Perhaps the longest day of my life began at five thirty am in the snowy cold valley of Cascade, Idaho. After a quick breakfast of muffins and eggs, my flight group of fifteen people and a whole bunch of teachers loaded up the minibus and white truck. Four inches of snow had accumulated on top of the trailer attached to the bus, filled the night before with our massive bags. Each of us lugged a 110 liter waterproof river bag and a 80 liter backpacking bag, both stuffed to the top.
At the Boise airport, we checked our bags in the empty terminal and walked through security to our gate. In our flight group was a girl from Idaho who had never been inside an airport before, let alone a plane! It was fun for all of us to help her understand why and how everything worked through the whole system. Our first flight of four left Boise at 10:30am, headed in the absolute wrong direction, Seattle!
Arriving at the busier international airport, we waited a while for a gate, switched terminals, and had some time to explore in groups of three (with strict check-in times of course!). Soon later, we boarded our slightly larger plane for a slightly longer flight to Atlanta. While the views of the Rockies were great, the best part of the flight was seeing Mount Saint Helens right outside our windows. Not above or below, the peak sat right at window level.
Our flight to Atlanta was categorized by frantic searching, however, as someone discovered they had misplaced their passport, the cardinal sin of international travel that had been drilled into us innumerable times before taking to the air.
Once arriving in the dormant Atlanta airport around 9:30pm, we spread out at the arrival gate and unpacked our entire bags, searching through everything. The passport was not found. After the teachers made new travel plans, we met as a group and had a joint breathing and planning session which was very helpful. Luckily, the airline was able to stop the bags of the student and teacher who would stay in Atlanta, so while she wouldn’t have a passport, at least she’d have all her stuff!
As it turned out, the airline soon found her passport on a plane in Salt Lake City, and she joined back with us one day late. Another student had an incorrectly spelled name on his ticket, but he had to stay in Boise. He came last night with another teacher who had stayed with him.
Anyway, he moved quickly through the airport, heading to our next gate. Our long layover was cut short due to the search and meeting, so we soon hoped right on the plane to Santiago. The larger plane was in 2-3-2 seating layout, and somehow I ended up with the only seat on the plane next to me (just two seats, both mine!) That flight left Atlanta at 11:00pm, and nine and a half hours later, we landed in Santiago!
The Santiago airport is relatively new, with construction everywhere, but its not big enough for all its activity and you move from long line to long line to long line everywhere you go. Our first long line was immigration. I got a new stamp in my passport and a scarily important receipt of entry (basically you need the barcode on the slip of paper to be able to leave Chile…). Our lead teacher had a stapler in his bag so we could attach them right to our passports.
Then we entered the zoo. The customs area and baggage claim are lined up next to each other, with only a small hallway and partition dividing them. There were probably fifteen or more international flights landing around the same time so it was absolute chaos. No one said excuse me, possibly because they didn’t know what language to speak in, possible because we were all bumping into random people with every step.
Our flight group of fifteen split into smaller groups of three kids and one teacher to stick together as a ‘pod’ and make it through. The ‘line’ started in about ten different spots, merging together weirdly, with absolutely no markings or airport personnel helping out. The majority of people gave up on finding the end and decided to cut in wherever they chose, disregarding the protests of those behind them. My pod arranged ourselves in ‘defense formation,’ strategically packing our loaded luggage carts in the “line.” We had many decisive merges, and remained on offense, claiming language ignorance and pushing through. It was ridiculous.
Finally in the customs area, four different dogs sniffed our bags and they went through two different screening checkpoints. On purpose, none of us had any food, and so we had no problems getting through. After customs, we had to leave the airport, wait in lines for two elevators, and check in for our next and final flight. I did my best to decipher the airport announcements and read signs, and actually made it to where we needed to go without much difficulty.
We met up with the other flight group which had taken a set of United flights around the US (I was on Delta), and arrived in Santiago just before us. We all cleared Chilean security and waited at our gate. I realized that this would be my first domestic flight in a foreign country. After going through the doors of the gate, we were loaded onto busses and taken to the center of the tarmac, where our plane was waiting for us. Because the airport is so big, a bunch of the ‘gates’ have planes parked in spaces on the tarmac. Everything on the plane was in Spanish, the announcements, the menus, and the other passengers. I think I’m getting it! I had to look up how to say Ginger Ale though.
We flew from Santiago to Balmaceda, a two hour southward flight. Arriving in Balmaceda, a tiny joint civilian-military airport with two passenger gates total, we officially met up with everyone for the first time in 36 hours. We were exhausted. But, we had bags to carry! We met the head of school, Sean Bierle, for the first time (he was here in Chile prepping for our arrival). Then, we loaded our bags onto big box trucks, and split up to travel in smaller trucks and vans. The drive to Coyhaique, our final destination, only took about fifty minutes, and the scenery was stunning the whole way. We saw snow capped mountains, fields of grass, and open plains.
Finally, we arrived at our cabanas (cabins) just outside of Coyhaique!