June 8, 2016. We are going to Panama with a group of long time friends to visit another long time friend, the badass Miss Jenny. This is my first “real” time leaving the country. Previously, I had only been to Canada—Windsor (ehh) and Niagara on the Lake (beautiful, but 45 minutes from my home in Buffalo). I am excited, but nervous—freaked out would be the most accurate terminology. I psyche myself up in the months leading up to our trip and finally, the big day comes. We arrive at the airport on time, and await our flight to Newark, where we plan to meet up with our friends to continue the journey to Panama.
Our flight to Newark is delayed. No big deal, we get a second breakfast and two Irish coffees, our vacation has begun after all. After brunch, we head back to our gate and I run to the bathroom. Looking for my seat on the way back, I scan the faces for Jeff’s. It is NOT a happy face…our flight is cancelled.
The airline tells us we can’t get to Panama until the following night. I refuse to accept this. My friends already in Panama refuse to accept this, and the badass Miss Jenny’s fiance, cool and collected Mr. Tim, gets us a route that will get us to Panama the next morning. Let the fucking journey begin!
Our new flight takes us to Chicago. Not to my surprise, after holding my bladder for the dissent to the ground for what feels like hours, the women’s bathroom outside our gate is closed. It’s just that kind of day, and I hobble to the next closest restroom, reminding myself I only have one pair of cozy travel pants and to wet them would be a great tragedy. I make it to the restroom and squat over the weird-revolving plastic covered toilet seats that are just part of the charm of O’Hare.
We’ve got a few hours to kill before our next flight to Miami, so we enjoy some lovely sandwiches and a much needed beer. It’s now dinner time and every airport restaurant offering alcohol is packed with lines out the door. The lines are not irritating like usual, this is all part of our vacation we continue to tell each other. Instead, we soak it up, observing the weird and whacky characters waiting alongside us for their evening libations. My favorite was an older woman, a vision in pink—pink glasses, pink shirt, pink jacket, long pink hippie skirt, and a gorgeous leather pink purse—sipping a gin and tonic at the bar, reading a book about the Wright Brothers (I overheard her telling someone she got it at an LA bookstore.) I point her out to Jeff, wanting him to know that I hope to be that cool some day.
We mosey on over to our gate, ready for the next leg of our trip to Miami. A city I’d been longing to visit, although not quite like this. The flight attendant at our gate was offering three hundred dollars to volunteers for a later flight to Miami, instead of at 11:30 p.m. We would arrive at 2 a.m. $600 is no joke. What the heck, we figure, and ask if we can volunteer, explaining our situation and that we absolutely cannot miss our flight to Panama at 6 a.m. They tell us to sit back down, it’s not worth the risk. There are no guarantees we will make our flight. No $600, but that's the first hint that our luck is turning.
We arrive at the Miami airport and ask directions to our next gate, where we will finally board a plane for Panama. Unknowingly, we stepped into the baggage claim zone. We can't go back without crossing through security. We head towards our gate. The fluorescent lights are dimmer as we make our way into the international zone. We wait in line at security. TSA scans our tickets and informs us we can’t go through security until two hours before our flight. Its midnight. We board our flight at 5 a.m. We have nowhere to go for the next five hours.
There are people sleeping on the floors of the hallways and the only available chairs are under the bright lights. This is going to be a long night. If only, I say to Jeff, there was a hotel right outside this door where we could walk right in, sleep in a bed, and take a damn shower. We had agreed earlier we wouldn't try to leave the airport and find a hotel because the window of time was so small before our flight to Panama.
And then, low and behold, before our very eyes, there is a fucking hotel in the Miami airport! Fuck the budget, we say, we laid down that plastic and get ourselves a few hours of shuteye and a shower to wash off the sticky film of travel.
The next morning, about 4 a.m., when we step out of the elevator outside our room, it seems as though the hotel is gone. Like we had imagined it, the whole thing a dream, maybe we had slept in those hard plastic chairs after all. Turns out, in our brain fog, we got off on the wrong floor. We find the concierge desk and check out. We make it through security, with no problem...well not really. Jeff is patted down, asked if he speaks English. I guess he passes for a central American local (there is no question that I do not).
Our luck continues to improve as I spy a Starbucks across from our gate. Nothing worse then having to miss out on that morning cup of coffee, especially after only a few hours of sleep. Everything is in Spanish now so I'm just winging it. I'm the only blonde in this section of the airport and people think Jeff is hispanic.
At the gate desk we get pulled aside when they check our tickets, but again, everyone is speaking Spanish so I don't know what’s going on. Somehow, the problem resolves itself, some mix up with the airline name on our tickets, and we finally board the plane to Panama, our final destination! Little did we know, this was merely a test of our ability to relax and go with the flow, but more on that later.
To be continued…