Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Journey

Late last week on an unseasonably warm Melbourne morning, we left the comforts of home in a bright yellow taxi headed for Melbourne Airport. This was the beginning of our annual pilgrimage to the USA. The cab driver arrived at our house about 10 minutes before we had requested. Initially I was annoyed because I don't like feeling rushed out the door--particularly when I'm going to be away for 8 weeks. There could be any myriad of things I'm leaving behind if I leave too quickly. When I looked around the house, I noticed that 10 minutes early we were actually ready to depart. I took a moment to pat myself on the back for being so organised and prepared especially given that in the days leading up to our departure my youngest had been very ill and required much of my attention, taking me away from other important tasks--like packing. Somehow though, things had worked out and here we were leaving 10 minutes early.

As soon as we had the cab packed, the cab driver began asking us for directions to the airport. He indicated that there was a large accident on the freeway that had brought it to a standstill and recommended that we consider an alternate, if less direct, route. We put our heads together and came up with something and off we went crisscrossing the outlying Melbourne suburbs slowly but surely making our way to the airport. We had plenty of time to arrive at the airport still, but the fact that the ride there was taking so long didn't help me feel less nervous about arriving on time.

Once at the airport we waited for a short time in the queue and were told by the lovely lady at the Qantas counter that we weren't seated together. She directed us to a service desk where this problem could be hopefully rectified. Another lovely Qantas employee did manage to scrounge together four seats--in the very, very back of the plane. Not my favourite place to sit, but I suppose together was better than being split up.

Customs and security were hassle free and we were amongst the first people to board the plane. The children were excited and so were the Handsome Australian and I. We waited patiently as all the other passengers made their way on to the plane and all the seats around us filled up. We were probably 5 to 10 minutes away from departing when a huge thunderstorm filled the sky over Melbourne airport. The pilot indicated that all the grounds crew would have to go indoors as there was lightning in the area and it was no longer safe for them to be on the tarmac. He told us we could expect a 20-30 minute delay. 20 minutes of driving rain, lightning and thunder that shook the plane and we were still on the ground. The pilot updated us and told us we were looking at another 30 minutes or so before the ground crew would be allowed to return to the tarmac. So we sat there for well over an hour before the whole storm finally blew over and services at the airport could return to normal. In the meantime, our 2 year old had a severe case of ants in his pants. I was wishing they'd turn on the inflight entertainment so we could appease him with some Wiggles, but that simply didn't happen. Personally I was thinking about how in all the years I've lived in Melbourne I think I've only seen lightning there two or three times and I've certainly never heard thunder like that thunder. Of all the days to have such a storm it had to be this one. I was also thinking long and hard about the tight connection we had scheduled for ourselves in LA that was seeming to get tighter with each passing minute. Would we get stuck there? Not the best way to start a flight.

Once we were ready to go, the pilot indicated the flight would be a bit bumpy on the way out of Melbourne as we'd be passing through some of the residual weather from the storm. He'd asked the flight attendants to remain seated for an extended period. It wasn't particularly bumpy or as bumpy as I'd expected given the ferocity of the storm we'd just witnessed on the ground. Of course my oldest needed to pee. She had to hold on for quite awhile. Also, they didn't start the inflight entertainment because presumably that means getting up and turning it on which they couldn't do--so the two year old was a wormy, squirmy mess as well. Only 13.5 more hours to go! Great.

Finally the fasten seat belt sign was turned off and we were free to move about the cabin. The children settled in with their videos and activities I'd packed to keep them busy. Before long the meals were served and it looked like the flight was going to be uneventful after all...or so I thought.

At some point during the flight I stood up to go to the bathroom. While I was waiting in the queue, the woman sitting directly behind me held up a bottle of wine in my general direction. She was just waving it at me. Her mouth was moving but I couldn't hear her. I moved in closer and she slurred, "Open. Open." So I worked out she couldn't open her bottle. I opened it for her and handed it back. Then I looked at her in the darkness and could see she wasn't 100%. Must have had some wine already I thought.

As the flight progressed, the woman sitting behind me exhibited more and more concerning behaviour. She continually ordered more drinks from the unwitting flight attendants until they finally twigged she was off her face and decided not to serve her. It was shortly after that (with about three hours left in the flight) that she vomited all over herself and her seat. The person next to her rang for the flight attendants who came back and endeavoured to clean her up. She stumbled to the bathroom and locked herself in there. The woman next to her indicated to the flight attendant that she'd seen the woman consume at least four mini bottles of wine plus some spirit as well as several pills. The flight attendant grabbed her bags and searched through them to find out what pills she'd taken. What did she find? Sleeping pills. So this woman was on a cocktail of sleeping pills and alcohol and we were three hours from civilization. Very unsettling.

It was at this point that the flight became extremely turbulent. The kind of turbulence that shakes the plane around and knocks unsuspecting people over. It wasn't pretty. So if having the crazy drugged out woman behind us wasn't enough, we now had to watch as the whole episode unfolded with the plane jumping up and down. (I'd also like it noted that the entire flight was turbulent from beginning to end. There wasn't a single moment when the plane wasn't bumping around. It was most annoying.)

Our children had only recently fallen asleep and I was sure all this commotion would wake them. Luckily, it did not. I tried turning up the volume on my headset and pretending I was somewhere else, but that didn't seem to reduce the stress levels too much.

So about an hour after we were due to arrive in LA, we touched down. We had to wait on the tarmac to be towed to the gate and of course as we were seated in the back of the plane, we were amongst the last people to get off. We hurried down to Customs knowing we had a very tight connection to make. We cleared passport control with relative ease and then went to wait for our bag at the carousel. The carousel wasn't moving. The whispers among the staff were that it was broken and in the process of being fixed. Then there was an announcement apologising for the delay. A nice sentiment, but an apology wasn't going to get me to my next flight on time. Finally after what seemed like FOREVER, the carousel began to move. Bags passed by, but none looked familiar. Finally two of our bags came down together. The third bag couldn't be too far behind right? No. We waited an additional 10 or 15 minutes while the carousel started and stopped and then our third bag showed up. At this point, we had about 50 minutes to make our next flight--which required us to travel to a different terminal (three terminals away), recheck our bags and pass through security. I didn't think it was going to happen.

We finally cleared Customs, who thankfully didn't send us to have extra x-rays on our bags even though I was sure that would be on the cards for us given our luck for the day. We maneuvered our way out of the International Terminal and told the kids that we'd be running full speed to the next flight. So there we were, the Handsome Australian pushing a Smart Carte loaded down with all of our bags and me pushing a pram loaded down with our two year old and our four year old clinging to one of it's handles for dear life. WE RAN.

It was at this point I was thankful for my renewed dedication to my personal fitness and could really see the many hours of aerobics classes paying off. I was also astounded that the four year old managed to keep up and I didn't end up dragging her on the ground at any point. She's a trouper.

We entered the domestic terminal and waited patiently in the queue until it was our turn to check in. The lovely agent asked me to sign a disclaimer because we were late checking in and he couldn't guarantee our bags would be on the flight. I told him the sad tale about our delayed flight and our recent arrival from Australia and our lightning fast terminal change (which hopefully explained why we were all dripping with sweat wearing what must have appeared to be our pajamas). I told him bottom line was I didn't care about the bags as long as we made the flight. I wasn't prepared to sit at LAX for the rest of the day waiting for the next flight. So he directed us to the security check point and off we went.

We made it to our domestic connection gate about 15 minutes before we were due to depart. Just as we arrived at the gate, they made an announcement that the flight would be delayed by 15 minutes which I thought was great because that meant our bags had a higher chance of getting on the plane as well.

So just under two hours after we touched down in LA, we were making our ascent over the Pacific and turning back inland on our way to Texas. The Handsome Australian and I were delirious from lack of sleep--we'd each managed under an hour on the first flight and the children were holding up remarkably well for little people who'd both had under five hours of sleep. I think they were just really excited.

We relaxed into the domestic flight and a lovely couple with a 1 year old baby traveling on their lap asked us how old our children were. "Two and nearly five." the Handsome Australian responded. The woman indicated she was asking because she was wondering at what age she could expect her daughter to sit quietly in her seat on a plane like ours were doing. When we told them we'd just arrived from Australia no more than 2 hours ago and the children had very little sleep, they simply couldn't believe it. Looking back, neither can I. I think if it had been any other way, given all the other hurdles along the way, the Handsome Australian and I might have genuinely lost the plot.

So the moral to the story is it doesn't matter how prepared you think you are, you never know what's going to happen along they way and just when you think all the chips are down, things have a funny way of working out. Or they did in this case anyway.