Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Cat Lady Leaves Home (or The Worst Airplane Trip Ever)

The time has come for the Cat Lady to pack her bags, get on an airplane and make the annual sojourn to see her family.  As you may imagine, I've had my share of misadventures on planes, just as I've had on camping trips.  Mostly it involves long delays, late night cancellations that meant sleeping in airports or in strange hotels with no pajamas or toothbrush, and missed flights.  However, there's one flight that stands out as....

"The Worst Airplane Trip Ever!"

I had just finished graduate school and my parents invited me to go on an exchange program to an undisclosed location.  This was one of the early trips of "The Friendship Force," a program established by then president, Jimmy Carter.  (In fact, my parents went on the inaugural "Friendship Force" trip with Miss Lillian Carter.)    The idea was that you signed up and paid to be a friendship ambassador to another country.  Later a group of people from that country would visit your hometown.  You had to be willing to go anywhere in the world.  I had my doubts about whether I would be sent to some exotic location or end up in a dangerous travel zone.  Idi Amin's reign of terror in Uganda came to mind.  But, never having been overseas and still being adventurous at that point in my life, I registered for the trip and signed up for my first passport.

It was soon revealed that a group of about a hundred people from my hometown would be traveling by chartered jet to Cardiff, Wales.  My first reaction was, "Where?"  Obviously, I was in desperate need of learning more about the world!  It was to be a two-week trip, staying with a host family to experience the land and culture of this corner of the British Isles.  I'd always been intrigued by castles and this was a land of castles, so I was fired up!

I put together a wardrobe of sturdy walking shoes and a tan corduroy jacket, skirt and pants that I crafted myself on my trusty sewing machine.  It was the quintessential traveling ensemble as far as I was concerned.  Add a few blouses, a pair of jeans and a white muslin dress with matching vest and I was ready to roll!

The day of departure arrived.  I had my newly issued passport in hand, ready to begin receiving stamps to document my travels.  We boarded the plane with excitement, taking off right on schedule.  As soon as the plane was in the air, the flight attendants came around to offer us beverages to toast our departure.   When they got to me, I requested a Coke with ice.  As the deliciously cold beverage came my way, I reached for it and proceeded to drop it in my lap, soaking my brand new tan corduroy jacket and pants!  The sticky, brown substance quickly seeped into every crevice of the corduroy.  I had six more hours on the overnight flight with no way of changing into dry clothes and it was evident that laundry would be one of my first tasks once we landed.  I was not amused.  After sulking for a time, though, I got back into the spirit of the trip.  (Everyone was apologetic and felt sorry for me, so that helped.)  Laughter once again abounded as we sped through the skies.

We were all having a lovely time until the weather changed and we hit a severe thunderstorm.  We were advised that we'd be making a stop in Toronto to wait out the storm.  Hopefully, it would be a short layover while the storm passed and we'd be on our way again quickly.  We had just pulled up on the tarmac to await departure when a huge flash of lightning struck.  It wasn't long before we learned that what it had struck was the control tower of the airport.  The air traffic controllers' screens were now blacked out.  Which naturally meant that no planes would be taking off or landing until things were repaired.  It could be awhile.  Since we were an international flight, we were not cleared from customs to deplane and would have to stay on board until it was safe to depart.  It figures, given a Cat Lady's luck!

Now, sitting on the tarmac in August makes a plane warm up quickly.  Because we were not at a gate, we had no access to the external air conditioning system they use while planes are on the ground.  But by this time the rain had stopped, so the the pilot and flight attendants determined it would be safe to open the doors of the plane to get some fresh air in while we waited.  They, of course, took safety precautions by putting ropes across the exits to remind us not to fall out of the plane.  We all welcomed the fresh air.

A bit later, the pilot got a message that they were going to move our aircraft to a gate where we could deplane to a secure holding room within the customs area.  Heaven forbid they allow us to actually step foot in Canada.  We felt like illegal aliens, which I guess we were!  Because we were on the ground, we had to be towed to the gate by one of those little trucks they have at airports.  The pilot said that everyone should take their seats for the short trip, but that they'd leave the doors open to keep the air flowing.

Once again we were moving, albeit at a snail's pace.  Hooray!  We were all chatting merrily as we watched our progress toward the terminal and air conditioning, when we began to notice a strange scent that quickly became stronger and soon overwhelmed us.  Yes, dear readers, in moving across the tarmac we had run over a skunk!  Unbelievable!  What are the odds that you could run over a skunk in a plane while the doors are open?  Unheard of!  Only a Cat Lady would find herself in this situation!

It was with great relief that we poured off the plane into the air-conditioned holding room.  After about an hour, the tower repairs were complete and we were cleared for takeoff.  From this point on, the trip could only be anticlimactic.  The next five hours or so were quiet, with passengers trying to get some sleep before landing.  Somewhat later the flight attendants began serving breakfast.  Imagine our surprise when the pilot once again came over the intercom to tell us, "We might have a slight problem..."

Apparently, the Cardiff airport was not geared toward having planes our size land there.  OOPS!  We were warned it might be a tight squeeze on the short runway, so to please return to our seats for a possible rough landing.  Oh, great!  All this, just to crash at the end of the runway?  I think they hit the reverse jets before the wheels even touched the ground.  With a screeching of tires and roar of jets, we rolled to a stop... just at the end of the runway.  A cheer went up from the passengers on this ill-fated flight.  I'm sorry to say, not so much for the expertise of the pilots, but because were were so gosh darned glad about the prospect of being released soon from the plane ride from hell.

There were still surprises to come on the trip, like turning all my clothes blue when I finally got an opportunity to wash the Coke stains out.  We also managed to get on the wrong train on one excursion, which meant we had to go all the way up a remote mountain and back before we had a chance to find the right train, turning a quick 10 minute train ride into a three hour one.  However, I quickly grew to love Wales and the people I met.  My horizons had definitely been expanded and I returned with plenty of tales of adventure.

After all, a Cat Lady needs plenty of good memories to fill the quiet hours of her life.


tofu-powered art-chick said...

Now I can't wait to travel again. A new adventure, different stress, and then back home -yay!

Meow! said...

hope you're having a lovely skunk-free vacation!

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