July 25, 2009

A Homebody Takes Flight, or Hate and Discontent in the "Friendly" Skies

March 2008

I have a friend who's stayed in cheap hostels all over the world. Here's a woman who can tell at least a dozen fascinating stories about exotic locales and people. I'm not going to do that, chiefly because I only travel when I must. What I am going to do here is describe my recent experience travelling domestically.

First of all, I hate to fly. Some people equate air travel turbulence with the thrilling sensation of a roller coaster ride. I'd rather keep my hands and feet inside the car at all times than contemplate having to use my seat for a flotation device any day. For me, each time the bottom drops out of the plane, I get a glimpse into what it will feel like to know I'm going to die.

It took five airplanes to get me to and from my destination. I flew out very early on a Friday morning and got home late on Saturday, the next day. This tight schedule was intended to spare my husband from having to care for our son and new puppy any longer than was absolutely necessary.

On the first plane I sat next to a man who fell asleep soon after take-off. He was not a large man, but he made up for his size by sitting with his legs wide open and hogging the armrest. I got a crick in my neck leaning away from him. On the second airplane, I chatted with my seat neighbor. We exchanged abbreviated professional information. He seemed really nice, but upon getting home, I looked up his website and found that it did not belong to the man I met, unless he really was a mustachioed weatherman from Milwaukee...a creepy discovery, to say the least!

Once I reached the San Francisco airport, the fun began. The boarding pass I printed at my home airport for the third plane instructed me to go to the ticket counter. I had all of a forty minute window to do so, and I would have to make it back through security. I got lost immediately, but found an information counter and was told that in order to get to United Airlines I would have to hike through an abandoned terminal. Tossing my heavy carry-on bag over my shoulder, I practically ran through the airport. Then I waited in the wrong line, followed by another wrong line. Finally, I made it to the right kiosk. Boop boop boop, I entered my information and was told that I was too late. A series of prominent warnings painted across the wall above the counter told me why: 45 Minute Cut-off. Why I was booked for this connection I will never know, because it was doomed from the get-go. I simply could not have made it on time given the size of this airport. I must have looked pretty pathetic (or perhaps I was blocking traffic), because a "Helper" steered me to a live person. This woman was very pregnant and very mean. As she created a standby ticket for the four o'clock flight, two people interrupted us with complaints of their own.

I actually spared a moment of concern for the health of her unborn child as I considered how the stress of her job must be affecting her. I asked if "stand-by" meant I wouldn't be guaranteed a seat, and she coldly told me it was the best she could do. I fought back tears as I told her I would miss my daughter's college graduation. She shoved the ticket into my hand and said if I hurried I might make it to the original flight, but her voice told me it was unlikely. I tried anyway, running through the vast crowd, knocking into people. Once I made it through security (furious at the lady in front of me who hadn't put her liquids in a baggie - she took forever pulling her lotions and makeup and whatnot out of her luggage), I zoomed up to gate 70, where I discovered that the plane I was supposed to be on had broken down. Salvation. I was the only happy person to get on the replacement plane an hour later. During the wait, I was at least able to get my first meal of the day, while I called several friends to cancel the lunch I'd planned.

So far, things had not gone terribly smoothly.

In San Diego, I took a shuttle to the rental car office, where I discovered I had no credit cards in my wallet. All I had was my husband's debit card. Don't ask how that happened; suffice it to say it involved a disagreement about credit card spending and a pair of scissors. This was not good planning on my part. I sheepishly handed the debit card to the guy at the counter and tried to act casual, la la la. Somehow I got over that hurdle and soon climbed gratefully into my rental car. The gratitude lasted maybe five minutes, just enough time to get lost before finding the freeway. Then: what was that awful stench? They'd tried to hide it with some kind of cleaner, but was it...? Urine? Had a homeless man spent the night in this vehicle? If I wasn't already late, I'd have turned back around. As it was, I spent the rest of the trip, when in that car, with a faint frown of distaste between my brows.

I found to my utter dismay that the "hotel" I'd booked was in reality a "motel." I should have paid more attention to the two-star rating, I suppose. The only good thing about my accommodations: the debit card situation didn't faze them. To get to my room, I had to pass a shady-looking young man on his cell phone who appeared to be a permanent fixture, dodge a large bag of leaking garbage and traverse a severely uneven second-floor walkway that surely would collapse if we had an earthquake or a mild breeze. Inside, I took note of the cigarette burn-holes in the curtains, the poorly patched holes in the walls and, again, a stench - this time of bleach, one of my least favorite odors.

My mother and my aunt were in another room, blissfully unaware of the lack-of-quality in our accommodations, as any truly thrifty person would be. We travelled together to the graduation ceremony. I drove confidently to my daughter's college campus, but unfortunately, that's not where the ceremony was being held. More great planning on my part. When we finally arrived at the hotel ballroom, the security Nazi provided by the school refused to let us in, saying that all the seats were taken and it would be a fire code violation. I can't decide whether I'm proud or ashamed of the fit I threw at that point, but we did get in after my mother loudly played the handicapped old lady card. It's embarrassing, but it trumps 'em every time.

Inside, I was furious to see that there were at least forty empty chairs intended for the graduates. Fire code, my eye.

I have three blurry shots of the whole event because I couldn't get my camera to work (by then I was so exhausted I was running on fumes and unable to comprehend the simplest of tasks). Two of my bad photos appear to be the back of someone's pointy head, and the third is a distance shot of my pride and joy walking in her gown. Afterward, we went to dinner at an Applebee's located in the parking lot of a mall. I found out the hard way that this particular establishment has only one small entrance. It was like a shining Shangri-La. We ended up circling the mall twice and once were even forced to get back on the freeway before I figured out how to get to the restaurant.

After a late meal in which much of my attention was spent preventing my mother from telling dirty jokes to my daughter's friends, we went back to the motel. To my chagrin, no amount of rummaging in my bag unearthed a toothbrush or toothpaste. I placed a chair in front of the door and lay down on the stiff mattress fully expecting to be awakened by a battering ram bursting through the door followed by DEA agents or a SWAT team or the Vice Squad. In the morning, I took a shower, peering into every crusty corner for hidden cameras.

After spending a few hours and a few dollars on my daughter at the mall, I pointed the stinky rental car towards the airport. I was early enough to hit the McDonald's in the terminal. I ordered and stood back to wait for my meal. And waited, and waited. After ten minutes I managed to get the young cashier's attention with a raise of my eyebrows. No, they hadn't even cooked my chicken nuggets, so I waited some more. Finally I had my meal and as I headed towards my gate, I nibbled on French fries - stone cold French fries.

On the plane, just before landing in Salt Lake City, the stewardess announced that all connecting flights were cutting it close. She requested of the passengers that those with connections be allowed off first. Once we landed, it turned out I was at the head of the line to deplane. Only problem: the ramp didn't quite fit and everyone was going to have to sit back down so the pilot could back the plane up and pull in properly. I heard myself announce to the plane at large that this was all my fault, since nothing on my trip had gone as planned. Luckily, the stewardess convinced the ground crew to let us take the stairs, and after yet another breathless dash through an airport, I made the flight with five minutes to spare.

On the last plane I began to read a book I'd purchased at the mall, straight literary fiction, not my usual genre for one important reason: it made me cry within the first forty pages. I like to cry about as much as I like to travel. Irritated now on top of being just plain worn out, I shut the book and reached to turn off my overhead light. Instead of pushing the off button, I tried to twist the light off, as I had earlier twisted the air vent closed. I burned my fingers on the scorching hot glass cover when it fell off and I tried to catch it.

At my home town airport, it took me twenty minutes in the dark and freezing cold to locate my car, but soon I was driving home.

Home.

Nothing felt better than being greeted at the door by my husband and the very excited puppy. I went upstairs and kissed my sleeping son and then came back down to listen to my husband tell me how he'd coped (barely) for two days without me. Other than my pride in seeing my daughter graduate, the only good thing about my trip was that my husband now has a renewed appreciation for all I do.

And I have a fresh take on why I hate to travel: whereas I usually find the humor in all variety of tribulation, travel merely stresses me out. My friend the world traveler probably experienced similar, if not downright hair-raising, predicaments on her adventures. After all, she went to other countries, with foreign customs and language and people. She comes home a la Jacqueline Kennedy, crisply dressed, tan and relaxed. I don't even leave the west coast and I limp off the plane in desperate need of a chiropractor.

Ah, well. My next involuntary travel plans will probably be to attend my daughter's wedding...unless I can convince her to come here for her nuptials. Nah. That would take planning...

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