KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
The headline news on CNN grabbed our attention like no other news that day. There appeared to be a new strain of swine flu that was making people very sick in Mexico and some had already died. What was alarming was that the deaths occurred in young healthy people, in their prime of life. Most victims of season flu viruses are usually the very young and the very old. The WHO and the Center for Disease Control were concerned that this might be the beginning of a flu pandemic. The Spanish Flu in 1918 is thought to have killed 100 million people worldwide – was this the beginning of the next pandemic.
The news on the television was updated hourly and things just went from bad to worse. Mexico City seemed to be the heart of the outbreak and the government moved swiftly to close all the schools, restaurants, museums, and places where crowds could gather. An important football game was held, but spectators were not allowed in the stadium. We were very alarmed for the many friends we had met during our two months in Mexico, at the end of 2008, but also concerned about how we were going to get back to Canada as our flight home was from Santiago to Denver through Mexico City.
We had enjoyed Mexico City so much, that we had planned to spend three more days there on our way north. We had missed seeing the most fabulous murals by Diego Rivera because of a national holiday and we also wanted to see the Aztec ruins outside of the city. We had made a tentative booking at the same B&B that we had stayed earlier, and were excited to see the old building that the owner, Thomas had renovated. Aside from that, we missed traditional Mexican food and looked forward to a feast before heading into the United States and Canada where the food was more Tex-Mex. The more we learned from watching the news headlines, the more we realized that we would probably have to by-pass Mexico altogether.
As the flu began to be reported in places outside Mexico, we became more and more alarmed. Some countries were beginning to take very drastic steps in their attempts to halt the spread of the sickness. Argentina banned all flights from Mexico. We began to wonder if Chile would do the same. If Aeromexico was banned from flying into Santiago, however would we be able to use our existing ticket to get home. Thoughts of alternative travel arrangements were never far from our minds as we watched the news reports in the morning, afternoon and evenings. Here we were in Buenos Aires, should we even continue on with our travel plans.
We had paid for our apartment till April 28th, should we leave early and head straight to Santiago? We had already booked a flight to Bariloche, in the Lake District of northern Patagonia. Did traveling there when a potential pandemic threatened make any sense at all? Here it was the third week of April and we weren’t scheduled to fly out of South America until May 14th. Three weeks is a very long time when a deadly disease is spreading around the world. Should we use any means possible to fly back to Canada before we became trapped half a world away from our family and friends?
Anil was on the internet checking on the news about flights in and out of Mexico City when he noticed that the flight, we had booked to take us from Mexico City directly to Denver had been cancelled. We had been delighted earlier when we learned of the inauguration of the direct flight between the two cities starting in February 2009. We were able to score and incredibly good deal on the fares but now it seemed too good to be true. I decided to call Mexicana airlines and find out what they would do for us now that our flight was cancelled. The website noted that Mexicana was waiving change fees because of the swine flu outbreak, so I was confident there would be no problem as long as flights from Mexico were not forbidden to land in US cities.
As you can imagine, it was a long wait on hold to get through to a representative but I was using a 1-800 number on Skype so there was no charge for the call. Forty-minutes later, a human voice finally came on the line and I explained our predicament and the fact that we wished to fly three days earlier than planned because it made no sense to stop in Mexico City with everything closed and people told to stay indoors with their families. No problem, I was told, we will transfer you to a different flight with Mexicana to Los Angeles and then to another airline to take you on to Denver. This sounded great until the ‘but…’
The ‘but’ was a big BUT! There would be an additional charge because we would be flying on another airline and the fee was higher than we had already paid. I half expected this, but wasn’t too please when we were told the extra fee would be US $168 each. This was almost as much as we had paid for the initial flight. The really big, big, ‘but’ though was the fact that they were going to charge us US $150 each in change fees despite the fact that the website stated that Mexicana was waiving the change fees up to and including May 15th. We planned to fly on May 14th so there shouldn’t have been an issue.
I kept my cool with the person on the telephone, as I was pretty sure he was just going by the books but I kept pressing for special consideration. I asked to speak to a supervisor but he wasn’t able to transfer me to anyone else. I asked him if it seemed fair to him, would he accept such a situation where he would have to pay an additional US $318 for a flight that we had already paid for earlier? He said the problem was that I wanted to change our booking from May 17th to May 14th and that was what was causing the issues. It just didn’t seem right to me as all the direct flights to Denver had been cancelled and we would have this problem whichever day we traveled.
Finally, it was obvious I was getting nowhere and I wanted to think things over and discuss the issues with Anil before we made a decision to pay the additional fees and book a seat. I knew there was little chance the flights out of Mexico City would be full. Almost no one was coming into the city on business and most who had wanted to leave would have left already. Anil and I discussed the situation at length and I pointed out that we would most likely be treated differently if we were at the airport face to face with a ticket agent instead of talking to someone on the phone. Besides, there was still plenty of time for things to change dramatically in terms of the spread of the swine flu and the reaction of airlines and governments to the outbreak.
I may sound foolhardy, but we decided to carry on with our plans to fly to southern Argentina, explore the Lake District around Bariloche and then catch a bus back across the Andes into the Lake District of Chile. It seemed to us that the flu was spreading all around the world, there was no hiding from it and there was a good chance that this might be the end of our opportunity to travel so far south. If our travels were coming to an end, at least we would have funds in our travel budget to buy a completely different series of flights home, a route that would bypass Mexico City completely.
We carried on exploring Buenos Aires and visiting with Celia, Julian and the friends of Ann Durant. We kept a watchful eye on the new reports and noticed that the reports of new cases seemed to be slowing in Mexico while more and more countries around the world began to report the swine flu amongst their citizens. I started to think that the airport in Mexico City might be one of the safest airports to pass through. Stringent measures were being taken to control the spread of the flu in Mexico and most airport workers were wearing masks and being told to wash their hands frequently. This might not be the case in other airports, especially in countries, which so far seemed free of the swine flu.
And so, it was, we spent our last weekend in Buenos Aires, enjoying our last hours in that amazing city, preparing to hand over our lovely apartment to the owner and set off to explore another region of Argentina.