COPA AIR FLIGHT 304 FROM PANAMA CITY – SOMEWHERE OVER THE CARIBBEAN
The older but adequate plane had departed on time from Tocumen, Panama international shopping mall/airport on time, conveying me back to the United States. I was returning from my traditional two-week mid-winter (in the Southern Hemisphere) visit back to Argentina to check in on the house, pets and business.
I settled into the older model leather business class seat -- traveling business being one of my few material indulgences -- planning to eat a quick breakfast then get in a couple hours of sleep on the short, five hour flight to Dulles.
After an inoffensive meal, I put my seat back, closed my eyes and quickly drifted off.
So far, so good.
But then things started to go wrong.
Rather than waking from my nap refreshed, I awoke with a sneeze. Then another, another, another, and another. Followed by a prodigious demonstration of the fluid capacity of my sinuses.
One minute feeling great, the next a sloppy, sneezing mess. Literally.
Being unprepared for the sinual surge, I popped into the bathroom and loaded up on paper towels and returned to my seat hoping against hope that this significant display of snottery was the result of an allergic reaction and not a head cold such as my business partner, the namesake of Agustin Lanus Wines, purveyors of fine extreme altitude wines, had been suffering all week back in Cafayate.
And so the trials and travails on my return trip began in earnest, with the next scheduled stop Washington’s Dulles International airport, in my fresh opinion a perfectly acceptable working model of Dante’s first circle of hell.
2:00 PM - FINAL APPROACH TO DULLES AIRPORT, WASHINGTON DC
By the time the plane bumped down, the situation in seat 3A of Copa Flight 304 from Panama City had degraded considerably.
Having gone through a thick sheaf of paper towels, each leaf quickly reduced to a sodden wad under the unremitting onslaught of sinus sludge, and unable to leave my seat for the last fifteen minutes due to our imminent arrival, I desperately cast about for something, anything, with which to staunch the flow and therefore ease both my discomfort and that of the elderly woman who fate had seated next to me and who was now pasted up against the bulkhead in an attempt to get as far away from me and my legions of germs as possible.
Through watery eyes I smiled at her apologetically, hoping the sight of my constant sneezing, fire-hose nose and wads of sopping paper towels weren’t too off-putting, all the while certain in the knowledge that by now I had doomed the old dear to a week of bed rest, or worse. Death was not off the table.
But back to the problem at hand: the now all but useless wads of used paper towels I was stuffing in my pockets in a desperate attempt at crisis management. Without a suitable replacement and quick, the ramparts would be overrun, leaving me no alternative but to fall back to the castle keep: my shirt sleeves.
If I could pick the epitaph for my tombstone, and I guess I can, it would be “There’s always a way” and I believe that to my core.
And so it was my eyes settled on the complimentary toiletries bag provided by the airline. I tore the plastic cover off and unzipped it in the hope it contained a convenience package of nose wipes. Alas, it was not to be - but then my eyes lighted on a flash of bright blue: the cheap travel socks that invariably come as standard accessories in these kits.
With another apologetic glance at my now horrified row mate, I put the blue sock to my nose and opened wide the pipeline of phlegm I had been holding back.
And so it was our plane slid to a halt at Dulles.
2:11 PM - DULLES INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
Holding on to my blue sock like an infant to it’s teddy bear, I glanced at my watch, which I had updated as we left Panama City: I had a leisurely three hours to make my connecting flight to Vermont.
One of the advantages of flying business is that you exit the plane first, moving straight to the head of the immigration line.
However, in an unobserved omen of what was to follow, a docking gate was not available and so our plane was forced to park remote, and the passengers to debark into an elevated transport vehicle.
As I was among the first to enter, I was pushed from behind to the farthest side of the conveyance. Meaning I would be among the last to get off once we reached the customs and immigration reception area at Dulles Airport.
No problem. Again, I had a leisurely amount of time to complete the process and make it to my next flight, though the way I was feeling any delay was decidedly unwelcome. Especially as my blue sock, now mentally labelled Mister Soppy, was nearing capacity.
2:30 PM - DULLES AIRPORT CUSTOMS AND IMMIGRATION
While not to the same degree as during my more active career, I still travel a lot. And I have been pretty impressed at how the airline industry and even the legions of airport officialdom have adapted to the post-911 era of institutionalized fear.
In the early days, the congestion and confusion at airports around the world was almost unbearable.
But then, thanks to humankind’s natural adaptability, standing in long lines waiting to be grilled by functionaries has, in many airports, been replaced by electronic kiosks which scan the essentials from your passport, require you to answer a few relevant questions, snap your photo, spit out receipt and send you off to a guard manning a podium. If you received a passing grade at the kiosk, you continue on your trip. If not, you are diverted into additional processing.
As a consequence, in many modern airports, the entire arrival process has been streamlined to no more than 30 minutes.
Unfortunately, the folks at Dulles International never received the memo. The photo sequence here shows only the line leading up to the immigration area, not even the immigration area itself - where the line was way worse.
2:45 PM - DULLES IMMIGRATION HALL
The line for inbound passengers stretched from one end of the hall to the other, and then back again, and again, and again, and again… and again. By 2:45 pm, I was about half-way through.
Another glance at my watch confirmed I still had two and a half hours to make my 5:15 pm flight. Smiling a bit pathetically at my immediate neighbors in line I continued to put Mister Soppy to the test, for something like the fiftieth time, while shuffling sluggishly forward toward the immigration desk.
3:00 PM - IMMIGRATION INTERVIEW
Knowing the drill, I handed over my passport and took off my cap so the immigration officer, a skinny Caucasian guy who I suspect had had a rough time with bullies in school, could better look me over.
The photo here is a rough approximation.
“Where are you coming from?” he whined, though by this point my ears were congested and ringing so I may have been mistaken about the tonal qualities of his voice.
“How long were you there?”
“Why were you there?”
“For a visit”
After glancing through the stamps on my passport, he looked up.
“You travel there a lot”.
“Yes, we have a house there. We spend winters there.”
“Ah, living the life,” he said a bit sarcastically.
“You could say that,” I responded with a wet smile.
“You bringing anything back with you? Gifts, guns, alcohol?”
“Nope. Oh, wait, I do have some wine with me.”
“Eight?” the officer’s eyebrow tipped into a skinny arch. “I guess you like wine from Argentina?”
“As a matter of fact, yes.”
He then proceeded to tap away at his computer, followed by scribbling on a form.
“You’ll need to go with this officer for further processing. Have a nice day.”
I turned and discovered that he must have pushed a special button while tapping away, because a buffed out customs officer had materialized at my elbow.
The officer stuck out his blue-gloved hand which, now that I think on it, was almost identical in color to Mister Soppy, and ordered me to hand over my luggage claim check and, heaven’s forbid, my lifeline to further travel: my passport.
“Eh? Ah, sure, okay.” Sniffle, sniffle, hack.
He took my items from me, then pushed them into a plastic box and sealed the top shut.
“Take this and follow the red line to the officer on duty,” indicating with a head-nod a line that stretched down a long cordoned walkway that disappeared into the bowels of immigration.
3:12 PM - SECONDARY PROCESSING HALL, DULLES
On arriving in the glassed-off Customs and Immigration Holding Area I was struck by the number of fellow travelers in the hall. At a glance, I estimated the number at around 100.
The admitting officer held out his hand for my plastic box, then announced.
“Have a seat until you are called. As there may be no seats remaining, you may have to stand.”
“How low will this take?” I asked, surveying crowd.
“That depends entirely on how fast the officers move,” he answered without the slightest hint of irony.
Sure enough, there were no seats and so I stood there for ten minutes or so before an elderly couple were called forward and though I was reluctant to provide new hosts for whatever microbes had taken up residence in my sinuses by sitting in close contact with others, a growing fatigue from those same microbes was beginning to set in, so Mister Soppy and I dropped into one of the now vacant seats.
Surveying the situation with watery eyes from under the brim of my cap, I counted four customs officer, though, despite the crowd in the waiting room, only two were actually doing anything approximating work. And that they were doing at a determinedly leisurely pace.
I have never been particularly good at math, but even I could do the simple calculations involved in figuring out that if there were 100 people ahead of me, and they were being processed at the speed of roughly one every never, I would be there for the rest of my life.
“How long have you been sitting here?” I asked the woman next to me, futilely trying not to breathe on her.
“Forty-five minutes” she replied in a European accent.
“Has the line moved at all?”
“Not very much,” she sighed, all hope gone from her eyes.
It was about this time that a chubby Englishman plopped into into the seat next to me, with a cheery, “Hallo!”.
3:40 PM - SECONDARY PROCESSING HALL, DULLES
As is typical of their culture, the Englishman was charming and witty, full of understated critiques of the situation while evidencing no particular stress.
With almost no forward motion in evidence, I thought it was time to let my wife know I might actually not make my connection, and so pulled out my cell phone and began to type her a message.
“Put that cellphone away,” barked a customs officer patrolling the hall.
My suspicion he might be speaking to me was confirmed when he stopped, gave me a threatening look, and stabbed his finger at me and Mister Soppy.
“I said, cellphone away!”
‘Screw you, you pugnacious prick, you self-important functionary of an incompetent bureaucracy!” I replied, my patience gone.
Fortunately, that reply occurred in my fevered brain, and not as spoken words. Instead, like the sick sheep I was, I docilely complied, dropping the phone into my backpack.
The officer moved on at which point the Englishman immediately whipped out his cellphone and started to type. “Got to let my daughter know I’ve been detained, now don’t I?” he said with an impish grin.
As the display on his phone opened, I saw something that didn’t make sense: the time. It was different from mine, and not in a good way.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“It’s 4:45 pm, why?”
“What! Crap, when I reset my clock, I set it wrong. I just lost an hour!”
3:45 PM 4:45 PM - CUSTOMS HALL, DULLES
I jumped out of my seat and crossed the divide between our herd of unfortunates and the two uniformed officers standing at a desk who, since my arrival, had done nothing other than eye the crowd.
“I’m going to miss my flight!” I said in a displeased voice.
“What time’s your flight?”
“5:15” I answered, adding politely but firmly. “Are you really going to make me miss my flight simply because I honestly answered I have wine in my suitcase?”
The two officers exchanged glances at each other with a hint of guilt.
“How much wine?” one asked.
“Well, technically that is over the limit, and you should pay a duty, but because it’s only a few dollars we’ll let you slide this time,” adding conspiratorially. “But don’t let anyone know.”
“Yeah, no problem,” very much in an every one for themselves mode.
“Do you have your passport?”
“No, you took it.”
“Okay, follow me sir.”
To make a dismal story less dismal, I followed him to a nearby counter where one of the two working agents was actually processing people, and the officer escorting me pawed through the slots containing everyone’s passports. After a couple of minutes of pawing, it was apparent mine wasn’t there.
So he led me back to the check-in desk at the customs detention center and flipped through the large stack there. Sure enough, even though I had been waiting for 40 minutes or so, my passport hadn’t even entered into the process that would have led to me being called up for my interview, followed by the payment of a few dollars in duties.
Handing over my passport, the officer asked, “Do you see your luggage?” pointing to the cluttered assemblage in a roped off corral next to the check-in desk.
“There not here!” I answered, each second of time passing reducing the odds I would make my flight.
“Hmm,” a chagrined look crossed his face, “They must still be back at the luggage carousel”.
“Yeah, I guess we hadn’t gotten around to picking them up yet.”
“So, I need to return all the way back to the carousel and hope my bag is there? And what if it isn’t?” This was not a pleasing thought because, (a) I felt like Mister Soppy looked at this point, and (b) because the carousel was at least a couple of football fields away in the wrong direction.
“In that case, talk to the airline,” he replied before scuttling off.
4:59 PM - BAGGAGE TRANSFER STATION, DULLES - INDOLENCE PERSONIFIED
The late-middle aged man, dressed in the uniform of a Dulles employee, was seated in a cheap plastic chair next to a baggage conveyor belt, looking at something on his mobile phone. Over his head was a large sign with the words: BAGGAGE TRANSFER.
Having retrieved my luggage from the very last carousel and mindful of the fact that the time to make my flight was running out, the man was a welcome sight. In virtually all international airports, the normal process for connecting passengers is, once you have cleared customs, to take your already properly tagged bags, drop them on the belt at the transfer station, and move on to the gate.
However, something was wrong. Specifically, the belts were not moving and the sole attendant present was the gentlemen sitting three feet in front of me staring mindlessly at his phone.
“Is this where I drop my bags off for a connecting flight?” I panted, while releasing my luggage long enough to pull Mister Soppy from my pocket to do his unfortunate job.
The man, who derived from ancestors late to leave Sub-Sahara - and I mention that for reasons I'll expound on shortly - didn’t even blink. Let alone respond.
“Excuse me,” I said a bit louder, but still in my most pleasant yet urgent voice, “Is this the transfer station?”
Now, dear readers, take this scenario into your heart. Increasingly ill, I have just been needlessly delayed, then tossed back into the maelstrom of the hellhole known as Dulles to retrieve my luggage and race toward my gate, knowing that the time was razor thin. And here was an employee of the airport, by all available evidence in charge of taking my luggage off my hands and speeding it along, failing to even acknowledge my presence. Not even a little.
“Are you REALLY not going to answer me?” I asked, momentarily forgetting my flight in wonder at the sheer inanity of the situation. “Really, nothing?”
And in response he said and did, nothing.
“Do you work here?” I inquired, because I had to resolve the cognitive dissonance of talking to an airport employee who wouldn’t even acknowledge I existed, even though I was standing three feet away.
“Not at the moment,” he finally replied, not looking up from his phone.
Realizing the futility of any further attempt at communication, and remembering my primary mission, i.e. to make my flight, I took my leave with what I thought was an appropriate comment on his character, this time out loud.
5:15 PM, UNITED CHECK IN COUNTER
Realizing I had no option but to exit the secure area of the airport, I walked through the doors into the public space of Dulles and looked for a check-in counter, even though my luggage had been checked in all the way to Vermont, and I was in possession of a boarding pass.
Stopping at an ARRIVAL/DEPARTURE sign I saw, with no small relief, that my ongoing flight to Vermont was delayed until 5:56 pm, giving me a slim chance of making it. For the first time since disembarking my flight, I came across a trash bin and so bid a hasty farewell to Mister Soppy, replacing him with his twin sister.
Following the signs to TICKETING, up an escalator, I made a beeline toward the UNITED PREFERRED COUNTER where I panted out the situation to an attendant… "...already checked in, snargle… baggage tagged, hack… asshole transfer baggage attendant, sneeze..." and either out of the milk of human kindness or a desire to put as much distance between her and my germs as quickly as possible, she pointed me to a scale to drop my bags on and within a couple of minutes I was on my way to security.
5:25 PM PRE-SECURITY, DULLES AIRPORT
Of all the lines in Dulles, the lines leading up to security in Dulles are the worst, a multi-layer expression of bureaucratic incompetence the likes of which I believe are unrivaled in the world.
At this point Miss Soppy and I were pretty much resigned to missing our flight and so we trudged on like prisoners lining up for goulash in a gulag until we finally reached actual security. Checking the time, with about twenty minutes to go, I dared to become hopeful we might yet make it. At least if there weren’t about fifty people lined up ahead of us before the x-ray machine.
It was time to make a move.
Calling over one of the security officers, a Latina woman - and based on my experience, Latina generally equals laid-back, good-humored and friendly - I appealed. “Listen, I’m going to miss my flight. Any way I could get past all this quicker?”
Taking pity on me and Miss Soppy, she smiled and said, “Just ask those folks in front of you to let you through. I’m sure they’ll let you by.”
“Yeah, just do it. They’ll let you through. Go on!” She said encouragingly.
“Okay!” I said, and asked the couple just in front of me if I could pass.
“Sure,” they said helpfully.
That was easy, I thought to myself.
Next group, a family unit, “Sure, please go ahead”.
There was hope.
“Excuse me, I’m going to miss my flight, could I slip ahead?” I asked a threesome of yuppies who were chatting unconcerned in front of me.
The two guys immediately said, “Yes”, but the young woman, turned to me and said coldly, “But then we could miss our flight, too. Sorry!”
Deflated, and somewhat feverish at this point, I shuffled back to my original place in line, but no sooner had I arrived than a more senior TSA official, also a Latina, having been alerted to my miserable self, pushed past the yuppies and told me to follow her - then personally escorted me to the front of the line.
Having cleared security, I then had to rush to another hallway to catch a train to my gate which, fortunately, was the first stop on it’s route.
In the end, thanks to the delay of my onward bound plane, I was not only able to make my flight, but I had time to pop into a store selling sundries in order to buy a couple of packages of Kleenex.
And so, with a nod of thanks for a job well done, I dropped Miss Soppy in the container marked “Waste”, though at that point, “Toxic Waste” would probably have been a more suitable resting place, and headed to my gate.
A FEW TAKEAWAYS
In every life, there are challenges and setbacks, each of which provide lessons to be learned so as to avoid them in the future.
So here’s my takeaways from my journey through the hallways of hell in Dulles Airport.
- After a customs officer asks him if he has anything to declare in the final scene of Snatch, one of my favorite movies of all time, the character of Cousin Avi responds, “Yea, don’t go to England!”. Likewise, don’t go to Dulles! Period.
- As hard as it is to believe, even a small deviation in what you are able to bring into the states is enough to get you seriously sidelined. Travel light and if you do push the edge of the envelope, consider adopting the policy of asking for forgiveness, not permission.
- When traveling, be sure to carry an abundant supply of Kleenex, ‘just in case’.
- Keep things in perspective and know your limits. As much as I wanted to get home, at no point did I break into anything more than a fast walk in an attempt to make my flight. The first dead person I ever saw, when just a stripling, was an overweight guy at a remote boarding gate. On this trip, because of the incompetency of the Dulles airport personnel, I witnessed any number of extremely out of shape people running with their bags like they were teenagers in a high school track meet. Likewise, losing your temper at the TSA or airport folks is a good way of having your trip seriously derailed. Not worth it.
- People are people wherever you go. Some let power go to their head, some are bigoted, and some look for opportunities to be kind and helpful. During my travels through Dulles, I came into contact with all of the above. Embrace the good, and try to not to let the jerks get under your skin too much.
I’m a big believer in the technical aspects of karma and I can almost guarantee the unhappy sod planted under the Baggage Transfer sign at Dulles is not enjoying his life.
I have no doubt the only reason for the baggage transfer agent's inexcusable attitude was that he viewed me as the enemy; a white male who indoctrination by the media and influencers in his community have successfully targeted as belonging to a sub-species of humankind which alone are the root cause of all that ails him.
In recent times the politicos and the press in the US have taken the time-honored tactic of scapegoating one group or another to win political points to scary new heights. So much so that these days some pathetic folks even feel compelled to apologize for their genetics.
In my longish life in the United States there has never, ever, been anything close to this level of political animosity thanks, no doubt, to the prevailing meme that Trump is a white supremacist, a claim I have never seen backed up with facts, and so, by extension, his supporters must all be racists, too.
As a consequence, if you were to walk around in pretty much any US city wearing pro-Trump attire, or maybe just a red baseball cap, you would literally be putting yourself at risk of bodily harm.
It has gotten so bad that even a website dedicated to the soft art of knitting recently posted the following:
This is not going to end well: in the interest of political expediency, the politicians and the pandering press are creating a tinderbox that is sure to spill over.
One recent despicable example is Elizabeth Warren promoting the myth that Michael Brown was murdered in cold blood, and somehow even though that occurred well before election, Brown’s corpse belongs on Trump’s doorstep.
There are few forces in nature more powerful than ideas. And the ideas that are now flying around in the United States - and in much of the world - have been proven time and again to be hugely destructive.
Which brings me to the next topic, Argentina. While Argentina is culturally homogeneous, so the racial divide is almost non-existent, the political situation at the moment is unsettled thanks to the broad adoption of the very bad ideas embodied in the notion that everyone should have everything, regardless of their personal efforts or the normal functioning of commercial markets.
The Crisis in Argentina
Amazingly, but not without (mostly bad) reasons, the people of Argentina have voted in an important primary to return the previously reigning criminal gang to power, kicking the country into uncertainty and chaos.
If the election results hold up in October, the most likely consequences are for (a) Argentinean bonds, pesos and the stock market to crash, (b) inflation to soar, (c) foreign investment to come to a screeching halt, (d) unemployment to skyrocket, (e) an acceleration in capital flight, (f) banks and businesses to fail in droves.
In short, an economic catastrophe.
So, why would the rank and file in Argentina vote back into power an administration that was demonstrably corrupt? And not just a little corrupt: on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being gun-toting Mafioso, a 9.25.
Why would they do it, when even the dullest of minds should be able to figure out that by voting Cristina and her cronies back into power Argentina would tumble down into a league with Venezuela, an international pariah with few trading partners and zero inbound investment? Leaving the only path for government funding and to provide the graft, a bevy of new taxes and confiscatory regulatory regimes.
Own a business in Argentina? Prepare to get gutted. There’s a reason that companies such as YPF fell by 50% or more in the first trading session after the election results were made known.
Showing what a brazen fraud she is, Cristina drolly commented in response to the sell-off, “...the markets react badly when they realize there were ripped off”.
Sadly, her followers will actually bite on that irrational rationale hook, then gobble up the line and sinker for dessert.
So, why? Why would the masses willingly commit econocide?
With apologies for commenting on Argentine politics, as something of an outsider, I see several reasons.
- The attraction of socialism. Under the Kirchner regime there were handouts aplenty, with subsidies for pretty much everyone and everything, except businesses (unless she and her cronies owned them). When the current president Macri took office, he slowly - too slowly, in fact - began to unwind those subsidies in order to liberate the economy. Give a person free soup and they love you, but never forget that when you take the soup away, they’ll hate you.
- Macri didn’t deliver. Thanks to a constantly poor economy and high profile criminality within Cristina’s government, Macri, a businessman, surprised everyone by winning. He started strong, taking on difficult issues such as the pensions and subsidies. Unfortunately, rather than putting the pedal to the metal and keeping it there during the first 200 days, he eased off and, with the next election in site, started pumping the brakes in a futile attempt to appease everyone. As a result, the economy never bore the fruit of becoming liberalized, because Macri’s reforms were too little and, as time passed, too late.
- The Argentine Deep State. Rather than being of the people, for the people, it is the bureaucrats and their families who’ve always been the primary beneficiaries of Argentine governments. The amount of money stolen by the Argentine officialdom would make a Nigerian prince blush.
Breaking a long-standing custom of patronage, among other acts, Macri banned the hiring of close family members for available government positions. With Macri’s attempted reforms cracking their rice bowls, it was only to be expected that the deep state legions of bureaucrats would go all out to foil his re-election. Participating in organized fraud is certainly on the table, because a Cristina win would once again free the political parasites to get back to business as usual, i.e. raping the country.
Sadly, the hoi polloi was too angry at Macri’s ham-fisted reforms, and too ill-informed about economics, to understand the consequences of voting the crooks back into power.
And so, here we are.
Is there any chance Macri’s government can claw back enough votes to slide through in October? It’s unlikely, though should the pending election trigger a waterfall collapse, perhaps it may provide the masses with a timely reminder of what life in a truly ruined economy entails.
Maybe some of Cristina’s reluctant supporters will decide to sit on their hands, and Macri’s supporters will be even more energized to get to the polls, dragging every friend and relative they can muster along with them.
If not, and if Cristina’s criminal gang recaptures Casa Rosada in October, the only upside will be for her cronies and for dollar-based speculators looking to buy valuable Argentinean assets for pennies on the dollar in the subsequent collapse.
However, given how long it takes for political tides to come back in, the return of a government with free market leanings is unlikely for a decade or more, meaning that even at greatly reduced prices, Argentina will be a risky bet.
For those of us who love the country, and therefore would consider leaving only if and when things get positively Venezuelan, all we can do is hunker down, reduce our exposure to government-risk as much as possible, and live our lives the best we can.
Fortunately, thanks to a successful local economy based on wine and tourists, Cafayate, where we live, should be the among the places least impacted as the economy crumbles and the social unrest that will invariably follow.
One thing for sure about Argentina, there’s never a dull moment. Though, if the election results are repeated in October, there will be many very bad moments ahead. Fortunately, because of their history, the Argentinians are remarkably resilient. They will need to be.
And with that, I will bid you farewell for the next little while. I’ll be heading to Kentucky for a family visit, then wrapping things up here in Vermont precedent to returning to my favorite place in the world, Cafayate, Argentina.
Until next time… big abrazos!