Monday, September 29, 2008

I knew I was in trouble when I tried to buy a bottle of water and all I had was Euros

Preparing for this trip was much harder than usual. These days I have refined my packing strategies to the point where I have several decent approaches depending on the length of my trip. This has cost me dearly in the acquisition of many different suitcases but has offered such a banquet of options; it may be getting to where it’s just too hard to decide.

In the early days of my world travel, I purchased a nice sized duffle-like roll-around bag from Eagle Creek in what has since become my signature color – tree frog green. It was ideal for a 2-3 day international trip as I had the option of carrying it on or checking it if I didn’t feel like lugging it through the various airports on my itinerary. Accompanying it was a very nice over the shoulder bag from Tom Bihn, again in tree frog. Between the two I was able to go just about anywhere and bring anything.

As my trips got longer, I added another bigger bag to the family allowing me to travel in the 10 day range. When the trips became longer, I added one more. But as I did this, some holes in my rationale began to emerge. First of all, thee duffle style bags are hard to efficiently pack. They don’t have square corners and they are not a uniform height all the way around. They’re great if you’re traveling with a half dozen hemp dashikis and burlap draw string pants, but they’re not great if you don’t want to roll or ball things up. Secondly, that great over the shoulder bag was beginning to make me 5’5” on one side and 5’11” on the other.

Then one day I was killing time in the San Francisco international terminal and wandered in to the Tumi boutique and there before me was the most beautiful bag in the world. Black leather, a dozen pockets and sections, a handle system crafted from the finest aircraft aluminum and most importantly, wheels. Wheels that would restore my aching frame to its full, glorious height. So I suffered through that one last trip and returned home and bought that thing. And life was good.

Little by little I learned to use it to its full extent. Little bags and cases for my electronics. My computer in its own little section. My consumable trip supplies in their own little zip-bag in the front pocket. Another pocket for Altoids and one for the spare change I collect as I roam from concession stand to concession stand. In short, this bag was every peregrinators dream come true. Until that one morning that I got on the Barbie Jet to SFO and discovered that I could not jam it in the overhead bin. Like a rube on his first trip away from the home patch I stood there beating on the thing trying to get it in, working up a sweat and bruising my balled up fists. On that trip I sat there with my feet jammed up against the bag (now located under the seat in front of me) steaming that I had been so lulled into complacency by a stinking suitcase.

Eventually I got the better of the Barbie Jet by coming to the realization that if I took some of the stuff out of the front pockets; I could force it into the bin wheel side out. Life was good, once again.

In the meantime the duffle bags were becoming less and less utile so I went a step up and bought a grand sized aluminum Halliburton, one of the pinnacle products in the pantheon of show-off travel gear. It was wonderful, square corners, solid latches, satin dividers, a wonderful combination of art and technology. Its only disappointment coming when it appeared on the baggage carousel at SFO with two of the three latches open and its dainty inners on display for all the world. My companions got a good chuckle that day, “look, a $900 suitcase open on the conveyor, I wonder who that belongs to?” Well, I fixed that with a $7 baggage strap in…….tree frog green.

The battle for the hearts and minds of carry-on bags continued to rage though. I added a nice little Boyt bag to the collection as it had sections for clothes that would allow me to 1-bag a 1-2 day trip, something the Tumi never did well. And now I entered into the world of messenger bags as one needs something to carry one’s computer around once one arrives at one’s destination, doesn’t one? Some of those were imperfect (computer rattled around inside it) while others were better (computer had a nice corduroy pouch to live in.)

At this point, I was fully accoutered for whatever length, distance or type of trip I was about to have.

On a recent trip to my favorite luggage store, I saw a miraculous new Tumi that had a two button expansion system which turned it from carry-on legal to just slightly bigger. I played with it at the store for a good hour before I finally shelled out for it and took it home. Perfection can clearly sometimes be perfected again.

But this trip got me thinking again. 3 ½ days internationally to a country where I could easily get supplies should my health be compromised meant a couple of things. First of all, a smallish bag to carry my minimal clothing requirements, less electronics that normal and no first-aid kit. The new Tumi fit the bill perfectly, even without its expansion feature holding everything needed with room to spare. I was pretty much on the brink of being able to do the whole trip as carry-on, but the problem that arose was what to do with the gear I needed on the plane. Because of the tight connection in Chicago, I wanted to leave myself the opportunity to not check a bag if I was unable to get United to transfer to Aer Lingus. Two hours sounds like a lot unless you’re an hour late getting in and your next gate is in another state. All this mental arithmetic suggested that the best solution would be to pack a good sized shoulder bag rather than try to haul two roll-arounds across Illinois.

I started by packing my trust old Tom Bihn and once completed, took a brief walk around the house. All the reasons I had moved to wheeled bags came back in the form of a piercing pain that ran from my left elbow to my right ear. I realized that wasn’t going to work by the time I had completed my second circuit of the kitchen. Teddy looked at me as if to say “Even I, a dog, can see that this proposal is ill-considered.”

I headed back to my “Travel Room” and dug out my Boyt and packed it. But that bag was just not right either. It’s smaller than the Tumi but one section is clearly designed for clothes with crossover elastic straps. Not ideal for packing all those little cases full of stuff that long plane flights demand. So it was back to my trusty leather Tumi and carry-on rules be damned. I finally finished with my packing about midnight, another Saturday evening well spent in the life of a jet-setter.

One of the nice things about travel to Europe is that you don’t have to leave at the crack of dawn. My departure was a civilized 1 PM and so we had a nice relaxing morning reading the papers and chit-chatting before heading out at 11. I did have the brainstorm to check in to my Aer Lingus flight on line, figuring it would save me some time if I had any rush in Chicago. First stop was gasoline which got me wondering what the TSA would think if I showed up at security smelling as though I’d been putting together a fuel-oil bomb.

I went straight to the elite line at the United counter and was happily surprised to hear that I could check my bag all the way through to Dublin – problem one solved. Off to security where the woman in line behind be kept jumping back and forth between my line and the one next to me which was funny since they were the same length and we were moving right along. My choice of putting my watch in my shoe proved ill-fated when the x-ray tech pulled my bin off the line and rifled through trying to figure out what it was doing there. No problems with fuel oil, they thought I was bringing a shoe time bomb aboard. Nothing was said, she just through everything back on the conveyor. All in all, exactly 15 minutes from drop off to sitting and waiting at the gate.

My request for 1st class had been granted so I was the first person down the gangway. I knew this was another Barbie Jet, but different. Instead of 2x2 in the front cabin, this plane had 1 on the left side and two on the right. And I’d hit the jackpot with the solo seat. Plus, the overhead bin was ample enough to allow the Tumi to fit in without me disgorging it first. Things were looking up already.

I sat and watched the others board, paying particular attention to their bags. These “pay for luggage” policies have had an interesting effect on what gets brought on board. These days, the one carry-on bag tends to be a steamer trunk and the one personal item is almost always a Pullman. There was a guy in front of me at security today with two illegal bags. Some of the gate agents are challenging people but in general, everyone gets on board with these things that simply cannot fit overhead. And the result is lots of pushing and shoving and beating with balled up fists which leads to bags being “gate checked’ at the last minute. You’d think the bean counters at the airlines would have simply raised the ticket prices by $50 instead of opening themselves up to all these problems and the humiliating commercials that Southwest is using to mock them.

We got off on time despite the passenger in front of me who insisted on stowing his back pack in the overhead bin over the protestations of the flight attendant. Once aloft he immediately stood up to retrieve it allowing me to see what he was wearing – a black wife-beater t-shirt. This set me to wondering who wears a wife-beater to travel, and who actually owns a black one? I mean who makes black wife-beaters. Later I realized this was his base layer, he had a black linen short-sleeved shirt over it and under his black linen sport coat.

Flying up and out of Albuquerque I was able to see Santa Fe and golden pockets of turning Aspens on the sides of the Sangre de Christos. Dotting the mountainsides were dark little shadows that looked like scuttling crabs cast by small puffy clouds. As we passed from the mountains to the plains it struck me that out west, there are really two tree lines – one above which trees cannot grow because of the wind and the cold, and one below which they do not grow due to lack of water. Between the two are the deep green belts of pine and juniper, existing between these two barren expanses.

Snack service was nice today, a little box with Rondelle Parmesan Cheese Spread, a couple of crackers, a bag of Kettle potato chips, two Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies and of all things a tub of Mott’s Applesauce. I sat there spreading my cheese wondering what was going on back in the economy cabin.

The flight across the Great Plains was a bit lackluster aside from the occasional big water project and major river. Coming into Chicago where it was gray and bleak, it was clear that fall was on the way with the crowns of many big trees showing the first golds and reds of autumn.

We landed and drove for a long time, finally settling into a gate on Concourse C or Terminal One. O’Hare has the unique quality of looking old and tired from the outside despite its relative newness. It was designed to look sort of bleak Bauhaus and it wouldn’t be out of place in the Rhineland. Here it just looks worn.

I got off the plane and headed into the terminal looking for signs of how to get to Terminal 5, my departure point. I avoided getting on the moving walkway behind black wife-beater man because he had a funny gait, sort of what you would expect from someone who thinks it appropriate to wear a black wife-beater in public on an airplane. At the next juncture he got off and I got on, riding along marveling at the genuinely industrial nature of the inside of this place. Steel beams, giant bolts and arches, it imparted the feeling of re-use.

The sign told me to go down so I did, riding the escalator and chuckling at a lone young woman who for some reason took the stairs up rather than use the easier conveyance. At the bottom I was faced with a long moving walkway that moved along beneath a ceiling covered with strange geometric shapes done in multi-colored neon. It was as though you were riding in a video game arcade. In the background, and barely audible a fractured version of United’s Gershwin theme was playing behind faint messages for the pedestrians.

At the end of the tunnel I almost made the mistake of heading up to the B Concourse catching the path to the right of the escalator at the last second. I went down another long hall and out past security until I came to a halt at a single elevator. A grandma was waiting there, punching at the button. The display said “B”, then “C”, then “B” again without ever stopping at whatever floor we were on. I asked her if she knew what she was doing and she said “no” whereupon the door opened and we got in. A young man joined us and I asked him where we were going. Grandma pushed the “BL” button and the young man said that was correct, the train to the other terminals was on the Bridge Level. The display in the elevator continued to say “B” and “C” which matched none of the button choices on the panel. But the door opened and we got out and immediately went down another escalator to the train platform. The ride up to the Bridge Level and across said Bridge had essentially saved us the time of going out the door and walking across the street.

We waited a bit and a train pulled up and we got on. Directions on the floor insisted that those of us boarding do so in an outside pinscher movement allowing those departing to head straight out. Of course the first thing that happened was that a woman de-training walked straight into me. But I managed to get on board and the train pulled out at about 2 MPH, the driver apparently being worried about tipping over as we merged from one track to another.

Announcements as to our location in the grand scheme of terminals were again barely audible making me wonder if I was suffering some sort of hearing loss. We finally arrived at Terminal 5 and I made my way in and through security, about 30 minutes from gate to gate making me thankful that I did not have a rush. The lesson for changing to international in Chicago is this – leave yourself 3 hours.

I wandered around and tried to get into the Star Alliance Lounge and was rebuffed as I was not leaving on a Star Alliance partner, so much for being a 1K member. I found my traveling companions and settled in to wait for an hour.

About 40 minutes before boarding the gate agent asked us all to come up if we had managed to get there without talking to an Aer Lingus representative. I hadn’t so I went up and he marked my boarding pass with a yellow highlighter joking how the TSA people should not have allowed me to get this far. He failed to give me an entry card for Ireland so I went back and joked that he had given one to my friends but not me. He told me to point them out and walked back to where we were sitting and handed me my card while admonishing my pals for not picking one up for me in the first place.

I decided to get a bottle of water and went up to one of the kiosks. For some reason, this terminal is sorely lacking in facilities. I don’t know its story, but it appears someone woke up one morning and decided that Chicago needed an international terminal. And this was the best they could come up with, moving floors that go nowhere, a crowded hallway that is jammed with food carts and far too few places to sit.

As my turn came up to order my bottle of water, I opened my wallet and was surprised to find only Euros. I had failed to transfer my dollars from my “stay at home wallet” to my “travel wallet.” Usually it’s the other way around, lacking my REI card when I need it but now I’d manage to mess up in the other direction. I borrowed $2 from one of my chums and went back to sit down.

Twenty minutes before boarding we were all called to the center for carry-on bag check. Roderick, my friend with the entry card was put in charge of visually evaluating everyone’s bag. I didn’t see him reject anyone, but he did a very thorough job of looking each suitcase up and down before attaching a tag to the handle which said “good to go.”

We boarded on time and I settled into an aisle row next to a nice woman with whom I had a chat about Ireland and flying and China. All was fine and good until another woman came along and pointed out that I was sitting in the wrong seat. It seems that Aer Lingus designates the seats on their Airbus’ differently than United designates theirs on their 767’s. I was pretty shocked considering I had just ridden a 767 only two weeks prior and had the same seat (right side, aisle.) I apologized and moved, grateful in a small way because once you start chatting with someone; it often means 6 hours of trying to keep the conversation up. As it turned out, I ended up across the aisle with an empty next to me. And it was lucky it was empty because my overhead light was misaligned and would have illuminated the lap of the person next to me instead of whatever I was trying to read.

The plane left on time and it was quickly time for dinner. For amusement, I set the seatback entertainment center to the in-flight map so I could track our progress up and over the Great Lakes and northern Canada. (At the moment, we’re 1/3 of the way between Greenland and Iceland.)

Dinner was salad, peas, carrots beef stew and potatoes – traditional Irish cuisine, if there is such a thing. A couple of crackers and a slab of Tillamook cheddar rounded out the repast, the latter making me laugh as I was only a mile or so from the Tillamook factory the week before last. The further afield I go, the more little reminders of where I’ve just been seem to pop up.

The miracle of the Jet Stream is that it can help you get places pretty quick. We landed a full hour early, no doubt due to the 100 MPH tail wind we enjoyed for the full trip. I left the map up on the TV screen for the whole trip and watched the progress closely. Aside from a period in the middle of the Atlantic where the plane veered south off the prescribed route, we flew as straight and as fast as an arrow, landing at 7:15.

It took a long time to get the jet way connected but once there I made my way through immigration in record time. My last bag off the plane karma continued, but at least it showed up. From there out to my rental car – a posh Volvo S80 – and into the morning rush hour, the price I paid for getting in early.

The M50 has gone through many permutations during my many visits here making it a continuing challenge to find my way around. Today presented a whole new set of opportunities for failure including merging lorries as large as container ships, multiple chicanes and a disappearing toll booth. I handled those with typical aplomb and made my way to the plant in 90 minutes.

My biggest learning of the day – a 7 hour trip now barely merits a whine compared to my normal 12 to 13 hour routes. I messed around, I ate, I messed around some more and when I finally decided to nod off, it was time for breakfast. If I’d been on my way to China, I’d still have had 5 hours to go. Ireland is now only a bit more taxing than a hop to Phoenix.

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