Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Air travel stories

October 29/12
Today I made it back home, safe and sound, from the final teaching adventure in Vancouver on the weekend, the last one for 2012. Whew. Traveling stresses me out. 

Poor me
This post is pure self-pity, so if you'd rather skip it, I understand. I am going to go on and on, probably, just to get it out of my system so I can move on.
Every trip is the Worst One Ever, usually, but I think my luck is starting to change. This last one wasn't nearly as stressful as the one just before, to England and back in five days flat, with two full days of teaching in between. More about that later.

I like meeting new people who are interested enough in my particular pet passion to invite me to come by and teach it, and I've become accustomed to teaching, sort of, even though I am definitely not a natural - introverted plus having a quiet speaking voice isn't a great combination. I have no natural inclination or any teacher training, so I had to reinvent the wheel, then try to make it round enough that it could roll. But at least I don't dread it so much anymore. 

Getting there, and getting home, is still pretty dreadful, though. Usually. One day I hope I can blog about how I've grown accustomed to travel, and how it used to bother me some, but now it's old hat. So far, that just isn't true.

What I hate about traveling
It's kind of a toss-up which I hate more, the airport or the airplane. If I were to take a piece of paper with the words "Things I Hate About Traveling" across the top, then put a line down the middle, with "Airport" at the top of one column, and "Airplane" at the top of the other, both columns would probably fill up about the same.

Just getting to the airport
For starters, I used to live a 30 minute drive through traffic, or else a $25 cab ride, to/from the airport. Now I live a 1-hour, 15-minute drive away, in a different city, which forces me, pretty much, to either drive my own car and park it for 4 or 5 days, at $11/day, or take the bus between cities and have to stay overnight with hotel costs, plus cab to and from airport to bus station, which costs way more.. so I usually drive. 

It's about 115 km, a fast highway, 2-way/single lane; many, many huge trucks connected to the booming oil field activity barrel along in caravans. They either pull out and pass timid car drivers doing the speed limit, or else are passed by aggressive 4x4 drivers taking chances with equally aggressive 4x4 oncoming traffic. The speed limit is 100km/hr, but usual traffic speed is about 120. 

Prairie highways are deceptive. You think they are nice and straight, but it's not so. They take odd bends and curves for no good reason, obscuring one's ability to see oncoming traffic, especially in snowstorms or rainstorms. Number #39 has this one place where it looks like the surveyor must have become inordinately fond of one particular pond; instead of building the highway straight through it, the same way all the other ponds in the way were crushed, he decided to build around it; people driving cars have the illusion that the highway is straight, because you can see headlights off in the distance, but if you don't know the highway very well, or are going too fast, you could miss the curve, that arbitrary sideways bulge in the road that exists for no apparent reason other than a whim on the part of the surveyor; you could hydroplane straight off, fly for a short while and land smack in the pond.

Anyway, long story short, I don't much enjoy the drive. There is nothing quite like having to get up at 3:30 AM to get ready and leave the house by 4AM to drive for a good hour to reach the airport in enough time to catch a 6AM flight, and realize that nature has given you an unexpected, sideways prairie downpour to have to drive through, surrounded by huge trucks connected to the oil wells splashing your windshield every 3 or 4 minutes into opacity, slowing you down to about 70km/hour. Your cortisol levels peak jaggedly, you speed as hard as you can, you get to the airport desk with only one minute to spare before they were going to close boarding altogether. In other words, you are very late, but they let you on the plane anyway, 5 seconds before they would have had to lock the door and take off without you. That happened in May, on the way to teach in Quebec. Oh yay, please diminish, cortisol levels. 

Or, after being stressed out and sleep-deprived and jet-lagged for five days straight, you land in your home airport at about midnight, and still have to drive home; you clear immigration, pay your parking in the machine inside the airport, forget to take your parking stub out of the pay machine, but remember to take your receipt, get to the car, can't find the stub, hunt everywhere for it wondering to yourself oh-what-fresh-hell-is-this, still can't find it, suspect that you must have lost it somewhere between the terminal and the car, are too tired to go all the way back to see if you can find it on the ground in the dark, decide to take your chances and beg the parking guy to let you out, show him the receipt, but he only will accept the stub, and you feel like bursting into tears because you are so tired and you so do not need any more delay (but you are over 60 years old and so not a teenager anymore that you can't/don't go there).  You sit there, car running. You ask, "What do you suggest?"
He shrugs, and calls his colleagues in the terminal. They take a look in the machine, and voila, find your stub still in there, right where you had forgot to take it out in the first place. "So," he says, "next time bring your stub," and all you can do is say, OK, I will, sorry, and he lifts the barrier and lets you through. 

And you drive... you nearly fall asleep and go off the highway about 20 times, but you hang in there and you make it to your own bed that night. But you decide, never again. If you ever ever have to go to Europe ever again, the night you come back you'll go straight to a hotel and go to bed and not try to drive home until the next day.  

But really, driving to and from the airport is the least awful part, usually. If courage is defined as being afraid and doing it anyway, I had nothing but courage 2 years ago when I travelled to Brazil and back via the Toronto airport. I have learned subsequently through word of mouth talking to other women my age who travel, that older females traveling alone are often targeted for body searches, because security goons at the Toronto airport think we would make perfect mules, so they decided in advance that we therefore must be mules, then "randomly" select us for public pat down. So, yay about that.. 

Plus, Air Canada likes to hold back checked luggage to later flights, which has inconvenienced me, twice in a row, which in turn taught me to never travel with any more luggage than I can take with me into the cabin. This has discouraged me from making any trips that are any longer than just a few days.

So, if you make your flight, you calmly scrunch yourself into the one square foot of real estate you are allotted, for the five or seven or nine hours there, and then back, with a tray table that sits way too close to the midriff, with just enough room for a small laptop computer to sit on top, and the danger that anytime, the huge dude sitting in the chair ahead of you might decide to catch a nap and throw his chair back the two inches it can recline. This isn't much, but it will either break the case on your computer into an accordion shape, or else will drive it like a very blunt machete into your midsection, and neither possibility is any fun. Please, cortisol level, will you go down already?  

In case you get complacent, there is always DependentAnkleSwelling (DAS) one develops when sitting for hours on a vibrating plane, dozing instead of staying awake and uptight all night, plus dehydration, plus meals (when they are served) that contain way more salt than you normally eat in a week, which add more water retention. 

Airline officials must think there is an inverse, not direct, ratio, between the obesity epidemic, on the one hand, and their job of gauging the size of seats, amount of leg room on planes they would need to provide to ensure travel comfort, on the other: At least it seems as though, when airlines hear news that the world's population is getting fatter and fatter, they interpret it as thinking they should cram even more seats into airplanes. 

I am a short person with short legs, but my knees are against the seat in front of me, usually. I do not know how long-legged people cope. I really do not. And I'm kind of roly-poly, but I don't weigh 300 lbs or anything - I do not know how large men fit in those seats. Or large-bottomed women. I fill the whole seat, in size ten pants. My elbows slide over into other peoples' space frequently, and I have to haul them back in and try to velcro them to my sides so as not to intrude into someone else's one square foot of real estate for that trip.

Still, all this kind of pales by comparison to the living nightmare that some of the world's largest airports have to offer: Toronto, I'm looking at you, and, Heathrow, you too.

I managed to navigate the huge airport at Sao Paulo by myself, and it was in a different language and everything. People there spoke enough English and were willing enough to help a bewildered foreigner that I found my next gate and connecting flight to Rio without much problem at all, inside about a half hour. Immigration was perfunctory, there were many uniforms all over the place whose sole job seemed to be to expedite traffic by moving the ribbon barriers to make movement between them intelligent and swift. If there weren't very many people in line, those ribbons were instantly moved into a perpendicular pathway to the desired counter, avoiding the arbitrary switchback manoeuvre. Brazilian airports (the three I was in) were still stressful, but they weren't frustrating.

So, I had to go to England, which was fine.. my carry-ons fit the cage in the Regina airport to the attendant's satisfaction, and she let me get on the plane to Toronto without any further ado.. there was a bit of a wait in Toronto, so I went to what I thought was my gate, and sat there for awhile, checking my computer, grabbing a bite.. My latent OCD niggled at me though, so I decided to check the gate, my boarding pass, just in case I missed something. I guess my brain knows me better than I do. Anyway, as it turned out, I had sat down at a gate that was the same number as my seat number (!Duh!), and the actual gate was nowhere to be found on my boarding pass. I now had 45 minutes to catch a plane and had NO IDEA what gate I was supposed to be at. 

So I started looking at those big hallway screens, asking people, found out I had to walk about a half mile back to E section, couldn't find E section, went all the way up D wing thinking maybe E was at the end of D, but it was a dead end, and the guy at the dead end said, go back - it's beside the info booth, I went all the way back, kept missing it because it was up an escalator with poor signage, tucked around a corner! I found it at last, went up, realized it was yet another half mile to get to the gate along another huge passage way past two more boarding pass checkers, at intervals, caught a little ride on a cart (although I could have run faster even dragging luggage). Anyway, I made it, caught the boarding line just as it was in process, and caught the plane with a good ten minutes to spare. Oh please, cortisol level, please go down, we still have so much ahead of us we have to get through.

The flight went OK, no sleep, 7 hours all night after being up all day, but we landed and bam, I was suddenly in England. It was 7:30 AM there and about 11 PM my time. Bed time. So, up for about 18 hours by now. I had 5 hours to kill in Heathrow. The crowd I was part of herded itself toward immigration. Immigration was in an enormous room about the size of a football field, divided into the usual two sides, one for locals and one for foreigners. I had walked and jogged, but still ended up at kind of the tail end of the crowd. Anyway, it was the usual RibbonedSwitchbackArrangement for controlling traffic flow. There were about thirty long lines moving past each other in opposite directions.. to an overhead camera it would have looked like slow-moving herringbone pattern. Each line was half the length of a football field. After about an hour, it was my turn.

Well, I got me a keener, as it turned out. Woman, thirty-something, maybe looking to work her way up, my first actual encounter with British bureaucracy. She took my card, looked at my passport, saw I was only there for 4 days, must have decided that was Strange, saw that the line was very dwindled and decided to take the bit in her teeth, and Do Her Job To Her Very Best. Long story short, I was held for "questioning", because she was pretty sure I should have had a work permit to show her, but I didn't. She made it clear she could make me turn around and go back to Canada right there if she wanted. She took all the contact info I had on me, left me sitting for a good 20 minutes while she phoned the people who had organized the workshop, said she hadn't been able to get hold of them, asked me tons of questions about what I was teaching and how much I was being paid and what it was all about and did I have the invitation with me? I said yes! it's on my computer - it was in an email - was there wifi available? I could show her, but she said, no, no wifi. I had already cracked like an egg, had told her Everything I could under the circumstances, had given her my complete cooperation.
She crisply informed me that had I been from Europe, or from anywhere in the UK, it wouldn't be a problem, but because I was Canadian, it was a huge problem. She pondered the situation. I thought maybe she was going to start asking me for a medical history or something, next. But she didn't. 

I didn't know what more I could do. I was completely at her mercy. I had no locus of control in this situation, and had to take whatever Fresh Hell might come my way. I think I stayed patient. I think I asked her if she had any suggestions on what to do next. 
Eventually, she decided to make a one-time exception. I was to never ever come back to England to teach without a work permit, ever again. OkyDoky then. 
Now the poor guys who organized the workshop are permanently emblazoned on some sort of Official Brit Bad Boy list, along with both their phone numbers.

By now it was about 9:30 AM. I still had lots of time to find my way around Heathrow, or so I thought, and the organizers had even very kindly arranged an executive lounge pass where I might catch a nap if I wanted, which was tempting, but I had no idea where to find it, so I thought I would better use my time first finding the next gate, getting the domestic flight to Manchester's boarding pass, then I could relax and explore a bit, or else find the lounge and snooze for a little while, maybe.

However, all there was for me to explore was the next circle of Heathrow Hell. The e-ticket had on it which terminal to go to, to get the next boarding pass, so I defaulted to my usual strategy for finding my way, which is to ask successive people if I'm going in the right direction. Yes, I was going the right direction, it was right over there, just a short walk. 
The short walk was at least a kilometer, through all sorts of tunnels, some with moving sidewalks but mostly not, tunnels that were inclined up and declined down and contained bends and switchbacks.. anyway, I finally saw elevators, and went up. I came out on the ground level. It seemed quite small, and only had restaurants. I didn't see any airline counters. So I asked at a coffee shop how to find the airline counter I needed. The girl behind the counter said, airline counters are upstairs. So I went up to level two, stepped out.

The elevators in England are very careful to explain to you, in perfect English, when the doors are opening and closing. There must be a lot of blind people in England, who travel, because, while the talking elevators are nice, the signage is absolutely terrible. At least, in that terminal, the signage was terrible. 
In probably every other airport on the planet, when you walk into a terminal, there are huge logo signs all along the top of the walls, where you can easily scan for the one you want. You take a quick look, see where you want to head, then head over. Easy. Right? 
In this huge, vast terminal, there were big, generic yellow signs, row after row after row of them. The actual information was in black text. Sort of like price club, where no-name brands of food are in yellow plastic labelled in black helvetica. I had no idea where to start looking, and I was exhausted. It looked like it would take me at least an hour to drag my luggage around, looking at every sign to find the right sign. So, I defaulted to asking, as usual. A guy who looked quite together and organized, a middle-aged man, well-dressed, who seemed sane enough, walked by; so I asked him, excuse me, what direction should I head in order to find British Airways? And he replied, oh, BA isn't in here, hasn't been for years - you need to go to terminal 5. 
Oh... OK, where is that? 
And he said, go downstairs and take the tube, it's just a short walk. 
And I said, Oh, OK, thanks. And went down stairs. And the elevator told me when it was closing, and when it was opening. I looked for signs, found one that had an arrow on it pointing to where the train station would be, and off I went. 
The underground train was not far away, but the walk to get to the right place to get on it, was another kilometer or so, through a big underground passage, brightly lit, with a big arched ceiling, lots of coin-op machines in the center for this or that, and foot traffic on both sides. I found myself walking on the wrong side, against the traffic flow. Oh well, I was too tired to care. 
I found the right platform, waited eight minutes, got on the train, which was free, and reassured me in perfect English over and over that it was, indeed, going to terminal 5. It took about ten minutes to get there. 
So I got out, into the bottom of some huge fancy glass tower building, occupied completely by British Airways. I had to go up to the twelfth floor or something - memory is sort of hazy, but anyway, I remember feeling flooded with relief when I spotted a big British Airways logo sign only a quarter mile or so across the huge room, and hardly any people in the way. Long before I got to the ribboned pathways, a nice man in a uniform asked if he could help me, and I said, yes, was this the right place to be? I needed a boarding pass to go to Manchester. 
He said, I'm sorry but you'll have to get that in Terminal 2. (...WHAT??)
British Airways had just sold its domestic portion to another company, which was in Terminal 2, but there would still be a sign there that said British Airways, if I looked closely. 
I said, OMG, I just came from there. Now I have to go back? And he said, yes, afraid so. So I turned around to go back. Of course, I had not paid much attention to how I had got from the train up the elevator, got turned around, couldn't find the elevator I'd come up on, everything looked different, so I asked a flight attendant how to find the elevator to get to the train to find terminal 2. She said, come with me, I'll show you, I'm going there myself. So, yay.

The other thing I noticed about Heathrow is that there are not very many facilities of the "Ladies" kind there. Maybe about a fifth as many as anywhere else. Plus, they are old, and always up some stairs, up which you have to drag your luggage, and wait in a line. This was a bit disconcerting. But I dealt.

Anyway, at last I was back in Terminal 2 in the huge room with yellow signs. At least another hour was long gone, and I had put several kilometers on my inner pedometer, dragging my luggage. I felt pretty hopeless yet again as I gazed around, looking once again for a clue as to where to even start. Two guys walked nearby. They looked like they worked there, not nice, misleading passengers who would send me off on another wild goose chase. They had badges strung around their necks. I decided to ask. They were in some deep conversation about something and weren't all that thrilled to be interrupted by a lost Canadian, but one of them pointed in a specific direction, so I said thanks, and headed off.

This time, I made it. I got the boarding pass, and got pointed toward the gate. Good, there was only one gate, clearly marked. Except for, when I got to it, it wasn't a gate, but was yet another one of those endless tunnel things that changed direction and went up, then around a corner, then down for awhile, with no moving sidewalk, and felt just plain creepy. Another kilometer at least. Then another room full of ribboned pathways, with a counter at the far side. I was the only passenger in the place, and the guy behind the desk was as bored as bored could be, yawning and rubbing his eyes. But he sat there and watched me go back and forth and back and forth, through six widths of the room, until I had made my way through  the arbitrary maze. In Brazil, there would have been a guy who would have moved the ribbon aside. Clearly, in Britain, there is no such guy, and the guy behind the desk who does the retina scans doesn't consider moving ribbons as any part of his job..

But I still wasn't anywhere close to my gate. I walked for another kilometer at least - dragging that luggage, walking through progressively older parts of the airport, different flooring, different architecture, the usual shortage of bathrooms, and at last, I was at the gate. 
I had about twenty minutes to spare. I bought a coffee, and sat down, and opened my computer, but, because it's Heathrow, there is no free airport wifi. Of course.

Coming home was a bit easier.. I didn't have to navigate Heathrow again - I flew straight back from Manchester to Washington on a US carrier. But because it was a US carrier, and security is at least 12 times tighter than through any other city I've ever flown through, there were about 5 more retinal scans and as many showings of my passport and checking of my luggage and yes, I had to take my shoes off. So many more ribboned gates and large burly guys wearing navy blue suits and ear pieces. And I had to take tweezers and nail clippers out of my luggage. What a colossal pain. One of the guys who helped organize the class, and who had brought me to the airport on the train, and who had made sure I got to the right airline counter, offered to send them to me by post, which was above and beyond the call of duty and very kind of him; they arrived a couple weeks later, so no harm done. 
And the flight was OK, what I can remember of it. I guess I must have crashed. I do remember I played sudoku for awhile on the touch screen on the seat in front of me. That was kind of cool. In DC there was more immigration, but it was a whole lot faster and no one cared about the little old female Canadian. There was whole body scanning involved but no patting down at random. Eventually I got to Denver, then to Regina, and then had the parking attendant run-in, and the scary drive home.

This latest flight, to Vancouver and back, was fairly uneventful but for the blizzard I had to drive through on the way to the airport, and the Christmas carols or else bagpipe muzack that played, and here it was, not even Hallowe'en yet, plus the fact the plane was delayed by a good half hour in both directions because it needed to be de-iced. But no major problems, no cortisol inducing waking nightmares.

And yay - that's it for awhile. I can finally dig in and start building up this practice I'm supposed to be running.


Kirsten Shrawder said...

Wow Diane, I like to travel pretty well but if I ever experienced what you went through, I think I would be happy to stay home for a long time too!

Diane Jacobs said...

Yeah, I'm happy to take a break for awhile.