close to the United States.” So sometimes even in the good ole US of A, there can be language barriers. I hablo poquito espanole (I definitely cannot write or spell in Spanish either), but I can usually get my point across without offending anyone too badly.
The very nice, hard working abuelita who was guarding the entrance to TSA line, saw me and shook her finger. “No. Tres. Solo Dos. Go back to the counter.” I gathered she saw my two bags and the cart, and counted three. Uggggghhh. Well, lucky for me, the backpack was not filled to the brim, and Patagonia must be really smart, because the computer satchel fit fine inside the the now overstuffed back. So I was down to one backpack and my foldable grocery cart. Back to Abuelita, the GateKeeper of Miami TSA.
“No. Go back to gate. No Baby, No Stroller.”
“I don’t have a baby. This a cart for carrying groceries.” I also tried saying that in Spanish, however I fear it may have come out more like, “No Stroller, I ate my baby.” Why did I take Latin in high school? So now I am at an impasse with Abuelita. Must think quickly and change gears. Since, Abuelita did not seem to get the whole grocery cart concept, I decided to switch tactics.
“I’m going to get my baby” I pleaded.
“No baby, no stroller,” she replied.
Now I’m just going for the Hail Mary, “No you don’t understand. I’m flying to Panama to pick up my adopted baby and I need to bring this stroller with me.” That should do the trick.
By some unknown chance, just at that moment when I was pouring on the sad, bold lie, an English speaking TSA agent came to help. He overheard that last doozy of a tale, and replied, “Hold on, let me see what I can do.”
I’m thinking, “Great!”, and then suddenly breakout into a cold sweat. What if they ask to see these purported adoption papers for my make believe Panamanian orphan? It’s just a freaking grocery cart! What can possibly be so hard to understand? Unfortunately, I’ve really gotten myself down the rabbit-hole, so I tried to remain calm and not panic, as the new TSA fella got on the phone with his supervisor. Not only am I going to get my super sweet grocery stroller confiscated, I’m thinking I’ll be arrested for trying to abduct and import stolen South American babies.
Lucky for me, the grocery cart, and any unknown Panamanian adoptees, the supervisor made the exception without further investigation. I breezed through the rest of the screening unfazed, but grateful I got up early enough to have put on deodorant. By the time I got to the gate, I still had plenty of time to write & post a blog (insert link), as well as get a 45 minute table massage. (Definitely worth getting to the airport early in Miami if you’re leaving from the D concourse. Marlene was a healer for sure.)
Due to the fact that it was Super Bowl Sunday and Carnival, our flight was barely half-full with just thirty-eight passengers. I had plenty of room to stow my grocery stroller and two carry-ons, thank you very much. We were all packed and ready go well before our departure time,the crew & captain in good spirits, just going through the final pre-flight checks, and we would push back from the gate. Whoops, there seems to be an error light on one of the redundant systems. No problem, it’s probably just a sensor or computer glitch, we’ll double check and be on our way shortly. OK, it’s not just a glitch – they need to replace a part, so the maintenance will have to run back to the hanger. Shouldn’t be more than a 15-30 minute delay…Sorry folks, we’ve decided this is taking too long, so we going to disembark and put y’all on another plane. Just head down D concourse, and take the SkyTrain to the other side of D Conourse, Gate D36. I really didn’t care. I would much rather be delayed and moved to an alternate plane, than fly in something that needed new parts. I was getting updates on the Superbowl, and the Donkeys were already up 0 points. No problem.
After the migration across the D Concourse and re-boarding, the crew, captain, and passengers all seemed to be settled in just fine without any real complaints. We just needed wait for the catering truck to bring over the food and drinks from our old plane. Forty-five minutes later, we were still waiting. Folks were getting bit crabby, but just as the grumbling grew louder, a drink cart was delivered rapidly down the isle. Alrighty then, let’s get this show on the road – just two hours late. Then the flight attendant came forward and informed the captain that they delivered an empty food/beverage cart. Seriously, I can’t make this up. It only took another hour to get some ice and sodas delivered. Luckily we pushed back from the gate about four minutes after we were supposed to land in Panama.
Dinner on board was lovely. Pasta purse filled with cheese, served with marinara, a salad, and two chewy chocolate chip cookies for dessert. We landed in Panama City at 0100. I think the Captain was a Navy Man, ‘cause he slammed that sucker down doing what felt like 500 knots. After I plucked my fingernails out of the arm rest, I gathered up my stroller grocery cart, bags and approached the final phase: Panamanian Immigration and Customs.
Luckily, it was so late when we arrived, the nice lady at Immigration didn’t even say a word, and just stamped me in, no questions asked. Made it to baggage claim, and BIG BLUE was one of the first bags to come off, followed by my giant duffel filled with supplies and parts. Many countries make a pretty good haul on taxing imported goods. Panama is no exception, and I was worried they would not understand my situation. So here’s a weird thing in Panama, just before checking out through customs and leaving the airport, your bags all have to go through another x-ray screening. I placed the computer bag, backpack, stroller cart, duffel, and finally BIG BLUE into the radiation tunnel as the Customs agent rubbed his bleary eyes. Then he rubbed them again, pointed at his screen, and motioned for me to come over. Shit. Clearly visible on the screen was the metal ring of the Starboard tack of the parasailor. Obviously that was not clear to him.
“What is this? he questioned.
In my kindest, least tired and grumpy calm voice I replied, “Oh, that is a sail, and its attachment point.”
“Yes, a sail. for my sailboat.”
“Is it a new sail?”
“No sir, an old sail. I took it home to be repaired.” (Seriously Dude – I can prove it, just read the blog!)
“Hmmm. We need to open it up.” For those of you not familiar with what “opening up” a 189 square meter sail looks like – or better yet, trying to then cram it all back in the bag – just imagine trying to get the toothpaste back in the tube. Needless to say, the agent accepted that I was not transporting contraband in the sail bag. Unfortunately he then thought it best to go through all the bags in detail.
“Yes sir, these are 396 tampons, 400 packets of Vitamin C supplements, 15 flags for all the countries we will be visiting (he didn’t like the flags for some reason), two siphon kits….” By now I have a puddle forming in the bra. The questioning only continued for a few more minutes with his manager. Again I pleaded with them to understand all of these goods were for my own person use (which they were, Scout’s Honor), and I was leaving their fine country in less than 48 hours by private sailboat. I truly doubt that my powers of persuasion were that good, but they finally let me through and out onto the streets of Panama City.
Ahab, bless his heart, had a fantastic driver who was waiting on the curb for me and all our gear. Head on pillow by 0230. Mission accomplished.
Lessons learned in the Advance International Air Travel Symposium:
- Arrive early
- Be creative
- Wear really good deodorant