Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Back in the USSA

2 February 2005

LA RIVIERA DRIVE, SACRAMENTO, Calif. – My theory was that I could get to the airport late in Puerto Vallarta. I was flying on a Tuesday, for chrissakes. How many people could be bailing out of this place on a Tuesday? As luck had it, I arrived a couple of hours before my flight – not one hour as I had planned — and when I got out of the taxi, the check-in line was out the door and down the sidewalk, a hot sidewalk because the sun had come out and the 95 percent humidity kicked in with a vengeance.

Uh-oh, I thought.

But after muscling through the center of the line (‘Con permiso, por favor’), I found out that the incredible line was several hundred people who were going to be sardined into a Continental Airlines Jet and that their line had taken on a life of its own while two harried ticket counter workers dealt with all the various problems people seem to have leaving Mexico — primarily losing their tourist visa. Veteran Mexico hands will tell you that it’s no big deal to show up at the ticket counter sans visa. (B.S. Ask them how many times THEY have done it, before you believe that.) Tuesday, inevitably, there was a family with four pouting teenage girls in tow, none of whom seemed to have remembered to keep their tourist visas. It was obvious, however, that they had found boutiques, jewelry stores, booze vendors, and hair braiders without problem. And now they didn’t want to be bothered with even getting their passports out of their bloated suitcases to comply with the repeated polite requests of a very overwhelmed female Mexican clerk whose smile was beginning to show slight cracks around the corner of her mouth.

I left as the father of this entourage was clearly ready forget he was still in laid-back manana land and do a very-American , very-Dad, blow-your-hair-back tirade at the four teenagers. The family was on a flight to Chicago, in case you read about some domestic disturbance in the windy city.

The amount of alcohol and food that’s available in the Puerto Vallarta airport is astounding. From the vantage point where I sat while waiting for my 4 p.m. flight, I could see three bars, four duty-free shops and two restaurants. And they were all packed with people getting their last little bit of Mexican food or touch jingled before they took off. The smoke in the terminal was thick from the cigarettes, both from the bars and restaurants and in the waiting area. No designated smoke spots in this country. If you don’t like the smoke, go outside. Oops, can’t do that at an airport until you want to wander through security over and over.

With more than an hour before my flight, the question wasn’t whether to have a beer. The first-beer-of-the-day issue had been settled at the Vallarta Yacht Club while I had lunch with Don Tiffin to go over last-minute details about some of the work he is supervising in my absence. No, the question was whether to go to one of the three Corner Bars, which, of course, are not located in any corner at all, but along a promenade. I found out that in one regard they are very American. You cannot sit at one of these places without ordering an overpriced drink (another very American carryover).

I settled on the Corner Bar (But which one, you ask, which one?).

The one with the least amount of people, which seemed to be most inviting and least threatening to a somewhat claustrophobic someone who was going to crammed into a metal tube and hurtled through the sky at 550 miles per hour. But I didn’t count on ‘the woman from Alaska.’

It might be that her voice was damaged seriously when her parents pushed her out of the cabin onto the tundra to play in the dead of winter. Perhaps this day it was the row of empty tequila shooter glasses, or the endless chain of Camel cigarettes that hung from her lips. But it was clear when I sat down why no one, except for a baleful soul I took to be her husband, was within 20 feet of her at this Corner Bar.

I dubbed her Air Raid Agnes – a nod to those wonderful British air raid sirens you sometimes hear in the movies made about World War II. They start very low and build and build and start screeching to a crescendo. Except that Agnes could hold her crescendo for minutes at a time while her jaw moved around like a car hood with bad hinges and her husband kept signaling the bartender for another round. The bartender, a tiny fellow with a Cantiflas mustache, kept ducking into the little room behind the bar to bring out…well, nothing really that I could see. He was just ducking.

I had escaped the sound of six people grinding off fiberglass from the cabin top of Sabbatical earlier in the day and decided that I should avoid any further damage to my ears before takeoff. But just as decided to seek another not-in-the-corner Corner Bar, the call came over the loudspeaker: America West passengers for San Diego report to gate 6A.

I could still hear the siren wailing as I got to the gate.


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