Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Road: Beginnings (part one)

September 14, 2010
Minsk, Belarus

OK, let me start by saying this -- the people at the US Department of State are the most resourceful and helpful people I've ever known in all my life. They're relentless, tireless and somehow always come up with answers to the most challenging situations. 

They don't come into this story until the next entry, but lets just give away the ending at the beginning.

Dulles Airport. 5:10pm. September 13.

The kick-off was one of the more unusual at the start of a major tour. 10 of us took the planned itinerary. I took the road less travelled (with apologies to RF). As one would expect when the travel Gods opt to have fun with you, the lone first-time traveller in our delegation, Noelle, was the only one United denied a seat when the plane filled. An 11 member delegation under the sponsorship of the US Department of State, and, well, sorry, no, no seat.  So she took mine and I took a flight that United guaranteed me was open and available. 

Except it wasn't. 20 minutes into the line at Customer Service the CSR looked at me quizzically and said "how were you thinking you could get on this flight?"

"The agent at the counter told me I could."

"Did he bother to tell you it's sold-out?"

So, everyone else was in the air. I had, at that moment, no connecting flight. Oh, and I also had all the contact information for the tour in my bag at my feet. That's what happens when the decision not to put Noelle on the flight happens 6 minutes before it departs. If we were into hazing that would have been the ultimate -- "good luck kid, see you in Minsk." 

As the plane taxied to the tarmac Christopher and I exchanged emails with things like phone numbers for our contacts in Minsk, assurances that I'd get an itinerary to him electronically for the, you know, 80 minutes they were on the ground in Moscow making a connection. That would be the one where, despite endless research it turns out they had to reclaim their bags, clear customs and still make their connection. And it cost them a visa -- which in this case is more complicated than you might imagine. 

Speaking of bags.....(more on that in a moment). 

OK -- cut back to the United counter. So my CSR turned out to be incredibly resourceful. After a zen-like 10 minutes staring at her terminal (at least I think that's what she was staring at), she looks up, then tilts her head, looks away, picks up the phone, puts it down, goes back to her screen and....

"How about..."

So to get to Minsk, if I absolutely, positively, had to be there overnight (how is it that every good phrase has been taken already? Where's the creative option nowadays?), we could -- go from Dulles to Munich, (in a couple of hours), Munich to Vienna (55 minutes between flights) and then Vienna to Minsk (65 minutes between flights). I'd have to clear customs at every stop, change terminals and reclaim my lugg....."wait" the CSR said. "We can check you luggage all the way through.

"Where is your luggage?"

"Its on the plane."

"No its not. There's no way its on the plane. They must have pulled it. That's fine because we'll have it sent along with you."

Does the phrase famous last words ring any bells?

OK -- I take the deal offered. It's September, the skies are clear, no volcanoes are going off anywhere, and the chances seem -- good. OH, and I get $1k in free ticket vouchers to fly anywhere I damned well want. 

Time for a glass of wine, lots of email, a relaxed flight over. All goes well. When I get to Munich I get through customs quickly (amazing how many security officers in airport terminals are camera geeks. I spend more time talking about the D3 than anything else). I get to the counter, where another crazy nice person helps me and says "do you have any bags?" 

"Nope. They're being checked through."

"No they're not."

"Meaning they are...."

"I have no idea."

"They were..."

"No they weren't"

"But the CSR said..."

"He was wrong."

Ah well. 

All this time I've been sending updates and emails to colleagues and to Christopher. At the top of the first one I wrote them to tell them I had my bags and he shouldn't worry about this, because when last we left off he had them on the plane and would see them through to Minsk for me. Except they weren't on that plane and I didn't want him looking for them in his mad dash through Moscow. 

Except they were. 

"Hey. I have your bags. No worries." He says from Minsk as I'm sitting on the tarmac in Vienna.

"How the Hell...."

"They're right here."

"But they said..."

I love modern technology. 

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