Friday, January 15, 2010

Flying first class from the third world

I'm going to start with the end of my trip and work (as usual) in no particular order.

Flying out of La Paz, I had taken my seat well back in coach when one of the flight attendants asked me if I'd like to change seats. The reason went whizzing past in Spanish a bit faster than I could keep up, but it amounted to somebody wishing to sit with a travel companion, I think. The upshot was that they moved me to first class.

The trip home was in three pieces, a short hop from La Paz to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, a much longer flight from Santa Cruz to Miami, and then, after customs and immigrations and another trip through U.S.-based security screenings, the usual cross-country hop of about 5 hours between Miami and San Francisco. I changed seats again in Santa Cruz, but from La Paz to Miami, I ended up flying first class.

Good deal, right? Well, sort of. The food was better, if a little too ample after a trip like that, and as glad I was not to be eating Airline Chicken Product (isn't it wonderful what they're doing with plastics nowadays?), I felt a bit rushed by the pace at which the flight attendants hustled the Warm, Mixed Nuts off of the tray to bring out the Seasonal Green Salad, and so on. I chose the chicken picante (not so picante, at least not in the wake of llajwa) and puree of yuca. If you've never tasted yuca, it's not unlike potatoes, whether fried or mashed. Dessert was ice cream with hot fudge sauce, also pretty plainly from the Bolivian end of the trip. (The flight crew, incidentally, hailed from Argentina and Chile.)

I'm sure I'll also be in a very small (literally) minority for preferring the size of coach class seats, but I'm not a very tall being, and even with a first-class, extra large pillow behind me, my carry-on luggage did double duty as a footrest.

Unjustified bellyaching aside, the thing that felt wrong about it was that I'd just come from a country where most of the population does not drive, or have a car, or have a washing machine. Water is heated only at the shower head, if it is heated at all (dishes and laundry and hands are all washed in cold water). Houses are not heated, and in the mountains and the altiplano, that choice is certainly not the result of mild, tropical temperatures. It's the result of the fact that many people live on something like US$100 per month. Goods that can be produced there readily (corn, potatoes, fabrics, and so on) are generally proportionally cheaper than they would be here, but many items (computers and plane tickets, to name a couple) are not any cheaper than they would be in the developed world. In some cases, they're even more expensive.

The unscheduled shuffle to first class also had the result that I was among other first-world passengers. I don't think I've met a lot of good friends by accidentally sitting next to them on an airplane, but if there was one thing I really loved about Bolivia, it was the people I met there, and I think I would just as soon have spent that last few hours among people who had lived on the other end of that voyage.

It's good to be home, but I think I'll see my world differently after this trip.


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