Sunday, November 22, 2009

From Spain to Portugal, Part I

Four luggage-toting, English-speaking girls were on the same Metro car that I was riding in. We all got off at Plaça Espanya, and I approached one of them to ask if they were heading to the airport. Not only were they going to the airport, but they were flying to Portugal. The girl I spoke to asked what I was going to do there, and when I told her about the Habitat for Humanity build she said that she'd done a couple Habitat builds herself, and so had her traveling companions. She introduced herself as Katie, she had long dark hair and walked with a limp, the result of recently twisting her ankle in the stairwell of a youth hostel. Accompanying her was Nikki, who had a short red bob of hair; Meghan, who wore glasses and had her hair in a ponytail that hadn't been pulled through all the way, leaving a loop that looked like a teacup handle; and Adrienne, who had blonde hair and spoke fluent Spanish. They were college friends who'd met in Spain a handful of years ago during their junior year abroad, and had planned this vacation together as a kind of reunion. Adrienne had taken the bus into the city from the airport on arrival, so she knew where to find it.

We installed ourselves at the bus stop, and chatted. They had a number of suitcases between them, which they leaned up against the wall of the bus shelter. I wore my backpack, it was helping to block the wind that was coming off the street. After a few minutes a car pulled up to the bus stop and the driver rolled down the passenger side window to ask something. Adrienne approached the car, but even with her fluency she didn't understand what the man wanted. After a moment she shrugged her shoulders and the car drove off. A few minutes later a man crossed the street in a brisk trot and approached us, pointing to his eyes and speaking quickly. He'd been sitting in a bar across the street and had witnessed as someone had walked past us and stolen a bag while we were distracted by the driver.

A cold sensation ran down the length of my spine. I checked my belongings: my backpack was still on me, and none of the zippers had been opened; my pacsafe purse was still around my neck, unopened; and my secret wallet that held my passport and ticket was secure under my clothes. The girls looked around and quickly realized that Katie's purse was missing. She'd lost her passport but her cash, credit cards, drivers license, airline ticket, camera and cell phone were all in a separate bag. The group strategized on the best course of action as Katie stared at a fixed point in the distance trying to remember what else had been in her purse: a pair of glasses, a set of headphones, her social security card and a package of birth control pills.

The bus arrived, and we piled in. I sat across from Katie and told her the story of how I'd once been pick-pocketed in Paris, losing everything of value except my passport. Adrienne told me that on an earlier leg of this trip someone had stolen her suitcase from a train going from Brussels to Amsterdam, the thief ended up with all her clothing but no valuables.

We parted ways at the airport, we were on the same flight but my ticket was bought through Spanair and theirs was on TAP Portugal so we had different check-in locations. The line moved slowly, there was only one Spanair window open and at least 20 people in line. When my turn came I presented my information to the handsome, dark-haired man at the window, who informed me that my flight had been canceled. I asked him to clarify, hoping that I'd missed some vital piece of information. I got the same explanation and was told to check with the TAP Portugal ticketing window at the end of the terminal. My pulse quickened, the trip leader from Habitat was due to meet me and everyone else who'd signed up for the project at the Porto airport in a couple hours, and I didn't have her contact information. I found the TAP Portugal ticketing window, where Katie sat barefoot on the floor nursing her bruised ankle, Nikki and Meghan guarded a pile of luggage, and Adrienne was speaking to a ticketing agent.

Adrienne explained that what I'd understood as canceled really meant that I'd gotten to the check-in window less than an hour before the flight was due to take off, and anyone who tried to check in under that time was automatically denied access to the plane. I'd gotten there with 55 minutes to go.

There are moments in every international travel experience when I am taken out of my comfort zone and reminded of my inescapable American-ness, they range from the banal - going to McDonald's and finding no ice or napkins, to the unintentionally hilarious - reporting my lost wallet in a Paris police station and asking to use the bathroom, to find that the facilities consist of a drain at the bottom of a depression in the floor, three feet from a wooden bench festooned with a pair of locked handcuffs. My American moment in Barcelona had arrived: if this had been Chicago the time limit for checking in would have been 30 minutes before takeoff, and if by some chance I'd missed that deadline I would have been put on a standby list for the next flight. As it turns out, flying standby is an American construct - the only option available was to purchase new tickets on the next flight Porto. The ticket pricing structure also felt distinctly foreign, the price first offered to Adrienne had been €694, but seemingly it depended on how many of us were trying to get on the flight - if just one of us wanted to fly to Porto it would cost €57 but the next ticket might be more expensive.

The process of looking up new flights involved a lengthy inspection passports and travel documents, and performing what seemed to be a deep search on a computer, so Meghan left the group and momentarily reappeared with a bottle of red wine and four plastic cups she'd bought from an airport concession stand. There was one ticketing agent serving the five of us, and every once in a while someone else would get in line and the agent would ask if we minded if that person were served ahead of us, as their request was likely to be simpler. The next flight on TAP Portugal wasn't for another six hours and the ticketing agent had our passports, so we acquiesced every time.

Aside from a reservation at a youth hostel in Porto, my new-found friends didn't have a deadline for getting there, so they opted to rent a car at €89 per day and drive the roughly 560 miles between Barcelona and Porto using only a Hertz map and their collective wits. I was invited to join them. My flight options were a €57 flight to Lisbon in the early evening and a €20-€30 train ride up the coast, or a €191 flight to Porto the following morning. Part of me really wanted to join those girls on their journey across Spain, but I had no idea when I'd actually arrive at my destination; with the flight to Lisbon at least I had a shot at arriving the same day. We parted ways for the last time, and for reasons that I cannot explain I shook their hands. It felt awkward even before I raised my forearm and extended my hand out to the first of them, but although our brief time together had been traumatic I wasn't sure if it called for hugging. I watched them longingly as they made their way out of the terminal to the Hertz rental office, certain that theirs would be a more enjoyable journey than mine.

No comments: