By Michael Silverman
Have you ever been held hostage during a vacation trip? Let me tell you first-hand, it is a scary, nerve-wracking experience.
In February 2008, my wife and I eagerly looked forward to our one-week spring break trip to the Caribbean island of St. Martin. We drove to Toronto, from where we took a late afternoon flight, along with 300 other happy vacationers.
Approaching St. Martin after nightfall, the pilot interrupted our mood of joyful anticipation with some disturbing news: Due to ongoing runway repairs, the landing lights were out, and we would be unable to land at the airport. It was necessary to divert our flight. We headed to Antigua, a little more than 100 miles to the southeast.
Antigua, however, could not accommodate us overnight. Our pilot had to consider going somewhere else in the vicinity where his airline had landing rights. Two places qualified: Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic and Margarita Island, off the coast of Venezuela. Since Punta Cana was probably heavily booked, too, our pilot decided to take us to Margarita.
Big mistake. At this time, Venezuela was governed by the fervently anti-American socialist autocrat Hugo Chavez. A harrowing experience was in store for us.
Our plane landed around midnight at a third-world airport. It took hours to process us, and then the passengers were transported by bus to a condemned resort in Margarita. Assigned rooms, we found no linens, towels or running water. There were cockroaches.
In the morning, after being fed a starchy breakfast, we were free to roam around. The seaside town was a middle-class vacation spot, somewhat seedy, reminiscent of Atlantic City minus the casinos and boardwalk. The beach looked polluted.
At noon, we got on the buses to return to the airport, where we quickly reboarded our plane. And we sat there. Other planes from Latin American countries came and went. Then the real terror started.
Two airport officials came on board, pointed out two passengers and removed them. This process continued for a couple of hours. Returning passengers appeared very upset. They had been questioned, and had their luggage searched for “contraband.” We worried about our U.S. passports being discovered.
The situation worsened. The plane ran out of food. It became stifling in the cabin. Children were crying. And then my wife fainted. A kindly doctor came to assist.
Sometime after 6 p.m., our captain stormed out of the cockpit, and went down to the tarmac. We were petrified; what if he did not come back? For almost an hour, we waited nervously. He then returned and announced we were taking off. What was not mentioned was the bribe his airline undoubtedly had to pay to have us released.
Since it was after nightfall, and the runway lights at St. Martin were still off, we had to return to Toronto. On the way, our pilot offered us two choices: a full refund, or a 50% refund and we would be transported to St. Martin the next morning. After what we had endured, my wife and I craved a vacation, and so opted for option 2.
We were put up at a hotel by Pearson International Airport, and reboarded our plane at 9 a.m. When the plane touched down at Princess Juliana International Airport, spontaneous applause erupted from all on board. Looking out at the palm trees, the verdant hills and blue sea, St. Martin seemed like paradise to us after our ordeal.
Michael Silverman, of Amherst, does not plan on any return trips to Venezuela.