Thursday, December 29, 2011

And Then That Happened.

Glitteratis, I have so very much to share with you.

Our trip to the Middle East was, quite possibly, one of the best things I have ever done. I learned, saw, ate, imbibed, swam in, and rode (yes, rode - as in a camel AND a donkey) so many things that, sorry to be cliche here but I'm completely exhausted, blew my mind.

The trip itself was a gem, a high high, and complete magic. I can't wait to show you pictures. Which I would do now, except I don't have a cord for my camera. And I'm exhausted, and still sitting in the same clothes I've been wearing for the last three days.

I want to get this post out of the way first, mostly because I am still embroiled in it and also because after this, I will post pictures and tell you all of the amazing tales of the trip, and this post will get pushed to the bottom of the pile underneath all of the good. 

This post is not good. This post is about the hellish last 72 hours we've had to endure.

I also want to point out before I launch into this that I have never been to a friendlier country than Jordan. Everyone - from cab drivers to servers, pharmacy owners to hotel staff, even little children running around in the streets - called, "Welcome! Welcome!" and showered us with questions about what we liked most about Jordon. (The food. Islamic art. The food. The haunting calls to prayer five times a day. The food. The music. The food. The intelligence and worldliness of a deeply religious people. The food. The hospitality. The food.)

So please do not let this post lead you to believe that I am over-generalizing, or dousing the trip in negativity, or dwelling on the bad. It is only because I am sitting in dirty clothes and currently having a massive panic attack that I'm about to launch into a description of the worst travel experience I have ever had. After that, nothing but magic!

We were scheduled to leave Amman on Tuesday morning at 6:30am, fly to Istanbul, have a two hour layover, and then fly from Istanbul to New York, arriving in the states around 3pm EST. The last leg was a flight scheduled on Tuesday from New York to Baltimore at 6:30pm. 

And so, we were up at 3:15am on Tuesday to finish packing, and grab our scheduled car to the airport by 3:45 (they insist upon 2 hours prior to check-in, and cabs in Amman can take either five minutes or forty five minutes to get you somewhere depending on the driver, time of day, condition of car, and alignment of stars in the sky. We weren't taking any chances.)

I should have known that things were amiss during that cab ride. It is winter in Amman, meaning it actually gets pretty chilly (lower 40's), and actually rains. The combination of the altitude of the mountains and valleys plus moisture in the air leads to the worst fog I have ever seen. You can't see six feet in front of you while walking, let alone driving. Our driver expertly propelled us through the ground clouds (and then politely demanded a 4 dinar tip) and got us to the airport on time, but not after we witnessed a car wrapped around a light pole, and another car going the wrong way on the highway, so discombobulating was the fog.

We arrived at the airport and dutifully went through passport control and security (where they discovered our purchase of antique knives, which went through some scrutiny but were eventually passed through in checked luggage), and found our way to our gate. We got there by 5am for a delightful hour and a half wait until the flight. I curled up on the plastic chairs and dozed off while The Gentleman watched "Archer" on his laptop. 

I must have been more exhausted than I thought, because I woke up in a panic at 8am. Had we missed our flight? No. Delayed due to fog. I curled right back up on the most uncomfortable chairs, and fell right back asleep.

I woke up again at 9:30am to a coup. Everyone had been locked up in the gate area since before 6am with no food, no water, and no open cafes. The airline staff was trying to assure people that as soon as the fog lifted, the flight would be on its way. They passed out bottles of water, and brown paper bags with white bread cheese-and-mystery-meat sandwiches. People were enraged. It was a mad house.

At this point, we realized we were going to miss our connecting flight to JFK, which was leaving in two hours. It was easily a two hour flight from Amman to Istanbul. The math added up to nothing good.

I asked one of the airline staff about this situation, and was gruffly told, "Yes. You are being put on the flight to New York for tomorrow. When you get to the airport in Istanbul, they will take you to a hotel for the night."

At this point, I wasn't panicking. We had a couple of days before we needed to be anywhere, so being delayed a day wasn't so bad. And it could be much worse than having to spend a night in Istanbul. In fact, I was downright cheery about the extra day of vacation until I realized this meant that we would subsequently be missing our Delta flight from JFK to BWI, scheduled a mere 14 hours away. 

Suddenly, the fog lifted, and there was a mass stampede out of the gate onto the plane despite the pitiful efforts of airline staff to retain order. The Gentleman reasoned that we could call Delta once we got to Istanbul and figured out the plans.

The flight from Amman to Istanbul was calm, and everyone settled down once they had their requisite quiche and sweet bread. (The food on even the shortest of flights is just so much better around the world than in America.)

We arrived in Istanbul, and this was the end of the peace. The Gentleman and I were shoved, along with everyone else, into a highly disorganized line in front of a counter staffed by four or five completely overwhelmed airline staff who, it seemed, were all on their first day of the job.

The Germans and the Brits have queuing down to a science. They could form perfect lines in a hurricane. The Turks, Italians, French, and Jordanians thrust into close quarters after everyone has missed a connecting flight was utter chaos.

I now think that some of the lowest points of humanity can be glimpsed in a throng of stressed, hot, tired people forced to stand in a line for hours with no sign of relief. I saw a grown man push a little girl out of the way, and I saw an irate Italian mother scream what I can only assume are obscenities at airport security staff. The Gentleman and I stood there, overwhelmed and perplexed, and tried to queue like good little Americans as if that would earn us points. It wasn't long before we were throwing elbows too, after three or four families and individuals cut in front of us in line.

We finally reached the counter after about an hour and a half of queuing, and the staffer there seemed completely mystified as to why we were there, as if she hadn't just spent the better part of her morning dealing with the passengers of a very late flight. She finally checked our passports, issued us new boarding passes for tomorrow, and reminded us that we needed to purchase visas to leave the airport in Turkey. This point was the site of my first meltdown, and in retrospect, it was a teensy, tiny little blurp in the scheme of things. It happened because I was hot, hungry, exhausted from standing in line, tired of being shoved around by irate foreign men and women who acted as though I wasn't even there, and I happened to glance down at our new boarding passes to discover that the Gentleman and I were no longer sitting together. On an 11 hour flight, we would be on opposite ends of the cabin. A few tears leaked out, and I looked at him in panic.

"Is there any way you can change our seats? It's a long flight, and we are travelling together," he said, politely, to the woman behind the counter who looked as though she wanted to kill herself, all of us, or possibly both. I couldn't blame her for rolling her eyes, but to her credit, she started pressing things on her keyboard and, a few minutes later, ripped up our passes and printed us new ones with seats together.

We took our new boarding passes, went through passport control (we had purchased visiting visas the week prior, which are good for 90 days, so we didn't have to fork over $20 apiece again to enter the country), and wandered the terminal looking for a "hotel desk." But not before a pit stop at the ticket counter to inquire about our luggage. 

"It will go on tomorrow's flight to New York," the staffer assured us. "It is already checked, you do not need to do anything." Which also meant this: we were going to spend the night in Istanbul with only the clothes we were wearing, and our carry-ons filled with entertainment and Jordanian dates. Still, it was one less thing to worry about, and we reasoned we could find a pharmacy and purchase whatever toiletries we needed.

We pushed our way through the terminal to wait in another line at the hotel desk. At this point, it was 3pm, and we'd been up since 3:15am with only one meal in our systems. The airport was stiflingly hot, everyone was pushing one another again, and I was experiencing a newfound caffeine withdrawal, born of a week of thrice-daily Turkish and Arabic coffees. My level of frustration was peaking again, and I was not being my Best Self. At all.

After waiting another thirty minutes in line, we were told to step aside and wait (again) for the shuttle that would take us to the hotel for the night. We managed to scarf down some sort of vegetable sandwich from the Starbucks next to the hotel counter (IT WAS THE ONLY THING AROUND.)

I had always envisioned being laid-over in a foreign country and being put up in a hotel as a remarkably glamorous happy accident. A free night in Istanbul with the Gentleman! How perfect!

It's not.

At all.

For one thing, the shuttle will take you to a depressingly un-glamorous Turkish Marriott Courtyard located five minutes from the airport and an hour from anything in the city of Istanbul. You will be grouped with a family of six who is being forced to share a single hotel room, a man who has some family member ill in a hospital in London who has missed his flight and has decided to rail against anyone and everyone in his path, and a handful of perplexed Iraqis and Palestinians who have just gone through a passport control that would destroy any American. (The legality of Iraqis and Palestinian travel to be discussed in another post.)

By the time we had checked into our room, dealt with spotty wireless trying to contact Orbitz and Delta to change our flight, finally made a $25 call to America to Delta to be told that it would "only" cost $200 each to change our $160 flights, it was 5pm. We had eaten a meal and a half, had been awake and standing in line for 15 hours, and were so completely exhausted, frustrated, and stressed that all we could muster was to toddle downstairs for the free dinner provided by the airline (chicken breast, white rice, and french fries - OH MY.), and then back upstairs were I finally succumbed to exhaustion and the overpowering want for my own bed and clean clothes, and had myself a nice little fit.

The reactions of The Gentleman during this day and the following two days are a testament to his character in that he didn't leave me in another country, try to smother me with a pillow, or sell me. He was kind, patient, caring, and endlessly positive. Also during this time, we shared a tooth brush. Gross, but true and somehow oddly romantic. Sort of.

The Gentleman also had the good sense to purchase two bottles of duty free chianti before leaving the Istanbul airport, and he popped one open, turned on some German reality television (Anka's husband, Rolf, is cheating with 15-year-old Annika) and we debated what to do. We were in Istanbul for the night, we should go out. But we hadn't changed any money over, so had no cash for a cab, and both of us were wearing sweatpants which we'd thought would be so clever for the long flight home. It was only 7pm, and for the first time on the entire trip, we opted for conservatism. Even television in another language was failing to hold our attention, and so we made a nest of blankets on the floor, drank 15 Euro wine out of Marriott coffee cups, and watched "30 Rock" on his laptop. Not a bad night.

The next morning, we hit up the free breakfast buffet (which was magical - breakfast buffets having been a highlight of our trip - more on this later) and got to the airport early to check on two things: our luggage, and the possibility of upgrading to business class. The luggage, they assured us, was going to New York with us on the flight. All was ok. We didn't need to do anything. The upgrade was "only:" $2,500 apiece. We declined. We went shopping at a bookstore in the airport, where we happily stumbled upon British-released novels by authors we both liked that hadn't been released in the US, and where I stocked up on British Glamour and Cosmo (so much more entertaining than US smut). With a few hours still to go before the flight to New York, we settled at a cafe with coffee and tea, and read our newfound treasures.

After going through four passport checks and two more rounds of security (Turkey does not eff around with international travel), we finally boarded our flight to New York and discovered the only delightful silver lining of the situation: we couldn't buy our way into business class, but we had the next best thing, which was two seats in front of the emergency exit. If you have to be on an 11-hour flight, this is the place to be. You can stretch your legs out into oblivion, you're right next to the bathroom, and no one in front of you is adjusting his or her seat while you're trying to eat dinner off a tray attached to the back of it. Emergency exit seating is clutch. The Gentleman, who is a mere 6'4", was visibly relieved. Being folded into an airline seat for anything more than  a few hours requires him to pop ibuprofen like candy to keep from total pain. 

The flight from Istanbul to JFK was peaceful. I watched a few movies, drank a dew glasses of wine, ate the not-too-bad airline food, and dreamed about getting home, doing laundry, taking a shower, and curling up in my bed with the cats.

The glow of feeling better-rested and calm now that we were on our way was short-lived.

We got to JFK, pushed our way through customs again, and went to baggage claim. Everything was running on time, but it had taken longer than anticipated for us to get through passport control, and we had a mere hour and a half before our flight to Baltimore. We stood at the baggage carousel and waited. And waited. And waited.

The Gentleman and I checked three suitcases between us: his, mine, and one small one that we filled with all the stuff we bought. We reasoned that ours was probably first on the plane that morning, so would be last to come out. Sure enough, the last luggage to roll down the belt was The Gentleman's suitcase, our mini gift-suitcase, and someone's bright red Ferrari duffel bag. Not mine.

Panicked, we searched the belt again. Nothing. We were running out of time, and still needed to go through the second round of customs where they would search our checked luggage. We still needed to check in for our Delta flight, and check our bags. An attendant standing near the belt told us to go immediately to Lost and Found, located just on the other side of customs. We breezed through customs, and stood in another line of angry, irate people who have now been bumped, missed flights, and have lost luggage. It was not a good place for any human being to be. 

At this point, any shred of calm I had left in me completely and totally disappeared. We had an hour to get on our next flight, which included checking in and checking our bags. Finally, it was our turn. 

Here is what should have happened: the attendant would take down my contact information, fill out a reference report, copy my passport, and give me a reference number and tell us to be on our way, that they would track the bag and have it Fed Ex'd to us when it was found.

Here is what actually happened: the attendant looked quizzically at us and remarked that it seemed odd that two of the pieces of luggage would make it, but not the third. He asked us again and again if we had checked the tags of every piece of luggage on the belt. Of course we hadn't - I hadn't seen my suitcase, so it's not like I went through and looked at all of the serial numbers on all of the bags.

"Wait here, I will go look and see," he said. And here is where I made another crucial mistake:

"Your bag is black, correct?" he asked. "Black, upright, wheels, handle?"

"Yes," I said. I was exhausted and overwhelmed, I was stressed and anxious, and I was so far gone in my mind that I forgot that my bag, which my parents gave me right before I left, was not black. It's green-gray.

He returned ten minutes later. "We have your bag. But no ID tag on it. But we have it. It must go through customs and be checked by TSA before we can bring it to you. So please just wait over there. Ten minutes, please."

Relieved, we made our way over to the side. At this point, we had ten minutes left to check in for our Delta flight. By some act of God, the ticket counter was right next to the Turkish Airlines lost and found counter. I sent The Gentleman over with my passport to check us in, check the two bags we had, and explain the circumstances.

We waited for forty five minutes. The Lost and Found attendant went to check on our bag again.

"Sorry. TSA is on their allotted break. Your bag cannot be checked until they return."

I'm sorry, what? Are you fucking kidding me? TSA is on a BREAK? Yes, yes, union and all that or whatever, but COME THE HELL ON.

"You should go and catch your flight. I will have the bag Fed Ex'd to you tonight. Please call Turkish Airlines as soon as you get to Baltimore, and explain the situation."

At this point, I dissolved into a fresh round of exhausted, child-like crying. I did NOT want to leave JFK without a visual on my bag. Something in me knew that if I left the situation, I'd never see it again. I  should have paid attention to this instinct. Instead, I allowed the attendant to convince us that all was fine, I would get my bag, we should hurry to not miss our Delta flight.

The Gentleman bought me a turkey sandwich and a water, and hurried me to the Delta gate. I could not stop crying. He kept reassuring me, kept trying to tell me that everything was fine. I was at the end of my rope. It had been 48 hours of travel, I was exhausted and disgusting, and I had no luggage.

Compounding this: we are scheduled to take a train back to New York City tomorrow for a glamorous weekend of New Years Festivities with friends I cannot wait to see. Knowing that I was leaving my bag in the bowels of JFK meant I would have no clean clothes, no nice shoes, no party dresses, no accessories, nothing. I had overpacked for Jordan, filled my suitcase with brand new clothes I'd just bought, and I had almost nothing back in Baltimore suitable for a weekend in New York. Nothing.

I cried like someone had run over my cat. I cried as they checked my boarding pass and passport, I cried as I boarded the tiny commuter plane, I cried while we waited on the tarmac, and I cried during take-off. Less then three minutes in the air, I suddenly recalled why I felt so icky about the situation:

"My suitcase. It isn't black. It's GRAY," I wailed to The Gentleman, who is a total and complete saint exuding nothing but patience.

I cried for the next ten minutes, fell asleep in a headachey, stuffy position, and woke up just before landing to start crying again.

While The Gentleman waited for our two pieces of luggage at the carousel, I called Turkish Airlines.

"What is your reference number?" the employee asked me.

"I don't have one, I-"

"You did not file a reference report at JFK?"
"No, the attendant said that he would send us the bag-"

"Without a reference number, we have no tracking and no responsibility. You must go back to JFK with your passport and boarding pass and fill out a reference report."

"I have to get my bag?"

"Yes, we can do nothing over the phone."

At this point, it was 9pm EST, and so 4am to our bodies. And I did what any person who has been traveling for 48 hours, shoved and pushed, kept away from my home and my bed, my cats and clean clothes. I hung up on the attendant and sobbed.

The Gentleman's friend came to pick us up and take us home. I cried all the way. I cried until the  moment I laid down on my bed, passed out for five hours, and woke up dead awake at 5am and cried some more.

I fell back asleep and woke up around 8:30. I didn't have anything left in me to cry anymore. I walked to Whole Foods where The Gentleman bought me a coffee, some oatmeal, and some Calming Tea.

My morning has been spent calling every Turkish Airlines ticket counter, Lost and Found, and Cargo Service in JFK. No one apparently showed up to work today. I'm still wearing the same clothes I was wearing when I left the hotel in Amman at 3am Tuesday morning. 

We are due to leave for New York tomorrow on an Amtrack train at 8am. It seems now that we will not be meeting up with our friends as scheduled, but going straight to JFK to try and hunt down my luggage. I am not crying anymore, but that is only because I am so drained, I have no tears left.

As I said, this too shall pass. We got back safely, everything lost is just things. I am home, with my cats, and I am about to take an epic shower and put on clean clothes. I just had the best trip of my life. This lost baggage, even if it is permanently lost, is an inconvenience. The important things are this:

1. We are home safe.
2. I could not have gone through this experience with anyone but The Gentleman, further pointing me to believe that he is the best person on this earth.
3. I crossed about 17 things off of my bucket list in the last week.
4. The Gentleman has lost baggage protection on his credit card, which was used to book the flights. If my baggage is well and truly lost, I will take whatever money I can get and buy a whole new wardrobe.
5. I am from a country that is recognized around the world as an actual country, and have a valid passport. I will never take those two things for granted again.

Just breathe.

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