Santiago's international airport. (Photo: IMAGEN09/Flickr)

 A car horn tooted in the street outside and I leapt up from the couch.

“That’s us,” I called out to no-one in particular.

It was 9pm on a cool, spring evening and we had a tight schedule to follow. At 9:15, Aerolineas Argentinas flight AR1288 was due to touch down at Comódoro Arturo Merino Benitez International Airport with Matt and Kelly from Sydney. It had been close to nine months since I had seen them and almost two years since they had farewelled Leo from Australia. We were both excited.

For the past week we had been planning for and talking about their arrival. While we were both keen to pick them up from the airport, Leo was concerned that his small car might struggle to cope with four adults and a couple of suitcases. Seeing that I regularly refer to his diminutive Suzuki Alto as the shopping trolley, I had to agree. It wasn’t up to the job.

But Leo’s girlfriend, Katty, had come up with the perfect Chilean solution. Over supper a couple of nights earlier, she had pointed out that her sister’s daughter’s boyfriend, Jans, drove a radio taxi and he would be able to drive us to the airport, pick up Matt and Kelly and then drop them off at their hostel in the city, before bringing us back to Quilicura. As we were ‘family’, it would all be done at mate’s rates.

And now Jans was parked out the front of the house, ready to put the plan into action just as we had arranged. I started to doubt that he really was Chilean. There was just one catch. Leo was still around the corner, doing some last minute photocopies for his class the following morning. Not wanting to keep Jans waiting, I headed outside to greet him.

“Hi,” I said reaching inside the open passenger window to shake his hand. A Toyota Yaris, the ‘taxi’ he had brought was not much bigger than the shopping trolley but it did have one crucial advantage: it was a sedan so at least it had an almost decent sized boot for the luggage.

“How are you?” I asked Jans.

“Good. And You?”

“I’m Good too thanks. Umm…Leo’s just up the street but he should be back any second. If you wait here, I’ll go and tell him you’ve arrived.”

“OK.”

I dashed around the corner and almost bumped into Leo who was strolling back, the photocopies in his hand.

“He’s here and he’s waiting! Come on,” I said catching my breath.

“OK. I’ve just got to drop these inside and grab a jacket,” he said, totally unfazed. I envied his calmness. He ducked inside and I hopped into the car.

Waiting in the back of the taxi, I felt around for a seatbelt and found it buried under the seat cover and who knows what else. There was no way I would be able to drag it out now so I just left it. In theory, it’s compulsory to wear seatbelts at all times in Chile but the law is rarely enforced and, as a result, often ignored. Especially in taxis. But unlike the road rules, the laws of physics still do apply and if you are involved in an accident when you’re not wearing a seatbelt, you will go flying. I prayed for a safe and uneventful trip.

Opening my eyes, I glanced at the green digital clock glowing on the dashboard. It was 9:05 and Leo was still inside the house.

“Are you coming?” I called out from the car window.

“Yeah, just a minute.” I had learned not to take that statement literally.

Ya po. Come on…Sorry. He’s always like this,” I explained to Jans. He nodded silently. Being a radio taxi driver in Santiago, he was probably used to it.

After a few more minutes of forced small talk in Spanish, Leo emerged from the house and casually parked himself in the front seat next to Jans. Even though he had a readily available seatbelt, he chose not to use it. Jans turned the key in the ignition, put the car into gear and sped off in the direction of the airport. We were late but it didn’t matter. At last we were on the way.

The Yaris zipped along the motorway with all the energy it could muster and, while Jans and Leo chatted in the front, I clung onto whatever I could to avoid being thrown around. Fifteen minutes and a few bumps later, we arrived at the terminal and Jans joined the queue of taxis jostling for car spaces as they edged slowly towards the main entry. As soon as the car pulled up at the kerb, Leo and I hopped out and rushed through the wide, automatic doors. Jans went around the corner to wait.

A throng of taxi and shuttle bus drivers were gathered around the international arrivals gate, choking the passageway with the hand-held signs that bore their passengers’ names. Looking up at the screens, we scanned the rows of information for any news of an Aerolineas Argentinas flight from Sydney. Nothing. The screen refreshed and a new list appeared with later times. Again we checked and again there was nothing. No flights from Aerolineas Argentinas arriving at 9:15pm and no flights from Sydney. In fact, all the planes due to land in Santiago that night seemed to be coming from South America, Mexico or the USA.

“I can’t see any sign of it. Can you?” I asked Leo, even though I knew what his answer would be.

“No…”

And then it dawned on me. “Of course…they’re coming via Argentina. The flight will be from Buenos Aires.”

We turned our gaze back to the screen, skimming through the first list of arrivals. Still nothing. The screen ticked over and we checked again: Sao Paulo, Washington, Lima, Mexico City…and then we saw it at the very bottom of the screen: Flight AR1288 from Buenos Aires. Status: Delayed. Expected time of arrival: 1:10am. It was the last flight of the night.

“Their plane is the only one out of all the flights that’s delayed. Why?” I almost whimpered. “That’s a long time to wait. Especially for Jans.”

At first, Leo didn’t say anything. Then he spoke slowly and deliberately. “Let’s see if we can find someone who can tell us what’s going on.”

It was now after 9:30 and the only place we could see that was still attended was the Hertz car rental cubicle to our left. The bright yellow sign above the stall was lit up and a middle aged man was sitting behind the desk, wearing a creased uniform and a vacant expression on his face.

Una consulta. Excuse me,” Leo said. “Do you know where we can find out about more information about the flights.”

The bored attendant slowly lifted his eyes from the desk in front of him and raising his left arm, he pointed down a vacant-looking corridor.

“Over there,” the man mumbled. He didn’t say anything else but he didn’t have to. The gruff tone in his voice carried a thinly veiled threat: “Don’t push me any further”. We didn’t.

Instead, we proceeded down the corridor, exactly as he had directed. But once again, we didn’t see anything. Just as we were about to give up and turn around, we heard some voices. A few steps later, we came across the door to a small office where half a dozen men were milled around, joking and laughing. It wasn’t clear who they were exactly and although it did seem like they were technically still working, they had already clocked off in their minds.

Una consulta. Excuse me,” Leo said. “Do you know where we can find out about more information about the flights?”

“Not here,” one of the men responded drily and his colleagues fell into hysterics. Only when they regained their composure, did he continue. “But seriously, the only place at this time of night would be the check in desks.”

“You mean up on the second floor?” I asked, hoping to be contradicted.

“Yep, that’s it.”

“Thanks…” The six men returned to their conversation.

Retracing our steps, we passed the man at the Hertz who was still studying the empty desk in front of stretched out in front of him. This time he didn’t look up and we didn’t try to draw his attention. Entering the glass-walled lifts, we climbed to the second floor. The cafes and information booths already closed for the night and the shiny tiled floor, void of passengers, seemed to stretch on forever.

Only one of the five or so Aerolineas Argentinas desks was still attended and the couple of staff members who were on duty didn’t look very helpful. Leaning back in their swivel chairs, the man and woman dressed in almost identical dark blue blazers chatted idly while they pretended not to see us. Clearing my throat with extra emphasis, I interrupted them.

“Um, can you tell us about what’s happening with flight AR1288 from Buenos Aires. It says downstairs that it’s not getting in until 1 o’clock.”

“Actually, that flight has just been cancelled,” the man replied.

“Cancelled? Why?” I repeated, my inflection rising.

“We are not exactly sure but it’s something to do with bad weather.” Customer service didn’t seem to be his strong point.

“So when will those passengers arrive here in Santiago?”

“Well, sir we don’t really know. The earliest flight tomorrow arrives at 9am. The best thing you can do now is to get in contact with your family members directly.”

“OK. Thank you,” I called as we walked away, not feeling very grateful at all.

Leo called Jans, who had been waiting all this time, to explain what had happened and to check if he was free the next morning. He was.

We stood by the curb waiting for the little Yaris to appear and when it did, we jumped in and sped back to Quilicura in silence.

Back at home, both Leo and I set about changing our plans for the next morning. He called his boss to postpone his class until the following day and I fired off an email to the office, telling them what had happened and letting them know that I was going to work from home the next day. Then, before going to bed, I dashed off a quick email to Kelly, asking her to let us know when she and Matt were likely to arrive.

It was going to be another interesting day.

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