When the plane climbed again, well beyond circuit altitude, I knew exactly what the pilots were doing: Gaining altitude while they made a decision about what to do next. Clearly, landing in a thunderstorm wasn’t going to work. To make matters worse, the right wing had sustained some structural damage in a spurt of windshear we encountered, so landing in “normal” weather was going to be challenging enough for these poor people who had already been flying all night (Atlanta to BsAs is a 10-hour overnight haul).
Passengers gripped their seats and waited for what would come next; some pulled out their cel phones and made "just in case" videos.
With the complication of a cross-border diversion, we sat in the aircraft on the tarmac for hours, while the powers that be decided what to do with us (remember, a giant chunk missing from the right wing meant we could not fly this particular plane back to Buenos Aires. To complicate matters further, Delta did not have a base at the airport where we landed, so we were at the mercy of "strangers").
People became social, bitchy, grumpy and friendly at turns; I met a “Roads Scholar” who was late for a walking trip through Argentina, and several women who were frantically trying to call their cruise director from “Olivia” (BTW, who knew??!!) to reschedule pick up time and location. There was a 5-month-old baby on his last diaper (I got him two more from the flight crew’s emergency stash), and a couple of JWs trying to discern whether God had lead them to Montevideo instead of BsAs by design, and whether they should stay here.
Eventually the captain came through the cabin, to answer questions and just generally socialise with the passengers. Some were cranky but most were thankful that he had landed us all safely, ultimately. I asked him how he felt about the impending inquisition from the FAA, and he admitted, “nervous”.
Finally, after four hours on the tarmac, we were told that buses were coming to take us to a hotel until a replacement flight could be arranged later that evening.
Little did we know that our ordeal was only just beginning….
The “hotel busses” turned out to be airport transport vehicles, which were taking us to the terminal to be processed us through customs. The reader can imagine how excited the Uruguayan officials were to suddenly have 300 unexpected refugees stranded in their airport; one customs official was overheard grumbling (in response to a tired, cranky passenger), “You no like my country, so go! Go, and don’t come back!”
Once processed, we stood around like lost lambs at the baggage collection. There was no one to herd us, and all 300 people just generally milled about, wondering where the promised busses to hotel were?
Needless to say, there were no busses.
To make matters worse, our luggage was locked on the plane, and could not be released. Delta Airlines apparently does not usually fly out of Montevideo, and so no rep was on hand to take charge, to communicate, to arrange snacks or a space to rest. Those of us who had harboured hopes of collecting our luggage and heading off to the ferry soon realised it was a pipe dream: Our luggage and ourselves were being held against our will.
Rumours began to circulate about an 11 p.m. replacement aircraft. Surely, we thought, they will not strand us here for 14 hours? By noon, we were no longer so sure about that… Some of us decided to make the best of it, taking our passports and heading out for a walk to explore our unexpected port of entry. I had even exchanged some USD to Uropesos, and was ready to hit the town with the boys and make a real adventure of it.
That was when we began to realise the full extent of our captivity.
The customs guards would not let us through. Or rather, they would let us through, but then we could not come back in. We were -- in effect -- stranded in the baggage claim, with no baggage to claim!
People began to lose their shit. There was bickering, screaming at any and all authority figures, tears of frustration and threatening fist shaking. (I took part in my share of all of the above.)
Finally, I decided to take one kid with me and leave the other with the carry-on luggage, under the watchful eye of some of my new friends. We went to do a little persuasive text lesson; our job was to convince the police officer just past the customs exit control that we should be allowed to go outside to McDonalds, and come back into the baggage area afterwards. My pleading persistence and Simon’s cute worried/hungry face worked in harmony to create a beautifully persuasive piece; we were allowed passage from and to.
Running gratefully to McDonalds (oh, how I never thought I’d write THOSE words!!!), we bought up as many fries, nuggets and waters as we could with our $, and carried our loot back through the customs exit, taking care to stop and drop off some fries for our police officer friend. Then I set the boys up in a corner with some food, and passed the rest out to as many hungry passengers as possible.
A full 7 hours after our plane landed, someone decided it would be a good time to feed us (thank goodness for the McDonald’s outing earlier… me and 7 hours without food is not a helpful combination!) We were sent through Customs once more, and herded upstairs to the departure gates, where someone figured out there was a line up to get vouchers. Vouchers in hand, we ordered one of the three options… it was not much better than the chicken nuggets from 3 hours ago, but at least being in the restaurant gave us a change of scenery!
Conflicting reports of when our replacement plane was coming began to circulate: One passenger claimed she had gotten an email from Delta, showing that the plane was due to arrive at 3:30 a.m., while another was told on the phone -- within earshot of several others -- that the plane would arrive just before midnight. Within a few more hours, several reports of a 5 a.m. rescheduled flight time were being corroborated.
Still no official address to the group from Delta.
What terrible communication!
And so, we settled in for a night in a strange airport, a group of refugees held hostage by our luggage and the authorities’ unwillingness to cooperate to find creative solutions.
But wait, there is light! Late afternoon, a story breaks on the front page of an Argentinean newspaper about the diversion, online, claiming that Delta put us all up in hotels for the night. Within an hour, two Delta reps appear from BsAs. No announcement is made, and things feel pretty confused, but word spreads that we are to go back through customs yet again, and that we are indeed being put up for the night. (why it took them 10 hours to get that organized, we'll never know, I'm sure!)
We appear to be split into three groups, for three different hotels.
By 9 p.m. my group is on a bus to the hotel. The boys fall asleep immediately.
But 9:45 we are standing at the front desk of said hotel, waiting for another bus. The hotel has no record of the reservation; it’s actually been booked at a DIFFERENT hotel!!! Off we all troupe to the second bus at 10:15, and on to the next hotel. This one has Delta’s reservation. By 10:30, the boys and I are in the bathtub, washing off the grime of the last 36 hours. By 10:49, they’re tucked into bed for three hours sleep -- we are to be in the lobby by 2 a.m. for the bus back to the airport to catch the plane that allegedly is coming to get us at 5 a.m., and to be reunited with our luggage in BsAs…
I am cautiously optimistic that this saga is coming to an end, and that tomorrow afternoon will find us at the helados shop, sharing a kilo of our favourite flavours!!!