A Shaky Start, Quickly Righted

Hello dearest fellow travelers! I have arrived in Australia, and the adventure has truly begun. I had a fantastic time with Heather in Hawaii, but that was more of a really good vacation. Now I’m on my own (I miss her already!) and feeling out what it means to travel more slowly.

My trip to Sydney was not the best. I paid extra to get an exit row so I’d have more legroom, but it turns out that Jetstar’s exit rows have physical barriers as armrests, rather than the armrest and space below as in other planes I’ve been on (and in the regular rows on this plane). That meant my hips were introduced to a whole new meaning of the word “squished.” But happily I did fit, and didn’t have to arrange a new seat while everyone watched and I squirmed in embarrassment.

The extra legroom was nice–when I was able to use it. The exit row was right by the bathroom, of course, and despite all the flight crew warnings to not congregate, people grouped up waiting to use the loo and I had to pull my legs in to keep from being stepped on. The movie screens in the exit row were the kind that fold under the seat, so you pull them up to watch the latest summer blockbuster/flop (The Avengers/Snow White and the Huntsman, in this case). Fine, except for the several times the same woman walked by me to the bathroom and tried to use my movie screen as a handhold, which sent the screen crashing down onto my shin. She finally realized after the third time and apologized, but by then I was already bruised.

But these are annoyances that come with flying coach, not really a big deal. The big deal was the four hours of stench on my ten-hour flight. Six hours in, one of the guys waiting for the bathroom suddenly fainted. He hit his head on the bathroom door on his way down, which made everyone look up, and then he was on the ground. His fiancee came running, we got some flight attendants, and they quickly revived him and determined that he was fine, thank goodness. He went back to his seat with an oxygen pump and a worried fiancee, and we all breathed a sigh of relief.

And then we tried to stop breathing. Because when he hit the ground, the poor guy vomited. The flight attendants cleaned it all up in yellow bags marked “biohazard,” but they apparently didn’t have any air freshener, so I inhaled vomit fumes for the rest of the flight.

It was gross, it was uncomfortable, it was long, but at last the flight was over. The captain dipped the wings over the city so we got a nice view, and we landed almost on time. I breezed through immigration, got my bag in a few minutes, and flew through customs. Were things looking up?

Yes, almost. People were not joking when they said Australia is expensive. I got cash from the ATM and broke my $50 with a chocolate bar–a $4 chocolate bar! It was cold and wet outside. Cold, wet, expensive–had I landed in London?

After an interminable shuttle bus ride, I arrived at Blue Parrot Backpackers. It’s been ten years since I last stayed at a hostel, but it all came flooding back as soon as I got inside. TV blaring, people running from common room to kitchen with beers in hand, animated discussions taking place in every nook and cranny. The guy at reception, Mark, was nice, if a bit distracted. He showed me to my room and went downstairs to argue over pizza toppings with a guest.

I looked around and realized the fears I’d had when booking the bunk bed had come true; all the bottom bunks were taken. Well, ok, I’ll try the top. I put a foot on the first rung to pull myself up to make the bed, and the bed literally started falling over. I do not remember that happening ten years ago. Shit. I was definitely too fat for a top bunk. I went downstairs and asked Mark for help. He went into the kitchen and made an announcement, asking if anyone would swap with me. Meanwhile, I sat on a couch and hid my face in embarrassment. No one volunteered.

I went back upstairs to turn on my laptop to search for a new place to stay, trying to stay practical and focused, trying not to cry or panic. Another guest came into the room and chatted with me while she put things on her bed–a bottom bunk. She’d just arrived and hadn’t heard Mark’s plea, so I asked her if she’d mind switching bunks. Right away she agreed, and was super nice about it. What a relief! I’m trying not to dwell too much on how that whole situation felt, but suffice it to say, it did not feel good.

After that, finally, at long last, things improved. The women in my women-only dorm room are friendly. I got some food and chatted a bit and went to sleep. I woke up when someone’s alarm went off at 5am and didn’t really get back to sleep after that. But that’s ok; I’m here, I made it, I’m in Sydney. It’s looking good from here.

And today I did this:

The Travails of Holiday Travel

Dearest fellow travelers, in the next week many of you will be literal travelers, bundling up against the winter cold (or winter heat, as the case may be *cough*Tucson*cough*) and wending your way to a loved one’s home for the holidays. Right around now, in addition to the panicked press releases-glossed-into-news-articles about how we as a nation are not spending enough money on blood diamonds and plastic toys produced in sweatshops to keep this troubled economy afloat, AAA sends out handy guides to the travel habits of Americans during this busy month of holiday cheer. This year, Thanksgiving travel was up, as people were feeling slightly more optimistic about the economy turning around, and a little more willing to spend on gas money or air fare. Early estimates are that Christmas will show a similar trend.

How are you traveling? By car, by train, by plane? Are you traveling on your own or with friends? Will you be in an airport for hours or are you a hop, skip, and a jump from home? And most importantly, how on earth do you survive the journey?

Oh the weather outside is frightful... (image from http://www.ehow.com/how_2183752_survive-winter-storm.html)

Many people wax poetic about the romance of the journey itself — it’s more important than the destination, etc., etc. But really, who are they kidding? The journey as its own highlight is true of some sorts of travel, but when you’re just trying to squeeze in as much family time as possible on your last remaining vacation days off of work, the trip is a trial to be endured.

Travel by car: sudden blizzards or freak fog attacks;  miles of tail lights inching their way along the interstate like an ominous red caterpillar; ten bathroom breaks in a 100-mile stretch because you said “yes” when they asked if you wanted to upgrade to a double extra large for just 25 cents more; hours of silence and intermittent static as you search desperately for a radio station that won’t tell you how to get right with God for the low, low price of $20 a month; and the creeping sensation that you are driving in a Twilight Zone that makes you more tired, the trip more lengthy, and the road more icy with every passing minute.

Travel by air: hours staring glassy-eyed at the CNN news ticker in the terminal while clutching your carry-on close, lest a bored security guard declare that luggage suspect and delay your flight even more in order to call in the SWAT team to search it; airplane seats slightly larger than the womb you were grown in and not nearly as comfortable; kids shrieking in an off-key rehearsal for a banshee reunion in the row behind you; an in-flight entertainment choice between a movie about an MPDG saving a young man from his post-collegiate malaise and a frigid middle-aged woman discovering love via consumerist makeover and lowered standards; and after it all, mounting anxiety at the baggage carousel as you realize that the gaping yaw before you is only spitting out luggage from PanAm flights of the ’80s and your suitcase is somewhere over the Pacific with Amelia Earhart.

Almost makes you want to buy out the canned goods section of your grocery store and spend the next couple months at home, doesn’t it?

Probably the worst holiday-related trip I’ve been on was when I was about 8 years old. My mom’s brother was getting married in England on December 28th, and we thought we’d fly on the 25th, have the plane pretty much to ourselves, and show up for late presents at my grandparents’ house. Instead, we found a plane packed with people on their way to India who were taking advantage of the same supposedly low-travel day we were. As soon as the plane was in the air, I was screaming with pain — my ears were clogged up and I couldn’t seem to pop them. The twins were fighting with each other, and we were all exhausted from services the night before and waking up too early to open stockings and presents. My poor parents must have been completely miserable. One of the flight attendants, who wore a Santa hat and a tie with a blinking Rudolph nose, noticed their plight. He brought me a hot water bottle to ease the earache, and he brought my mom a bottle of champagne. I still hurt for the rest of the eight-hour flight, and my parents didn’t catch up on any sleep, but that man made the worst plane ride of our family’s collective existence about ten times more bearable. Wherever you are, I wish you a lifetime of smooth flights and grateful passengers, good sir.

So how about you? Let’s get it all out before we have to do the dreaded deed itself. What are your worst holiday travel horror stories? What are your best? Got any blinking Rudolph tie angels to celebrate? Comments ahoy!

an angel in the skies