My life in an Airport: Day 1

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I had been flown back to Sao Paulo airport in Brazil, after loosing my passport prior to going through Immigrations in Buenos Aires. Now, back in Buenos Aires the US Embassy had told me that there was nothing that they could do for me, since I was not technically in Argentina yet (since I hadn’t gone through immigration), and thus I would have to fly back to the United States in order to get a new passport. Thus I had worked out a plan with LAN airlines: they would fly me back to Sao Paulo, and from there I’d be set up with tickets all the way back to Boston. I had given the LAN people my drivers license to prove I was a US citizen, and was sitting around waiting for them to bring me my new boarding passes; they had said it would be about an hour or so before they’d have everything ready for me to move on.

Well… two hours passed, and I heard nothing. Three hours turned into four hours, and I finally got tired of waiting around and went to find the LAN people who I had been talking to. I did find them, and they told me the same things they had told me before: “we’re looking into flights, and need to get confirmation about your citizenship from the US as well as confirmation from Buenos Aires about the full situation. Just give us an hour or so and you’ll be on your way.” Hmm… I’m starting to get a bit skeptical here.

So I called up the US consulate in Sao Paulo, hoping to get some information. The first time I called they were closed, but I was able to work my way through the automated system to get into the “Emergency citizens help line”. Unfortunately this only lead me into a logic-loop, where the menu kept restarting itself. After three iterations I got pissed off and hung up, planning on calling back again later, after dealing with LAN some more. I hunted for the airline people a bit more, but as usual they had an uncanny ability to disapear as soon as I went looking for them… almost Batman-esque in their ability to disappear.

My second attempt at calling the US Consulate met with much more success than my first try, though still not as much as I was hoping for. The Duty Officer was very nice, but unfortunately wasn’t able to offer much in the lines of actual help: Much like in Argentina he couldn’t directly do anything, since I wasn’t technically in Brazil. However, he said that they could send someone over from the Consulate to help me fill out the forms to get a temporary passport; but no one would be able to come over until Thursday, since the office had already closed on Tuesday and Wednesday was a national holiday in Brazil. Once Thursday rolls around though, he said, they’d be able to help get me back onto the road to the USA, assuming LAN hadn’t come around in that time yet.

LAN… looking back on it that name still gives me the chills. It had been six hours and I still hadn’t heard anything concrete from them, and still had no idea where my ID was, who had it, or what they were even doing with all this time. I decided that enough was enough, and went to the “Policia Federal” for some assistance. As much as people warn you against trusting local police, the Policia Federal turned out to my greatest allies outside of the US Consulate during this entire situation. They were able to put me in direct contact with LAN airlines main office in Sao Paulo, at which point I found out that they were holding onto my ID for “Security checks”, and that I wouldn’t be seeing it anytime soon. They did, however, tell me that there would be a LAN airlines rep coming to meet me shortly, who would give me a meal card and set me up with a hotel in the airport. I, of course, didn’t ask for a name or phone number to contact them again… a move I would regret.

*** NOTE if you are ever in a situation like this, in any country, including your own, make sure to keep a list of all the people you have worked with, and a way to contact them. I started doing this later on in this adventure, and it was quite possibly the move that helped me the most. ***

The LAN rep had told me that their person would meet me at gate 16 at 7:00, so I wandered around for a bit before sitting down at gate 16 at around 6:45. I kept a weather eye out, hoping to recognize someone in the crowd, hoping against hope that it would be the same man who had taken my ID. I kept perfect watch as long as I could, but around 7:45 I started to slack off on my watchman duties. By 8:00 I was reading my book, and thus when he finally showed up at 8:15 I was a bit startled when I heard a heavily-accented voice calling out for a “BeeenjimAN HAAAttt”.

I pack up my gear and follow along, while the LAN guy explains the whole situation to me. He tells me lots of awesome things about the meal ticket and where I’ll be housed. He tells me that the whole thing will be organized by a company called “Orbital”, who will make sure I’m set up and will keep me in contact with the folks at LAN. After he introduced me to the Orbital rep he said goodbye and ran off. Quite quickly, almost intentionally quickly, before I was able to actually look at the Lodging, or ask him about the meal card. Whoooo boy… I can’t blame him.

Turns out that the “Meal Card” was only for breakfast the next day, and this “Orbital lodging company” is actually just an auxilliary airport support company who maintains a small room in the airport for travelers staying more than 12 hours. The room itself was actually nothing more than a 15′ x 10′ room with two bathrooms and a light switch; no cots beds or blankets, not even any furnishings to speak of. And most importantly, a detail the LAN person had neglected to mention? The “representative” is actually a guard.

That’s right, a full guard. I was required to remain in the rest area, and wasn’t allowed to leave without being escorted by this guard, for the duration of my stay in Sao Paulo airport. All food had to be brought to me, and I had to sleep in the room provided; a room comprised of bare cement floors and bathroom lights that spilled into the sleeping area, keeping it dimly lit 24 hours a day. And, of course, I wasn’t the sole occupant of this room either, far from it in fact. I was bunking down with four other guys; two Indian dudes who didn’t speak English and spit on the floor every 10s (not exaggerating, between the two of them they actually kept a fairly calming rhythm of spit-patters) and two Bhutanese teenagers who were asleep by the time I was welcomed into the room.

I drifted off to a restless sleep around 3:00 after doing some reading in the hopes of calming my nerves. I knew that I was too wired to actually get any meaningful rest, but also knew in the pit of my stomach that I would need all the rest I could get.

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