Wednesday, June 4, 2008

On Arrival

In light of the upcoming visits, and in preparation for those who may be planning on visiting (hint, hint), here's a little background on what you can expect when coming to Quito.
First thing to know - the baggage claim tickets that you are given when you check your bags are important and necessary. As opposed to most airports, the police here check your baggage claim tickets against the baggage that you have when you leave the airport. Do not throw those little tabs away (the airline usually puts them on the boarding pass sleeve)!
Secondly, as a suggestion, if your height, personal philosophy, or need to get up and go to the bathroom during the flight does not preclude it, get a window seat. The views on arrival, as the plane banks around the valley, are pretty amazing, especially for people who haven't been around serious mountain ranges in the past. Even at night, the views can be spectacular.
When landing, remind yourself that the airport is smack dab in the middle of the city. You might think that the plane is trying to land in the middle of a neighborhood, plowing through a swath of unsuspecting houses. Don't worry, it's been years since a pilot's missed the runway. Okay. You've landed successfully. This is good. The country's progress, development and efforts to be modern is quickly evident. You now get those snaking gate things that come out to the plane, and you don't have to debark onto the tarmac and walk across the airstrip to the airport building. This is progress. The downside is that you have to walk, a lot, to get where yolu are going. Just follow everyone else, and gird yourself for a hike.
The first stop on arrival is immigration. You stand in a long, winding bank line until a number is called. Just be patient. When you get to an immigration person, answer "yes" to the question "is this your first visit to Ecuador". This is your first visit, always. This is your first visit, even if you are an Ecuadorian who travels on a weekly basis. It is always your first visit. Not that there's anything wrong with visiting Ecuador before, it's just an easy answer. "Si", to everything. If possible, look kind of dumb and lost at this point. I think that helps.
So now you're in the country, officially. Up to this point, things have been fairly ordered and mundane and just like any other flight arrival experience. That's all about to end.
Baggage claim is just past customs. It's a mad house. Although they have the baggage carousels, they don't always work. And even when they do work, that doesn't stop people (airport staff, fellow passengers, random military dudes) from pulling bags that aren't theirs off the carousels and putting them on the ground. Bags, boxes, cellophane wrapped packages and all kinds of things are stacked haphazardly all over the place, or have fallen off the carousel. This is liberally
mixed with the horde of people who have disembarked from your plane and every other flight from the day, all milling about and pushing carts, and trying to organize the seventeen monster suitcases of fruit loops, boxes of plasma tvs and pet carrier cases that they brought on their flights. Keep in mind that latins have little regard for personal space or right of way, and fend for yourself the best that you can.
Assuming that you are able, eventually, to track down and secure your bags, the next step is to go through customs. Typically there is a single operating customs line, even though there's a full battalion of customs guys standing around. There is no concept of a line in this country - just a press of people all trying to get to that single customs person at the same time. A liberal use of elbows, bag swinging, toe stepping and a wide stance (heh, heh) might help. Then again, it might not. At some point in this debacle, someone is going to ask for your customs form. This request has nothing to do with actually going through the customs line. Roll with it, and hand over the form you filled out on the plane.
Again, assuming you've made it through customs at some point (and haven't had to pay any "import tax" for any of your items), you'll go through some automatic doors and come into the reception area. Every single relative, however distant, of every single person on your flight is going to be standing there, waiting. Hordes of humanity will be looking at you. Although there are gates and a marked lane to get by, the 35 family members of the person who came through the doors before you will all be standing directly between you and the exit, hugging, kissing, talking and generally standing around and getting in the way.
At the worst possible moment, while you are struggling to get through that morass of people, a new, and final, official will demand your baggage claim tickets. Hopefully you haven't thrown them away by now, or lost them in your purse, backpack, computer bag or carry on, because that guy will make you go through everything to find them before you're allowed to leave.
Now you're in country. If I'm picking you up, I'll tend to stand by the doors to the outside, as much on the fringe of the madness as my psyche will allow. The upside is that I tend to be about three feet taller than the general population, so I should be fairly easy to spot in the crowd. I'll get you safely home from there.

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