27 December 2010

The long way back from SF

The conference was over. I had had a last jetlagged night, and came down to the breakfast room. There was quite a buzz. Soon I heard the news: due to adverse weather conditions in the UK, all our flights were cancelled. All except Ian’s, who hates Heathrow, and who had chosen to fly over Paris.

The hotel, that had been full of AGU participants, had turned into a beehive. People trying to phone their airlines, people trying to phone their travel agents, people trying to phone their relatives, people online, people booking their rooms for a few nights more...

My phone doesn’t work and my computer is slow. I had found out British Airways told travellers who hadn’t booked themselves should contact their travel agent. So I tried. I knew it would be expensive, but I wanted to get home. I listened to a mind-numbing tune for 45 minutes and then got disconnected. Great. That turned out to be $218 down the drain.

At ten o’clock the Durham team decided to go to the airport. I joined. BA didn’t turn out to have a desk there, and their partner, American Airlines, said they couldn’t help us. So we tried the BA check-in desk. They would open at 12.30. We just sat in line for an hour.

At 12.30 BA employees told us they couldn’t reschedule us. They did give us vouchers for hotels though. Tasha did her usual thing, got out the technology, and sorted things out. She phoned her mum, who phoned their travel agent, and the whole lot got rescheduled to Tuesday evening. My phone didn’t work so I didn’t even have it with me, which meant I did not have the contact information of people who could try to ring my travel agent from the UK. I felt powerless. Then it became clear that they actually did reschedule people. I had been out of the line. Shit! I got back in. I was already hungry, and frustrated, and I had to go to the bathroom, but I was not going to let my place in the queue go another time. I was very glad I had Anna Karenina AND then newspaper with me. And my laptop, which could use the airport wi-fi.

The non-moving queue

This girl was in front of me in the queue... I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the very topical drawing she had made

The Durham lot went back to the hotel; they were sorted out, and were going to retrieve our stuff so we could check into the BA-paid one. They would take my things as well. So I sat in the immobile line. I hadn’t slept well. I almost fell asleep while reading my book. Luckily there were very nice people in the line. There was water and crisps available to us. After their crap start, where the only thing they handed out was confusion, they got their act together.

At about 17:00 I reached the front of the queue. Some very nice ladies did their best for me. I was tired, and I spent another hour with them, as they didn’t manage to print my new ticket for me. Half the BA crew got involved, everybody stayed positive. Then I wanted to get home. It was raining and I had no idea where my hotel was. I found the shuttle bus, though, and at about seven I reached the monstrous hotel. I staggered through it, completely dazed, accidentally stumbling through at least one wedding, failing to locate the Durham crowd. I gave up, went to my room, phoned Tasha, which would be expensive but I didn’t care, and found out where they were. Then the day turned good.

Is this monstrous or what?

We had a beer, a banter, and then a fancy dinner paid by BA. And then I went to bed. When I touched the mattress I realised that was what I had been wanting to do for the entire day. Finally!

The next day it turned out the Durham crew was not as sorted as they should have been. The plans for visiting Alcatraz or a museum or whatnot went out of the window. We first had a ludicrous breakfast (because we could!) and then our roads diverged. Tasha, who wasn’t sure of things, and turned out to have tried finalising their bookings for half of the night, went to the airport to sort things out. Emma and Sarah went to the laundrette as their stack of clothes was not going to stand up to the extra long time they would be away from home. I was ordered to look for things to do after Tasha got back. Naive.

The first day of ridiculous breakfasts

Antony, who is an editor for JQS, had urgent work to do, and I had lots to blog about. And the blogging got more and more emphasis as the day drew on. As if Tasha would be back in time for going out and having some fun! At some point the washing ladies did return. No sign from Tasha yet. Again the situation occurred that Antony had lots of ladies draped over the beds in his hotel room. Next time we really should have Roland around! Antony claimed he felt his hotel room was violated.

Anyway. By the time the laundry was back Antony had finished his editorial work, figured out how Skype works, and was trying to contact their travel agent. The whole reason they weren’t sorted out was due to miscommunication between the travel agent and the airlines. Why not work on two fronts? And even though we had cumulatively tried for many, many hours to contact such people, in vain, it so happened that Antony had the travel agent on the phone, and they were about to make a breakthrough, while Tasha was getting somewhere at the airport as well. So Antony was Skyping the travel agent, Emma has Tasha on the phone who reported back on her efforts, and I was blogging about it. Modern travel!

When Tasha came back with tickets there was great elation. And almost homicide, as Antony declared he was bored. What not to say to someone who has just spent a day in a queue at an airport. It was almost dark when she returned... Indeed, no time for touristic exploration of California! But what can one do. Instead of shedding blood we retreated to the hotel bar, where four more stranded Durham-dwellers joined us. Tasha kept us up to date on the exploits of those who had already managed to leave San Francisco, but invariably had not managed to get home yet. Ian might have been smug when he got his flight to Paris, but it turned out later his airline had dumped him in Lyon...

Tasha has the tickets! Emma documents this long-awaited moment. And Antony plays stoic.

The next day the Durham crew got ready to do some sightseeing, knowing they didn’t have to chase tickets anymore. I had breakfast with them, and then it was time to say goodbye. I would fly that day! I was very glad to have been stranded with them; it would have been very tedious without them! If you get stuck then best with many nice people. Thanks Tasha, Antony, Emma and Sarah.

As no logistic works I waited for them on the wrong floor. But after 15 minutes Antony figured it out. So then they were off! And I did some final blogging, packed my stuff, and off I was.

My plane was delayed. A little bit. And then some more. And more. I only had 2 hours time to change planes. This wouldn’t work out, unless the other plane would be delayed too. And then, above Frankfurt, the captain announced he had gotten orders to circle for an hour. I prepared myself for not flying anywhere else that day.

This is how the day greeted me above the Atlantic

This is what Southern Ireland looked like. Wales looked just like that.

On arrival in the terminal it turned out the flight had been cancelled. So I decided to get my luggage and explore my options. Yeah right. My luggage didn’t show up, and after another 100m of queue for the luggage tracing I found out it wouldn’t. Bags checked through had to be delivered somewhere! But how would I know where I would end up? I decided to give them my mother’s address. I couldn’t give mine; how on earth would I know when I would end up there myself?

This meant my decision was made. I’d try to get to Amsterdam/Amersfoort by train, and then try to get to Bristol or Exeter, who are not as heavily struck by the weather, some later day. And I think it was a good choice... The whole airport, one of the biggest in Europe, was filled to the brim with stranded travellers. I knew train services would be disrupted as well, but I really didn’t want to do the whole shebang of spending a day in a queue and then flying two days after that again. I got into a modest queue for train tickets, and then I went looking for some internet.

I found a corner where a photo journalist was beaming his pictures to his news agent. I plugged in my computer, and chatted away a bit with the photographer, and a girl who had travelled Brazil and was a dazed as me, while I checked my possibilities online. There were flights to Exeter and Bristol. But when to travel? My sister was scheduled to fly in the next day from Helsinki to Heathrow. Yeah right. Not very likely she would make it. And if she wouldn’t there would be no point for me to rush home. I would be alone with Christmas, when I could also be with my mum! And Heathrow was reported to be at only 30% capacity... luckily I was back in Europe, and could text my sister, my mum, and whoever else I wanted. And then my time was up!

 They were evidently prepared for lots of stranded passengers!

It does look scenic, such dark, snowy railtracks

Who would be surprised that my train was cancelled? And that the next one was both only half as long as normal, and delayed? And required an extra change at Cologne? This would be the longest trip I’d made in a while! Even though the USA fieldwork was not quickly reached either...

I reached Utrecht without further ado, and there had a final scare as my train to Amersfoort suddenly disappeared from the boards, but luckily it only left from a different platform. And then I walked, and sometimes ran, simply because I wanted to be there, to my mother’s house. Finally!

The travel angst continued, as the time had come to make decisions with my sister. But would we both manage to get there to the UK? I phoned her, and we decided to try. So she booked me a flight while I had a cup of tea with my mother. And then I was off to bed! My mum tucked me in. I needed that.

Beautiful winter scenery near where my mother lives

The next day I had some time to relax with my mother before the whole circus started again. To my concern I would fly over Gatwick, and my sister over Heathrow. But I came to Schiphol without incidents, and then to the Heathrow bus station, which was the meeting point. And then suddenly my sister burst out of nowhere. Yay!

They had found an acquaintance that also had to travel west, so after some confusion we went to Terminal 3, got a shuttle bus to the car rental company, and from there Antero would drive us. The thought of walking around half the airport and again waiting for another means of transport gave me shivers, but well, it had to be done, and a while later we saw Antero himself. That had been a while! And then we could go to where our hitchhiker had to go, and then home. We were there at midnight. Marieke was already asleep. But we had made it! Home at last!

So I should have been home Sunday in the early evening. It turned into Wednesday at midnight. And I was tired, jetlagged, confused, tired of travelling and filthy, as my luggage was still in Frankfurt, as I had prioritised books and computers over clean clothes and toothbrushes. How I would ever be reunited with that was something I would worry about later. But now I was home and didn’t need to fly anywhere soon!

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