Monday, January 5, 2015

The First Leg of my Trip to Barbados - Getting there was just part of the Fun

I awoke on the morning of December 4th like I do any other morning. My alarm went off, I hit the snooze button several times before I rolled over and checked my phone for messages. The only thing different about this morning was the bombardment of messages that came through while I was sleeping. Messages from friends and family that went along the line of “you must be so excited” and “today is the day, have a fun week” and “you are so lucky, I wish I was going with you…have a great trip”. At least the messages about my upcoming trip to Barbados were more positive than the ones I received in the weeks leading up to my departure. “You are going alone? Are you crazy?” “Don’t you know how dangerous it is to travel with all the things going on in the world?” “One of these days, you are going to get mugged, raped, kidnapped or murdered!” These were (and usually are) the messages I received when I announced I would be doing yet another solo trip. Sometimes I can’t tell if people are genuinely afraid for my well-being or if they are just jealous that I am going without them…because lets face it, traveling is really not all that dangerous. Period. And anyway, I would rather die doing something I enjoy rather than say dying in a car accident while pulling onto the highway on my way to work….or god forbid, by falling in the shower.

I’d already finished packing a few days earlier and only had to tuck away a few final items into my carry on. I had a long layover in Halifax so I made sure to pack things I would need to make myself presentable for the second leg of the journey. Toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant, dry shampoo. Airports are dirty. Even at times when I only spent a few hours in one, I’m left feeling like I hadn’t showered in days. The last thing I want to do is get on a plane and share a small enclosed space with several hundred other tired and cranky passengers while smelling and looking like I haven’t showered in days. That would surely piss off a lot of people.
To some people, my carry-on might have looked a little bulkier and felt a little heavier than it should have but I always come prepared. If you ever had an airline lose your luggage, you know the importance of always packing at least one outfit, a bathing suit if you’re going to a warm climate and any other items you cannot live without into a carry on. Who wants to land in the sunny, hot Caribbean wearing the heavy parka, snow boots and long johns they were wearing when they left Canada only to realize that their shorts, tanks and swimsuit didn’t make it?

I only had a few last-minute items to take care of when 4PM rolled around. I made a stairs out of small boxes beside the bed so my cat could climb up (he’s getting older and has been having trouble jumping onto the bed where he likes to curl up under the blankets), unplugged all my electronics, hid my valuables deep in a closet and placed my suitcase and carry-on by the door and waited for my drive. My next stop was the university where I caught the shuttle that took me on the first leg of my long journey – a five-hour drive to the Halifax airport.

The drive to Halifax is usually quite long and boring. Normally, when I board one of those shuttles, I climb into one of the seats in the very back and fall asleep if it’s not too crowded. When it’s crowded, I spend five hours squashed into a seat with half of my belongings on top of me while listening to several conversations going on at once. I usually don’t get much rest on those trips. I knew this trip would be different after I met the driver. He cheerfully introduced himself. “Hi there. I will be your driver. My name is Luigi, like in the Super Mario Brothers game”. Sometimes, shuttle drivers just do their job and get passengers to their destination safely. Other times, they do more. I instantly got the feeling that this ride wouldn’t be long and dragged out like many of the others. From the time we left the parking lot at the university, I couldn’t get the guy to shut up, not that that was a bad thing. Time goes by quickly and long rides are made memorable when there is good conversation. I’m not sure how we got on the topics we discussed but the conversation flowed non-stop from the weird weather we were having, to where I was going for vacation, to what our plans for the upcoming Christmas holidays were and onto an in-depth conversation about working Out West. I picked up some tips about getting jobs in the lucrative oil fields where so many other Cape Bretoners were already working. Things like what camps are hiring, which ones are laying people off, which ones treat their employees the best and which ones are best avoided. All this transpired before we even reached the next stop.

After that first stop in Sydney River, it was onto our next stop at the Newfoundland ferry terminal to pick up a few more passengers and onto another stop on the Northside to pick up another passenger. I hate crowded shuttles and was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable with the number of people that were beginning to pile into the van. With only a few seats left, we arrived at the North Sydney Mall to pick up our last passenger, a young woman who was headed to Halifax to meet a friend, spend the night and drive back to Cape Breton the very next day with her friend who didn’t want to drive by herself. Have you ever instantly clicked with someone you just met? It doesn’t happen often but, every once and a while, I will meet someone that I instantly feel comfortable around and can talk to them about anything. That’s what it was like between me and that last passenger we picked up. All the way to Halifax, we talked non-stop about our jobs, our hobbies, our pets and everything else under the sun and before I knew it, we pulled up to the main entrance of the airport. A drive that usually feels like ten hours felt like 2 hours and I felt kind of sad about having to leave the group.

Before I walked away from the shuttle and into Atlantic Canada’s busiest airport, Luigi passed along some information that would help make my overnight stay in the airport a little more comfortable. He informed me that guests of his shuttle service could avail of a comfortable lounge located in the hotel attached to the airport. All I had to do was go to the 3rd floor of the hotel, confidently walk into the lounge like I owned the place and take a seat in one of the comfortable chairs. He advised me that it might be a good idea to buy a drink or something to eat at some point during the night so staff would leave me alone

Before I made my way over to that lounge I ventured into the main area of the airport to check on the status of my 7AM flight. The airport was busy with flights simultaneously arriving and leaving. The noise level and bright lights seemed more annoying than usual as I just spent five hours in a dark, relatively quiet mini-van on a dark highway. I quickly verified my flight, which thankfully, was on time, and walked over to the hotel to find that lounge.

I knew I found the right place when I walked into a dimly-lit lounge complete with soft Jazz music playing in the background and comfortable chairs and couches. What I wasn’t prepared for was the young man sitting behind a desk greeting every person who came in and out of the lounge. I had to come up with something quickly so to not rouse any suspicion so I just said “I’m looking for a place to relax before my midnight boarding call” thinking his shift would probably end before that time anyway. “Feel free to sit anywhere you like. The bar is still open and there are snacks available for purchase on the other side” was all he said.

I sunk into a huge, comfortable chair but I wasn’t ready to doze off yet. I was still wound up from the drive and had some phone calls I had to make. I was right about that employee’s shift ending before midnight. At least I assume that’s what happened to him. One minute he was there and than I didn’t see him again for the rest of the night. That meant I could stay there and take a nap without anyone suspecting a thing. But just to be on the safe side, I bought something to eat before my eyes got too heavy. For the not-so-small price of $17.00, I got a cookie, a bottle of water and a child’s portion of microwaveable “specialty” macaroni and cheese. Typical airport fare and prices.

I finished my “meal” and once again sunk into that big comfy chair and nodded off with the help of soft ambient light and relaxing jazz music. I slept surprisingly well, waking only when my phone, which was tucked underneath my arm, vibrated to let me know it was time to head to the airline check-in counter. I am so glad I discovered that little secret lounge. Usually when I have to spend the night at the Halifax airport, I end up trying to sleep on a hard airport chair in the midst of all the sounds that airports make. I felt like a million bucks as I headed to the check-in counter after having one of my best airport overnights ever and it only cost me $17.00!

When it comes to airports and flying, I usually have bad luck. Delayed or cancelled flights, annoying seat mates, lost luggage and dealing with rude or just plain ignorant airport and airline employees are just some of the common things I come across when traveling anywhere that involves flying. This time, however, I happened upon a good luck streak. You know how most airlines have decided to charge for that first checked baggage? Well, when I checked in with WestJet and told the lady at the counter I had one bag to check, she looked up my flight and said my bag had already been paid for. I knew, 100% fact, that I did not pay for that bag but she still insisted on letting it go for free! Right off the bat, I saved 25 bucks! I didn’t choose my seat when I booked the flight and usually when I don’t choose my seat, they automatically put me in the aisle at the very back of the plane but this time, they placed me in a window seat near the front of the plane! I took my seat and watched as passenger after passenger took up seats all around me but no one took any of the two seats next to me. I ended up with an entire row to myself so I could stretch out and take up as much of the arm rests as I liked. No one falling asleep on the arm rest to prevent me from changing the station on the seat-back television and no one to crawl over to go to the bathroom. I never have luck that good when I’m flying.

The 1.5-hour flight to Toronto Pearson went as usual: Leave Halifax, land in Toronto, get off plane, run at top speed to terminal 3, board another plane. The final 6.5-hour flight to my final destination also went without incident. A little bit of turbulence, the discovery that WestJet no longer offers Bits and Bites(they offered pretzels instead and I don’t really like pretzels) and some trouble finding a pen with which to fill out the customs sheet they always pass out mid-flight to international destinations is all I have to report for that leg of my journey.

Before I knew it, the pilot announced our descent towards Bridgetown and that sparkling blue-green water the Caribbean is known for along with hundreds of sailboats sailing along the coast got closer and closer. I was itching to get off the plane after the long flight and was thankful to be seated so close to the exit…except, the flight crew decided that we would be exiting via the back door instead. And that folks, is when my luck started to go downhill.
I finally disembarked from the aircraft into the sun and heat of mid-day in Bridgetown, Barbados. There was no gate, we just walked off the plane, down a moveable stairway and right onto the open tarmac. I started to follow some people who were walking towards what I thought was the arrivals area when an airport employee started to wave at me. That is when I noticed another group of people heading in another direction towards a bus and another employee started waving at me to go that way. Tired and confused, I just stood there looking back and forth at these two people waving me to go in two different directions. Finally, another passenger on my flight informed me that we go to the waiting bus that takes us to the arrivals area. Who knew? Not I. Welcome to Central America. It seems I run into similar situations whenever I travel to this part of the world. Had something like this happened at Toronto’s Pearson International, with a disembarking passenger roaming aimlessly on the tarmac, security would have been on top of me. Trust me I know…if you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may have read about the “little” security issue I ran into at Pearson several years ago when I was returning from Mexico.

My bad luck didn’t stop there. I entered the non-air-conditioned immigration area of the airport only to be greeted by a huge lineup of passengers waiting to get through. So much for getting that “lucky” seat close to the front of the plane. I was literally at the very back of the line that ended up taking two hours to clear not including customs and baggage pick-up. I worried my shuttle driver would be looking for me so I turned on my cell-phone to access my email and see if she left me a message. I thought most airports had free Wi-fi but this elusive, free airport Wi-fi never seems to work for me and it didn’t on this occasion. I didn’t have an international data plan on my phone but figured a few seconds wouldn’t cost much. I logged on, quickly checked my email, found nothing from my driver and quickly turned off my data…and was greeted with a text message from my service provider stating that I had just been charged $25.00 for accessing data overseas. I saved $25.00 on baggage fees and ended up using it for outrageous data fees. So much for getting a little ahead.

An hour into that long wait, I was so hungry I ransacked my carry-on for any leftover snacks and found a half eaten bag of chips. The woman behind me was practically licking her lips as she watched me devour the chips and said “oh my, those look so good right now”. I just smiled awkwardly and slowly turned around avoiding anymore eye contact with her. I guess I could have shared. Is it wrong that I didn’t? Nah…two thoughts went through my head at that moment: 1) I don’t want some stranger’s germy hands in my chips and 2) I’m hungry and they're my chips – get your own chips! Ok so I was a little cranky and selfish by that time.

I finally cleared the necessary evils of international travel, exited the airport and looked for the area where cabs and “cabs” wait and harass travelers who don’t know any better with “hey miss, I give you best deal on cab ride anywhere in city” and “Where are you going miss….ah yes, I was sent to pick you up, come along” and the like. But I know better after almost being “kidnapped” by some timeshare salespeople pretending to be my ride at the airport in Cancun a few years earlier. I always do my research before I go anywhere now and learn what color cabs are the safest and most legit to take and to always get the names of shuttle drivers who are meeting me and never give out my intended destination or name to anyone even if they are driving a legit-looking cab. It wasn’t hard to find my driver, Sandra, as she was standing out front holding a sign with my first and last name on it. We walked to her van and I made my first mistake in this new and unfamiliar country; I went around to the right side of the vehicle and got in the passenger side…except it wasn’t the passenger side. I forgot that Bajans drive on the left and I found myself sitting behind the wheel with my driver asking “are you driving” and with an embarrassed chuckle, I got out and walked around to the actual passenger side.

Traffic was heavy by that time so we took a short cut. Sandra drove quite fast but made her way around the many roundabouts and lane changes like a pro. I always love the rides from the airport to the hotel. These rides are my first taste of a new place and I got to see quite a bit of the island on that drive to Angler Apartments in Derricks on the west coast of the island.

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