There’s something about going back that wrenches my mind and my gastrointestinal system. I’d be foolish to think that all that was required was to simple show up in Bolivia, hop on my bike and continue the journey. It’s not that easy. And the mind plays tricks. First, 9 long months have passed. Sure, my leg feels better but it’s not as strong as the good leg. I haven’t ridden a motorcycle in 9 months. I’m 9 months older. I’ve spent 9 months at sea level and will get dropped into the highest city of the world. I’m scared.
The first leg of my journey was unbelievable. And after 21,000 miles and 7 solid months of traveling — most of it alone — I was in the groove. Rhythm and to some degree routine made travel easy. I mean after just 2 months things just clicked. That is until Doc decided to heave its 500 lb. body in the mud and land on my leg. But that’s old news. Traveling for me was ubiquitous. It’s what I did. The fact I started the journey by going North to Alaska was intentional. Get warmed up. By the time I crossed the border in Honduras I was a pro. Colombia was a blessing. Ecuador tore at my eye and my heart. Peru and Bolivia. Well, Peru & Bolivia. Amazing.
But for 9 months I’ve been sucked in and swallowed by the comforts and conveniences of southern California, companionship of friends old and new. Bolivia was tugging at my heart but Southern California and the prospect of returning was playing with my mind and vying for my heart.
When I plopped the first of my 6 bags on the scale at the counter of American Airlines at Lindbergh Field in San Diego Airport I was ill prepared for what filled my ears.
“Uh oh. There’s a baggage embargo for all flights on American going to Bolivia.”
“Huh?” I choked out as I threw another bag on the scale.
“You can only check two bags. Period.”
My jaw hit the counter with a thud. Impossible I explained. Impossible. The on duty manager explained there was nothing she could do about this. The agent, manager and another employee stepped in.
“We can change your ticket and you can deal with shipping your things and fly later this week.” After two false starts for my return to Bolivia there was no way I could communicate with Jorge and local Bolivian Airline that would take me from La Paz to Sucre in time to make this kind of change.
“We can get you to LA and you can deal with American Airlines cargo and fly tomorrow.” Same problem. Plus the customs bill of lading would require a listing of everything I’ve packed. My mind swirled with what that task would entail.
I was turning red. Trying to stay calm. My pleas for making an exception fell on the deaf ears of the manager on duty who’s beautiful blue eyes were no match for the sharp angles of her face and her chilling manner.
I tried calling American Airlines. It’d been quite a few years since I’d been on American. Never my favorite airline and particularly in a post 9.11 world I’d rather fly a nondescript airline. But American is the only airline with flights from the USA directly to Bolivia. And there’s one each day that leaves at 11:20pm from Miami.
I was determined to be on that flight.
American still doesn’t have a voice recognition system for its toll-free lines. And it’s system wouldn’t recognize the tone beeps when I pressed the keypad on my cellular phone. After the 4th time I was ready to scream. My extreme curtness and indifference to a guy asking for directions to the bathroom made me realize I was letting this situation take control of me. TIme for the reversal.
I called Orbitz. With a more current phone system and as agent they put all of us on a conference call with an American Airlines supervisor. Once again, she could do nothing. I demanded to escalate. She said there was no reason. Appealing to her with my condition and everything else I could throw into the mix I finally got her to leak out some advice. Ask for the American Airlines Airport Manager. She wouldn’t say for sure, but insinuated he’d be the only person on the planet at this time, with this schedule who could find a way to get my excess baggage checked.
Steve appeared for a moment and said that even if he let me check the bags chances were they’d never get on the plane in Miami. I had three legs to my journey: Dallas, Miami, La Paz. The fourth leg had nothing to do with American or Orbitz. But that’s another story.
The only word in this that I heard was “IF”. On this day in the busy and billowing terminal at Lindbergh field “IF” was the most positive word in the universe. I told the agent that I’d be willing to accept the risk and the hassle should my bags get embargoed in Miami. She called Steve back but he was in a meeting and would be available in 15 minutes. After an hour the agent looked worried and then went looking for him. To be sure, I was a good flyer on this day fully prepared to go by the book. I was at the airport 3 hours early and all my liquids and gels were safely packed in my baggage – my excess baggage – to be checked.
I was running out of my three hours and the flight was minutes from pre-boarding when Steve finally showed up.
“We won’t be liable,” he said matter of factly. “I’ll make sure she notes it in the record.” I once again assured him that in evaluating all of my options and apply several risk ratios that I was prepared to take the risk. When I asked him if there was a way I could find out in Miami if some of my bags wouldn’t make it. He leaned over and out of the side of his mouth said in the way only someone from Jersey or the south side of Chicago could say. “I wouldn’t say nothin’ or talk to no one about it.” In seconds he disappeared through a door behind the counter. Unfortunately, the ordeal cost me $400 in excess baggage fees.
The agent looked at me holding up a bar-coded baggage tag, “How many bags did you have?”
“Six.” I said looking on the floor and the conveyor belt behind the counter. “I had six bags, they’re all gone now.”
“I thought so,” she said with a panicked look on her face as she picked up the phone and tried to dial numbers with her acrylic nails.”
She sent one of my bags down the conveyor without a baggage claim.
Great. I was sure that TSA would see this and cal in the bomb squad and evacuate the airport. She hung up the phone, stuck the tag to a plastic bucket and sent it down the conveyor. By now my flight was boarding, I still needed to go through security with my carry on bags, feeling like I’m going to end up in La Paz with only a portion of my bags and was reeling in the thought that one of my bags would never get tagged and I’d end up in Bolivia without my riding suit and helmet. Good god.
To make matters worse, every flight was overbooked. Standby passengers were turned away. I ended up in two middle seats for the first two legs of the journey. Not even enough time between flights to plead for a change, I lucked out on the longest leg to La Paz — a well deserved aisle.
In La Paz by the time I passed through immigration the bags were already coming up the conveyor. I grabbed a couple of the free baggage cards in anticipation. Soon all the carts were gone and passengers were ogling my double dose with crossed eyes and folded arms. I held steady. And waited. And waited.
One large duffel looked like mine. But no avail. Then rounding the corner I spotted my first bag — a cardboard box containing one half of my Jesse bags. I waited. Then I spotted the large duffel. Some of the sweat ebbed and my heart slowed. Then I noticed the same bags making the circle on the carousel. A women with glasses perched on the edge of her nose, clutching a clipboard and pencil checked baggage tags on the unclaimed bags. Turns out she was searching for bags that didn’t make the flight from Miami yesterday – or was it the day before. The area in baggage claim thinned as did the bags coming up the conveyor.
I was doomed. I got my damn two bags and would have to go to Sucre and then come back in a day to La Paz. My heart sank.
Then another group of bags came cruising up the conveyor in dense clusters. Could it be? Yes. There was my dry bag duffel #1. And there’s #2. I had 66% of my luggage. I waited. But the bags thinned and I was standing nearly alone when a few more bags including the remaining two crested the top of the conveyor and fell into my wanting arms.
They made it. I made it. I guess this is just part of warming up.
After a short 40 minute flight to Sucre I was greeted by Dhery, an associate of Jorge, the gentlemen who’d been storing my motorcycle. Turns out it is his house in Potosi where my bike is stored. He swiftly got me checked into an economical but clean hotel in central Sucre and suggested I nap after my more than 20 hour journey to Bolivia. I thought that was funny. It had taken me 7 months to get to Bolviia the first time. This was just too fast.