Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Aspie Traveler (Put to the Test!): Day 4

(NOTE: This post was written on Wednesday, March 18, 2015. While Lufthansa had no control over the pilot strike, my heart goes out to the families that lost loved ones in the recent crash in France.)

Once again my day started early. way too early. My flight was scheduled for 7:00 a.m. and I had reserved a cab for 5:00 a.m., but as I looked at my phone it was an astoundingly early 12:01 a.m. Blah! I tried to go back to sleep and it took a while, but sleep was achieved until 1:30 a.m. Double blah! Would this jet lag please loosen its grasp on me?

Sleep was achieved once again, this time until 3:30 a.m. I was now at the point of not even trying to go back to sleep so I got up and got ready for my trip. What trip? I'm glad you asked because I haven't explained it yet.

For over two years now I've been a commentator with Wil Vincent on iRacing for various races. I primarily do the color analysis on the Indycar coverage and he's one of the few people who knew where in the world I was going. He then offered to give me a tour of London, which I have always wanted to go to England and I checked airfares and I was astounded. To fly from Amsterdam to London was $85 and then tomorrow I'll fly back to home, ahem, Amsterdam from Birmingham, UK for just $99. I wish airfare was that cheap back home in the States! I wanted this trip to be me against the world solo, but this was a once in a lifetime chance to do something cool like this so I allowed for the two days. Thankfully I did because as luck would have it an interesting thing happened on the way to London.

I arrived at the airport shortly after five. It was dark outside and even though I have been here for three days now I still have a sense of awe of my surroundings. I made it to security where I botched the "hold still for three seconds" as I noticed my feet weren't on the right marks so I moved as it scanned which resulted in the system thinking I had objects all over my body. When I stepped out the security official spoke to me but I didn't respond because I didn't understand a word he said. I think he then spoke another language and I was stuck processing what to do. which meant I did nothing but stared at him blankly. This was unique because I talk about processing delays with hearing words, but I didn't know how to respond when I couldn't even understand the language. Eventually he spoke English and mentioned that he had to do a full pat down because the system said I had objects everywhere. I again just stared at him. He then again mentioned it and it was the second time I realized his statement was a question because he was asking permission to go ahead with the check. I finally realized this and said yes to which I passed the test.

While walking to the gate I connected my phone to the airport Wi-FI. I was able to use Apple's FaceTime audio feature to call my mom. I don't have international data or calling so I can't just phone my family any time I'd like, but it was an almost bizarre feeling walking the terminal talking to my mom eight time zones away. While I was getting ready for my day, her's was coming to an end but we talked for 30 minutes on what I had seen, done, and just had a great conversation. I then sent her yesterday's post (remember, I'm writing this as it happening but you won't read it until a week later) and then said goodbye.

After saying goodbye I got to my gate and I marveled, just as I did in 2005 when I went to Kenya and got to the Amsterdam airport, at how an almost empty place earlier begins to bustle with life as dawn gets closer and closer.

The time of departure was nearing and the schedule board time was 6:20 a.m., but it was now 6:30 a.m. I began to get concerned and I looked out the window and saw several men in orange coats with the words "technician" and "operator" on their coats. This was not a good sign and I picked up on this before anyone else. I watched for a while, a long while actually, and when I looked at the clock again it was 6:50 a.m. We were scheduled to depart at 7:00 a.m. and there was no way this was happening. My anxiety spiked because I only had a fifty-minute layover and Wil would be waiting for me in London. So what would I do if I missed my flight and say, the next plane out was that evening? Panic? Oh yes, there was lots of panic flowing through my body.

To compound the panic there had been no announcements. I was watching the mechanics talk to the gate agent, and go outside, and come back in. I approached the ticket counter and at this point others were realizing something was amiss. I listened to their conversations but I couldn't understand a word they were saying. From arm gestures, I gathered the problem wasn't with the plane but with the jet bridge. I hoped I was right because a plane issue means a new plane is needed and that can take all day.

At 7:05 a.m. the agent gave an announcement I couldn’t understand. Now, don't get me wrong. It's right that I don't understand. I'm not complaining about this because this is what I wanted on my journey; to experience the unknown and be thrust into a situation that is new to me and will challenge my ability to handle it. When the lady ended the message I finally heard words I understood! It was, indeed, a problem with the jet bridge and the alarms were stuck in an armed position and while there was no danger, protocol would not allow anyone to board the plane whilst alarms were blaring. And then that was it. There was no more; there wasn't an estimation given on the possible departure time.

I watched the clock like a hawk. I had a fifty-minute layover in Munich, Germany but that time was quickly evaporating. It was now 7:15 a.m., then 7:30 a.m., and finally at 7:40 a.m. we boarded the plane. I've had enough airport experiences to realize that catching my next flight was slim to none and I was quickly starting to loathe Lufthansa.

In the air, I tried to take my mind off the race that was about to take place. Would I have to compete in the 10,000-gate dash? Would I be stuck in Munich all day? What was going happen? It's rough being in a race that I had no control over. I couldn't hurry the plane up. I couldn't find a shortcut. This was 100% out of my hands and despite knowing this I was trying to mentally hurry the plane up. This, of course, did nothing but make me more anxious.

Every five minutes I'd check my boarding pass and check the time. The boarding pass stated that the boarding time was 8:50 a.m. and it was now 8:55 a.m. as we started our approach to the airport. The departure time was 9:15 a.m. and we weren't on the ground yet as it neared 9:00 a.m.

The taxi time wasn't that long and we rolled to the gate at 9:02 a.m. At this point I relinquished any hope I had of making it to London at all. Have I ever mentioned I'm a catastrophic thinker? If you didn't know it, I am. Things can go from all's well to the end of the world faster than you can snap your fingers.

At 9:04 a.m. the airline opened the rear exit to expedite the deplaning process. I found it curious because what about a jet bridge and when I got to the door I uttered, "uh-oh" as there was a bus awaiting all the passengers. Whatever small bit of hope I had, and I had some, was stomped on and lit on fire. I got on the bus but the a man holding a sign saying "connection to London" walked by and I rushed to him as if he were a family member I hadn't seen in a decade. He asked for my passport, and once verified he rushed me and another man to a van and when we were seated he slammed the throttle and we were off. To where I didn't know but there was now hope.

He zoomed towards a police checkpoint for a passport check and this officer did this with a hesitant haste, much more thorough than when I arrived in Amsterdam, and once the passports were stamped we were rushed back to the van, and I do mean rushed. This was the 10,000-gate dash with a hint of the Grand Prix of Germany mixed in.

A few turns later we arrived at a gate and we were rushed towards an elevator that our driver had to unlock with a special key. Speaking of special, this did, I must admit, make me feel as if I were some sort of celebrity, and when the elevator arrived we went up and there it was, we were already in the jet bridge and the other man and I thanked our driver and we got on the plane at 9:14 a.m. with one minute to spare. I was elated but the looks on the passengers that were waiting patiently to leave certainly were of disapproval. Travel note: try not to be the last person on a plane in order to avoid the leers, sneers, and a genuine look of disdain. So with Lufthansa now back on my good side, I was at ease and en route to a city I thought I'd never see in my lifetime.

Going through immigration took a good half hour but after that I took the Heathrow
Express to Paddington to meet Wil. The train I was on had to Wi-Fi, which was great to be able to communicate with Wil to know where I should meet him once at Paddington. I met up with him and the walking tour began.

It was great, just as if being in an alternate world. I've seen plenty of videos and the like of London but to be walking the streets, and to have to be wary of crossing the street because of the alternate flow of traffic was a most enjoyable new experience.

We walked past the US Embassy, towards the Queen's palace, and many more places that I can't remember as it all went so fast. Eventually we grabbed a burger at The Clarence and thinking back to what I wrote earlier in this series about, "wanting to appreciate every moment," I already am a bit sad because we did so much, saw so much, and I was so exhausted that I don't know if I was even capable of fully appreciating this tour that Wil was giving.

Time ticked on and we had to catch a train to Birmingham, which left at 4:00 p.m. and I was hoping to take a nap on the train but how could I? It isn't every day I'm in England and it isn't every day I get to talk to Wil, much less in person, so between talking racing with Wil and watching the English countryside go by there was no sleep to be had.

In Birmingham, when we arrived, the sun was just starting to set and we did a little walking around, went to a shopping mall to see if they had a certain sports team's jersey (They didn't. More on that later in the week) and then proceeded to go to a place that served fish ‘n chips because how could one come to England and not have fish n chips?

Wil booked me a room in a hostel, which I at first was worried, but the place is much more like a hotel than the college dorm party atmosphere that comes to mind with the word hostel, and the room was quite nice. I connected to the Wi-Fi and immediately my eyes were met with these words, "There's been a major change in your itinerary. Please call us immediately as your options may be limited." I think these are the worst words any traveler wants to see, much less when I had no ability to call.

Remember at the start of this when I said I'd have to deal with things myself if something came up? This was something that was beyond what I could do. I had no way to call. The hostel didn't have a phone and my cell phone is not set up for international calls so I could only do one thing and that was to forward the email to my dad.


He called and found out that 750 Lufthansa pilots went on strike and that meant my flight had been cancelled, which also meant whatever good side Lufthansa got on from the race in Munich had now been erased. It took hours of being on the phone, but it looked as if I had been booked on a KLM flight the next day. It wasn't 100% sure, though, but exhaustion won out and I went to sleep not knowing what the next day would hold.

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