Thursday, January 1, 2009

Trying to leave

I’m still secretly amazed by how quickly I become accustomed to living in new places. If I think about the amount of travel I’ve done in the last five months, and the number of different hotels and beds I’ve slept in, it makes my head spin. I’ve been remiss about blogging, which is too bad because I’ve done and seen some interesting things, and I doubt I’ll be able to recapture the moments in hindsight, but I will try.

I am a humanitarian aid worker, and after about 9 months of working in Afghanistan I decided it was time for a year at home. So, I spent all of 2008 living on the west coast of the US and working for an international relief and development organization from their headquarters. Well, in theory I was living in the US – I actually spent about 4 months out of the country; two in Palestine and two in Iraq. In my classic style, by the time I hit month 8 on the west coast (4 of which I had already spent in the Middle East) I was getting itchy feet to travel again. When my organization offered me a job in Jordan acting as a liaison with the United Nations traveling through the region to design new programs I was thrilled. Living in Jordan meant I would have a lot of opportunity to improve my Arabic and regional travel meant my itchy feet might be kept at bay for a while.

About two weeks after I was offered the position, I was asked to switch to a post in Iraq, working as a gender specialist. Now, gender programming is actually my technical specialty and more in-line with my long term career goals, but Iraq is definitely a hardship post (Jordan is not). I didn’t really have much choice in the matter as the position in Jordan was eliminated, and my HQ job had already been posted for public consumption. So, I “decided” to go to Iraq. For a year. At this point, I’m already 4 months into my Iraq adventure, but I’ve decided to start trying to keep track of it for posterity. I will need something for my niece to laugh at when she’s older, after all.

My departure from the US had two parts: leaving the west coast and spending the holidays with my family on the east coast, and then heading out to the region. Oh, with a little road trip to Virginia thrown in to visit my niece. Leaving the west coast was an absolute disaster. There was a massive snowstorm the weekend I was supposed to move, which meant that U-Haul canceled my truck reservation. I had planned on moving my belongings into storage and then catching a flight to Syracuse. Lets just say there was no moving of belongings that weekend – and I barely made it to the airport. I packed up my stuff and left it for my lovely friends who moved it into storage for me on New Years Eve. A saint who is the friend of a friend drove me to the airport a 8pm on a Sunday evening in the middle of the snowstorm, because public transport and taxis were not running. My flight wasn’t until 6am the following day, but there was no way I would make it to the airport in time to catch the flight if the weather cleared enough for take off because the entire city was shut down.

So, I began my long trek to the Middle East (via Syracuse) by voluntarily spending a night on the floor of PDX, with two huge suitcases, a backpack and a laptop bag. And of course you can’t check your bags that early for a flight – and there are no locker services because of bomb threats. It was a long night, with very few bathroom trips.

Miraculously, the weather cleared that morning and my flight was actually scheduled for on-time departure. I knew that if I missed this flight I wouldn’t make it home before Christmas because all flights had been canceled from PDX for 3 days becuse of the snow. There was a huge backlog of people trying to travel, and with Christmas 2 days away it was going to be ugly. So – you can imagine my shocked pleasure when my flight was listed on time. So, I waited, and waited. Then I got a Bloody Mary and waited some more. Turns out the flight crew couldn’t get from their hotel to the airport, so even though the weather had cleared we weren’t going anywhere. By the time the flight crew arrived we’d miss our flight window. Then we had to wait for our turn with the plane de-icer because our plane had turned into a popsicle while we waited for our turn. All told, we got on the plane around 2pm and departed around 4pm – 10 hours after the scheduled departure time.

By the time I arrived at O’Hare airport I’d missed the last flight to Syracuse. So, I got into the customer service line (which looked like the line for the coolest roller coaster ride at an amusement park on the 4th of July) and stood there for about an hour. My cell phone had died at this point, and although I had my charger with me, there weren’t an outlets nearby, and I WAS NOT giving up my place in line. Eventually, I spoke with a customer service rep (poor people, it was hell) who told me the best they could do was fly me to Boston and to Syracuse from there – getting me home at 4pm on Tuesday. Or, I could try and fly standby to Syracuse on the 6am flight. Obviously, I was going for standby, although it meant I was sleeping at O’Hare.

At this point, I’d like to make a comparative study of PDX and O’Hare, from the overnight occupant perspective. O’Hare (if you go to the international terminal) has a food court that stays open all night. PDX, however, has wall to wall carpeting. Believe me, when you’re spending hours on the floor, carpeting is damn important. PDX wins hands down.

Around 4 am my cell phone alarm went off. I shuffled into the bathroom and washed up (thank god I listened to my mother’s advice f or once and packed clean socks and underwear) got some coffee and wandered down to the airport tram. Although I was flying domestic, I had overnighted at the international terminal (more stuff open and people around – and they’re used to crazed, sleep-deprived people). As I blearily walked down to the tracks I noticed a lone, middle-aged woman already waiting there. She was wearing a hijab and was clearly Middle Eastern, and surrounded by about 6 suitcases. I smiled at her, and taking a chance, said good morning in Arabic.

Her face was completely shocked. I asked her if she was alone (in Arabic) and she said the train had left with her family before they got the bags on. Clearly, this was my opportunity to pay back the good travel Karma I had when leaving the west coast (the ride to the airport, not the delays, missed flights, etc.). So, when the tram pulled up I told her to get on and threw the suitcases on. I even managed to get my suitcases, myself and my coffee onto the same tram. When we arrived at her terminal, her family was standing there, clearly relieved to see her turn up.

To wrap up an overly long story, I caught the stand-by flight by the skin of my teeth and made it home that morning. And promptly went to sleep. In an uncarpteted bed.