Friday, February 9, 2007

Danger narrowly averted - Customs computers breakdown in Lima, Peru

The first and worst incident that tested our travel skills was in the Lima airport, heading to Santiago. We arrived at the airport with plenty of time and sat down in the food court to eat some Papa Johns pizza (well it was called Papa John's, but didn't taste like it...) and check email before going through security and boarding the plane. Thinking we had plenty of time, we took it easy. We forgot that we had to go through customs as this was our first time leaving a country on the trip.

When we finally got up to go through security, there wasn't much of a line and only 10 or 15 people in front of us to go through customs. Just as we got to the front of the line and starting asking each other why the people directly in front of us were taking so long, Amy noticed that a small green error message had popped up on the custom agent's computer - and then we could see that the same error was on ALL of the computers!

The customs agents were all looking around at each other expecting someone else to know what to do. After 5 minutes of staring at nothing, the agent in front of us looks at the crowd in line and points back over our heads at the counter behind us. We didn't understand what he said, but we figured it out quickly enough as the entire line reversed direction. Suddenly we noticed that there were many more people in line than when we had arrived, and now we were at the back of the line instead of the front with only about 20 minutes until our plane was scheduled to depart.

Well, it wasn't really a line any more, more like a mob of about 250 Peruvians shouting in Spanish. At this point we were thoroughly confused and couldn't find anyone in customs who spoke a word of English to help us figure out what was going on or what to do. Amy was on the verge of tears and I felt like I was just turning in circles looking for some kind of signal or solution. Obviously we didn't have time to wait in the line or we would miss our flight.

Just as things seemed completely hopeless and I was accepting the idea of spending another night in Lima, the agent who had sent the crowd to the other counter waved in our direction that his computer was working again and to come back to his line. We rushed over thinking we were in the clear and handed him our passports. He stamped mine and I got about 20 feet away before I heard Amy call me back because he wouldn't let her leave. Apparently we needed another stamp from security that we didn't have and he didn't notice for me but did for Amy.

He couldn't speak any English, but pointed back to the counter that was still surrounded by a mob of 250 shouting Peruvians. We were back in the "standing there helpless" stage when I was finally about to find an airport customs agent who understood a bit of English. We explained that we were going to miss our flight and asked what to do. She indicated that we should just walk up around the crowd to the side of the desk.

This sounded great, except for a fear that the crowd wouldn't let us. But as Amy pointed out later, it was fortunate for us that Peruvians are short and dark and I didn't have a tan yet - so my pale skin and height (well, for Peru) made me stick out in the crowd and allowed me to reach over a few people's heads to try and hand the agent at the desk our passports. I stood there for about 3 minutes shouting "Por favor!" until he finally took the passports and stamped them.

Then it was back to our friend the customs agent who didn't speak any English. This time he stamped us through and we proceeded to go through the metal detectors towards our gate.

Of course, our gate was the last one at the end of the terminal, so we took off at a run. Amy shouted for me to run ahead of her and I did, figuring I could try to hold the door at the gate. Fortunately, the gate agents were Chilean and not Peruvian (much more civilized and all spoke good English) and they saw me running from a few gates away and held the door. As I arrived, the asked me why I was so late (very nicely) and I explained between gasping for air that the customs computers had broken and there were many more people coming behind me including "mi neuva". Then I saw Amy running towards and waited for her at the gate.

As we started down the jetway, Amy was still gasping for air and started to hyper-ventillate. We didn't have a bag for her to breath into or anything and fortunately she was able to just take slow deep breaths and it went away. As we boarded the plane and approached our seats, the stewardess could see that we were still hyped up from running to the gate and reassured us that everything was okay and we could relax. Sometimes its just good to hear someone else tell you everything will be alright :-)

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