Friday, May 18, 2007

Venezuela Saga

Here is a very long--though somewhat entertaining--account of my trip to Venezuela. It is mostly just the travelling that I'll talk about for now. And it is not over yet. I'm stuck in Miami as I write. Hopefully the story will end well.

Wednesday, May 16th, on an airplane
I’m at 32,000 ft somewhere over the Caribbean, en route from Miami to Caracas, Venezuela. It’s been quite an interesting trip already; we’ll see how it goes. I had to drive to O’Hare this morning. It took me about 3 hours to get there, putting me there 90 minutes before my flight was scheduled to leave. But, the flight was delayed. I was a bit nervous that I was going to miss my connecting flight in Miami, and I don’t exactly know whom I’m meeting in Caracas, so that could cause all kinds of problems. Barb and I talked several times as she tried to track down some information on Dave Mann or Bob Eagle down in Venezuela; but we didn’t seem to be successful. Barb did get me Dave Mann’s cell phone number. When I tried calling him (I wasn’t sure that he was even in Venezuela), it rang right to voice mail, so I assumed he had no service. I left a couple of messages anyway. I did get my ticket changed to the later flight that arrives in Caracas at 10:20pm, instead of the 7:30pm one that I was scheduled for.

Well I got to Miami and wandered out to look at the board. The earlier flight had been delayed from a 4:30 departure and now said 5:10. Well it was 4:55pm. The gate was A10 for departure, and I had just arrived at A9! Providential! I walked to the desk and no one was there, but then someone came shortly and said, “Yes we can still get you on this flight; it is final boarding.” So, I tried to call Barb back and get them to cancel the change of plans; but she didn’t know if the change of plans had ever been received. So I got on the plane. Before they banned cell phone usage, I called and left another message on Dave’s voice mail. I guess the worst case scenario is…well, we won’t talk about that; a realistic scenario is that I have to wait at the Caracas airport for two and half hours for someone to show up with my name on a cardboard sign. It should be interesting.

Thursday, May 17, in a conference room

I made it to Valencia last night at midnight. It was quite the ride. When I got through customs, there was a young Venezuelan kid with a cardboard sign that said, “Dr. Jaimes Stimp”. I decided that that was as close as I was going to get to someone that knew me. He didn’t speak any English, so he motioned for me to come over to another older man. We greeted each other for awhile in words we understood, but then it became obvious that he didn’t know any more English than the kid. So he got a security guard to come over who did speak English.

Through our official interpreter, I learned that the plan had been to get me onto another plane for a quick trip from Caracas to Valencia. However, because my flight was late, we missed that flight. So they were discussing what to do. My host, whose name was Ruben, I discovered, called to Valencia on his cell phone and I was able to talk to Bob Eagle. That helped ease my fears that my real hosts had been kidnapped, and these guys stole their cardboard sign and were preparing to rob and abduct me. Bob told me that they were going to take me to a hotel, and then come back and get me in the morning to catch a commuter flight. I said, OK. So, Bob talked some more to Ruben and they hung up. Then my security guard/interpreter said there wasn’t a flight until 1pm on Thursday from Caracas to Valencia. So he suggested that I take a taxi to get to Valencia yet that night.

Well it is about a three hour drive to get there; and thankfully they decided that I shouldn’t just do this on my own. But Ruben had things he had to attend to on Thursday back in Caracas, so he couldn’t come and return in the morning (it was already 9pm). So we weren’t sure what to do. Ultimately, the security guard/interpreter found another security guy whom he knew and Ruben knew (but again, didn’t speak any English). I understood that he was going to drive both Ruben and me there, and then turn around and get Ruben back yet that night. So, we got into his beater car and started driving. About 30 minutes in, he pulled over onto the shoulder of the road where there was another vehicle waiting. Ruben and I got out and into this more official taxi. It was a nice SUV, and I’m assuming that they had called ahead for this guy to meet us. But it didn’t seem as though Ruben knew him at all. But we got in and started driving… well, more like flying.

I was seated in the back on the right, and had a good view of the speedometer. The road was nice; a four lane divided highway. While we were winding in the mountains, he kept it to about 125-130 km/hour. There was some traffic, and lots of trucks stopped on the shoulder; but it was OK. Once we hit the flatter, straighter portion of the road, we picked up the pace a bit. We were routinely over 150km/hr, and I saw the speedometer hit 170 km/hr once. If my math and conversion factors are right, we were doing over 100 mph there for a bit. That helps the prayer life stay active. The good part was, we got here in just over two hours. They had to talk their way through the security gate; then we found the check-in desk, where they had my name (spelled the same as on the airport sign).

Ruben took me to find the room, and we were greeted at the door by Nat Brown in his underwear, and he woke up Dave Mann to give Ruben some money. They paid the equivalent of $135 for my taxi fare and Ruben’s return. Dave laughed about the voice messages. He said they do come through down here, but not right away. When he finally got his messages, there were five. The first was me saying I was going to be late; then the second was a more coherent version of me explaining why I was going to be late at the airport and to please have someone there later to get me; then his secretary had called to tell him I was going to be late; then another one from his secretary saying she never heard back, but thought I was still going to be late; then the fifth one was me calling saying I wasn’t going to be late. He hadn’t gotten any of them in time to do anything about it but laugh. I slept pretty well, all things considered.

Friday, May 18, 9pm on an airplane

OK, headed back to the motherland somewhere over the Caribbean. Technically I’ve already been on US soil because I had to stop in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It seems like that shouldn’t count, though, since it’s not a state and they still speak Spanish—though I was successful finding some English speakers too. I wasn’t too sure I was going to make it even that far for awhile. I should back up. I gave my spiel to the MC folks on Thursday afternoon in Valencia. It was fine. I impressed them with the Spanish opening that I had Scott DeVries write out for me. I practiced it over and over beforehand, but still stumbled over the word, “desafortunadamente”. It was pretty good though. The problem was that then the people didn’t really believe that I didn’t speak Spanish, and so quite a few walked up to me and started speaking to me as though I knew what they were saying—I just nodded and smiled (probably agreeing to give their kids scholarships to Bethel!).

So, I was told that they were arranging for a taxi to take me to the airport today. Evidently the President of MC Venezuela (a thoroughly likeable guy) knew the administrator of the hotel; and this other guy knew someone reliable who was a taxi driver for hire. He would be there at 8:00am to get me. It would cost 210,000 bolivars ($100 at the official rate of 2100:1—a bit cheaper at the street exchange rate of 3000:1). OK. This morning I went out to breakfast at 7:00am. At about 8:00am (the time the morning session was supposed to start) the Venezuela President pulled Nat Brown and me together with another guy (erstwhile Brazillian, now naturalized Venezuelan) named Newton to talk about the plan. The driver would be here at 8:40. If there was enough time, Newton (who spoke no English) would come with me downtown to the guitar shop where I could get a decent quatro (a kind of Venezuelan ukulele) for around 50,000 bolivars. At 8:40 no one was there yet.

At about 9:00am the group finally sauntered into session and I went with them. About ten after nine the hotel guy came to say the driver had come. Newton evidently decided that there was still enough time for the quatro run because he grabbed my bag and started walking out to the car. Downtown, we meandered around a few blocks looking for the shop, but found it without too much difficulty. It turns out that the mid-range quatros were more like 300,000 bolivars, so I went for a cheap one. All told, I decided on one with a vinyl bag and an instruction book (in Spanish) for $48 US (they took my dollars at 2500:1). I was starting to get a little worried about the time, because the registrar wasn’t cooperating very well and we were still standing there 15 minutes later. But we finally completed the transaction (which included me giving my passport number for tax purposes).

Then Newton bid me adieu, trying to communicate in Spanish words I knew that Ruben would meet me at the airport, that it would take about 3 hours, so I should get there at 1pm for my 2:15 flight (thankfully, Nat had already informed me of all this at the hotel!). There was something said, too, between Newton and the taxi driver (who spoke less English than Newton, if such a thing is possible) about cost. It made me a little nervous because I thought I caught “240” in there somewhere, and I was only given 210,000 bolivars for the trip. Then it was just the taxi driver and me. It was a nice sedan car with leather seats. He was a much saner driver than my guy the other night. I don’t think we went over 140kph, and usually more like 110-120 because there was some traffic. Things went uneventfully until we got close to Caracas. Then we got stuck in some traffic. And there was heavy rain. Our pace slowed considerably and I started getting nervous. I knew there was a later flight so I was hopeful that there might be a plan B if necessary. At one point I resigned myself to missing my flight. Then there was a glimmer of hope as we finally got out of traffic and I was able to ask and understand (en Espanol) from the driver that we were only 20 minutes away. It was 1:30pm.

We did make it to the airport drop-off place at 1:45 leaving me 30 minutes to get on an international flight. But then, my fears about the price of the taxi ride came true. I gave him the 210,000. Those were all the bolivars I had to my name. Driver-guy was obviously not satisfied. I said, “No tango mas bolivars”. He seemed reluctantly willing to accept US dollars. I had been planning during the trip to give him an extra $10 if he didn’t seem like he was happy with the bolivars (unfortunately he didn’t seem to be a very happy guy in general). But then he didn’t even accept $10 extra dollars as sufficient. I think he said that $10 was only 20,000 bolivars; I said something like “Necissito denero para my trip” (which I’m sure really cleared things up), but ended up giving him another $10. Then he smiled and shook my hand. I never found Ruben (who was supposed to confirm back to the guys in Valencia that I made it OK), but I didn’t want to spend much time looking since I thought I might still catch my flight. In the terminal I found out that my flight had been delayed anyway. And in fact, there was a flight direct to Miami that had been scheduled for 12:30 and was also delayed. It was now expected to depart at 3:15. I was pretty psyched about this, as I might be able to get on an earlier flight from Miami to Chicago (instead of arriving at 11:40pm Chicago time). Then the agents got confused and couldn’t find the seat they had seen on the earlier flight. They fussed around with the computer for awhile, then said that it must be a problem in the system. They were going to give me a boarding pass anyway and send me to the gate. If I hurried, I would make it. I had to go through immigration (or is it emigration when I’m leaving?). I had some difficulty finding the gate, but eventually was directed by the gate agent to another customer service agent since my boarding pass didn’t have a seat assignment on it. He was expecting me because the ticket agents called after I left them. He said, “Sorry, there are no seats on that flight.” He was very nice and spoke good English. There was another 4pm flight direct to Miami, which would get me there in time for my connection to Chicago, but unfortunately (that is, desafortunadamente) this booked solid too. I could wait until 4:00pm and try to get on it, but he suspected I wouldn’t be successful. My original flight through San Juan was now too late to catch the connecting flight to Miami. He said that there is a later flight to Miami, but that will cause me to miss my flight to Chicago—the last one of the night (lots of desafortunadamente’s).

Well, what to do? He said, “I think your best bet is to take the later flight to Miami and spend the night there, and go to Chicago in the morning; American will, of course, pay for your hotel.” Faced with the prospect of spending much more time by myself in a place were I could understand very few words and couldn’t make myself understood, I opted for my original flight to San Juan and the later flight to Miami. I went to a gift shop to try to get some touristy things for the kids, but they didn’t take credit cards, and I had no more bolivars (and decided not spend the $65 US they were asking for a flag and two T-shirts). Loading the plane in Caracas was quite the interesting event. Everyone is standing around the gate in the terminal, and then finally some workers come out and start setting up tables. They put a few of the turnstile markers out, but they were unheeded except for the entry point where someone took your boarding pass. Then our carry-on luggage was inspected right there. I was a bit nervous about having three carry-ons: my suitcase, my briefcase, and now my quatro case; but there were no problems. The connection in San Juan even for the later flight was pretty tight. I had to go through immigration and customs, then back through security. The security lines were particularly inept—coming to complete halts with nothing moving on the conveyor belts for minutes at a time. I switched lines twice, hoping to save some time because it was time that my flight was scheduled to start boarding. Net result: my line jumping further delayed me by about 5 minutes according to my calculations of my spot in the original line. I did make it through, though, and got to the gate while boarding was still going on. We’re just getting ready to descend into Miami. Hopefully I’ll find agreeable agents who will give me a hotel room and some food (I haven’t eaten since 7am this morning; it is 9:22pm). I’ll continue the saga from my hotel room.

Friday, May 18th, 11:45pm, in a hotel room

I'm at the hotel that American Airlines provided for the night. After just a bit of haggling at the counter, I'm set to be on a plane to Chicago at 8am tomorrow morning. It was nice of AA to put me up, some funny situations continue. They gave vouchers for a shuttle, for meals, and for the room. The room worked out OK. The shuttle got me here along with about 10 others staying on AA's tab (wonder why plane tickets are so expensive?). I checked in and got up to the room and called about getting some food. The restaurant that I had a voucher for closed at 11pm. The time on the clock read 11:01. So I called about getting the shuttle back to the airport in the morning. The guy on the shuttle first said you have to call to make reservations 24 hours in advance. I explained that wasn't really possible, so he said, just call as soon as you can. When I got ahold of someone, they said that the shuttles were all booked for tomorrow morning. "When is the first one available?" I asked. She said, "They haven't told us yet."

OK, I'll take a cab. That will probably let me sleep a bit longer in the morning. So I saw a Burger King across the street, so I walked over there. It closed at 11pm too. There was a Checker down the block. I successully got a CheckerBurger Combo. Ate it in my room. Ready to go to sleep. Tomorrow the adventure continues.

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