Despite our family's years of experience traveling throughout the Americas, that morning in Lima, Peru in the 1990s was a first. Edging our way up to the counter to check in for an Aero Continentale flight to Puerto Maldonado, we were greeted with the words, "No, you cannot check your luggage."
What? It was early. Had I misheard her?
"You cannot check your luggage," she repeated. "We promise to get it to your destination by tomorrow."
Our destination? Our destination was a jungle lodge so isolated that we had to take a small boat up a muddy river to a landing, at which point we had to walk through the jungle with holler monkeys screeching above us to the lodge.
Reasonably explaining our unusual situation to the employee, she responded that there was already too much luggage on the airplane so we couldn't check our luggage.
How could that be? It was a full-sized airplane, not some prop puddle-jumper. And we were at the airport early so there weren't many or any passengers checked in. "No luggage," she sighed visibly bored.
We negotiated to be allowed to take a few items out of our luggage, in case we didn't get our suitcases as promised--tomorrow. Oh no, the dreaded mañana.
With a shoulder shrug from our nemesis behind the counter, I realized it was time to get creative. Looking about for an idea, a light bulb went on inside my decaffeinated brain. "Do you have a large trash bag?"
Out from underneath the counter came a lemon yellow, heavy-duty garbage bag. It was even conveniently marked, "equipaje" or luggage.
Given permission to go, one-at-a-time, past the airline back office to the tarmac where our luggage had been put by another employee to retrieve a few things, we plowed past the yelling employees who said we couldn't go all at once. I told our group to bring as little as possible, whatever you absolutely need for the three days in the jungle. As I saw the yellow trash bag fill up, I added, we'd have to share toiletries.
Hurried up by the watchful airline employees, we locked our luggage and left them sitting on the tarmac. I never expected to ever see any piece of luggage again. It's only stuff, I reassured myself.
Belatedly we demanded claim checks, receipts or some sort of proof that we'd handed over our hijacked suitcases. It was only a piece of paper, but better than nothing.
Next we were hurriedly pushed through security into a waiting room--to, well wait for the still not at the gate airplane. Our daughter's boyfriend held the yellow bag on his lap. Every so often an airline employee would pass by and seeing the cumbersome carry-on announce, "You have to check that....it's too big."
At which point five irate voices erupted in Spanish and English to say that having had our suitcases hijacked by Aero Continentale there was no way in hell they were going to take away our one and only single shared garbage bag suitcase. It became a mantra. All anyone had to do was look askance at the yellow bag and we'd snarl, snort sending the person scurrying away.
When the airplane landed and was ready to board, we looked for our assigned row 13. Not finding it, we showed the flight attendant our boarding passes. She shrugged and told us to take row 14. We shrugged and did. The boyfriend even succeeded in stowing our garbage bag in the overhead compartment.
We got to the jungle and lived within the limitations of our shared yellow bag suitcase. As expected, our promised luggage never was delivered to us. And three days later after walking out of the jungle we got the same demand to check our now deteriorating yellow garbage bag suitcase. With several holes, I was glad I'd learned to travel with a small roll of duct tape. Despite airline employees attempts to check our yellow garbage bag, we carried it on board where the boyfriend again stashed it above our seats.
The airplane's first stop was Cuzco, where we would continue to Lima. In Cuzco, all of the passengers seated on the right side of the airplane stood up to disembark. Next came the new passengers, all of whom had been assigned to seats on the left side of the airplane where we, the continuing passengers, were seated. It was a Tower of Babel moment as people of various nationalities and languages tried to say, "You are in my seat," only to be told, "No I'm not." The flight attendants had all wisely disappeared.
After tempers exploded over a few seats, most passengers made the decision just to sit wherever they could. At that point, one flight attendant belatedly made an announcement in Spanish, "To please take whatever seat is available." Not much help to those who didn't speak Spanish. The last ones standing were a French couple who proceeded to harass--in French--a Spanish-only speaking Peruvian couple.
"You are in our seats" the French couple stood hovering over the Peruvians who with a shrug, gave up one pair of seats for another. All the same to them.
On arriving in Lima, to our happy surprise we found our hijacked luggage. Sealed shut with plastic straps by Aero Continentale, nothing was missing except one item that had been in an unlocked zip side pocket. Not bad considering.
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