One of the givens from marathon travel is that you will lose, break and wear out things along the way.
We all do our best to avoid these losses, of course, but it is a challenge to keep track of all your wits, much less all your belongings, while on the road. When you do lose something, the outcome can range from mildly annoying to merely expensive or even borderline catastrophic.
In such moments, travel mercies can make all the difference.
What is a travel mercy? By our definition, a travel mercy is an act of random kindness by an individual or the universe that rescues us from a loss of something we value – property, time, money, maybe even our welfare.
Because we all need occasional reminders that strangers and the universe can be unexpectedly generous, we interrupt this South American travelogue to share four such mercies we have experienced since leaving home nearly three months ago.
Mercies in the Sand
Two of our mercies involve, of all things, sand.
Doris sends postcards from the road to her granddaughter in the Netherlands, both to stay in touch from afar and also in hopes that, someday, these offerings from far-flung corners will help keep the memory of her peripatetic grandmother alive. Each card is chosen to illustrate exactly where Mimi and Papi (aka Partout) are. Doris always tries to include in the message some little insight about herself or Abby’s dad as a boy.
Imagine Doris’s disappointment, then, after she selected a postcard of scenic Cuenca, trekked halfway across the city to buy $3 in international stamps at the post office, trekked home to pen an Abby-specific message on the blank card, affixed the stamps, then trekked back across town to mail the card at the post office (mailboxes not being anywhere in evidence) – only to find the card had vanished.
Convinced the card could not have fallen from where she snugged it into her purse, steps were retraced, an AirBnB was scoured, brains were sprained trying to otherwise account for the disappearance but … nope. The card was gone. Since Doris had taken a photo of the postcard before setting off to mail it, she settled for second-best: an email to Abby relating the sad story of the lost message.
Days later, a bright green WhatsApp balloon from Abby’s mom Carole popped onto Doris’s cell phone screen. “Look what arrived!” the balloon announced.
It was the missing card.
With a PS in an unfamiliar hand at the bottom:
The other mercy from the sands occurred in the Galapagos.
One fine morning, preparing to leave our boat for an excursion, Louis could not find his sunglasses, an essential on the water at the equator. High and low we searched (albeit not a long process on a 16-passenger boat) but, alas, no sunglasses. Mentally retracing our steps of the day before, we realized he had mostly likely forgotten them on a beach of deserted Isla Fernandina.
Learning of the loss, our on-board naturalist jumped on his radio, put out a lost-item SOS to other boats in the vicinity and broadcast our sailing itinerary. Aw, how thoughtful, we said to each other. Many hours later, our captain asked about the brand of the lost sunglasses. Gee, how sweet to take an interest, we thought. We couldn’t identify the brand, but we told him they hung from a distinctive cordón rojo (red cord)
The next morning, when we docked along with dozens of other returning Galapagos cruisers for the bus to the airport, the glasses were the last thing on our mind. At first, we didn’t even grasp why a crew member from another boat was weaving our way with a broad smile on his face. Then we saw his outstretched hand and recognized what he was holding. Yup, another travel mercy.
Anglophone Samaritan to the Rescue
You do not need to know a lot Spanish to know that any message with words that your scheduled flight for the next day “presenta una cancelacion de itinerario” is not good news.
This particular message, arriving only three flights into our 21 of this winter, was especially problematic. The week the flight was scheduled to kick off was more tightly booked than we normally travel, and the flight itself was from Bogotá to a small town deep in Colombia’s coffee country. Transportation options were severely limited, and the small local airline we had chosen turned out not to have a customer service function.
After hours of vain efforts by telephone, email, Facebook, Twitter and frantic dances to the travel gods in an effort to replace the canceled flight with a practical substitute, there was nothing to do but trudge to Bogotá’s dingy domestic terminal and line up at the check-in counter with fingers crossed that Doris’s rusty Spanish was sufficient to secure seats on a flight that would get us to our destination somewhat as planned.
And then we met our travel mercy, Alex. A native Colombian who had lived in the States for many years, Alex spoke perfect English, had a kind heart and happened to be the passenger immediately in front of us in line. Overhearing our worried conversation, he introduced himself, asked for more details, credibly presented himself to the airline agent as our dear local friend, described our plight with convincing passion, secured us seats on the next flight and even negotiated a discount for our overweight bags before saying goodbye after our timely landing in the coffee triangle.
The Mercy of McDonald’s
And then there was the mercy of McDonald’s. Yes, McDonald’s, the home of the golden arches.
Near one of our AirBnBs in Cuenca is a McDonald’s with a café that puts out respectable espressos from a high-class Italian espresso maker for 75 cents. We have taken more than one set of guests there just for the cultural experience.
That was how Louis came to leave his daypack – containing his Sony RX50 camera that makes Partout possible – on a chair in a McDonald’s that gets many hundreds of customers a day. So supercharged was he by the caffeine and the higher high of our friends’ arrival that the next thought he gave to his daypack and camera was at 2 am the next morning when he was jolted awake by the terrible dawning that he did not know where his daypack was. Which meant he did not know where his camera was. After desperately searching the apartment in the dark and retracing the previous days’ steps in his mind, he realized he had left the bag on a chair in McDonald’s 12 hours earlier.
Now, dear readers. Let’s all pause soberly for a moment and ponder the question: If you left a day pack containing a $1,200 camera on a chair in a fast food restaurant of any US city of 600,000 people, what would be your odds of recovering it?
Nonetheless, we were at the door when the McDonald’s opened a few hours later. A few steps from the door, a well-dressed man was leaning across the counter talking to an employee. Is the manager here? we asked him.
With the expression of a man bracing for a complaint, he straightened. “I am the manager,” he answered.
We left a mochillo here yesterday, we told him. A grey backpack. Had it been found?
His faint frown turned upside down. “SI!” he all but shouted, instantly turning on his heel, sprinting into the kitchen and returning in triumph, the lost pack – camera safe within – in hand.
Rounding Out the Score
Sadly, not every travel loss is redeemed by a travel mercy.
While on their way through two airports going home to the States, one set of visitors lost track of the box containing two Panama hats they had acquired with great joy while visiting us. That smiling lady at the top of the blog is demonstrating the art of weaving one of Ecuador’s unique exports at the home factory of Homero Ortega, where the couple had scored the ultimate Cuenca souvenir.
The box never turned up at the Cuenca or Quito airports, leading us to the unavoidable conclusion that some unscrupulous traveler or airline employee somewhere is likely chortling over the acquisition of two very fine hats at no cost of their own.
Every story does not have a happy ending, but we treasure the ones that do. By our trip count, the hat-nappers would be one bad apple from a barrel of five situations that could have ended less successfully. Disappointed as we are for our guests, that’s not a bad report card on the goodness of strangers and the random mercies that travel can shower on us.
Tips from the Partout toolbox. We have learned not to underestimate the power of social communications to substitute for travel mercies when things go amiss on the road, Twitter in particular. Twitter was the only way Doris ever made contact with a human at not-so-easy EasyFly over the canceled coffee country flight. (Granted, it took them 24 hours to respond, but at least she reached them.) Twitter was also the only way she was able reach Sixt in Denver last year about an item left behind in a car rental. (Their phones were not answered.) Twitter was also the way friends got money refunded by AirBnB after a hurricane complicated their travel plans a couple years ago. When travel angels do not materialize at times of loss, having a Twitter handle and the know-how (and data on the road) to use it can be an effective fallback.
COMING SOON! Never Say Never