This is where I usually say something along the lines of our trip home was uneventful. Somehow, the “usually” seems to be diluted these days.
We spent the night prior to our departure at the Holiday Inn directly at the airport in Santiago. With an early morning departure, this location was perfect. We could check our bags onto the flight and go back to the room and nap and shower until it was time to board. Under the shadow of Cerro San Cristobal, the hill of the patron saint of travel safety, our departure went smoothly after the TACA agents worked for 20-minutes to find our reservation. This time, however, we never feared. The worst-case scenario was staying longer in Chile. How bad could that be?
Our TACA flights took us to San Francisco in three legs. The first leg is a three-hour flight to Lima, Peru. The next leg goes from Lima to San Salvador and our last leg takes us home to the San Francisco airport.
When our plane approached Lima, the crew readied us for landing, the carry-on luggage was stored, the seatbelts were tightened, and the tray tables went up. The mountains of the Andes were visible in the distance but the metropolis of Lima was hidden in the low, coastal clouds. For that matter, so was the airport.
The pilot started our final decent with no land visible through the clouds. Finally, views of the farmlands about 100 feet below our descending plane filtered in through the clouds. Perhaps the pilot could see the runway, but I couldn’t. Most likely, he couldn’t see the runway either, as he gunned the engines and we quickly climbed away from the ground. The landing had been aborted.
Before long, the pilot was on the intercom speaking in rapid Spanish. We waited a little and the Cliff’s Notes version in English soon followed. They were unable to land the plane at Lima due to the weather conditions. We were heading to an alternate airport in Peru, Pisco International. The Lima airport was now closed.
Our flight plans had a 6-hour layover in Lima before our flight to El Salvador departed. We should have plenty of time, or so we thought. Becky and I were now thinking that spending our layover in Pisco drinking Pisco Sours we be a good thing, even if it was still before noon time. It seemed like a step up from our prior plan of drinking Pisco Sours in Lima. The Peruvian version of the drink is different, we’ve learned, and perhaps it was better in the home of the liquor. We might even buy some Pisco to take back with us. Wouldn’t that be time well spent? Making plans, we looked for the Pisco airport layout in the TACA magazine in our seat back pocket, but it wasn’t there. Pisco International was not on the map.
Our plane flew out over the ocean and then returned over the parched dry lands and slums of Pisco. In the brisk crosswind, the pilot struggled with the control of the plane resulting in a hard, but safe, landing. We taxied to the terminal with an escort of emergency vehicles flashing their lights. At least we thought we were going to the terminal. Dreams of the best Pisco Sours flashed through our heads.
As we taxied, all we saw is rundown hangers and shells of old military buildings amongst the 50’s era jet bombers. Some of the planes looked to be functional and others seemed only to be dusty relicts that served as decoys at best. The newest planes at the airport looked to be a fleet of used military propeller driven trainer planes. Eventually, our Airbus A320 pulled to a stop on the tarmac. Thoughts of resting comfortably in the cool, air conditioned terminal quickly disappeared. We could see the terminal, or what once functioned as the airport terminal, near our plane. The shell of small, white rectangular building with glassless window frames sat dusty and unused near the small tower. The terminal was abandoned. There would be no Pisco Sours, not in Pisco at least.
Soon other TACA planes started to arrive, all modern Airbus A320’s, each accompanied by the flashing lights of the emergency vehicle. In the end, there were five modern TACA jetliners on the tarmac of the dry and nearly abandoned Pisco “International” airport. We don’t know how much international air traffic the Pisco airport gets, but it was certainly getting more than the usual amount on this day. The contrast between the shiny, modern planes and the decay and squalor of area around the Pisco airport was striking.
On the intercom, our pilot told us that we would refuel and leave when the Lima airport reopened. We would not debark. Our waiting began. Our trip to Chile included 12 flight legs, a 3-day ferry trip, around 750 km of road travel, and too many bus and van rides to count. A misstep on the logistics at any point would have had very negative consequences for our trip. At least at the end of the trip, snafus could only impact our well being and return time and not our vacation.
In the end, the detour to Pisco only cost us some Pisco Sour and ceviche time in the Lima airport. Our three-hour excursion to the tarmac in Pisco soaked up only half of our 6 hour Lima layover. Don’t get me wrong, the full Pisco Sour and ceviche time were important to us. But making our next flight was not a bad alternative.
Our flight from Lima to San Salvador ran a little late so there was no time for another torta at the San Salvador airport. With a short layover made practical by the small size of the terminal, we loaded onto the plane amongst the energetic college students returning from spring break and happy Salvadorians returning from family visits. Six hours later, we were on the ground in San Francisco. Our checked bags even decided to make the trip back with us this time, even with the short layover in San Salvador.
“We’ve been living together for twenty years,” Becky told the immigration agent who had questioned why we had come to the counter together with separate immigration forms.
“You only need to fill out one form,” the agent finished, not doubting Becky’s math, with the metallic sound of the passport stamp punctuating his sentence.
I’m not sure why the number of years would have mattered to the agent nor why Becky needed to exaggerate the number. Maybe, it felt like twenty years at the end of the long trip. Or maybe, she was just accounting for multiple personality time, though that would likely be an underestimate. In any event, we were back home at 2 am. The trip to Chile was long, but it is one we will always remember.