Thursday, September 18, 2014

Canada Trip, Day 1

The day dawned at around 5:30-ish and this time we weren't flopping around like the living dead in the back of a limo about to pull into La Guardia airport.

The reason? I had put my foot down on the subject of getting up three hours after midnight so we could once again experience the dubious pleasure of participating in the Early Morning Meeting Of Modern Air Transport Infrastructure With The Realities Of Weather Conditions No One Saw Coming Despite A Tower Full Of Radars And A Crew Of Meteorologists.

Last time, as the attentive reader will recall1 We stood from 6 am til about 10 am on a line euphemistically called "the express check in line", missing all the connections Mrs Stevie had meticulously planned and putting us wheels down and tempers flared sometime in the late evening. Never again, I vowed2.

This time we would start the journey at a civilized time and allow the airline, whichever one we would be using but probably Air Canada since they are usually the only game in town for that journey, to have their two-hour delay and resulting mass riot in the check-in on their own sans La Famile Stevie. We would arrive after the fun was over, allowing the aeroplanes to catch up with the schedule, and all we would have to do would be to avoid the larger puddles of blood left by those too inexperienced to know better.

"Fine" snapped Mrs Stevie. "You sort it out then!"


"I'll leave the details to you!"

Well, I'm not normally moved by pathetic whining and complaining, and neither, it turns out, is Mrs Stevie because no amount of pathetic whining and complaining would get her to reverse this unreasonable new policy. I bit the bullet eventually and decided to employ ... technology.

There are hundreds upon hundreds upon three that I know of services that allow a would-be traveler to sort out the nightmare of long-distance point-to-point air travel, as any trip into the Land of the Steviemum is.

Why point-to-point? First one must immigrate to Canada and go through their customs. This used to be a simple matter of exchanging a few words with a smiling Canadian official who would wish you a pleasant stay and politely ask after your relatives. Now, however, the Canadians have moved to the American Model, which involves scowling, queuing and waiting forever.

In any event one must get off the aeroplane in an international airport and go through the process of getting back on another before it leaves without you or your bags. Yes, your bags have to be fished out of the chain-of-transport and taken by hand through the never-moving lines of people waiting to be allowed to catch their flight.

Once past that you must fly horizontally across Canada to either Edmonton or Calgary if you are of a mind to visit the Stevieparents. Once there, you must cool your heels for two and a half hours due to some sort of universal law. It doesn't matter how late your flight is or whether it arrived on time, two hours thirty minutes must be spent trying not to fall asleep.

This is harder than it sounds as Edmonton sometimes turns out the lights and clears all service personnel from the outlying gate areas so an area of peaceful twilight prevails. The odd moose wanders across the runway as the first July blizzard blows in3. A sense of peace descends on one anzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Calgary, on the other hand, is usually abuzz with at least three or four people per square mile, but the airport management have cunningly countered this intolerable overcrowding by installing enormous comfy chairs for people to await their connecting flight. Comfy comfy comfy is the order of the dazzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Once the sleep hazard has either been avoided or negotiated, one must board a "puddle jumper" for the flight to Grande Prairie. These, in previous visits, have been the shoulder wing, twin turboprop Dash 8 type which is so small the average carry-on wheely bag is too large to go in the cabin area and must be dropped off on a cart prior to climbing the boarding rope.

This year we flew on a much larger Q400 and could board with our bags, but I'm getting ahead of the story5.

I used Expedia to find us a flight that would a) leave around noonish and 2) would allow over 2 hours at each stop to cushion the various outrages that fate and the airline industry could deploy to slow us down. The only fly in the ointment was that we'd have to leave from La Guardia and return to JFK, which introduced the possibility of limo drivers not finding us or dropping us off in the wrong place.

Well, that and the fact that no matter how long I looked I could not find an inbound route that didn't have us immigrating in Toronto International Airport, aka Minas Tororntor, citadel of despair. I comforted myself with the sure knowledge that it had to be easier going through the Canada-wards version. No-one could come close to the sheer amounts of unnecessary buggering about and unnecessary lack of getting organized that the American-ward side typically subjects people to. They've been Doing It The Hard Way since forever, long before 9/11, and you can't buy field experience like that for money.

I also booked us into a hotel in the middle of Grande Prairie. Mum and Dad are now too old to have us as guests and though my sister kindly offered us all manner of alternatives we decided that in order to allow us some extra freedom we haven't had in previous visits we would put ourselves somewhere where we could come and go as the mood took us, and where we could walk to the center of town if we felt so inclined. This, naturally, sparked The Great Accommodation Crisis and I have no doubt deeply hurt my sister, who after all is family and wanted to save us the bother and cost.

Part of our decision to board abroad as it were was that with a wedding that week, the Steviesis would have her hands full and be wigging-out without the hassle of having others underfoot6. Part of it was to be, for once, independent. And there were other factors I'm not going into on account of the misery of the whole thing made me seriously consider ditching everyone and going to Australia by myself instead and I don't want to talk about it any more.

Mrs Stevie relented after seeing what a stellar job I was doing with the moving, sleeping and so forth arrangements and decided to organize a rental car before I scored a hat trick and bragging rights for the next five years. She used my credit card, which made the same sort of noise bacon makes when you press a fresh rasher down on a too-hot griddle with a metal spatula7.

We couldn't print the boarding passes yet though. That could only be done 24 hours or less from the actual take-off time of the first part of the flight. Oh well.

I began receiving a sleet of e-mails from Expedia both about my vacation and spamming me about other great opportunities in world transit. They also suggested I go to Jet Blue's website to confirm everything, which I did about a week before we were to fly. I was told I could reserve seats only if I was prepared to pay a $200 fee for "early reservations", which made me roll my eyes as it had been the case in other years that the airline preferred to have the seating well-sorted as far ahead as possible. I ponied up, and was able to reserve seats on every flight we would be involved with in both directions, so it wasn't that bad.

It also turned out to be a wise decision as was demonstrated when they badly overbooked the Edmonton to New York flight and families were split all over the plane to their great annoyance. Naturally the rows we were seated in were the last ones called for boarding on every single flight, causing some problems with finding space for our carry-on bags, but again, I'm getting ahead of the story.

Perhaps most annoyingly, having dunned me for monies to book our seats, and having taken ticket monies that formed a contract promising we could take a single piece of carry on baggage, personal items such as cameras and a single checked bag each, Westjet (our carrier this time) sent me a missive gibbering about how it was that the Commonwealth Games were being held at the same time we were traveling and we should pack the minimum we could travel with or unspecified and unpleasant things might occur.

My reaction to this was that if anyone was going to have their bags sent on a different flight it would be the bloody athlete packing too many sets of skis or an extra kayak, not Mr Bottomless Wallet and his entourage traveling within the luggage limit set down by the ticket agreement. Bloody cheek.

Anyway, eventually the day of our departure dawned - and I stayed in bed! I rose around 8:30 am, rested and ready for the day's out-of-plan excursion events.

The limo arrived a little early, just as I was discovering that not only did we have a very slow leak from one pipe of the water heater, we had a much faster one from the other pipe that was corroding the top of the containment vessel quite badly and required swift and immediate action. I put a cut-off vitamin container I used to hold 20-penny nails under it8 and ran upstairs to make a cup of tea using our Keurig machine.

Keurig tea is not as good as real brewed tea but it is hot, drinkable and fast to make. I grabbed a "sippy mug" that had once held some sort of beverage from 7-11 and selected "maximum volume", and beverage in hand dashed out of the house, and boarded the limo where I was greeted by a foot-tapping Mrs Stevie and the Stevieling.

"You can ride up front" they snarled in unison, so I climbed in beside Ed the Driver and we were off.

We made good time even though it wasn't still dark outside, a point I made a few times to Mrs Stevie until she playfully threatened to strangle me. I took my first sip of tea and generous amount escaped the "leak proof" lid to cover my hands and shirt with hot, sticky beverage (I take sugar). I used a pocketful of tissues to staunch the flow and caulk the lid but the blissful element was gone and when we arrived at La Guardia I derived great pleasure by binning that Demon-Infested cup with extreme prejudice.

Check-in was, for the first time ever, the experience promised when you print out your boarding passes at home; a quick, essentially painless operation.

Of course it couldn't last.

The out-of-plan excursion events started in earnest with the brusque "security check", in which Mrs Stevie was identified as having terrorist knees. I'm not kidding here, her knees were flagged as being "suspicious". She offered to show the man her knees but he waved his hands in panic and told her to lower her dress immediately.

I can understand this. The thought of being confronted by Mrs Stevie's legs has oft-times induced panic attacks in me too.

Once at the gate she stomped off, muttering about knees, to buy whatever the local equivalent was of a Triple-Kaff Clawhammer Latte and I overheard someone talk about silencing cell phones, and thought I'd better do that too.

Whereupon I discovered mine was missing. A quick search followed by a slow search failed to turn up the device so I went back to the security check-in to see if I'd left it there. I had a clear memory of placing it in a tub so it could be x-rayed for hidden rocket launchers. No. It wasn't there.

Mrs Stevie gave me a ten minute speech on how stupid I was between sips of her rocket fuel beverage, but it didn't include any new information, being basically an ad-libbed re-hash of various familiar themes that she has, in my opinion, over-used over the years. At least it took her mind off the knees business. Then she gave me her cell phone so I could cancel the service on mine.

This took a while as the phonebot at the other end of "customer assistance" line wanted menu selections and the cell phone kept activating the screen blank function9 preventing selection. Not only that it kept overhearing the PA announcements the airport was piping in as attempts to use the voice recognition menu selection algorithms. The resulting chaos drove me to the brink of apoplexy, but eventually I got the job done.

So the holiday would be spent sans portable comms. I wasn't sure how I felt about that. On the one hand the convenience of the phone was lost, on the other I had deliberately left my laptop at home so as to not be tempted to do work stuff.

Once the Cell Phone Annoyance had been dealt with I was able to cast my eyes around and take surprised note of the sheer number of screwed-down iPads littered about the place. There were approximately two iPads per would-be traveler. Clearly the airport management were using Vision to move the business of cooling one's heels in their airport into the 21st century.

This proved to be a double-edged sword of annoyance when I decided to go and buy a coffee from the swank island restaurant situated not fifty feet from me, the same one Mrs Stevie had used only half an hour before. It took 15 minutes and the help of passers-by before I could figure out the iPad menu and payment device's menus, and eventually had to be walked through it by the person who would serve the coffee.

I still had to ask by mouth for a lid for the cup, and though I didn't order it and hadn't paid for it I was brought an unwanted slice of delicious-looking gateau completely unsuitable for a stomach about to undergo 8 hours plus of flying and immigration. I sent the cake back and retained the beverage. Only cost twice what Starbux would charge for the coffee too.

As I carried the "sealed" cup back to my seat I found that although the menu selection was totally 21st Century, the lid technology deployed was in fact far below the accepted norm for 1930, and hot sticky coffee leaked freely all over my hands and clothes. I realized that a holiday annoyance theme was revealing itself.

When we were called for boarding, after everyone else was safely seated with their twelve carry-on bags stowed, we walked onto the plane with our single bags and began the long and tedious search for overhead stowage. Important tip: Row 12 boards last.

And finally we sat and belted in. And sat. And sat. And sat.

I wasn't concerned at the delay as I had programmed 2.5 hours to transit Minas Torontor which should leave plenty of cushion for late arrival, bleeped-up luggage carousel and immigration. But boy was I bored.

Eventually we were told that the issue was that there was only one runway available that day, and so there was considerable congestion on the taxiways. Yes, we were stuck in traffic at the airport.

One hour late we pulled up to the runway where I could see that not only were outgoing planes using the same runway, incoming planes were too! They had only one runway for both sets of traffic! I had assumed they had one runway outbound!

It still beggars my imagination that La Guardia could muster more iPads than they had travelers, but could only organize one bleeping runway for everyone. Way to prioritize spending, airport management.

We arrived in Minas Torontor with two sets of flights being cancelled due to this dilly-dallying and ours "being held for us", and lined up at the carousel for our bags so we could run - the 2.5 hour cushion having succumbed to other people's incompetence. We got one bag of the three we had put on the plane, and the carousel ran dry. It stayed that way for the next ten minutes, starting to deliver bags again at exactly the time we should have been taking to the air in our connecting flight.

We grabbed our remaining two bags when they finally put in an appearance (together) and were hustled to the slowest line possible for immigration by an annoyed airport staffer who clearly thought it was my fault the bloody planes were late and the bleeping baggage belt was up to its internationally-famed usual standard of not very good at all.

Our appointed immigration agent was perhaps the slowest one I've ever seen in action. Not only were there the standard "Who are you and where are you going?" questions, there were detailed interrogations about where people had been and what they had seen before boarding their flight, as if she were trying to trip the travelers up with a detail she knew but they didn't on account of them not being a family of people on vacation but some sort of terrorist cell. The fact that everyone had regional Canadian or New York accents and had documentation to indicate that they had indeed arrived from where they said they had was not a factor.

Indeed, so slow and "methodical" was our agent10 that the disabled person line cleared before she got to us and we were called by a different agent entirely. We were by now fifteen minutes behind the advertised take-off time of our connection.

Grabbing our bags and rushing for the plane we were happy to see it held so we could once again attempt to find some stowage for our three carry-on bags. Other passengers encouraged us to hurry up until two other families boarded after us, at which point they became the reason for the delay.

We were temporarily held up again by someone sitting in one of our seats. She looked puzzled at being asked to move, but in the face of our just-checked boarding passes and the somewhat irritated cabin staffer standing behind us she got up and went to sit where her own pass told her to, but not before petulantly whining "I didn't know there was assigned seating", which was so absurd we just ignored it. All I knew was I wasn't changing seats since I'd paid a premium for ours.

And so we took off and flew for four and a bit hours and landed in Calgary, not much later than we were supposed to. This gave us time to eat in a casual dining restaurant near the gate. Unfortunately. The less said about the experience the better. "Very Ordinary on every level" is the kindest thing I can come up with.

Then we boarded the small Q400 for the flight to Grande Prairie and were met by The Steviesis and family, including my Niece and her beautiful new baby girl whom I didn't get to hold for long enough on account of the women taking all the baby-cuddling time and my nephew and his beautiful bride-to-be.

We eventually decamped for the hotel in a humongous Ford Leviathan 4X4 King Cab courtesy of Mr Steviesis - a very long-suffering and decent bloke who doesn't deserve the life he has inherited but who is always at the front when volunteers are needed and who looks after my folks better than they have a right to expect. I suggested we dump the cases in our room and return to the almost deserted hotel bar for a cocktail or a beer or both and the day wound down nicely as we caught up over strong drink.

The holiday was on!

  1. What do you mean, you dozed off four words in?
  2. Again
  3. An exaggeration4
  4. Most years
  5. Quit cheering in the cheap seats!
  6. I estimated she was at Wig Factor 1 when we arrived. By mid week she was oscillating between that and Wig Factor 2, remarkably calm on the whole. At the Stevieniece's wedding she had run a solid Wig Factor 5 for two days straight
  7. For real. This little jaunt ended up costing one arm, and after taxes one leg too
  8. I emptied out the nails first
  9. A preventative measure against ear-dialing that replaces the annoyance of unwanted keystrokes mid-call with the rage-inducing annoyance of having to bugger about with different buttons and menu icons when you should be listening to instructions. Seriously, by the time you get the keypad open (again) the menu is being re-read in Croatian
  10. I counted the people immigrating and could confirm that every other agent was clearing three to five people to her one

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