Monday, April 20, 2015

The Gauntlet

They say that the worst travel days make the best travel stories. If that is true, this should make a pretty good entry. Maybe a B. Or even a B+, possibly. The lack of personal injury or bathroom mishap probably keeps it from falling into the A range. Anyhow, here goes... On paper, our travel plans seemed ambitious, but not unreasonable: Eight and a half hour flight to Heathrow, a couple of hours layover, a quickly jump to Dublin, then a 3ish hour drive to our friends' house just a little North of Galway. Kids in tow, or course. But, still doable, right?

To start, things went smoothly. The kids actually did pretty amazing on the first flight. No major meltdowns, but it proved to be pretty easy to get them through the flight by sticking flashing screens in front of their faces. Problematically, neither would fall to sleep during the overnight portion, but it's OK if they are a little tired, since the long haul portion was done, right?

Then we hit Heathrow security. Honestly, I'd always presumed that the United States was the forerunner when it came to esoteric, disorganized, airport security paranoia. Nope. It's the UK. To make matters worse, a helpful British Airlines attendant had informed me that we didn't need to fill out an arrival form until we had arrived in Dublin. This, we discovered as being channeled into the first of a half dozen cattle lines, was incorrect, and -in fact- we needed to fill out a form for each family member. So, soon I found myself battling with an elderly Indian woman over who got to use the one pen chained to a nearby desk, so that I could fill out the four necessary forms, while -back in line- Otto decided to pass out on Sarah's shoulder.

Line two, station two. Apparently the UK does "biometric images" now, where they take a photo of your face and then compare it to later photos to make sure you don't, um, shape-change. Or something. For most people this involves standing in the specified space, and smiling at the specified camera. Slightly more difficult if you are a 3-year-old crashed out on your mother's shoulder. Still, no problem, the woman working the station had a little handheld camera. The image was a little blown out... but still... onward!

More stations! More scans! But, eventually we made our way through all the security. Exhausted and with Otto still slumbering, but in one piece, we slumped into a row of chairs while we waited for them to announce our gate...which of course ended up being on the far side of the terminal.

Waiting to find out which gate we depart from.

Then it was time to board the plane. And, thanks to the small children with us, we got to board early! But, wait! ...what's this? Otto's biometric picture didn't come through? Could we kindly sit over there while they straighten it out? Sure. Sitting is fine. So, we took a seat, while the rest of the flight's passengers strolled by. Apparently, without Otto's biometric image, they couldn't let us leave. But, don't worry... Security is on their way to straighten things out.

Except they weren't.

"So, we are sorry but, the plane has to leave. We're putting you on a later flight."

This is the point in the trip where half the family starts to cry, while one quarter throws a temper tantrum and the final member continued to slumber. I'll let you sort out the who's who.

In the end, the solution was to take Otto back to the start of the security chain to scan him in... so that we could scan him out. Turn the light switch on, so that it can be turned off again. Here's the hoop, jump through it. But, we already did. Sorry, wrong hoop. So, while Sarah and Stella waited with our luggage, one of British Airlines attendants took Otto and I out to a small side entrance, so that the security person could take Otto's picture again. Otto, being three and tired decided to fight this; and I got the singular joy of watching asinine airport bureaucracy collide directly with exhausted, pre-school stubbornness. Win! But, eventually the airport got a clear picture of a screaming and crying child, so we were free to be on our way.

To BA's credit, they hooked us up with their lounge where we were then able to ride out our three or four bonus hours in Heathrow eating croissants and trying to decide which British tabloid to read; all of which went a long way to improving our sour moods.

So, shortly after noon, we were finally able to board a flight to Dublin. On our new flight, we were split up, with Sarah and Stella toward the front, and Otto and I near the planes rear. Otto and I also found ourselves surrounded by a dozen or so women on their way to Dublin to celebrate one of their numbers Bachelorette ...er, Hen Party. As they all ordered their first beers and cocktails, I secretly envied them, but figured I probably shouldn't knock back a drink myself figuring I'd now been up for close to 20-hours straight and still had both Dublin security and Irish highways to navigate.

Stella on her flight to Dublin.

Soon enough we had touched down and made our way through the airport to he Avis car rental. While I debated the particulars of Irish car insurance with the employee there, the kids they... well, let's just check in on them now...

They're... uh... holding in there.

With our Skoda Octavia secured and two passed out children in their car seats, we finally hit the road on our 3-hour road trip to our friends' house just outside of Ballinrobe. A quick audit of the situation here: 3-hour car trip. Driving on the left side of the road for the first time in about 7 years in an unfamiliar rental car. 20+ hours with no sleep. Sounds safe, right?

The kids: Ready to hit the road!

I think it's important to take a second to talk about Irish roads at this point. While the highways around Dublin were fairly safe and sane (despite watching another car clip a truck and have it's front bumper explode across the roadway in front of us within the first 30 minutes of driving); once you reach the country roads, it's a different matter completely:

First off, in the States, speed limit signs are a good starting point. They represent the speed at which a typical person can navigate a typical road and feel safe doing so. Most people feel fairly confident exceeding the speed limit by a good 5 or 10 miles per hour without feeling like they are taking any particular risks.

In Ireland, the speed limit signs read like dares.

"Let's see, this road is effectively one and a half lanes wide, with no shoulders, a blind curve, rock walls on both sides and an oncoming tractor. I dare you to take it at 100 kph! We'll just see how this plays out."

And, on the Irish country roads, the road is always barely two lanes wide. And there is never a shoulder. And always a blind curve. And always a rock wall or two. And always a tractor. Or an oncoming car. Or an oversized truck. Or double decker bus. Or, maybe, just a sheep that has escaped and is roaming free. In the coming days one ongoing joke would hinge on the phrase "what's a narrow road without an oncoming car!"

Rock walls? Check. No shoulder? Check. Barely two lanes wide? Check. 100kph speed limit? Check. I can almost guarantee there is a large truck just around the corner up there.


The dirt road to our friends' house. Apparently, safe to drive at 50mph.

In the days that followed, I would learn to love driving on these narrow country roads. I even once mumbled under my breath "I'm pretending I'm James Bond" while nimbly cutting corners on a snaking bit of asphalt river, curving across a barren, treeless range of hills. But, again, this time I was sleep deprived and eager to reach a destination. Any destination. And, I held my breath again and again, threading the needle between ancient rock walls and oncoming motorists.

But, fortunately, eventually the destination was reached. Sleepy kids and exhausted parents all in one piece. Well... except for our luggage. I forgot to mention our checked luggage was still in Heathrow. But, Y'know, details. The attendant at the Dublin baggage claim had made the dubious assertion that they would get our luggage to us by the end of day tomorrow; and we -sapped of our will to be combative with anonymous airline employees- had just decided to except him at his word. (In the end, the attendant would prove our skepticism unwarranted, and a fairly surly truck driver would deliver our packs unceremoniously in time for dinner the following night.)

But, to revisit the first sentence of the last paragraph: The destination was reached! And what a fine destination it was! Our friends, Jody and Sandeep, are currently renting a guest house at a Bed and Breakfast on a small road outside of Ballinrobe, surrounded by sheep pastures which seemed to merge seamlessly with the shores of Lough Mask across the street. As they greeted us warmly, we were admitted into their home, which between sleep deprivation, an array of well-placed candles and the glasses of wine they handed us, seemed to take on an almost surreal, homey quality. Jody, who has played a reoccurring role in the blog (last seen here), claimed that the pasta dish she whipped up was something simple "for the kids" but after hours of airport and airplane cuisine is seemed downright amazing.

The Skoda and I in front of Jody and Sandeep's house. This photo is from a couple of days later, but figured it fit here.

So, wine and pasta in our bellies, our headed finally hit the pillows of our new home for the week, and all of us crashed into a deep slumber. We had navigated the gauntlet and finally arrived in Ireland.

1 comment:

Andrew Jones said...

So glad that you had a great time on your trip! I'd love some suggestions for keeping kids busy on international flights--that seems like the scariest part of all ; )