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THE WANDER YEAR

Winging From Morocco to Chile, Passing Through Strange Territory . . . Dallas

THE WANDER YEAR / WEEK 38: CHILE * A yearlong series following one couple's journey around the world.

October 29, 2000|MIKE McINTYRE

SANTIAGO, Chile — We took off in a fog and landed in a daze.

Casablanca was socked in when Andrea and I left North Africa for South America. It was clear here in the Chilean capital when we arrived two days later, but we were far from clearheaded.

We'd made the last big leap of our journey. We were back in our neighborhood, within a few time zones of it anyway. It took only five flights to five countries on four continents--a disorienting marathon through the hyper-stressful world of airports and airplanes. The upside is that we had each earned 12,000 frequent-flier miles, not that we're eager to use them.

Flying within Morocco from Casablanca to Tangier and continuing on to Malaga, Spain, then to London, Dallas and Santiago is like driving from L.A. to Phoenix by way of Boise, Idaho. Our routing was funny, but so is the airline industry. It's usually cheaper to fly round trip than one way. Our problem is that we want to finish in California, not Morocco.

To save money, we flew from Morocco to London (with a connection through Spain), then searched for a round-trip flight to Santiago that stops in the U.S. We found one at a London ticket discounter. When our return flight from Chile to London lands in Dallas in December, we'll collect our bags, skip the connecting flight to London and fly to San Diego on the outbound part of another set of round-trip tickets. I know, it's confusing to me too.

Once I'd left Morocco, I was dragging. At the airport in Malaga I was still saying shukran, thank you in Arabic. In England that night, I'd switched to gracias. In Dallas, I kept my mouth shut.

Flying in and out of London can get tricky because there are five airports. We landed at Luton, north of the city, and flew out of Gatwick, to the south. Rather than waste time on trains, buses and taxis, we drove to our hotel in a rented car we dropped at Gatwick the next day. The sign outside the Skylane Hotel welcomed those attending a psychic fair. I didn't need a psychic to tell me this long-haul trip would get weirder.

At the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, we went through Immigration so we could wander around rather than wait in the transit lounge. Andrea worried we might break our rhythm by entering the U.S. before journey's end. But after 10 months abroad, the States felt like another foreign country. Everything about America seemed big. Big cars, big people, big talk. Overheard: "I just put a home theater in my house."

My mission in Dallas was to mail our request for absentee ballots for the upcoming election. (We asked that they be sent to us in Bolivia, where we plan to arrive in time to fill them out.) It might have been easier to fly back and vote in person. You can buy postcards every 20 feet in the airport, but good luck getting a stamp. I found a lone stamp machine at the end of the huge terminal. It took exact change, no bills. The smallest packet of stamps cost $2; I didn't have a single coin.

After separate purchases of paperbacks, newspapers, mints and Q-Tips, I had eight quarters. Before I returned to the stamp machine, I stopped in a boarding area to address the envelope. A flight attendant sat behind me, dumping her boyfriend over a cell phone. In my haste to give her some privacy, I jumped up, sending the coins in my lap rolling across the floor. The woman probably wondered why I was crawling around at her feet, but she continued the breakup. Call me insensitive, but I've never missed an election. I found seven quarters and gave up on the eighth when the woman told the guy she would always love him.

I hate asking for change. Cashiers act as though you're robbing them. So I bought a bottle of water I didn't want. With tax, it came to $1.99, leaving me 24 cents short. I finally asked another cashier to break a dollar. He caught my crazed look and handed me the coins. I'll vote for whomever promises easier access to postage.

The overnight flight to Chile was brutal. I know air rage is a problem, but it's a wonder there isn't more. It's not natural to hurtle through the sky in a metal tube for 20 hours with 300 tightly packed strangers. I dozed in a half-sleep, which is worse than no sleep. When I woke, my eyes stung.

The view out the window made it all worth it. The sun was rising over the snow-covered Andes. It was spring in the Southern Hemisphere. After flying for two days, it was time to travel.

NEXT WEEK: Pisco and pink flamingos in Chile.

Did you miss a Wander Year installment? The entire series since it began in January can be found on The Times' Web site at http://www.latimes.com/travel/wander.

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