Like most online airline policies, you can’t book an airline ticket less than 24 hours in advance in Ecuador. Unfortunately, you can’t make a reservation online and then finalize it all with a travel agent closeby either — the same day or a subsequent day. Nor, can you pay for your ticket by credit card over the phone. While it’s not uncommon to see cell phones and an increasingly number of laptops in the smaller Ecuadorian towns, there are some things that remain, “lento lento.”
My hotel manager Martin takes charge, or perhaps I should really refer to Martin as the hotel man of all trades. One night, he showed up with a plunger and he had also served me tea and toast. On the surface, this four star boutique hotel looked more like an upscale W but with a lot more elegance and space, yet Martin seemed to do it all, including reserving taxis, buses and planes.
After two hours on the phone with Tame and AeroGal, the two local airlines, we learn that we have to physically go to the airport to purchase the tickets, which of course we can’t do at check in since our flight would be given away at 4 pm. Another taxi negotiation and 25 minutes of road congestion, we arrive only to discover a long line in the Tame Office, loaded with people who got bounced off the last flight of the day to Quito.
Another difference in Ecuador is the priority of queues. It’s not always who’s in queue first, it’s who needs to get on the plane first, whether or not they just arrived and are at the end of the line or not. An attendant could be serving people in your line and then suddenly a new line, longer than yours forms within minutes and she takes those passengers instead. Meanwhile you just wait….and wait. It’s also not uncommon for an Ecuadorian to ‘slip’ in front of you or simply move to the front of the line. They do this with grace of course because of their easy going pleasant nature.
Welcome to Ecuador airports. Waiting. Paperwork. Forms. Lack of support. That said, it’s not India and it’s not Zaire.
Once you finally purchase your ticket, you learn that there’s no place at the airport to store your luggage despite the fact that your hotel manager tells you he leaves his luggage with Tame all the time…..from the very same airport. Arguing in broken Spanish gets you nowhere, particularly when you have brand new lines forming behind you every few minutes. This of course meant that we had to trek back to the hotel after yet another taxi negotiation with our luggage, not assured that our flight was confirmed or not. What was certain is that we parted with cash and lost half a day and it wasn’t over yet. The upside in this process is that I received five hugs over an eight hour period, none of which were from the airline staff of course.
This particular flight was easier than the one which was yet to come – Macas in the south to Quito in the north. Macas on the ugliness scale from 1 to 10 ‘hopes’ for a 1, right up there with Guatemala City (minus the cute touristy square) and Mexico City. It’s one of those places you avoid unless you have a solid reason to be there and in our case, we had to pass through to get to the Jungle in the south. Due to limited transportation options, we got stuck in Macas for two nights on two separate occasions. Like our experience in Guayaquil and Cuenca, you have to pay on-site at a local airline. For some reason, the travel agents don’t have the authority to handle this transaction and it could largely be because we had ‘foreign credit cards,’ not local ones.
Sometimes its just faster to jump in a cab and go to the local office since no one seems to answer the phones at the airline offices and when they do, they often put down the phone before they’re finished or more importantly, before you’re finished. A relatively new airline in Ecuador called Saereo barely has a website, so despite our visit to a travel agent and their local office, they won’t accept our foreign visas and master cards. Dunno – maybe they assume that only Ecuador citizens will take domestic flights? Not exactly a smart call from their Tourism Board if they want foreigners to spend money taking those local flights.
Like many things that appear to work on the surface and even look ‘good’ on the surface, things aren’t always as they appear with a little time. The bathroom of the travel agent didn’t have paper or lights and for some reason, 4 wopping bags of garbage were piled in front of it so you could barely find its entrance. Since we then needed to find a working ATM machine for ‘cash,’ we knew we had just lost another hour. Note the word working…………..my card ‘didn’t’ which resulted in a long line behind me followed by a local policeman and the bank manager trying to ‘help.’
Here’s the other thing about Ecuador. When you think something will take an hour, triple it and then hope for double the amount of time..….quietly. While ATM #2 performed, we still had to solve the e-ticket issue. Time to go to the airport which often means, time to fly — not the case in Ecuador, at least not from Macas. Delays seemed common which could be partially from the fact that they are understaffed and they don’t have a lounge IN THE AIRPORT. When a taxi pulls up and drops you off in a residential neighborhood when you clearly said ‘airport,’ you have to wonder what kind of planes Saereo flies.
The airport lounge turned out to be the Saereo office which could barely fit six people behind the counter, space I could have used since I left an important task to do at the airport figuring we’d have plenty of time. Since I went to Ecuador with an old $18 duffel bag I purchased in some Chinese shop somewhere in Johannesburg, it’s no surprise that by this juncture of the trip, four holes (large holes) had emerged. Take note: travel with duct tape in South America. You WILL use it, old Johannesburg flowered duffel bag or not.
The airline strip was surrounded by two family homes on all sides and people waiting outside the gate for people to get off and to bid farewell to people going in. Not unlike most puddle jumpers, they weigh you in so I waited for the last possible moment before starting the ‘taping process.’
Needless to say, the plane was three hours late so I had plenty of time in the couped up Saereo office. Security was a one woman machine – she took the tickets, padded you down, searched your bags, ran the gift shop and yelled at you if you closed the door or windows. I found an outlet, the only outlet in the room, and of course it was nestled behind the seat of the one person in the room who was the least likely to use it – an Ecuadorian nun who was dressed from head to toe not black, but white.
“Plugging in” in that environment seemed like the last thing I should be doing but frankly, several days without a shower in the jungle and a long travel day, I needed my small pink netbook to vent, and the old fashioned notebook I had been using wasn’t doing the trick. The notebook is, however where this story originated.
As we handed our tickets to the same man who booked our tickets, weighed us in and dug out a pair of scissors for me, he handed us each a massive black umbrella. In the rain, I followed the nun and several others across the residential street to the airstrip only yards away from the closet house. Time to board.
For my $84 one way flight (expensive for a 40 minute national flight), I was handed a Saereo labled lunch box which consisted of a bag of Doritos and an angular container of Orange Juice where you sucked from the side, not the front. I spent several minutes trying to figure out why and then remembered that trying to figure out why a product design is the way it is often leads you down an illogical path of no return.
You find yourself noticing the smallest of details when you have time on your hands without all of your digital distractions. What a pleasure not to have those digital distractions so that I could remember the smell of the plane, the sight of the nun, the feel of the rain and texture of a beaten up old bag wrapped in twenty pounds of tape.
Welcome to flying the Ecuador way!