Sunday, June 08, 2008

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Let me begin by saying that I don't like the smell of Indian cuisine. I get a whiff of those spices and my stomach begins to roil. Trust me, there's a reason for telling you this.

The adventure began on Tuesday morning at 7 when I had to find Seti who was hiding in order to take him to the vet for boarding.This is the cat who has to have sub-Q fluids on a regular basis so I can't just leave him to fend for himself like I do the other cat.

By 9, the cat had been found, taken to vet, my friend who was going to keep my car while I was gone had been picked up and I was at the airport to catch a 10 am flight ultimately to Indiana to attend a funeral.

I should have been alerted to the
fact it wasn't going to be the easiest trip when the flight to Portland was the rockiest I've been on in years and the seasoned business travelers around me were looking a little nervous as we pitched and yawed like a skiff riding a tidal wave. However, any landing that gets us on the ground in one piece is a good one, so, by that criteria, it was a good landing. The next flight from Portland to Chicago must have been uneventful because I don't remember any of it except being cramped in a middle seat and spilling my coffee, but fortunately I was wearing black so it didn't show.

I've spent several lifetimes in O'Hare so the airport is familiar turf. Hoisting my travel bag on my shoulder, I slogged from the C terminal to Outer Mongolia, aka, the F terminal where SmallMidwesternAirlineOutsourcedbyUnited flies to obscure places like Madison, WI and Fort Wayne, IN. When I arrived at the gate about 8 pm, my 9:30 pm flight had been delayed until 11:30. This is never a good sign, especially when the sky is periodically split by lightening and the tv monitors have tornado warning signs scrolling.

SmallMidwesternAirlineOutsourcedbyUnited is notorious for posting delays on the last flight of the day and then, after waiting for hours, cancelling the flight completely. The cadre of Ft. Wayne bound passengers gradually clustered together as every 15 minutes a later departure time was announced. When 12:30 am was posted, we all began began to lose hope. "Any bets on when they cancel?" asked one man who had just flown in from Hong Kong and was on his second 24 hours in airports. No one took him up on his bet. We watched as literally everything shut down around us, including the last kiosk selling overpriced water. Finally a 1:30 am departure was posted and about 1:25, the announcement came--the flight to Ft. Wayne had been canceled. Ostensibly the crew from Cleveland never showed up. Personally I think they just didn't want to bother making the flight in the middle of the night and would rather get a good night's sleep. If you had a choice, wouldn't you rather stay at home on a stormy night rather than ferry a bunch of crabby, tired passengers from Illinois to Indiana?

To mollify the crowd, the desk agent began to offer hotel rooms and people dutifully lined up. After about 45 minutes, a supervisor came over and started to say that the five of us who still hadn't been given vouchers were out of luck. They shouldn't have been giving out rooms in the first place because the cancellation wasn't covered under the obscure policy clause for passenger compensation that says when flight crews from Cleveland never arrive, the airline isn't responsible. After looking at our faces, he instantly changed his mind and decided that five more rooms wasn't worth being drawn and quartered.

So we last five stragglers got our vouchers and walked halfway to Canada to the Bus Center where we were to wait for the shuttle which was, of course, not running at this time of night.
Finally a very organized young woman called the hotel and convinced the hotel to rouse a driver and send the bus to pick us up NOW! (I later learned she was a second grade teacher. Heaven help her second graders who don't leave the bathroom in time!)

A half hour ride to a very nice hotel followed.
Usually airlines put me up at motels that advertise rooms by the hour and money back if you don't use the towels, so I was delighted to be in a hotel with fluffy comforters and piles of downy pillows. The only problem was that it was now about 2:30 am and we had to catch the shuttle back to the airport by 4:30 am. So I showered (the chamomile shampoo was quite nice) and stretched out on the bed for a power nap. I set my cell phone alarm and vaguely recall it going off, stumbling out of the room and clamoring on the shuttle for the return to the airport.

Fortunately the morning flight was completely and utterly non-eventful and I arrived in time to take care of some business I had scheduled as well as meeting with the family and all the other funeral-y events.

Fast forward two days. I was at Ft. Wayne International Airport
(international from where?) with flights to return to Oregon, sit in the airport there for one hour, catch another flight back to Denver and then on to Great Falls for a wedding. I had tried, unsuccessfully, to fly directly from Chicago to Denver and then on to Montana, but because the flights I had purchased were different classes of services, it was impossible. If there had been first class seats, which there weren't, they could have sold me all new tickets for just over $2000. I thought perhaps not. Although traversing the country made for a long day, it was certainly doable...and a lot cheaper than two grand.

When I got to my seat, once again in the middle, I noticed there was a young man at the window and his father on the aisle. When people who are traveling together opt to have a stranger between them, it's never a good sign.

As I hoisted my bag in the overhead bin,
I noticed that they were part of a large group of people who I later learned were traveling from Chicago to Oregon to attend a temple festival in honor of their guru. It soon became apparent that the young man at the window was mentally challenged and when his dad mentioned he was ADD, I wanted to say, "No shit, Sherlock" since the kid literally never sat still for a nano-second. Up, over, around, down, twirling, jumping, hopping, dancing, waving, bobbing...and talking. And talking and talking and talking. A steady, unending stream of Hindi punctuated every now and then by a question to me in English. It didn't seem to matter if I answered or not, so I pulled out my book on Medieval inventions and technology (Okay, so I have sort of geek taste in airplane reading).

We began to taxi for take-off when we came to an abrupt halt and the pilot announced there was something wrong with the number one engine. He said he thought it would just take a few minutes to fix. Hah. In some alternate universe, maybe. Anything wrong with a plane will always take a minimum of four hours to fix. I think it's an FAA rule.

So we began to wait. For the first three hours on the tarmac. In a completely filled plane. With no air. Every 15 or 20 minutes the pilot would come on the intercom to tell us it would be another 15 or 20 minutes. After the first half hour, the native road warriors were getting restless and the jungle drums aka cells phones were sending war signals to travel agents.

I tried to immerse myself the importance of water wheels to Medieval weaving
techniques, but all of a sudden the smell of curry and other vile spices assaulted my nostrils and the gag reflex set in. The group of pilgrims had broken out their carry-on cuisine. The young man next to me had to have a sample of everything and in order to keep him from spilling the dishes on me and making me reek of Indian food forever, I ended up helping him dish out strange rice dishes doused in tumeric and bread with something unidentifiable and unappetizing spread on it, a crumbly cake-like dish and several things that barely looked eatable.

Did I mention I really really dislike Indian food?

After enduring endless courses of Indian food, followed by more questions from the young man in
HindEnglish about who I was and where I was going and would we see Mount Hood and why didn't I want some of the mustard rice, I settled into a sort of nauseated stupor. Eventually, God knows how much longer, we were shuffled off the airplane, herded to another gate and told to wait because they would be sending over another plane becuse our first plane was apparently unfixable. So much for a 15 minute repair.

By now, it was apparent I wasn't going to be able to make the connections to get me to the wedding so I decided to make one last attempt to combine trips. As I leaned on the counter, taking deep breaths to get the smell of curry out of my nose, the desk agent mentioned that I had lost an earring. I clutched my ear as if somehow that could make the earring reappear, but of course, it was futile. I must have sighed deeply because the agent said, "Oh, I'm sorry." Why do people say they are sorry for things that aren't their fault? Another mystery of life.

Unfortunately the earrings
were some of my favorites and now one of them was somewhere in the seat of an airplane that was being hauled off for repairs or in the halls of Terminal C or down the toilet in the airplane lavatory. As I took off the remaining earring, the agent said she thought she might be able to switch some things for me, but at that point, I decided I was done. I wasn't going to keep trying. "No more," I said. "I'm just going to go home." I would call the wedding party, tell them that I couldn't make it and deal with the family fall-out at a later date.

An hour later, as we were boarding the new plane the first class flight attendant came up to me, holding out her hand.
"I found your earring," she said. "I have been waiting for you." In shock, I picked up my earring. How could she, in first class, have noticed me and my earrings (they are quite lovely, but still!!) when I was seated in couch? How did she find it? And how did she even think to wait to return it to me? "You do have the other one, don't you?" she asked. I told her that I had put it in my bag. She smiled and I hooked the single earring in my ear, taking its return as the sign that I really wasn't meant to go to the wedding since, if I had switched flights, I would never have recovered this special totem.

The pilgrims were all back in their places by the time I crawled into my middle seat. All in all, it
wasn't a bad flight other than the non-stop motion machine with the Indian sitar songs on his iPod cranked up to deafening levels on my left side and the sonabulatory father ignoring everything on my right. Thankfully no more Tupperware containers of curry appeared.

I landed in Portland, a full 12 hours later than originally scheduled, only to learn that all the flights to Eugene were filled and I would have to wait nearly 24 hours to catch
another flight. Since Portland is only a 2 1/2 hours drive from home, I decided to rent a car. Little did I know that car rental places won't rent one-way. I tried them all--Hertz, Avis, Budget, Alamo, Enterprise and a couple of others. None of them tried harder. Actually, none of them tried at all. One would--maybe--rent me a full-sized van for around $100 to $150 for the drive, but they weren't very excited about it. Neither was I, especially not with the price of gas.

So onto plan C or D or E. Amtrak. I booked a seat on a train leaving in two hours and then tried to get from the airport to the station. A shuttle was supposed to come every half hour, but the first two passed me up, despite my frantic waving and screaming. I called the main office and
said I was going to fling my body under the next shuttle so they had damn well better stop. The next shuttle did stop, but the driver said that I would have to wait for another one because he was full. I won't go into the gory details, but suffice to say that when the shuttle left the airport, I was seated and another man was left waiting on the platform.

I've always found many train stations to be an odd combination of romantic Harry Potter art deco/skid road bad part of town skeevy and
Portland's station is no exception. The ceiling was stunning and the bathroom was scary. The newstand had a few weary sandwiches, aspirin behind a locked case and a couple of ragged paperback. I bought a bagel, a bag of lightly salted Kettle Chips and a water, tried to get comfortable on the church pew style benches and began to read about the invention of type faces in Medieval Europe. The minutes crept and then came the announcement. I somehow knew there would be an announcement. The train was detained by a freight train somewhere north of us and it would be at least an hour before it got to the station.

So began the next wait. A little more than a hour later, the train arrived. After shoving my bag in a luggage compartment, I dropped into my seat and was lulled into a doze by the rhythmic clacking of rails and the sway of the car. It is about a three hour ride to Eugene, but naturally, we experienced innumerable delays which entailed waiting for some dispatcher somewhere to give us permission to use the track so it was the wee hours of the morning when I finally got back to Eugene. A special blessing has to go to the friend who got out of her nice warm bed to pick me up and take me home.

Apparently the wedding was lovely. They have promised to send pictures.