The saga of an overseas journey
I’m kind of amazed in this day and age that overseas travel is still in many ways such a nightmare. In my youthful imagination, by now we would be flying hypersonic aircraft across the great oceans of the world in mere minutes, and arrive at our destinations relaxed and refreshed after a brief transfer aboard a monorail slung high above the tree tops, like some ersatz Disney fantasy. The reality, of course, is much different, even when you’re going between continents as technologically advanced as North America and Europe.
Here is a typical log from a trip that I just took, and it shows that, even when, as I did, you spare no expense in the undertaking, modern travel is about as much fun as a jalapeño enema….still an exhausting process that can sap your mind, body, and soul of energy before your vacation even begins. And it ain’t easy on the wallet, either.
0930 hours-I begin my travels at my front door, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where the Alamo rent-a-Car rep picks me up in a shuttle van and transfers me to the agency office. There, I pick up my Hyundai Accent. It stinks of cigarette smoke and stale vomit. Other than that, it’s a great car. I spend 10 minutes getting a new ride.
1130 hours-I pick up my travel companion and we head south on I-95 to Miami, driving through a thunderstorm of Biblical scope, taking the Florida Turnpike on the way.
Price: I’m not sure, since I forget to pay the toll ticket. I just blow on by it without a care in the world. I’m sure I’ll get a love letter from the Florida Highway Patrol later.
1400 hours-I must refuel the rental car or else be forced to pay a massive surcharge to the rental company when I arrive at the airport. This means gassing up in the Mad Max part of Miami. The streets nearby are filled with all manner of urban freaks, miscreants, prostitutes, bums, Obama supporters, and other assorted perverts and violent felons, all of whom seek shelter under the roof overhang at my gas station when the deluge of rain recommences. I am accosted twice during my fill-up for money by the same dirtbag, who apparently is in a permanent state of drugged dementia. When the pump refuses to yield a receipt, a wise man would simply decide the risk/reward ratio for acquiring one inside isn’t worth it, since it would increase his loiter time in a war zone. But that isn’t me. I go into the DMZ, but not before parking at the front door so I can see if my companion remains safe, or at least alive, inside the locked car while I stand in line behind a black hooker and a Mr. T wannabe. When the glowering attendant gives me my cherished slip of paper, I am glad to put this carnival of horror in my rear view mirror.
Price: $16 plus more grey hair than a male silverback
1420 hours-Following the signs for the rental car return, I circumnavigate most of Dade county before finding an obscure parking garage a mile from the airport. Between the two of us, we are carrying about 50 kilos of luggage, since we plan to be gone two months. This we drag for a quarter mile to the airport rail station, which whisks us into the terminal. It has taken thirty minutes just to get from the airport off-ramp to the airline check-in..
Price: My sanity
1455 hours-Relieved of my luggage at the check-in desk, we must line up like cattle in a holding pen before we partially disrobe and submit ourselves to a full body scan (and, for no extra charge, a pat down from the beaming TSA apparitchik/goon) in the security line. It reminds me of an article that I read recently which reported that such security precautions are of limited effectiveness at best, but at least, I reason, it is very effective at conditioning Americans to accept the boot heel of authority like the subjects of empire that we have become. We are encouraged to hurry through the humiliation by gun-toting guards who are directing us through the process like traffic cops at a clogged intersection. I am humming the last stanzas of the Star-Spangled Banner softly as I relinquish the last shred of my freedom.
Price: My dignity and honor
1515 hours-We head to the America room of TAPortugal airlines, which is conveniently located in a different area code. This is their business class lounge. For the price of that level of service, I’m used to free booze and a good selection of decent munchies in an elegant atmosphere while waiting for take off. What I get with TAP is a vinyl chair in a charmless box. The amenities, save for the cheap wine, is what you might find in Joe’s Billiards Bar and Tap Room, including that inedible Snax Mix stuff that is made from a substance unknown to science until the 21st century.
Price: Business class tickets to Vienna. $2500 one way.
1600 hours-Down the labyrinthine corridors we go because we are told they will be boarding 30 minutes ahead of time. Unfortunately, the airline must have meant Portuguese time, because we board only10 minutes before the scheduled take off, ensuring that we cannot possibly leave on schedule. Inexplicably, there are at least 5 airline employees that I can see aimlessly loitering in the boarding area. At least they seem to be enjoying their own raucous banter. I know this because they were too busy to offer an explanation for the delay.
Price: My patience
1645 hours-We board the plane and the stew gives us both a drink before take off. We don’t get service again until we are a quarter of the way over the Atlantic. I sit down in seat 1F, and it is as damp as swamp moss. I am not only concerned about squirming around on a wet butt for 8 hours, but also about what exactly made the seating surface wet. Nothing pleasant comes to mind. We are moved to less desirable seats but at least they are still up front. While we are on the way, I tell the stewardess that it is as hot as a Tijuana whore house in the cabin, and she responds that “It will get cooler”-indifferently, yet somehow, also, disdainfully. I note with proletarian resignation that there is no fan control for the A/C from my seat. I guess something as vital as the comfort of a mere passenger must be left up to the authorities in the cockpit, or mere providence, I don’t know. As I settle in to my new seat, I make a field expedient diaper out of the linen head rest to absorb the moisture in my underwear. I can only hope they have regular laundry service on these routes.
Price: A chapped ass
1815 hours-From the time we take off (late) until now, no flight attendant has darkened the cabin doorway. Now, a squat, dour-looking matron materializes from behind a curtain, and, as she hands us our menu, she explains that we are to ignore the various meal options, as they are no longer available. We “x” the right boxes on our menu selection guide anyway, because by now we have been trained not to ask questions and simply follow orders.
Price: Freedom of choice
1845 hours-Our meal has been prepared and we are now served dinner on real plates and silverware. The canape’s that were advertised in the menu are inexplicably excluded, but the salad is amazingly good, and even the bread is better than hard tack. More good news: for the next hour and a half, the attendants continuously circle the cabin with a refreshment cart, and they are serving a very drinkable red wine from their home country: Colinas Tinto. After a while, my companion asks me how many I’ve had. I start counting on my fingers, she rolls her eyes, and I finally begin to relax, feeling a bit like a Pavlovian dog that has been rewarded for good behavior.
Price: My sobriety
2000 hours-I stumble back to the WC on socked feet. Bad move. There is a small bog that is pooled in front of the washroom, making it impossible to negotiate the distance without getting your feet wet. I find myself hoping it is only water that I’m wading through. Somewhere over the Atlantic, we pass through 5 time zones. I cannot sleep well, even though my seat reclines to a nearly flat surface and I try more contortions than a magician’s assistant. Now it’s 0445 in Lisbon, which is our layover city, and they are serving us breakfast. Outside it is utterly black. The coffee is so weak that I nearly fall asleep while drinking it.
Price: My sleep
1900 hours-We land at Lisbon airport, groggy from the trip and lack of sleep. After de-planing, which involves walking down some stairs to a waiting bus, we soon find ourselves in a line of Africans, many in full costume, some suckling newborns, most stinking with caked sweat, the kind that only comes from a lifetime of ignorance regarding the importance of personal hygiene, and all hoping to live anywhere except the continent that they have themselves made uninhabitable, waiting in line at border security, where they will gain entry to Europe, from which they will never return, and gradually turn that great culture into something more resembling their own, which is to say, a Malthusian Bronze Age catastrophe.
Price: My culture
0745 hours-We clear security and take a few kilometers of moving sidewalk to the TAP lounge, where we wait for the next flight. Because Lisbon is the airline’s home city, this exclusive little oasis is luxurious and, as an additional bonus, also free from the aforementioned great herds of unwashed Watusi. Amenities include sleeping rooms, a catered bar, a real choice of snacks and fresh foods, English-language cable TV, free WiFi, effective climate control,…and, most importantly, clean air.
0945 hours-We take a bus out to our next plane, which will take us to Vienna. I am sure we will not leave on time, since we are supposed to take off at 1000. I am not wrong. Our bus stops next to the gas truck which is refueling the plane, so, for the next 15 minutes, we all get occasional snorts of jet av to start our day, since the driver has thoughtfully left the doors open (even though we must remain trapped on board). A number of TAP ground crew are ambling about in what seems to be no hurry, or even any particular direction. Eventually, the pilot arrives and we are allowed up the stairs to board the plane.
Price: My olfactory nerves
1025 hours-I am sitting in what TAP calls business class for their domestic flights, which resembles what I am used to in coach on any other airline, except that here, on Portugal’s national airline, business class is simply a seat up front with no one sitting in the middle of a row of three. There is zero additional leg room, nor is there any additional in-flight service, nor even any extra hip room, but at least you don’t have to win an elbow war with the person next to you, because there isn’t one. It’s kind of like paying $2500 to sit in the back seat of a car.
Price: $2500! Yep…I’m that dumb
1325 hours-Miraculously, we arrive in Vienna on time, which is good, because I must catch the ICE train to our final destination, Passau in Germany. We do not need to clear customs of any kind and simply walk from our plane to the train station in minutes. Now that we are on Austrian soil, everything goes smoothly, it seems.
1425 hours-We are on the train, which is spotless, and I ask a bellman if we can sit on the left side (the view side) instead of my assigned seats, since the car looks empty. He assures me we can. Over the next 30 minutes and two train stops, we must move twice because we are claim jumpers in other people’s seats, forcing me to drag the oversized luggage down the narrow aisles, banging into the occasional armrest and/or kneecap as I go, so I finally give the whole stupid idea up and move back to my originally location. By now, the bellman is moving down the aisle punching tickets, and I realize with growing apprehension and horror that, sometime during the 3 separate seat moves, I lost my e-tickets, which is why I must spend the next ten minutes making an ass of myself frantically looking for them, a search which finally involves a team of Austrians and the voluntary compliance of the entire cabin, because we must get on the floor and look under every seat I have been near, and even many that I haven’t, so I am grunting around on the carpet of the train like a dog sniffing for a clue, when finally, a man finds them and hands them to us just in the nick of time for the bellman. Now I am a celebrity in the car, but not in a good way, I think.
Price: Normally, it would be dignity, but, if you’re paying attention, I lost that at 1455 hours the day before, and thus I can only say I think this was a freebie
1500 hours-I am supposed to call the boat to tell them when we will arrive, since we already know it will be past the normal boarding time. I try on my phone and my companion’s phone. No luck. I try Skype on my phone. No. The Austrian couple sitting next to us eventually make the call for us, but not before everyone within a two-row radius understands that the big blundering American is still trying to master the simple dynamics of train travel.
Price: See 1425 hours above
1718 hours-The train, with Germanic precision, arrives on the exact minute in the Passau station. To get to a taxi stand, I have to haul the 100 pounds-plus worth of luggage down two flights of stairs, under the street, and back up the other side. No country for old men. We hail a cab, and he allows me to load my own luggage after he gets a look at it.
Price: My back is gone now
1730 hours-We arrive at the boat (MY STORY) in Passau, Germany. It has been 25 hours since I left home.
Now, why am I telling you this? To underscore the fact that technology hasn’t advanced as much as we think it has? That, even in this day and age, travel still saps you of your strength and energy before you even arrive? That I am as dumb as a fence post? Partly, yes. But the bigger deal here is that if you’re going to travel, be ready for things to go wrong, because they inevitably will, and just “keep calm and carry on”, as the English say. It beats the alternative, which is to simply not go. Because in spite of all these minor inconveniences, of course it is all worth it. There is no education so gripping and challenging as that you earn when you go to new places. I encourage you to read more about what you can learn when you get there in some of my other articles.
Thanks for taking the time to read, as always.