Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Month Later, the Adventure Ends

It is just past midnight, but we are up, brushed our teeth yet again, dressed and ready to meet the taxi. As soon as the elevator doors open on the ground floor, the third desk clerk we have seen today announces our taxi is here and waiting. Once again we confirm that it is a set rate for 90 Ringgits for the ride and are assured it is settled. The driver’s command of English is as impressive as ours is of Malay, so the ride is quiet.

Being an international flight, we need to arrive two hours early to check in. The driver pulls up to the airport departure curb within forty-five minutes, giving me pause to think of the fifteen minutes I could have spent sleeping or writing or anything but sitting in an airport. The fare, we are told, is 130 Ringgits. When we dare to suggest the rate was 90 Ringgits guaranteed, the driver’s command of the English language was well enough to say there is a nighttime surcharge. We paid it and moved on, grateful for the fact we still had enough Ringgits for a coffee inside.

The airport boasts signs that it was rated the WORLD’S BEST AIRPORT FOR 2005 AND 2006. Makes you wonder what happened to them last year. It was like entering a ghost town in the Wild West, the lights were on, but no one was at home being the first impression. When we looked at the monitor, there was not check-in gate listed for our flight. However, I saw a very long line and went to investigate it and then joined the queue only then asking what the line was for. Ron had a smart mouth remark about my finding a line and having to join it needlessly. Well, it turned out that this line reaching three blocks in length was the line to check in for our flight. Good grief, we were here slightly more than two hours early. What did these people do, camp out here as if they were starting the sale of concert tickets?

I had concerns about this many people fitting on a plane regardless of the size, but then realized that every man in Arabic dress with a turban had his whole tribe here to see him off. They took so many pictures of each other, you would think it was a wedding or they were witnessing the second coming.

We stood immobile for twenty minutes. Not having binoculars, we could not see what was happening at the beginning of the line. Word finally reached us via carrier pigeon that the computer system was down and they could not process anyone, hence the wait. The computer system is down in the WORLD’S BEST AIRPORT FOR 2005 AND 2006? Now we know why they were skipped over for 2007. Now I wondered whether I should have concerns about the airport or Qatar Airlines. Placing the blame on the airport was less fearful than thinking an airline could not keep its computer system functional. Please let the control towers computer be working that is all I ask at this unreasonable hour. It took another fifteen minutes before the line started to creep along like a caterpillar on tranquillizers.

By the time we checked in, we had reached the time of boarding for our flight. The only satisfaction was that there was still a whole village of people behind us waiting to check in also, giving a one last chance for a cigarette. When we left for the gate, there was still a lengthy snake of luggage carts nose to tail with anxious travelers hoping the plane would wait for them. At the gate, we boarded the plane immediately. Having a 2-4-2 configuration, we were lucky to have the two seats on the right side of the plane. Again, each seat has its own monitor featuring over 50 international movies in English or sub-titled, 150 TV episodes, games, and so on. Miracles do happen, in spite of lines, we left the gate only five minutes late. The first leg of the journey would be seven hours and forty minutes to Doha, Qatar. The first meal was breakfast with a menu of choices. Observing the flight attendants was interesting. They rarely spoke to each other even when serving food together. Likewise, they rarely spoke to the passengers unless absolutely necessary. When they came around with the hot towels, for instance, they never asked if you would like one, they just handed it to you with their little tongs. Either you took it or you didn’t. When they collected them, they did not utter a sound, but put the container in front of you to dispose of the towel wordlessly. Is this an efficiency scheme, I wonder? Avoid unnecessary speech to get the job done?

After one movie, The Nanny Diaries, a cute flick, I was out for the count. Another interesting observation for me was that people stayed in their seats the entire flight. There was no roaming, stretching, or other activity. Perhaps it was the hour, but it was an anomaly from any other flight I have been on.

When we landed in Doha, although we were still in a secured area, we had to go through security again having ourselves as well as carry-on luggage x-rayed. Our next flight was already boarding, regardless of the fact that it was not due to leave for another forty-five minutes. When we reached the gate, we had the show our boarding tickets and passports yet again, before going through yet another security check point. Then once again, we had to show our passports and boarding tickets. Talk about compulsive behaviors. This plane had a 3-4-3 configuration, but was half empty. Still, there were three of us in our section, which sent Ron hunting for a better territory as soon as the seatbelt sign was off. This time around the flight was four hours and thirty-five minutes and shared monitors with no choice of movies. I watched the first movie, but missed the title. I will have to search for a movie with Jimmy Smits and Lyn Redgrave to see what it is. Found it, The Jane Austen Book Club. I thought I had slept after this, but when I opened my eyes again, Ratatouille was playing, so I watched this yet again. All in all, we would without hesitation fly Qatar Airlines again. Their being frequent flyer partners with United increases the appeal too. The flight landed in Vienna on time without incident.

Austrian Passport Control and Customs has to be the most relaxed in the European Union. The Passport Control officer barely looked at my passport before stamping it and telling me to have a good day. There was no one at Customs just as in the past, so we sailed through quickly and efficiently.

We bought tickets on the CAT train to the city center for nine Euros each, a hefty amount, but were in the center in sixteen minutes. From here we had to take the U3 subway seven stops to the Western train station to board our train to Budapest. We had bought round trip Budapest>Vienna>Budapest tickets, but we were uncertain about needing a seat reservation. Ron went to inquire and was assured we did not for an EC train, though an IC, we would have. After getting some snacks we boarded the train for the last leg of our journey; all was well….for the first twenty minutes and then the conductor arrived.

After taking an extraordinary long time looking over our tickets, he finally started ranting in German. When he realized he could have had a German shepherd understand more of what he was saying than we could, he switched to English. It seems our tickets expired in 2007. After having full faith in the ticket seller at Keleti train station that she understood we were returning in 2008, we never did do a double take at the tickets. Tickets to Vienna include three days of public transport in Vienna, so we erroneously believed that the three day span written on our tickets was the public transport piece, not the train ticket itself. We were faced with two options: pay for the seats or get off at the next station, still paying the full price, but having to wait four hours for the next train. With some sense of impending doom, I had held back Euros for our trip home, perhaps some intuitive thoughts prevailed. Our tickets cost us 30.80 Euros ($49.13), an outrageous amount considering a round trip ticket is only 29 Euros. Normally, I would have been irate at this unnecessary expenditure, but my philosophy this whole trip has been that we deserve it and we have the money for the first time in our advanced years, so what the hell.

Something was different on this train trip. When we had left, the Austrian and Hungarian Passport Control had made their way through and stamped our passports. Now, the Hungarian patrolled through the car, but never stopped. I had read that Hungary was joining the Schengren Treaty where the borders were coming down for EU members who qualified, but I seem to recall it was not going into effect until much later in 2008. What will these former controllers have to control in the future; will they become jobless?

As is usual, the Hungarian train conductor makes his rounds after leaving the first Hungarian stop. For some reason, they came as a gang of three. Did they get advance notice of our defunct ticket? With flourish and a quick twist of the wrist, I produced the ticket almost freshly printed by the Austrian conductor. His Hungarian counterpart looks at it and hands it to his band of not so merry men and they start squawking like chickens that sense danger in the henhouse. Then he informs us that our ticket is only to the Austrian border. What the hell, we spent 30.80 Euros just to get to the Hungarian border? Trying to explain our situation was an exercise in futility, even after showing our original ticket with only one punch mark showing we went to Vienna, but had not used it to return. A half of unused ticket was wasted because of that three day writing on it. Again, we had the same two options as before. However, this time, I did not have Hungarian forints in reserve, not thinking we would need them until arriving home again. Tickets to get us back to Budapest would be another 9,896 forints ($56.90). By some miracle, Ron happened to have a 10,000 forint bill in his wallet and we handed it over to the three musketeers. Our return trip home cost us $106.03 more than it should have when a normal round trip fare is only $42.47. Is this karmic retribution for not tipping the cab driver at the Kuala Lumpur airport?

When we arrived at the Keleti station, I wanted to kiss the ground and would have except for fear of diseases. Now I had someone buy me an annual transportation pass, but little good it was doing me now sitting at home waiting for me. I had to hunt down a transport ticket for the bus.

We were home a half an hour finally getting here at 5:30 pm local time, but five hours earlier in Kuala Lumpur and dead tired even if getting long naps during twelve hours and fifteen minutes of flying. Downloading e-mails and Microsoft updates that were missed over the last month, all of a sudden the electricity in the whole apartment goes out. Let me think, who else did we skip a tip on for this to happen. With a candle in hand, Ron climbed the ladder to check the circuit breaker. He flipped a switch, but nothing happened. I do remember paying the electric bill the day we left, so what gives. Aha, there is yet another switch next to the electric meter. I flipped it before flipping out completely and viola we were illuminated once again.

Pushing myself to stay up, I made it to 10:30 pm. Ron crashed at 8:30. Now the adventure is just a collection of memories stored for future reflections.

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