An Inconvenienced Truth

I am not a good traveler. There it is: the truth.  In my head I could win the Amazing Race. In reality, the first time we (my imaginary race partner and I) missed a plane I would shed hot, frustrated tears and settle into a pissy mood that would last the whole episode.

Last Sunday I missed my flight to Vegas.

It was not my fault, but a comedy of errors performed by United Airlines. We spent two hours on the tarmac before takeoff from Seattle en route to San Francisco. Then in SF, where at least a third of the plane was connecting to other flights, they told us the wrong gate for the Vegas flight. It was 75 (right next door to the gate where we landed), not 79 (on the other side of the terminal – and a long run with hand luggage).

By the time I realized the airline’s error, I had missed the Vegas flight. When I was informed that I could squeeze onto the next flight, which was in four hours, I was less than delighted. Four hours when you’re flying from Seattle to Vegas is longer than a direct flight takes. Irony tastes even more bitter when you’re faced with airport food rather than a meal cooked by your mother.

I asked for a meal voucher to make up for being inconvenienced. “I wish I could help you, but our airline stopped issuing meal vouchers for delayed passengers last year. Sorry.” I believed that he was sorry, and then I did what any sane and reasonable adult person would do. I cursed under my breath, and then I cried hot, frustrated tears.

As I walked away from the service counter, I wondered how in the hell I was going to fill four hours in stupid, boring , horrible San Francisco airport (to be fair, I would have thought that about any airport under the circumstances). I continued to curse to no one in particular, because cursing is my pressure valve. There are times when it is the only way for me to regain my equilibrium.  I may have looked like a crazy woman wandering the airport muttering to myself with an angry look on my face, but it was not long until the cursing did its job and I felt better.

I fixed my face, bought some more magazines, and braved the airport food court for dinner.

That killed a whole hour.

Skipping ahead to the return flight: different airline, on time, seated in an exit row. Feeling good about getting home to Seattle. Two new magazines to read. “Ladies and gentlemen, we will be turning off the cabin lights for take off and the duration of the flight. However, if you would like to continue reading, there is a light above your head.”  No reading light.  Broken.

The man next to me noticed my small predicament, and said he would turn his light on so I could see. He did, and then promptly broke it while trying to angle it towards me. “Oops,” he said as the light went out. “I suppose they don’t move.” It was a sweet gesture.  I stopped the flight attendant and asked if they had a flashlight I could borrow.  “Sorry, no.”  I suppose they need those to be fully charged and working in case there is an emergency more pressing than my broken reading light.

I soon realized, however, that if I leaned all the way forward, resting my head on the seat in front of me, and angled the page towards the aisle, I could make out about a third of the text. It grew tiresome.

We landed early (Hooray). We waited forty minutes for our luggage (Boo!). And as I stood there at 10pm alongside a baggage carousel that remained stagnant, and looked around at other annoyed passengers, I started to question the whole, ‘I am a traveler’ thing.

This brings me back to my opening: I am not a good traveler. Actually, it is just that I hate flying. I have said this before, I know, but the hatred is starting to overshadow the excitement of going somewhere new. The whole flying thing is much better with Ben by my side. He is a great travel buddy. Mainly because he humors me when I behave like this.

hee hee

But also because he is far more laid back about delays and little inconveniences. When we’re delayed and we’re together, we play Yahtzee or Peggle (the world’s greatest electronic pinball game).  He keeps me grounded when we’re grounded.

So all of this begs the question: Am I a bad traveler, or is it just the transit that gets to me? Maybe I am just a bad ‘transiter’.

Once I get to where I am going, I am just as amenable to sleeping in a rustic cabin as a five star hotel. I will gladly climb, hike, swim and cycle my way around the wilderness. I happily drink with locals and share my table with strangers. I love to explore tiny curio shops, galleries and museums in tiny towns. I like to eat, try and experience new things. I equally appreciate the majesty of nature and architecture, and I am all about learning some of the native language.

Phew! I am still a traveler. I just don’t transit so well.

Next post:  When Venice isn’t Venice.

Loathe of Flying Pt 1

I LOVE to travel, but the cruel irony is that I hate to fly.

I appreciate that there are people who are desperately afraid of flying. That is not me. I suffer only from loathe of flying. I do not fear the plane falling out of the sky. In fact, often times I am so blasé about flying that I am asleep by the time we take off and I wake after we are in the air.

Mostly the loathing is because of what happens on the ground. I hate airports. I understand that few people actually like the airport experience, but I have had such bad luck at airports that I am often anxious when I get there.

I once arrived at the airport for a month-long trip to the USA where it was winter. I had boots, jumpers (sweaters), coats and ski gear in my carefully packed suitcases. My idiot travel agent had assured me that my airline allowed 2 bags at up to 32kg per bag, so I had one big heavy suitcase, and a small suitcase, its ‘mini me’. My large suitcase was seriously overweight. I argued that my travel agent had assured me I could carry up to 32kg per bag – and all I had was a paltry 27kg. I even called my travel agent, who was so stupid, she swore black and blue that she was correct and that the perfectly coiffed woman standing opposite me was the idiot. I told my agent I would be paying the excess baggage and then billing her. She was outraged at my suggestion – she was outraged, but she wasn’t the one facing an excess baggage charge every leg of a 6-leg journey.

We argued a bit more, and less than 3 minutes later, I had slammed my mobile phone shut (it was the best I could do to display my disgust) and was repacking my carefully-packed bags on the floor of the airport. In the middle of my summer, I lightened my load by putting on a jumper, boots and a long winter coat. When I was done, the small bag weighed almost as much as the big one – a feat in defiance of physics – and I was checked in. Idiot-travel-agent-woman.

In Calgary, I locked my friend’s baby in the car – while it was running, at the 3-minute kerbside drop-off point. Baby in the car, luggage in the car, keys in the ignition, and my girlfriend and I standing there, early morning, temperature well below zero. She started laughing in response to our predicament, albeit hysterically, and I stood there dumb-struck for about 30 seconds.

Thank fortune we had the car boot open, and that I could crawl inside, push through to the backseat, and contort my body enough to flick the lock with the edge of my finger nail. Thank fortune because her husband had lost the spare set of keys the day before. Baby Canyon was none the wiser and thought it was hilarious that Aunty Sandy was doing such a funny thing. I made my flight, but it took me until well into it to start breathing normally again.

And for some reason, no matter where in the world I am, I am selected 9 times out of 10 for ‘random security checks’. Random! As in, ‘You look like a good sort, so I will randomly select you‘? In Denver airport I wished I hadn’t worn my stripy toe socks inside my boots. The security staff did not find them as festive as I did, so I was randomly selected for further searches.

At Heathrow, when batteries were the greatest potential danger, and not liquids, the security officer asked, “Excuse me Madam, is there anything battery-operated in your luggage?” I immediately thought to my personal massager, and to save us both the embarrassment, I replied a simple, “No”.

I do not mind the latest security measures. I would much rather be safe, than to complain about them, and in truth I have flown quite a lot in the past few years, so I have my routine down pat. Shoes off, coat/jacket off, plastic bag of toiletries out, laptop out, bags flat, through the sensor, all back on and in again.

There have been a few glitches, like when I was in Peru. I had packed my hand luggage that morning for the trekking I would be doing at the other end of the flight. And without a thought to the plane travel, I included my Swiss Army knife – the one I’d had for a decade, with my name engraved on it.

When the security officer stopped me and asked about the knife, I indignantly denied it, as I had forgotten how stupid I had been. I cannot imagine the look on my face as I realised he was right and that I was about to lose a prized possession.

While in Hawaii, Ben’s bag was searched by hand after the scan because it was jam-packed, and he realised he had left his pocketknife in the bag. He whispered this me, and I had visions of us being carted away by U.S. security for further questioning. But no, Ben was simply chastised for a 150ml bottle of sunscreen, which was confiscated. “I told him not to pack that,” I said, and Ben looked suitably contrite. Phew.

As my luck at airports leans more towards ‘bad’ than ‘good’, I tend to arrive exceptionally early for my international flights. If all goes well, I have a comfortable window of time in which I can shop duty free, or have a leisurely cup of tea, or even browse bookshops. When it all goes pear-shaped, I have wiggle-room and will stress less (well, a little less anyway).

At Heathrow in 2006, they changed the gate for my flight to Athens at the last minute and my ‘comfortable window’ dissolved into harried running from one end of the airport to the other with 50 of my fellow passengers. When we got to the new departure gate, we were herded onto buses and shuttled to the other side of the airport (a 15-minute drive), and ended up at a gate that was suspiciously located where the original departure gate was.

But sometimes, my ‘boy scout’ approach to flying backfires on me. The last time I flew out of Australia, I arrived 3 hours before my flight. I was the only person at check in, the only person at security and had to interrupt two customs officers chatting so they could okay my departure from Australia. I was all the way through with a wait of 2 hours and 50 minutes until my flight – and I had already changed money. I browsed, I shopped, I had lunch, and I still had another 2 hours to wait.

But superstition and experience just wouldn’t allow me to be one of those people who leaves it all to the last second, and squeezes into their seat moments before the door is sealed, the plane is crossed-checked and we are cleared for departure.  That kind of stress would only make flying even more hellish.

Next time: The joys of long-haul flights, and best and worst airports.