CHAPTER 15 – THE WAY HOME
(Shari) This is the first day in months for which we do not a detailed schedule of activities. I get up late, do a few things on the computer, go to the hotel dining room for breakfast, go back up and write reports, take a nap, finish updating road logs, eat dinner in the hotel restaurant, watch a movie and go to bed. It is lovely.
(Bert) One day inside the hotel room is enough. Over dinner last night Shari and I scanned brochures on activities in the city. She wants to take City Walk #1 in the heart of the old city; I agree. I want to visit the Christchurch Art Gallery for the special Ron Mueck sculpture exhibit; she agrees.
We take the city bus to Cathedral Square with its focal point the cathedral itself, built 1864-1904. To our delight, fifty young school children neatly attired in school uniforms are tiered across the sanctuary and are singing Christmas carols. We take seats in a pew near the front and listen to the cherubs sing, the acoustics carrying the melodies throughout the tall cathedral.
Our walk takes us past historic buildings, many in Victorian style, and along the Avon River where children feed mallards and a family of scaup seeks security under a tree weeping over the crystal clear stream. We pass through a corner of the huge Botanic Gardens, stop to share a bratwurst sold by a street vendor with a thick German accent, and then head to the Christchurch Art Gallery.
(Shari) On our last day in Christchurch, Bert and I decide to spend the morning at the art museum viewing the works of the Australian sculpture Ron Mueck. I usually do not like museums, least of all art museums, but this exhibition is fascinating. We take the public bus to the city using the passes given us by the hotel, and follow Christchurch City Walk #1. Since I am tired of navigating, I tell Bert he has to do it. Following more or less the specified route, he admirably gets us to the art museum a few hours after we got to the downtown Cathedral Square. It takes us that long because we are treated to many serendipities. First we watch two men playing an oversized game of chess in the city square. When we visit the cathedral, we are treated to a children’s Christmas concert. And, of course, at the Botanic Gardens, Bert finds birds to photograph.
(Bert) Although the name Ron Mueck was unknown to me, I’m sure some of our readers will recognize the world-famous sculptor. The exhibition is being billed as “one of the biggest shows ever held in the southern hemisphere” and gathered 150,000 visitors at its early show in Queensland this year. So why all the hoopla?
The super-real sculptures are so life-like they create an uneasy feeling when standing in front of them. Never real size, sometimes three-quarter size, sometimes double size, they are realistic down to pores in the skin, fingernails, hair follicles, veins and imperfections. Since most are fully nude and highly emotional in their expressions and body stance you feel like you are eavesdropping on intimate scenes: the death of an old man, a sleeping face, a pregnant woman uncomfortable only days before birthing, a newborn girl with umbilical cord still attached, a black teenager slashed in the side with a knife, a sitting wild man with a full beard and an expression of displeasure for your proximity. In all, there are 13 sculptures, each one exquisite in detail and thought-provoking to study at length. A half-hour film shows how Ron Mueck created Pregnant Woman, an unbelievably detailed process that took many months and involved many more steps than I would have anticipated. This has been the most impressive art exhibit I have visited since the traveling King Tut exhibition decades ago.
(Shari) The art exhibit is the highlight. Mr. Mueck sculpts the human body in clay and then molds it in silicon, adding lifelike features of hair, freckles, moles and wrinkles to the work. It is not so much the human body that generates interest, but the scale Mueck uses and the poses and facial features he incorporates. Either bigger than life or smaller than life, he shows people doing everyday things. His first work was Dying Dad, a smaller-than-life replica of someone dead or dying. He produced an 8-ft. pregnant woman, her body language and facial expression depicting just how tired she has become. Tears pour down my face, as I view “The Old Woman in Bed”. Only about 3 ft. in length, the poignant sleeping face of the woman in a fetal position, covered to her neck with a blanket reminds me so much of the last months of my father’s life. How small and frail he had become. We eat lunch at an Italian café before returning to the hotel by bus and taking yet another nap. Dinner is at the hotel again before retiring early. We have to get up at 3:15 to catch a shuttle for our 6 AM flight.
(Bert) Once upon a time I enjoyed air travel. No longer! We arise to our 3:15 AM alarms and are soon hustled by hotel shuttle to the nearby Christchurch airport. Anxiety to baggage check-in mounts as we wait in the long line and then I plop our first suitcase on the scale. Since we flew Pacific Blue twice before now between Australia and New Zealand, you would think the baggage rules would be the same. Not to be! Even though we shipped over 38 lb. by postal ship to reduce our baggage weight, the airline agent tells us our checked luggage is 25 kg (55 lb.) overweight. She does not take note that all the computer and camera equipment, plus three books, in my backpack must be well over the limit also. On a previous New Zealand to Australia flight, we were not charged extra for baggage and on an Australia to New Zealand flight we were charged $50 extra. However, the agent now tells us we must pay $250 extra, i.e., $10 per kilo. We balk. She calls in her supervisor. Her supervisor says the fee is $250 because we are only allowed 20 kg per person. I ask if it makes any difference if we shift items into two bags each, instead of one. It doesn’t. We still owe the $250. We ask, “What if we throw some things away?” That we can do, so we take our luggage off the scale and move aside to pull items from the suitcases. When we go back to the scales, our bags weigh 60 kg. Our baggage fee is now $200 and we get a further concession when the agent talks to her manager and they agree to reduce the fee to $170. We pay the fee and move on before they decide to weigh the backpack I have been carrying on my shoulders. I calculate that if all airlines during our eight flights followed the same rules as Pacific Blue we would have paid $2000 in excess baggage fees.
It would be nice to say that was the last of our travel worries. We do get through the next three checkpoints without further hassle, and we board our plane on time. We are not sure what we will do when we arrive at Sydney, though. While Shari and I planned almost an hourly schedule during the caravans, our return to the U.S. lacks details as the flights were purchased before the itinerary was well known. Thus we have two days to wait in Sydney and then, because of a flight cancelation, 11 hours to wait in Los Angeles, before returning to Houston. At the Sydney airport we pick up our wet luggage and cart it through customs about an hour later. We avoid the hassle about hiking shoes as we have learned from experience and this time we have thoroughly scrubbed all shoes with an old toothbrush. Passing the last checkpoint, we find an elevator to take us back upstairs to departures to try to find the V-Australia desk. It turns out the airline does not maintain a counter at the airport and instead rents a departure gate only when a flight is about to depart. Through some help from the Airport Help Desk, we get the airlines local phone number and Shari attempts to get an earlier flight. We could leave one day earlier on the same airline for a transfer fee of $200, plus a handling fee of $50, plus the difference in flight prices between when we booked it and now, which is likely to be quite a bit more. The phone agent says she will check for us, but after 15 min. on hold we give up on that approach.
Earlier, already from New Zealand, Shari attempted to book a Sydney hotel near the airport for two nights. She was quoted $600 per night from one and something like $200 per night from the one we stayed at in June, but it doesn’t have a vacancy. We go to the phone bank at Arrivals and after three tries we secure a booking at a hotel for about $150 per night. A shuttle bus will pick us up after we finish breakfast. We choose the airport Subway and order a breakfast foot-long sandwich. The clerk doesn’t know how to ring up the discount coupon we found at the Airport Help Desk and then doesn’t know how to give change in cash and has to get help in printing a receipt. When we find a table to sit down, I take two bites into my sandwich and wonder why it contains chicken. I open it up and miss seeing bacon and egg, just chicken and lettuce. During the clerk’s fumbling with my payment, he apparently handed me someone else’s order. What next?
We find the sign marking bus stop 32, just beyond the taxi cab line at the airport. We have 5 min. before the hotel shuttle bus arrives, so I move the luggage cart to post 32 and stand in light rain without a raincoat. Five minutes pass, as do 10, 15, 20 etc. I move out of the rain but cannot get the heavy cart over the curb, so I wait between the other buses picking up passengers. Shuttles come and go, but not ours. Fifty minutes after it was supposed to be here, it arrives and I move our luggage back into the rain to load it into the trailer.
Uneventfully, we make it to the hotel and check into our room. The tiny room reminds me of my college dorm room with its barren walls, single window, bunk beds, a single light suspended from the center of the room, one chair and a table big enough for one laptop computer. The toilet, shower and sink share the same closet-sized room with a thin plastic curtain, but nothing on the floor, to separate shower water from toilet floor. Shari says the room reminds her of a prison cell. The continuing rain outside does not induce us to check out the airport neighborhood, nor seek a taxi or train for city sightseeing. Besides, we did that already for one week here in Sydney. I guess we will live in our jail cell for two days before being released to another adventuresome airline travel experience.
(Shari) I did one thing wrong on this trip (only one?) and if I had to do it over again, I would fly directly from Auckland to the USA. We fly to Sydney this morning. The hour is grueling and we have more troubles with luggage weight. We used the same airline in June and were allowed 70 lb. each. Today they will only allow 45 lb. I do not understand. We decide to throw some stuff away. When reweighed, we only got rid of 10 lb., reducing our charge to $200. The woman cuts the charges back to $170, but still this is ridiculous and as Bert so aptly tells the clerk, the excess baggage costs more than a ticket. Once in Sydney, we try to book an earlier flight out. No luck. We will have to wait until Friday to fly home. To add insult to injury, my first two choices of hotels are all booked and I am left with the last room at something called Formula1. We wait for the shuttle in the rain for over an hour and are taken to the hotel, a small step up from a youth hostel. We immediately fall asleep. Upon awakening, we are hungry and want to get out of this depressing room. Next door is Krispy Kreame and McDonalds. We choose the later as it has free Internet. However I discover my battery is dead and with no battery, no computer. I really cannot wait to get home. Bert stays at McDonalds while I walk back to the room and write this journal. I wonder if this crappy day will get any better. It doesn’t. It rains all day and our room becomes a prison cell. At 7 we walk to the Krispy Kreme for a healthy dinner of a small salami sandwich and a chocolate covered donut. I watch a rerun of NCIS LA before falling asleep.
(Bert) An uneventful day dominated by photo editing and journal writing, with McDonald’s breaks for breakfast and lunch and e-mail, culminating in the highlight of having pizza delivered to the room. Best pizza of our trip!
(Shari) Our room still feels like a prison cell. After our McDonalds breakfast, I take my computer to the dormitory style eating area and use the tables to work on my computer, balancing my VISA bill from September/October. It is still drizzly outside and we are trapped at the hotel. The day drags on. The highlight is talking to Donna in Livingston to arrange drop off of our car on Friday. I call V-Australia and they allow me to change the LA to Houston leg of our flight and instead of the 10 hr. lay over in LA, we will only have three, getting us into Houston at the reasonable hour of 5 PM. If I never see another McDonalds it will be too soon. We eat breakfast and lunch there but arrange for a pizza delivery for dinner.
(Bert) A few days ago someone asked me what my favorite bird of the trip is. I said Rainbow Lorikeet. As we walk back from yet another breakfast at McDonald’s I see my last bird of Australia, a Rainbow Lorikeet. How fitting!
At 9:20 a shuttle van takes us to the Sydney airport. I dread another airline check-in. Happily, this one goes smoothly, more or less. Rules change again and this time I cannot take my spotting scope as carryon. The attendants don’t know what a spotting scope is and when I explain that it is a telescope for terrestrial usage, they decide it is too much like a weapon and I will need to store it inside my luggage. That’s okay with me, though I am concerned about all the stories I’ve heard about airline luggage thefts and I know our travel insurance does not cover items as expensive as the spotting scope. I am happy not to have any hassle with baggage weight limits as we are well within the rules for international V-Australia flights.
(Shari) McDonald’s for breakfast and then we schlep our luggage downstairs to await our 9:20 shuttle. We wait outside on chairs, better than waiting in our room. The shuttle takes us to the airport where we have an easy check-in–no eyebrows raised as to weight–but our troubles are yet to start. While Bert waits in the lounge area, I shop for gifts for the workers who are so helpful at the office.
(Bert) We pass through the tax-free zone and I resist buying any items. I am already carrying a lot of baggage. Later we pass through another tax-free zone and Shari asks if I still have Australian dollars. I do and I know I won’t get a good exchange rate to U.S. dollars, so I use up most of my foreign currency on two bottles of Chivas Regal. Read further and find out why this becomes a problem. Shari finds some nice gifts to take back for a half dozen people, so she adds to her carryon items as well.
(Shari) Now I have a backpack, a carryon and a big bag of gifts to go through the check-in line. Bert has a carryon and the two bottles of Scotch. As we pass the clerk who looks at our boarding pass, I chatter with him about how his day is going; anything to distract his eyes from our “too many bags” of carryon. We find our seats and spend the next 13 hr. in relative comfort watching movies, napping, snacking, eating, drinking and wishing we were home.
(Bert) At the V-Australia gate I am amazed how many people are waiting in line and when we finally board I see the plane is enormous. It is a 777-300ER, the ER standing for extended range, thus allowing a non-stop flight from Sydney to Los Angeles. Every seat is taken. Again, we have one of those fancy computer displays at each seat and we can watch movies, TV, etc. or track the progress of our flight over the Pacific: flight time 12 hr. 34 min., altitude 32000 ft., speed 568 mph, distance 7500 mi. I finish reading my book, watching three movies, eating two meals–complete with free wine, and getting in two long naps.
(Shari) We land in LA and have an easy time if you disregard the horrendous lines at immigration and then again at customs. We have filled out the entry cards of numerous countries numerous times and have had to look at immigration officials and answer their questions ad nauseam but we get through without problems. We gather our bags and a cart to carry them to the next station. We move slowly through the line and thankfully do not have to open the zippers on our suitcases to show the officials our clean shoes and our purchased items. We put the luggage back in the transfer area and head to the domestic terminal, not realizing or thinking about the fact we have left a secure area and entered an insecure area. We get our boarding passes and head to the screening area. Here we have to remove jackets, take off our shoes, take out our computers and cameras, and also have our extra backpacks and gift bag go through the x-ray machine. You can imagine my surprise when the official asks me if we bought liquor and if I had a snow globe in the gift bag. “Why, yes”, I reply still not realizing the problem. It seems that we have taken our liquor and snow globe, each having more than 2 oz of liquid, through the gate. Since we left the secure area, we cannot take those items any farther.
The official suggests I repackage the items and go back to check them in as
baggage. We remove items from the backpack and replace them with the snow globe.
The liquor will have to stay in its case. I put on my shoes, making sure I have
my boarding pass and passport so that I can reenter the line and, leaving Bert
with the rest of our stuff, I go back downstairs to check-in looking for the
tall nice man that checked us in. I explain my dilemma and he is so nice. He
looks for packing material to cushion the items better and puts a gazillion
fragile stickers on the two packages and does NOT charge me another dime. Back I
go through x-ray to find Bert.
(Bert) At LAX we have to collect our checked luggage and pass through U.S. customs and except for the very long lines, this goes smoothly. We can then dump the luggage for transfer to our Continental flight to Houston, while still in the secure area. What we did not count on is that we must exit the secure area to get to the Continental check-in and then we must pass through security again. This should be no problem, but it is. My two bottles of duty-free Scotch can no longer be carryon, as the sealed bottles may now be contaminated with hazardous material. The same is deemed for one of the gifts Shari bought at the duty-free. While Shari goes back with the items to luggage check-in, I proceed to the gate. At a money exchange I change my last $25 of Australian money and get only US$18.55 even though the dollar is at par, the rest is the vendor’s fees and his lousy exchange rate. I guess my Scotch purchase is an even better deal than I thought.
(Shari) Continental charges for their sandwiches during the flight so we decide to eat at the airport beforehand. During boarding I think I know how cattle must feel when they are prodded along. Finally we squeeze into our seats for the last leg of the trip. I have not even had a chance to think how happy I am to be back in the USA and don’t realize I won’t feel happy for many an hour.
(Bert) Boarding the Continental flight is like loading balking animals onto Noah’s Ark. Rows 34-50 are announced and people with lower numbers attempt to push through, only to be stopped by the agent and then standing in the way of others trying to board. Others attempt to board with the wrong boarding pass and are turned back, but further block the gate. Still others with up to two suitcases and two other carry-ons each attempt to board even though the agent clearly announced only one carry-on and one personal item and the carry-on must fit in the small enclosure beside the agent. By now the agent is so frustrated that he lets them pass through with the oversized and excess items. Boarding takes 30 min. longer than scheduled because people stand in the aisles, uncertain where their seats are, deliberating in storing all their baggage, taking off coats, talking amongst themselves and all of this prevents others from passing them to reach their own seats. The flight attendant constantly is announcing over the PA system, requesting passengers to keep moving. I suspect many of the passengers do not understand English and the rest ignore the announcements. Some passengers are trying to move in the opposite direction, for reasons unknown. When we final board, all overhead storage units are filled near our seats and I have to put our two items in units far ahead of our seat. Finally at my seat I comment to the businessman seated next to me and he says he often takes this flight and Friday afternoons are always like this.
(Shari) We get to the Houston airport, retrieve our luggage and find a taxi to take us to our car, presumably only 5 min. away in Humble. All we have is an address that does not show on the cab driver’s GPS. After much difficulty we find 1301 but no car. I call the office; no answer. I call Tina; no answer. I call Connie and she tells me the car is behind the pawn shop, but we see no car. I call Connie again and she says she called Donna who said the car is in a lot next to the post office. Fortunately Bert remembers passing the post office two blocks before 1301, but it is on the even number side of the street. It makes no sense but we find our car a block behind the post office. The car does not start and then Bert remembers the battery disconnect, so he throws the lever. Thankfully the car starts immediately and the only thing amiss is the rear view mirror that fell from the windshield and is hanging by its electrical cords. We stop to eat dinner at “The Brick” a pretty neat hamburger joint that easily beats McDonalds. Arriving home about 9 PM, we immediately head for bed, exhausted after about 31 hr. of travel.
(Bert) Through the magic of time travel, since breakfast in Sydney this morning we spent ~6 hr. at the city and its airport, ~13 hr. in transit to L.A., ~5 hr. in Los Angeles, ~4 hr. in transit to Houston, ~2 hr. in Houston, ~1 hr. in transit to Livingston, for a total of 31 hr., but it is still the same day at 8:50 PM when we arrive in Livingston and begin unloading our luggage. Ah, home at last!
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