Monday, March 30, 2020

On the Way Home...

Last Tuesday, after managing to change my flight from Chile to my California home, I was killing time until, on the morning of my presumed Friday departure, I received an email from a friend in Puerto Varas. He referred me to a US embassy warning that LATAM Airlines had no scheduled flights to the United States for that day. This alarmed me, to say the least, as I wasn’t sure I could handle yet another postponement during the coronavirus crisis.
The US Embassy's alert suggested there'd be no Friday night flight.
Unwilling to accept the news from a single source—even one with the embassy’s authority—I immediately emailed a friend who works in the communications department at Nuevo Pudahuel, the concessionaire that operates Santiago’s Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benítez. He told me that they’d received a communiqué to that effect from the airline; there would be a flight to Miami, he added, but availability was doubtful.
Nuevo Pudahuel's website showed my flight leaving on time.
This, of course, alarmed me even more, but when I went to LATAM’s flight status page, it assured me that my 11:55 p.m. departure for Los Angeles was still on schedule, even though many other flights had been canceled or delayed. Just in case, I phoned their local customer service number and got the same encouraging response. Still, I asked the agent to look into further, and she left me on hold for some time before repeating that confirmation. She added, however, that if there were any change in status I should receive an email from the airline by 6 p.m.
Neil Young's lyrics suggested the uncertainty of everything. 
On a hunch, I went to Nuevo Pudahuel’s passenger page which—despite what my friend there had written—also showed the flight to be on schedule. With Marializ Maldonado, who would drive me to the airport, I decided on waiting until 7 p.m., rechecking the online resources before departing. Neil Young’s words to "On the Way Home," sung here by Richie Furay, seemed appropriate.

At the Airport, on the Plane
When that hour arrived, we threw my bags into the car and, via a nearly empty highway, arrived at an airport that is usually swarming with people but was now almost equally empty. After confirming with floor personnel that my flight was still in order, I approached the check-in—with virtually no line—to get my boarding pass and drop my bags. It was a pleasant surprise that, even though my reservation inexplicably indicated only one bag on an international flight, LATAM accepted my second one at no additional charge.
Normally packed on a Friday evening, Santiago's airport was eerily empty.
Passing through immigration and security was equally expeditious, and I found myself with nearly four more hours to kill before departure. That left plenty of time for one last pisco sour—even though the only restaurant serving alcohol was a US chain whose name I’ll decline to mention here, I bit the bullet on an overpriced cocktail. I also ordered a chicken sandwich that was at least palatable but, except in desperation, I’ll never choose to eat there again. 
With many flights delayed or canceled, Nuevo Pudahuel has provided cots for napping.
Only about half-full, with passengers spaced fairly well, this was a bare-bones flight that served only water—no alcohol or even soft-drinks (except perhaps in business class). Having sandwiched earlier, I declined the dinner, but the next morning’s breakfast was perhaps the worst airline meal I’ve ever had. Except for one edible asparagus spear and some soggy mushrooms, it wasn’t even recognizable as food, and I really didn't want to know what it was. Nor was there tea or coffee.

Back in the USA
The baggage claim at LAX was virtually vacant.
On arrival at LAX, the airport was even emptier than SCL had been the night before, and I’ve never gone through immigration and customs faster at any US airport. There was one oddity, however—on board the flight, cabin personnel had distributed a CDC traveler health declaration that asked whether a passenger had been to China’s Hubei Province and other destinations that had seen coronavirus outbreaks.
The CDC's explanation of its health declaration.
There was no screener for arriving passengers, nor anywhere to submit the declaration (which I will now recycle).
Badly drawn, the declaration claimed to be mandatory but also seemed to state that only travelers coming from affected countries would be obliged to fill it out. In the end, though, that was irrelevant—nobody collected or even asked for the form, nor was there any box to drop it in. This, of course, could easily be a metaphor for the current administration’s ineptitude and negligence in confronting the greatest public health crisis in a century.

On the Road Again
My ticket home included a connecting flight to San Francisco, but dealing with security theater and being cooped up in another plane didn’t appeal to me, so I chose to rent a car. I’ve done this before, and often use it as an excuse to explore parts of the California coast and coast range that I don’t know as well, and also to visit a winery and have lunch in San Luis Obispo or Paso Robles.
Despite the crisis, Harris Ranch remains the go-to place along I-5 between Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
This time, though, I chose the most direct, quickest route via Interstate 5 through the Central Valley, where digital highway warning signs advised us to stay at home and avoid gatherings. I stopped at Coalinga's Harris Ranch, a classic lunch break at almost the exact midpoint of the trip; in the current crisis, the restaurant proper is closed, but they’ve set up a tent to take orders and deliver them to your car. I chose a grilled chicken sandwich and a lemonade before continuing north, arriving in Oakland around 4 p.m.
Chaltén was ready for a walk.
Here I’m sheltering in place, and couldn’t even embrace my wife or daughter, though I could give a hug to Chaltén, the rescue husky who’s quickly become part of the family. After that, we returned my rental car to Oakland International Airport and, following a light dinner, I was in bed by 8 p.m. (midnight Chilean time, though).
Our neighborhood's many restaurants mostly remain open for takeaway meals.
I awoke at 3 a.m. and, after indulging in some videos, took the dog for a walk at daybreak. On a Sunday morning, there were few people out but, in a neighborhood with many restaurants, I noticed that nearly all of them now offer takeout. For the time being, at least, this is the new normal.

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