The observations and opinions of a person who has no discernible insights or ideas.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004


The troubles which followed me through SeaTac and to a lesser degree at LAX were kind enough to leave me there. The last issue I had on my way to Hawaii was that the deli and bakery that I bought lunch from served sandwiches that were pre-made and refrigerated. I suppose I should have held out for a reliable McDonalds, although then I would have had problems with my conscience instead of indignation at the poor quality offering.

At this point, I’d like to observe that LAX is a pretty neat airport. Its only failing is a lack of horizontal escalators (a.k.a. people movers) to connect the different sets of gates. I’m writing this at the airport in San Francisco which, like Denver, has these even in places where I would consider them unnecessary. I’m also sitting in a restaurant eating food that was made fresh for me, and which promises to be quite good. There’s even a waitress. How cool is that? I don’t know the name of this place, but to anyone with a layover in the San Francisco airport, I recommend heading out to gate 86. You’ll find this place just before there on the right. Ask for Chum Chum.

Back to my saga:

I only had to wait about 2 hours for my plane to Honolulu to start boarding, on account of the troubles I had earlier that day. While I waited, I sat playing on the laptop and being mildly amused by the guys sitting by me who were playing Civ III. It seems that one of them was teaching the other how to play. Both were at least 40, so it really was against type to see these two guys playing away.

Eventually I got onto my plane, which was a Boeing 767 with seven seats per row (except for the aristocracy, who had only 6 seats per row). I like these bigger planes. They have higher ceilings, which always makes me feel better. Few things make me feel more cramped than having the ceiling crowding in on me. The highlight of the flight was that they held a contest (apparently a standard sort of thing for flights into Hawaii) to guess what time we would cross the geographical midpoint of our journey. I calculated how long it would take at our cruising speed to reach it, and then added a couple of minutes to account for the time getting turned around and accelerated during the first part of the flight. I was short by 32 seconds, but still the closest on the plane. I’ll be bringing home some macadamia nuts for my efforts, but what I really care about is that I won a contest where my mental abilities could be brought to bear. Actually, I’m surprised that no one came closer. There were about 300 people on the plane, and we were only in the air for about 300 minutes (the reasonable window in which to guess was about 45 minutes).

Upon arrival in Hawaii, I was a little bit surprised to not see anyone giving out leis. I would have had little use for such an adornment, so I didn’t mind that much. I found my luggage and then my way out to a bus that was taking people to the Waikiki hotel district where I was staying. Our driver was a friendly gentleman who was trying to get us started with the whole Aloha atmosphere, but for me it just came off touristy, which I didn’t care for. But before he even started talking, we drove away from the terminal out into a place where the sun was shining through a break in the rain that was sprinkling lightly over that part of the island. The green hills were wreathed in clouds, and just then, there was a rainbow stretching all the way across the horizon, from one end of Honolulu to the other. It was a stunning vista.

That evening, I got together with one of my travel companions, and we walked around looking for food. We eventually found a little restaurant that was run by Chinese people, but which served western food (and nothing oriental). On their menu, I found a chicken alfredo offering, ending my quest to find alfredo sometime on this trip. The problem with fettuccini alfredo is that it often isn’t any good. I’ve had some that was just bland cream on blander noodles. The stuff at this place was much better. Their chicken was a little bland instead, but ultimately it was some of the better alfredo I’ve had.

The next morning, we left relatively late for the site we were visiting. They wanted us to get there at 8:30, but we still got there at 7:45. So, we went to a fast food joint and had a second breakfast (the hotel had donut holes and cinnamon rolls for breakfast, which I thought was very good). Upon arriving at the site, we were greeted very warmly. They aren’t as large an operation as the other places we are visiting, so they could be more personal. We had a briefing with more attendees than in Washington, and more important attendees (both in terms of rank and in terms of familiarity with the system in question). These guys really had it together. They knew just what to do, and they had detailed notes on it all, including pictures and charts. They answered all of my questions, which were more probing than they were before (because I’m just trying to feel my way through all this) easily, and in general, they ran a tight ship. I was very impressed with them.

They even gave us lunch, which was some Korean take-out. I ate the whole thing with chopsticks, which was my second time doing that (the first time was Friday). They also gave me chocolate covered macadamia nuts and some really good coffee. I still don’t know what I’m going to do with all this stuff.

That afternoon, we went to the beach. When we got there, my companions decided to go find a bar. I went and stood in the water for a while. The waves are quite impressive, and I even saw a few schools of fish (little tiny ones). We walked up and down the boardwalk for a while, and then I stole the car keys and went off to see the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

While I was on my way over there, my wife called, and we tried to navigate me there. It was difficult since I knew where I was, but she knew where I needed to go, and we seemed unable to communicate these things adequately to each other. I did eventually find it, and only 3 hours too late to join the last tour of the day. I decided to go drive around the island instead. I made my way north through the middle of the island, and as I neared the north shore, the sun was setting behind the clouds and the northwestern range. As it did so, it gave some of the most beautiful sunbeams I have ever seen. It was as if Hawaii was saying goodbye to me.

The trip around the north shore is a slow one because there are houses along every bit of road, and plenty of slow drivers to keep you under the limit. The sun was set by the time I reached the north shore, and it was very dark before long. It was interesting driving along with nothing but blackness off to my left. I made my way along, and eventually found a sign announcing a detour to the LDS Temple Visitor’s Center. The detour was not well marked, and I found myself parked to the north of the temple, which faces to the east. I made my way to the front and got there just as a man was closing the gates. He was kind enough to let me walk around the grounds for a bit. It was dark and difficult to see what was there, but I enjoyed it all the same.

About a quarter of the way around the pools in front of the temple, I caught up with a small local woman who was out for an evening stroll. I’m not sure why she was walking about so late, but I slowed down and walked with her. She talked about how she walks there every day, and how when they worship there, they feel both the Holy Spirit and the Aloha spirit. I’ll have to come back again when it is open so I can feel some of that too.

When I got back to the gates, the man who was closing them was still there. I stopped to talk to him a bit. He introduced himself as Van Ohuna (I have no idea how it’s spelled, but this is how it sounds). I didn’t find out exactly what his duties are there, but he was locking up that night. He told me about the changes they were making there, which are why the roads were closed, but which also included remodeling the visitor’s center, making the detour signs unnecessary except to give tourists like me a poor idea of where to go to find this building. He drove me in his little cart back to my car, and we parted telling each other of how we felt about each others’ homes.

The rainbow was amazing, as was the sunset the last night. I was amazed by the beauty of the plants all around there. But it was Brother Ohuna who really convinced me that I wanted to come back and enjoy Oahu on my own terms, and not in the ways that I was permitted by the limits of our schedule (which was in turn dictated by no fewer than 3 levels of bureaucracy). I felt wonderful for most of the rest of the evening.

At least until I got lost, that is. I ended up following a road that let me out farther west than I had expected, and I didn’t get my bearings straight again until I was within walking distance of the hotel. I had the hardest time keeping track of north and south there. It was long after dark at that point, and I ended up heading west on a Honolulu highway (which was just a major city street). I did find a Carl’s Jr. while I was on that road, and when I stopped to pick up some dinner there, I got directions that at least got me pointed back in the right direction. Only half a dozen more wrong turns later, I was at the hotel, and only 10 minutes of working the car into a space in the parking garage later, I was headed back to my room.

I didn’t sleep well that night, and I didn’t even wake up until we were supposed to be leaving. So, I got showered, dressed, and packed in about 20 minutes, and then after another 20 minutes of trying to squeeze the car out of the parking space (several illegally parked cars were making it difficult to maneuver in that garage, especially with a Chevy SUV), we were on our way.

The rest of the trip is rather mundane. I sat next to a mother and daughter, the latter of which played Age of Empires II during part of the flight. The in flight movie was Garfield. I had heard bad things about that film, but I had no idea how absolutely awful it was until I started watching it. Thank goodness for my 3 hour rest the night before, which spared me the second half of the film. I woke up again during the closing credits, which were less painful to watch than Odie dancing. (Not that I’m denying the coolness of the dancing, but it’s not enough to base a movie on, and that’s what they were doing.)

So, now I’m sitting around, going on four hours of layover between two five hour flights. I got up at 4:30 (Hawaiian time) this morning, and I’ll be getting in at 10:03 (Anchorage time) tonight, which puts us at the hotel around 11:00, and in bed hopefully by midnight, which means that I’m only awake for 18 ½ hours today. At least we’ll have a better hotel in Anchorage than the adequate dump we stayed at in Hawaii.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Travel Log Part I: Tree Slugs 

I am travelling this week. It's been very interesting and sometimes even exciting. At least it is now that I've found my way out of the Pacific Northwest. While I was flying from Seattle to Los Angeles, I wrote down an account of my experience trying to get away from the SeaTac airport.

In all fairness, it's not that bad a place. But the places I went weren't that great either. Before my saga, I offer a few observations of the area:

Apparently, it’s against the law to have a freeway around there that is not stopped up with a traffic jam. On a Friday afternoon at 6:00 I would expect it, but not on a Saturday evening. Apparently someone thoroughly flipped their car, which had traffic at a standstill in both directions. It seems that not only Utahns can rubberneck.

All three nights we were there, we had dinner in the same area right on the shore of the Peuget Sound on the north side of Tacoma. I was disappointed with the menu selections (too heavy on the seafood and alcohol) all three nights, but I did eventually get a decent meal of chicken fettuccini (no alfredo) the third night. I also got a free dessert because the waitress spilled on me. All three nights, we had to wait for a long time to get any service. We would wait for them to take our order, then we waited for our food, and then we waited for our check. The third night, I timed it and found that from when we asked for our check to when we got up and left, it was 30 minutes. That’s ridiculous.

I did eventually get to downtown Seattle. We finished work early on Saturday,and so we headed up to the city, which I had never been to before. I was singularly unimpressed. I guess I’m not a big city kind of guy. I can handle myself there, but I’m just not happy thronging with the hoards of humanity and I’m not impressed with all those silly little shops that sell some little specialty item. I did buy one item, which I’m very pleased with, so far at least. It did end up getting spilled on later that evening, but it wasn’t a problem.

At one point, as we were going up some stairs to a restaurant, I saw a blur and heard a loud clattering. It turned out that a diner who was sitting by the top of the stairs lost his butter knife, which almost hit me on its way down. I was so shook up that I just left the knife there. Later (much later, since we had to wait for our check), on our way out, I saw that the same knife was still there. At least it wasn’t going to hit anyone while it was there.

Through this all, I felt a gnawing uneasiness with the place. It was just a troubled area that couldn't produce a decent alfredo sauce. The problem is that I almost didn't get away. This story is long and troubled. The following is my observations written while I was on the plane, flying away from Washington (except for a last bit at the end that was obviously written after I had arrived in Los Angeles).

My Sunday morning was all about standing in line. We got up early to catch our flights, and I believed that my flight was leaving at 9:15. I was in an e-ticket check in line that wasn’t moving because they had the kiosks at the front of the line where passenger would interact with the kiosk and then check their baggage. The next passenger would then start the kiosk process. Have these people ever heard of pipelining?

I digress. It turned out that the kiosk had little bearing on my day. I checked my ticket only to find that my flight left at 7:15. It was 6:55 when I realized this, and the flight was already closed. So, I went over to the full service check-in (I assume that the name is meant to mimic options for using gas pumps, because the word “service” doesn’t seem to have been high on anybody’s minds that day). There, I found a strange line that wrapped around a roped off path, and then wandered off across an aisle at the end of the path. I looked around and discovered that they had it snaking its way around on the other side of the aisle first. So, I found my way to the end of the line and waited. It took quite a few minutes for the line to start moving, but once I got across the aisle, it took only a couple more minutes to get to the front of the line. There, a very nice and friendly lady got me a standby ticket on a later flight (to her, I apologize for the earlier service comments—she was actually quite helpful and friendly). I was given a boarding pass for the second leg of my flight (which I would arrive in L.A. in time to catch, but that’s a story for later), and a card for my new flight that would help direct me to the right gate.

At this point, I got into a security checkpoint line, which was the fastest moving line I saw all day. We practically flew up to the first checkpoint where they check everybody’s boarding passes. I was instructed to go into a different line from there. I found myself behind a nice oriental family, and in front of a woman in white. From the latter, I discovered that this special line was the thorough invasive search line. We had been tagged by our airline (it was the same one in both cases) for this extra scrutiny. In my case, it was because I had changed flights at the last minute, and because I was only going one way. The catch here was that, like both of the check-in lines, this line wasn’t moving. At all. I saw people passing through the metal detector, but that didn’t seem to affect the line back where I was. I saw the security line at several of the other 8 metal detectors go completely empty, but we were there motionless. Well, it only took about 40 minutes, but I did eventually get through that line. I only had to take off my shoes, belt, and everything that wasn’t cloth. I carry a lot in my pockets, so this was no mean feat.

The best news all day was that I didn’t have to wait for the train to the gates. It had just pulled up when I got to it, and so I was ferried across under the tarmac to the isolated building where a plane was apparently waiting for us. There, I got in line to see what I needed to do about my standby statud. I was the fourth person in the line, if you count the guy already at the counter. I waited patiently while he took a very long time to resolve his issues. This finally happened when he went with the clerk from the counter over to another counter some distance away. At this point, there was ten or so people in line, including the lady in white. We watched as the clerk picked up what appeared to be a coffee, and then walked away down the hall.

We were in shock. What was she doing? We were all there in line before she left, so she couldn’t be so oblivious as to not realize that we were there or that we would want some sort of service from her. We waited. After about 10 minutes, we got frustrated, and I appointed myself as the investigator. I went in search of her, or anyone else who could alleviate our plight. I went to the customer service desk nearby, where I informed them that we were waiting in line without anyone to help us. The woman at that desk brusquely informed me that I should go back and wait. Apparently the concept of service hadn’t been able to get past the security checkpoint, perhaps due to a last minute change of flight plans. I am not sure what I could call that woman, but I’m confident that if she had children, they would be puppies.

I also tried asking a nearby janitor for help (none there) and I tried some phones that were apparently there to help people make reservations (although I don’t know why you need reservations when you’re already in the airport with a valid ticket). I never did find out why those phones were, as they apparently were not connected to anything. Perhaps people find the presence of information phones comforting, even if the phones are incapable of providing any information at all.

Eventually (meaning after 20 minutes), someone came to the desk and immediately informed us in nearly-intelligible English that if we had a blue card (as most of us did), then we didn’t need to see her. Why she couldn’t have said that 20 minutes earlier is beyond me. But then, why she would disappear for so long is also beyond me.

The problem at this point was that I still only had a standby ticket. It seems that many of my fellow passengers who had made reservations even months before had not been given seat assignments, so I had to wait for all of them to get a seat assignment. Then, it seems that fortune smiled on me after all, because I was given a seat and allowed on the plane.

Now, I don’t want to point blame, but I had to wait in four terrible lines that morning. The first two were check-in lines for this airline, and the fourth was a line at the gate for the same airline. I’d chalk up my encounter with the invasi-audit security line to coincidence, but it seems that everybody else on my flight (at least that I’ve seen) was sent through that line too. It was probably unavoidable for me, but why send dozens of other people who had reservations months before through that too, overwhelming the limited staff there and causing excess delays for their travelers.

To further indicate just how systemic this problem is, while walking between my gates at LAX, I passed two unmanned customer service counters for this airline, one of which had people lined up at it. (I was going to take a picture of the second one, but almost as soon as I saw it, someone came to man the desk.

So, United Airlines, I hereby proclaim that your service sucks. Get it together. I suggest that you track down that girl who gave me my boarding passes at check-in and see what she does, because she had it together (she actually took care of both me and the guy immediately in front of me in line, that’s how good she was). For the rest of the company, they can improve your check-in process, their security screening selection criteria, and their overall communications with the customer. Maybe they can keep some of those customers. I, for one, do not intend to fly United again if I can help it.

To drive home their level of service, after arriving at LAX, the very first customer service desk that I passed had a line of people at it, and it was also unmanned.

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