Every so often, usually when everything is falling into place and you are congratulating yourself on being unusually organized and provident, Fate intervenes. Along she comes with her thread-snippers and her wry smile muttering, “You think so, do you?” grabbing you by the ankle and shaking you upside-down over an open fire.
The trouble started when I booked the cheapest ticket from Buenos Aires to Lima, via Asunciόn. Sure it would mean waiting for six hours in the middle of the night in a tropical airport, but that was a small thing, I imagined. On paper, it looked so neat and manageable.
As soon as we entered the connecting tube between the plane and the Asuncion airport, we recognized that damp-armpit atmosphere particular to the Tropics: a cloying warmth imbued with the smells of mildew and diesel. John saw a grasshopper chirping on the wall of the tube. A window in the women’s bathroom looked out on broad-leafed jungle plants and the floor was alive with tiny ants running frantically around in circles.
Already tired from a day of preparing for travel, we looked for somewhere to rest. The most comfortable spots had already been claimed by recumbent bodies with coats over their faces. One enterprising traveler was lying on a foam mat in a corner, for which I admired him. We found two facing rows of chairs without arms, where we could lie down. The chair seats sloped down so it felt as if we were being tipped over; fluorescent lights glared; loud announcements bounced harshly and incoherently off smooth, shiny surfaces. Pop music from the graveyard of the 1980s and 1990s wailed in the background: ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’, ‘Everything I Do, I Do it For You’, the complete works of Air Supply etc. Rest, let alone sleep, was impossible.
As the night wore on, details of the small waiting area acquired a nightmarish clarity. It bothered me that the duty-free store was called LUXYR. The local knick-knacks had a pathetic, half-baked quality. The leather bookmarks onto which the word ‘Paraguay’ had been burnt seemed particularly grotesque, but there were also knitted dolls whose faces looked vaguely deformed and little paper Paraguayan flags mounted on shapeless mounds of wood. Next to these local offerings, was a store selling Lacoste shirts going for the low, low cost of US $70 each. A woman manning a knick-knack store bedded down on a mattress.
Television screens flashed images on the screen related to measles and yellow fever. The messages seemed to be contradictory and far from reassuring. The first image claimed that Paraguay was free of these diseases. The next image gave a detailed list of signs and symptoms of Yellow Fever, with instructions to see a doctor immediately should you experience them. Children covered in red scabs, bright yellow eyeballs, close-ups of the female mosquito…it was of concern.
By the time 6 a.m. rolled around, we were both ready to leave. John looked worryingly pale and drawn and said he felt really bad. We had coffee and a sugary and tasty slice of apple pie in an effort to revive. It seemed to work, for a while. The boarding announcement came and we stood in line like overburdened zombies. We put as much weight as possible in our carry-on bags to avoid excess-weight charges on our checked luggage.
Once on the plane, we found that we were seated across the aisle from one another. The woman next to me kept staring at me and John. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like being stared at. I think there are some cultures where it’s perfectly acceptable to gawp slack-jawed at your immediate neighbor. In Albania, for instance, it tended to happen a lot. But I find it unnerving, especially at close quarters.
“I don’t feel so good,” John groaned quietly.
“Do you want to get off?” I asked, alarmed.
“I don’t know,” he said, looking green.
“Why is that woman looking at me?” he asked.
“I don’t know. It’s weird. Here, here’s a sick bag.”
Suddenly overwhelmed by nausea and claustrophobia, John stood up and decided to get off the plane. The flight attendants had just closed the plane doors so they were a little bewildered.
“I have to get off this plane,” John explained.
“Yes sir, I understand. We will open the door but you have to wait. You can sit here,” she gestured to a seat at the front. “Do you need some extra oxygen?”
“Yes, oxygen would be good,” I piped up uselessly.
John sat down for a moment, but then darted into the bathroom to vomit. The flight attendants clustered around the door, waiting for his emergence.
Luckily, by the time he came out, the door had been opened.
A flight attendant helped me retrieve our carry-on luggage, though I forgot about the Kindle stowed in John’s seat pocket.
“His first time flying?” she asked sympathetically.
“No, he’s really sick,” I replied.
“Ah, his first time,” she nodded. I should have just agreed—her hands were shaking slightly at the unusual situation. I felt a lot of admiration and gratitude for these women, who had remained outwardly calm and yet also firm throughout our stressful ordeal.
Back in the airport, staff asked John if he needed medical assistance. He refused, saying he just needed to go to a hotel. They got our luggage tags so they could haul our suitcase out of the hold, and an official took us over the visa counter. Amazingly, getting a visa to get into Paraguay is quite expensive for some nationalities. For US citizens a visa costs US$160, for New Zealand citizens it’s $140. We coughed up the dough and got a couple of fancy stickers in our passports.
One tense taxi ride later, John was voluminously sick in the privacy and comfort of a hotel room rather than in a glorified chicken coop over the Andes. We had a couple of unexpected days in Asunciόn, and Fate walked off chuckling to herself.