Thursday, August 04, 2011

My Siberian Adventure - Day 1 - June 27, 2011

Begin: Gretna, Louisiana (home)
Drive to: Kenner, Louisiana (Louis Armstrong Airport)
Fly to: Washington, DC (Dulles)
Drive to: Leesburg, Virginia (Landsdowne Resort)

After weeks of preparation and after a few days of final arrangements, the Big Day is finally here.  I'm on the head-end of a 24-day trip halfway around the world.  I love to travel, and this is going to be the biggest and farthest adventure so far in my 47 years.

And I wake up miserable.

I am looking at more than three weeks of separation from my wife Grace and son Leo - and that is the best-case scenario - as anything can happen in this fallen world.

My mind races feverishly to come up with a way out, some excuse as to why I can't go.  Maybe I will be sick.  Maybe I will discover an erroneous date on my visa.  Something.  Anything. Of course, my rationality wins the debate with my premature homesickness, and I face the reality that I am leaving.  All is in God's hands. 

While heading out the door, the phone rings.  There is turmoil in the parish.  I spend the ride to the airport on the phone with a parishioner.  Grace and Leo accompany me into the airport and we run into another parishioner, Heather, who is an ICE agent on her way to Washington, DC for a conference.  We are scheduled to be on the same flight. 

I get my boarding pass and hang out for a few last minutes with Grace and Leo.  We take some pictures.  We say "goodbye" and I go to security.  This time (unlike my last airline experience), it is uneventful.  No being placed into the porno-scanner line, no opt-out, no groping.  I meet up with Heather (whose government status puts her in a different security category) at the gate.  Our flight is on time.  This is good, because I have a very tight connection in Washington.  And if I miss that flight, I miss my rendezvous with Pastor Dan Johnson - which means I would arrive in Moscow a day after he has already left, which means I would be on my own not only in Moscow, but in navigating an itinerary change on Siberian (S7) Airlines, which means all of our planning so that I would have help in Moscow would be out the window.  So, "on time" is good.  Very good.

Heather and I have time to grab lunch.  As I walk by the board, it is now showing out flight status as "delayed."  Great.  Nevertheless, I take the opportunity for one last po-boy and eat lunch with Heather.  Upon returning to the gate, we find that the delay is significant.  I call to find that it will be about two hours.  That's not good.  And (of course) of all the flights, this one is the only one that is delayed.

It has always been my luck at airports.  If I have a gate change, it will be the very maximum distance.  If there is one flight that has mechanical problems, it will be mine.  I am the Odysseus of air travel, and Neptune has, since the time of the Wright Brothers, apparently, become some kind of air demon in dire need of an attitude adjustment.  So, I'm annoyed but not surprised.  It's the same feeling as when I'm just about done with my sermon and the computer crashes. 

I made a bunch of calls to Dan, to United, and tried to contact S7 airlines in Russia.  There is an alternative flight through Frankfurt that could connect to Lufthansa and get me to Moscow.  Dan said: "Don't worry.  We have people in Moscow who can get you out of trouble."  That strikes me as sounding like a line from a Warren Zevon song.

I connect with S7 a couple times via computer, but the line is awful and on one occasion, they can't find anyone who speaks English.  Their hold music is the 1970s instrumental piece called Popcorn.  I did not get my internal travel within Russia resolved, but it did become apparent that my best bet was to get to Washington and hope for the best once there.  So now, our flight to Washington is boarding - a couple hours late - thanks to a (wait for it): "mechanical problem."

I'm seated next to a young couple with a baby - which I would have considered part of the Neptunic Curse in the days before becoming a father myself.  The couple are headed home from the ALA conference in New Orleans.  They live in West Virginia.  We know the same bookstore/coffeeshop in Charleston.  The husband works for a software company that pioneered library computerization.  Their little boy is bright-eyed, smiling, and reading a fabric book.  He reminds me of another little boy who was like that just a few years ago.

We still have not yet taken off.  There is a long line.  We're on an Airbus A320.

Finally, we begin to taxi, and I begin my traditional nap.  I woke to order a ginger ale and share the trail-mix Miss Grace packed for me (great idea, Mrs. H!) with my neighbors (this flight offers no food at all).  There is no wi-fi and no cell service - so I have no way to try to work out my potential problem with S7.

Since I'll be preaching on the Prodigal Son text in Novosibirsk, I decide to work on my sermon.  I read the text in English and Greek on my Nook.  Afterwards, I decide to continue reading the Rev. Richard Wurmbrand's book Alone With God, a collection of "sermons" he preached while in solitary confinement in Romania (by the way, all of Wurmbrand's works are available in Kindle format for a dollar each).  Interestingly, I am on a "sermon" called "Visiting Myself" which is about the Prodigal Son.  Wurmbrand writes: "Men travel the world over to visit other cultures and meet new people but never knock at the gate of their own person...."  Is this the divine sense of humor?

Some of Wurmbrand's reflections provide fodder for my own preaching.  Could Wurmbrand have imagined that as he was "preaching" in a dungeon into which he was placed by Communists that half a century later, a preacher not yet born would be traveling to Siberia to preach on this same text, and would read Wurmbrand's very words as a sermon preparation after the fall of the same totalitarian system in Russia that put him in prison for 14 years? 

Finally, we make our descent into DC.  For me to make my connection and get to Moscow, I need a miracle - perhaps a delayed flight to Moscow.  About 50 of us are displaced and sent to Customer Service at Dulles Airport.  This is not the miracle I hoped for.  A middle-aged woman barks at us to "stay in line."  The two German speaking guys behind me are not impressed as the opportunities for alternate transportation come and go on the flight board behind us.

There is no alternative flight to Moscow today.  I'm given a voucher for a hotel stay, vague instructions as to where to pick up the shuttle, and a $15 meal voucher.  I wait at "Curb H8" for a bus to pick me up.  After a half-hour, the two displaced German-speakers join me: Herbert and Klaus.  Both men are losing a day's work.  Both are highly unimpressed by United's consistent lack of professionalism and competence. 

The shuttle takes us for a 45-minute ride to the Landsdowne Resort - which really is a resort.  It is located in the middle of a golf course in Leesburg, Virginia.  After checking in, the guys agree to meet for dinner.  I would normally have said "no."  I like my private time to read and be left alone.  But this is an adventure, and since providence has arranged things in such an unexpected way, I decide to hang out with the German-speaking guys.  I agree to meet them for dinner.

I go to my room, log onto the Internet, and make some progress with S7.  I asked them to change my reservation for a day later, and they promise to call me back to get my credit card number.  So, I head to the restaurant/pub armed with my $15 United voucher (which in this place will probably get me a packet of ketchup and a cup of warm water...), and meet up with my fellow resort-refugees.

Herbert is a 51-year old dentist from the Vienna area.  We have a good chat over sandwiches and beer.  I had a steak panini (which maxed out the voucher) and washed it down with a Stella Artois.  Herbert was visiting his son in New Orleans, who is himself on a sort-of tour of America working on his English.  He is completing dental school and will soon join his father's practice.  Father and son met in New Orleans for a visit - and both apparently really had a good time.  After a while, we are joined by Klaus, a German army pilot currently from Munich who had been visiting Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

While at the restaurant, my phone went off.  It was S7.  I read off my credit card info, but their computer system dropped.  They promised to call back.  I hope I have a reservation.

Since we are scheduled to fly out about the same time, the three of us arrange for a 3:00 pm ride to the airport the next day.  We made plans for a walk at 10:00 the next morning.  I was able to go back to my room and use SnapYap to do a video conference with Grace.  I did some reading and took a nice hot shower. 

So, I spent the night in a resort in Washington when I should have been sleeping on a plane to Moscow.  My American contact has already left for Russia.  I'm still waiting on a call about my flight from Moscow to Novosibirsk.  The adventure hasn't even started and its already an adventure.

Here are all of my pictures from Day One.


Pastor Bakker said...

Oh man, remember day 1 of Kantorei tour to Seattle? It must have been you! :-)

Seriously, can't wait to learn how the adventure unfolds! :-)

Dixie said...

Ooooh...bad travel karma. I once worked with a man who had a similar case of bad travel karma. 9 hours in a plane (most of them on a tarmac) from Newark to Minneapolis (where we missed our regional connection and spent the night in the airport because all the hotels were booked) was the last straw for me. I finally had to call the travel agency and insist that they do not put me on the same itinerary with this coworker in the future! But losing a whole day due to a missed international flight is worse.

Definitely looking forward to the rest of your story. Glad you got to go.

Mike Green said...

I've always associated "Popcorn" with frenetic situations. I also associate Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance" with mayhem, and I think that might have been a more appropriate piece for S7's hold music. Here's looking forward to the next installment!

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Jon:

It must have been. I didn't bat an eye.

Dear Dixie:

It might be something magnetic...

Dear Mike:

Popcorn apparently was very popular in Soviet Russia.