At first, Brazil didn't want me, now it can't get rid of me.
Because my ticket was purchased a bit late in the game, I ended up on a long flight to Recife, through Lima and then Sao Paulo. Any flight with that many stops is bound to be challenging, and it was.
Everything was fine until I got to Sao Paulo. That airport is a DISASTER. I'm not kidding. I've been in horrible airports, but usually they are horrible because of ugliness, confusion/bad signing, bad smells, or no shopping/food. Sao Paulo's Guarulhos airport, however, is hands down the most chaotic, ugly, noisy, dark, confusing and inefficient place I've ever seen IN MY LIFE. If you read this blog regularly, you know I've been in a lot of airports. Not one holds a candle to GRU.
I arrived on a Taca flight from Lima. I got my bags out of the baggage claim and through customs without a problem, but when I went to re-check them for my onward flight, there was no place in sight to do so for Taca, which is what my ticket said my next flight was on. I decided to just go to the check-in counter, since I had plenty of time. After a quick spin around the domestic terminal, I realized with increasing panic that Taca was nowhere to be had. The information lady, in a combination of Portunol and charades, made it clear to me that my flight didn't exist, and suggested that perhaps it was really a code share with TAM, the Brazilian domestic airline. So, off I went to TAM.
TAM has its own terminal, pretty much, and apparently for good reason. The line for domestic flights wound all the way out of the terminal into the ugly and weak shopping area. This did not bode well. By this time, I was going to be cutting it close to make my flight, so I was nervous. I was also alone, so standing in line for a couple of hours was going to be logistically challenging if I needed, say, to use the ladies' room. Thankfully, during the next 3.5 hours that I stood in line (yes, three and one half hours in line in a noisy, dark, smelly, ugly airport, alone), that issue did not arise. I got to the desk, and, indeed, my flight was on TAM. And it was indefinitely delayed.
I went to the gate area (which has two small and limited places to eat, so if you are hungry, eat before security) to join the mass of humanity packed into the gate area like so many hot, smelly, annoyed sardines. The loudspeaker was crackly, which made it doubly difficult for me to understand the Portugese-only announcements. Everybody and their brother was deluging the staff with questions about their flights, and the departure boards were confusing and kept changing the gate numbers and ETAs. I ate 4 cheese breads for dinner with a Coke Zero and waited. The WiFi wasn't working very well, so I couldn't even play around on the internet.
At one point, they made an announcement that our gate was changed to gate 3, so we traipsed up the broken escalator. There, the loudspeaker was working better, and we heard that there was some sort of Air Traffic Controllers' strike. Every time they announced that a flight was leaving, a cheer would go up among everyone in the gate. I was approached by a Ghanaian man and a bunch of Filippinos who asked me to "be their leader", since I at least understood 50% of what was going on, whereas they understood 0%. I agreed, but immediately made my job a bit easier by convincing announcement guy to do the announcements in Portuguese and English. I knew he spoke good English, and he did a good job helping us out with the announcements. Obrigada, announcement guy!
After about 4 hours of this, they finally announced that our flight was going to leave from yet another gate, and we happily rushed back down the broken escalator and boarded. We were happy. It was weird. This is a good example of extreme discomfort making small happinesses seem huge and amazing.
Recife was nice and fun. Good food, nice beach. Unfortunately, it rained all week, so no real beach time, plus there are a lot of sharks there, so there wouldn't have been any swimming anyway. The Hotel Jangadeiro is adequate and on the beach, but nothing special. If you like food, you MUST eat at the Oficina do Sabor in Olinda. The food there is amazing, and the chef is a great guy. They are also a partner of one of our employment programs, so if you see a Maos de Moleque item on the menu, ordering it will help a really cool project of ours to support kids at risk in poor urban areas. Overall, good trip.
Now, I'm sitting in a Best Western in Sao Paulo. Once again, that freakin' airport has defeated me. The incoming flight from GRU to Recife was delayed, so my outgoing flight was also delayed. All of my connections on the way back were tight, less than 1 hour in between, so any delay basically meant that the rest of my trip was screwed. The check-in agent couldn't check me in for the Taca flights, either, so I was going to have to do that in Sao Paulo as well, and she basically said that I should be prepared for another delay there. True to form, the GRU-Lima flight was the only one that was not delayed that day, so I missed it. I spent last night at the nice Best Western here in SP (definitely recommended mostly because cheap, clean, and convenient), and will try to make at least one more leg of my trip today. I am counting on being stuck overnight in Lima tonight, because my connection to the Quito flight there is only 50 minutes, and, judging from the chaos in GRU, I'm sure that my Lima flight will be delayed.
Somehow, in all of this, I'm not flipping out. Normally, this kind of BS gets my blood pressure up to dangerous highs, but I'm feeling pretty ok with it. Maybe I sprung a gasket or something. Maybe I went right on past exploding head and back to calm? Who knows. I just hope that I get home this week.
Moral of the story: have low expectations when you fly through Sao Paulo's GRU airport, and bring plenty to do in the meantime (books, knitting, whatever).