Cusco, Peru and New York, New York
Tuesday was my last day in Peru so I spent part of the morning at the Mercado San Pedro. This is the Cusco equivalent to Seattle’s Pike Place Market only much larger, much more chaotic and much more shall I say “exotic”. The folks in my hotel thought I was nuts for wanting to go the Mercado, but in my opinion, you always get in touch with the real character of a city when you visit a market. So off I went with words of warning to be very, very careful. I arrived to a scene that was right out Anthony Bordain’s No Reservations. There were men, women and children everywhere screaming, bartering, buying and just generally hanging out. The Mercado was divided into the indoor market and the outdoor market. Inside there was clothing, fruits, vegetables, breads,cheeses, spices and meat for sale. In addition, there was a fascinating “food court” where women had prepared ingredients earlier in the day for chicken soup. When a customer came to a woman’s counter she would dip her ladle into the soup stock (some of the stock had noodles), then she would add veggies, hack off a piece of meat from a chicken and … that will be 2 soles please. I spent about a half hour wandering around until I got up the courage to use my very, very, very basic Spanish. First stop … the counter of the one I believed to be the most popular soup lady there. She had a line that was longer than anyone’s. I watched this woman ladle, prepare and collect the money for about 15 minutes. It was fascinating. At one point she pulled out more chickens and veggies – including peas (which I know will make my friend the Bull very happy) so it was clear this lady was going to be at it for awhile that day. I made eye contact with her a number of times and finally I held up my camera and said “Senora foto por favor.” She smiled, nodded and I preceded to take a few shots. “Gracias Senora” and off I went.
Next stop was the spice stand where I examined a number of the spices and roots and began a conversation with a very elderly woman about the spices she was selling. I’m not sure if either one of us understood the other, but when I moved on, we were both laughing.
Then it was time to venture into the great meat area. This was not for the faint of heart. There was every kind of part of a vaca (“cow”) on display as well as pigs, sheep, chickens, and frogs – there were heads, hoofs, hearts, innards, testicles, penises, brains and on and on. I wandered around as long as my nose could stand it before I stopped in front of two women who were gutting a cow’s stomach. Keep in mind, this is all out in the open with NO refrigeration. These folks must have rock guts. Anyway, after watching for a spell and chatting the two ladies up, I was granted another foto.
By now, I was feeling pretty confident so I ventured outdoors where the real show was taking place. There were stands and stalls everywhere. Women sitting on the ground selling celery and tomatoes. Women standing at carts selling peppers. Women standing behind tables selling meat. It was chaos and confusion and it was amazing. I snapped pictures left and right, but was always careful if I was taking a picture of people I was standing in front of to ask permission. I also took a lot of surreptitious shots of people just standing around chatting and buying. It was a very, very memorable morning.
I headed back to the hotel and said goodbye to Cusco. I jumped on the plane to Lima late in the afternoon and was fortunate to sit beside a lovely lady dentist from Lima. She gave me her business card and insisted I email her. She even invited to me to come back to Lima to visit. She was someone I would love to have a few drinks with. Wonderful gal. I then spent the night at an airport hotel (conveniently located directly across the street from the International Departure area – even with my lousy arm I could have hit it with a stone) and in the morning jumped on an American Airlines flight to Miami. This is where the fun begins. I sat beside a clearly wealthy, wealthy woman (had houses all over the place, cook, chauffer, gardner etc.) who loved, loved, loved to talk. I was exhausted by the time the plane landed 6 ½ hours later.
Once in Miami we cleared customs, I picked up my luggage and followed the “yellow dots” as directed with a few other folks to drop off our bags that had already been checked through to JFK. I had a 4 hour wait for my plane and in the interim thunderstorms moved in. However, we boarded the plane on time (8:30 p.m.) and proceeded to sit on the plane for almost two hours while we waited for our captain and co-pilot to land on a flight delayed by the weather. Let me just say this about American Airlines coach seats – if there was any less room I would have been sitting in the lap of the fellow in front of me. Good God! So … confined to my little cramped quarters and down right tired, we finally took off from Miami landing at JFK just over 2 ½ hours later at around 12:30 a.m., an hour after our original arrival time. I proceeded down to baggage claim and finally at 1:15 a.m. the bags started to appear. And I waited and waited and it soon became apparent that there were only a few of us left… yep the group of us that followed the “yellow dots” with checked through baggage. Then the dreaded announcement. “All bags have been removed from the plane. If your bag is not here, please proceed to the American Airlines lost baggage office to make your claim.” Are you kidding me?! All you had to do was take the bag from the checked through area and put it on the damn plane. My bag was already tagged to JFK (and I did check before I handed my luggage over to make sure of that). So my plan to relax and enjoy a day in New York had suddenly been trampled on by some idiot baggage handler in Miami who couldn’t figure out how to move a piece of luggage from the checked baggage area to a plane in 6 hours. By now it was 1:45 a.m. I had no luggage and was leaving for Russia in 15 hours. I wanted to cry. I made the claim, got some claim number, grabbed a cab to my hotel and proceeded to check in. It was now 3:00 a.m. I was exhausted. The only saving grace? The guys who checked me in were fantastic and even gave me a warm cookie!
When I got to my room, I obviously could not sleep. What the hell was I going to do without luggage? I had the clothes on my back and that was it. And even worse, how could I be assured once my luggage was found that American Airlines would get it to me in Russia? (These folks after all were the same buffoons who couldn’t load my luggage on a plane when it was sitting there at least 6 hours before we ever took off!) The only saving grace in all of this is that I had (wisely) carried on my computer, my iPod and my 3 ½ month supply of medications.
After tossing and turning, I finally got up at 7:00 a.m., jumped on the computer and checked the American Airlines lost baggage site … bad news … “We apologize, but your luggage has not yet been located”. Thanks much jackasses. Well that ruled out the possibility that my luggage would be on the 7:00 a.m. flight from Miami. The only other shot was the 11:30 a.m. flight that arrived at 2:30 p.m. I went down to the breakfast room, had a couple bites of an apple and some yogurt and called it good. I went to the front desk and asked about stores in the area. I explained the problem and then just started sobbing. Two years of planning and preparing was being systematically destroyed by the jackasses at American Airlines. What was I going to wear? I didn’t have any of my warm clothes for Russia. How was I going to hike in Turkey without my hiking boots? And on and on. Well it turns out I was staying in THE best hotel in Jamaica, New York. My hotel, the Fairfield Inn by Marriott Long Island JFK Jamaica, NY, was owned by a family who all worked in the hotel. They immediately jumped into action. The general manager, Charles Patel, mobilized his folks. He told me that they would have American Airlines send the luggage to their hotel and they would take care of ensuring it reached me in Russia. Then Shatel, the owner’s daughter, told me she would drive me to the local mall to pick up a few things. Ten minutes later I was in a Mercedes heading to the mall. While in the car, I asked Shatel if there was a pharmacy at the mall. I told her that I had not been feeling well (travelers’ stomach) the past couple days, was a kidney transplant patient and needed to contact my doctor to have him either call in a prescription for me or advise me what to do. This incredible lady immediately handed me her cell phone and told me to call him. Unfortunately, Dr. Winrow did not answer. I left a message and in the process of leaving the message Shatel provided me her number and told me to have Dr. Winrow call her on her cell number. Unbelievable!
Shatel dropped me off at the mall where I ran into Target, bought some necessities and a small suitcase. I stopped by the Target pharmacy and told the pharmacist my problem. He immediately advised me he would try to contact my doctor, told me to drink water and gatorade (for the electrolytes) and then proceeded to give me advice on restaurants to visit in Istanbul. No luck reaching Dr. Winrow, but I left with a list of restaurants to try in Istanbul. Next stop was Sears for a jacket. I asked the gal if she could remove the tags and explained I would not need a bag. I then opened up my new suitcase while explaining to her what had happened. She immediately offered to cut the tags off the things I had purchased at Target and proceeded to fold everything into my suitcase. (Is there no end to the hospitality of the New Yorkers?) Then it was on to Macys to buy a hoody where I ran into a sales person who found exactly what I needed, also removed the tags and also folded the hoody into my suitcase.
My final stop was at Chase Bank to withdraw some American money (my bank will not let me use my ATM card in Russia). As I rushed into the bank, one of the bank managers noticed my very harried condition and asked if I was O.K. Uh not really. I explained that my trip of a lifetime was being messed over by American Airlines. The gentleman introduced himself as Huascar Beato. Another manager, Fatima, told me to sit down, offered me water and then allowed me to use the phone to call Shatel. I got hold of Shatel and she told me Dr. Winrow had called her twice, and I needed to call him immediately. She then told me a hotel shuttle that makes the rounds to the mall would be there in 45 minutes if I wanted to take that back to the hotel or I could call their driver service. I told her I would take the shuttle. Huascar then allowed me to use his phone to call Dr. Winrow. I spoke to Dr. Winrow and he advised me to see the emergency doctor at JFK before my flight to St. Petersberg to be checked out “just in case”. Great! Add that to my list. Dr. Winrow reiterates the pharmacist’s advice. Lots and lots of water and gatorade if possible. Obviously I needed to get to JFK pronto if I was to see the airport doctor AND make my flight at 5:40 p.m. By now it was 12:30. Huascar then offered to call me a cab. I took him up on the offer. I thanked the good folks at Chase profusely and then its into the cab and back to the Fairfield Inn. I dashed inside. The folks at the hotel tell me they will shuttle me over to JFK. I head to my room, clean up a little bit, pack up my toiletries and my carry on stuff. I jumped on the computer one last time to check the bag status… same message as before … “We apologize, but your luggage has not yet been located”. OK then. No luggage for Russia! Bite me American Airlines!
I zipped to the lobby and provided the folks with all my contact information. The shuttle driver was just pulling up when one of the front desk gals runs over and advises me that American Airlines just called, and I am to call them. By now it is 2:00 p.m. I race to the business center and call American Airlines. I speak to a nice lady who searches the record, puts me on hold, comes back on the line and tells me my luggage has been located. I ask exactly where might my luggage be located and she puts me on hold again. Two minutes later… “Ma’am your luggage is on the flight arriving at 2:30 at JFK. You can pick it up at the baggage holding area at Terminal 8.” ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME!!! I just checked the computer record and according to the website my bag was still lost. I just spent 3 hours racing around Jamaica, New York on no sleep, spent $200 on clothes I apparently don’t need now and put more people than I can count to a lot of trouble and my luggage is NOW at JFK?! HOW HARD IS IT TO UPDATE YOUR SITE TO TELL ME THE LUGGAGE WAS LOCATED AND IT WOULD BE ON THE 11:30 A.M. FLIGHT!
I ran back to the lobby and advised the Fairfield Inn folks what I was just told. I thanked everyone over and over and off I raced with the shuttle driver. As we head to JFK the driver tells me a bit of good news. My flight on Finnair leaves from Terminal 8 – the same terminal where my luggage was located. Hallelujiah. We reached Terminal 8. I grabbed a cart. The driver helped me load my things on the cart and and I raced inside. I reached the luggage area and … (insert angels singing) … there is my bag! I wanted to kiss the baggage lady – but she and I ended up agreeing it would be better if I just hugged her. Which I did ’cause I was so damn happy.
I grabbed the elevator to head upstairs to the Finnair counter with my two bags (and now an extra suitcase). I checked in, cleared security and headed to the Admirals Lounge for business class travelers (yes I know it’s decadent, but dammit I’m traveling business class on any flights over 3 hours in length). I reached the lounge and learned that my flight was delayed to 6:20. Perfect. I now had almost 2 hours instead of just over an hour to have a doctor look at me. I asked the woman at the front desk if she could contact the airport doctor. After a number of calls she tracked down the name and number of the clinic and put in a call for me. (By now I am madly in love with this city!) I then speak to a nurse who advised me that it would be about 15 or 20 minutes before they can come and pick me so it would be touch and go as to whether I could make my flight. I made the judgment call and declined. I had started feeling better that morning anyway, and was drinking bottle after bottle of water. I called Dr. Winrow and told him it was not possible for me to see the doctor, and that I was feeling better. (By this time I had concluded that I was really dehydrated from the altitude sickness pills, all the hiking and the heat.) Dr. Winrow reiterated his directions for fluids. I headed back to the front desk and asked the gal if I could store my luggage while I ran out to get some gatorade (which was not stocked in the lounge). She took care of the luggage for me and when I returned she called me over and handed me coupons for 4 complimentary drinks (ie bottles of water). It just doesn’t stop.
I finally boarded my flight to St. Petersberg via Helsinki exhausted but overwhelmed by the outpouring of generosity that the amazing people of New York displayed towards me. New York has been called a lot of things and its people are known for being brash and pushy. I am here to tell you that it’s all an act. Listen up New Yorkers. I’m on to you, and I for one have become your biggest fan!