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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Trip Over

Well, I finally made it. I am in NEW ZEALAND.

Could not have asked for much of a better trip out here, both in terms of how smooth all of the elements of travel went as well as the cool people I encountered along the way. First off, the gal at the Southwest check-in didn’t charge me for an extra bag (like $50 right there), and she let the fact that one of my bags was slightly too heavy go and didn’t charge me for that either. Sometimes, you can just tell at the beginning of a trip how it’s going to go, and so far I really liked how this one started.

You always hope that the people you’ll end up being seated next to on the plane will be interesting, although I can’t remember ever having a bad people experience on a plane. Well, there was that one time I got orange juice spilled on me and then vomited upon, but that’s another story for another time.

On the first flight out to Los Angeles, I sat next to Brian, a Navy fighter pilot, and Tom, a retired NASA engineer. Turns out Brian had been to Australia as well as NZ before and really liked both places. Tom was on his way to a conference north of Reno and they were both really cool guys. Tom turned to me at one point and said that Brian would probably be an admiral one day, and I had to agree with him.

Had a brief layover in Vegas and the guys next to me in line at the Southwest terminal were both contractors for the military, working in weapons research. They had been all over the world, except for some odd reason they had declined to go to Japan. I’d jump at the chance to go there, but I didn’t feel like asking them what they didn’t like about Japan.

The way Southwest Airlines works their seating is first-come, first-served. We were at the head of the line for boarding first, but didn’t feel like sitting on the floor for an hour, so we all tossed our bags down at the front of the line then sat on the benches about ten feet away. Foolish of us to forget about a big no-no in airports: leaving bags unattended. It didn’t matter that they were right there in front of us, and the Southwest guy standing at the gate was pretty obviously pissed at us. Needless to say, we grabbed our bags back and sat with them and he had no more trouble out of us, although the poor guy had to deal with some rude passengers who kept trying to board the plane out of order. I’m pretty sure he was ready for happy hour after that shift …

On the short flight from Vegas to LA, I sat next to another cool person, this time a guy named Niko. He was flying back to his wife and kids in LA after spending the past two days moving his parents from Palm Desert to their summer home in Utah. Having been to PD myself, I’ve experienced firsthand how hot it gets there. Niko was in the real estate game and he and his wife had traveled a lot as well, and once again he had nice things to say about New Zealand. He hadn’t been but friends of his had and they loved it.

When I got to LA, I had plenty of time to get to the international terminal for my flight to New Zealand. It wasn’t leaving for hours yet, but I still had to juggle four large and heavy bags and find a porter to help me schlep the bags a good ways. Once again I had good luck, as not only did ALL FOUR of my bags show up first on the baggage carousel (that never happens!), but I was the first one to grab the one and only porter on duty. Needless to say he got a good tip, and luckily for me the Qantas desk had no line and my plane to NZ was ‘nearly empty’ to quote the Qantas guy at the check-in. Once again, he let me slide on the extra bag at no charge, so I saved quite a bit more money here.

The only bad thing about the trip all day was that this terminal in LA had busted air conditioning. It was late June and, knowing that in NZ it was the middle of winter (as well as knowing how cold it can get on planes), I was wearing corduroy pants and a long sleeve shirt under a sweater. And I sweat easily. Yeah, I was a pretty grimy bastard when I finally turned up in New Zealand, 36 hours after leaving home. If I smelled funny, nobody seemed to notice or mind!

Worse still, after sweating it out for four hours in LAX’s international terminal, the Qantas plane was delayed in take-off for 45 minutes – because the plane’s air conditioning was busted! When we finally started boarding the plane, it was like walking into an oven. At this point I just had to laugh, because there was nothing else I could do and anyway we were all in the same boat. Well, plane. You know what I mean. Luckily, once the plane’s engines fired up, they started running the AC so we were all much more comfortable soon after.

In the terminal I chatted with a young Canadian girl, she was on her way to Sydney to visit her sister, who was in school down there. While talking to her, I couldn’t help but notice somebody who looked very familiar that turned up at the gate soon before take-off. I couldn’t quite place him, but then it hit me. It was Jake Johannsen, one of my favorite stand-up comedians. He was traveling with his wife and they had a tiny little baby with them. It was pretty thrilling to see him in person, and he was taller than I had expected. Usually celebrities are much smaller than you’d expect in person, not that I have extensive experience with this but when you have a sister who lives in West Hollywood, you’re bound to see a few of them running around.

Anyways, I would have loved to try and talk to Jake. I didn't want to hound him for an autograph or anything, just wanted to shoot the breeze. But I didn't really make eye contact and didn't feel comfortable accosting him. Anyways, I wasn’t about to disturb him with his wife and baby there. Still, I took it as yet another good sign on my trip, and I wondered if he’d be finding any more material for his airline jokes in his bit on this trip.

Qantas really looks after you on their flights, and initially I was really worried about flying 16 hours non-stop. I was especially concerned that I wouldn’t be able to sleep much at all, but I slept for nine hours straight. They had full-on dinner and breakfast (called a ‘full brekky’), with a choice of dishes, and they had 1-2 snack meals they served in between. They brought you a sleep mask and ear plugs, as well as a toothbrush and toothpaste, and there was even a video game console on the back of the seat. There were several complimentary movies, TV shows and documentaries to watch as well. Tons of leg room in those seats, too, and I know the next time I fly I’m ruined because now I always want to fly like that!

Once again, had a really cool person sit next to me, this time a guy named John from Brisbane. He worked for a company that provides seating for large tractors, definitely a niche industry but he had obviously done very well for himself. He had worked in England for four or five years, then transferred to the States for another five years. He was just on his way back from Washington, DC, after hanging out with some ‘mates’, friends he had made while working stateside. He had a wife and two kids back home in Brisbane, where he had transferred back to after being abroad for so long. John was really helpful about everything, since I was now doing what he had once done – going to work abroad. Also like me, John had been through a divorce and he knew what that was like. He assured me the American accent would be a big hit with the women in New Zealand, a natural icebreaker. Since I’ve been over here I’ve kept in touch with him and he asked me if the accent was working. I told him it has, because it really does attract some attention. Some women are really turned on by it! Well I really dig the way Kiwi women talk, so it’s win-win I guess you could say …

It didn’t really dawn on me, what I was doing and how far I was going, until I could start to see New Zealand from the windows of the plane. It was pre-dawn so it was still pitch black outside, but that made it even better because you could see the outline of Auckland lit up in the darkness. The harbor bridge was pretty with its lights, and many of the lights reflected off the buildings as a collection of green, pink and white smudges.

I had one more connecting flight to go, from Auckland to Christchurch, and I wasn’t sure where I’d have to go through customs. I was really hoping it was in Christchurch, not only because I had six bags for them to go through, but also because our plane was late – I had only about 30 minutes to get to the next plane!

My heart sank when I realized I would have to go through customs in Auckland. I started to think I’d never make my connecting flight, and worse still I didn’t have my boss’s cell phone number and she’d be waiting down in Christchurch. There was nothing for it but to try and be quick, so I hurried towards the front of the customs line and got through that pretty quickly.

Now I had all six bags to tote, and had just gotten them perfectly balanced on the dolly when I got to the luggage inspector guy. Like the rest of the customs agents, he was dour and humorless, with a suspicious cast to his eyes. I can understand this disposition but it probably didn’t help my situation any as I was sweating from running around and pushing the heavy cart with my luggage.

Fortunately for me, he only asked to see one thing (my hiking boots, which I had to declare), but sadly they were in a bag on the bottom of my pile, which I never got perfectly balanced again. But, I had cleared the biggest hurdle – customs – and now all I had to do was make a mad dash all the way across the airport, with no porters this time, and only fifteen minutes in which to catch my plane.

Halfway to the domestic terminal, while trying to take a sharp turn too quickly, my bags tumbled over and off of the dolly but luckily they didn’t fall into a nearby rain puddle. At this point I was pretty much resigned to having missed my flight, as I was thinking I’d never make it in time.

Well, I probably should have bought a lottery ticket that day (hell, I should have bought lottery tickets every time I stopped somewhere), as when I finally made it to the check-in, not only was I in time but the pilot had actually overslept! Better still, I had beaten most of the people from my last plane over to this terminal, so I must have made it through customs more quickly than any of them.

At this point, I must have been pretty grungy but I didn’t care. Finally, the pilot did show up and we were all allowed to board. As I walked onto the plane with my two very large carry-on bags (all day they had been pushing the limit of how big a bag you can take on with you), the flight attendant looked at one of my bags with concern.

”Oh, dear,” she said. “That one might be too big for the overhead.”My heart sank, but I wasn’t worried anymore because I had made it to the plane in time.

“Should I have them check it, then?” I asked.

She thought for a second, then patted me on the shoulder and said, “No, I wouldn’t want you to have to go back out and through that line again. Here, we have a special place for occasions like this.”

With that, she opened up a small closet door at the front of the plane and put my bag in there. Once again, my stellar luck that day came through, so I thanked her profusely and then took my seat.

The flight into Christchurch was great, because now it was daylight out and I could see all the snow-covered mountains and fields out the window. It was going to be a sunny day and that fit my mood, as I had had a great trip over and couldn’t wait to start this next chapter of my life in New Zealand.


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