Stranded in JFK: The Start of the Kamens/Mendell's Winter Travels

We planned a family trip to Ecuador this winter. We took advantage of the confluence of circumstances – kids graduating, or waiting for a job to start, or on winter break – everyone available! So we decided to go for two weeks (Molly), three weeks (Jim & Peg), two days more (Jake), and three months total (Russell).


I was dreading the overnight flight, sleeping on the cramped airplane seats and awaking, exhausted, in another country, with further travel ahead. But we were all excited for our adventure, a chance to see amazing birds and unfamiliar ways of life.

The trip started with a stop in Brooklyn, a visit to old friends and art at the Brooklyn Museum. It started to snow. The wind picked up. And then a harrowing 45-minute drive to the airport, in blizzard conditions, just skirting trucks that fishtailed into our lane. And of course, forty-eight hours in the airport, stuck in place by the white-out winds and the assurances that we would be flying out in a few hours, a few hours more, etc.

Not that it was grim – it was kind of a highpoint of the trip, we all agreed. We were in the International terminal, so on the Sunday after Christmas, people were flying home to other countries. There were the Indians, dressed in saris, sleeping on the floor, waiting for news of their flight. There were the Hasidic Jews, with their distinctive hats, long coats and ¾ pants, hoping their plane to Israel would take off. There was the crisply-dressed crew of Emirates Airlines, the heads of the stewardesses concealed beneath red hats with a pendant veils. They looked awesome marching to the plane, and back as flight plans changed.

And there were the Jamaicans, and the Ecuadorians and us, the last of the stranded passengers to leave.

But we were cool most of the time. We foraged for food – some places ran out, but Le Bon Pain was always a good spot to find salad and eggs and food that wouldn’t kill you. Molly suggested we go to the duty-free store, to freshen up with some perfume samples. We thought we smelled great! 

The days passed. We huddled with others around electric sockets, waiting our turn to charge our smartphones. We played cards, and games with a group from New Jersey who were off to visit Ecuadorian family. We took photos of people sleeping in the airport, especially the folks in a tarp-turned-tent, with a note that read “Wake us at 5 am.” We shared stories with other people who like to go to exotic places. We had a blast! 

And between shared stories, hard boiled eggs, and sleeping Jim, of course, found the time to tell all about the wonders of Camp Common Ground. He got at least 10 families to agree to come to Camp; perhaps we’ll have a “Stranded in JFK Christmas 2010” reunion week this summer… 

Sleeping on the floor in the baggage room isn’t ideal – glaring lights, morning stiffness, occasional groups of travelers looking for their luggage. So we did try to escape from the airport a few times. On day one after the flight was cancelled, as the snow quieted, we decided to take a cab to a movie. It would have cost us $50 each way. We passed. 

But later that night, after many phone calls, we found a hotel! We were willing to pay whatever exorbitant price would guarantee us a mattress and a shower. We went to look for a cab, and saw a line of taxi seekers that stretched out of sight. And we thought about that wait in 40 mile an hour winds. With us dressed for Ecuador. For the rest of the trip, I reminded everyone how much money we saved that night, sleeping in the baggage room. A dose of Benydril, purchased for the occasion, would get us all through the night. 

The next morning, we awoke early as instructed – our plane was going to leave any minute, we were told – and went to see if we had been assigned a gate. Most of the other planes grounded on that first snowy day had already left – the Jews, the folks from Dubai, the Indians. When a plane for Guayaquil scheduled to leave two days after ours was given a gate first, a brief insurrection broke out among the Ecuadorian passengers. They surrounded the bewildered airline staff and threatened to block the other plane from leaving. They were told by security that anyone who carried this further would not get a seat on any plane. We all quieted down. 

We were waiting with the Jamaicans, the only other identifiable group of delayed passengers that had not yet left the airport. One family told me that they were flying to go to a funeral of a family friend, which they hoped they could still make. The Jamaicans were getting as little information as we were about what would be happening to their plane. In frustration, they crowded around the information desk, chanting, “What’s going on? What’s going on?” That’s a chant I could relate to. 

Finally, 48 hours after we arrived at the airport, we boarded our flight for Ecuador. We congratulated ourselves on our good fortune – cozy airplane seats on which to spend the night! Life is good!