Thursday, April 22, 2010

Round and Round

Despite the torrential rain and forecast of thunder and lightning, Mexicana flight 345 to Cancun landed on time and without incident. And being the optimist that I am, I had left exactly 20 minutes breathing room between landing and takeoff for the last leg of my journey: Puddle-jumping to Cozumel on AeroMexico flight 9713 operated by Maya Air.

When I was originally scheduling flights, I imagined myself darting from the gate in Cancun to the puddle-jumper. I would only have a carry-on bag. And because I would have already flown from LAX to Mexico City, I would've gone through immigration. It would be a quick hop-skip-jump to the next gate. I mean really, how big could the Cancun airport be?

But when I reached the end of the jetway in Cancun, the airport personnel were leading us through a series of barriers to a shuttle in the rain. I briefly considered making a break for it, but seeing's how one of my travel companions had already been detained by the Policia Federal de Mexico and subsequently deported back to the U.S. of A., I stayed with the rest of the herd.

As soon as the shuttle doors opened, I speed-walked to the nearest info booth and said in my best broken Spanish "I'm missing my flight". The nice info people pointed me toward the airport security, where the guy asked for my passport. Flashing before my eyes were scenes from Midnight Express and visions of what my deported friend might have experienced, but the security guy calmly told me to go through the doors and to the left to get to the gates.

I started running toward an unknown destination. I was eventually re-routed back toward ticketing, where I squeezed past the line and up to an AeroMexico ticket agent. I showed her my printed receipt. She quickly looked up the flight on her screen, and then she told me that the flight was operated not by AeroMexico but Maya Air, and that I'd have to go to Terminal 3 instead of Terminal 2, where I was standing. She pointed toward the exits and instructed me to take a shuttle to the correct terminal.

Luckily the shuttle was waiting right outside. I hopped on board and asked the driver if he was going to Terminal 3 and he said "sí". The shuttle rambled around in reverse and slowly wound its way into traffic. The hope of making my flight was sinking. And it hit rock bottom when I arrived inside Terminal 3 and discovered that no flights from AeroMexico or Maya Air depart there. An airport employee instructed me to go to Terminal 1 by using the shuttle outside.

The same shuttle was outisde, so I hopped on. There are only 3 terminals at the Cancun airport, so logically the next one was Terminal 1. The shuttle rambled around in reverse and slowly wound its way into traffic. It drove around for a longer period of time than the last shuttle ride, which I assumed was because it had to start all over again by driving around from Terminal 3 to Terminal 1. I looked out the window and wondered how long the rain would last.

I got off the shuttle, went inside, and saw that we were again at Terminal 2. My flight was most certainly speeding down the runway by this point, so at least the need to rush was over. I got back on the shuttle and specifically asked the driver for Terminal 1. One other guy got on and asked for Terminal 1 as well, so I wondered if the shuttle only went to Terminal 1 when asked for.

The shuttle pulled up to Terminal 1, which was markedly less active than the other two. The other guy and I stepped down from the shuttle and wandered in a direction we assumed was correct, stepping over puddles the whole time. I found the sliding doors, which were stuck in the open position with a soaked piece of cardboard lying in the gap. I couldn't decide whether that was intended as a doormat or just a piece of wet cardboard.

Stepping into the terminal, I was greeted by a scene straight out of I Am Legend. It was dim and there was nobody in sight. The escalator wasn't moving. And it looked as if nobody had been in there in years. The other guy following me seemed to have the same reaction I did, because we both turned and got the hell out of there in a hurry. But we had a bit of a nervous laugh when we tried to make sense of the situation. We walked in the only logical direction, which was along the outside toward three men hanging out smoking.

As we approached the three men, all wearing yellow raincoats, one of them looked up and said something in the fastest Spanish I've ever heard. When he realized neither of us could comprehend what he said, he blurted out "Cozumel?" I knew I'd found my savior. I held up my damp ticket receipt and said "I missed my flight". He tossed his cigarette into a puddle and said "come with me".

We went inside and around a corner to what I assume was the offices of Maya Air. He went behind a desk and stood while typing something onto a laptop. "How many bags to check?" he asked. I pointed at my backpack and told him I didn't have anything to check. He finished his typing and said "We'll be boarding in about 5 minutes. Please have a seat over there."

I couldn't believe it. After all the terminal madness, I was getting on a flight straight away. I sat down opposite a man wearing a suit and reading a newspaper. A few minutes later, a hot young thing in flight gear asked me if I spoke Spanish. She led me and the other man through security, onto the soaked tarmac, and eventually to an airplane suited for 1973. The flight was quick, the view was decent, and we landed without too many bumps.

It was more sunny in Cozumel than it was in Cancun, which wasn't saying much. I wandered away from the airplane and searched for the nearest taxi to take me to the hotel. I rounded a corner and saw a few people cozying up to a mini-cart with a sign that said Margaritaville on it. It was then that I realized I was on vacation.

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