Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Crazy, Amazing Travel Machine

I’m always up for a bit of nostalgia, and yesterday was drawn to read an article entitled Eleven Things We No Longer See On Airplanes (which you don't have to click on, I am only providing the link as a courtesy to its author), but it was all about stuff that was either before my time, or I never experienced even if I lived when it was available, so I couldn’t feel emotional about any of it. Most readers of that article who left comments were bemoaning how horrible air travel has become in the modern age, whereas my response would be to write about what I enjoy about air travel.

However, when I began to write this piece and search for illustrating photographs on the Internet, my eyes were opened to the fact that if people are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for first class travel on some airlines, they can have stuff like what this article mentions again, nowadays. So it's all about money now, and I am sure, always has been. That what people actually are bemoaning, if only they could see it, is that the general public is now able to fly when, a generation or two ago, it was only an elite portion of the populace who could afford to do so. And this broadening of the chance to fly most likely includes the majority of those moaning about it. As for me, despite the current availability of a lot of these luxuries, once again, I do expect that I will never experience any of them, even if I actually would want to.

Here's a run-down of those eleven items:

Sleeping Berths:


I had had some vague notion that there were some airlines that offered sleeping berths in some past era, but I hadn't known that they were on a regular airliner and was also available for coach passengers. I think that this happened for a short time on what I admit is a pretty spectacular kind of plane I had never heard of, a Boeing "Stratocruiser", that, according to this website, existed in 1945, which was before I was born. It also wouldn't surprise me if PanAm Clippers also had sleeping births, but I don't know about that.

The Boeing "Stratocruiser" was a double-decker airplane, so built-in was a lot of room for their various features:

What I did know about was how amazingly luxurious the German dirigible, the Hindenberg was, the pictures of the interior of which really surprised me when I think of this as "air travel"! For example, here is a photo of the dining room on the Hindenberg (dining room? not just a tray table that you fold down?):

And here is a passenger lounge:

But one can see that travel on a dirigible was more like being on a cruise ship, not what we normally think of as travel on an airplane. For example, on the Hindenberg, passengers could promenade along large picture windows and even open them to the outer air.

This was in the late 1930s, so, of course, it was way before my time as well. And the tragic, spectacular explosion of the Hindenberg pretty much destroyed the dirigible as a method of passenger air travel. But I think that if something like this existed today, I very well might work hard to save my money to be able to pay for travel on it, at least once.

And of course, instead of sleeping berths, they had tiny private cabins:

This, in a way, reminds me more of train travel, that I have done, including sleeping compartments while traveling the length of Mexico and also traveling in Europe across the countries of Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. The only time I ever had a sleeping compartment on a train in the United States was when I was a little boy, the family took a train trip from Asheville, North Carolina to St. Louis, Missouri. The only thing I remember about that trip was the train going on a bridge over the Mississippi River, and some vague memory of a canvas curtain that closed off the sleeping area.

I remember my adult sleeping compartment on a train experiences much better, of course, and it is a wonderful way to travel. But this blog piece is about air travel; nostalgia for trains is a different subject.

But no excuse for sleeping compartments aboard airplanes nostalgia if you have lots of money, since you could have something like this on Singapore Airlines:

If you can't afford an entire sleeping compartment, you nevertheless can have a sleeping berth on Quantas:

Or something a little less luxurious on Thai Airways:

I can't really sleep very well on an airplane, although perhaps if I were in a private compartment or at least a sleeping berth, maybe I could. However, I can sleep at home or at the hotel once I get there, and I am not so blasé about airplane travel that I am happy enough to simply sleep through it. My whole inner clock is kind of messed up, anyway, so it's not like I have some kind of strict schedule that I need to stick to. So I can read, or watch another movie on the "On Demand" entertainment system, or simply relax and listen to my iPod.

Passenger Lounges and Pianos

Those were two separate entries on the Eleven Things article, but I lump them into the same thing--a space on the airplane where passengers just hang around like they are in a cocktail lounge while drinking, conversing, playing video games, or singing along with a piano. Hummm...I don't think travelers these days would really want to do that unless they were traveling with a group of friends. Strangers don't seem to be too happy meeting one another in today's era. What is available today on Air New Zealand for a lot of extra money is this kind of thing:

Instead of singing along with strangers, the modern passenger seems to want to shut himself off from everybody else in a private area with his "On Demand", which provides movies, television shows, and video games. So if we are to have nostalgia, it would be for a certain social attitude among travelers, not the loss of a place to congregate on an airplane.

One of the typical complaints of those who commented in that article had to do with children...they spoke of strangers' children kicking their seat back the whole way across the Atlantic; that somehow the presence of children among the travelers was what made the experience intolerable and therefore these "cocktail lounges" of an earlier area were, in my view, by default an escape from traveling children. Well, maybe so, although I have traveled quite a bit (on vacations, not business travel) and rarely, if ever, have I found children to be a problem. And I have even traveled with sixty-six sixth graders (ah, there's a potential "666" for you!) when I chaperoned school trips, and found them to be more delightful than a lot of the adult travelers.

On my last several vacations, nearby children made the trip even more fun that it might have been. For example, when I flew back from Hawaii, there was a little girl sitting in the seat across the aisle from me. Mostly, she sat there quietly reading books that her mother had thoughtfully brought along for her (I've seen that good parents understand what accoutrements can help their children pass the time). Sometimes she would watch cartoons on the TV, all at her choice and command (she figured out how to master that remote control device pretty quickly!) and would laugh charmingly at all the antics. Other times, she would carefully munch on snacks that her mother furnished her with, not spilling very much and not making a mess. At other times, she and her mother conversed between themselves, taking the opportunity to share quality time with each other. When I finally decided to speak to them a little, I asked if they were going back home from a trip to Hawaii, or taking a trip from Hawaii. The mother said that they were going back home to Los Angeles. So I asked the little girl what she had liked best about Hawaii, and as quick as a wink, she answered with a smile, "Swimming!".

"Oh, of course swimming, I liked that, too!" I answered. "But you swim at home, don't you?"

"Oh yes, but the hotel had a big slide!" was her explanation. I have learned on my various travels that that is a must if you have children with you on a vacation--stay in a hotel with a pool and a good slide. I experienced this with my nephew and niece when we went on a cruise from Los Angeles to Mexico. Even though the swimming pool was full of ice-cold Pacific Ocean water and therefore useless (another reason to prefer swimming in Hawaii, the ocean water is wonderfully warm!), it had a long, convoluted slide that the kids loved and they spent most of their time on that cruise enjoying that slide over and over again.

Also on that trip to Kauai that I was coming back home from, I had taken a Zodiac raft cruise of the Na Pali Coast, which was, for the adults, more of an experience in brutality than it was seeing the beauty of that spectacular cost. It was six hours of intense bounce bounce bounce on the waves and getting the face smashed with splashes of wave water every few seconds, so it was impossible to actually see anything. Just holding on was a constant effort, so by the time the whole excursion was over, I felt that I had been waterskiing the entire distance from Los Angeles to Sacramento up Interstate 5.

The only person on board who was dry, in total comfort, and actually could see everything was a little boy who was given the king seat in the very center at the back of the raft, where he didn't need to hold on, where the ride was smooth, and no water ever splashed him in the face. (The captain of the raft explained that that seat was normally there for an elderly passenger, but since there were no one elderly in this tour group, the little boy could have it.) But this boy kept asking the captain how long we had before the trip was over. Finally in exasperation, the captain asked him why he wanted the trip to be over so fast, wasn't he enjoying the excursion. The boy answered that yes, he was enjoying it, but he was eager to get back to the hotel. "What's back at the hotel that you like so much?" the captain asked. The boy's mother answered, "He's eager to get back to the swimming pool slide. The hotel has a spectacular one."

On my flight to Tokyo, which was an extremely long one, there were several children on board, mostly Japanese, every one of them a delight who were either smiling or else laughing. Even their parents were laughing, with the children; a plane filled with families in which all the parents and children were having a ball being together, what's to complain about?

Last year, flying to Tahiti, sitting next to me on my left was a Frenchman who never once spoke one word to me or even acknowledged my presence in the slightest. Mostly he played some imbecilic road racing video game on his iPad that involved wildly steering his iPad as if it were the steering wheel of a race car. It was an effort to block him out of my awareness, but I managed to do it.

However, across the aisle from me, one row up, was a blonde woman holding a blonde baby boy. Although I never spoke to either of them, I determined that they were Norwegian, based on the near-whiteness of their blond hair and from whatever I could pick up from the Scandinavian-sounding language she used whenever she spoke to either the baby or to her husband to the right of her.

The baby boy simply relaxed quietly in the security of his mother's arms, but whenever he turned his head so that he saw me, he'd give me this huge, glowing smile, which, of course, I would return to him. He was a thousand times more pleasant to have as a neighbor than the man sitting next to me with his iPad video game. The boy had this very cute little plastic giraffe that his mother had pulled out of her purse which he grasped eagerly in his tiny fingers. This particular choice of a favorite or comforting toy amused me and made me like him even more. Every once in a while, he would drop it, as baby's would do, so I, who could easily reach down and pick it up (and it would have been difficult for his mother to), would put it back into his awaiting fingers. Whenever he did that, he would smile even more, which enchanted me so much that, of course, every time he dropped it, I'd pick it back up for him again. Only once or twice did his mother turn to look at me apologetically, but I simply smiled at her and gave an expression that I hoped communicated, "Oh well, what can we do!", and since I obviously didn't seem bothered, she wasn't going to be bothered, either. I am sure that if I got tired of this, I would just stop picking the giraffe up for him. However, as it was, I was so relaxed listening to songs in my iPod and feeling excited anticipation over my upcoming trip to French Polynesia, that playing this game with the baby was part of the pleasure. Ultimately, he fell asleep, dropped the giraffe one more time, and when I picked it back up, his mother took it and stuffed it away back into her purse.

Champagne In Coach:

Well hell, you can have champagne in coach, you just have to pay for it like you pay for wine or beer, or some other alcoholic drink (with the cute little bottles). I don't have to pay double my price of a ticket just to have a few glasses of free champagne. Too much alcohol on a plane makes me feel kind of woozy, anyway, so I'm actually happier with just a soft drink or maybe coffee.

Table-Side Meat Carving:

I guess the idea here is "fine dining". I certainly don't have to have a roving meat-carving station, I don't demand that at a restaurant, so why should I have to have it on airplane? And can you imaging how long the food service would be, then? The worst thing is that airlines discourage you from using the bathroom during food service, since there is no room for both the food cart and passengers trying to squeeze by. So anything that speeds up the food service is fine by me.

Maybe I am too plebeian instead of being a "fine diner", but I honestly don't really get all the people who complain about "airplane food". I guess my feeling is if somebody is going to hand me a tray of food, I'm going to eat it and enjoy it; I not only didn't have to prepare it, myself, I also didn't have to clean up afterwards. And anyway, I haven't seen what is so bad about it. I've enjoyed the airline meals that I have had and am kind of fascinated by all the little trays and compartments and everything is wrapped up and decorated with the airline's logo, and so on. It tastes fine to me.

However, if you want your meal on an airplane to be like eating out at Lawry's Prime Rib (admittedly, a fantastic restaurant), then please take the train or go on a cruise, or fly Qatar Airlines:

Flight Attendants In Hot Pants and Airline Fashion Shows:

These two were separate categories in that article, but they're more or less the same thing--nostalgia for a certain mode of dress among flight attendants. Honestly, I can't really care. They're all just uniforms--do I care how the meter maid who is giving me a parking ticket is dressed (do I even notice)? Should all the fight attendants be hired away from Hooters? And do you really want them taking up time having two or three costume changes mid-flight as apparently they did on one airline that is now no longer in business? (One uniform for the boarding phase, another uniform for the food-serving phase, and yet another uniform for the nighttime restful phase of the flight.) Hell, why not have stripper flights or nudist flights, or instead of putting in a piano bar, why not install some poles for stewardess pole dancing, or maybe some tables and chairs for lap dancing?

Looking at the stewardess uniforms in that Braniff ad, those are all clothes from the sixties. I could have nostalgia for the sixties that such clothing reminds me of. Now, if they only had stewardesses that had costume changes like Jayne Fonda had as the sexy 41st century astronaut super heroine in the movie Barbarella, which was from the same era as that Braniff ad, then I'm there!

Instead of working to beautify the stewardesses, the current version on Virgin Atlantic is providing beauty treatment for the passengers:

Peruvian Art:

I remember Braniff Airlines, they were the ones that had the noticeably bizarrely painted airplanes, as if they had all been designed by Joan Miro. They were kind of cool to see at the airport, but now in an era when you mostly get on board an airplane through a boarding bridge, you don't ever really get to see much of the outside of the plane you are getting into.

I did happen to ride Braniff once, from Los Angeles to the National Airport in Washington, D.C., and it was one of the most comfortable flights I have ever flown on. But that was due to a fortunate accident of the seat I was given. The configuration of that particular Braniff plane was that there was one row of seats at the very back, like you would see on a bus. I had the very middle seat, which meant that there was nothing in front of me but the entire long aisle of the plane. Never before on a plane had I had such legroom! Better than one could ever get in first class! I will never forget that particular flight, but the painting of the airplane had nothing to do with it. They did have cool leather seats, though, so I give (gave) Braniff points for being innovative instead of conforming to the "standard" of other airlines.

I guess if you want an innovatively decorated airplane nowadays, your best bet would be Virgin, who not only has an unusual purply-red interior, their color palette changes slowly with the time of day, from more energetic color to more restful. And this is available regardless of class.

A Window At The End Of Each Row Of Seats:

What they're really talking about here is how airlines have added more rows of seats to their airplane interiors than were originally designed, thus taking in more income per flight but screwing up the "one row, one window at the end of each row" original design. As I don't like being claustrophobically squeezed into a window seat (and especially not now that so many airlines have purchased those tiny short-hop jets for their localized flights, such as Los Angeles to San Francisco, where they're so small inside you feel that you are stepping into an MRI machine instead of an airplane fuselage), I haven't even noticed where the window is. You can't see too much out of them, anyway, except a bank of clouds or occasionally a dark mountain. Maybe coming in for a landing, you get a quick glance of some lights, buildings, and then squeak, you hit the runway. For me, it's the aisle, all the way.

That being said, I do remember quite fondly a day (once in my life) when there really were windows on an airplane that you could enjoy looking out of. It was on a prop plane on a now-defunct airline called Capital Airlines that used to fly around the eastern portion of the United States. I don't know whatever happened to them--that link shows several photos of crashed airplanes, so maybe they had too many airplane crashes.

But you can see in this picture how they had huge, oval windows from which you could enjoy watching in great detail the entire landscape as you flew over:

The very first time I ever went on a airplane flight, I was a junior in high school and the family went on ahead to our home town of Asheville, North Carolina, where we were going to be for our summer trip, but I had to stay behind a few days to finish a chemistry class I was taking in summer school that summer.

I remember as plain as day that the first flight was an American Airlines jet from San Francisco to Atlanta. I know I flew alone, but I have no idea how I got to the airport, or where I was staying just prior to that. Did I stay with the family of some friends during my parent's absence, and did those parents take me to the airport? I really just don't know, but I do know that I was alone on that airplane trip (and feeling very accomplished), that I could do this by myself and find my way to the flight change in Atlanta by myself, as well.

I remember how nice the stewardesses were on the American Airlines flight, and I was young enough to receive "first flight" gifts, such as "Captain's wings" and a beautiful photo of the kind of Boeing plane we were on.

In Atlanta, I had to change to this Capital Airlines prop plane, but that flight was even more fun than the American Airlines jet, because it really "felt" like flying--even the take-off felt different. I noticed that on a jet, the take-off was like being shot like an arrow, moving down the runway until it was all "full speed ahead" when the jet suddenly shot forward, tipped up, and was airborne. The prop plane, on the other hand, kept going faster and faster until suddenly it simply floated up, and then tipped higher to keep on climbing.

But the best part of it was looking out of that huge window where I could see everything. I think I was glued to that window the entire flight from Atlanta to Asheville, and coming into the Asheville area was completely beautiful. Coming in to a landing was more gradual than with the jet, too, so as the plane got lower, I could see more and more detail out of the window, until we got low enough, and especially as we began to circle around the Asheville airport, I could see people and their cars, and even watched a man mowing his lawn. Maybe it was because I was young, maybe because this was my first airplane trip, maybe because I knew it was going to a glorious vacation in a place that I loved, or maybe because I was alone, or maybe it was simply because of those huge windows like I have never had on a flight since, this one flight was the most wonderfully memorable one I have ever taken. All of these factors played a part, I am sure, but I am going to give the nod to the huge windows as being the most important factor of all.

A Seat Assignment In 22I:

Has anyone noticed that seat numbers are missing the letters "I", "O", and maybe also "Q" and "S"? Well, I never have and, more, I don't even really care. The author of that piece blames computers for that, in that there was confusion between "1" and "I", "0" and "O" and "Q", and "5" and "S", so those letters were removed from the "DEC" (Digital Electronic Corporation" alphabet. Well, I can see how those symbols would be confusing (and any change that would prevent my luggage from being lost is a big plus), but I wouldn't blame computers for that, but humans. Computers wouldn't mix any of those up at all, as the ASCII codes for them would be completely unique and not "mix-up-able", unless they are talking about some kind of visual recognition system that I don't know that they have (which, I suppose is possible, and maybe they do).

At any rate, this "change" is nothing to get upset about, unless those letters get removed from our alphabet entirely, but if so that wouldn't be the fault of the airline industry!

In the comment that I left at the end of that article, I mentioned that I had held onto my child-like excitement over airline travel, which I think is a good thing. Travel seems to be very stressful for people, and sometimes has been for me, but when I analyzed it, I realized that the worst stress is based on time. I don't like having to hurry, or to worry about not having enough time, or being late, or missing something. So my solution for that, when it is possible, is to allow myself a lot of time for each step. I am not interested in cutting it close. So, for example, my heart used to sink whenever I would see eternally long TSA lines. So now I allow a whole hour to get through security. I also allow all sorts of other cushions in my journey allowing for heavy traffic or other delays, so while sometime that means that I may end up at my boarding gate two hours ahead of time, that also means that I can relax and simply enjoy every step.

Often when a trip is over, or nearly over, I feel grief over how I had allowed certain stupid anxieties to block the full enjoyment of my trip. I had somehow allowed myself to be knocked out of the smooth flow. Fortunately, since I have become aware of this, I have gotten better, and have been better at letting myself go back to my child self where every detail is fascinating. My view of travel is an enhanced microcosmic view, which means that every detail is worth appreciating, so that the more I notice, the more enjoyment I have. And with travel, there are so many details you can see, so that I am surprised that people aren't fascinated, and thus happy, every second. Instead, they yearn for their established routine, whatever it is. I am not sure where their consciousness is if sleep is their main desired activity. But I have seen that...people who have gone with me on road trips who sleep until we get to some destination, missing everything on the road meanwhile.

Or one time I was on an excursion bus from Belize City to the Xunantunich pyramid complex that was almost on the border with Guatemala. We had a brilliant, highly educated, licensed tourguide who stood up in the front of the bus, facing backwards toward the row of seats and telling us about everything we passed along the way, including the flora and fauna, discussing Belize history and culture, and generally giving us a thorough overview on this country. She was very welcoming to questions, and so every once in a while, I would raise my hand and ask her one, which always led to a thorough answer. No one else seemed to be asking questions, so I kept on asking whenever I had a question (and there would be many), but began to feel a little guilty at, possibly, monopolizing her time. So after a while, I turned around to look back behind me from where I was sitting near the front, to see if I was possibly frustrating some other passengers, and to my shock, what I saw was that every single person on that bus except for me, the tourguide, and the bus driver, was sound asleep! For them, what this excursion was about was simply seeing the pyramid at the end of it, and the whole rest of the six-hour journey (round trip) was just the necessary "travel" to get there, but it, itself, was of no value at all. The actual truth was that most of what I got on that excursion came from the trip itself. Sure, the pyramid and other buildings were great to see, but the understanding of them had come from the tourguide's lecture beforehand. And, of course, now the people began asking their questions, very stupid ones, because whatever they asked about had already been discussed by the tourguide during the bus ride. I wondered what it must be like for her to be imparting all this knowledge to a bus full of sleeping people? Maybe I was a bother to her, for if I hadn't been there, she could have simply turned around, sat on the seat, and conversed with the bus driver; she wouldn't have had to work.

Actually, I am sure she enjoyed having someone who was interested in what she had to talk about.

Three random interesting things I saw on that bus ride: One was that every village we came to, children, chickens, dogs, people, bicyclists, elderly people, everything, might be out on the road, but the bus driver never honked his horn or slowed down from his rather fast speed. He simply plowed on ahead at full speed, to the extent that I was sure he was going to run someone down, but no, everybody simply got out of the way similar to how you may find crows pecking at a road kill and simply moving out of the way when cars come by. Second was I saw a full Amish man with a horse and buggy, with the Amish clothes, hat, and beard...the whole Amish regalia! I was like, whoa, and this, of course, was one of the questions I asked the tourguide. "You have Amish here?" She answered that yes, they did. That when the old-order Amish left Switzerland (this is why they speak German, by the way) in order to escape being burned at the stake because of their belief that they should not baptize children, but give them a choice to be baptized when they were old enough to understand what they were doing, they sought religious freedom in various places in the "New World"; America was just one of them, and here we had just seen how Belize was another one. Just this one sight alone broadened my worldview in a significant way. (It wasn't all America that was the haven for freedom.)

The third thing I saw...I said to her that I had heard that scientists in Belize were studying unique species in Belize's rainforest in search for a substance that may cure cancer. Did she know if they were having any progress with that. She answered that there was one particular plant that was very hopeful. "Here, I'll show it to you as we drive by," she said, and explained that it had a leaf with five "fingers" that looked like a hand. "There are several of them, now," she pointed out to me, and sure enough, there were several plants that looked like hands waving at us as we sped by. So I got to see a possible cure for cancer on that trip, while everyone else snored.

To show how stupid those fellow tourists were, at lunch I sat with a young man and a young woman who were from somewhere in Southern California, who wouldn't eat any of the food we were served. As I tucked into it, I was telling them how delicious it was. They said, "Oh, we won't eat that."

"Why not?" I asked

"It looks terrible; it doesn't look like Mexican food, to us."

"It's not Mexican food," I said.

"Well, it should be," they explained.

"Why should it look like Mexican food?" I asked. "We're not in Mexico, we're in Belize. It is Belizian food."

"Mexico, Belize, it's all the same," they said. "South of the border stuff."

People like that really need to just stay home.

But people who have to have "meat carving service" on an airplane are pretty much in that same category, in my view. "But you are on an airplane," I might argue.

Oh, another quick story about completely delicious food that some tourists will refuse to eat. I was on the magnificent two day Los Mochis to Chihuahua Copper Canyon Railroad trip, which takes you up into the Sierra Madre mountains where at the time, the only way in there was the train, or else on horseback. The Copper Canyon is nine times larger than the Grand Canyon, and except for Mexicans living in some of the little villages and towns along the way, such as Creel, where you stop for the night, the only inhabitants in that whole wild region are the Tarahumara Indians, who of all the indigenous people in North and Central America, are the least touched by the white man.

Nowadays, the Mexican government is starting to build roads up in there, but it is too dangerous to go on them because that region is also the hide-out of the Mexican drug gangs that smuggle drugs into the United States. This is terrible for the Tarahumara, who managed to survive the Spanish Conquistadors who wanted to enslave them (they escaped into this severely forbidding geography much in the same way that the Cherokee who escaped from the Trail of Tears forced journey from North Carolina to Oklahoma survived by going back to North Carolina and hiding out in unexplored coves in the Great Smoky Mountains), but now they have to contend with drug gangs.

Whenever the train would stop at a village, Mexican women and children would get on board and walk down the aisles of the railroad cars selling home-made tamales that they carried in buckets covered with cotton cloth. They also sold ice cold Coca Cola in small glass bottles. Those "Cocas", as they called them, were so refreshing, and the women and children were so sweet and the tamales smelled so good that I had to get them. They had pork, chicken, and sweet corn filled tamales, so I bought all three kinds. I ate my fill on that trip of fantastic village-made food, where they had even grown the corn that was used to make the masa harina. The people selling this food were doing well...most of the people on the train were enjoying these treats, but there were several American tourists who kept yammering, "I wouldn't eat that if I were you, you will be getting sick for sure."

You know where I got sick on that trip to Mexico? Not from eating tamales hand-made by Sierra Madre village women, but from having a margarita made in a very elegant American-clientel hotel in artistic San Miguel Allende, a town famous for wealthy American expatriates.

One of the things I like about myself is that I like so many things. I felt a resonance with "lecturer on love" Leo Buscalia when he said that you should like things. "People are always talking about how much they hate," he said. "They hate this and they hate that. Stop hating everything so much. Love things, instead." He said that like it is a choice, and I think it is. And a smart choice, at that, because hating everything just makes you unhappy. So why do it? Change your standard, and your expectations.

I'll end with mentioning one of my favorite travel pieces I had ever read. It was a newspaper column by writer Bob Green, who was among the frustrated and stressed crowd of travelers at Washington, D.C.'s Dulles International Airport, riding one those big-wheeled shuttle buses that cross from one terminal to another. Mostly people stand in those shuttles, there are very few seats (not enough for the crowd), so they are standing there, hanging from straps or an overhead bar like on a crowded subway in New York.

Green noticed a casually-dressed black man up front with his little boy. They didn't seem like all the other passengers at all, who were business men, lobbyists, various government types, and so on whom you might expect to see in the Washington, D.C. urban area. The boy was beside himself with excitement over all the activities surrounding them, planes going by, other shuttles, baggage carts loaded to the gills with suitcases.

What's that man with that hose coming out of that truck doing, Daddy?"

"Oh, he's giving that plan fuel. Look what it says on the side of that plane, 'British Airways', why that plane is going all the way across the ocean to England, they're going to have to load up with plenty of fuel for that trip."

"Look at that plane moving way over there, Daddy!"

"Oh, let's watch him, he looks like he is ready take off. Wow look at that, see how fast he is going!"

The boy starts clapping with excitement as the jet lifts up off the ground with a roar. "Daddy, where do you think it's going?"

"No telling son, it says 'United Airlines' on it. It could be anywhere in the whole world. Maybe China, maybe Africa."

Green realized that these two weren't passengers at all, but that the father was spending his Saturday to take his boy on an excursion that didn't even cost anything at all...that to them, the airport was like an amusement park filled with fascinating wonder and the shuttle bus, a nuisance for most of the passengers, was actually like a Disneyland ride for the little boy.

Someday, that boy will be taking a plane somewhere, maybe to China, maybe to Africa, and I imagine that he will still have the same attitude of excitement that he had riding that shuttle. Because he learned how to see it with all with wondrous eyes, so every piece of it is a pleasure and a fascination.

I feel that way about all the steps that I will have to go through for my upcoming trip to Italy. The quick neighborhood drive to the LAX Van Nuys Freeway Flyer facility, where I will park my car in the huge parking garage there. Then there will be the hour-long (sometimes 45-minutes!) smooth ride in the Freeway Flyer bus down the diamond lane on the 405 to the terminal, getting there way faster than I could in my car, and way cheaper than even if I parked at one of the off-site parking lots.

I will be getting off at Terminal 2, one I have never been in before, where Air Canada is, an airline I have never flown before. Presumably I will have my home-computer printed boarding pass with me, and when I check my baggage either with a skycap or inside at the ticket counter, I will find out that my luggage will be sent all the way to Venice, instead of me having to get it and take it through customs at each of the plane changes I've got ahead, one in Montreal and the other one in Frankfort.

Now knowing my gate assignment, I will then go upstairs to go through security. There may be a long line, but I have allowed time. Surrounding me will be other passengers, and if they seem friendly, I may ask them where they are going and we can talk about our various destinations. If it's a vacation, we all should be excited.

Sure, people hate the TSA, but I will joke with them (usually say something like "That's the ugliest photo you will see all day" when I hand them my passport, and they will laugh and say something like, "Well, you know, that is pretty ugly, but I have seen worse, much worse!" And then we'll laugh again. They'll probably say something like, "So, you're flying to Venice," so I'll have a chance to share my excitement over my upcoming trip, and then ask them, "So how about you, any travel plans for this summer?" Being treated like a human being instead of a despised obstacle, they will actually be part of the fun of the trip. And when I ask them to let me opt-out of the "naked" x-ray machine and have the pat-down, instead (because I don't want more of the radiation), they will call for a person to do that quickly instead of making me wait around, even though I do have the time even if I do have to wait.

But usually this gets you a kind of "first class" service...yes, you still have to take off your shoes and belt and everything metal and empty your pockets and fill up the trays, but if you do it without complaint or mouthing off (the TSA operator can't change the rules), they will catch all your stuff at the other side and take it over to a safe place where you can watch it while they give you the "the machine is safe" lecture, and then very politely give you the pat-down, explaining it to you every step of the way. It's pretty quick and then I am back to being dressed and with my stuff and on my way into the gate area.

By this time it is likely that I will be very early, which is fine, so I will look to see everything they have up there, what kind of gift shops, what kind of places to eat. I usually like to eat up at the boarding gate areas, even though the selections sometimes aren't very good (they aren't over in the Delta terminal in Los Angeles, but fantastic in the Delta terminal at the San Francisco airport), but maybe the Air Canada one will be better. It's part of the fun. Either way, I will relax and enjoy and have a meal and maybe buy something in one of the shops. It's my vacation, I can have whatever treats I want.

Ultimately, I will find a place to sit at my boarding area where I can read or people watch or listen to my iPod until boarding time. All this will be part of the fun. I mean, really, just think, I am on my way to two weeks in Italy! What's to not be happy about?

So, there's a lot to enjoy on the flight (flight attendants to be friendly to, snacks and food to eat, whatever I want to drink, tons of things to watch and enjoy on the entertainment system, maybe friendly passengers near me, and so on), and then there will be the plane change in Montreal. I have never been to Canada at all, and this doesn't really count, but it will be fun to at least see the airport in Montreal.

After the flight from Montreal, there will be the plane change in Frankfort, and while I have been to Germany, I have never been to a German airport. I wonder how it will strike me as different. Their train stations are certainly different (I love the beautiful chimes they have when announcing the arrival and departure of trains, so what unique things will I see at the Frankfort airport?).

And then there is landing in Venice, and taking a ferry boat from the airport to wherever in Venice I want to go, probably my hotel, even though I will be there way earlier than check-in time, but maybe they will take my luggage, at least, so I won't be burdened as I begin my exploration of this beautiful city. In Venice, I imagine every second will be filled with surprise and delight, and there certainly will be unique ways of getting around, such as the vaporettos and maybe even a gondola if I decide I can afford it, plus, certainly, walking along tiny inner canals and crossing over bridges and generally exploring all the unique possibilities of a place as unusual as this.

After Venice will come the high speed train to Florence. The only high speed train I have ever ridden was the Intercity 125 from London to Darlington in the Midlands, but now there are trains that go much faster than the 125's 125 miles an hour. So right there there is more than just being in Florence, there is the getting there on a super high speed train!

And all this was just the tip of the iceberg, because there is Seina and Rome and the Vatican and Naples and Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast and the island of Sardinia; all this getting around and seeing and eating and staying in beautiful places. So much to enjoy, explore, learn, and go crazy over.

All that is part of what I think of as "the crazy, amazing travel machine," all these things that are set up to get us from one place to another, everywhere in the world. It could be a supersonic jet, it could be some kind of a boat, it could be two feet. Me, and my little boy self, will be having a total blast. He and I have chosen to, and so we will.


Longboardjeff said...

Fantastic post! I didn't even finish it, but I will. Something tells me you knew I'd comment on this one. I love the part of "It's all south of the border" food. I think I know those people!

Not too into commercial flying these days. Like you, I can't sleep on an airplane. I never could. I look out the window. Even with my own private room with a nearly 5-figure price tag, I'd stare out the window. On my salary I drive. And I'll save the "free liquor" for when I get to my room at the hotel.

Pitbullshark said...

Jeff, let's just say I hoped you leave a comment! I think I would like to see what the internal configuration of the PanAm Clippers were; I'm imaging they would have been quite impressive inside. And I have always had a fascination with dirigibles and and wish they could be used for something other than advertising Goodyear or Fuji Film. Come to think of it, I haven't seen them doing even that for quite some time.

Saving the "free liquor" for the hotel room...absolutely!