Although it’s now 20 years old, Steve Howell’s Where to Watch Birds in Mexico is still the go-to guide for travelling birders in that country, but with the information that dated, readers need to take it with a grain of salt and a spirit of adventure.
Setting out to find the well-known Vigia Chico road that Howell profiles in his book, we consulted a more recent online source for updates and managed to find the location. The paved road goes a bit farther now, but it still turns into rutted hardpan/mud pretty quickly.
We didn’t see a lot of birds, but I put that down to arriving mid-morning.
However, two things birders should note about this famous spot:
1. The road is nearly impassable to regular cars with normal clearance. There are almost continuous deep gullies and holes with large rocks sticking up. We bottomed out over and over until we gave up at around km 4. So either bring a high-clearance vehicle or plan to walk.
2. I was standing at roadside, camera in hand, when a local came chugging up on a motorcycle. I called out Buenos dios as I do to everyone who passes, but instead of answering with a smile and going on, he stopped and approached us.
He let out a torrent of Spanish, from which I gathered he was saying photography on the road was prohibited. But somehow, if I paid a “fee” I could take my photos.
Knowing it is a public road, but not wanting to argue, I just said, Photographs are prohibited? Okay, no photographs. And I put my camera away. Of course, I got another flood of Spanish explaining about the fee, but I simply stuck to I understand, no photographs.
After seeing we were not going to pay, he climbed on his bike and roared away.
So I just wanted to warn other birders that this con artist has gotten wise to birders who want to use that road.
I’d also be very curious to know if anyone else has run into this?
I’m not a golfer, but in two places that I’ve travelled, golf carts were the common transport mode: Ko Olina, Hawaii, and Dolomite Camp in Etosha National Park, Namibia. So how did they compare?
Cart provided with condo rental at sprawling resort “town” that encompasses several beaches, restaurant, golf course, shopping, etc.
Cart as courtesy transport within remote and widely spread safari camp situated along a rocky ridge overlooking flat, arid plains.
Means of propulsion:
Allows you to park in “golf cart only” spots at otherwise full parking lots near popular beaches.
Gets you from common area of camp to your tent (maybe 600 m) in the dark without being et by a leopard (Dolomite has no fences to keep the wildlife out).
Jealous car drivers and the pool noodle that fell out of the cart in front.
Things with big teeth and claws that roar in the night.
Thrill of independence:
Oh, yeah! You have to charge up each night, but other than that, the world (or, at least, the resort) is your oyster.
None. You must phone to the reception building for a cart to pick you up. Besides, there’s nowhere to go unless you want to joy-ride across the barren plains with lions snapping at your ankles through the open sides of the cart.
Slower than you want to go.
Faster than you want to go.
None, unless you throw litter out while riding in one.
Noisy and smelly.
Potential to run out of battery power. (Never happened to us.)
Frequently break down.*
Roaring down the golf cart lanes at breakneck speed (5 kph?).
Clinging to the seats as the driver tears along the bumpy ridge trail at top speed.
Crossing main roads where cars are king.
Nearly tumbling out as the cart tilts 35 degrees backward or sideways on steep sections of the trail.
*When we stayed in 2012, the staff continually explained that only one cart was in working order, thus the delays in service. As I read through recent reviews, I was amused to discover that the situation hasn’t changed: there are still issues with the cart service and the staff are still explaining that only one cart is in working order.
Summary: While I’m not sure I’d want to eschew the carts to walk the distances through Dolomite on those uneven, up-and-down paths at night with ravenous carnivores lurking, I do feel there are probably better solutions. In fact, the one thing I really disliked about this camp was the noisy golf carts. From early in the morning, as soon as breakfast is starting to be served, until well into the evening, as the last guests finish their drinks in the bar, the annoying carts roar around. Since everything is built along one path that runs along the ridge, every cart passes by your unit.
Therefore, our Ko Olina cart wins this comparison easily. Now, let’s pack a picnic, throw the towels into the cart, and head to the beach!
Have you visited somewhere that golf carts are the preferred way to get around? Let me know in a comment!
Growing up, I never thought of her that way. She was just my steady, reliable mother, always taking caring of me and the rest of the family. Standing over the stove, hanging laundry on the clothesline, washing floors and walls (does anyone actually do that anymore???), ironing my father’s hankies (really), pinching pennies, making sure the household ran smoothly. I’m sure she saw that as her role in life and she took it very seriously. She almost never played with us kids, even when Dad sat down with us to play a board game once in a while, she invariably steered clear. I now suspect she was happy to have an hour or two of time when we were all otherwise engaged and she could do something else. On the other hand, we never went hungry, ran out of underwear, or missed a dentist appointment. She saw to that.
In her essay “The Household Zen,” (published in High Tide in Tucson—highly recommended, by the way), Barbara Kingsolver wrote:
“A generation of…women served their nation by being the Army of Moms, and they spent their creative force like the ancient Furies, whipping up cakes and handmade Christmas gifts and afterschool snacks, for a brief time in human history raising the art of homemaking high above the realm of dirt….(T)hey left a lot of us lucky baby boomers with strong teeth and bones and a warm taste of childhood in our mouths.”
As a stay-at-home mom, she was around the house pretty well all day, every day, and between chores, she listened religiously to CKNW’s radio quiz “Are You Listening?” Her favourite topic was geography. She wrote down the answers and kept lists of them taped to the inside of her cupboards for quick access. I’m reminded of Kingsolver’s insightful observation: “If you work in the kitchen and have the mind of a rocket scientist, you’re going to organize your cupboards like Mission Control.”
But aside from being a four-star general in the Army of Moms, my mother also had a daring and intrepid side that I’ve only come to recognize as I grow older.
As a teenager and new wife in the early 1950s, she earned her motorcycle license so that she could share the driving with Dad as they roared around Germany on a shared bike. When the two of them decided there was no future in post-war Europe, she held her two tiny children (my eldest brother and sister) by the hand and watched Dad sail off to the wilds of western Canada. For six months, she held the family together while he found work and then wrote for them to join him. She packed up what she could take, gave away what she couldn’t, and hugged her mother and everyone else she knew goodbye.
On the voyage across the Atlantic, high waves made almost everyone aboard the ship seasick. Mom looked after my brother and sister and a couple of other children whose mother was incapacitated.
She spent her birthday on the ship, and the official ship’s photographer snapped pictures of her and my siblings at the party. Later, he suggested he would give her free prints as a keepsake—if she would welcome him to her cabin when no one else was around. She told him to hand over the prints or she would tell the captain what he was up to. Long before #MeToo, Mom was fighting back against sexual predators.
The ship was blown off course by a storm and instead of docking in Halifax as planned, it put in at a U.S. port. Without U.S. transit papers, the passengers were treated like illegal aliens, kept under guard without food, and finally loaded aboard a train to Canada.
My parents were ultimately reunited in Vancouver, whereupon the family was whisked away to a series of remote camps in the wilderness of British Columbia. Dad worked a variety of jobs, including as a surveyor for the Pacific Great Eastern Railway, and the money was better in places far from city life. In Porteau, the only access was by small boat and Mom would order her groceries and other necessities with a list sent with the boatman. They lived in rough shacks with no conveniences and few other families. There were bears in the backyard and “Indians” around the corner, neither of which my mother had ever seen before coming to Canada. She spoke very little English when she arrived, but made it her lifelong goal to learn the new language and use it correctly. She never spoke German to us kids; we were Canadians and would speak English.
After a few years, and now with four children, my parents moved to a nice neighbourhood in Port Moody where my mother could finally fulfill her destiny as SuperMom. She was the perfect suburban housewife—yet her taste for adventurous experiences didn’t leave her.
Our summer holidays were always spent camping. Mom could have dug in her heels and just refused all the extra work that involved, but she loved the outdoors. She braved rain, bugs, pit toilets, snakes (she was terrified of snakes), and more bears as we wandered campsites across BC. We travelled to Barkerville, Terrace, and the Pacific Rim when this entailed long journeys on pot-holed gravel tracks. Perhaps this is just my childish misremembering, but it seemed that we were always driving along some narrow logging road that hung on the edge of a precipitous cliff dropping far below to a distant river valley.
One summer, we moved to Quebec for a couple of months for Dad’s job. Once again, Mom accepted the challenge of moving us all to a completely unfamiliar place with a foreign language.
When Mom was 41, my father was offered a job overseas in—of all places—Yemen. Yemen? No one had even heard of it and we had little idea what to expect there. His contract would be for a minimum of a year. Mom could stay home, or she could once again travel across the world. She chose to give up comfort and familiarity and expose two of her children (myself and my youngest brother) to The Unknown. She also left her two older children behind in Canada, which I believe was much harder for her, although they were both independent young adults by then.
Our trip to Yemen took us through Denmark, Germany, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas (aka French Somaliland or Djibouti), and Eritrea (then part of Ethiopia). As a child of 12, I was wide-eyed at the world that unfolded before me. Yemen itself provided a huge cultural shock. Donkeys and camels pulled watercarts through the desert, hideously deformed beggar children swarmed the streets, and women were swathed in black burkhas with only their eyes and fingers showing.
We moved into a whitewashed concrete block house in a small village four hours’ drive by Landrover through sand dunes from the closest town. My mother and I were the only “white” women in the village and the only women who went unveiled. (Although only 12, I was considered of marriageable age and should have been wearing a burkha.) There were cockroaches the size of Smart Cars on the floors, geckos of corresponding size on the walls (they eat the roaches), and no potable water. One room of our house was filled floor to ceiling with cases of Sohat bottled water.
Suffice to say that my mother could easily have run screaming back home to Port Moody. But she didn’t give up, even after she suffered through a bout of kidney stones and contracted malaria at the same time. This was one tough, determined woman.
Through her life, she was fascinated with the sea and ships, and while others talked about luxury cruises, she always dreamed of hopping a cargo ship. At the age of 50, when her friends were spending vacations in all-inclusive resorts, she and my dad bought backpacks and headed off to Europe.
I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of travelling in my life, but I’m not sure I have the courage and spirit of adventure my mother had when she immigrated or when she packed us off to live in the Middle East. She always said all she ever wanted to be was a mother and she continually downplayed her intelligence, pointing out that she never went to high school and referring to herself as “pea brain,” yet, somehow, she managed to be the perfect captain of our family spaceship while still boldly going where few dared to go.
“According to a recent report…in the end of January 2019 five thieves approached a truck parked along Chile’s 5 South freeway…, tied up the driver and stole the truck along with 22,500 kilograms of salmon valued at…US$305,000.”
“Well, I used to be a farmer and I made a living fine I had a little patch of poppies along the border line But times went bad and though I tried the cops were always there Then soldiers came and took my land and told me fair is fair
I looked for every kind of job, the answer always no “Hire you now?” they laughed, “We just let twenty go!” The government they promised me a measly little sum But I’ve got too much pride to end up just another bum
Then I thought, Who needs their charity? I’m going to be a FISH PIRATE on the highways of Chile!”
Note: In order for this immortal ditty to rhyme, you need to mispronounce Chile as if it is the bean-based food chili.
About a year ago, I started coming across a lot of hype for something called “packing cubes” (PCs). There were blogs touting them and bins of them showing up for sale in various outlets where I shopped. Videos peppered the Internet, calling PCs “revolutionary” and assuring viewers that the gadgets are a “must-have.”
I took a look and couldn’t quite figure out what all the excitement was about.
PCs are basically zippered, box-shaped stash-alls made of nylon, Cordura, mesh, or other strong fabrics. They come in various sizes (often sold in sets of two or three different sizes) none of which weigh very much.
So what’s the point?
PCs are designed for two purposes:
1. They help you stay organized on the road.
2. They help you compress your clothes so you can get more into your suitcase or bag.
When I bought my two sample PCs (two different sizes) at an outdoors store, I asked the cashier what she thought about them. She was vehement in her praise and talked about how using them made it so much easier to find things in her backpack.
Okay, I can see that. If you have your entire wardrobe plus assorted other necessaries (book, flashlight, towel, etc.) all jammed into what is, in essence, a big vertical tube, accessible only through little trapdoors, I’m sure it’s a challenge putting your hands on any specific item, like, for example, a pair of underwear.
But what about in a suitcase? When I open my case, I can see a large cross-section of my stuff laid out before me. It’s not quite like rooting around in a backpack. So do PCs earn their keep in the more genteel context of the suitcased traveller? This was the challenge.
In the past, I had put things into my suitcase higgledy-piggledy. I rolled things and stuffed them in wherever I found room. This meant that I’d often be hunting through the entire contents to find a clean pair of socks. Moreover, as my trip progressed, I would be wondering from day to day how much unused clothing I had left. Unless I pulled everything out and sorted it, I had no way of knowing. This could lead to being caught short, as when I discovered that last clean underwear I was positive I had packed somewhere in my bag was actually just a figment of my wishful imagination. Oops. I guess the Acropolis will have to wait—laundry day today!
With my clothes sorted into PCs, I can locate items quickly and tell instantly how many clean ones I still have and, hence, how soon the laundry emergency bell will ring. Of course, this means that I have to roll, sort, and PC my laundry after the washing is done or the system breaks down, but I don’t find that too onerous.
The second benefit—compression—is a double-edged sword. Yes, you can stuff more into your bag, no question. But compressing your clothes too much can make them unattractively wrinkled. Of course, you could choose to travel with no-iron synthetics. Eeeeeewwww. No, I’ll stick with my comfy cottons and live with the crinkles, but I don’t need to make it worse by putting enough pressure on my t-shirts to turn them into diamonds.
And don’t forget about weight. There’s no point in filling your suitcase so efficiently that it goes over the allowed weight. Clothes are heavy and a case that’s really stuffed tight could easily be too heavy. You don’t want to be that person who ends up beside the bag-check line frantically redistributing contents between suitcases because one is overweight. Or worse, you smugly brought only a carry-on bag, but the check-in attendant tells you it’s over the limit. Now what? You might have little choice but to pay those steep oversize/overweight baggage fees. If you’re really going to try to pack the maximum, you’d better invest in a little scale to check the weight before you head off to the airport.
What’s the verdict? Are PCs worth the bother?
Well, I’m using them every time I travel now, so I must find them useful. Mine are sturdy, easy to locate in my suitcase, and keep some of my gear organized. That’s worth something to me. On the other hand, I haven’t raced out to buy more. Two seems to be enough. So I’d say they’re sort of a travel geek’s toy, for people who travel a lot and seek maximum convenience. Optional for more casual vacationers.
Spots are the name of the game for members of the Nazareth Baptist Shembe Church in South Africa, whose traditional costumes include leopard skin capes. With millions of followers of the faith, a single Shembe gathering can put thousands of the animal pelts on view. Such popularity is bad news for the cats, who would much prefer the skins stay with the original owners.
Panthera, an organization dedicated to the conservation of the world’s wild cats, has stepped in with Furs for Life, a project to supply low-cost faux fur capes to those who use them in cultural practices. After five years of effort in promoting the switch, the 21st-century twist on this old fashion statement now sees about 50 percent of ceremony participants draped in fake spots, amounting to about 18,000 leopard lives saved.
Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).
The Hummingbird’s Daughter
Luis Alberto Urrea
Read for: Mexico
First sentence: “On the cool October morning when Cayetana Chavez brought her baby to light, it was the start of that season in Sinaloa when the humid torments of summer finally gave way to breezes and falling leaves, and small red birds skittered through the corrals, and the dogs grew new coats.”
As I prepared for my trip to Mexico, I was having difficulty finding an appropriate book to take along. Curiously, it seemed that every book I considered—mostly gleaned from “best Mexican authors” or “best novels set in Mexico” lists—included the word devastating in its description, as in: “A devastating accounting of many people through several generations dying in variously cruel and graphic ways,” or “A multilayered tale that sweeps to a terrifying and devastating conclusion.”
Somehow, devastating is not the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of books to read on the beach, in the airplane, or beside a pool while sipping “piñadas” (non-alcoholic piña coladas).
Fortunately, I finally came across the name of Luis Alberto Urrea and from there, found my way to The Hummingbird’s Daughter.
Based around the true-life story of Urrea’s relative, the woman known as Santa Teresita or The Saint of Cabora, the book is beautifully written, with the kind of language that makes you stop in awe and go back to reread passages. I also appreciated the complexity of the characters, who are much more than cardboard representations of morality/sin/good/bad. Although the novel isn’t set in the parts of Mexico where we were travelling (Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Campeche, and Chiapas), the fascinating mix of Christianity and traditional indigenous beliefs that underpins the story seems to be pan-Mexican.
History, geography, culture, and a good story all contribute to making The Hummingbird’s Daughter a perfect travel read. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Queen of America, set in Arizona, when I travel to that state in a few months.
5 knots Highly recommended
PS As we motored across the Yucatan, I was bemused to note the name of Urrea on a variety of products, including a bathroom sink. No idea if the company is related to Urrea the author or St Teresita.
Ike took us on one more boat-birding expedition at sunset that first day before we headed for bed. Our hut had no solid window coverings, just flaps that you could prop up to let the breeze in, so it was essentially open to the bugs flying in and out at will. As to bugs on the floor, I think they kept it meticulously swept, but the safest plan was to simply not look. We slept on the floor with the equivalent of a yoga mat and a sheet and I spent the night imagining that armies of creep-crawlies were marching up my arms, around my neck, and straight for my face. Gah!
Sunrise the next morning was spectacular as we rose before dawn to be on the water at first light. As promised, Ike took us even further into the most remote areas of the park in hopes of seeing some of the rarer birds. Hornbills with improbable shapes soared over our heads, looking like pterodactyls.
A pair of broadbills—crimson red with bright blue beaks—lurked just out of clear camera range. A turquoise and orange kingfisher dove off an overhanging branch.We saw monkeys and macaques clambering in the trees, as well as a slow loris sitting very quietly, no doubt hoping we hadn’t seen it. A large monitor lizard swam lazily past our boat.
For our second night on the lake, we docked at a camp that made the previous night’s accommodations look like The Ritz. This was well beyond where the tourist day-trippers ventured and there were only a few other guests, fishermen, most likely.
Before turning in, I went to brush my teeth at the one and only sink in the one and only bathroom. There was no water flowing from the faucet, which didn’t bother me as I was using bottled water anyway. So I brushed and rinsed and spat—and felt water splashing against my feet. I peered under the sink and realized that there was no pipe connected, the water simply drained directly onto the floor. Such a no-fuss solution to the problem of plumbing.
WARNING: The following paragraphs contain graphic material that may be disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.
So, sometime during the night, the one and only toilet in the one and only bathroom got plugged up. Which meant that morning found a gaggle of rather desperate guests wandering around in search of somewhere to conduct their morning ablutions. Being the sole woman in camp, I was probably more desperate than most.
Before continuing, I must harken back to an email exchange I had with Ike when organizing the tour.
Ike: Are you okay with a rustic camp?
Me: How rustic is rustic? I’m okay with anything except squat toilets.**
Ike: Ha, ha! No, I promise, absolutely no squat toilets.
Fast forward to the camp with the only flush toilet nonoperational. Someone kindly points me down the hill to a corrugated metal shack. I have a strong feeling that I know what I’ll find inside, and yes, indeed, there it is, the hole in the floor, and a big plastic cistern and scoop next to it (this is in lieu of toilet paper, of course).
We are all stronger (and more resourceful) than we know, and I’m happy to report that I did survive the ST challenge. Poor Ike was mortified when he realized what had happened and apologized profusely, but really, when you choose to go “into the wild,” you just have to accept that things might not go according to plan. Adaptability is all part of the adventure.
**Squat toilet: A hole in the floor over which one is expected to crouch while…well, you know. Not uncommon in parts of Asia.
A two-night, three-day birding tour in southern Thailand didn’t seem so crazy. We’d hire a guide, he’d take us to birding areas that we couldn’t reach on our own. A boat. Oh, yes, there’d be a boat, as our targeted area was centred on a large man-made lake where the water was the only way to travel. And floating bungalows. That should be a lark—imagine, sleeping in bamboo huts actually on the lake.
And so, in all innocence, we left behind the comfort of our hotel in Phuket pre-dawn to climb sleepily into Ike’s SUV.
Let me pause for a moment to speak, with fondness and with reverence, of Ike. I can honestly say I have never met a more personable character in my travels. Having struggled for two weeks in Thailand to be understood (my fault, not anyone else’s, as I speak no Thai), I was happily gobsmacked at Ike’s perfect command of English, to the point where I had to stop myself continually (and idiotically) remarking on it. Not only did he express himself better than a good number of my acquaintances back home, but his birding skills far surpassed ours. Often during the weekend, we would be listening to a cacophony of sound arising from the jungle, and he would suddenly cup his ear, point, and announce “great hornbill!” And by gum, if we stilled our ragged breathing and tuned out everything else, we, too, could hear the distant, soft hoot. Then, more times than not, just to prove that he wasn’t just making things up, we’d see the tiny but unmistakable silhouette of a great hornbill sail off across the horizon. Add to his virtues a ready sense of humor and a genuine kindness, and you have a good picture of him.
We were not Ike’s typical bird tour clients. Although you can’t exactly call us novices, as we’ve been birding for something like 18 years, we’re more like developmentally challenged bird tourists. We enjoy going to places where birds hang out, we like seeing the birds, I like to snap photos, but finding rarities is not a high priority. On this particular trip, for various reasons, we were almost completely unprepared. Serious twitchers* arrive at their destinations with a list of target species, having thoroughly studied their intended prey, and well versed in juvenile plumage, alternate color morphs, and vocalizations. We had a dogeared field guide borrowed from the library and some binoculars. We had no idea which species were rare and which were commonplace. We were like children, oohing and ahhing at the pretty birds when Ike pointed them out, nodding appreciatively when he gave us the names. In short, we were pathetic. Ike took this in stride.
Back in the SUV, sun just starting to peek over the horizon on the first day. Ike had described the itinerary thus: “The trip will begin with a drive to Sri Phang Nga, birding at the park, afternoon birding in a different location, then a drive to the lake. First day on the lake, we’ll go for birds around the eastern lower tributaries and then the last day we’ll move to another substation deep in the heart of the sanctuary to search for the rare species. On the last day, we’ll drive back to Phuket after lunch.”
On that first afternoon, we were thrilled to see our first pitta. Pittas are small, (generally) brilliantly coloured birds that skulk in the dark underbrush and are so legendarily difficult to see that one fellow spent a year travelling around the world on a quest to spot all 34 species of Pitta (see “Calidris reads: Costa Rica–The Jewel Hunter”). This particular bird—a Malayan banded pitta—had been somewhat acclimatized to humans by the simple expedient of someone putting out meal worms in the same place in the jungle at the same time every day. Even shy birds aren’t stupid and this one obliged by showing itself just long enough for me to snap some photos. As far as we were concerned, this “twitch”* already made the trip a success.
We motored across the magnificence of the lake in a traditional Thai longtail boat, awestruck by the vertical green walls that thrust out of the water around us, hills and islands in rank after rank disappearing into the distance. There is no development on the shores of this lake, which is preserved as a park, thanks to the revered Thai king who spearheaded the creation of the reservoir. We occasionally passed another boat, usually full of other tourists.
Grey-headed fish eagles, ospreys, and white-bellied sea eagles flew by or perched on tree snags poking out of the water. A wild elephant drank and splashed on the shore.
We turned around yet another headland and spotted our accommodations for the night—the aforementioned floating bungalows. All the buildings of the camp are joined together by floating wooden walkways cobbled together from old bits of logs and lumber, many of which are half-submerged and/or rock alarmingly when you walk on them.
Lunch was a typical Thai spread of baked fish, rice, veg, and fruit served up in the—you guessed it—floating diner.
After a heavenly swim in the lake, we were laying down for a siesta when Ike called us out excitedly: “Ice cream!” Although it seemed like it must be a heat-induced hallucination, sure enough, as we tumbled out of our hut and hurried down the walkway, which rebounded wildly with every step, we spotted the last thing we expected to find in this castaway location: a beaming man scooping ice cream from a big tub in his wooden boat. Apparently, he makes a daily run of several hours to bring the treat out to the camp. How he kept it frozen, I have no idea. You could have any flavour you wanted, as long as it was vanilla. And although I’m usually a chocolate gal, I can tell you, I’ve never tasted anything more welcome than that plain vanilla ice cream, eaten on a floating dock on a steaming hot afternoon in a remote part of a jungle-shrouded lake in Thailand.
*Twitcher: A birdwatcher whose main goal is to collect sightings of rare birds, i.e., “twitches.”
On our travel nightmare journey from Vancouver to Cancun, our United Airlines flight departure from YVR was delayed by two hours due to wildfire smoke at our stopover, San Francisco.
Let me make it clear, I don’t fault UA for this. The smoke was “an act of God.” The issue is, how did UA handle this emergency?
We made up about an hour en route, but still arrived an hour late at SFO. The flight crew assured us that all flights in/out of SFO were being delayed, so we might still make our connecting UA flight to Cancun. We were told to “check the flights board” to see if our flight had gone, and if it had, we should then talk to a customer service rep.
Of course, our flight had indeed departed (without the 13 of us who were all delayed from that one flight. Hmmm…13…I wonder?) so we went in search of a customer service rep. We found two United Airlines “service” desks, both unstaffed, and tried two UA “service” phones, both dead lines.
We finally approached a UA employee at one of the gate check-ins, who told us where to find an open service booth.
Question 1: Since our connecting flight had long since departed, why wasn’t that info passed to the flight crew to pass to us on the plane so we wouldn’t waste time trying to find our flight on the board? I have seen similar situations where a flight delay caused a number of passengers to miss a connecting flight, and the airline sent a rep to meet the plane, collect the affected passengers and escort them to wherever they needed to go next to resolve their flight issue. Why didn’t UA do that?
Question 2: Since dozens of UA flights were being delayed that evening and thousands of passengers rerouted, why wasn’t every service desk and every service phone in operation?
We finally locate the one open service booth and, naturally, there’s a long line-up, so we settle down to wait. 30 minutes later, we finally get to the head of the line. The harried UA rep asks “Are there only two of you?” We nod. He sends us to another booth down the terminal, where we wait again.
Question 3: Why didn’t the first service booth just have a sign or a rep stationed at the line to direct people immediately to the other booth, so we wouldn’t waste 30 minutes waiting in that line?
At the second booth, we are told that we have been rebooked via Houston on a flight that is boarding NOW. Really? We’re already rebooked, but you couldn’t have told us that back on the plane, an hour ago?
“Run!” says the rep helpfully.
Indeed, as we arrive at the gate, boarding is in its final stages. The surly rep at this gate snaps that the flight is full and we won’t get on. So why did the last rep send us here?
Two minutes later, she recants and we have boarding passes. Hooray! But when we find our seats (in separate rows), it is clear that both our seats were likely originally left empty because they are located next to Really Big People, who are not thrilled to discover that two last-minute passengers are about to take away their extra space.
As I wedge myself apologetically in the center seat of the very last row (read: no seat recline), the man on my other side smiles…and coughs. And coughs. And coughs.
Which leads to the topic of a future blog…”Mexican Health Care for Tourists.”