Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Off to Georgia

Fernando and his two sons Omar and Odin.

After a month of anticipation, I received my electronic ticket to Georgia on Thursday evening.  My flight was scheduled for the following Tuesday from LAX.  Oops!  When I applied to the TLG (Teach and Learn with Georgia) program we were asked to for a secondary airport to fly out of in the event they could not purchase tickets for our first choice.  Having no idea that the city to the south (Tucson, Arizona) had an airport, I put Los Angeles as my secondary choice.  I made three bad assumptions; and you know what you get when you assume.  1.) I didn't think that they would fly me out of LAX; 2.) if they did I thought I would get to spend a few days there with family and friends; and 3.) I thought I would receive my tickets well in advance so that if I did have to fly out of LAX, I would have ample time to prepare a trip there.

Attempts to have TLG change the departure airport from LAX to PHX were fruitless; understandable since this program is new and the government has little money so it is likely they are buying the cheapest possible tickets.  Read: non-refundable group rates.  The good news is this was a great opportunity catch up with my old high school friend Fernando who lives in Buena Park.  He agreed to pick me up from Ontario Airport, let me crash at his house, and drop me off at LAX the following morning at 4 am.  After a night of packing (well, my mother packed and I watched in amazement as she packed so much into two suitcases) my parents dropped me off at the airport and I began my journey to Georgia.  The trip to Ontario was uneventful (thanks Southwest) and Fernando was there waiting for me.  He looked just like he did in high school except for the addition of facial hair.the addition of facial hair.

Portillo's Hot Dogs

After a car tour of Buena Park and Knott's Berry Farm (I was sad to see the Wax Museum closed) Fernando and  the family took me to Portillo's Hot Dogs - a Chicago joint making its way west.  We walked off our meals at Downtown Disney which appears to occupy most of the old Disneyland parking lot.  It's a half mile of restaurants and Disney-themed shops.  It's amazing how much Anaheim has changed since I grew up there. From Interstate 5/Anaheim Blvd., you used to be able to see the Matterhorn but all you see now are trees and huge parking structures.  You need to pay for the privilege now.  The only ride I did see was the Matterhorn which they use to transport guests from the hotels to the various parks.

The next morning Fernando drove me to the airport at 3:30 am.  We first headed to the International terminal which was a graveyard with maybe a dozen people scattered about sleeping on the chairs.  After walking around for fifteen minutes without seeing any airport personnel we decided to try the main United terminal - another fifteen minute walk.  When we did arrive, the place was a zoo; fifty people in line, two people working and ninety minutes until my flight leaves.  Not to mention the longer security line waiting for me after checking my baggage.

I have to apologize to Fernando.  After standing in line for 10 minutes, I noticed this one United employee was waiting on an empty line - the sign read "Checking Baggage Only" which means those people who checked-in online can go through that line to check their bags and be on their way.  I  stepped out of line to ask the United sheep herder this and he confirmed.  So, Fernando and I make our way out of the "loser" line (well, it wasn't a big deal but it felt good) and proceed to the empty line like  VIPs only to find out that we still needed to go through the long line to show my passport.  ^%#*@!!!  Embarrassed, we make out way back to the loser line with people staring at us like we're idiots.  Well, I am the idiots not Fernando.  Thankfully, the people let us back in our original spot.  Five minutes later, two more United employees show up (that's four employees now for those counting).  One of the employees takes charge and finally yells out that anyone with a 6 am flight should head to the front of the line.  That's great but it appears that most people there are on the 6 am flight!  Except for one girl who was on a 10 am flight and chose to get here at 4 am!.  OK.  It's close to 5 am by time I make it to the front of line and I'm soon off to the security checkpoint.  Fernando bids farewell and within ten minutes I am through the checkpoint and off to my gate.

For some reason I think my gate is 75A so I make my way there and sit down to call my parents.  It's about 5:15 now and there is no one here.  By 5:30 there is still no one working the gate and I take a second look at my ticket.  Gate 85A!!!   I start running toward gate 85A which seems to be a mile away.  I flag down a cart and become one of those "cart people" we all despise and fly through the airport to my correct gate. Fortunately, they are late boarding and I end up waiting another ten minutes.  The flight to Chicago is uneventful as is the food.

Welcome to the windy city!

Chicago is United's hub and there are at least fifteen of us waiting here for our flight to Amsterdam.  I meet up with Amy and soon Kim finds us.  We pass the time by walking around and then settle down for some reading.  I find an outlet (a rare find in this airport) and charge my iPhone for the long flight.  An hour before boarding, we make our way to the gate where we meet some other TLG teachers - one of whom is Jason - also a former ASU IT guy.  With thirty minutes to board we learn that our gate has been moved and the departure time pushed back one hour - the root cause of our luggage not making the transfer in Amsterdam (see below).

My first transcontinental flight is great.  I paid $89 to upgrade to "Economy Plus" which gives me five inches of extra legroom - well worth the cost.  The dinner - some sort of overcooked pasta with tomato sauce and fake cheese product - is bland.  The roll is frozen and hard.  Before I fall asleep I watch the new Karate Kid with Will Smith's son.  We land in Amsterdam an hour late leaving no time to explore the airport.  We are rushed off the plane and escorted to the gate for our flight to Georgia.  Airzena (Georgian Airways) has no inside gate at the airport so we are bussed out to the runway where we board our plane.

Airzena - Weekly flights between Tbilisi and Amsterdam
If you thought Southwest was a cattle drive, then you haven't seen anything.  We are herded onto the plane, which has been waiting on the runway for us for over an hour.  The plane is about 60/40 Georgians and TLG teachers.  The overhead bins are all full but I manage to store my carry-on in first class - which is not surprisingly empty.  Other luggage is thrown on seats in the rear.  FAA anyone?  I asked for an aisle seat so I am placed next to a Georgian "dude" and his girlfriend.  The dude is even wearing his sunglasses ON the plane.  This is someone we all get stuck with at the movies.  You know, the person who hogs both armrests and spreads his legs so wide so you are forced so sit knees together.  To make maters worse, your knees are literally in the back of the seat in front of you.  After fifteen uncomfortable minutes the plane eventually takes off and the fasten seat belt sign goes off.  I high-tail it to the lavatory which, surprise, surprise, is void of any toilet paper or paper towels.  Welcome to Georgia!  After using the lavatory I find a new seat in the back of the plane with plenty of room and meet another Georgian who is more social than my last seatmate.  He  speaks English so we have some good conversations during the three-hour flight.  In the seat across the aisle from me is a lawyer from Atlanta, Georgia who is representing companies who wish to open shop in Georgia and his is on his fifth trip to the country.

The flight attendants are stunningly beautiful but clearly do the bare minimum.  They feed us and pass out some drinks but most of the time they are in the front of back of the plane chatting with one another.  At one point, they do manage to place some paper towels in the lavatory but those run out quickly.  The meal consisted of some sort of fatty mystery meat, which we concluded was probably mutton and some pasta in butter.  The vegetables were sliced cucumbers. A few hours later, we land in Tbilisi where we are greeted by the TLG staff and no luggage.  Yep, it didn't make it on the plane.  Good thing I brought a week's worth of clothing in my carry-on.
You're not in Kansas anymore!

We spend the next hour filling in claim forms for our luggage and exchanging dollars for Lari.  While waiting in line, we get our first taste of how Georgians wait in line.  They don't!  There were four of us waiting - which would have been obvious to most people - when a Georgian man walked right up to the window to exchange some money.  We got a good chuckle out of this but didn't complain.  A few minutes later, a little old Georgian lady does the same thing, oblivious that there are others waiting.  Making things worse, she argues with the guy at the window for what seems to be an eternity.  Finally, she turns around to leave when she sees that she cut in line.  She profusely apologizes and walks away.  After exchanging some Euro for Lari (thanks Dad) which was much stronger than the dollar we are loaded onto the bus and head for our hotel.

Welcome to Georgia!

(click here to view complete album)

No comments:

Post a Comment