Up in the Air

Brazil, August 2004

Brazil is a big country–about the size of the U.S.–and we criss-crossed it several times. Our first destination was Rio de Janeiro on the coast, then to Manaus on the Amazon River, next to Salvador da Bahia on the coast, finally to Iguaçu Falls on the border of Argentina and Paraguay. Or actually, finally back to New York–16,000 frequent flyer miles in all, all on Varig Brasil Airlines, and no non-stop flights among them.

One might think that it would be possible to fly non-stop from New York to Rio, but evidently political concerns dictate a stop at São Paolo. And the first leg is a long one, 9-1/2 hours, but the "stop" adds 2:10. The quotes are because, although the schedule said we would only stop at São Paolo and continue on to Rio, on our ascent Betty Lou detected in the Spanish announcement the fact that we'd have to change planes. There was no such information in the English announcement. Evidently the Portuguese announcement did provide that useful information, because it seemed that only the English speakers were confused about the frantic activity upon landing. The frantic activity was because we had no seat assignments on the connecting flight, so it was first come first served. That aircraft was mostly filled by passengers who had come from Miami. They had their own inconvenience–since our flight had had a longer departure delay than theirs, they had been waiting an extra 45 minutes.

Unlike a later flight where we did have seat reservations, so we wondered why many people broke into a run when an announcement was made, only in Portuguese. What they were able to understand was that an aircraft with a different configuration, which our seat assignments didn't match, had been substituted, so again it was every person for himself.

At least the flight from New York is mainly in a southerly direction, so the time is not that much different. Most of tourist Brazil, the eastern part, is two time zones ahead, while Manaus is one hour ahead. However, since the seasons are opposite, our Daylight Savings Time resulted in there being only a one-hour time difference in Rio, Salvador, and Iguaçu, and none in Manaus.1

Since Betty Lou had a torn rotator cuff, which was scheduled to be surgically repaired three days after our return, on every flight (of 10) she requested a left aisle seat and was always assured that was what she was assigned. On almost every flight, that turned out to be incorrect. Thanks to her prominent sling, she was usually able to negotiate a swap.

There was the flight with the correct seat assignment, but which also had been assigned to another passenger–fortunately, she was first to arrive. Or the initial flight from New York, which also was a correct aisle seat–that was broken, in a partway-down position. Also, the electronics didn't work–no light, audio, or call button to report the problem–but since the flight had been overbooked by 30 passengers there were no replacement seats anyway.

There was plenty of room on flights between Dulles and JFK, on the new Independence Air, although once again, on our return–at noon this time–we enjoyed a 45-minute ground delay because of thunderstorms over Dulles. Three out of the last three–see also Concorde and Poland–and counting.

Not one Varig flight departed on time, even those that were the first in the morning. The shortest delay was 40 minutes, although the usual delay announcement was for 20 minutes, at a time. On the other hand, on every flight, even of 1-1/2 hours duration, a hot meal was served. Also, we were relieved to find that the time-consuming tit-for-tat fingerprinting initiated by Brazil in response to the U.S.'s treatment of their citizens had been discontinued. Not to say that the immigration process wasn't already time-consuming enough by itself.

As members of a group, obviously paying steeply-discounted fares (I did mention 16,000 travel miles), we were often banished to the extreme rear of the aircraft, although once we all were unexpectedly upgraded to Business Class, unfortunately on a short flight.

On an early flight, Betty Lou schmoozed the flight attendants in the back as she exercised her arm, saying that she was looking forward to having a glass of wine. They said they no longer serve wine on domestic flights, only beer, because the Italians would drink too much and get rowdy! (Sorry, Vince.)

1 The time difference is not quite that clear-cut during their Daylight Savings Time, because not all states implement it, including Manaus. Therefore, during our winter, Rio is three hours ahead while Manaus is one. According to the "Lonely Planet" guide: "Not surprisingly, Brazilians as well as foreign travelers sometimes don't know what time of day it is, and a lot of travelers have tales to tell about connections missed because of cultural ignorance."

© Copyright 2004 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved