Santiago Jimmy

November 1, 2010

Ted writes:

I’m en route to Punta Arenas, to begin the second LARISSA glaciology field season. Our goal is to retrieve a snowbound weather and physics observation station. The plan is to hitch a ride on the British Dash-7 airliner to Rothera, meet a U.S. aircraft there, and fly out to the notorious Site Beta (home of the 60 mph blizzards, ice fogs, and foot-per-day snowfalls). Then find the station using a kind of metal detector, and start digging. Simple. Except the station is thirty feet tall.

We need to put as much cargo weight as possible on the first Dash-7 flight south, so I’m carrying four massive bags of gear by myself two days ahead of Jennifer and Martin. When I got to Santiago, I was supposed to meet Jimmy, the Chilean representative for the company the US (and British) Antarctic program works with.

My schedule as booked was absolutely awful. I departed on Saturday afternoon, flew all night to Santiago, but then the earliest flight available to Punta Arenas was not until 1 am on Monday. The only apparent option was to spend 18 hours at the airport; and because the layover was more than 12 hours, I was told, the bags would need to be re-checked — doubling the excess baggage charges. And back-to-back red-eye flights. Are they trying to kill me? But the Internet showed no seats available, none, before the 1am LAN flight to PA.

My first clue about who I was dealing with comes as I walked off the plane. Jimmy was standing in the jet way holding a sign that says “Theodore”. We walked about 200 yards before I saw the next greeter waiting for their client. Jimmy is about 5 foot 4, a little portly, wearing a nice suit and a red tie. We bolted through the first phases: Jimmy walked fast and worked fast. We stepped to the front at Passport Control, then rocketed the four black cases through customs inspection. It was like traveling with Obi-Wan Kenobi—a wave on the hand and we were past the guard; a quick joke with an army officer, and we stepped around another checkpoint; a nod to the inspector, and we moved to the front of the line at security. “These are not the bags you’re looking for.”

Jimmy appeared to know about sixty percent of humanity. His hand was out, shaking, his eyes flashed a smile, he was waving at people who were waving back throughout the airport. Women offered their children to him, and kissed his cheek; he was joking, chatting, promising and being promised, working nearly everyone we passed.

Santiago’s airport is a huge long vaulted building and it was packed with people. A national holiday comes on Monday, and this is a country with a lot to celebrate (the rescue of the miners, the surging economy, and the rapid recovery from the earthquake of last February). Lines of travelers woundnd hundreds of yards, like a giant caterpillar with suitcases. But we were running on Jimmy power now. As we stepped into the tail of the baggage caterpillar, a kiosk opened up next to us, and we simply turned, and were first in line. The man is not just connected, but connected and lucky.

But still I had underestimated him.  I was standing there with my four huge bags, tired, a bit grungy from the first flight. Jimmy was trying to work out something, something amazing, and in the chatter of Spanish between Johnny and the attendant I thought I heard them discussing the possibility of an extra flight.

Jimmy was now in peak form, holding a polite but intense conversation with the manager, the chief attendant, and the attendant at the new window. They were looking at me. I tried to straighten up. They look at the bags. I brushed the scuff marks off. I smiled. More conversation in rapid Spanish. I was just hoping I don’t have to give up one of my sons at this point.

Jimmy turned to me, winking. “You’re on that research ship that is sailing tomorrow morning, right?”(Ah.) “Yesss (-ish).”  This is critical science gear for the ship? Yes! Well, it would be, if it were going on the ship–it was last year, for sure. Simple present-tense/past-tense swap.

I’m now on the plane for Punta, with 247 lbs of “critical research vessel science gear” stowed in the baggage compartment, leaving a full 14 hours early and happy as released Chilean miner. I believe I’ll be kissing Jimmy, too, next time.

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