Wednesday, January 30, 2008

One week in Seattle

British Airways has everybody firmly by the short and curlies, when it comes to a direct flight to Seattle from the UK. In an effort to break that painfully expensive grip, this time I decided we would leave from Manchester airport rather than Heathrow. Accordingly we booked our tickets with BMI (British Midlands) to Chicago, changing to United Airlines at Chicago for the second and final leg to Seattle.

On the face of it, it seemed like a really good idea. The drive to Manchester was less than half the time it takes to drive to Heathrow from Shrewsbury. (Okay, that’s because Manchester is less than half the distance from Shrewsbury to London, but still…) At the airport we weren’t faced with utter chaos or milling crowds, and were able to check in without any hassle - especially as I knew this time to provide my sister’s address to the check-in lady. I also bought two pairs of posh, baby-soft and very warm Italian leather gloves at a discount, which made things better still.

There was a mildly alarming moment when we stepped into a lift to get to the Departures area, and found a sign on the far wall that said in bright red "LIFT OUT OF ORDER". We stared at one another for a couple of seconds, but before we could wonder what to do, the lift started off with a slight jerk and took us as per normal to the right floor. So THAT was all right. I wonder if someone was playing a joke, or if the lift was expected to be out of order at some point.

Anyway, the flight left on time. A nice touch provided by BMI was free bottles of chilled water for the passengers, and a rack of glossy magazines at the entrance to the plane - again, free. It was really nice to be provided some additional reading material, and I imagine that most people would leave the magazines behind for collection and the eventual entertainment of future passengers.

Not only that, the vegetarian food I was served for lunch was delicious. Yes, actually delicious! A piping hot pumpkin risotto, and afterwards we were offered ice-cream. I’ve never been offered ice-cream on any flight to anywhere before, much less given a choice of flavours. Ok, so the choice was vanilla or chocolate, not exactly the most exotic varieties… but they were Ben & Jerry’s ice-creams, premium stuff. And very nice the vanilla was, too.

(Anybody wonder why I’m bothering to devote so much time and effort on plain-jane icecreams? Anybody thinking dear god this woman needs to get a life and stop waxing lyrical about basic ice-creams? I’m right there with you… it’s just that I was so taken by surprise - an airline meal that ranked as yummy, with ice cream to follow! Ok, no more.)

Yeah, so it seemed worthwhile to not travel by British Airways. The flight was boring as flights normally are. I wasn’t particularly tempted by the movies on offer, especially as it took me a while to figure out how to keep the damn earphones hooked to my ears. They weren’t the usual button-ended ones, these were large and flat and had a curvy plastic bit that pulled out and went behind the ear. Or something like that. Anyway, by the time the earphones stopped falling off the moment I gave up holding them in place, most of the programmes were well into their stuff. I ended up watching a really rather bloody movie called “3.10 to Yuma”. The boorish Ozzie actor Russell Crowe did nothing to endear himself to me with the smirky murderous character he played. (I wonder if he had to act at all – maybe that was the real him.) I kinda sorta maybe like Christian Bale, so I was able to watch the movie… but then he died at the end and it put me off watching anything else.

The rest of the flight was not memorable for anything other than cramped quarters. And we landed in Chicago right on time. Outside it looked sunny and bright, like summer. Of course that was an illusion, because the outside temperature was below freezing. It really was cold. Then we found that we had to collect our baggage and re-check them in for our flight to Seattle. This was not as painful a process as it sounds - we only had to take the suitcases over to the United Airlines baggage attendant, and he zapped them and sent them - and us - on our way. So that was another bit of all right.

Thus far, it all seemed too good to be true. And it was. We had about two hours to wait for our flight to Seattle, but were informed - completely unintelligibly - by a UA lady that our plane had a problem and was being checked by mechanics. Basically, nobody knew when the flight would take off. Yay. We sat around disconsolately, occasionally looking up when the UA lady garbled some more updates, aware only that we werent going to be flying anytime soon. Eventually, after about 2 hours again, we were asked to board the plane.

You'd think this would mean that the flight was ready to take off. Not so. After we'd sat on the runway for half an hour, the pilot informed us that due to the previous problem, some baggage had been left unloaded as the baggage dept hadnt been told that the problem was sorted. It turned out, after some more time, that NONE of the baggage had been loaded! We looked out of the window to find that there was just one man who was loading up the plane, one suitcase at a time, after zapping each one manually. This was going to take forever.

Then our friendly pilot came on the PA system yet again, explaining that it might take a while longer to load the items as the solitary man could only work for 10 minutes at a time because of the cold weather, and he had to take 5 minutes off after that due to health and safety regulations. Okay, so this was going to take forever and possibly a few days extra. Incredibly, as it turned out, not only was the luggage not loaded, the plane hadnt even been re-fuelled! So much for the efficiency of United Airlines at Chicago.

The flight to Seattle was 4 and a half hours of sheer boredom. The less said about it the better.

At Seattle-Tacoma, my sister had been waiting for quite a while as she had not known about the delay at Chicago. In fact, she had not known that we were flying United Airlines, and she was a bit frazzled because nobody at Sea-Tac had even heard of BMI-baby, much less any information about incoming BMI flights from Chicago! However, once we arrived, our baggage also appeared fairly quickly, so we were able to get home without much hassle.

I've never seen so woefully bare a fridge in my life as I did at my sister's - the hollow, echoing emptiness of the interior was emphasised further by the size of the fridge! So the first thing we did the next day was go shopping for groceries, starting with milk. No wonder my mother prefers to be there and make sure that the fridge is kept fed and watered! Not to mention my sister as well.

Radha's idea was that we would drop her off at work in the morning, then take the car to do whatever we wanted to do. This would have worked out better (for me) had Pete not needed to get on with his programming as well. So we only went out on two days - in the daytime, that is. One of the days was by default as there was going to be a powercut in the area from 10am-3pm. There wouldnt have been much point to staying at home with no heating and no way to use the computer. So that day was earmarked for driving down (or up - whichever's correct) to Seattle's city centre and doing some sightseeing.

After dropping Radha off at Microsoft, Pete and I navigated our way downtown (does downtown mean city centre in Americanese?) without too much hassle. The drive down was slightly hairy as Pete was driving in peak Seattle traffic in an unfamiliar car on the wrong side of the road (or rather, on the right) while being totally new to the road network. Still, we made good time and even managed to find a parking space fairly close to the Seattle Space Needle. I wanted to check out the Duck Tour, which had been recommended, but unfortunately it was only running Friday-Sunday, perhaps because it wasnt peak tourist time.

So we went first to the Science Fiction Museum - well, with Pete being such a huge sci-fi fan, where else could we go? The building housing the museum was strangely designed in flowing curves reminiscent of - what else, cities in outer space as conceived by writers and artists. They were also very brightly coloured - red, purple, sky blue, glittering in the winter sunshine. The building was most certainly eye-catching.

The familiar strains of the "Star Trek" tune? melody? sounds? ushered us in. Tickets were $15 each but they were worth it as it gave us entry to the Sci-Fi Museum as well as the Experience Music Project. The Sci-Fi museum was reasonably fun, setting out the history and rise of science fiction writing, biographies of famous sci-fi authors, first edition books, and so on. Also lots of costumes and props used by actors in famous sci-fi TV series and so on. The evolution of make-believe futuristic guns has to be seen to be believed. The earliest ones looked like very badly made toys. The latest ones look like they could be the prototype for real guns of the future!

Next we went to the Experience Music Project. The first thing to catch our eye was the immense structure of guitars, violins and the occasional accordion - over 500 instruments, I think - some of which were computer-controlled to play gentle plinks and plonks all the time to make the sound of one chord. Unfortunately, photography was not allowed within the building at all whatsoever, so I dont have any way of showing how big and impressive the structure was. I also am not sure what the structure was called, but its creator was a German guy called Trimpin.

One of the permanent exhibitions there was of guitars - from the very first kinds ever invented to the most modern varieties with funky shapes, and everything in between from all over the world. It was quite interesting, even though the most that I know about guitars is that I cant play one. I do enjoy the sound, though, and it was great to see video clips of famous guitarists doing their stuff.

There were two other exhibitions that were featured - one on the contribution of Latinos to American music, and in the Sci-Fi section, sculptural works by an artist called Rik Allen. Cant say I was particularly enamoured of his work theme (futuristic imagery based on sci-fi), but a documentary on how he makes his glass sculptures was very interesting.

However, the bit I liked best was the Sound Lab, where you were given basic how-to-play instructions for the guitar, keyboards and drums. It was good fun because I've never tried the drums and have always wanted to know how they were played. By me, very badly, but it was fun to try. With the piano/keyboards, I discovered that my thumbs were much too short to use. At least an inch too short. I guess I'm never going to be a keyboards genius. I dont much care for piano music, but by god you've got to admire people who can use both hands to play simultaneously and apparently independently! Perhaps you have to start very early? And the guitar-playing experience, I dont even want to talk about it. As for Pete, he was in music heaven. Since he's a DJ, he knew exactly what everything there was for, and he had a gala time trying it all out like a pro. I'm only surprised that it didnt take longer than it did to drag him out of there!

After that we walked to the Seattle Space Needle which was conveniently close by. The restaurant at the top was closed - just as well - and because it was off-season, there was hardly any wait for the lift to take us up some 500 feet to the top. The view from there was stunning, especially as the weather was sunny and clear. Tall snow-covered mountain ranges stood in the distance, with Mt Rainier towering all by itself over everything else. The skyscrapers looked as if they'd been given a good wash, the lake was as blue as could be, boats and yachts sailed about gently (and quietly, from that height!)... I clicked away with my camera until Pete reminded me gently that there was a Starbucks in the cafe. Where there is a Starbucks, there's Pete clamouring for his favourite beverage, so we went in and sat by the large picture windows, looking out over the view. It wasnt the worst way to spend a quiet half hour.

Shopping was the next thing on my agenda. I'd wanted to get a pair of decent sneakers to replace my walking boots for casual wear. The boots are fantastic high-end pricey ones meant for professional hikers etc, very comfortable to wear for long walks and all that, but a royal pain to lace up every time I wanted to go out briefly, even if it was only stepping into the garage. And I wanted a handbag as well. But first I wanted to get a top or t-shirt to replace the jumper I was wearing, as it had picked up a large smear of chocolate all down the front. I dont know how that happened.

Apart from that, I wasnt fussed about getting anything for myself... although I was open to persuasion!

So we took the monorail into Westlake Center, Seattle's huge shopping mall in the middle of the city. The monorail stopped right at the second or third floor entrance into the mall, conveniently. I dived into the first handbag shop I saw and spent the next 30 minutes trying out practically every bag there (it wasnt a very big shop), with Pete pointing out what he considered were suitable candidates. I hate shopping for handbags because invariably I find that the one I buy doesnt look as good as it did before I paid for it. And of COURSE bags carried by other women look better than any of mine. Still, eventually I made my choice.

Then we went on to a clothes shop that had a serious sale going on - 75% off - and found me a T-shirt (which I thankfully changed into). Of course I couldnt stop with a T-shirt, so we also got me a nice posh shirt and an even nicer silk/linen jacket. Sometimes shopping can be fun! The lady at the shop directed us to another place that sold good-quality men's clothes, so we toddled off there to get Pete a coat. Boy was that a posh shop! The salesman there could have talked anybody into buying anything, he was that slick.

The end result was that Pete got a fantastic posh leather jacket at a fantastic posh price that had my jaw coming into sudden contact with my big toe (it hurt!)... but at least I stopped the sales guy from selling my husband one of those ridiculously long and large t-shirts worn by rappers. But while his spiel was on, I had worrying visions of Pete in one of those shirts, wearing a few kilos of bling jewellery and baggy trousers halfway down his backside, with his hands and fingers contorted into those inexplicable positions so beloved of all rappers... ugh. I say it again: UGH! (Yeah, I'm one of those who finds most rap crap.)

Eventually it was time to start back because we had to pick up Radha from her office and then go directly to a pub for the weekly quiz session. That was when we discovered that while it was easy to find downtown, what with plenty of overhead signs that indicated the way to the City Centre, it wasnt so easy to get out of it as there were no helpful signs pointing the way back to Redmond (where Radha's office is). I couldnt read the damn map because we had to keep moving - not that staying still would have helped, because I cant read maps. We could see where we needed to be - way overhead on the bridge across the water - but where we were was in the residential area of god knows where, and apparently heading further inwards.

Somehow or other Pete's homing instincts manouevred us out onto the right Inter-State highway, but we had no idea if were going in the right direction. It appeared that we were rushing headlong towards Vancouver, Canada, however, and that didnt seem right to me. A quick phone call to Radha later, we found that we were going North where we should have been heading South, so it was off the I-S at the next exit and soon we were rushing in the right direction. It was much too late to pick up Radha from her office, so she got a lift to the pub with a colleague and tried to guide us to get there on our own. Finally she sent a text to Pete's phone with the directions and after a wrong turn (my fault) and an unforeseen detour, we reached the pub. Just in time, too, for the quiz was just beginning.

The pub was an English-style one which showed rugby games and served Guinness, so Pete was taken care of. Radha, Pete and I formed a team (we called ourselves "The Latecomers", because we so nearly were) and had fun answering the questions in the various rounds. We did pretty well too, because we came second overall, winning $30 (or something like that) as well as a flurry of bottle-opener keychains. The team that came first - Radha's best friend and companions - beat us by just 3 points. All in all, it was a very enjoyable evening.

Radha's friend Carmen arranged for a wine tasting at the Columbia Winery on the evening before we had to return home. Columbia Winery is one of the many many wineries in and around Seattle and in Washington State. This was an outing that we all knew Pete would enjoy tremendously, and so it turned out. We met up with Carmen, her husband Jim and one of his friends and proceeded to sip at various wines. As always, I couldnt tell the difference between the various wines in terms of aroma, but I guess I knew which ones I liked and which I didnt like quite as much. Basically, medium dry white is good - reds are out on account of even a little bit gives me thumping headaches and sweet dessert wines are TOTALLY out. It always makes me want to giggle when wine aficionados talk about wines that deliver lingering notes of cherry cola, roasted espresso bean, charcoal, tobacco, cough syrup and possibly my mother's vattha kuzhambu. It just seems so pretentious... although I'm sure it's not and people are talking through their oh-so-discerning palates and not just through their hat. Just put it down to distressingly lower-class ignorance on my part.

Anyway, we came away with four bottles of wine, which pleased both me and Pete but for different reasons. He was pleased to have got 4 bottles, I was pleased that he'd stopped with four bottles, so all was well in our world. A week was much too short a trip to Seattle, but I guess we'll be going back there to sample more of its delights. I havent been to Mt Rainier, for instance, and Pete hasnt been to all of the hundreds of wineries in and around Seattle!

As always, our trip back home wasnt without its share of drama. We left Seattle on time and reached Chicago without any hassle. When we disembarked from the plane and entered Terminal 1, Pete spotted a row of computer/Internet points and decided that he would recharge his laptop right then and there. We were under the impression that we had to collect our baggage and re-check it in for the flight back to Manchester. We had less than two hours before take-off. Anyway, like an idiot, Pete suggested that I should pick up our baggage and meet him back at the computer point, after which we would take the train to Terminal 5. Like an even bigger idiot, I went off to do as he said despite some misgivings.

We'd both forgotten that once out of the security area, I would not be able to get back to where Pete was without going through security all over again. And that was only for passengers who were departing from that terminal. Not only that, I had my passport and Pete's with me while he, for some odd reason, had the boarding passes. He didnt even know which terminal we were leaving from, or which airlines!

Anyway, off I went downstairs to the baggage area and waited and waited for our suitcases to appear. Finally I went and asked an official why our baggage hadnt arrived yet. He said that they'd have been checked through directly from Seattle. The re-checking-in bit was only on arrival in the USA, at the first point of entry. Huh! If only I'd known that at the start...!

So I went back upstairs to get Pete - only to find, of course, that I couldnt get back inside past security check. I asked at an information booth about how to contact Pete, and was told to ask any United Airlines employee.

I cornered a UA woman who was just standing around and explained the whole situation - husband plugged to computer inside, got to get to Terminal 5 to catch flight to UK leaving in less than an hour, no way of contacting said husband, very VERY urgent matter, pls help - and she asked me to page him through the paging phone. Great! I rushed to the paging phone, but there was nobody on the other end. Back I went to another UA employee, only this time I managed to choose a halfwit, because he simply said "I've no idea what to do" and then studiously avoided my eye thereafter!

Now really in a panic - our flight left in 40 minutes! - I went through the whole situation with yet another UA employee. She was much more sympathetic, although she couldnt help me herself. I had to speak to one of the folks who were checking in baggage. And no, I couldnt jump the line. So I waited an agonizing 10 more minutes and related the whole story once again to the man at the counter. He, thank god, was not only intelligent AND sympathetic but also actually proactive. After confirming that we had indeed arrived from Seattle and were going on to Manchester, he issued me a security pass.

I thought the pass meant that I would be allowed through rightaway - but nothing of the sort. I had to go through security all over again, taking off my coat and shoes and belt and thali and shoving my handbag and everything through the X-ray machine. Then the whole thing in reverse, practically like getting dressed again. By this time I was certain that we would miss the flight, I didnt know if Pete was even still there or whether he'd decided to go on to Terminal 5 and catch up with me there... to say that I was distressed would have been putting it mildly! But, thank goodness, Pete hadnt left the area. I threw myself at him, babbling tearfully about security men and time and flights and everything else, while he steered me towards the exit.

We rushed downstairs to the Arrivals floor, following the signs to "Train to Terminals" - but it turned out that the lift to the train level was out of order. To our disbelief, we had to go back upstairs to Departures and run up the escalator - which was ALSO out of order - to get to the train level. Luckily there was a train right there, which we thankfully got into. By the time we reached Terminal 5, there were 20 minutes to departure.


Naturally enough, at Security Check, we got the one security guy probably in the entire terminal who was zealous enough to go through each and every item in my handbag. I wasnt allowed to touch my bag or anything he took out of it, or even point out anything to him. He pulled on a pair of disposable gloves and opened everything that looked suspicious - my lip gloss, eye liner pen, miniature perfume bottle, hand cream tube, etc, looking at each item, sniffing it, peering at it from different angles and then meticulously setting each one aside. Finally he looked up and started to say "Ma'am if you dont have a transparent plastic bag, we'll have to..." - but Pete and I both knew what was coming, so I said "Yeah, keep it all!" at the same time as Pete said "Yeah, we've got a plane to catch" ... and then we grabbed my handbag and legged it from there.

Our Boarding Gate was 15 out of a possible 21, so we ran like maniacs past the moving walkways which would have made things quicker, but - yep, those were out of order. We could hear our names being announced "last call for Mr and Mrs Edwards" on the PA system, and believe me, it's not worth the excitement to be the passengers who are paged!

We made it to Gate 15 in the nick of time. I suspect that if a BMI employee with a walkie-talkie (or other form of communicaton) who saw us thundering down had not informed ahead that Mr and Mrs Edwards were nearly there, they would have closed the gate and we would have missed the flight. Phew!

With a start like that, I guess I should have known what to expect from the flight back. I sat next to the fidgetiest pre-teenager you could hope to find; it was all sharp elbows in my side and the odd kick. Then the meal they served me, in dismal contrast to the in-flight one I'd had the first time, was atrocious. Soggy boiled vegetables with bullet rice and tomato paste. And for a snack, I actually got a perfectly hard, perfectly dry little bagel. Just that. One hard little bagel. So I returned it to the steward. (He deserved it, the poncy little swish.) We had some pretty terrible turbulence as well, so all in all, it wasnt the pleasantest of long-distance flights. But... no pain no gain, and I'll take the pain of long-distance travel any day for the gains at journey's end!

10 comments:

Radha said...

You silly goose - I told you and told you that you would NOT need to collect and re-check in your baggage in Chicago on the way out, but did you listen? Oh no, you didn't. Silly goose!

Nice zippy pace to the travelogue, though. And not at all boring :)

brinda said...

loved this! and you really have a low opinion of us discerning readers, dont u? to think that we'd be bored with this... OR were you just on a fishing expedition? :-)

Shyam said...

Radi: Did you really? I dont remember hearing you say it at all! How odd.

Brin: Of COURSE I was fishing... just short of using dynamite to blow the fans out of the water, so to speak :) But thanks all the same, glad you werent bored!

Radha said...

Hmph! Selective hearing, as usual.

meerkat said...

looks like you had a good time in seattle. you must love travelling a lot. stupid question - how did you transport the wine bottles through the rough and tumble of the baggage handling

meera

Shyam said...

Meera: Yes, the Seattle trip was fun although very short. As for the wine bottles, the winery sold bottle transporters at $1.50 each -wine-bottle-shaped very thick plastic, lined inside with bubble-wrap. Well worth the price, especially as they were also leak-proof in case baggage handling managed to break the bottles! :)

Kamini said...

I just LOVE reading your travelogues - such fun! And good for you for freeing yourself from BA's death-grip. I did it myself for the first time last year, and was the best thing I did!

Shyam said...

Kamini: Hooray, a mutual admirer club! :) Dont think I havent noticed that you go to the most exotic places and write beautifully about them... my husband is green with envy as well! :)

Kamini said...

Shyam: Thanks for your nice words! I know, I've been incredibly fortunate in the last couple of years. Cambodia is just stunning, & I do hope you'll get a chance to visit it.
Kamini

flyingstars said...

lovely reading your experience!