Sunday, September 27, 2009

Getting used to living here...

It is always an adjustment when you move to someplace new -- always. There's just no getting around that. One of the biggest adjustments besides weather (which honestly isn't that much different than Georgia in the summer time) is the food. Not only is your variety gone, but you knock what you do have down a little further when you figure out where you can and cannot eat. Case in point, dealing dealing with a four-day shack attack. What's a shack attack you ask? Well, to be blunt, it's finding the wrong piece of chicken that's apparently sat there in a hot box for several hours and festered with bacteria such that when you eat it you are rendered incapable of holding in/down food for the next four days. Lovely scenario, no?

Said shack attack, as I said, lingered around for several days, and made life very unpleasant. It was difficult to eat since I would have to run to the bathroom within two hours of eating to avoid being sick in front of everybody and/or avoid SEVERE intestinal cramps -- it's really bad when they both happen at the same time. As such, you get dehydrated and easily cramp. Try playing a tennis match with little to no sustenance in your body for four days -- it ain't pretty, I lasted a whopping four games before my legs shut down. My opponent played a good match though, so all the credit to him. I have learned that I can not take a chance any longer on eating something unless I have seen it myself come off the stove or grill, or have a drink that was not made with bottled water. Oh yeah, the water tears up my stomach. My stomach must be more sensitive than post people's because most people haven't had multiple rounds of this stuff like I have -- I've had three, though this has been the longest one. One only lasted a morning, got sick and it was over.

Another thing that takes getting used to is "Island Time." Case in point, your laundry gets picked up and you're told you'll get it back by 7 that evening. You don't get it until seven the next evening because the driver apparently had something better to do. Not a GREAT argument considering I don't have to do the laundry myself, but nonetheless, why hasn't the whole punctuality thing made it down here? Bear in mind A LOT of these aggravations stem from lack of sleep and nutrition stemming from said shack attack!

A few bits of nostalgia hit me the other day. They didn't make me homesick or anything (still waiting for that to blindside me), but they were nice memories. I enjoyed thinking about tennis with Amigo in Athens once or twice a week. Just getting away for the weekend(s) (thanks again Amigo), and viewing with disgust the Love-birds and their trials and tribulations...well I don't need to go to anymore detail about that. The pinot noir and tapas at Casa Mia, the sushi, the Thai Food at Thai Spoon...ahhh yum. Those usually followed by dancing at 80's Bar with Skinny and/or Nasty and AD joined too. I don't miss A LOT of things about where I worked, but I do miss having the music turned up in the lab and making fun of Nasty's singing (and vice versa). I miss the group lunches. I miss the quiet Saturdays to myself. And God do I miss Frohmuller's!

All of these things are nice when isolated, but the combined picture unfortunately isn't worth me leaving where I am now (heck, I'll only be here another 14 months) and what I'll have and be able to do! Not going to lie though, there are times when it would seem really nice, but then where would I be? Somewhere I'd rather not find myself in the long term... And some of them if I were to stay or go back for them, they wouldn't be there anymore because the situation and circumstances were short term anyway, though weren't they fun! I'm missing them at the moment because I miss when I was able to do nothing when I wanted to. I didn't enjoy it most of the time because there literally was nothing to do...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mini Eurotrip

I was browsing the internet at work one day (oh the shame! *Wink* in late June/early July and came across an email from Delta advertising some pretty good fares to Europe, and in particular Budapest. Now, Budapest is a city that I had wanted to visit for quite some time, partially because for Americans it's not necessarily a well-traveled destination and I got to put another country on my list. What I found was a very enjoyable, colorful city. I had also wanted to visit Prague when I was in Europe for two months in the summer of 2007, but never made it out there. SO, I played around with some dates and found a fare for about half of what one would expect to pay for a transatlantic fare in the summer. Considering I would be starting medical school at the end of August (have since started) I pounced, not knowing if I would even get the chance to go back any time in the next three or four years AND with a bargain that good. The bargain allowed me to splurge a little more on the hotel side too Smile The end result was flying into Budapest, and out of Prague.

Booking the ticket was a little bit of a challenge because every time I tried to book a particular itinerary it would come up unavailable. I called Delta and they were incredibly helpful and in a nutshell told me to book through Northwest, because the identical itinerary was available through them. In a nutshell I wanted a PTV for the overnight to distract me from the inevitable lack of sleep. For the return I knew a good book would suffice, because, well duh, I was supposed be awake Wink So, in the end I booked a flight through AMS on KLM, connecting to Malev. Interestingly enough, after booking with NW, I transferred the flight over to my DL SkyMiles account (I'm stackin in miles for somebody's who 23, haha) and when I checked my itineraries I noticed that a SECOND itinerary (routed through CDG) was posted. After spontaneously emptying the entire contents of my GI tract I promptly called the friendly folks at Delta, prepared to battle this one down. Nothing had shown up on my credit card statement (the NW one had, so I knew it should've). My thought was if worst came to worse my dad could always accompany me (I'm a Jr.), haha. As it turns out, I never had to get ugly because even though it was posted in my itineraries, it was "On Hold" so I was told, and no payment had been received. Apparently the incredibly helpful agent I spoke to at the onset of purchasing the ticket had put a placehold on it for me should I want that routing. There were plenty of routings through CDG when I was trying to book, but I wanted the KLM flight, as mentioned, specifically for the PTV. So, after about three minutes that was cleared up and the itinerary removed. It wasn't that big of a deal, I understand they're still getting all their ducks in a row from the merger.

NOW, having rambled on and on with that soliloquy, let's get to the flying part!

17 August 2009
I arrived at the airport just after 1400 for the 1640 departure from ATL. It was very hot that day. I had checked in online and was going to just walk on through and present my passport at the gate. I was not checking any bags. However, when I got there, there were a grand total of three people in line at the KLM counter, so I went ahead and had my passport scanned. I proceeded through the T-Gate security in a slugish four minutes and meandered my way down to the E-Concourse. I splurged and treated myself to a nice glass of Sauvignon Blanc and some sushi while the KLM A332 was prettied up at it's usual home of E-22. I exchanged some money into Hungarian Forints, which incidentally thicken up your wallet as it's approxmately 200 to 1! The name of the A330 was the Plaza de Something Madrid. An odd name for any aircraft, I thought, much less a Dutch one... but I digress.

Boarding started an entire hour prior to scheduled departure, which I thought was rather odd. I had a window seat toward the back (sorry don't remember which one) and settled in. We sat there in the aircraft for approximately 45 minutes before FINALLY pushing back and meandering toward the Southern runway and lifted off.

A note, KLM's economy seats I find recline more than their Delta, Austrian, and Lufty counterparts, but their lumbar is just in an awkward place for me. In order to be comfortable I had to stuff two pillows under my neck despite the presence of the adjustable headrest. Delta wins the seat competition for me.

The PTV system was fine, a sufficient number for the flight at hand. Over the course of the flight I wanted, though not necessarily entirely, Star Trek, 101 Dalmations, Memoires of a Geisha and Changling. The interface was very user friendly, though getting the blasted controller in and out of its place could be a bit of a challenge if you aren't thin as a cotton swab because your hip/thigh significantly impedes your access and work room since the bloody thing has to be tilted for removal. I would put it an infinitesimal notch below Delta since Delta's is a touch screen and I don't have to fumble with the controller and above Austrian's for being AVOD (only two carriers I've flown with PTVs).

The dinner service was just bad, but that was mostly personal preference. I fail to comprehend how black olive and green beans mix with penne rigate and some unidentifiable cheese. YUCK! Our attractive blond frequently came by with water, wine, and any other libation that struck our fancy. The breakfast service was excellent. We received, IIRC, a ham, egg, and cheese hot sandwich and a box that had IIRC some granola, cheese, and a few other goodies. Much better than Delta and Lufty (the only other two carriers I've flown on overnights).

The flight itself was uneventful, which is what you want. There were no screaming babies *bounces up and down* and the crew were friendly. The movies and drinks were plentiful, and I just rode out the flight with maybe forty-five minutes of sporadic sleep. Made for a fine flight, but an unpleasant morning, as we shall see.

We landed around 7am in Amsterdam on what could only have been the infamous Polderbaan as we taxied forever. I thought we had landed in Rotterdam and were taking the road the rest of the way... We deboarded in the E concourse. I went through immigration and made my way over to the C Concourse, which is a much less pleasant environment than the E Concourse I must say! It was a very easy connection though. I stopped by the bathroom to brush my teeth and freshen up as best I could before my two hour layover. Annoyingly, my gate, C10 was situated right at the end of a moving sidewalk that bleeped "MIND YOUR STEP" every time somebody got to the end. I mean really, airports all over the world have these things and people manage to not spontaneously impale themselves on the end without having to be told to watch your step... In a nutshell, it got old very quickly. Thankfully I had my iPod and cranked it up while I read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (I'm behind on the times) until boarding time came. By this point I was hitting a wall. It was approximately the time I would have normally been going to bed (I had just spent two weeks in Mountain and Pacific Time) and was starting to have to fight sleep, something I do not normally do. It made for a slow two hours.

The Malev 738 strolled up to the gate and about forty-five minutes later (and twenty minutes late) we boarded. I had seat 9A, a windowless seat, bah! Oh well, I just pulled out my book and cranked the iPod again. The FAs came by with a drink service and offered a ham or cheese sandwich, which was nothing special. I was taking all the Coca Cola though that they offered me in a vain attempt to stay awake Smile This flight was even more uneventful than the KLM flight. The Malev seats were comfortable, but rather flimsy, I doubt they would survive being used in a long haul operation.

Being a Schengen flight and me not having checked any bags I saw very little of BUD-2. I bolted for the taxi line in the hopes of getting my happy ass to my hotel so I could grab two or three hours of much needed nap time. Normally when traveling in Europe I take public transportation to/from airports BUT, in both Budapest and Prague the airports aren't well connected enough and my proficiency in Hungarian and Czech is nonexistant, so I decided paying more for the taxi was worth not getting lost and not being able to decipher where the hell I was and needed to go. The same went for later in the week when I wanted to go to Memento Park, there was no metro, so I took a taxi. Had I been in France or a German speaking country a) the transit links would've been much better, and b) I would be able to make myself understand and understand enough to get my happy ass in the right direction Smile That is by no means a slight on Hungarians or Czechs, merely me being self aware of my deficiencies!

I stayed at the Hilton West End, very nice hotel in a good location for anyone who may be planning a trip to Budapest. I THOROUGHLY enjoyed Budapest. And by some chance of fate, or I'm just that lucky, I was there on August 20, Hungarian independence day! I found Budapest a very friendly and open city, and it was very easy to meet people. One day I spent the day with a German and two Swedes. One of the Swedes had actually lived in my hometown while studying at UGA (bizarrely small world). The German, amusingly to me and the Swede, grossly extrapolated the correlation between Borat and American society. The four of us met on a river cruise of the Duna (Danube in English). A tried and true trick of mine when traveling in Europe is to search out people speaking English with accents -- 9/10 times they're single/double travelers just wandering around looking to meet people such as yourself. I also did a bus tour of the city to get familiar with it.
Some of the highlights included Memento Park and just meeting the random people. On Hungarian Independence Day (August 20) I spent the day with a Hungarian and some Belgians. I had a very good time. They enjoyed racing up and down random stairs that faced buildings. The fireworks display that night was amazing, with Buda Castle in the background it was just breathtaking. It lasted about half an hour. The bridges were lit up and there were air races during the day!

The next day it was time leave Budapest :( and head to Prague. The train ride was LONG. I didn't get much sleep the night before. My first seat mates were Spanish ladies, and they were very nice. After they left the train in Bratislava a mother and son got on. They have to be quite possibly the most obnoxious pair of people I have ever had the pleasure of sharing a space with...The kid felt it was ok to put his feet everywhere, the mother apparently felt no need to correct him. I would have been quickly reprimanded for that (even now come to think of it). After they got off (thankfully) in Brno, a younger couple got on. I thought this would be interesting, but no. The guy smelled like the salami sandwich that he was eating (which reeked by itself with no assistance). Compared to Hungarians the Czechs didn't smile nearly as much. I wonder if that's a Slavic thing? Russians never smile either. The train arrived in Prague late, and I took the metro two stops down to my hotel (carefully chosen for its proximity to the metro line). I checked in and explored a little bit of Old Town before bedding down for the night.

Overall my impression of Prague was that it is overrated. It had a DisneyWorld feel to it. It was much harder to meet people and it was much more crowded than Budapest (as in suffocating). The buildings were gorgeous from an aesthetic standpoint, but honestly, it's just too much. Paris even yields its prettiness. Turns out Prague was a trophy city/money dump for the Hapsburgs and as such EVERYWHERE you go is insanely beautiful that it's a little off putting. Plus, add again that Prague is a huge tourist city (and not much else in August).

24 August 2009
It came time to leave, and honestly I was ready to go. I didn't enjoy Prague as much as I had anticipated, though I think some of that was anticipation of moving in the coming five days. Anyways, to ensure a quick ride to the airport I took a cab to the airport. The cab driver must have thought it amusing because I was swaying and jerked all over the place during the ride. I had to look down at my feet as he sped at sixty kmh through tiny side streets barely big enough for the car, all the while revving the engine!

We arrived at PRG, which is a very nice airport, very clean, modern. It reminded me of Munich's aiport. Delta uses Terminal 1. I had a little scuffle with the check-in agent, though. He was of the opinion that my small carry on was fine, but that my backpack was too large to fit into the overhead bin. Never mind that people were carrying bags on the plane that were still larger than my two put together...admittedly it was a bulky book bag but that was mainly because there were three Harry Potter books in them and they had all slid on top of each other -- in other words easily adjustable. I argued with him and then the supervisor for a minute or two and said, "I'll happily put it under my seat, there's no need for this bag to be checked." She finally relented either realizing that the check-in agent was being overzealous or she realized I was going to be stubborn. Either way the two bags fit very nicely on top of each other in the overhead bin, hardly taking up any space...

I watched the flight from either ATL or JFK (dunno which) arrive. Its first officer was a woman, I think the first I had seen for an international flight, though that's not a HUGE number to pull from. I waited about an hour before seeing a really long line at my gate, B8, and panicked thinking it was mine. Turns out it was the one for B9, but a few others had panicked like me and a short line was forming, so I joined it and chatted with the people around me.

Soon we were through security (I hate individual gate security in the EU, drives me nuts) and then milled around the gate area for about twenty minutes before boarding started. I made my way to 36J and got settled. Before completely getting settled I went to the lavatory and I noticed there and on the way back that this aircraft had not been cleaned very well, perhaps something to do with unions at PRG? I've flown Delta quite a bit over the Atlantic and this aircraft was frankly not up to par. It was mostly the bathrooms, and it was mostly trash, not filth, but nonetheless...

The movies on this flight were the Soloist (couldn't get into it) and Monsters vs. Aliens (I watched just to kill time). The meal was an interesting chicken dish, better than the KLM pissy-pasta, though nothing special. The FAs came by frequently enough to be satisfactory, but this was another mundane flight across the ocean that did what it needed to do.

I must mention however that there were about fifteen YOUNG kids in my section, and two or three of them were allowed to holler and scream at will for the entire flight. One of them had this obnoxious "ehhhhhhhhhhhhh" every time he didn't get something he wanted...which was apparently often. We flew over Canada and down through Michigan. On approach into Atlanta we basically flew down I-85, over my house incidentally, the Mall of Georgia, and a few other local landmarks. For the last hour of the flight the girl sitting directly behind me talked as though she were giving dictation. I discreetly looked back and listened, though I couldn't understand a word of her Czech, and I swear hear seatmate just sat there with this glazed over petrified look on her face, every ten minutes or so mutter a "oh" while this girl seriously JUST KEPT TALKING, it was kinda funny, but seriously, how do some people talk that much....

We landed on the North runways with little incident. I proceeded through Passport control, didn't have to wait for baggage check!! and then went through customs and security, and hopped on the train back down to the South Concourse where I was picked up.

I must say I enjoyed the trip, in retrospect incredibly glad I did it, though I don't know if I would make Prague a destination again! Any comments are welcome, though again, I chose to include more of the rest of the trip than most people do. Thanks!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A New Journey...

It finally came time to leave for Dominica. I had five days to basically get everything together, but I'm a good packer so that was hardly an issue.

To detail my venture into a new part of the world I figured it would be beneficial to both myself to detail it here and beneficial to anyone here who may want to read it...haha.

29 August 2009
This flight to Antigua was non-stop on Delta, but it left at 1000...I mean really, can we not get some lights at the airport in Antigua to facilitate more reasonable departure times AND even more, connection times upon which this flight undoubtedly needs...Ok, rant over!

So, I was dropped off at the airport by the family and had a long goodbye. Even though this was an international flight, I checked in at the kiosk, which is a beautiful contraption that greatly eases the hassles of getting through the check-in process. Why more people don't use this option is beyond me, it's literally a two-push process. Adding a passport scan does nothing to impede the process! The whole thing took two minutes and then I was immediately directed to the baggage drop

The security was its usual self---that is to say a bunch of idiots acting like they can't read and/or have never been to an airport getting through that took about ten minutes.

When I checked the flight status online before leaving for the airport the flight was schedule to leave from T7, which would have been wonderful as obviously that's right after security, you don't even have to go down the escalator! However, upon checking in I discovered that the flight had been rescheduled to leave from E2. Which, of course, is the farthest possible gate from the security check point being at E (the last concourse) and Gate 2, at the END of the concourse! I'm not a huge fan of taking the people mover, I usually just prefer to walk, but I got down to C and noticed that I was about twenty seconds ahead of a train, and figured, what the hell, I'll just take the train. Probably a good thing I did that too as literally the minute after I got to the gate they started boarding. Interestingly, upon check-in I got the "This flight is overbooked, please see gate agent for details blah blah blah" message. This was the second DL flight in a row where I'd gotten that one (previous one was 13 August PHX-ATL). So, when I get to the gate, hoping MAYBE they'd route me through JFK for some perks (it's happened before) or some other way, they told me, no, we're why do I get the message in the first place??? I mean really

So, all that being said it came time to board out 737-700. New livery, don't have the registration, but it did have winglets. The configuration had the PTVs and the slimline seats. Seated next to me was a young eight or nine year old whose aunt was sitting further up. Next to him was a women who I would guess is in her fifties or sixties going to Montserrat. The kid sitting next to me behaved perfectly with the exception that he got finger happy with his PTV and kept pressing the same button sixteen times when the menu didn't act fast enough. Of course, that proceeded to freeze the PTV every five minutes. Mine worked perfectly, and I watched a little LIVE TV until we got out of range, and then I watched The Proposal while the meal service came around, but it was nondescript so I really don't remember what it was, lol.

We lined up for take off and meandered our way to the South runways, and we start rolling, and we just keep rolling, and never speed up....I remember thinking to myself, "gentlemen up front, this little stretch of pavement doesn't keep's gonna end, what's the deal here...?" Well, the deal was we had to go back to a gate, though we didn't deplane. They turned on the TV systems for us so that was very generous of them. Turns out, the plane had been repaired, and the part used to repair it was the part for a 737-800, not a 737-700, so I guess that means the plane couldn't have been legally dispatched. So, after an hour we were back on the runway (the TVs were never turned off, the safety thing having been displayed prior to the initial non-take off) and this time we made it into the air!

Because I'm just that lucky there were about forty young kids on this flight. Most of them were well behaved, one or two of them had cranky moments during pressurization, but then settled. There was one, however, of course, in the aisle across and back from me who felt the need to scream and holler on and off pretty much the entire flight....and his parents did nothing about it. The lady in my row even said something about it, but nothing. I may be setting myself for bad karma but dammit control your children on a flight!
The flight itself was rather uneventful minus the screaming kid. I swear I'm done with VFR routes!! Having never been to the Caribbean before it was nice to fly over some of the islands. Just before touching down on the runway in ANU we either hit a pocket of air or the pilot felt like keeping us on our "toes" because the plane basically bucked up and right back down and we become a Deltoid Wave, with a good chunk of the plane going "awwooooo" during the process, and then we all had a good laugh about it as the plane touched down.

Now the hectic part begins. I've flown enough (though not nearly as much as some of you road warriors -- did you like that shameless kiss up?) to out of the way destinations to know that if you're not flexible and expect everything to run with German efficiency you'll have a coronary after a while, so I went into the airport expecting "Island Time" to be in full force. Immigration was actually fine, being no faster or shorter than anywhere else really. Baggage claim, however, was horrendous. There were only three flights on the ground and it took a solid hour for my bag to come of the belt...insane considering the baggage claim belt is literally thirty yards from the plane.

Anyway, once that conundrum was over and done with, it came time to get to where I'd be staying that (one and only) night. I decided to stay in Antigua 1) the flight was cheaper and 2) to get another stamp in my passport (travel geek supreme here). I originally searched for a Hilton or Holiday Inn affiliated hotel for the points (Hilton Honor Silver woot woot) that I'd get from the hotel program AND the airline program...hey, double dipping is beautiful thing. Alas, no affiliated hotels seemed to exist in Antigua...major bummer. So, I did the next best thing...HOTELS.COM! Yeah, so I had no idea about any of these places, so I went with the cheapest one closest to the airport with cable TV and AC. I chose The Verandah. Turned out it was very nice, though I was by far the youngest person staying there that was not being accompanied by an adult. No matter really since I didn't get there until around six in the evening, and I would be basically just sleeping there. The room was very nice as you can see.

And so was the outside.

I chilled in my room that night (it gets dark in the Caribbean around six thirty, maddening to me) reading and watching old tennis matches on the Tennis Channel (I don't even have that at home!).

The next morning I had a little bit of time to kill before checking out, so I decided to sit on the beach and read my book, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. I didn't have much time, but since I'd paid for the private beach...
Noon came around and it was time to check out. It took about a half hour to get to the airport. Since my flight wasn't until 1640 I was in no rush to get there, but where else could I really go with a fifty pound bag and nowhere to put it? In a nutshell I paid my exit fee (which it turns out a short stayer like me didn't need to, live and learn) and then schlepped my bag up two flights of stairs to the air conditioned restaurant. I leisurely read my book and ate some lunch before going back down the stairs to check my bag in. Despite LIAT policy being ONE carry on, I was able to check my bag (50.5 lbs) and walk through with a backpack and a small rolling suitcase that easily weighed close to thirty pounds (twice their limit of fifteen). I didn't say anything and neither did they.

I still had a while to kill so I just watched the tarmac, unfortunately pictures aren't allowed. I was paged to the desk after a while, and I panicked, thinking my flight was cancelled, or delayed, or something was wrong with my checking, etc, etc. About fifty scenarios went through my mind. Turned out to be the Ross University welcome person/lady/ma'am just wanting to make sure that I had everything in order to arrive in Dominica, which I did. Right after that a flight from San Juan, PR arrived with about twenty students on it, so it was nice to at least have somebody to talk to. A month later I've seen a few of them, but not many.

Two flights were going to Dominica within about ten minutes of each other, and mine was delayed. Just my luck. Either way, we boarded our little puddle jumper and settled in. I was very glad this was to be a short flight because Jay Jay the Jet Plane could have done cartwheels around this plane (side note: can planes do cartwheels??) The flight was uneventful and we landed on a tiny airstrip that turned out to be Dominica just as the sun was starting to set. Immigration was no problem, and surprisingly enough neither was baggage claim. My bag arrived unlike many, thank God. Ross was there to meet us and a group of us set out toward Portsmouth (the airport being in Marigot). The road was windy and steep, and not one you'd drive for jollies. Most of the roads here are like that. We were dropped off at the Housing Office where we waited for our bags. They were loaded on a separate truck that tailed us by about forty-five minutes. Our bags eventually arrived and the landlords called.

My apartment is fine, it's not what'd you find in the states, but nothing here is. According to many students it's one of the nicer complexes in the area that doesn't cost and arm and a leg. The landlord has been responsive to anything I needed. Apparently the last tenant destroyed the apartment so many things had been replaced. I got a new table, new refrigerator, settee, and dry erase board. Makes me wonder how destructive and negligent the former tenant was. I was have twice-weekly maid service and classes are less than ten minutes by foot, which is great for sleeping late in the morning! Some people have half hour to forty-five minute walks. For those who care my road is Balvin Rd. which branches off Moo Cow Trail (seriously). Moo Cow Trail is appropriately named as at any random time five or six cows can be found tethered grazing. Sometimes they look at you rather blase and ignore you, and sometimes they voice their "displeasure" at being disturbed by, you guessed it "mooing" at you.

So all in all the first impressions are good!