Archive for June 5th, 2011

Trying to do some tourism in revolutionary Venezuela

June 5, 2011

It is sort of strange that every time I come to Venezuela, I think of dozens of stories to write about, but actually write few of them, mostly because my visits are quite busy and never have the time to relax, think and write. By the time I get back “home”, other stories take precedence and the old stories are forgotten.

This week was busier than ever. At the end of it, I was going to the wedding of a friend in Margarita Island (which has a bizarre story and video in today’s New York Times) and the experience with my flights made it the trip from Hell. And I am not exaggerating. Given that tourism is such a cash cow, it is truly a pity that our flight and tourism services can be so terrible, that the beauty of Venezuela is wasted and tourism from abroad is so underdeveloped.

My adventure began two days before the trip. Having reserved my ticket for a 9PM flight to Porlamar with Aserca Airlines over three months ago, I had no worry in the world, until Aserca called…

They basically told me that they had cancelled the 9 PM flight, but I had nothing to worry about, because they had booked me in the 1 PM flight. I said this was impossible, I had to work and could not leave mid-morning to be able to catch the flight. I was willing to leave Saturday (no flights in any airline, I was told) or later on Friday (no flights on any airline either). Finally, Aserca must have bumped someone else, because they confirmed me in the 6:10 PM flight on Friday, a bit early for my taste but I could manage.

When I arrived at Maiquetia airport, the national departures terminal was its usual chaos. Having no luggage, I managed to find a counter that had no line and checked in efficiently. Nothing went right after that.

At about the appointed time, we went to Gate 1, where the flight was supposed to leave from and the monitor said Maracaibo. This suggested something was amiss and an agent quickly told us to go to Gate 3, where our flight was scheduled to depart from. And indeed the Monitor in gate 3 had our flight number and departure time. About a half hour before the fight was scheduled to depart, a plane arrived at the gate full of passengers that disembarked. It was looking good. We could even be on time. Imagine!

Except that about 6:20 PM, ten minutes “late” an agent stood and said: “please stay seated, we will soon board the flight to Puerto Ordaz, which was not our destination. I went up to the agent and she told me, as if I was stupid, that the Porlamar flight was leaving from gate 5, telling me in a very harsh and inpolite tone: “I made the change myself!”

Well, I certainly don’t read minds and Gate 3 still had our flight information on it!

So, since it was ten minutes after departure, I grabbed my boarding pass with Seat 27A stamped on it and ran for Gate 5.

This gate was more organized chaos than anything before. There were many lines (The gate has multiple doors) but none of the monitors said Porlamar. But we quickly determined that the door that said “Las Piedras” was the correct one.

We then stood there for quiet a while and were soon joined by a group of Germans. No idea how they determined this was the right gate. A Spanish lady said something like: “It is really like Hell traveling in Venezuela”

I could not argue with her.

About 7:15 PM, an agent stood in front of the Las Piedras sign and said “This way to Porlamar”. The line, which was quite uniform up to that point, dissolved into a crowd, as the Germans behind me ended up in front of half the people in no time.

We all went thru the door where a bus was waiting for us. It filled before I boarded it and there was no one around to tell us that another bus with the lights out was for us. Someone went back to find out and we boarded.

As we were boarding, the stewardess told everyone: “Free sitting after Row 2″.

I never figured out if there was a Row 1, but wondered what the Germans, used to order, thought about seat assignments that later became free seating. Or if they understood it at all…I still don’t get it.

Finally we all sat down and after like half an hour took off. They served some refreshments, I ordered a Coke, got a 7 Up, what else could you expect by then? The guy behind me was worse, the stewardess said did you order Seven Up? He said, no, I ordered water. She just handed over the glass and said: ” Why don’t you try it and tell me what it is..”

Great Service!

We finally landed over two hours late in Margarita, as determined visually through the window, but not via the loudspeakers, where the announcement was made that we had just landed at the “Aeropuerto Internacional Simon Bolivar de Maiquetia” which serves Caracas.

It was never corrected…

The way back was almost as bad. Fortunately, I showed up early and was told the flight had at least two hours of delay, but rumors were saying that it had been cancelled. My prize for arriving early was that me and eighteen other passenger were sent over to a different airline, Rutaca, which had empty spaces. The attitude at Rutaca seemed different, because the luggage of the Aserca-transferred passengers was not there, they almost left us, because the flight “could not leave late and it was already the time to leave”. Fortunately, they let us on and we were on our way to Caracas, a short 35 minute flight…

Just as we saw Maiquetia half an hour later, the pilot announces that we will go in a holding patter for about ten minutes as there is a “Presidential protocol ceremony” taking place at the airport. We held the holding pattern for about 40 minutes, more than doubling the flight time.

Thus, even Chavez got into my story, which had been written before I landed. For once, neither his Government nor himself was going to appear in this story, a true rarity, but found a way to do so…

(The only good part was that the wedding Saturday was great and when we checked into the Hotel Friday late we called Restaurant Mondeque run by my friend Sumito Estevez, the second seating that night was at 9:30 PM and we had a wonderful, all fish and seafood creative meal and the bride even came over to say hello to us)

Note added: A week after my post Aserca ground agents have fight with passengers at 2 AM after hours of delays of a Caracas-Maturin flight.