The smell of freshly brewed Britt coffee filled the air. Andean pan flutes playing “Flight of the Condor” for the 1000th time echoed through the halls as we strolled through Lima Airport. It would be a routine flight from the capital to our home in Puerto Maldonado. But the typical stopover in Cusco to pick up and drop off passengers turned into an unforgettable standoff.

After living in Peru for many years, my wife and I were fluent in both languages and culture. We understood what was being said and usually could interpret the more subtle cultural communications. We loved Peru, and every day was a new adventure, but we were unprepared for that day’s encounter.

As we boarded the airplane, we saw the usual cast of characters. It was a mix of locals going about their daily business and tourists on their way to see Machu Pichu, one of the world’s modern wonders. I remember passing two older ladies who looked to be in their eighties. Their excitement to see Peru’s claim to fame was obvious, but their inexperience was equally evident and somehow endearing.

We saw a familiar face in the row behind us as we found our seats. Victor was seated directly behind us, and we took a moment to catch up. His father was a dear friend and respected chief of a village where we often worked. His son, Victor, had recently gotten a job working with the government representing indigenous rights. The new position was treating him well, as he had packed on a few pounds since we had seen him last. Too much “Pollo a la brasa,” I suppose. Eventually, everyone took their seats, and the plane took to the air.

The first leg of our journey went off without a hitch. Our plane wove through the Andean peaks and eventually touched down in Cusco. The plan was to drop off all the tourists and pick up other passengers headed into the jungle. But something seemed off. As we taxied from the runway to the airport, we saw a crowd of people staring longingly at our airplane from inside the airport.

The passengers going to Cusco gathered their belongings. They exited the aircraft while the rest of us waited patiently and engaged in polite conversation. That’s when things took a turn.

An announcement was made that all passengers needed to disembark the aircraft. Having taken this flight dozens of times, I knew this was highly irregular, as did most of the other passengers. Everyone began to ask why and talk to their neighbors about this odd announcement.

Then I looked back towards the airport, and our situation became more clear. As I looked at the crowd that was gathered at the window, I recognized their longing gazes and the saliva dripping from their open mouths. I knew immediately what had happened. Their flight had been canceled, and they were stranded in Cusco and in danger of missing their flights back home.

Instead of sending another plane or making reasonable arrangements for these passengers, the airline decided to trick us. They would deceptively ask us to deplane, then board these stranded passengers and leave a new group of passengers stranded in this tourist paradise.

Evidently, I wasn’t the only one who figured out what was happening. As the other passengers realized what was happening, they settled back into their seats and crossed their arms. Everyone except the two elderly ladies in the front. Like law-abiding citizens, they began to gather their belongings. While their neighbors all pleaded with them in Spanish to sit back down.

My wife and I were torn. As guests in this country, we didn’t want to disobey and cause an incident. But all of the Peruvians, including our friend in the row behind us, were settling in for an old-fashioned Andean affray. We decided to stay seated and see what happened. This was not the time for blind obedience. A poorly timed strikebreaker could destroy the momentum of this entire incident. And we would be stranded in Cusco.

The people banded together. They began shouting at the flight attendants. Telling them, they would not get off the plane. The elderly American ladies in the front spoke no Spanish and had no idea what was happening. Their eyes franticly searched the aircraft for English speakers. One of the ladies locked eyes with me. I motioned for her to sit down and mouthed, “just wait.” You could tell it went against their nature, but they sat down with the rest of us protesters.

The flight attendants tried to explain. They promised we wouldn’t be left behind. The passengers saw through their schemes. The pilot came out to lend some authority to the demand. This only tightened the tension in the cabin, and the passengers began to yell at him, so he quickly retreated to the cockpit.

The brave flight attendants told us that if we did not comply, they would have to bring the military on board the plane to remove us. At this point, Peruvians were standing in their seats and shaking their fists. They were explaining the rules of the airline and demanding their rights. They would not submit. I stood as well, not to yell but to watch this fascinating showdown.

Eventually, three soldiers boarded the plane with AK-47s. They sheepishly told us that we had to deplane. The entire plane erupted. Everyone was screaming. Mestizo, Indigenous, Americans, & Europeans joined together and stood down the Peruvian military. One lady was quoting the Peruvian constitution; westerners were threatening to call the embassy, and the poor elderly ladies up front were regretting listening to me. They had found themselves in the middle of an international incident.

We were hijacking this plane.

The soldiers pleaded with us, but no one relented. There would be no scabs crossing this picket line today. After 10 minutes, it became abundantly clear that the airline’s evil plan would not work.

As the soldiers fled the scene, the flight crew resigned themselves to this peaceful takeover. They boarded as many stranded passengers as they could on our flight. Then they closed the door, we taxied, and off we went. Victorious smiles and high-fives were abundantly shared among this unexpected band of air pirates. It was a good day.

I would not recommend this strategy in other countries. But in very rare instances, it might just be okay to hijack a plane so that you can get home for dinner. Power to the People!

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