Sunday, December 26, 2010

Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey

My journey home to the United States was anything but easy and stress free.  All I had to do was catch 2 planes and I’d be home in no time.  So simple yet so impossible to complete.  My journey started at 9:00 P.M. Friday December 17th Spanish time, and finally ended 11:00 A.M. Monday December 20th Arizona time.  63 hours I think is what it finally all added up to.  Not that getting from Spain to Arizona shouldn’t take some time, but in this day and age I must complain.  Yes, it used to take months to get from Europe to America, but back then all they had was wind power…the original version.  None of these cruise ship things, trains, or high speed million horse power airplanes.  And yet somehow I have a feeling that a little bit of snow never stopped them.  Oh how far our technology has come…

It all started Friday night on the bus from Sevilla to Madrid.  Our study abroad group bussed all the kids up to the Madrid airport so we could catch all of our planes to start our adventures home.  The 6 hour bus ride wasn’t very bad and since we started it so late at night, most everyone was asleep within the first 2 hours of travel.  We got to the airport around 2:30 or 3:00 A.M. that is and had to wait for the airport to open up for regular business.  The kiosks at the airport where you check your bags didn’t even open till 5:00 so we had a few more hours to be together as a group for one last time.  However, as 5:00 rolled around the tearful goodbyes began.  I suck at goodbyes in general so saying bye to at least 20 people all one right after another is just not cool.  I wasn’t exactly bawling when I was saying goodbye, but yes, yes I was crying and so were the others I was saying goodbye to.  When I finally got through all the goodbyes a few other friends and I headed off to our terminal to check in for our flights. 

Before we even checked in, I knew my one checked bag would be overweight. I had already accepted the fact that I would never get it in the 50 pound limit.  Not that I bought a whole lot in Spain, I just came with too much stuff to be honest.  But regardless I headed up to the counter credit card ready.  Ready to pay any extra fee they felt like charging me.  They weigh my bag…28 kilos, about 61 pounds.  Not bad considering I was certain it weighed at least 65…the lady looked at me and then proceeded to tell me that 23 kilos was the limit for the free checked bag.  I then continued to tell her that yes, I did know that and yes, I am willing to pay whatever it took to get my fricken bag on that plane home.  I just wanted to go home. 

                        Lady:  “Try taking some stuff out of the bag to make it weigh less.”

Oh please…lady….have you glanced over the counter to take a look at my two very over stuffed carryons??  There is no way anything is going to fit in there.  Like seriously, my bags were bursting at the seams.  I had to get my roommate to sit on one of them for it to close. 

Me:  “Oh, no, that’s ok.  I really don’t have any room for more stuff in my carryons.  Can I just pay for the extra weight?”

Lady:  “No, no!  Just try and take some stuff out.  It will make it lighter.”

As if I didn’t know taking stuff out of my bag would make it lighter…I looked at her to see if she was actually serious or just playing me.  Nope…she was serious.  For the enjoyment of the counter lady and others all around me, I unzipped my 61 pound bag and took out some books and folders which I knew would weigh a good amount.  I shoved the folders into my backpack with my laptop and began violently shoving a notebook into my back pack as well.  I looked at the weight on the scale and it read 25.8 kilos, about 56 pounds now. 

                        Lady:  “That’s fine that’s fine…I’ll just send it through.”

SCORE!!!  Free overweight bag!!  I think the lady just felt sorry for me.  She probably just saw the desperation in my eyes to get the hell out of here and go home.  Something that would take longer than expected. 

With my bag checked and the few friends that had accompanied me to the same terminal gone and on their own ways now, I walked to my gate and waited impatiently for my flight to begin.  Madrid to London…then London to Phoenix.  Perfect.  After some time of waiting our flight finally took off and we were on our way to London.

A short 2 hours later we landed on the snowy runway of Heathrow International Airport.  “Yay!  It’s snowing!”  Became my first reaction…then as I looked around at the snow covered plane and ground my feeling of delight slowly faded and became one of worry.  “Crap…it’s snowing.”  However, with a 3½ hour layover, I was positive the snow would stop and I would be on my way.  Delayed maybe, but on my way none the less.  We get off the plane and I head for my next terminal where I would board my plane home.  It was then that all the problems started…

Problem number one…the bus that was to bring all passengers to the terminals was snowed in and not currently running.  Okayy…well…I guess I walk to the terminal.  However, as I began to walk I began to hear mumblings of canceled flights.  I refused to believe that my flight would be canceled.  I remained optimistic, since my flight was not for a few hours…the snow would stop and the runways would be cleared.

I passed through customs and proceeded to follow the signs for an underground shuttle system that would also take you to the terminals.  I made it to the platform and met some other kids who were also going to Phoenix on the same flight I was.  We discussed the rumors going about and tried to remain optimistic about our chances of getting out.  We then made it to the terminal where our worst fears were confirmed. 

Above our heads was a giant Departures sign…every single flight was accompanied with one simple word.  Canceled.  Every. Single. Flight.  I stood in shock at the sight before me and tried as hard as I could to not cry.  For the last month I had thought of home and my arrival in Phoenix.  I was instantly at a loss for words.  My mind went blank and the whole hustle and bustle of the world’s business airport went silent.  I stared at the board for what seemed like a good while until I was literally called back to Earth by the kids I had met on the shuttle.  They had written down the rebooking number and were going to call and try and get new flights out.  I took down the number as well, but when I reached the payphone and typed in all my credit card info, I automatically called another number.  I called the only place I knew would comfort me.  I called my house, more specifically, I called my mom.  For some reason no matter how old you are I’ve come to realize that calling Mom is the only thing that can truly keep you from falling apart.  I planned on telling my mom that my flight had been canceled and that I would need her to call the travel agent and have her book me a new flight, but instead the second I heard my mother’s voice answer the phone I broke down.  Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to hear that voice in person as soon as I thought absolutely crushed me inside.  My need to just go home had never been stronger than at that moment.  I just wanted to go home, I didn’t care how. 

After my mini break down on the payphone in Heathrow airport, my mom and I talked about my options and how we were going to get me outta there.  I got off the phone with her and walked over to the phone store located in the terminal and bought myself a phone with 100 international minutes.  I needed to be able to talk to my parents whenever I needed without having to wait in line for a payphone. 

As I was walking out of the phone store trying to figure out this new phone and looking for an outlet to charge it at, I ran into one of my friends from my study abroad program!  “KATHERINE!”  I heard a voice say.  I turned around to see my friend Josh standing there looking just as dazed and confused as I was.  At that instant I felt a bit calmer and knew I was no longer alone.  This sense of familiarity made me sooooo happy.  With Josh by my side I knew I would get through this. 

After somehow managing to find a seat and an outlet for the new phone, I called my mom again.  I composed myself fairly well at first until she told me my new flight out of Heathrow was on Tuesday the 21st.  Not cool..It was currently Saturday the 18th.  However my mother reassured me that this was only a temporary flight booking and if any seats opened up on any other plane headed to any part of the USA I was to get on it.  My new goal…just get to the USA.  50 states. Pick one, I’ll go.  JUST GET ME OUTTA HERE! 

After another long conversation with my parents, it was time for Josh and I to somehow make ourselves comfortable in Heathrow Airport.  Luckily we had also managed to meet some other students about our age looking to go to America as well so we all formed a mini tribe and took turns watching luggage while others went on the prowl for food.  Quite frankly I wasn’t sure if Heathrow would be ready for this amount of people and I was certain they would run out of food.  Airports aren’t meant to feed hundreds of people constantly for days on end.  The airport had provided the stranded passengers with some free sandwiches earlier, but with so many people to feed if you weren’t there in the first 3 minutes of that food cart showing up, you didn’t get a sandwich.  They would bring out more food carts, but you can only wait so long when you haven’t eaten in a while.  For a moment I think I understood what it was like to be homeless!  If you saw someone with bread you instantly RAN towards the source of such gold.  Despite that little voice of worry in the back of my head that we would be here forever we tried to make the best of it.  We got some food, ate, talked, played cards, made plans for our attempt to get out the next day, and then when it seemed we had covered every possible plan and every little detail, Josh and I decided it was time to get some sleep.  It was only 9 or so at night, however we both hadn’t truly slept well since Wednesday night.  We tried to catch some shut eye for our big adventure the next day.  Plan for Sunday:  Wake up at 3:30 A.M…Stand in line for rebooking…get put on every standby list for every flight going out to America that day…and finally survive this nightmare.

My night in Heathrow Airport was horrible.  Although we did receive some blankets from British Airways, it was still very cold on the hard wooden floor of the little café we had chosen to sleep in.  I managed to squeeze under a table where it looked more like a tent than an overcrowded café area.  I would pretend all night long that this was just like the camping trips we used to take when I was little.  I slept in my puff jacket, my hat, my gloves, my scarf, and my blanket from British Airways.  I would have traded anything just to be in the stupid cold room in Spain.  At least there I had 6 blankets and somewhere soft to lie.  Every 30 min or so I would wake up with a pain in some part of my body and once I finally found a comfortable spot again, then pain in my heart would take over.  A sleepless, tearful night was the one I spent there.  Thoughts of my family and friends, and how I would miss my OWN coming home party circled in my head all night long.

Luckily I was not allowed to dwell on these thoughts for too long seeing as how 3:30 A.M. comes just as early as you think it does.  Josh and I gathered our things and headed to find the rebooking line.  Of course the airport was a mad house and no one can tell us which line to get into for a rebooking…thanks British Air…very helpful as always…We finally plant ourselves in one line that claims to be the rebooking line.  We wait until 6 when the kiosks open and begin another waiting process.  We waited, and waited, and waited, and waited, and waited….from 3:30 A.M. until 12:00 when we finally reached the counter.  9 hours later we approach the desk. 

“How can I help you?” were the words we heard.  “We need to go to the States.”  Was all we managed to get out.  “Which one?”  she asked…Josh and I exchanged looks and without thinking blurted out, “Anyone.”  Whatever flight you have lady…I want to be on that flight, those were the exact thoughts inside my head.  At first she seemed a little hesitant to help us since apparently they were not supposed to be rebooking anyone anymore at this station even though many of us had just spent 9 hours in one line.  At first she said she wouldn’t be able to rebook us since they weren’t doing that anymore, but Josh and I were not about to give up.  We just kept asking her questions about what flights were going out, what flights might be going out, when, and how we could go about getting on the standby list.  After looking at flight after flight, I think she finally saw how desperate we were to get home and proceeded to put us on the standby list for a flight to New York that was to leave that night.  And best news of all, Josh and I were the first ones on that list.  For the first time in the past 24 hours a glimmer of hope began to grow inside me.  My mind began to race…No flights are coming into Heathrow…people who have this flight as connection won’t be able to even get into Heathrow…there’s gotta be at least 2 people on this huge flight that were coming from another place…they won’t be there…omg…we have a shot at this. 

Josh and I could not sit still for we knew the next 6 hours would be the most intense 6 hours of our lives so far.  6 hours of waiting to see who would all show up for the flight, 6 hours of thinking you might be going home, and 6 hours of waiting PRAYING that this flight would not be canceled like some before it and that it would actually be allowed to leave this purgatory.  As we walked around the terminal looking for some food another amazing event occurred.  We found another person from my study abroad group!  Katie was sitting on the floor eating one the free sandwiches when we saw her.  We instantly called out her name and I watched her face light up with joy as she recognized our faces.  We chatted briefly about our horrible arrivals here in Heathrow and then decided the day called for a drink.

We talked for a while about random things and also shared with her Josh and mine’s plans to leave for New York that same night…assuming our plane was allowed to leave.  After some food and drinks we headed back with Katie to our hold out in the little airport café.  Now that my spirits were lifted a little with the thought of escaping London I was able to sleep.  The instant I sat down in one of the couch chairs I managed to find in the crowded café, I was out like a light.  But not before I set my alarm to wake me up to stand in line for my standby ticket.

3 hours later I was awoken by the sound of a beeping alarm from my new British cell telly.  5:00 it read.  Alright.  Let’s do this.  Josh and I gathered our things and walked with racing hearts to the stand by counter and joined the growing group of hopeful individuals.  We were only waiting 5 minutes or so when the young lady who helped us get on the list for standby came walking towards us.  “Didn’t I help you two not too long ago?  You’re trying to go to New York right?”  My voice cracked a little as I tried to respond, afraid of her answer.  All I managed to get out was a meek “yes.  She smiled and then said, “Good!  Give me your tickets!  I think I can get you on!”  The pain in my stomach returned when she said those words…I wasn’t quite on the flight yet, but my escape seemed closer than ever.  We surrendered our tickets and watched her walk over to a different desk and start typing on the computer.  Seconds seemed like hours until I heard the sweet sound of the printer…printing off boarding passes, our boarding passes, our tickets outta here, my salvation from this awful place.  “Here you go!  You’re going to New York!” she said.  My knees buckled and I wanted to cry right then and there, but there was no time for that.  We had to get going through security and get to our gate before I would take any major emotional action.  Josh and I hugged her and thanked her for her compassion and headed off to our plane. 

Of course there were no major lines anywhere so security was a breeze and we walked right to our gate.  It was then that I decided to call my parents and let them know of the good news.  I didn’t want to call them too soon though and then have my flight be canceled and all of our hopes be crushed again.  But seeing as how we were at the gate about to board, I figured my chances were pretty good.  Just before we were about to board, we saw Katie once again running towards us!  She had made the flight as well!  With nothing to do she had decided to stand in the standby line for the New York flight as well and managed to get herself a seat.  By some twist of fate we were all able to leave on that flight. 

Too excited to be on American soil I didn’t sleep much on the plane.  And when we landed in New York I had never felt happier to be in the wrong state then right then and there.  We searched for our checked baggage, but of course none of ours made it so we proceeded to walk to the rebooking counter for British Airways.  The line was huge, but since I had booked though a travel agent I knew they would be able to rebook me in minutes rather than the hours it would take to get through that line.  I called my parents once again and also said hello to some people at my Christmas/Coming Home party…it was an odd feeling having people at your party when you’re not even there, but at least I was on my way.  My mom then called the travel agent and got me rebooked for the first flight out to Phoenix from New York.  It was a 6:30 A.M. flight.  Usually I would be opposed to such a flight time, but at that moment I would have taken a flight at 4:30 A.M.  Anytime just to get home at last. 

With only 4 hours until I would be able to check in for my flight home Josh, Katie, and I decided to all take some cat naps and set every single alarm we could to make sure we didn’t miss our early morning flights.  We had all been running off of a mere 4 or 5 hours of sleep since Saturday…it was now Monday so you can imagine how exhausted we all were.  After a good nap, I woke with a start as 5 different alarms started going off at once.  We gathered our things, said our sleepy sad goodbyes, and then headed for our different gates and terminals. 

I checked into my US Airways flight and got in the HUGE line for security.  For a little while I was very scared I wouldn’t make it to my gate in time!  I had never seen a security line so long before in my life!  But I had it all figured out.  If I wasn’t close to the front of the line by 6:00, almost 2 hours from that point, I would find the nearest security guard and bawl my eyes out.  I knew I would be capable of it too.  There was no way I was missing my flight home.  I would cry and cry until they felt sorry, or just got sick of me and let me cut to the front of the line.  :)  Fortunately I didn’t have to do that because they got smart and opened up a second line at security.  I went through the scanner wearing 3 pants, 2 shirts, and 2 jackets since they had complained about the size of my carryon while I was in line.  I’ll admit it was waaayyy over the weight and size limit, but I hadn’t had a problem with it until now.  They told me it was kinda big and I would need to make it smaller to fit in the overhead compartment.  There was no way I was gonna pay for this bag to be checked after all this…so I just did it RyanAir style and wore my suitcase.  I probably looked like an idiot taking out all my clothes and dressing myself in line, but at this point I didn’t care.  I would have worn my undies on my head and walked around the airport.  I just wanted to go home.

I finally made it through and sat down at a gate…then realized I had just sat down at the first gate I saw.  This plane was definitely not going to Phoenix.  San Francisco I think was its destination…close…but not where I wanted to be.  I got up slowly and then left the gate head held high with curious eyes upon me.  Oh well…I’m tired, I thought to myself.  Once I finally got to the correct gate I sat down and waited for the boarding process to begin.  It finally started a few moments later and once again I found myself on a plane looking for a place to put my overstuffed luggage.  Unfortunately this time there was no room for my luggage in the over head compartment.  :(  Luckily they checked it below for free and I was able to go about my flight hassle free.  Can’t say I really remember take off…I think I passed out while taxing to the runway, and then woke up to the captains 20 mins to arrival announcement. 

Those last 20 min were even longer than the hours I spent in Heathrow.  Just the pure joy I felt inside my heart to finally be around my friends and family made me want to jump from the plane.  I restrained myself however, and landed safely with the plane in good ol’ P….H….X, Phoenix.  Of course my seat was in the very back of the plane, but the de-boarding process went by fast.  I sped walked to the security check point and saw 3 of the most important people standing there waiting for me.  My mom, my dad, and Mitch, my amazing boyfriend who manages to put up with me.  :)  I launched myself into a full on sprint and became an awkwardly running, crying, stumbling mass.  I pretty much fell into the awaiting arms of my mother, my dad, and Mitch and had to recheck with myself numerous times to make sure this wasn’t a dream.  After I was certain I was alive and well in Phoenix, AZ I finally allowed myself to smile.  Happiness in its smallest form…no gifts, no pizzazz, just family.  I finally found what I had been looking for during the last month of my trip. 

After experiencing this whole fiasco in London I have had time to reflect on my journey. Why I thought flying out of London during the WINTER would be a good idea, I have no idea.  At the time I suppose I wasn’t thinking of the weather conditions, but I guess it would have been a good thing to consider beforehand.  However, I feel like this problem could have been avoided without any interaction on my part if Heathrow had just gotten its act together before I ever got there.  They had been canceling flights out of Heathrow since that Friday, December 16th.  A good 24 hours plus before my plane was to even land in Heathrow.  They knew about this snow “storm” for days.  Honestly they shouldn’t have allowed my plane to leave from Madrid to even go into Heathrow.  The airport should have told all the airlines to not fly there and they should have  redirected all their flights from the get go.  I suppose in a perfect world that would have worked…but I think as we all know we are light years away from a perfect world.  And for being the world’s busiest airport, I feel Heathrow should have been able to clear the runways in like an hour max.  Seriously, I bet little airports in Maine could handle your snow flurry better.  THAT’S ANOTHER THING!  It snowed for 20 min and then never snowed again the entire time I was at Heathrow.  Yes I was inside, but I had windows all around me.  There was maybe 6 inches of snow on the ground at Heathrow.  S.I.X.  I.N.C.H.E.S.  Yet somehow that was enough to cancel all flights in and out of Heathrow for days.  I would like to include this quote from the London Mayor Boris Johnson…

"It can't be beyond the wit of man surely to find the shovels, the diggers, the snowplows or whatever it takes to clear the snow out from under the planes, to get the planes moving and to have more than one runway going."
Thank you.  At least someone in London knows what they’re doing. 

Despite my missed party and my sleepless nights upon my return home, I must say this adventure was one I’ll never forget.  Good memories?  Some…more funny and ironic than anything, but I am very thankful for being able to share these memories with Katie and Josh.  If it wasn’t for Josh, I’d probably still be in London.  We were able to bounce ideas off of each other and keep one another from going completely insane. 

I suppose everything happens for a reason, but sometimes it’s better not to try and figure it out.  I’ll never know why I was meant to miss my party or why I had to be one of the few who had plane issues, but I do know I was destined to return home safe and sound.  And that is all I could have asked for.  :)        

1 comment:

  1. wow!!! nunca me imagine que te hubira ido tan bien en tu viaje de regreso a happy u made it....hope to see you in WI
    ya me contaras como estubo todo con mas detalles....besos!!!