Fear and Loathing in the Amazon, Part 1

8pm, Tuesday 3 Feb 2009.

One day back in Friburgo and the chaos is all on again.

First let me tell you about our trip last night. Remember how the airline had changed our flight time without warning, leaving us stranded missing the last bus from Rio? And that the airline’s ‘President’s complaints line’ had assured us that we would be compensated, no problems? We were skeptical. You learn not to believe anything said to your face in Brazil, even (especially) if it’s in writing.

Around Tuesday in Belém, we start talking to the local airline office. They claim they know nothing about such a promise. We decide to check back every few days.

At 5:30pm on Friday, with still no word, we urgently come in and hassle them just before closing and discover that they aren’t actually the office of the airline-as-airline, but the office of the airline-as-travel-agent. Same name, same logo, completely different company, who claim no jurisdiction. They hadn’t bothered to tell us this the first few times we called, of course.

However, the airline-office-that’s-not-really-the-airline-office tells us that our travel agency must have given us wrong information, because the airline would never change their flight time like that. The travel agent must have misread the departure time due to daylight saving or time zone difference. It’s the agency’s problem.

That would be a sensible explanation except that the ticket time changed by not an hour, but an hour and five minutes.

There’s no conceivable time zone shift which could do that.

At this point, Paul decides that our best option is to retain the services of a Friburgo taxi driver we know, to drive us from Rio airport. This will cost around R$200, more than a bus fare would, but at least we know and trust the man (which is important in Brazil; everything is done by word of mouth, personal reputation; if you don’t have a stable of loyal personal contacts, you risk being defrauded). We’ve completely given up on the airline’s helpdesk despite their previous promise.

We proceed to check out of our hotel, which leaves us without Internet access.

Then of course we get a phone call. The travel agency is claiming that they have talked to the airline, it’s all settled, they’ve arranged a free night’s hotel accommodation for us in Rio to solve the missed bus connection.

The agency is SO SURE it’s all settled, that they call TWICE. It’s all good! No problem! No problem at all!

That would be great except that we can’t get Internet access to confirm this, and we can’t now use a hotel, we’ve already booked the taxi.

And we’re still skeptical. People lie right to your faces here. It’s a way of life.

We get to the airport at 2pm, thinking we’re way early for our 4pm checkin, and discover to our horror a huge queue snaking across the entire terminal and back again. All the World Social Forum delegates, like us, are leaving at once; and although there are only apparently two domestic flights leaving from Belém today, and they were booked months in advance, apparently the airport checkin apparatus at this very modern, shiny new airport can’t handle something as huge as two full flights at once.

We checked in over the web, but of course the airport computer systems are down, so we can’t use the fast checkin kiosks.

We join the line, and as soon as we do, a new queue is opened for baggage drop for web checkins. So we join it, but it seems to be moving as slowly as the full checkin lane. Maybe the computer system failure has taken out the whole airport or something.

Eventually we clear checkin around 3pm – we’re the fast ones – and watch the manual checkin line still snaking clear across the room. There’s no way they’ll be ready to board by 4:10pm as our boarding pass says.

And of course, they aren’t.

We finally start boarding around five and then the captain regretfully informs us that ‘due to a problem in the passenger dispatch system’ the flight will be further delayed. It’s an hour later when it finally takes off, for a three and a half hour flight, plus a one hour forward timezone correction.

So it’s around 10:30 pm when at last we get into Rio. Our poor taxi driver has been waiting for an hour. We’re two hours later than the arrival time listed when we bought the ticket back in September.

So now we have the problem of the airline supposedly promising us a hotel. Did they really, and can we get them to pay for the taxi instead? Only now they have a double problem: not only was our flight changed, but then it was delayed further, and they have a full jetload of international activists who have missed their connections.

After much talking to ticket clerks, supervisors, and supervisors-of-supervisors, we at last get the answer we were pretty much expecting: no, the airline made no such promise, they can’t make any such promises, they never make any such promises, they never pay for hotels, our travel agent must have lied to us, and sorry but they can’t do anything about our multiply delayed flight. President’s complaint line? We don’t know and we don’t care.

Oh, except because it was delayed an hour from the final scheduled time they *can* give us a free taxi coupon, not for the full distance, but just a tiny part of the way, to the Rio bus station (which of course would be useless at this hour now the buses have ended, as we told them way back when this started). They give us this coupon, a little yellow strip of flimsy paper. It took half an hour of wrangling to get it.

Our taxi driver can’t accept it, of course, because it’s for the airline’s preferred taxi company only. So we go looking for the preferred company in the hopes we can get some kind of redemption from the otherwise useless paper.

But the preferred company doesn’t have any free taxis at this hour either. The coupon would have been useless to us there too anyway.

So we pay the full taxi fare ourselves.

That’s pretty standard customer service in Brazil. Promises, double guarantees, then denials and outright failure. Left hand never knows what right hand is doing, and somewhere in the middle there’s someone getting very rich. And in the end, the man in the street – and here, that’s more often not middle-class tourists but the poorest of the poor – foots the bill for essential services.

We haven’t yet figured out what our travel agent was trying to do.

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