Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Public Service Announcement: Avoid Stop-overs at Simon Bolivar Airport, Caracas, Venezuela

I know someone who recently spent some time in a nameless South American country. This friend of mine shall also remain nameless, because most of the people he works with were unaware of his working abroad, meaning that he's basically had to keep it hush-hush. In any event, he wanted me to pass along the following Public Service Announcement to the dotcomrades:

Stay away from Simon Bolivar International Airport... Like... For real.

After landing safely in Caracas, Venezuela, this friend of mine had an 8-hour layover between the hours of 5pm and 1am. He figured he'd just kill the time by finding a good cup of coffee, maybe some internet access, and putting a dent in the current memoir he's currently consumed by (Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg's All Over But The Shoutin). But alas, it simply was not meant to be.

For beginners, this friend of mine had to wait in an immigration line that lasted for 80 minutes, and by the time he got to the customs inspector; just as it always seems to happen in the movies; he was told that he was in the wrong line.

I have it on pretty good authority that he wanted to kill himself.

From there, he made his way down to Air Canada's ticket desk so that he could acquire his boarding pass. The only problem is, Air Canada doesn't have a ticket desk, or any visible form of representation to speak of, at Simon Bolivar. Instead, this friend of mine was told to wait at Gate 15 for 6 hours, and that a boarding pass would be given to him there at some point.

It was shortly thereafter that this friend of mine began walking the halls of the terminal; afterall, he had some time to kill. After two trips up and down the dark and lonely halls, he sent the following text message to a select group of friends and family members:

No list of "The World's Most Depressing Places" would be complete without including the airport in Caracas, Venezuela.

In an attempt to kill time, this friend decided to sample some of the local cuisine, but the best available option in the terminal was a Burger King. Adding further insult to injury was the apparent fact that Simon Bolivar International is the only airport in the world that does not accept American money, meaning that one is left with the option of exchanging their remaining currency into Bolivares... The subsequent exchange rate and gouging techniques ensured that this particular friend of mine paid $15 USD for a Whopper combo...

It was finally time to sit down with that much anticipated cup of coffee, but just as this friend of mine was ordering, an airport security official walked up to him and said: "Excuse me, but are you Mr. _______?"

Now, I am no expert on the ways in which airport security officials conduct their daily affairs, but I'm pretty sure that when one of them approaches you in line at a coffee shop and asks for you by name, it is never a good thing.

This proved to be the case in this instance as well.

Apparently, this friend of mine was told, there had been a problem with his luggage, and he needed to accompany the security official.

(It should be noted that this friend of mine speaks only a token amount of Spanish, and that the security official spoke even less English, making for more than a few awkward pauses)

As it turned out, the lack of an Air Canada office at this particular airport also meant that there was a lack of Air Canada personel in order to transfer the luggage from vessel to vessel, meaning that this friend of mine's luggage had effectively been going around on the luggage carriage for the past 3 hours, despite the fact that, since this friend of mine had been turned away from customs, he wasn't even allowed into the baggage claim area. Good times.

He had to exit through security again (remove all items, put them through the metal detectors), claim his backpack from someone at LAN, and then pass through the same security he'd gone through less than 5 minutes ago (remove all items, pass through metal detectors). The good news was, all of his possessions were now in one place. The bad news was, he now had to walk around the most depressing place on the planet with all of his possessions.

Also, Game 5 of the NBA Finals was taking place at that very moment. What do you think the chances were of finding that particular programming on one of the TVs in the terminal's only bar? Wait, it probably wouldn't have mattered, because everything in the airport closes at 10pm. So make sure you load up on $15 Whoppers before 10, and be sure that when you convert your money into Bolivares that you acquire some coins, because the vending machines do not accept anything larger than 1 Bolivar coins... And if you think that just because the Duty Free Shop has 8 cash registers that they'll be able to break a 10 Bolivar note for you, you're kidding yourself.

When the Air Canada "employees" (airport cleaning staff wearing suspect looking AC pins) eventually showed up to give this friend of mine in and to give him his boarding pass, they did so at a makeshift podium in the middle of the terminal hallway. I suspect this friend of mine didn't feel all that confident handing over his passport, and probably questioned the fact that the Air Canada "employee" put a yellow sticker with his seat number on the back of his passport as a means of assigning a seat... Also, all of the employees were wearing various versions of gas masks, because apparently most Canadians are currently carrying the Ebola virus.

This friend of mine wanted everyone to know that he got home safe and sound despite the hiccups at the airport, and despite the fact that he had the middle seat on the red eye next to a 320 pound man which, as you might expect, resulted in precisely 0 minutes of sleep.

Luckily however, this particular friend enjoyed an amazing two weeks abroad which included, among other things: drinking copious amounts of Cusquena in quite possibly the only bar in South America that was showing Game 7 of the Wings-Pens series; getting dominated by a girl by 38 points in a game of Hoop Fever; finding a black market vendor to sell him the Back to the Future trilogy on DVD for $3; experiencing a power outtage on a Friday night in a bar which, as soon as the lights went out, officially declared a state of "CERVEZA GRATIS!!!"; and realizing that he'll probably be spending a hell of a lot more time down there in the future.

The next time, however, my friend has assured me that the trip will not include a layover at Simon Bolivar.


Anonymous said...

Ummmmm.... I was thinking of NEVER traveling to South America, ever.. but now, it has been confirmed!! Glad your friend made it through!


Anonymous said...

You lost to a girl in a game of Hoop Fever? For shame...

Sean McCallum said...

Not me, but MY FRIEND. And he didn't simply lose: he got utterly demolished. To the tune of 96-58. By all accounts, it was the arcade version of Jordon dropping the double-nickel on Spike's Knicks in The Mecca, with this friend of mine playing the unfortunate role of John Starks:

Clearly the most humbling episode in a lifetime of increasingly humbling episodes.