Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Operation: Sorpresa

Student protesters blocking the road in Bogota.
One day back in September, my brother Jimmy sent me a proposition via Facebook. My mission—if I chose to accept it—was to fly home for a weekend in November to surprise my mom for her 50th birthday. Financing the operation was my dad, who was planning a big birthday bash to celebrate my mom’s half-century of existence.

For me, it was a no-brainer—a chance to go home after 11 months away, to return to the land of good Mexican food, my golden retriever, and free refills. I booked transport back to arrive in California on November 11, the day of the party.

Being such a high-stakes mission, success would be contingent on secrecy and I stressed to my dad and brother the importance of keeping the knowledge of my sneaky return on a need-to-know basis. I told only my friends Derek and Brian, whom I recruited to assist with the logistics of picking me up from the airport and giving me a safehouse to hide out in until it was time to go to the party.

In the two months leading up to the party, I commenced a campaign of disinformation to mislead my mom. Utilizing Facebook, Skype, and even this blog, I sowed the seeds of doubt in my mom’s mind that I would be coming home any earlier than December 10th. After learning that the number of people in the know about the operation was growing well outside of the desirable parameters, I became alarmed—my younger brother Danny told me he knew, followed by my cousin Kenan, and even my cousin Jennifer living in Spain.

My mom surprised to see me.
Worried that our secret mission was compromised, I contacted Jimmy to see what the heck was going on. Dad, he told me, was either under the influence of some psychotropic drug, or he was just excitedly telling people about my premature homecoming and then forgetting about it.

As the days drew ever closer to zero hour, my mom exhibited no suspicious behavior to suggest she was wise to our evil plan. So utter was her ignorance that I became paranoid and began to suspect that she had found out long ago and my family was conspiring to make me think that she was still in the dark.

Finally, the day of the operation arrived. On Thursday, November 10 at 20:00 hours, I left my Bogotá apartment, taking a taxi to the El Dorado International Airport. Along the way, the operation faced its first roadblock—literally. Student protesters demonstrating against the Colombian government’s education policies crowded the street bearing banners and waving patriotic flags. The taxi driver cursed when he realized we weren’t going anywhere if we stayed on the Septima and decided to turn left onto a TransMilenio-only road, breaking about a half-dozen traffic laws in the process.

But in Colombia, traffic laws are more like suggestions, anyway.

Much to my relief, we made it back onto a legal road without dying and, having circumvented the protesting hordes, were now relatively home-free; however, recent rain had flooded the main thoroughfare to the airport and we were delayed by a police checkpoint controlling traffic as it passed over the inundated road.

With my brother and fellow conspirator, Jimmy.
At 21:00 hours, I finally made it to the airport, awkwardly lugging everything I owned in Colombia with three large bags. My plan was to bring home everything now and return with a light travel pack to finish up the final month.

After checking my luggage, I proceeded through the security checkpoint and headed to the departure gate. The first leg of my journey would take me to JFK International Airport in New York and from there, to San Francisco.

There was an unusual amount of security in the departure lounge at my gate. To enter the lounge, I had to show my passport and boarding pass to an airline attendant, subject my carry-on luggage to a thorough hand-search, and allow myself to be frisked.

My redeye flight from Bogotá to New York was uneventful and uncomfortable. With an aisle seat, I had nothing to lay my head against, making falling asleep impossible. I passed the time listening to my iPod and watching the plane’s northward progress on the little screen in front of me.

When we touched down in New York, my heart began to pound—this was the first time I would step foot on American soil in nearly a year. Exiting the plane, I headed to immigration, where a large line had already formed. After almost an hour of waiting, I approached the immigration window and gave the immigration officer my passport.

Dancing with my mom.
“Good morning,” I greeted.

The officer half scowled and said, “Take off your glasses.”

I removed my glasses and he held up my passport to compare my face with the passport photo.

He handed me back my passport.

“Thanks,” I said, “Have a good day.”

The frowning officer said nothing and moved on to the next person in line.

New Yorkers.

Having made it through immigration, I headed to the domestic terminals, taking a tram to the other side of the airport, exiting the building, and walking through the chill November air to arrive at yet another security checkpoint. After being violated by TSA’s Superman x-ray vision machine, I finally arrived at the departure gate for my flight to San Francisco.

There were several iPad 2s set up at tables near the gate and I passed the time playing around with one, also taking the opportunity to send a message to Derek to let him know that I was now in-country. Sitting there, surrounded by my countrymen, I could not help but feel out of place—after a year of being the odd gringo out in a country of Spanish-speakers, it felt strange hearing only English being spoken.

Hungry, I went to a little food place to grab a quick breakfast and was immediately horrified by the prices.

Derek pouring the aguardiente.
$5.99 for an egg and sausage bagel?

That was like $10,000 pesos! Spoiled by cheap Colombian food prices, I was now one stingy gringo.

A little while later I boarded the plane to San Francisco, this time ending up with a window seat. I found myself sitting next to two men, one a tech guy from Silicon Valley and the other who I initially took to be a talkative old grandfather type. The three of us made small talk for a while, first about the awesomeness of tablet-devices (iPads, Amazon Fires, etc.). Eventually, the conversation progressed in typical fashion to what we all did for a living.

When I asked the older gentleman what he did, he responded with, “I have a website called Prophecy.net.”

“Oh,” I said, not fully understanding, “What do you do on your website?”

“I make prophecies,” he replied.

“Oh, cool,” I said, wishing I hadn’t opened this door.

The old man began telling me his life story—primarily how twenty years earlier God had chosen him as a medium to communicate with mankind about the coming Armageddon. Possessed by the Holy Spirit, he had been compelled to write four books about prophecy and the coming End of Days. When I asked him when the world was scheduled to expire, he only said, “Within my lifetime.”

Seeing as how the guy was probably pushing 65, it did not bode well for my future plans.

White people dancing.
Luckily, the other guy in our aisle distracted the man long enough for me to slip on my headphones and whip out my kindle. The rest of the way home, I half-listened to the old man’s matter-of-fact attitude about being the Voice of God and the coming destruction of all that we know and love.

After nearly twenty hours of travel, I finally arrived at San Francisco International Airport and, miraculously, all of my checked bags made it without incident.

It was14:00 hours on 14 November 11th.

The day of the party.

My friend and fellow conspirator, Derek picked me up from the airport and we made a B-line for In-N-Out to accomplish one of the mission’s secondary objectives—securing awesome American cheeseburgers. There, my friend Brian met up with us and afterward, we went to his apartment to hide out until the party.

That night, we drove to a street near my parents’ house and called my brother to see if my mom had already left for the party. As luck would have it, she had and he and my dad were still at home. I decided to risk the whole operation to go say hello to my golden retriever, Gerico.

I’m not sure how dog memory works, but Gerico was definitely excited when he saw me. Although I had been gone eleven months, in dog years, that was almost seven years.

Luckily, he didn’t have a heart attack.

It was 18:00 hours and my dad said we should wait until more people arrived before launching the surprise attack, so we decided to bide our time at the local microbrewery near where the party was being held.

At 19:00 hours, we headed over to the party, located at a local banquet hall near Burlingame’s largest park. Our plan of attack was to enter through the backdoor, slither through the kitchen, then I would sing happy birthday to my mom.

Arriving at the building, I could see lights on and hear people chatting inside. We called Jimmy and he came out the back door with the DJ. The DJ told me he would make an announcement to get everyone’s attention, and then it was my time to shine. My drunk little brother, Danny, ran around the side of the building and tried unsuccessfully to startle us.

Everyone took their positions.

It was go time.

Derek and Brian waited with me in the kitchen as the DJ got everyone’s attention, letting everyone know that there was going to be a surprise.

Mission Accomplished.
Then I began to sing, “Happy Birthday.”

Walking out into the main room, I saw my mom along with the rest of the guests. She looked right at me, then back at the DJ, the visual not having registered. Then she looked back at me, her eyes lighted up, and she charged me like a mother goose discovering one of her long-lost goslings.

Operation Sorpresa was a raging success. And quite literally because we all raged quite hard that evening, thanks to the open bar and the aguardiente I had smuggled in from Colombia.

Mission Accomplished.

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