Though I don't travel by airplane often, I'm no stranger to it. Although airports can be sometimes confusing, I've always relished the experience of being in an airplane. Flying in an impossible contraption of human ingenuity, pushing through the skies at unfathomable speed; I've always enjoyed it. Every lift-off has always stirred in me a combination of apprehension and awe.
Now, however, I have descended through the circles of air travel hell. What should have been a little over a day of hopping flights turned into a three-day nightmare of flight delays, cancellations, lost luggage, and clueless staff. I have crossed the Stygian gulf of inept bureaucracy. That cheerful Peter of the past, so full of wonder and delight, is no more. I am now a husk, shambling about in a days-old stench, with only bitterness in my heart. On March 2, we began our descent.
The First Circle of Hell: Ice
It was too good to be true, really. Three flights with ample layovers each time to collect our thoughts and find our gate, with a final flight that skipped the eastern metropolis of San Juan altogether, bringing us to the west side of the island, dropping us neatly at the doorstep of our fieldwork. We were fools to have hoped.
Canada sent us off in form, with blizzards and some of the worst road conditions I have seen. Yet as we arrived safely at the Calgary airport, it seemed for a brief moment that snow delays were merely a hiccup that we avoided. Fresh-faced and bright-eyed, we sat in our airplane, waiting for it to lift us to the skies and onward to Puerto Rico. Our sunny forest of singing birds awaited us. A bell sounded overhead. There was an announcement from the captain.
The Second Circle of Hell: False Hope
A stereotypical captain's voice sounded overhead, "Uhhhhh sorry folks but it seems we've blown a circuit and lost our flight lights. We're… gonna have to delay or cancel the flight to fix them but uhhh… prepare yourself for the worst." The bell that sounded was a funeral bell. His announcement, an obituary.
Unsure of our destiny now, we waited on that plane for three hours. The recycled air became heavy. Through fogging windows we watched technicians scurry about aimlessly and ground crews load our luggage, then unload it, and then load it again. Our ample layover time quickly eroded to unsalvageable.
Three hours later we took off, unsure of what would await us in Denver.
T he Third Circle of Hell: No Answer
12:45am. Denver. We probably saw the disappearing taillights of our connecting flight as we descended. We still had hope we could make it to New Jersey in time for the last leg of our journey. Poor fools we were then. Beaten but not broken. But there were no flights to catch. All that awaited us in Denver was a hotel room and four or five hours of sleep.
David and I bunked down in a room together. The lights turned off. After a moment I gathered what hope I had and asked into the darkness,
"We'll make to Puerto Rico, right David?"
I knew he was awake. There was no answer.
The Fourth Circle of Hell: Loss of Dignity
Houston awaited us next, not New Jersey, with another set of check points and hotels. Yet by bending the very fabric of physics and time, our luggage had somehow made it to Jersey without us. In Houston, all I carried with me were the clothes on my back, one bag, and my waning sense of dignity. Clutching our bundles of tattered boarding passes, we were herded through security again and again, stripped of our shoes, our bags searched, our bodies scanned. What remained of our humanity was ignored. The eyes of the travelers in that place - oh, I wish I could forget. Glazed, past feeling, we were like animals in a slaughterhouse. Would it end? Could it ever end?
Ok, enough theatrics. Yes, the travel to Puerto Rico was indescribably painful. It was unfortunate to the point of hilarity. However, it's awfully hard to mourn your lot in life when you can see the surf crashing on the shores as the plane lands, as you feel the wet hot air when it opens its doors, and as you hear the bustle of San Juan's bright streets. Yes, my luggage didn't arrive for another three days after we landed. Yes, we almost immediately lost power to the house we are staying in for another three days. Yes, my cell phone company cancelled my service because I chose the wrong travel package. In any other place in the world, I would be livid. Any one of those things would leave me fuming for weeks. But there's just something about this place - falling asleep with the all the windows open to the sounds of insects and frogs, picking your way through the methodological unpredictability that is Puerto Rican traffic, the ridiculous explosion of plant life on every inch of dirt - the wonderful blend of it all has a way of sneaking into your skull and lifting your spirits.
I remember last year when David and I exited the plane, I noticed his mood improve considerably, even though the process of travel (his own personal nightmare) hadn't ended yet. This year, I caught myself humming and tapping my fingers, grinning about nothing in particular as we waited for a local flight to take us across the island. It's just nice to be back.
My birds, too, seem to be in high spirits. From what I've seen of their territories in the refuge, They have weathered their own recent helping of bad luck particularly well. Hurricane Maria has left significant damage on many parts of the island. The Adelaide's Warbler population in Cabo Rojo is singing and fighting and eating bugs just as they were before, with the individual males that I know almost completely the way I left them. Some of their trees look a little chewed up and spit out, but from the way these birds engage in their world and converse with each other, you couldn't tell the difference.
Since this trip has begun, the universe has done nothing but lob wrenches at our plans. The power just came back on after three days of candle lit dinners of uncooked food. My luggage, containing all my life-preserving diabetes medication, was lost to the world for days, untraceable by a truckload of hapless customer service representatives. Yet since arriving on the island, not a single thing has broken my good mood. Hopefully this rash of bad luck is over, but even if it isn't - life happens. We recover, and we continue on the way we always do. This is Puerto Rico.