Wednesday, October 10, 2007

My Life and Times Stranded at a Greek Airport with an Israeli Charter Group

Rhodes – He was looking for someone to wag his finger at, to make an accusation. Dressed in black, his sliver hair swept across his forehead, there had to be someone new for him to bark at somewhere in the terminal. He’d made a point out of making a point all day. The best part about being delayed 11 hours on our return from Rhodes was not being him.

At 7:40 on Sunday, our Israeli charter group found a sign in the lobby of our hotel that said we’d be delayed three hours. Whether this was the opening act of a strategic ploy by Tsila our travel agent, or information that she actually thought to be true, I’ll never know. Either way, I learned a lot about the behavior of aggrieved and desperate charter groups over the next fifteen hours.

10:40 came and we were told that the delay was now until 2:30. While I worried about missing my 5:00 poker game, others in the group grew more cranky. The man in black paced the lobby, staking out a claim to the most suffering. He led a small group of vacationers who employed “peer around the corner” bus-stop logic. While others sat by the pool or went to Rhodes’ quaint old city, they waited in the lobby, believing that it would put them closer to their destination.

When Tsila showed up to answer questions, the man in black led battle cries of “People have to work tomorrow!” and “We need to get home!” He jabbed his finger like he was Robert Deniro in Taxi Driver.

At 3PM, they took us to the airport – probably at the hotel’s request, as abandoned vacationers had taken over the lobby, some sleeping off hangovers on the green pleather couches. At the airport, the group stampeded into the security line. It was like a game of Bingo where everyone has the same card and the person who gets to the front of the podium first is declared the winner.

To me, the worst thing about the Middle East is fighting with locals in line while carrying stuff. Unencumbered, I can hold my own, but weighted down with luggage, I’m toast. I get packed into the middle, where strategic angling movements are impossible. Or I’m flung to the margins, with no one agreeing to stand behind me and validate my position.

The line just didn’t go anywhere though, and when it finally did, it led to another amoeba shaped line to check bags, and then another line for passport control. At the passport control line, European citizens cut in front or went to a special line for EU passport holders, infuriating our group. There were mumbles of special anti-Israel treatment and a yell of “Where is Tsila? She is scared of us!” Tsila had disappeared a few hours earlier, collecting her new charter group and ridding herself of our plight. $385 for three nights in Rhodes didn’t include her soul.

By 5PM we had reached the gate area. I can’t say a specific gate because there was still no information about our flight. The vacationers bomb-rushed duty free, worried that they’d missed their chance at tax-free whiskey, perfume, and cigarettes. Little did they know that they would have the chance to shop to their hearts’ content.

Over the next five hours, we sat at gates and we went through a Lord of the Flies like lifecycle short only of the murder. If Tsila was there, however, I can’t confirm that she would have made it. There was frustration with the lack of information about our flight. There was panic, hunger, and feelings of abandonment. There was an attempt to organize and issue demands. There was a period of quiet after the good-natured Greeks gave us each a cheese sandwich, a bottle of juice, and a piece of chocolate pound cake. There was tiredness and resignation as people slept on the red benches of gates 10, 11, and 12. There was sorrow at a missed poker game and the opportunity to watch the Steelers beat the Seahawks 21-0.

There was rumor-mongering as passengers called home and reported back to the group of vacationers. “My mother said they are sending a plane for us at 8:30!” called out one guy. “My brother said that a plane was arriving at 8!” yelled another. And then there was debate about the sources of information. Laughing, the first guy demanded that his mother had never been wrong in her life, she was a Polanit (a Polish Jew)!

And of course, there was continued anger led by the man in black who stalked the terminal and confronted anyone in a uniform, demanding answers and justice. Periodically, he’d press his mug against the windows of the gate, block the fluorescent glow of the overhead lights with his hands, and look for signs of the El Al plane that would take us home.

Throughout it all, time stood still. The clocks in the terminal were stuck at noon. At one point, the PA system turned against us as well, crackling loudly and intermittently. Was it all a psychological experiment?

Sometime after 10, an El Al plane landed on the Rhodes runway to the cheers of the abandoned vacationers. We were saved from another Duty Free shop meal of chocolate Riesens, cinnamon pita chips, and black olive dip. As the wheels of the plane touched the ground, solidarity was lost, though. For the umpteenth time that day, the vacationers swarmed into a fitful line, trying to be the first to get home.

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