April 01, 2003

Canberra Trip, Day 1

My trip to Canberra DSCC officially started at 6:20 PM on March 13 when the Super Shuttle arrived to take me to LAX. I kissed Jane and the kids, and then waved through the shuttle window after I got inside. The driver got extra points--it was dark outside, and he turned on the inside lights so that the kids could see me.

I really had no desire to be leaving my family, let alone with a war in the offing. My imagination was running riot, telling me that either my plane was going to crash, or that a terrorist attack was going to wipe out Los Angeles while I was gone, and that either way I'd never see them again. That's ridiculous, of course; but people do die in plane crashes, and it reminded me to spend some time talking with God on the way to the airport.

I have to give the shuttle driver credit. I wasn't sure how he could possibly do it, but he got me to my terminal in fifty minutes, dropping me off outside the United International Terminal at 7:10 PM, exactly three hours before my flight was due to leave. I had to show my ticket at the terminal door, and then wait in a line specifically for my flight. Checking my bag went quickly; then I had to wait for a couple of minutes while they screened my suitcase. A fat old security guard got a call on his walky-talky, and told me I could go ahead.

The next barrier was the security screening for me and my carry-on stuff. It was no big deal, as I'd made sure my pocket knife was in my suitcase and that I was wearing a minimum of metal--my wedding ring, and the rivets on my blue jeans. I had to take my laptop out of its case and let it go through the X-Ray machine by itself, but that was the only annoyance. The security was a lot more stringent when I flew to Vancouver, B.C., last September.

On my way through the terminal I stopped at a McDonalds and got some fries and a Diet Coke. Gastric distress is my great fear on a long plane flight, and taters are a rare good ballast for an empty stomach, as the Gaffer said. Fries are one of my favorite things for preventing heartburn. The Diet Coke was simply a source of caffeine to help me stay awake on the plane until it was worth trying to sleep.

My flight was scheduled to leave Los Angeles at 10:10 PM, Thursday, and arrive in Sydney around 7:30 AM on Saturday. With the time difference (19 hours), that amounted to a little over fourteen hours in the air. Boarding was at 9:25, making fifteen hours on the plane in all. I had a plan for surviving those fifteen hours:

First, hope that (given the unstable political situation) the plane would be nearly empty, so that I'd have an empty seat next to me--and maybe and entire empty row.

Next, stay up until about 2 or 3 AM, California time. I had some books and my Nomad Zen Jukebox to help with this; with the Jukebox I had some special earbud headphones that incorporate earplugs, making it easier to hear the music and harder to hear the plane. Plus, they'd be giving us dinner, and maybe there would be a movie worth watching.

Next, take a couple of Excedrin PM tablets (the normal adult dose) resulting in a 76 mg dose of Diphenhydramine--the anti-histamine otherwise known as Benedryl; and put in the regular ear plugs I'd bought. If I was lucky, this would knock me out for six-to-eight hours, leaving me just enought time to have breakfast on the plane before we landed in Sydney.

Jane had her own plans; she'd heard rumors that various airlines were cutting service in lieu of going into bankruptcy, and so she packed me a nice lunch: sandwich, cheese stick, brownie (from the best batch she's ever made), carrots, celery.

But nothing goes according to plan. We started boarding on time, but what with delays at the gate and delays on the tarmac it was 10:30 PM before we left the ground. By that time I'd already been on the plane for a full hour. (I was sitting next to a couple of guys from Holland who work for a company that writes and sells software that runs on cargo ships. Or something like that. We chatted a little bit as we waited for the plane to take off. They'd already flown from Cuba to the Netherlands to New York to Los Angeles.) Then, the Captain told us there was a storm on the direct path from Los Angeles to Sydney, so he was going to fly toward Hawaii then hang a left, thus lengthening the flight.

The food on the plane was actually reasonably good. On the other hand, the cabin interior was showing signs of poor maintenance. The arm rests all looked worn, and the woman just ahead of me had no reading-light. Also, the TV projector in our cabin was busted, so there was no movie to watch. (It was "Jerry Maguire" anyway, a movie I have no desire to see.) So I spent several long hours reading. And this is where I made my first mistake.

My book leading up to the trip was The Arms of Krupp, by William Manchester. It's a good book, but it's a thick trace paperback, and that's clumsy on a plane. Still, that's the main book I had in my backpack when I arrived at the airport. I wandered around the terminal gift shop, looking at this and that, and found a paperback of Stephen King short stories called Everything's Eventual. See my review for why this was a mistake.

Finally, I decided at about 1:30 AM to turn out my reading lamp and try to sleep. That was a little early, but mine was the only active reading lamp in my cabin. (Some folks had been sleeping since we took off.) I went to the lavatory and took a couple of Excedrin PM; I put in the earplugs; I waited for oblivion. The earplugs were a great idea, by the way. You can still hear the dull roar of the jets quite clearly, but they are much quieter, as are all of the other things going on. Details are hazy, but I believe I managed to doze until maybe 4:30 AM. (Most of that was due to the ear plugs and fatigue, I think; there was no oblivion. I've been taking anti-histamines for my allergies for too many years.) Then I sat up and went back to reading.

A couple some rows ahead of me had a little girl about Anne's age with them; every so often she came running down the aisle on the way to or from the lavatory. She was a cutie. She wasn't a nuisance--I only heard her cry once, and the ear plugs got most of that--but watching her got me a little misty.

At around 6 AM (PDT) they served a snack, which I skipped; but I did have a Diet Pepsi. I wasn't hungry, and in fact I was wondering what I was going to do with the lunch Jane had made for me. My digestion was happy, a condition not to be trifled with; but I couldn't take the lunch into Australia. I didn't want to throw it away, as it was much more than a lunch; it was really a statement of Jane's love. She knew I didn't want to go, and that I needed to, and she couldn't do anything about that. But she could pack me a lunch of comfort food. In the end I got genuinely hungry at around 10 AM (PDT) and ate it, and it was good, especially the brownie.

At some point in there I finished the King anthology, and this is where I made my second mistake. Instead of pulling out the Laurie R. King mystery I'd been saving, I pulled out the first book in a series by Elizabeth Haydon. My brother recommended it to me just a couple of days before I left, and I went out and bought it at the same time as my new suitcase. Now, I don't want to imply that it's a bad book. I enjoyed it, in fact. But see the review for why it was also a mistake.

Around 11:30 AM (PDT) they served breakfast, which I wasn't expecting. The snack at 6 AM was pretty substantial, even though I didn't eat it, and my itinerary only called for two meals. I guess supplying food is a kind of crowd control on long international flights. I had apple pancakes, which were overcooked, and two sausages, which were OK, and a bit of croissant, and some milk.

My jukebox's battery ran out of juice about then, so there was no more music after that.

We finally landed in Sydney around 1:15 PM (PDT), or 8:16 AM Sydney/Canberra time, almost 16 hours after I boarded the plane and about 45 minutes after our scheduled arrival. Then came passport control, the baggage carousel, and Australian customs, which took me until 9 AM. My connecting flight to Canberra was scheduled to leave at 9:15 AM. Sydney's domestic terminal is quite a ways from international terminal, and although there's a shuttle bus dedicated to that purpose it still took until 9:15 AM to get there. I finally took the 10:15 flight, landing in Canberra just before 11:15 AM. It didn't take long to get my rental car, and I arrived at my hotel (the Bentley Suites in the Manuka neighborhood of Canberra) before noon despite making a couple of wrong turns and doing some exploring.

Yes, this is still Day 1 of my trip.

I ran into John the Tester in the hotel's reception area; we agreed to get something to eat after we'd taken time to shower.

I got a nice one bedroom suite on the fourth floor; the hot water pressure was lacking. And when I tried to adjust the shower head's spray pressure it broke off in my hand. That wasn't a bad thing, actually, as it worked better that way.

JPL allows you to make one call home at company expense, so that your loved ones know that you're safe, so after I showered I made it. I talked to Jane, and told her how to call me; I talked to Dave, who had just (just that minute!) lost his first tooth, one of the lower ones in front. (Damn it!) He was worried because he'd dropped it or something and couldn't find it. Jane told him that she'd put a note under the pillow for the tooth fairy, and I assured him that the tooth fairy wouldn't mind; it was the sort of thing that happened all the time.

Then John and I went and got lunch, and bought some groceries. By this time it was about 6 PM Canberra time, and I didn't dare go to sleep until at least 9 or 10 PM. Just for the record, 10 PM is 3AM, California time; by then I'd had only three or four bad hours of sleep in the past forty hours.

For dinner we walked down into Manuka and had a nice little meal at an Italian place puzzingly called Le Rendezvous. I had an "American Style" pizza, which is a thin crust pizza with cheese, tomato sauce and mild (!) salami (!) (according to the menu). Actually, the salami didn't taste much liked salami; it had a smoky flavor. It wasn't bad, though I don't think you could find anything quite like it back in the States. (Note: I went back to the same place a couple of nights before we came home, and ordered the same pizza, and let me tell you-- either they made it differently, or I was really sleepy the first night, because it was awful.)

It was getting dark as we walked back, and the crickets chirruped noisily as we passed the Australian Capitol Territory Cricket Oval. That observation was much more amusing to me at the time than it is now.

And so to bed.

Posted by Will Duquette at April 1, 2003 04:41 PM