The One That Got Away
Thursday, 3 November 1994
Satellite view of the umbral cone skimming across the face of the Pacific Ocean, just to the west of South America. Note the heavy cloud cover!
Here's the eclipse story to end all eclipse stories. After you read about the things that happened to me on
this little excursion, you will wonder what motivation I could possibly have had left to ever try to get myself
to one of these eclipse things again.
This was to be my second view of totality, and I'd thought hard about it for over two years, beginning way back in the Summer of 1992. I'd looked at about five different travel companies' offers, and considered (but pretty quickly discarded) the idea of trying it all on my own. One trip turned out to be the offer I couldn't refuse, though: Arequipa, Peru, for under $2000! I could see Machu Picchu and the Andes; I could add South America to the list of places I'd been. The political climate there wasn't great, but therein lies the beauty of going with a tour group, right? Most importantly, the weather was almost a definite "go" for the likelihood of getting to see the event. I started brushing up on my Spanish, and sent checks as often as I could to the travel company to pay for the very reasonably-priced trip. It sounded perfect!
By the time late 1994 rolled around, I had become a veteran traveler. Thanks to my photography job, I'd been all over the US, and had taken a non-eclipse-related (!) trip to Australia the previous year. I'd experienced all the good and bad things the airline industry had to offer, and I thought in all that time I'd had just about every weird airline thing happen to me that possibly could happen. Boy, was I wrong!
Red flags had already gone up inside my head for two reasons. First, since the tour group itinerary's origination point was Miami, I decided to use some airline miles to get myself there on my own and meet up with them. That'd be a lot better than paying what they wanted to get me to Miami, and I'd done the mileage thing more than a few times - I was comfortable doing it. Secondly, there had been a plane crash in my home state of Indiana the day before. (The American Eagle crash in Roselawn, on 10/31/94. This kind of thing always makes for some air travel red flags.) Finally, the travel company didn't get our plane tickets to Peru until the last minute, which meant that I'd have to meet the group in Miami to get my ticket and be able to travel on with them. I'd had flights delayed and cancelled in the past, and the idea of leaving home without all my tickets in hand was a little discomforting. But hey, I'd flown Continental Airlines dozens of times before, with never a hitch. What were the chances, out of all those other trips I'd been on, that something bad like that would randomly choose this trip to finally happen?
Guess what happened to me in Newark.
When they announced the delay, something about landing gear, almost everyone on the Miami-bound plane went off. The overwhelming majority of the passengers were eclipse-chasers, and the airline's excuses weren't sitting too well with them. Of course, we didn't know exactly how long it would take for them to fix the plane or find a replacement, so we didn't know whether we'd make our South American connections in time. The airline wasn't coming clean with the info, either, because frankly, they didn't know what they were going to do. Sure, they could get us on other flights, on other airlines if necessary (while we were all fighting about this, a Fort Lauderdale-bound plane took off, and we'd been given the option to get on it), but, oh, you'll have to go without your luggage. See, this is a big 'ol Airbus, and we have to put the luggage in "cans" in the cargo hold. We won't off-load it until we've made a positively final determination as to exactly which plane is going to Miami, and so you can't take any of your highly specialized eclipse stuff with you. We'll be sure to forward it on to you, though! (You want some odds on whether anybody who took an offer like that would ever see their luggage in South America before it would have been time to come back home?!)
We were hosed. I started asking people whether they'd go in with me to hire a private plane to Miami, once we got our luggage, but that idea made it about as far off the ground as our Airbus. I was on the phone for four solid hours, to the tour company, travel agents, this airline, other airlines, trying to get some kind of contingency plan worked out. I got a pretty good deal going, too: By the time it became obvious that I wasn't going to make the connection with the group in Miami, my tour director had gotten a plan worked out. They would just leave my tickets with the ticket office of the Peruvian airline in Miami, and I could hop on the next flight to Lima. I'd have a long stay at the airport, and I'd get there a day late, but I wouldn't miss the eclipse. It had been a long day, and that sounded good to me.
Finally, they got a replacement plane, got us all on it, and took off for Miami. After what I'd already been through, it actually looked like everything was going to work out, and this would all be something I could use for a good eclipse story later on! I almost ran through the terminal in Miami, carrying what must have looked like everything I owned on this little, oversized cart that pulled slightly to the left, past concourses, aisles, restrooms, domestic and foreign terminals, past security and popcorn stands and advertisements for how wonderful a place Miami really was, until finally I saw the sign for the airline I wanted. I'd missed my flight by only 45 minutes, and I wanted those tickets to Lima in my hand, now! I turned the sharp left corner to their ticket counter, the only destination I'd been thinking about for the last six hours; the place that, an hour and a half ago, would have been buzzing with eclipse geeks (just like me) from far and wide. Now, I could only be there with them in spirit, but at last, I'd achieved my hard-fought victory! Finally, here was my goal at long last - a ticket counter for the only airline that could get me to Peru!
And there wasn't a soul in sight.
They'd all gone home… Without me… After the promise they'd made to my tour group… I think the only sound that came out of my mouth was a whimper. It was at least a minute before I could clear my mind enough to think of something to do, and maybe another twenty seconds to actually do it. I don't even have strong memories of those first few minutes, when I realized that a higher power was becoming involved here, and that I might actually miss this eclipse.
Back to the phones. I called anyone and everyone I could think of, but let me tell you, when a Peruvian airline closes down for the night, they close down. No 800 number, no travel agent, no one in their Lima headquarters, no one could help me. I asked for the agents' names at nearby counters and tried to call them at their Miami homes, all to no avail. Nothing. It was a super glue commercial, and I was stuck.
The tour operator back in Miami suggested that I go ahead and buy a ticket on another airline, and the Peruvian airline would just have to reimburse me once I got back and had the luxury of time to sort everything out. Sounded good to me, but I was a little short of the kind of cash it would take to do that. My credit cards weren't up to snuff at that point, either, so I did something I only do in true emergencies, when all else has been tried and all else has failed miserably - I called mom and dad.
While my tour agent was on the phone trying to get me a "deal" to Peru, I was on the phone listening to both my mom's and my dad's phones ringing off the wall. My brother was home, and I managed to get him to go out and find my dad, who went home so I could call him. Meanwhile, the tour company had found me as good a fare as they could find, on American Airlines, going to Lima by way of La Paz, Bolivia. (This was fine with me, because if something happened to the plane there, I would still be able to see the eclipse just south of La Paz!) It would cost over $2000, but the only thing I cared about at that point was getting the ticket in my hand. We'd all haggle over fault and reimbursement later.
I finally got my dad on the phone, and he agreed reluctantly to let me use his credit card. If you knew my dad, you'd understand why this was such a great victory. At my age, it was expected that if I were going to do immature things such as traipse around the world chasing eclipses, like the selfish and undisciplined bachelor that I was, then I could at least be expected to have developed a level of financial preparedness sufficient to allow me to cope with situations like this on my own. He only kept credit cards for emergencies, so of course his had a zero balance and a huge credit line. This was just what I needed, it was worth the lecture that I got, and I was ecstatic that, after all I'd been through, surely this would be the last obstacle I'd have to climb to get to Peru.
Well, by this time, it was pretty late, and that flight to La Paz was getting ready to board. I headed to American's ticket counter to see fully 82% of the population of South America, all trying to get home at the same time. I took comfort in the fact that I had a reservation, and surely the plane wouldn't take off until I had my chance to get up there and buy the ticket.
I hadn't moved as far as I would've liked by the time they started boarding, and I used all the skill I had to convince them to let me up to the front of the line so I'd have a chance at making the flight. The lady had everything ready, up to the point of getting ready to print my ticket, when the word came down from the electronic authorization gods: My dad's credit card was no good.
What? My dad? No good? What do you mean, "activation"?
My dad hadn't activated his credit card, the one he'd had for almost a year, but never used. Naturally, he'd never activated it (this is my dad, remember?), but right now, with the plane about to back up from the gate and leave without me, was a really bad time to find out about it. I asked if they'd hold the plane 10 minutes, so I could get it taken care of, but the lady was adamant. For international flights, she pontificated, they go when they're scheduled to. (What an amazingly inappropriate time for an airline to all of a sudden become concerned about their on-time performance!) I hightailed it to the phone, took the five minutes to explain to my dad why credit cards had to be activated before they could be used these days, and waited the five minutes for him to call the bank -- to find out they were closed.
The plane left. I watched it. It just rolled down the runway, and climbed, and….
There were no other planes on any airline's schedule that would get me to the eclipse path in time.
I went to a hotel, fell into bed, and went home, defeated, the next day. Lucky me.
Actually, though, after all I'd been through, it didn't turn out too awfully bad. Yeah, I missed Machu Picchu and the Andes and South America, but I got quite a nice settlement from the airlines that were involved. I got most of my money back, a couple of domestic tickets, and a trip to Panama in 1996 to visit a friend of mine. Not too bad, but certainly not as good as getting to see an eclipse. The bottom line was, after all I'd gone through to try to get to Peru that night, I ended up spending November 3, 1994 lying around my apartment feeling sorry for myself, and going over to my girlfriend's house to get yelled at (I'm now married to her), while in Peru, my comrades near Tacna were being treated to a great display - a total eclipse of the sun - itself completely and totally eclipsed…by clouds.
You heard me. Clouds.
©1996-1998 Dan McGlaun