Thursday, May 3, 2012

In which Kelly and I go to Machu Picchu but get sidetracked by the airport in Tacna

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer, thanks to my country director's very liberal interpretation of the Peace Corps vacation policy, we got five weeks of vacation a year. Not that being in the Peace Corps wasn't already like being on vacation all the time, although I did go to work every day from nine to five and try to improve sales, cut expenses, and reduce accounts receivable.

Unfortunately, although those were my objectives, what I ended up spending most of my day doing was telling the interns that even when I wasn't in the office, I didn't want them to smoke - yes, I could tell that they'd been smoking in there the night before, I could! I could smell it!, asking my co-workers not to put their crap on my desk, locking my toilet paper in my desk drawer, and sitting through eight-hour meetings in which we debated should the mission of the organization be to serve Mapuche women or young Mapuche women.

And I was cold all the time, which is not my idea of vacation. And when I rented a room from Maruja la Bruja, I had to heat water on the stove to bathe because it was too dangerous to try to get hot water to emerge from the shower. [See: How I almost electrocuted myself taking a shower.] And there were bedbugs. So maybe it wasn't like being on vacation at all.

But the five weeks away was like being on vacation. Because you know, it was. A vacation.

My friend Kelly and I decided to go to Machu Picchu. Just one small country away. Might as well. As long as we were there. We took the bus to Arica, in the north of Chile in the Atacama desert, which purports to be one of the driest places on earth. No recorded rain in hundreds of years.

I believed this when I discovered I could not flush the toilet in any public place. Our bus stopped at a remote outpost. I, who had been experiencing some distress, ran to the bathroom. Then realized there was no way to flush. Emerged. Asked the bathroom attendant what there was to be done. She explained that after everyone had taken care of their needs, she would take a bucket of water into the stall.

Oh no, I explained. That would not be a good idea.

But that's how it's done, she said.

No no no, I said. I must have the bucket now.

But one must wait until everyone is finished!

I assure you you do not want to do that.

I insisted. And insisted. She surrendered. Gave me the bucket. I know the people who followed me thanked me, even though they didn't know why. And we'll leave it at that.

We got back on the bus. Stopped again a few hours later in a small Aymara village. Waited for the llamas to get out of our way so we could look inside the whitewashed church in which crucifixion scene painted on the wall showed Roman soldiers dressed as Spaniards.

When we got to Tacna, on the other side of the Peruvian border, we decided we'd had enough of buses and that taking a 26-hour bus ride through the mountains at night was probably not the wisest thing to do. I don't remember if it was because we were concerned about the roads, the driver, or the Sendero Luminoso.

Instead, for a mere US$45, almost 10% of our monthly stipend, we could fly from Tacna to Cuzco, the base city for Machu Picchu. Oh, the travel agent added, there is a $5 airport usage fee. We assumed she meant that fee was included in the price of the ticket and wondered why she was even mentioning it to us. Whatever.

Smug in the knowledge that we had gotten a real bargain, we arrived at the airport the next morning at 5 a.m. and pushed our way to the front of the mob waiting at the ticket counter, which we had to pass even though we already had our tickets.

England, Costa Rica, and the U.S. are the only countries I have ever been where people actually line up.

The mob seemed to be unusually grouchy, even for 5 a.m. We discovered why when the ticket agent told us we had to pay an 18% value-added tax on our tickets. There must have been a pact amongst the travel agents in the region that none of them would breathe a word of this to clients. Not a single customer there had heard about the tax before and boy were they mad about it.

The idea of collecting the tax when the ticket was sold had apparently not occurred to anyone. It would have occurred to Kelly and me because we are both organized businesswomen who would say, "Why not collect all taxes, fees, and other monies related to the ticket at once and disburse them to the appropriate agencies later as this will make things easier for the customer and also reduce manpower and operational costs associated with collecting said monies," but they hadn't asked us. They never do.

Over the din of protesting flyers to be, we looked at each other, chuckled indulgently, and noted that indeed, when one is in a third-world country, one must expect this kind of thing. One must expect inefficiencies, some of them deliberate. Sometimes, they are means of increasing employment. Sometimes, they are means of reducing fraud. The more people involved in collecting money, the harder it is to steal it. Think about that, churches that have only one person counting the collection plate. I am always shocked to find that any church in this day and age can have money stolen from the collection plate. The way you do it is you grab three people from the congregation to count after the service is over and their counts all have to tally. It's that simple, people!

We paid without protest, then passed through the elaborate security system - the hall - to the waiting room. I guess they didn't care if they were hijacked. Hijackers never want to go to nice countries. They just want to go to hellholes. Peru was already a hellhole. I mean, it's a beautiful country with good food, but the Sendero Luminoso was making things a nightmare for poor people. I don't know how Cuba could be much worse. Actually, at least in Cuba, people would be warm. Peru is cold as heck in the mountains. So yeah, they didn't seem to worry much about hijackers. Although buses got hijacked. So go figure.

We wondered when we would eat again. There was no cafeteria - this was a minimalist airport. Apparently, the government had figured out it could make money by taxing the heck out of passengers but not by selling them food? Peru, I'm disappointed in you. Or I am disappointed in the 1993 you.

At five minutes to 6:00, we lined up to board the plane, which allegedly left at 6:00 a.m., although time has a totally different meaning in the southern hemisphere. Six a.m. could mean "any time once it gets light."

The ticket taker looked at my ticket and told me I hadn't paid the airport usage fee.

We shall leave the debate over whether one should be charged for walking into a building to get to an airplane for another time.

Yes, I did, I told him calmly. Had we not cleared this up yesterday with the travel agent? It was included in the ticket price.

He said no, I didn't have the appropriate orange sticker on my ticket.

Well, I demanded, Why didn't they tell me this when I paid my 18% value-added tax and they re-wrote the entire ticket?

He just shrugged and pointed me to the Airport Usage Fee Pay Window.

Confident that this was a mere administrative misunderstanding that I, because of my command of the Spanish language, could clear up in no time, I strode with determination to the Airport Usage Fee Pay Window and waved my ticket in the agent's face. Note that this window is not to be confused with the 18% Value-Added Tax Window. That was a separate window staffed by a separate agent.

I have paid this tax! I announced to the agent. It was in my ticket price!

He shrugged and indicated that I lacked the orange sticker.

NO! I maintained. I paid it, I paid it, I paid it! My voice rose with each declaration and tears of anger and frustration welled in my eyes, but to no avail. The agent merely stared past me with blank bureaucratic indifference - he would have been a Miami DMV employee had he been American - at the passengers behind me who, in an attempt to board the plane before it left, were reaching over my shoulder and frantically shoving US$5 bills into his hand.

Just pay! Kelly hissed.

Oh like I should trust someone who packed all white clothes for a three-week trip to Peru and Bolivia?

Pay! She said. We're going to miss the plane! Then she remarked conversationally, This is a perfect example of commitment escalation like we learned in business school.

I looked at the runway. The line was getting shorter. I looked back at the agent. He was looking at his fingernails. He didn't care. He was paid no matter what. He was quite unlike the bus drivers in Chile, who got a cut of the fares. This was good if you wanted to catch a bus. All you had to do was wave one down and it would come to a screeching halt, but not so good if you were already on a bus and wanted to get somewhere already. The bus was always stopping! For other people!

I pulled five dollars out of my pocket, threw it on the counter, hissed that I knew I was being cheated and that I hated his stupid country, thrust my ticket at the agent for the sticker, gave my ticket to the ticket taker, and ran on the plane.

Whereupon after some reflection and thought I realized that the ticket price had not included the airport usage fee after all and that I had wasted a perfectly good fit.

Next time: We take the train to Machu Picchu and sit next to two beautiful Brazilian men who are too young for us.