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Flying North

June 6, 2023 by jonbo

Nomad Diaries #2

It was midnight as I walked into Santiago International Airport. My flight was at 6:30am and I wasn’t missing it: I was ready to go home. I had taken a bit of a beating these past few weeks, hiking 70 km through blizzards and rain and crawling out of a totaled SUV. Only to run out of cash in rural Chile in a completely booked out travel town in the off-season and spotty access to my checking and savings accounts and a developing cigarette habit.

I walked towards the counter. No line and a clear way in. My nerves relaxed as I approached the friendly attendant. She informed me the counter would be closed for another 3 hours. Gulp. There went half of my time-budget. South American border control amidst covid was a very unpredictable thing and I wanted to account for as much as possible. Oh well. I wandered off in search of food in the giant airport, eventually settling for a hamburger and fries.

It wasn’t that I was excited to get out of out of Chile as much as I desperately yearned for some familiarity of home. I didn’t know where I’d find it but I figured out it would be up north. My ticket was booked to Mexico City, where I was going to see my ex-girlfriend, to collect my suitcase that had accompanied me for the past 18 months of nomadic travel, and to say goodbye to Mexico City; the closest thin to a home I had for the past half-year.

Beyond that, there was no plan. I was loosely looking at listings for Boulder, CO. I heard it had walkable neighborhoods and weird people. I didn’t have an alternative in mind nor the energy to find one; it would have to be Boulder. I finished my meal and wandered down to a waiting area and hunkered down to watch a few episodes of Euphoria, relishing in its romantic chaos as a voyeuristic escape from my own.

After a few hours, I headed back to the gate counter. Satisfied by the usual ID check, the attendant asked me for a certain form. A certain form I didn’t have and didn’t realize I needed, though it sounded a lot like a digital one I had. I tried showing her it but she said only a paper one would do. So I was off to find a printer in an airport at 3:30 am, losing still more precious time. Chile’s covid protocols were insane but then again so were everyone else’s.

I come back after some googling around. I was pretty sure the pass I had on my phone was valid and the one she was looking for. I explained and showed her it again, and she was satisfied. Whew. Then, in what I assume is standard procedure she asks me for a lodging confirmation and an exit ticket out of Mexico. And my mind went blank: I’d always entered Mexico from the North where they don’t ask for this. Moving out of line for a third time (though now receiving a special Jon zone so I could cut back in) I quickly booked an apartment in Mexico City for 5 days with a ticket to Denver. That was my short term life plan.

That seemed to satisfy the requirements and I was let through toward immigration. I marveled at this strange intersection of places and people I was in: geographically I was in Chile’s capital, on the north side of the country. I booked my flight from Copa Airlines, a company based in Panama City and paid them with my US dollars. I was a U.S. Citizen in Chile, traveling to Mexico with a stop in Panama. Somehow, this combination of governments and for-profit corporations agreed to move me and my Mini Mouse suitcase of stuff across two continents for under $1,000.

I thought back to how I landed in Santiago a few weeks ago around a similar time of night, only to be funneled into a crowd-sized legal and biological holding and processing queue, to be moved along by signs and an army of medical staff and members of the army. They worked together to get every person entering the country swabbed and verified. It was astonishing in its scale and exhausting in its crawling 3-hour walk-stand-walk-stand-speak regime.

That this process can happen at all is fascinating to me. How many complex bureaucratic systems were interoperating with one another to let me move across this earth I was born on? During a pandemic where policies changed on the scale of days? Whose legal responsibility was I right now? If I had a heart attack, which of these legal entities would transport me, to where?

I make it to the front of the immigration line. I can’t help but get nervous at these nowadays, there’s been too much shit. The immigration man asked to see my boarding pass and … a printed entry visa. Oh no. What entry visa? This didn’t seem like some covid temporary measure thing: this immigration man with a hat and a gun needed to see a piece of paper or I wasn’t going to board that plane. My sleep-deprived, broken-hearted brain struggled with this fact as I thought around to where it might be.

I remembered, upon completing my 36-hour journey south at 9am, I was picked up by my tour guide. The first thing she did was help me find a very specific paper in my pile; a small one on receipt paper. She told me to put it somewhere very safe because I’d need it on my way out of the country. My thoughts turned to the small, plastic file organizer that spent the past three weeks strapped to my back in my backpack, never more than a few feet away. That paper? I thought, hopefully.

I dug it out of my backpack, grateful it didn’t get wet and turn to sludge. I handed it to him and he validated it, stamped it and let me through. The system of interlocking locks had been opened and aligned. In about 15 hours, if the airline employees from far away orchestrated things right with the airport employees from nearby, the company that ran this aircraft paid other people to inspect these airplanes well and often enough, and a covid travel policy update wouldn’t be enacted in the next couple hours, I would make it to Mexico City. I was on my way home.