Sunday, July 4, 2010

Day 22 – Back home to the land of the free?

We all had varying theories on how to best avoid jetlag on the trip back, mine being that you slept as much as possible on the first flight, being about a five hour flight from Johannesburg to Ghana, another two hour nap or so on the flight from Ghana to New York and then stay awake from New York to Portland. Marcos insisted on staying awake the entire Johannesburg to Ghana flight and doing all of his sleeping on the Ghana to New York flight, which would be immediately adjusting to Pacific Standard time. All I knew is no matter what his plan was he was probably going to be sleeping for the majority of every flight, regardless. And waiting to sleep until the Ghana to New York flight meant going nearly thirty hours with no sleep. Either way, I stuck to my plan and spent most of my first flight catching some z’s.

Once we arrived in Ghana we had to wait on the back nine of the runway for a bus to come pick us up and shuttle us to the terminal; we were way to far to walk the distance and even if anyone was up for it we were in the midst of a proper rainfall. Once we reached the terminal we had a few different airport officials helping us do what we needed to get done, the only problem was they were all telling us different things. The first guy had us fill out a customs and immigration slip, even though we were only in transit. The next guy told us we didn’t need to fill that out we needed to sign our info in this big notebook they had just sitting on a table. My first thought was, ‘what kind of information on you putting in this book for anyone to see?’ Their system was pretty old school, like 1940’s old school, and lacked any worries of identity theft, which I found both interesting and a cause for concern. Once through customs we gathered our bags and followed the guy who helped us through customs as he was leading us towards our gate we needed in order to transfer to New York, this involved leaving the terminal we arrived in, walking outside around the corner of the building, up a large flight of stairs and in to the departures terminal. The whole time we’re in the midst of a deluge and the roof’s leaking all over the airport, granted it was about 75 degrees with 300% humidity.

Once outside, the airport official helping us started screaming at a swarm of “We love Americans” locals who just wanted to help us with our luggage, get us umbrellas, and show us where we were going, for a small tip of course, to get back and leave us alone. They did so until the official went back inside and then they were on us like white on rice. We refused to let them help us, they did anyway, perhaps the most interesting being the guy trying to push our luggage cart while Micah positioned himself so the guy couldn’t push it and insisted he had it and didn’t need any help the entire way to the terminal, but the guy would awkwardly position himself to get a hand on the handle anyway. They were surprised when we all refused to pay them, there were about six other Americans in our group transferring to the same flight as us as well.

Once inside the departures terminal we had five hours to figure out what was going on and get ourselves through customs, so we were in no real hurry. There was a large line of people, whom we assumed were not Americans and not on the same flight as us, so we grabbed a seat and started to relax. After about fifteen minutes or so we realized that entire line was one large group of Americans, some sort of African drum band or something. We jumped up, and shadowed their every move, never mind that this was a female African drum band. Their check in process involved a guy standing by a scale who would weigh everyone’s bag as they walked by him. Our large shared bag that we’d brought solely for bringing home souvenirs and things purchased along the trip was too heavy for four kg, so he told us to take our 4kg and disperse it across the other four bags. Having absolutely no reference for how much 4 kg was we just started taking the heaviest things out and putting them in other bags. Second time through his line was a charm.

The next step of the process was talking to the Delta front desk concierge, and by front desk concierge I mean person at a podium with no computer. They asked a few questions, mainly where are we coming from, where we were going and what the purpose of our trip was. Considering the U.S. was knocked out of the World Cup by Ghana, the country we were now in and the last African nation still in the tournament, I decided to try two methods on getting past these security officials. The first, and one I used on the concierge after she inquired who I was supporting in the World Cup, was simply answering “Ghana, The Black Star’s. Show dem Ghana, show dem!” Breezed right past her. Next line of security was bag checkers. No x-ray machines or fancy bag scanning equipment, remember I said this place was straight out of 1940, just two people that would open all your bags and rifle through them. Not only did this feel slightly uncomfortable, as you’re standing in this massive line of people while some stranger investigates your dirty underwear, but it was also frustrating for me because I consider myself a world class suitcase packer. I knew there was no way this guy was going to rebuild my suitcase the way I had it. I’d added four bottles of wine to my suitcase without taking any of my clothes out, and only did I have the smallest suitcase out of the four of us, I also had the biggest wardrobe. As he finished his search I watched him continually fumble with putting it back together, he couldn’t even fit the wine back in properly regardless of there being clothes around it or not. I offered to fix it for him, as there was still a massive line of people behind me waiting to have their bags searched, but he’d already inspected it and I was no longer allowed to touch it. He got it somewhat close, asked me if it was good, I realized he wasn’t going to be able to do any better and told him it was fine, all the while hoping when I reclaimed it in New York it wouldn’t be dripping wine out the hinges. This is also where I tried my hand at the second method of security distraction, demand pity. Not sure how much alcohol I could legally bring back to the states and thinking four bottles was quite a bit, I demanded he had to be nice to me in a show of gratitude for his country knocking mine out of the tournament. Never mind the fact that I was decorated head to toe in Holland gear, and this was the day the mighty Clockwork Orange were to knock the most feared, number one team in the world, Brazil, out of the tournament.

After baggage check we made our way to the gate, which involved three more security checkpoints. Two put-your-carry-on-through-the-scanner-machine-take-your-shoes-off-and-walk-through-the-x-ray-machine checkpoints and one simple check to make sure your carry on met the size requirements. Carlos admitted he hated Ghana because of the such high security standards, having to take his broken toe boot off and completely apart in order to pass security. He seemed surprised when I said it had nothing to do with Ghana and security was so tight because we were going back to the states on this flight, but insisted it was Ghana’s fault and they sucked. Bitterness from The Yanks being knocked out of the Cup by them I’m sure.

The flight from Ghana to New York seemed to be never ending. But it also wasn’t full and people were able to switch seats and relocate to wherever they pleased. Carlos insisted he’d bought the seat between us for his sticks, to which I claimed it was the best $2,000 he’d ever spent. Only to have to stewardess come by moments later and tell them he couldn’t keep them there, then whisked them away to the front of the plane. Though I didn’t particularly want to leave South Africa, once we touched back down on American soil at JFK and I was able to take my cell phone off airplane mode for the first time in a month, it was a pretty good feeling. Having all that power back at my fingertips, feeling smart again knowing whenever I was asked a question I didn’t know I could quickly google the answer on my phone, quite exhilarating.

There was a traffic jam on the runway, which saw us getting to our gate about forty-five minutes late, which ate in to our time to get off the plane, make it through customs and board our final flight home, a time frame that was already pushing it with our two and a half hour layover, now chiseled down to just under two hours. Everything seemed to be flowing smoothly and quickly. From past experiences of traveling outside of the country it always seemed that returning back to the states was the most difficult. Getting in to foreign countries was a breeze, the most security and questions were thrown at you once you tried to return home to the states. That wasn’t the case this time and immigration went more like I’d always asked why it couldn’t be like that. I walked up to the immigration officer, he took one look at me, one look at my passport, asked “You go to the World Cup?”

“Yep.” I confirmed.

“Bummer about losing to Ghana…then having to fly through there,” *stamp! “Welcome home.”

The real adventure started after baggage claim. The unfortunate thing was having to reclaim our baggage at every stop and not being able to just check it all the way through to Portland. We switched airlines in Ghana and had to reclaim it there, then had to pick it up so we could take it through customs in New York. Carlos had finagled himself a wheelchair transport from a Delta employee, which was nice as we now had about an hour to make it through customs baggage check, security and make it to our gate and she could get us through secret doors and the front of security lines. She said we’d be fine to catch our flight as long as we got our bags within fifteen minutes, it took closer to twenty but she still insisted we looked to be in good shape. Somewhere between the baggage carousel and the customs baggage checkpoint Marcos managed to lose his customs paperwork. Being the last of the four of us through, he was now stuck and in the gray area of the country, similar to international waters I suppose. He wasn’t one hundred percent back in to the U.S. yet and we couldn’t go back for him since we’d already cleared customs. We tossed our bags in the baggage room, thinking there’d be no way that their convoluted system would work efficiently enough for us to see our bags roll off the carousel in Portland, and waited for Marcos to figure things out. The lady pushing Carlos around grew increasingly stressed and impatient, telling us we were going to miss our flight. We tried to figure out what the best solution was going to be, not wanting to leave Marcos all alone but also not wanting miss our flight. The first option was for Carlos and I to go ahead while Micah waited for Marcos. The Delta lady insisted there’d be no way they’d make it to the flight on time because going with her was going to get us there quicker. Micah then came up with the most logical idea, being the Ortiz boys were getting picked up by their parents and Micah and I by my parents, it made the most sense that we went on and he waited. Then, once we got to the plane, we’d be able to stall and at least inform them the other two were only a short ways behind us. Carlos immediately shot down that idea and said he didn’t want to have to spend any more time in the airport. With the outcome quickly becoming all of us ending up at the airport overnight, and all wanting to go home rather than have our trip extended another day, I made the executive decision that Carlos and I were going to move on so we could at least inform the flight crew the others would be along shortly. Off we went, cutting lines, taking down velvet ropes and going in to uncharted hallways. Just as we’d made it through the security checkpoint and I’d just finished tying my shoes we saw Marcos and Micah run by, just arriving at the security checkpoint. The line for security looked to be about a thirty minute wait so I looked at the Delta lady to see if she could get them to the front of the line, but before I could even ask she said there was nothing she could do. Knowing Marcos had cleared customs and they were now to security was a bit of a relief though. Carlos, being powered in his wheelchair by the Delta lady, and I took off double-timing it to our gate with only five minutes or so left until the plane was scheduled to depart. Not more than a few minutes later Micah and Marcos caught up to us, winded and sweating but back with us. The terminal was completely empty and everyone seemed to be seated and waiting for us once we got on the plane. However the most important thing being we made it on the plane.

We blasted off, had a nice aerial view of New York city, and were quickly flying at a rate of 480 miles per hour, give or take about twenty. Rumor had it the flight was equipped with wifi so I reached for my laptop as soon as they told me in doing so we weren’t all going to go in to a fiery tailspin and plummet 36,800 feet to the ground. It didn’t take me long to remember we were back in the states though and the wifi wasn’t free. I opted for a movie, which also wasn’t free. All the same movies that had been free on every other flight of this trip were all of a sudden six dollars to watch. I decided to scratch the movie idea and feed my newly found bejeweled addiction, which ended up costing five dollars if you wanted to play, a game which was also free on every other flight. It only seems fitting that the baggage carts you could rent for five dollars at JFK were free at every other airport we’d been to as well. Every flight we’d taken prior to this one we were also served two full meals, two or three snacks, and there was always a self-serve snack pile in the back of the plane. After being asked what I’d like to drink and if I’d like to order something off the menu or would possible like a little snack I remembered that even if it was a six hour coast-to-coast flight I was still going to have to pay for food if I wanted it. The cheapest thing on the menu was a bag of chips for five dollars. So much for being the “land of the free.”

Our pilot then came on and admitted to having a lead foot, claiming he’d have us to Portland an hour ahead of schedule, then followed through on his promise. So, at 9:36 p.m. on July 2nd, 2010 I stepped out of the plane and sent foot back on Portland soil, or airport carpet as the case may be. At 10:36 I filed a lost baggage claim with Delta, along with Micah and Carlos who had also checked their bags the same way as me. Marcos, who checked his at the security checkpoint once he’d realized he couldn’t carry it on due to the beers he was smuggling back for me, checked his at the security check point. His made it, none of ours did. At 10:56 I was seated at McMenamins Tavern and Pool Hall on NW 23rd. 11:00 p.m. I was drinking a hammerhead with a spicy chicken burrito on its way. I had to give Micah a hard time for ordering a burger after we’d spent the last three weeks eating burgers and using our expert senses, intellect and exploring skills which would put the likes of Lewis and Clark and Christopher Columbus to shame, in search of Mexican food. The only place I’d found Mexican was at Spurs, a Denny’s-like restaurant chain, at Suncoast Casino in Durban. I ordered the only Mexican dish they had on the menu, which was fajitas, my least favorite of all Mexican dishes. Surprisingly though they were the best fajitas I’d ever had. A burrito is what I’d been craving though. At 5:45 p.m. July 3rd everyone’s bag was delivered to them except for mine. At 9:36 p.m. July 3rd, 24 hours after I landed, my baggage claim code still told me they hadn’t located my bag so I called Delta. The lady told me it had just landed in Portland and would be delivered sometime the following afternoon. At 2:04 a.m. on July 4th my vacation was officially over when Russel, from Delta airlines, snuck through the dark of our driveway, crept up on the deck and left my bag outside our front door. Then called me and left me a voicemail to tell me he’d just done so.

It’s been fun, South Africa. I can’t wait to come back and visit you again soon. I have to admit, there's nothing quite like sleeping in my own bed though and no matter how good crocodile and impala meat may be, I sure missed the delicious home cooked meals my roommate makes. This whole backwards system of driving on the left side of the car and right side of the road is mighty weird though, it's taking me some time adjusting to this oddball way of driving.

Not sure what to do now besides countdown the days until my next big trip, Austin, Texas in eighteen days to visit my cousin and watch Manchester United play the MLS All-Star team. I had a lot of fun writing and taking pictures about this trip and imagine I will do the same for Texas. So, for those of you who enjoy reading about my travels, stay tune for the next episode scheduled to start on July 22nd. And perhaps if I get enough emails, texts, and phone calls from you all asking to keep writing maybe I’ll post snippets of other things I’m working on between now and then.

Added a few pics to the random album, including the plane we flew home on and Marcos encountering a Sounders fan after 30 sleepless hours.

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