Last year I had the opportunity to visit Egypt for relatively low cost with my father and older son. I can’t say it was a completely blissful trip without stress and inconvenience, but it was an amazing experience. I will never forget arriving in the Sinai Peninsula in the dark, early hours of the morning and just being surrounded by sights that I had never seen before, mountains of rock, essentially; what I would imagine the terrain on another planet looks like. Then, we got to our simple, tucked away hotel in the relaxed village of Dahab and I could see Saudi Arabia across the Red Sea as the sun rose in the sky. The fact that my seven-year-old son was experiencing this with me made it so special.
The decision to take the trip to Egypt was sparked, in part, by the fact that I was a cancer survivor. Sure, at the time I thought I was probably “cured”, and my son and I would have lots of time to enjoy trips together, but in the back of my mind, I knew there was a chance that my traveling days may be limited. Four months later, when I found out the cancer was still very much alive in my body and spreading, I was so glad that I had taken the risk to travel to the Middle East with my son and I knew I needed to be aggressive about continuing to travel. Thinking exotically and keeping my sons’ Spanish-based curriculum in mind, I originally wanted to go to Machu Picchu in Peru. I really had my heart set on this trip with my husband and both of my children. As I started planning, I realized a few things. While I assumed flying to South America would be much easier and closer than the Middle East, turns out it really isn’t (I guess my perception of distances around the globe is a little off). Tickets were a little pricey and any flights consisted of at least two stops, always flying overnight at some point. The real problem with the plan, however, was Machu Picchu itself. There was no easy way to get there…only another flight from Lima (which would have been at least another $500 for our family) or a 22-hour bus ride (retrospectively, now that I have seen my five-year-old on long flights, I think he would have handled this better than my husband and I, but it was a gamble I didn’t want to take). So, basically Peru was out and I started brainstorming more reasonable ideas with my husband. We thought about Mexico or Central America but ended up settling on Puerto Rico. As I started looking at lodging in Puerto Rico, I realized that we could rent a big house for cheap and long story short, decided to invite our parents and siblings. I’ll admit I was naive when inviting our extended family. I just assumed if they didn’t want to go, they’d say no. I realized later that when you have a terminal illness and ask someone to do something, they will generally feel like they have to agree to it. So I’m not sure if it was really fair for me to so nonchalantly invite people on this expensive, time-consuming trip, but they said yes and I will forever be indebted to them for that. Because there was an overall greater interest in Costa Rica than Puerto Rico, we ended up deciding on that as our destination and our group consisted of my family of four; my parents; my husband’s parents; my sister and her husband; and my husband’s sister, her husband, and their three children.
On to our trip. I’m pretty sure every family member over the age of ten could write a minimum ten-page essay about our trip. I know my kids, who are younger, have already given multiple people long-winded accounts of the trip. Overall it was a really nice trip; but as with most things in life, the story lies in the drama, so I will focus on the unexpected adventures we had. My main concerns going into the trip were that we were going to struggle deciding on activities and that people would get sick or injured. I was also worried about getting around Costa Rica in general. We had a large group and had heard a variety of suggestions in terms of where to stay and how to plan the trip. For the most part, those things went well. The real misadventure of the trip was something I’ll admit I was overconfident about, the airplane trip from Chicago to San Jose. We booked the trip through an airline called Interjet. It’s a cheaper airline (thus the reason we were able to get tickets for a comparable price to a domestic flight). When booking I just assumed this was one of those no-frills, nickel-and-dime you for every add-on types of airlines. This is actually not a minimalist airline, they offered us free drinks, meals, and baggage. It is an airline that frequently cancels flights, however, and that is the issue we ran into. We had a few obstacles against us from the start. We ran into heavy traffic at O’Hare airport (Tuesday before Thanksgiving traffic) and one of the cars we were traveling in became the victim of a hit-and-run near the airport. When we got to the airport we learned that our flight was delayed by a few hours. It was scheduled to depart at 1:00 a.m., so none of us was too chipper at whatever stupid-o-clock in the morning it was by the time we actually took off, but I think we were all ready to power through it. About two-and-a-half hours into the four-hour flight, the pilot faintly mumbled something over the intercom. Due to extreme fog in our layover stop, Mexico City, we were going to land in Monterrey, Mexico. We landed in Monterrey and waited. And waited. We had been sitting on the airplane for about an hour in Monterrey when someone finally told us it would probably be another two to three hours before we would proceed to Mexico City. At this point, we were starting to break. We had been either traveling in a car, sitting in an airport, or sitting on an airplane for at least twelve hours at that point. It was apparent we were going to miss our next flight, and due to the extremely poor communication model of Interjet, we really had no idea what was going on. We finally ended up getting to Mexico City, proceeded to wait on the runway another 30 minutes while the pilot tried to find a spot to park the airplane, waited another 30 minutes for a bus to transport us to the gate, then spent another 30 minutes crammed into a hot bus waiting for someone to let us into the airport (true story, people began banging on the windows of the bus to get out).
The next part of this story is still so frustrating to me that I struggle to write about it. Basically, if I could rate the hospitality of the Mexico City airport on a scale of one to ten, it would be a zero. Trying to get any help was like pulling teeth. To make matters worse, every person in our 13-person party had a different idea of where to go and who to talk to. We were moving around in one big, discombobulated mob. Everyone was melting down. People were starting to need bathroom breaks, we were all carrying heavy backpacks, we were all pretty much functioning on about one-and-a-half hours of sleep. It was about 1:00 p.m. and little did we know the extreme dysfunction of Interjet had yet to come to fruition. We booked the next available flight scheduled to leave at 7:00 p.m. that night. A long wait on very little sleep, yes, but we were all mustering the last of our willpower to get through it. At 4:00 p.m. we started to get antsy, wanted to get to the gate and find somewhere to unload our carry-on luggage. I guess in Mexico City they don’t actually give you the gate until one hour prior to take-off. So, what we got in the meantime was a “fake gate”. It went by a few different names. Some called it B, some called it G, some gave it a specific number “B27”. After an hour of wandering in different directions looking for B versus G, we finally figured out they were the same thing and it was not even the actual gate our plane would depart from. Okay, so one hour prior to departure we noticed that the “real gate” appeared on the screen and we made the trek to that gate. Things started to seem a little fishy about 30 minutes prior to take off. All of a sudden, the flight info disappeared from the board, no one else seemed to be gathering at the gate, and the flight attendant at the desk went missing. The gate had changed to another area about ½ mile away. So, we rushed to this new gate. There were many people here, the flight info was on the board, we saw the pilots and attendants do a lap around the waiting area. This had to be right, it was delayed of course, but we fully expected this. I went to the bathroom and when I came back my sister-in-law told me “It’s going to be okay, but this flight has been cancelled”. It’s after 7:00 p.m. at this point, some of us hadn’t seen any sleep for 36 hours. We knew we were going to have to spend the night in Mexico City and needed to get luggage and then re-book as soon as possible. We all started running around frantically. People were yelling at each other, relationships were tested. The check-in desk at Interjet was now mass chaos. I wish I had taken pictures of the massive number of people trying to reschedule flights. The next two hours were just sheer ugliness. We didn’t know what to do and it seemed we weren’t getting anywhere. No one knew where our luggage was. We were able to book a hotel, but at the time we thought it was off-property and didn’t want to split the group up, so we all just formed one big group of dysfunctional melt-down on the floor. Finally, we were able to book a new flight two days later, not ideal, but it was something. We never were able to get our luggage. We were sent from corral to corral, Interjet employees would say they were working on it and then just disappear. We ended up checking into the hotel (which, pleasant surprise, was connected to the airport and very nice) at 10:00 and I think everyone just passed out at that point.
The next day, we woke up with renewed energy and resolution. The hotel offered free coffee and small baked goods. There was a pharmacy close by that I walked to and bought some prescriptions that were in our missing luggage (like most other countries, Mexican pharmacies sell most prescriptions over-the-counter…really a traveling pharmacist’s dream). We thought we’d use the day to explore Mexico City. The airport hotel (the true hero of this story) hooked us up with a driver and tour guide for the day. We explored some popular sites in Mexico City including the National Palace which was filled with beautiful paintings by Diego Rivera. This was Thanksgiving Day and we celebrated by eating a nice brunch downtown Mexico City. We then got back to the hotel and took advantage of some happy hour margaritas and appetizers. A few in our group had tried again to locate our luggage and again, failed. Other than that, I think we were all patting ourselves on the back for making the best of a bad situation. At the end of the day, my husband was checking his e-mail and noticed that we had been bumped up to an earlier flight that evening at 7:00 p.m. It was now 9:00 p.m., we missed it. Interjet had somehow without any of us being there or agreeing to it, bumped up our flight to earlier that evening and of course we had missed it. My husband and I frantically ran to the Interjet counter, we just had to make sure we could still catch the flight we had been planning to take the next day. As it turned out, no, we could not still catch the flight for the next day. We would have to wait another three days for the next flight. This was extremely irritating and obviously unacceptable, but the icing on the cake here was the Interjet customer service, which was by far the worst I have ever experienced. We were never told what was going on, people would start to help us and then just walk away. I started yelling, my husband started recording the conversations, we just wanted to go with a different airline, but knew we would never get our money back and airfare for 13 people is a lot of money. We went back to the hotel dejected, told everyone the situation and went to bed. By some miracle, we did end up getting on the flight the next morning. I’m sure Interjet had another flight that missed its connection and thus had a bunch of openings for us. We made it to Costa Rica and unfortunately there was still no trace of our luggage. We had been without luggage for three days at that point, so it was pretty frustrating, but we were also happy to get to our destination.
I am happy to say the next four days in Costa Rica went pretty smooth and there were a lot of good memories that were made. Our first stop was near the Arenal Volcano, which was touristy but also beautiful. We were able to take some tours and saw a lot of beautiful scenery and some different wildlife. Our second Costa Rican destination of the trip was on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, near the surfing town of Jaco. Here we rented a house and again, this was another beautiful area of Costa Rica. The combination of water, lush greenery, and mountains is always pleasant. For the most part things went smoother than expected for the first few days near Jaco also. We weren’t as close to the ocean as we had hoped and since the house was in a gated community I feel like we lost a little of the authenticity that we had at the other location, but the ocean was wonderful, we got fresh coconuts on the beach, and we did get to see the beautiful rainforests, beaches, and wildlife in Manuel Antonio National Park.
Aside from our flying issues getting down to Costa Rica, we experienced another unexpected misfortune the night before we were scheduled to fly out. We got back from our day trip to the national park around 4:00 p.m., tired, hungry, and full of sweat and sand from hiking and swimming all day. We got dropped off at the house and realized the power was out. We were frustrated since we only had at most a couple hours of daylight left and had to cook supper, pack, and shower. We contacted the house manager and she basically said “It happens”, blew us off and told us to wait it out. It started to get dark and we started to really run into problems. The house only had one poorly-working flashlight, the batteries on our cell phones were running low, and we were really having trouble doing the basic essentials of showering and cooking supper. We started sending emergency messages to the house manager. Finally she said she was working on getting us candles, but she lived “15 minutes away” …ummm, this was after we had contacted her two hours prior. About two hours into the power outage, disaster struck. My professional-chef brother-in-law had nicely been preparing all of our meals at the house. He was trying to put something together for us to eat with the gas stove and oven (which we had established had some safety flaws). The oven basically “blew up” at him burning his legs and part of his head. His wife, my husband’s quick-thinking sister immediately shuttled him to the pool. Then someone yelled, “the house is going to blow!” and all 15 of us ran out of the house in one big mob towards the pool. At this point it was pitch black, we had a guy with burns of unknown severity in the pool, kids crying, and the rest of us wondering what had just happened and how were we ever going to get out of this mess. After about 15 minutes, things calmed down. The burns my brother-in-law experienced thankfully only seemed to be first degree—singeing his hair and causing tenderness in the affected areas, but not needing immediate emergency treatment. The pressure build-up from the propane tank that caused this explosion had dissipated and slowly we returned to the dark house to continue supper. Soon someone came with 18 narrow candles and a lighter. These were the type of candles in Advent services at church and we had no way to keep these upright or hold them without being covered in hot wax, so really of very limited utility, but we made a few of them work and ate a spaghetti dinner by candlelight. Finally, at about 8:00, the power returned. Everyone cheered and started cleaning up after supper and packing. Then, about 15 minutes later, the power went out again. Everyone was separated and in the middle of performing some task in the pitch-black house. I’m amazed someone didn’t trip or break something, but we were all able to huddle together until the power came back on for good about five minutes later.
Thankfully after this calamity, the rest of the trip and flight home was fairly uneventful. When I first started thinking about this trip, I’ll admit I had panicky thoughts of worst-case scenarios. I realized the trip might break us. I had to come to the realization that maybe I didn’t really think this through when I invited people on this trip. As I mentioned before, what if they really didn’t want to go, commit their vacation time, spend the money, but just felt pressured to say yes because I have a terminal illness? Whatever the reservations may or may not have been by my family, I can honestly say every member of my family put their best foot forward and handled all of the obstacles we encountered with grace. My husband’s parent’s vehicle was damaged on the way to the airport. My sister-in-law’s purse was stolen at the Mexico City Airport (yet another stain to the reputation of the airport). Between those issues and the time and money of the trip, everyone really sacrificed to make some great memories together and for that I will be eternally grateful. As a blanket statement I would say cancer does not have a positive effect on most relationships, but for this seven-day adventure together, I can only say that I have a family full of love and support.