Saturday, March 7, 2009

Getting There or How to Spend a Close 36 Hours with Three Other People and Still Like Them at the End

When the kids were little, I enjoyed walking with them. Their lack of height allowed them to see things on the ground or low down that I would otherwise not have seen. They haven’t lost their keen eyes as they’ve aged either; they can still spot a penny or a Euro in a parking lot a mile away. And older son spotted this oddity on the gate map of the remote terminal we flew out of at Dulles. Given that we would end up going through airport security four times in three days at four airports, this seems a not-unreasonable image with which to begin.

The British Airways flight from Dulles to Heathrow was uneventful save for some minor turbulence mid-flight. I am not by nature a calm flyer, still marveling that machines as large as a 747 can get up as high as 37,000 feet. (Once hearing a pilot for one major airline still in existence demonstrate his lack of knowledge of the Bernoulli Effect doesn’t help.) Still, I managed to sleep a bit, no doubt helped by the fact that the medicine I take nightly to help prevent migraines makes me a bit drowsy.

We actually landed at Heathrow at the precise arrival time noted on the itinerary. To accomplish this, we spent about 20 minutes killing time by making really cool squiggles on the real-time flight map viewable on the seat-back screen. What does it say about me that I found the real-time flight map and info as interesting as most of the video available to watch once I’d watched the BBC news. I’d already seen all the movies they were showing that I was at all interested in seeing.

Heathrow or, more specifically, its Terminal 5 is more than a bit of a zoo. I can honestly say that if I never go through it again I will die happy. But wait! We will go through it again on the way home. The switchback queue simply to have one’s passport and boarding pass for the connecting flight checked put Disney World to shame. Another switchback queue led to an escalator that led to still more switchbacks to go through security. We had gone through security at Dulles and had never left a secure area; still, we went through the whole procedure yet again. Shoes and jackets off, laptops out, liquids (my prescriptions and older son’s bottles of ink) into quart bags—the whole shebang. I was quite glad we had over three hours between arrival from Dulles and departure for Frankfurt.

At Frankfurt, we changed not only planes but airlines, from British Airways to Qatar Airways. We saved something like a thousand dollars per person by booking this as two separate tickets, one on each airline. Doing so meant that our baggage could not be transferred from one airline to the other, so we had to get all of our checked bags back and re-check them. We also got to traverse from one terminal to another with those five bags. This task was made easier by the fact that three of the five bags are Eagle Creek Shuffles and can be carried as backpacks. And amazingly (granted, the reader who gets out more than I do may not find this as amazing as I did), the luggage carts were engineered to be used on the escalators. The bottom was hinged to allow the front and back wheels to sit at different levels. Another triumph of German engineering?

When we got to the appropriate terminal, we had the joy of discovering that the Qatar Air ticket counter would not open until about three hours before flight time. This means that I’m typing this part of the entry at 2:30 Thursday afternoon (German time). Since the flight leaves at 10:20 p.m., that gives us another five or so hours until we can ditch the bags, go through security for the third time, and lounge at the gate, which is typically quieter than the hustle and bustle of the outer terminal. Elder son is napping, younger son is doing a crossword torn from yesterday’s Washington Post, and the husband is doing sudokus torn from the Daily Mail we snagged in London. I think I’ll go back to reading Harry Potter y la camara secreta (otherwise known as the Spanish edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). (This will let me cross another item off the list of 50 things I came up with to do in my 50th year of life. Yeah, I know I’m now a bit past that, but doing some of the things on the list took a while.)

We checked in for the next flight successfully, success being measured as they didn’t charge us for the fifth bag, the one carrying t-shirts for the students and staff in Hue and some books the husband will use in the class. The Qatar Airways office in Washington had told the husband there would be a charge of $175 per bag for more than one per person. Perhaps word hasn’t hit the Frankfurt office, and we weren’t about to ask.

Best quote of the layover in Frankfurt, one that will be appreciated most by those who know the sons up close and personal. Younger son made one of his usual threats of damage to older son’s ‘nads. My response to younger son was that he would then be responsible for any and all grandchildren, and did he really want that responsibility. His response was (and this is an exact quote), “As long as you don’t mind neither of us knowing who they are.”

And older son offers up as his best moment of the trip being able to check an item off his bucket list. Which item? That would be seeing Steve’s hair wanded for hidden weapons. On our third run through airport security, the metal detector beeped Steve. As the agent wanded him, he held Steve’s hair up and ran the wand under, over, and all around it. It turned out to be the metal on Steve’s hiking boots that set off the detector. At the same time, they had to hand inspect Steve’s bag since, again for the first time in three checks, the flute he brought with him raised a question when examined on the X-ray.

Finally, a couple of images from the Frankfurt airport. First, a certain environmental science teacher we know would love the waste receptacles we encountered at both Heathrow and Frankfurt. The Heathrow ones were actually separate bins, but the Frankfurt ones were the sleek metal shown below. How hard would it be to recycle if we had bins like these, say, on the Downtown Mall?

And for my two favorite biologists, my dad and my cousin Rich, here’s a poster for an event commemorating Darwin’s birth 200 years ago.

Two days before we left, I had lunch at Aromas CafĂ© with a friend. Our waitress overheard my telling my friend about our itinerary. “You’re flying Qatar Airways?” she asked. “They are the best airline I’ve ever flown. You’re gonna love them.” To sum up our experience so far (we’re on our second QA flight as I’m typing this), oh boy was she right. The first thing we noticed when we got on the plane was a seemingly large number of flight attendants. Next, very early in the flight, an attendant came around with warm towels. As the husband put it, that’s what the other airlines used to do on overseas flights but haven’t in a while. British Airways, at least, didn’t do it on the flight we took to start the trip. The food was absolutely superb, and Steve’s vegetarian meals came through without a hitch. Finally, whereas on British Airways only the high-rent seats had video games as part of their seat-back screen systems, on Qatar Airways even the low-rent seats had them. Our new favorite airline: Qatar Airways. When will we fly them again other than our return to Europe? Who knows, but they were certainly nice to have on this trip.

Here’s the other thing I found really neat about Qatar Airways:

This is the Mecca Pointer, an option on the real-time route program. At any point in the flight, you can see where Mecca is in relation to the plane. It probably shouldn’t surprise me that the national airline of an Islamic country would have such a thing. I just thought it really neat that it was there.

My last thought on the trip here is that the only rude people we encountered the whole way, a gentleman who pushed his way ahead of us in the security line at Doha (where we stood even though our flight was listed as “boarding”) and a couple who tried to push their way ahead of us in the check-in line for that flight were not Americans. The couple had French passports in their hands, and while I couldn’t tell about the gentleman, his wasn’t a US passport.

I posted a bit about our arrival in Ho Chi Minh City last night, in the post letting everyone know we got here. We’re now waiting for another plane, the one to Hue. It will be nice to have a home base there, someplace that may start to feel a bit like home. We all agreed, based on a long walk through Ho Chi Minh City this morning in search of a battery for the travel alarm, that we don’t really have any desire to come back here for any length of time other than to catch the plane out. There are places at which one can see the elegant colonial city it once was, but mostly it looks like a city constantly under repair or construction. Crossing a street more than once brought to mind the Seinfeld episode in which George pushed the Frogger machine across a busy street, dodging cars. Only here, it’s mostly motorbikes one dodges, with a few cars thrown in for suspense. When we get to Hue, I’ll look at the photos I shot this morning and include a few for flavor in another post.

1 comment:

Debi said...

Whew...that sounds like an exhausting trip! But overall, it sounds like all went fairly smoothly. Hope Hue is everything you're hoping for!