Customer Service in South America can really REALLY drive you to the limit! Let me bore you with the following issue and the successive up-the- wall-driving, infuriating, head-in-doing, frustrating, mindless communication that went on for weeks until I finally flipped! I swear they were doing it on purpose just to see how far they could push me.
I sent an email to Avianca after a long haul flight to say the following:
Now I understand that this could happen once in a while, but I want you to know that this was the third time that I have flown with Avianca that this has happened. Not once, not twice, three times on Avianca long distance flights that my reservation for a veggie meal has gotten lost.
To me that means that the system you work with is inapt. With the majority of airlines you can order a meal preference online, at the time of booking. This seems to cause far fewer problems because I have never had an issue with any airlines “losing” my food preferences before. It seems to me that Avianca needs to improve the way this kind of information gets put into their system or communicated through to the catering department. I was not impressed and am already dreading that the same will happen again the next time I have to fly with your airline.
Mr. Hartog, allow me to comment that AVIANCA is willing to offer you a responsible response to case as soon as possible but unfortunately we don’t have the necessary information to start an investigation. Could you please send me by this email address more information about your case.
Hmmm. How much more info do they need? So I sent:
Hello, I don’t know what further information you want, I thought I clearly explained the issue?
I have made a meal request on three separate occasions with Avianca flights and all three times the requested meal was noted down but not delivered.
The last time this happened was on the flight from Rio to Guayaquill (details copied in below). I called your call centre several days before the flight to change the meal and the guy on the phone repeated my name, my ticket number and the meal preference (vegetarian) and it still was not there. Because this was not just once, but now three times with your airline that this happened to me, there is obviously a serious flaw in the way you process your meal requests and perhaps you should consider letting passengers input their own meal preferences online.
I keep getting fobbed off with a few packets of crisps on long distance flights because the vegetarian meal was “forgotten” or the order got lost. If that happens once, sure I can understand these things happen. But three times in a row is very bad (followed by flight details).
They then responded:
Mr. Hartog, on behalf of AVIANCA we offer you our sincere apologies for all the inconveniences suffered about the service in your last flights because it’s not our objective that situations like this happen and affect our clients. Allow me to comment that once I received your comments I started an investigation with the information you provide me but when I verify you reservation I couldn’t find the request for special meal, therefore I don’t know if you really made the request or for an error by our representatives it wasn’t took it and for that reason you did not received the food on board. But if you did request the meal please provide me the date and your phone number if you call to make the request or if you did it by our web site the date to made and investigation.
Allow me to explain that there are some restrictions for special food on board, as: the request has to be done 24 hour before the flight as minimum time, in some countries and routes the service is not available for different factors as the flight time and the aircraft that is operating some routes because has to be from AVIANCA only. This information you can find it at our Web site more specific or you can ask for this information before your flight.
AAAAAGGGGHHHH!! Didn’t I already cover that I called several days before the flight??? Didn’t I already say I was aware this had to be done, didn’t they read the issue is their reservation system? It is the third time?
My feisty response:
Hello mr Rivera.
This is the third time in a row this happened with an Avianca flight, which is why I am writing this complaint. There is something seriously wrong with the way your system works because you keep losing the reservations. Also, I am Ms Hartog, not Mr Hartog. Thank you.
Dear Mr. Hartog,
It’s a pleasure to greet you one more time.
Regarding your case, I’m not saying that you didn’t make your request, what I said is that according to the investigation the request is not in the reservation. Could you please provided me the date, hour when you made your call, and the phone number you used it in order we may proceed to a second investigation.
Answer: (getting angrier and angrier…)
Dear Mr. Hartog, (AGAIN MR HARTOG??)
Thank you for your patience during this investigation. (WHAT FUCKING PATIENCE, HOW DARE YOU IMPLY BY NOW I STILL HAVE A SCRAP OF PATIENCE??)
We apologize for the inconvenience with the special meal, on your flight from Rio de Janeiro to Bogota on September 19th 2014. We would like to explain that according with the investigations did and the reports on your reservation, the purchase was did through a travel agency and we never received the special meal request for your flight from Rio de Janeiro to Bogota flight LR693 that is why the service was not provide due to we have a time limit to receive and do the request, which is 24 hours in advance of the departure time of the flights.
ARE THEY TAKING THE FUCKING PISS???
And this is where I broke…
NO BECAUSE I MADE THE SPECIAL MEAL REQUEST PER TELEPHONE, 72 HOURS BEFORE THE FLIGHT!!! Jesus Christ, how many times do I have to tell you the same information? No wonder you keep stuffing it up, you don’t even READ the numerous emails I have now sent about this. You call this customer service? Maybe you should take the time to read what your customers actually write to you before sending off a standard pre-written email!
I am sorry to get so angry now but this is just absolutely ridiculous and highly frustrating! You people keep repeating the same standard email information and I have explained over and over and over again that I made the reservation via the phone, 3 days before the flight, have had on THREE SEPERATE occasions now that the reservation for a veggie meal got lost, THREE times. And I have said over and over again that the issue is with your reservation system. If people could do this online LIKE ALL THE OTHER AIRLINES ENABLE YOU TO, this would not be such a high risk of staff losing or forgetting the reservation.
My god, the way you people are handling this sure explains a lot. AND MY NAME IS MS HARTOG, NOT MR!
Mr. Hartog, (SIGH…) we really apologize for this unpleasant situation; our comments were sent to the departments involved after we received it in order to verify and do the analysis to our procedures.
We will be glad to help you and avoid similar situations in a future, so please if you have a flight confirm with the airline sent to me the reservation or ticket number and the special meal you need 72hrs in advanced or more and I will do the request for you.Life lesson learnt: just be rude and you get what you want a lot faster. Eat that, Dalai Lama!
Sincerely, Mr. Hartog.
I have been travelling with a wee group of passengers since the 27th of June, on a public transport tour from Quito to Rio which will take us 65 days. Yesterday we crossed the border to get from Cuenca, Ecuador into Mancora, Peru.
Normally when you cross borders here in South America in almost every country you have to fill out an immigration slip. This document consists of two parts. One part is retained at the border as you go into a country, the other part you keep in your passport until the day you leave that country. It is essential not to lose this because (depending on the country) it could cost you a fine or a bribe otherwise.
On this trip I had planned to take my passengers on a “direct bus” from Cuenca to Mancora (Peru). Once we were on this bus it actually turned out it was going to be two different buses; one taking us to the border town of Huaquillas, the second bus taking us from there to immigration, then from immigration to Mancora. Fine with me. Except once we were in Huaquillas, after waiting for over an hour for our connecting bus, we were told the bus had broken down and would not be coming that day.
OK, time for plan B then. A taxi to immigration, from there a taxi to the border town Tumbes in Peru, and from there a taxi collectivo (shared taxi) to Mancora. No problem. On our bus on the way into Huaquillas was an Austrian girl who was travelling solo. She asked if she could come with us because she didn’t know what to do. This was fine so she came with us to the border.
Once at the border I reminded everyone to get their immigration slips out. She said she was never given an immigration slip, to which I responded she would have had to fill one out in order to get through immigration when she flew in. She was adamant she did not have one, which reminded me of a story.
A couple of years ago I travelled from Peru into Bolivia with another Austrian girl who had the same problem; she did not have an immigration slip and was determined she never received one. Going into Bolivia can sometimes be a bit impossible, and this was no exception. They would not let her in unless she had her slip, or was willing to pay some money. Suddenly she had an epiphany; her travel diary! She cut and pasted all sorts of bits’n bobs ‘n pieces of paper into that diary, and sure enough! There was her immigration slip! So without even knowing what the piece of paper was for she had glued it into her diary (the logic is lost on me but anyhow…). We borrowed scissors from the immigration police and were allowed to go through after they all had a hearty long laugh at her expense.
As I told this story to the current Austrian girl that was in our company yesterday, she stood there staring for a minute with a puzzled gaze on her face, started rummaging through her bag until she pulled out her travel diary… and….. you guessed it!!! There was the immigration slip!
Do they teach them this in school or something?
Some of these places actually exist. Where you feel happy and chilled out immediately. Where every single person is happy and friendly because they live in such an amazing place. Vilcabamba is a small town in the South of Ecuador, close to Peruvian border. It contains 5000 local inhabitants plus a whopping 1200 immigrants (mostly Americans and Canadians). And for a reason.
The first thing you notice is the tranquility. No pollution, no noises, just the sounds of nature that surround you, high up in the mountains at 1500 meters. Despite its altitude the weather is pleasant all year round, warm at night and hot in the day.
I am so glad I have come here! I am so sad I have not come here before! This place is an absolute haven. I booked my stay at the lovely Izhcayluma lodge, a German owned lodge where most of the staff are also German. And they are just all so lovely.
Izhcayluma means “two mountains” and is a luxury resort at backpackers prices. There is a stunning restaurant with huge panoramic views onto the mountains through its glass-less windows.
this is the restaurant
There are beautifully maintained gardens all over the property and there is a big swimming pool with waterfalls, a massage area where you can book massages, free yoga classes, and all the rooms have a spacious patio outside where you have your own hammock to laze the day away in. I originally had intended to stay in a dorm (U$8.50!) but decided it’s my holidays, why not splurge a little - here even splurging is affordable! At U$25 you get your own massive room with giant bathroom and a big double bed. I am not going to quibble over $25 a night! There are three fat dogs that are lovely and thrive on cuddles (and I happen to be a great dog-cuddler) and the restaurant has a very varied menu with heaps of vegetarian options.
Apart from lazing around in my hammock and preparing for my upcoming tour (bleeeech I don’t even want to think about the real world yet) I went for an eight hour horse ride/bush hike into the mountains. They have special mountain horses that are excellent at climbing rocky mountain trails. The walk made for some stunning views and we also went for a small hike to the waterfall while we left the horses behind to graze.
Vilcabamba way, way down in the background
The horse owner’s dog joined us for the entire ride, sprinting like mad every time we were galloping and he knew all the short cuts so he could easily catch up with us again everywhere. When we went for the hike to the waterfalls I went ahead (because I am impatient and the others were taking too long) and he came with me, waiting the entire time to show me the way. What a cool dog!
The waterfall was 18 meters high and when looking up it seemed you were in a giant hole.
The following two days I did nothing - mostly because I couldn’t move, also because this place is just so easy to do nothing at! You just lie down in a hammock and before you know it it’s dinner time! I kept the barman company for a few hours on most of the nights, and met some very interesting characters over the course of the week. I went for another horse ride later in the week, this time just a two-hour ride, mostly galloping along pretty rivers and landscapes.
Last night I went out for dinner with my new friend Loto, to a place called Ël Atillo Casa Cultura”. This restaurant only opens twice a week and you have to reserve to get a spot. The chef is Japanese who was previously based in New York, and is a true artist. We were served a six course menu, all for the price of $16! I have never eaten such stylish food, and the flavour, colour and texture combinations were just amazing, a true party in your mouth!
Anywhere else in the world you would pay a fortune for this type of experience so I considered myself very lucky, a great way to end these glorious three weeks I have enjoyed so much!
So tonight I will get on the bus for a 12 hour journey to Quito, where the real life awaits once more. But with a job like mine, reality is not so bad anyway…
Howler monkey quire
Sometimes there’s a (welcome) few weeks off between the end of a tour and the beginning of a new one, I always look at this as all my weekends saved up and taken as one chunk at the end. A big advantage of this is that you can almost always plan your holiday from the end point or beginning point of a tour, because you are always close to beautiful places.
This time I finished in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (oh poor me) and had three weeks before having to start a fresh tour in Quito (Ecuador). So I planned two weeks off in Brazil, then another week to chill out in Ecuador before my next Monday would come.
In Rio there were still a few places I hadn’t visited yet, and there is an island not far from Rio that I have always wanted to go to. The island is called Ilha Grande (big island) and it is famous for its beautiful beaches and many bush walks.
You can get there by taking a shuttle or a public transport bus to Angra dos Reis (2.5 hours) and from Angra hop onto a boat (40 minutes). The island itself is absolutely stunning, it is a little paradise.
Very green, almost every day is sunny and hot, many many beaches and so much wildlife to see when you go for a walk on one of the many pathways hidden in the surrounding bush.
View from my window
The howler monkeys quire
Caipifruta; a caipirinha with fresh passionfruit mmmmmmm!
The world’s smallest monkey species (forgot their name and too lazy to google it - YOU google it!)
Squirls everywhere, munching away as loud as Asians
Bushwalks everywhere all over the island, varying from 20 minute walks to 5 day hikes.
I stayed for five days and really enjoyed it, though one of the downsides of Ilha Grande is how extremely touristy it is. I booked a tour on a small boat, thinking that way I would avoid big crowds. I never stopped to think that there are about 15 other operators with equally small boats, that all depart at the same time, all puke out their 14 passengers per boat at the same beaches at the same time, and all return at the same time.
Everything is ridiculously expensive, a plate of French fries costs R16 (about U$7.50), and most food is not that great – especially when you are a vegetarian. My dorm bed cost R54 (About U$25) per night which is also pretty expensive but then overall Brazil is an expensive country.
I came back to Rio for a couple of nights and then it was time to fly out to Guayaquil. This is Ecuador’s biggest city and second international airport, located in the south of Ecuador. I asked my boss to book it that way because there is a place I have heard of two years ago, that I have always wanted to visit (but never had the opportunity). It is called Vilcabamba, and is located about 5 to 6 hours south of Cuenca.
So from Guayaquil into a bus to Cuenca where I stayed the night to rest up. The next day I was supposed to get on a direct transfer from Cuenca to the lodge in Vilcabamba where I was going, and I had booked it, only I noticed that I had booked it for the wrong day! DUH!
I didn’t want to waste a day in boring Cuenca so I got a further bus to Loja (4 hours) and from there a bus to Vilcabamba (1 hour). Not too bad, but a lot of travel in two days. So much that I started to regret having booked this; it is a very long detour (I still have to make my way all the way up to Quito by the end of the week), surely nothing can be worth this? But that changed as soon as I walked through the entrance… More on that in the next blog :D
After two previous visits to Rio de Janeiro, during which I had been “uhm-ing and ah-ing” about whether or not I should do a favela tour (a guided tour through the slums of Rio) this time I decided to go ahead and do it. It is an integral part of city life for a huge number of people, especially in big and overcrowded cities and obviously not just in Rio de Janeiro.
I went on a three hour walking tour in Rocinho; Rio’s largest slum with a population of over 70,000. The tour was guided by a guy who used to live in that slum, and possibly still lives there (he was very vague about it).
Ironicallly many of the poorest areas have the best city views
Towards the bottom of the Favela
We started somewhere towards the top of the slum and walked all the way to the bottom in an attempt at trying to get a feel of what life is like in the favelas.
The majority of the houses are somewhat instable (especially when it rains a lot there is a big risk of landslides which take out several homes - and once the home is gone, that’s it, they’re on the street). These houses are nothing more than bare concrete blocks.. Many without even the minimal essentials such as running water, toilets and showers (communual toilets and taps are placed in between the many houses), yet they don’t exactly come cheap.
The average price for a favela living space is 200 reales (about U$87) per month. To give you an idea of the value of this to your average Carioca (person from Rio): a common way to make a living for poor people in is to collect aluminium cans and sell them to recyclers.
According to our guide it takes nearly 200 aliminium cans to make one real (about 0.45 U$) so do the maths to work out how many cans it takes just to pay the rent alone.
The deeper we wondered down through the favela’s narrow alley ways, the worse conditions became. The smell was terrible, stepping over dead rats as we passed streams of filth that would probably near kill you if you would fall into one. The kids tried to make a bit of chit-chat because they all knew the guide and knew there was a bit of change to be made if they plaid a bit of samba drums or did a little dance - but the majority of the residents gawked at us with a look of contempt.
Here comes the so-maniest group of gringos to stare at our misery and poverty, blatantly peeking into our houses and yards with a look of disbelief, pity and disgust, to subsequently leave what is our day to day life for good. - going back to their comfortable hotels and their comfortable lives, with their comfortable jobs and their comfortable first world problems. “It’s not all so bad for us” the gringos will say to their friends back home, when going through their favela snaps they rudely took of the residents without asking. Look at these people. Now their life sucks. Look at this house, and this mess, and these clothes and that junk! Gosh, travelling the world is so good, it really broadens your mind - is what they will say, after which they get immersed into their daily routines again for another year until the next holiday and meanwhile they forget about it all.
So that, in a nutshell is my conclusion of the tour. I was right in not wanting to do it, I didn’t want to rubberneck upon another’s misfortune and that is exactly what it felt like. But there is a flipside too, part of the money earned goes back into the favela communities (or so they say).
If you are interested in a taste of favela life this is the safe way to go in there and have a look at it. Not all the people are poor or miserable, there’s lots of happy older people, and kids adjust anywhere. There are many middle class people living there that have jobs in the city but are forced to live there in order to make ends meet.
But there’s a lot of criminals living there too, who wouldn’t think twice of lifting your heavy valuables off your poor weak body should you happen to be stumbling around there by yourself trying to find your way in the maze of many alleyways. So if you think this is your thing, check out www.bealocal.com to book it.
- Can you buy Havianas in Brazil?
- At what altitude are we right now? **while camping right on an ocean beach**
- Will it rain when we are in Rio de Janeiro?
- Passenger: “I know you made a joke about me to everyone behind my back and that was rude”. Me: “I said that right in front of you in the microphone, how is that behind your back!” Passenger: ”Yeah well I was wearing my headphones when you were talking in the microphone this morning so I didn’t hear that, did I”.
- Getting into the Pantanal wetlands in Brazil.
Me: “ok, guys, let’s hop off the truck for a few minutes so you can all take some pictures of that huge group of wild kaymans that are in the riverbank!” Grumpy passengers: “I am not getting off, If I want to see alligators I will go to the zoo back home”.
END OF TOUR.
Many years ago I was working in a back packers’ lodge in a place called PK’s Jungle Village. This lodge is located in Cape Tribulation (“Cape Trib”) , in the far north of Australia. Cape Trib is a good two hours’ drive north of Cairns, located in a beautiful bay where the jungle mangroves meet the corals of the Great Barrier Reef. Apart from the many tourists that travelled out there to spend a few days at the lodge, there was also a handful of entrepeneurs that lived and worked in the area. Walking tours, horse rides, fishing tours and diving were some of the activities catered for and apart from one other expensive lodge not too far away we were pretty isolated.
For the majority of the four months I was there I was working in the bar. I worked for Duncan, the Australian bar manager. Duncan hooked up with Liz - an English nutty lass and I am still friends with the both of them, 16 years later (and they are still together). Overall people from all nationalities worked there, as the resort’s majority of workers were backpackers.
Most people that were working and living in the area would come to the party bar where I worked, so we got to know pretty much everyone that was around. This also included the diving crew that worked for the diving companies, one of them being Paul; a very nice guy from London who was one of the dive masters that frequented our bar.
About a year later when I was already back in Holland I received an email from Steve; a Kiwi guy that had worked in PK’s kitchen during the time I’d been there. Steve was travelling through Europe and asked if he could stay for a few nights. I was staying with my mum so after guilting her into saying “yes” (how would you feel if HIS mother would not let ME stay if I was travelling on the other side of the world all by myself!) Stevo was allowed to stay. He told me that Liz and Dunc had just arrived in the UK, and how great would it be to catch up with them! I couldn’t agree more so we all arranged to meet up in a bar in Covent Garden; probably one of the most touristy places in London.
So here we are, Kiwi Steve, Ozzie Dunc, Dutchie Ninka and Pommy Liz - in one of touristy Covent Garden’s hundreds of bars, drinking pints and talking shit. After an hour or so, what do you know, in walks Paul, the “Jungle Diver” that used to drink at our bar! We all thought from each other that someone must have contacted him, but judging by the way that his jaw had dropped on the floor while he was trying to utter some coherent words - we gathered that this was actually not the case at all!
It turned out he was just on his way to a birthday party on his motorbike, and had stopped to buy some cigarettes on his way there! So imagine what he must have been thinking; all these people from various places in the world that he had met over a year ago, in the middle of nowhere and on the other side of the planet - are sharing a table, drinking pints in the first pub he walks into to quickly buy some cigarettes! Out of hundreds of pubs he chose to pop into that one.
Last week a similar encounter occurred, when I was in Lima to visit a friend. My friend used to live in the USA for a few years until he moved back to Peru seven years ago. We were on our way back from a bar, in a suburb that he is not even from, when someone called out his name. It turned out to be a friend that he had met when living and working in the USA all those years ago.
His friend was also from Peru but he had never met him in Peru, and hadn’t seen him or heard from him since he had left the USA seven years ago! His friend still lives in the USA and was only over for a short break, leaving the next day… Again,what are the chances? If we had left a few minutes earlier or later, or would have picked another suburb or even just another bar, they would have missed each other completely!
Another story that impressed me for these reasons comes from Bill, who I met when I was in Mexico. Bill had been friends with Perry when he was in high school. Then, more than 45 years ago, Perry left California to travel around in Bolivia of all places, and he was never seen or heard from again. Every one of his old friends presumed him dead as the years passed, and Bill had moved to Mexico with his wife Bobbie.
One day Bill was extremely thirsty in the hot sun so he walked into a bar in a small town called Bucerias, a bar where he normally never went. As he was having a quick beer. he saw this guy standing at the bar making a phone call because he was having car trouble. He thought it was his old mate Perry’s dad at first, but then counted the years and realised that would be impossible. After the guy at the bar finished his call he paid the bar maid and turned to leave, upon which the bar maid called out: “thanks, Perry”!
Of course Bill could not resist to go over and asked him whether he was that same Perry that he had been friends with so many years ago. It turned out it was the very same person, and he is now living in Mexico (I actually met him that time I was there). So they both met and were friends in California, lost touch for nearly half a century, then randomly met again 46 years later in another country, in a small town in a bar where neither of them normally would have gone if it weren’t for that day’s circumstances!
Finally, when my uncle Lew was a major in the US army he was sent on a mission to help select the next scout helicopter to be used for the army. Because there are so many competing companies wanting to sell their goods, Lew and his team were sequestered (placed in a secret location) somewhere in St Louis.
Meanwhile Lew’s son Mike had disappeared overnight while mountain- biking in the woods. Lew was notified while on his assignment and it was arranged for him to immediately fly to San Jose (where Mike was living with his mother at the time). As Lew got to the St Louis airport he lined up at check-in and it turned out he was standing right behind his very close friend Ron, and Ron had been looking for him! Lew and Ron had met in Indianapolis while on a journalism course a year before, and Ron knew that Lew was somewhere in St Louis that day.
Ron was also with the US army and was in St Louis only for a few hours, on route to the Philippines for his next assignment. He had been to the headquarters that Lew had been assigned to, in a fruitless attempt to figure out where he could find him. (fruitless because Lew was in a secret location). They also had to board the same plane and arranged to sit next to each other. As the plane was taxiing for take-off, the pilot requested for Lew to come forward, and informed him that they had just received a call that Mike had been found. It turned out his mother had thought Mike had left the night before to go biking and still hadn’t come back the next morning but he had actually only left early that morning, about a couple of hours before! Lew was taken back to the boarding gate to leave the plane and go back to his mission, but all these events had led to these friends connecting once again.
These are just a handful of great stories, and I have many more of my own - the number of times where I have run into people again in a country, period or environment totally different to where we initially met- and without knowing from one another you were going to be there.
Not to mention the “six degrees of separation” encounters: the ever accumulating number of times where you meet someone that knows someone that you know - you know?
If this is within your tiny wee village then that may not be so fascinating - (being in awe when you find out that your one neighbour knows your other neighbour).
But when the Argentinian guy who is showing you around in his home town turns out to know the South African guy that surfed your couch in New Zealand two years earlier, it is kind of mindblowing. And I have had so many of these encounters and epiphanies I could fill a whole book.
Of course with social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Couchsurfing it is a lot easier to track - as soon as you become friends with someone who has a mutual friend (or even if your friend has a friend who has a mutual friend) it shows up on your home page. This makes it so much easier and more obvious than it was back in the day where you would only find out by actually talking to each other about the people and what distinguished them in order to make the link.
Every person has got at least one similar story of their own. What each person chooses to take from these encounters -sometimes born from so may coinciding factors, others just a simple “huh?”- is totally up to them. Overall they are incredible stories and personally I like to see it as a little token that you’re on the right track. Whatever the universe has laid out for you, these are little pointers to show you that you’re heading in the direction you’re meant to go. That idea, along with the frequency things like this have happened to me, gives me a lot of confidence. It makes me not worry about the future, because every little thing… is gonna be alright - eh Bob :)