Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Braddah Scottie in: Perdido en Traducion

“This was an underestimate.”
--Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

The flight from Dallas to Santiago, over nine hours long, was pretty smooth. But the smoothness pretty much ended as soon as I stepped off the plane, and the unsmooth moments began…

The plan was to get off the plane and do three things:

Exchange currency
Obtain a Chilean cellphone from Entel
Rendezvous with the rest of the team at the airport Starbuck’s

1-2-3. Bam. No problema…

Not for Braddah Scottie, not once I got on a good roll—a downhill roll pretty much.

Now before I commence with the intense and grueling narrative of my tragicomic mishaps during my first two hours on the South American continent, I should explain that during the course of events that I am about to describe, although I suffer, I do not die; although I experience a distressing encounter with the Chilean authorities, I am not taken to a windowless room and beaten violently with rubber truncheons by two female Chilean military officers clad in leather and spandex; although large sums of money change hands, I do not wind up as the unintended owner of a taxi and fruit drink stand in either Santiago or Valparaiso. I do, however, suffer a minor personal injury, which I will explain in more detail later. I want to outline all this now because the suspense of the narrative that follows may be too intense for some of the more sensitive readers among you to bear, and I should not want said readers to be overcome with such emotion that they might succumb to a fainting spell, and fall from their favorite reading chairs, perhaps striking their heads and doing themselves injury.

I just wanted to take this precaution because I CARE, dear readers.

OK. Buckle your seatbelts, remove Babelfish; activate Infinite Improbability Drive, here we go…

Step 1: Disembark plane, reencounter Morris, the interesting Chilean-born Palestinian American Spanish teacher with an undergraduate degree in anthropology and archaeology whom I met in the terminal in Dallas before our flight while I was finishing my previous blog post. Join the long queue at “Immigration” (The signs were of course in Spanish, but I will translate most of the Spanish-language terms here, mainly because I can’t be sure I will remember the correct Spanish spellings, and I do strive for accuracy). Join with Morris in celebrating our relative good fortune that we joined the queue before the large and annoying group of student musicians who occupied most of the same section of the plane on which we just spent at least 10 hours, at no point during which time did said student musicians seem to sleep or even sit down, not even during the hours of 2:00-6:00 a.m., which seemed to be the most active time for these strange, large-eyed primates. Now said student musicians are all standing in a loose mass in a different queue to our left. It is of course, this other queue that I should have joined in the first place, but I don’t find this out until I finally reach the end of my current cue and realize, during the course of a discussion that quickly reveals the true limits of my conversational Spanish--which in fact consists mainly of repeating the phrases “poquito” and “no comprende” a great deal—that just because my passport does have a previous Chilean stamp from my 2002 visit to Rapa Nui, it does not mean that I will not have to pay the $131.00 entry fee. As we discuss this matter, my vague memories of this issue from my 2002 trip condense into slightly less vague memories of being told that we would not have to pay the entry fee after all, since we were entering Rapa Nui via Tahiti and not stepping foot on the Chilean mainland.

Step 2: Join the other queue, now behind ALL the annoying students with their instruments. Have enjoyable conversations with the two other guys at the end of the line, and make one possible professional connection which may benefit the students and the communities that I serve on the Reservation, but I won’t go into that here. Reach the end, pay my $131.00 fee, advance to customs*, prepare to go to jail…

Step 3: Oh, “plant and animal products” includes dried meat? Maybe I should have read the [extremely] fine print despite my new contacts, my old age, the dark plane, and the loud kids. Definitely I should have. Yeah, well come to think of it, down at the bottom of my cave pack there is a few ounces of turkey jerky left in the bag that I jammed a bunch of mini-Cliff bars into after my last caving trip. I reveal all this in the interest of full disclosure and honesty. So much for karmic dividends, which had continued into the DFW/Santiago flight, where I had a two-seat window & aisle seat block to myself, thank God. But the Rota Fortuna must spin again, and no one can beat the percentages. The house always wins, and fools are escorted into an office with some nice but stern Chilean ladies who are empowered to fine me up to $4,500.00.

After some garbled explanations, a couple “poquito’s” a few more “no comprendes’”, and a little Latin for good luck (mea culpa). I am told that the minimum fine is $200.00-something.

But I get off with NO FINE AT ALL, because I am such a NICE GUY. I just have to sign some papers and receive some rather stern warnings about “otra vez”, which believe me, there ain’t going to be. At this point I see that the nice Chilean lady is actually a DIVINE ANGEL, and I grasp her right hand in both of mine, and repeat “Muchas gracias” several times, on the point of tears.

Step 2.2: I didn’t even mention my panic at the currency exchange window when I thought that “cambio” meant “charge” not “exchange” and I thought that they were taking a 25% cut of my funds, which would have left me without even enough to pay for the hotel. We got that worked out eventually.

Now I’m at Starbucks in the Santiago airport, waiting for the rest of the team.

*It was while one of the Customs agents was helping me lift my rolling toolbox on the belt for the X-ray that he jammed the handle down into my finger. But I pulled it away quickly, and I can’t feel anything in it now. I mean, any pain type of thing. I can feel normal things. Which is not to say I am going around trying to feel things with my left index finger, normal or abnormal…

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

3 down, 2 to go

I’m in the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport now, relaxing before my longest flight yet—one that will take me through the night, over the equator, and into a new day, landing sometime after 7:00 a.m. in Santiago, Chile, where I will rendezvous with expedition leader J. Judson Wynne and the rest of the team in the airport. From there, we will fly on together to Rapa Nui, landing at the mile-long U.S. built airstrip at Mataveri, in the shadow of the Rano Raraku volcanic crater and the ceremonial village of Orongo on the western corner of the island.

When I got here, I blew $30.00 on an IPod cable. I mentioned in my last post that I had forgotten to bring mine. I noticed when I was trying to download the photo of the birthday cake that my daughter Tyra baked me back in April for my 46th. It was supposed to be my desktop background, but somehow it wasn’t showing up. I will include it here. The pictures on the cake are beetles, which I have been collecting since last year for an entomologist/caver in Ohio.

Almost time to board for Santiago. All these travel posts probably aren’t very exciting, but it is a good way to occupy my mind and not brood so much on missing my family. Stay tuned for the good stuff.

STILL TO COME: Giant statues! Extinct Volcanoes! Ancient Ruins! Obsidian Spearpoints! Polynesian Culture! And of course…Caves of Mystery!

Braddah Scottie don't tweet...

This will be a short update. And those of you who know me will know I don't usually do brief. Not boxers either for that matter, but I won't delve into that conundrum here. For those who want TMI, the answer can be found in one of my musical playlists on facebook:

and thus I add a little social filtering while at the same time belaboring the point into ridiculousness. A typical Nicolay move...

Here's the important part: I'm in LAX. My baggage redistribution strategy was a success:

Rolling toolbox: 51.5 lbs.
REI bag: 47.5 lbs.

= no overweight baggage fees.

Of course, my two carry-ons literally weigh more than my checked bags now...

I don't really understand how the REI bag came out that much lighter. Unless either my duster weighs more than 5 lbs., or US Airways' scale at the Durango, CO airport is rigged.

Next stop: Dallas/Ft. Worth. Is the airport in Dallas, or Ft. Worth? I've been in it before, but never stepped outside it to find out where I was. It was only ever a stopover, so I was always focused just on moving on, no offense to the great state of Texas, which has some great caves and some great cavers. And some great cave archaeologists. Although to be sure, most of my favorite Texans are in Austin. Keep Austin Weird!

Not that brief really, after all...which is why-y-y-y Brother Scottie don't tweet...

Sittin’ in the Sheraton Gateway…

The skies are cloudy in Los Angeles this morning and it looks like it might even rain…which I take as a sign that I should move ahead with my plan to try to manipulate 15 lbs. of baggage in such a way as to avoid getting hit with another overweight baggage fee. The key to that plan is wearing my duster, which is currently packed in my large wheeled REI bag. The downside to that is sweating more, but my REI pack came in at 51.5 pounds and didn’t get fined, so if I can get a few pounds out of it, I can move a few back in. My rolling toolbox was 65 lbs. I need to move as close to 15 lbs. as I can get into my carry-ons and my REI bag, without sending the REI bag over…or destroying anything. My backpack has already suffered one zipper failure, and my REI bag lost a compression strap somewhere between Durango and LA—ripped right off somewhere in the baggage handling machinery. Then there is my archaeology kit, the custom made PVC folding kit that slips into the back of my cave pack. I could put that into my cave pack with my climbing gear-but if I did I would have to take out all the pointy stuff--the trowels and the pick—and leave them loose in the toolbox, where they might puncture stuff. I’m not sure why I brought those items anyway, since I won’t be doing any excavating. But I would feel naked in the field without them though. What’s a dirt archaeologist without a Marshalltown trowel? I spend most of my time being a library archaeologist, now that I am actually going to get dirty (more like muddy), I want to do it all the way.

OK, done. Wearing duster. Boots and binders relocated. Archaeo kit remains in toolbox. Carry-ons now weigh more than checked bags, and l look like the 21st Century caving angel of the apocalypse, wandered in from the desert with my long, dark, desert-worn overcoat, my caving pack and helmet over my shoulder, and my laptop case on my back.

And there’s something I did forget—the cable to connect my IPod to my laptop…

All this travel minutiae is of course an excellent diversion from brooding over how badly I miss my family. I had forgotten how bad it is to separate from them this long. As the clock ticked down on my departure, MY separation anxiety got worse and worse. As for the girls, they are probably alright. Actually, I really hope they are, even though I am like the dad in this dialogue on McSweeney’s:

This was new on Monday, and I printed it out and gave it Age to read before I left for the airport.

When I went to Rapa Nui for the first time in 2002, with the University of Hawai’i Archaeological Field School, I was saying goodbye to my family outside the single gate in the Farmington Airport. All the other passengers had already gone into the little gate room, although it’s just right there past the checkpoint, so they could still see me hugging my daughters and getting ready to cry or something like a huge wuss. Just then, a nervous security guard started shouting, “We’ve got a bag that’s buzzing! We’ve got a bag that’s buzzing! The name on it is Mick-o-lang!”
I was dragged into security without being able to even finish my goodbyes, apparently suspected for the smuggling of killer bees. This was 2002, remember. The National Guard were still assigned to some airports.

I was made to remove everything that could be decently removed in front of the other passengers, and they began to search my checked bag. A small screwdriver drew some attention, and I had to remind the zealot that it was in my checked bag. He consulted with his supervisor. Then he reached into the little duffel inside the checked bag into which I had packed all the odds and ends. Triumphantly, he held up a bulky object and shouted, “Ohmigod, what’s this!”

What is was, was a conglomeration of battery chargers and foreign voltage adapters and such that I had duct-taped into a single mass for some idiotic reason. With the batteries on the outside. Even to me, it looked like a bomb.

In my super-calm hostage negotiator voice, I explained that what it was, and that it was all “from Radio Shack”. In retrospect, I guess you can probably make a pretty good bomb with stuff from Radio Shack.

Eventually it turned out that the buzzing was coming from my beard trimmer, in which I had foolishly left the batteries. I don’t do that anymore. Ironically, I had brought it because someone had told me that my beard made me look “like a terrorist”, and I wanted to be able to shave it off again after I let it regrow on Rapa Nui, which I did. I had already shaved it off for the outward journey.

Of course, all that held up the flight almost half an hour, and the other passengers just glared at me throughout the flight. Fortunately, it was only to Phoenix…

Monday, June 22, 2009

In Transit: Shiprock to Rapa Nui

I’m on my second of the five flights that over two days will bring me back at last to Rapa Nui, and I am hoping that my luck on this one is an omen that will set the tone for the rest of my trip: I have an entire three-seat half row to myself. 12 D-E-F: mine, all mine.

When you board a plane and find you are the first one in your seat block, your reaction is likely to depend on your seat assignment. If yours is the window seat, it’s not really a problem. In fact, you are probably going to be happy that you don’t have to climb over your new seatmates, bumping knees in the old Bugs Bunny, “’Scuse me, pardon me…” dance. Assuming of course that frottage is not your thing, dear reader (and if it is, please refrain from applying the “dear” and consider my address to you as simply “reader”)…

If your seat is the middle, you know that you are going to have to get up for at least one person, and immediately you begin hoping that the destined occupant of the window seat will at least have the good sense to show up before the aisle. And you start contemplating mathematical formulae that involve the potential girth of your immanent left and right hand seatmates, times the length of the flight, and raised to the power of the number of times each of you will have to use the restroom during the flight.

If yours is the aisle, then you sit down but don’t buckle your seatbelt. You size up every passenger struggling and sweating down the aisle towards you, and if they don’t look thin, attractive and narcoleptic, you sigh inwardly with relief as each in his or her turn takes a seat before your row or passes without a glance in your direction.

My original seat was D, the aisle. When I can choose my seats, I choose an aisle seat. I understand that this is somewhat atypical, but I like the aisle. In the aisle, you can be the courteous one, rather than the rude one. You get up for everyone else, you assist in the transfer of your seatmates’ empty plastic cups to the flight attendant, you step back into the aisle at the end of the flight to let them exit first. When I was in high school, I read the novel in which Kurt Vonnegut first used the phrase, “Kindness may fail, but courtesy will prevail.” According to Vonnegut, a young reader like myself (like myself, but more precocious to such a degree as to cause me envy), wrote to him with that phrase, explaining that he (the reader) felt it encapsulated the theme of Vonnegut’s work thus far. Good stuff. I remember all that clearly, but not the title of the book, or much else about it except that I think it was the one that had something to do with bag ladies and peanut butter. It was the first Vonnegut that I had read, and it was a little off-putting for the guy to start off by writing that a young reader had just divined the essence of his work, thereby essentially rendering the book in hand and all future efforts superfluous. I am, to be sure, rather fond of some of Vonnegut’s work,particularly Cat’s Cradle, “Harrison Bergeron”, and the author’s appearance in the Rodney Dangerfield film Back to School. My point, however, was not about the merits of Kurt Vonnegut, but about courtesy. I enjoy extending it, and that is part of why I take the aisle seat when I can. And this time my good karma paid dividends.

To be sure, I also choose a seat in the wing section when I have the option, since this of course is statistically the part of the plane where your chances are best of surviving any kind of event in which the term “survivor” might actually come into play. I heard this long ago, and my faith in this truism has been confirmed over the last few seasons of LOST. Look at the Tailies: almost totally decimated; even my favorite character, Mr. Eko, who looked tough enough to survive a direct hit from an RPG.

So now I am sitting comfortably somewhere between Phoenix and LA, in 12-E, the middle seat, typing on my laptop with my plastic cup of tomato juice on the tray table of the seat to my left, which is in the “down” position. This is the life…

(composed on US Airways #35)