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L.A. to Mexico City to Tapachula…

This post comes to you from BlogHer ’11 in beautiful San Diego, California. And yes, I realize this is the longest post EVER, but whatever. I promise I won’t only talk about Bolivia from now on. But I do need to talk about it, if only so I can go back years from now and reread all about this wonderful (and sometimes awful) adventure. I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I enjoyed (except for sometimes) living it.

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Getting ready to leave for the airport, July 11, 2011

For all the nerves and anxiety and fear that plagued me in the weeks before we left for The Big Bolivian Adventure, I was as cool as a cucumber the day we left. I’d made up my mind a few days before that I was going to live in the moment and make the best of it, whatever it happened to be. So even though I ripped one of my toenails off (by accident) the night before we left and even though when I brushed my teeth that morning I spit mouthfuls of gooey red blood into the sink, I was perfectly calm. Eerily calm. Excited even.

We made it to LAX, checked our bags, and walked through the rape-scans with two hours to kill, so we stopped at a Wolfgang Pucks and lunched on delicious giant salads, knowing full well we were eating our last raw vegetables for the next three weeks. The flight from Los Angeles to Mexico City was uneventful. Mike and I reread the State Department warnings and Dave made friends with the young man sitting next to him, who was also headed to La Paz, and who happened to have all the same connecting flights as us. When Dave finally introduced him to me and Michael, I was highly suspicious.

A note to anyone who may travel with me in the future: Do not make me read the travel warnings, or the State Department warnings, or any other warnings. I take them very seriously. Very. Seriously.

Me: Don’t you think it’s weird that this guy has the same connecting flights as us?
Mike: No. I don’t think a lot of planes fly to Bolivia.
Me: But why did he fly out of L.A. if he lives in Vegas? That’s weird. His story isn’t lining up.
Mike: What are you talking about?
Me: The state department says not to talk to other people claiming to be tourists. He could be a ringer. He could have drugs on him and then fake police will come and fake-arrest us and blindfold us and steal our money and cut our throats.
Mike: I really don’t think anyone is going to go to the trouble of finding a “victim” in Los Angeles, just to follow them all the way to La Paz, so they can rob them and kill them. It doesn’t make sense.
Me: Yes it does.
Mike: That’s ridiculous.
Me: But the State Department says –
Mike: Look! A mall!
Me: Is there a Starbucks?!?

Sergio turned out to be perfectly lovely, a genuine tourist indeed, and the fact that he spoke fluent Spanish was one more point in his favor. While we were stuck in Tapachula for an hour –

Let me back up. We were supposed to fly the red-eye from Mexico City to Lima, Peru, but before we left Mexico City, the pilot announced that we would need to make a stop for fuel. He said they couldn’t fuel up in Mexico City because of the altitude.

I don’t know what the altitude of Mexico City is, but that is the stupidest excuse ever. There is no way they couldn’t fuel up in Mexico City. There was something else going on that they didn’t want to tell the passengers. Like a guerilla coup. Or an electrical problem with the plane. Or maybe one of the engines was loose. Who knows? NO ONE.

So we land in Tapachula, which is a Mexican city on the border of Guatemala, and they have to turn off the plane to “fuel up”. It’s the middle of the night, the plane is packed full of exhausted passengers, nothing but emergency lighting illuminating the aisles, and no air conditioning. A lot of strange noises and twenty minutes later, the pilot announced that we would not be able to take off because the runway was wet. And he didn’t know how long it would take for the runway to dry.

I wonder if, in Mexico on the border of Guatemala, they don’t let cars drive on wet streets?

The passengers started getting angry. I couldn’t blame them. I’ve been on a lot of planes but this was by far the most miserable I have ever been on a plane in my entire life. People were shouting and making all kinds of noise. It was hot and stuffy. We were all tired. Next to me, a mama was trying to take a little sweatshirt off her baby boy, but it was stuck around his head and no matter how she tugged it wouldn’t come loose. And he was so tired and so hot he just sat there, his hands limp in his lap, sobbing. When she finally pulled it loose she hugged him and rocked back and forth, saying over and over as she held him, “Lo siento! Lo siento, lo siento…” I wanted to hug her and tell her it would be ok.

That was when the captain made another announcement: The plane was too full, twelve people would need to disembark. The crowd went wild. People were jumping out of their seats, hollering who-knows-what in Spanish, pounding sweaty fists on sticky knees. Then, from the middle of the plane, came a flood of laughter. It sounded like the laugh-track on an eighties sitcom. Someone was telling jokes, lifting the mood of the people around him. Sergio told us that there was a famous Peruvian comedian sitting there, and he was making jokes about the captain to the passengers. Then the flight attendants started coming around with cool water for the tired and over-heated people and in a little while, (over an hour after we’d first touched down) we were taking off again.

They didn’t make anyone get off the plane after all, but we never did find out why they took so long to take off. It wasn’t the runway, it wasn’t too many passengers, so was it a problem with the plane? A guerilla coup? We don’t think so. We think they were either taking on, or unloading, cargo they weren’t supposed to be carrying. Like drugs. Or weapons. Or disease infected monkeys. (Or else there was no exchange of unauthorized cargo, but simply regular, stupid, airline politics. We’ll never know.)