Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Day 1: Ohio » Pittsburgh » New York

After a pretty hectic week leading up to my departure, which involved getting immunizations, calling South African rental offices at three in the morning to secure accommodation, and packing, I slept an average of about two hours a night the five days before I was scheduled to leave on Thursday.

What does a lack of sleep and planning lead to on an 8,000-mile trip?

In order to get a good fare to South Africa ($1,166 for a round-trip, non-stop ticket of approximately 9,000 miles), I had to book my domestic and international tickets separately. Booking a ticket on South African Airways (SAA) through to Cleveland, Akron-Canton, or Pittsburgh doubled the ticket cost, even though it only added about 500 miles to an already-long trip.

My SAA flight departed at 11:15 on Friday from JFK in New York to Johannesburg, arriving 8:15 the next morning, South African time. I had forgotten about booking a flight from my area to New York until a week before I was due to leave, so I scrambled to find an acceptable solution. I booked a ticket for Thursday, since it’d be really tight transferring to JFK and checking in the recommended three hours before an international flight if I had booked the flight on the same day as my flight to Johannesburg. My flight left at 1:50 PM from Pittsburgh, connecting through Washington-Reagan (DCA), arriving at approximately 5 PM.

I packed in usual fashion (meaning staying up all night and doing it the night before), and my mom and I left the house at about 10 AM. I finalized details of a short, two-month apartment lease with a rental office, and booked accommodation for when I arrived in Johannesburg.

Going through the security checkpoint, my backpack was searched because it had too much stuff in it for the X-ray machine to see everything. They removed some items and sent it through again, and everything checked out. The officer from the T.S.A. was real apologetic while rifling through my bag, which was an attitude I didn’t expect. The last time I had my bag searched at LAX, the young T.S.A. officer was a lot more professional. He flipped through the book to see if the pages were cut out in the center for hidden items, like something out of a spy movie.

Once inside Pittsburgh’s airport, relatively new compared to other airports (built in 1991), I arrived at the gate to find that the flight wasn’t boarding. Further cause for concern was the collection of flight attendants and pilots waiting nearby. The gate agent announced that they would start boarding in ten minutes because “maintenance was on the plane replacing a panel” (the location of the panel wasn’t ever specified). However, my fears were unfounded, as the flight was about 50% vacant, and the pilots and flight attendants who were waiting to get on the plane were passengers flying to another one of U.S. Airways’ hubs.

The plane (an Embraer 175), despite being for short-range flights, was surprisingly large. It had two seats on either side of the aisle, but the height of the cabin was like a regular jet. Unlike the regional jets I had been on before, where you scrape your head on the ceiling, with limited legroom, you didn’t feel claustrophobic. The flight was a joke, with only 40 minutes of actual flight time, and they refused to serve any beverages due to the short length of the flight, so I slept through the "flight." [Sidebar: One time, on a flight between Cleveland and Detroit (I was connecting through Northwest’s hub at the time), the flight attendants rushed through the cabin serving drinks and snacks to all the passengers, even though the flight was only 20 minutes long. Quite impressive.]

On arrival in Washington, D.C. (the runways dangerously close to the Potamac River), we waited for about 15 minutes for a plane to move out of our way. The plane apparently had radio trouble, and it caused a late arrival to the gate. I transferred to the other terminal on a bus, which had no air conditioning, which wasn’t pleasant when combined with 95-degree Washington heat. Add that to the heat produced by the airplanes in the vicinity, and it was a five-minute bus ride from hell.

I boarded the U.S. Airways Shuttle flight (I still don’t know the difference between “Express” and “Shuttle” flights) to LaGuardia, which was about 75% full, most of them snobby businessmen or lobbyists (“Let’s push that expense to F.Y. 11” and “I need to push forward my limo service from LaGuardia” were two things I overheard while on board). No drink service, and more sleep on a short flight for me.

I arrived at LaGuardia, picked up my bags and boarded a New York City bus to get to a subway line (about a 45-minute drive since it was rush hour). Oddly enough, New York buses don’t accept paper currency, only change. I decided to go to JFK to determine if I could drop my checked bag off early so I wouldn’t have to lug my bag around New York if I decided to go sightseeing. A subway ride (10 minutes) and another bus (which I slept on) ride (45 minutes) found me dropped off at a random street corner about two miles away from JFK. Apparently, the same bus line has two different terminuses: one stops just short of JFK, and the other makes it all the way to the terminal.

Then it started to rain.

I get picked up about ten minutes later by a third bus, and fifteen minutes later, I arrive at the international terminal at JFK. The SAA desk is only open four hours a day, starting at 7:30 AM (since they only operate two morning flights in or out of JFK).

Luckily enough, I find a luggage storage place on the first floor of the international terminal. With New York being a constant target for terrorism nowadays, I’m surprised that they have a place where luggage can be stored on the ground floor of an airport. Sure, the baggage storage guy makes a quick visual inspection of the contents inside the bag, takes my picture, and asks for ID, but it seems odd that they would allow this in an airport, after they removed lockers and other storage facilities in train and bus stations. In any case, $8 for 24 hours of luggage storage isn’t that bad of a deal.

I decide to go to Manhattan to do some sightseeing, since my flight doesn’t leave for another fourteen hours. I take the same slow bus back to the subway line (which I fall asleep on), and take the train into Manhattan. I get off at 30 Rockefeller Plaza (the rain had since stopped) and attempt to walk to Times Square to figure out what to do next.

(Strange, no Tina Fey or Tracy Morgan)

My sleep-deprived self walks in the wrong direction, and it takes me about a half an hour to reorient myself and get to Times Square. It’s about 10:30 PM now.

(Yes, even McDonald's has a gigantic marquee)

I wander into one of the Times Square McDonald’s, which I guessed would have free Wi-Fi, and luckily enough, it does. I open my laptop, but I drain my laptop’s battery in a fruitless search for accommodation: nearby hotels are too expensive, and hostels require a few day’s advance notice to book a room.


It's approaching midnight, and I'm considering doing what thousands of people in Manhattan do every day: find an alley or building alcove... and sleep there.

What do I do next? Check back soon to find out!

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