The plan for me and my wife’s first ever trip out of the U.S. was really simple. We barely had one. We would land in Santiago, Chile, spend two weeks studying Spanish – I knew a little, my wife was starting at zero – and then start traveling south, into Chilean Patagonia.

Things started off a little crazy. On the plane ride down there, I had trouble getting to sleep. Then, at about 1 am I heard murmurs in Spanish. The only word I could make out was borracho – drunk – and then a flight attendant was yelling, “I need passenger assistance. There is a security threat on the plane, I need passenger assistance.”

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Me in Santiago, Chile, shortly after our arrival in 2004.

 

I turned toward the back of the plane, where I could see the flight attendant standing in the aisle in front of the bathrooms, waving her arms in the air like she was trying to signal us from far away, as she continued shouting to try to wake us. A few men started to stand, but most of the passengers had been shocked out of deep sleep, and looked dazed. It was just a few years after 9/11, and I imagined the worst. I got up and ran to the flight attendant. Behind her, against a wall behind the bathrooms, in the flight attendant’s area, a man frantically glanced around like Hunter S. Thompson being attacked by bats.

Four men had come to the back of the plane, and then another showed up, in a bright turquoise shirt, pulled out a badge, and said he was an air marshall. He told us all to relax, and started trying to reason with the man who had caused the disturbance.

“Look, we’re on a plane here, you’re scaring people.”

Before the marshall could finish, the man started mocking him, twirling a finger in the air and saying, “Oooh we’re on a plane! We’re on a plane!”

I relaxed a little then. Whatever this guy was, he wasn’t a terrorist.

The air marshall brought us into a huddle and gave instructions. He was going to arrest the man, and we were each to grab a limb. I had the left leg.

“Let’s go,” he said. And the next thing I knew, I was holding on to this guy’s leg. He tensed, as if to fight us off, but there were five adrenaline pumped men pinning him to the wall, and suddenly he gave up. The air marshall zip-tied his hands behind his back, then told us we could return to our seats.

A few minutes later, the marshall and a male attendant brought the man to the seating area, and as they tried to put him in a seat, he head butted a flight attendant on the nose. It started spurting blood right away. Another flight attendant, with the help of the marshal, shoved the man into a seat, where they subdued him.

When we landed in Buenos Aires, a layover for us on the way to Santiago, a half dozen police men marched onto the plane and dragged the guy off. One police officer stayed aboard and spoke to a woman with a small child. Apparently the man’s wife and son. Through tears, said he had forgotten his medication, drank a beer, and then lost it. I never found out what happened to the guy.

We took a much more calm flight to Santiago. I got a short nap, but was still frazzled when we arrived in Santiago and stepped into the heat of summer, surrounded by Spanish speakers. Luckily we had asked our hostel to call a cab for us, and we found the driver waiting.

During the ride I fumbled around in Spanish, chatting with the taxi driver and watching the city. From what I’ve seen of South American cities, they tend to have a lot more graffiti than those in North America. To my inexperienced eyes, the copious graffiti, including a poorly scrawled “50 Cent” on the side of the bridge that led to the neighborhood where we were staying, meant danger.

As we got closer to the hostel, the driver warned that I should take off my sunglasses, and that my wife should take off her earrings. With hand gestures he explained that people would run by and snatch them off our heads. Then he stopped in front of the hostel and asked us for 18,000 pesos.

Now, I knew that the exchange rate was quite different, but 18,000 of anything seemed like a lot of money to me, and the guide books had warned me about crooked taxi drivers. So after a hushed conversation with my wife, I asked the driver to come into the hostel so that I could make change. He politely agreed, and inside the clerk settled it all for us (the cabbie turned out to be honest).

A few minutes later, my wife and I were in our rundown but brightly painted room, laying on the bed and staring at the ceiling. We’d only been in South America a few hours, and had three more months before our return flights. What in the hell were we doing here?

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