Chaos in Sao Paulo

It’s the second Wednesday of the month, which means it’s time for the Travel Belles’ Across the Cafe Table chat!  This month, we’re talking about flight experiences, and this just sort of tumbled out of me. It’s the tale of my inital flight to South America, one I will never forget…

My heart gave a small leap. I had just woken, bleary-eyed, from a few hours of fitful sleep and switched on the flight map to see where we were. The answer: somwhere above the Amazon rainforest, just a couple of hundred kilometres outside of Sao Paulo. We were almost there; my South American adventure was about to begin.


The Brazilian jungle is beautiful, but I wasn't supposed to be there just then.

I set about preparing myself for touchdown: I brushed my teeth, put some make-up on and generally freshened up, as much as is possible on any long-haul flight. I tidied up my things, sorting the nest I had created in my tiny amount of personal space back into some kind of order. I had spent the last 13 hours on the plane and boy, was I ready to land. I still had a flight to Lima ahead of me, but at least I would have a couple of hours in Sao Paulo to get a decent breakfast.

An hour later, I began to get fidgety. I flicked back to the flight map, only to see that, for some reason, we had not made any progress whatsoever. Instead, we appeared to be circling the same bit of rainforest. Round and round and round. Eventually, a few minutes after the time we were supposed to have landed, we began to move. But we headed away from Sao Paulo, and some time later, we ended up on the tarmac of Rio de Janeiro’s airport. People began to chatter with a nervy edge to their voices. Then the pilot’s voice came crackling over the tannoy, explaining in incomprehensible English and vaguely clearer Portuguese that there was fog in Sao Paulo and we would have to wait it out here. Without leaving the plane. As if on cue, babies began to cry and people began to get tetchy with one another. Being held against your will in an overcrowded metal capsule when you have already been there for more than 15 hours tends to have that effect.

Sao Paulo, Brazil

Fog in Sao Paulo

Finally, just at the point that it looked like it could turn into a riot, we began a slow, painful taxi along the runway and eventually, an hour later, we landed in a still hazy Sao Paulo. I disembarked, fearing that I had missed my flight to Lima. I was supposed to be meeting the girl from the volunteer project I was going to and had no way of getting in touch with her. I felt a wave of panic. What the hell was I doing in this ridiculous place by myself? I was here for four months, and it was already going horribly wrong.

Thankfully, an airport official was shouting ‘Connections to Lima, this way!’ Other officials were shouting similar things for a variety of other destinations and the connecting flight passengers – the ones looking most stressed – dispersed in several different directions. I followed the labyrinthine signs towards gate 2, where I had been assured I could get my delayed flight to Lima. 10 minutes, several escalators and numerous travelators later, I arrived at gate 2. Also known as the missed connections desk. All the other passengers, who’d gone off in all those different directions, also began turning up, with the same look of hope, then surprise, then absolute dejection on their faces. Then we stood in a non-moving queue for over an hour.

By this point, I had made a slightly frantic (and probably ruinously expensive) phonecall to my mum, asking her to find the details for the volunteer organisationa and contact them to let them know the situation and I found myself talking to the other frustrated passengers, swapping stories as we waited. Another British guy, also heading to Lima, was having a minor breakdown because he was supposed to be the best man at his friend’s wedding, taking place in Lima the next day. A Peruvian lady was close to tears, juggling a baby and two young children by herself. A multilingual Paraguyan gentleman was talking to everyone, keeping them calm and telling funny stories. Finally, I made it to the desk, to be told that the next flight I could get to Lima was tomorrow morning and was promptly issued with a new boarding pass. I was then told to join another queue to get a hotel voucher. The same message was echoed to all the other weary travellers. Then, someone came and took our passports, informing us it was in order to issue us with temporary visas to Brazil. Which most of us didn’t need. We were also informed that we couldn’t have our luggage back, since that was already in the system. So I gave up all hope of ever seeing that again.

Paddington Bear

Paddington was seriously bored.

Seven hours later, we were still waiting for our passports. By this point, we had formed a rather bedraggled but united little group, entertaining each other, taking it in turns to occupy the children and bounce the baby. Our mood had turned from dejected to revolutionary, and we began to make our protest heard. Fuelled on beer, caffeine and sugar from the airport bar, a couple of businesspeople started the demands for our passports. Before long, we had all joined in, chanting and stamping. One man started to phone round his media contacts to see if someone could come down and document the situation. Another person said he’d get hold of his friend who held a high position in the Sao Paulo police force. The Peruvian children wailed that they were bored. I don’t know which straw it was that broke the airport staff’s steely will, but suddenly, our passports reappeared. We wilted with delight and exhaustion.

It took another three hours before we eventually got to the hotel, but there, I had dinner with the Paraguyan man and the best-man-to-be, who was still in serious danger of missing the wedding.

The following day, I finally arrived in Lima. I went half-heartedly to the luggage carousel, fully expecting my backpack not to come, but miraculously, it was there, intact. Just then, my phone buzzed. I had  a text from the best-man-to-be, saying that he had managed to get on a very early flight and had made it to the wedding in time. I smiled and made my way through customs, out for my first real taste of what South America had to offer. It was a rocky start, but I felt like now, I could deal with whatever this adventure had to throw at me.

In the end, I even managed to become fond of Sao Paulo. But that’s another story.

Have you had an unforgettable flight experience? Join in the conversation at the Travel Belles!


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