Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Fear and Loathing in Houston

It is a tale of horror. It is a tale of woe. It is a tale that you may not wish to read if you plan to travel soon. But be comforted, my friend. For this is not a tale of ordinary circumstances. It is merely the story of my worst trip ever.


It all started Saturday night with a toothache. It had been a small, distant pain whic I expected to be able to sleep off. By bedtime, it was a chisel of agony digging into my jaw. I had taken a melatonin pill and and allergy pill, which normally knocks me out pretty effectly. By midnight I was literally in tears. Through a combination of Advil, strategically-placed ice packs and my wife rubbing my neck, I was finally able to fall into a fitful, restless sleep which was ended at about 5:30 in the mornign, half an hour before my alarm was scheduled to go off. The pain had mostly subsided, but traces still lingered in the background. Another dose of Advil made me forget the pain, for the moment.

I arrived at the airport at approximately 8:30am, giving myself more than enough time to catch my 10:30 flight to Houston. As I arrived at my gate I discovered that the flight that shuld have already arrived at that gate was still en route. Ignoring the omen, I bought an awful breakfast sandwich from an airport restaurant and sat back to enjoy my book. The flight finally arrived, but the delay had already caused problems for the next flight, which was the one scheduled before mine. Shortly after 9:30, it was announced that the flight to Houston had been cancelled, and that all of the passengers had automatically been rebooked. We merely needed to check with an agent to confirm the changes and receive our new boarding pass.

Rather than enduring the rapidly expanding line at the counter for my gate, I walked halfway down the terminal and found a Delta counter that was manned, but had no line. The woman informed me that the 1:20pm flight to Houston wa already overbooked, and that I was all set for the 4:56pm flight. I also needed to wait 10 minutes for her to be able to rint my boarding pass, for security reasons (apparently they can't do it at the counter more than 6 hours ahead). I had the option of calling my wife, having her drive an hour from our home to pick me up, and then drop me off a very short time later to go through security again, or just wait it out at the airport. I had my book, I had my computer, and I wasn't about to make her go through the trouble. I decided to wait it out. Besides, Delta had already given me free meal vouchers for lunch and dinner.

When I finally got my boarding pass, I discovered two things. First of all, I had made it to Silver Medallion status. One of perks of any "medallion" status was my second surprise: I had been upgrade to first class. For free. I was in Row 1, Seat A. I looked forward to my first taste of The Good Life (TM). Unfortunately, my upgrade in class did not guarantee an on-time departure, any more than it did for coach class. By 3:30, our departure time had already been delayed to 6pm. By 4:30, it had been delayed to 6:45. Upon asking the woman at the desk, I discovered that our intended plane had been changed, and that we were waiting for a new plane to arive from a different location. It did finally arrive, and we began boarding by 6:40 (with the departure time still set to 6:45). We finally got off the ground at around 7:30 (mountain time) giving us just enough time to make it to Houston a little after 11:00 (central time).

First class was nice. The flight attendant got my drink order the moment they were allowed to walk around the cabin, and she made sure my glass never emptied. I had plenty of leg room, free headphones for the in-flight movie, a complimentary pillow and blanket already at my seat, and there was even a chilled bottle of water waiting for me when I sat down. I lost count of the number of times the flight attendent brought by the snack basket, even though I waved her off after the first one. Everything else, from what I could see, was still identical to first class. The sound quality was so bad on the movie, I was lost within 10 minutes. For those of you who have seen Ocean's 13 (or 11 or 12), you know what sort of a disadvantage that put me at. There was a family with screaming children in first class, and my toothache was back. I was glad to be landed.

I made my way to the rental booth with little difficulty. Then lone agent at the counter was already helping another customer, so he suggested I try the machine. Within minutes, I was in the parking lot looking for my "economy" car. They were apparently all rented out, so I had to go back and find the agent, and have him direct me to another car, since the lot itself was not staffed after 10pm. He directed me to a Pontiac and I cringed. My confidence did not rise when I discovered that it would not start. I walked back to find the agent again, who seemed slightly exasperated with me by this point, and he decided to try starting the car himself. When he had proven that perhaps I wasn't lying/incompetant, he told me to "just take the PT Cruiser".

A lot of reaers by this point are thinking that perhaps my luck is finally kicking in. That's probalby because you haven't driven a PT Cruiser before. Not only is it a horribly ugly attempt at making a modern-day car look like a cool gangster car from the roaring 20's, it is also the second most uncomfortable car I have ever rented (or been in, for that matter), and it has the worst configuration that I've ever seen. When I return it on Friday, I will not miss it.

My next surprise was to discover that my GPS was having difficulty finding a satellite. Fortunately it kicked in before I got too far from the airport, and I discovered that I was already going in the right direction. Unfortunately, it did not warn me that my route involved two toll boths, both of which were $1.50. Thankfully, I still had a roll of quarters from my recent trip to Boston (where the most expensive toll I saw was ony $0.75), and I was able to get by with no real difficulty. But there were still problems to come.

As it turns out, the roads in downtown Houston are currently under very heavy construction (I-10 in particular), and many of the exits had changed or disappeared entirely. As I got closer to my hotel, my GPS seemed to be more and more useless. I had already driven half an hour from the airport to the general area where I needed to be, andI spent another half hour trying to reach my hotel, which sat on a one-way frontage road next to an especially large interchange. When I finally checked it, it was after 12:30 and I was too tired to bother with anything but popping more Advil and sliding into bed. I had not been able to sleep at the airport or on the plane, and I was exhasted.

Monday morning started too early. When my alarm went off at 6:30, I was in for a brand new round of discoveries, starting with a broken shower. I bathed myself as best I could with the slow trickle of water (and what appeared to be a fully-functioning, but inordinately slow-to-fill jacuzzi), and then called down to the front desk to complain. They promised to fix it during the day. I prepared my belongings and headed downstairs, hoping that the drive to the training center would not be bad. By the time I reached the lobby, I had discovered that the road that the training center was on was not in my GPS. I asked the front desk if they had any maps, and they did not. I tried checking Google Maps on my phone, and it just sat there and said, "Looking...."

Knowing that the training center was close, I asked the man at the desk if he knew where Woodway Drive was. It ended up being a major enough road (with its own freeway exit) that not having it in my GPS (which was loaded with 2007 maps) was a pretty major oversight on Garmin's part. The directions were simple, and the training center was extremely easy to find. When I walked in at 7:30, they had already been open for half an hour. Since the client had sent me the wrong roster last week (I guess this week's problems started well before Saturday night), I was relieved to find that the training center already had a correct roster printed out for me, waiting in the classroom.

The training center was on the ball. There were free drinks in the fridge (which thankfully included my beloved Dr Pepper), and unguarded donuts in the break area. I had no hardware problems, making it the easiest classroom setup that I had ever had. It seemed that my bad luck had finally ran out. As it turns out, it was just lulling me into a false sense of security.

During my second lecture, I switched over to text mode (CTRL-ALT-F1, also known as the first virtual terminal in Linux) to demonstrate to my students. When I switched back to my graphical environment, my monitor suddenly decided that it couldn't handle the resolution. Fortunately, the projector still worked, and I spent the rest of that lecture, and the one after it, getting a crick in my neck from having to look at the screen in front of the class instead of my own monitor, until I finally beat the configuration into submission during lab time.

Because the Ramada is on a one-way road, my students showed me the correct backroads to use to get back to it, easily avoiding the freeway altogether. When I got to my room, my first item of business (before even taking off my backpack) was to check the shower. Still broken. I called down to the front desk to get an estimate as to when it would be fixed, and less than five minutes later I found two repairmen knocking at my door. While they were checking out the shower, a hotel manager came knocking to let me know that I should be expecting to see the repair staff soon. In mid-sentence he saw them already at work, and he conversed with them shortly. He apologized for the inconvenience and then excused himself. Two minutes later he was back to check on things. I was informed that there was a problem with the pipes inside the wall, and asked if I would mind moving to a room with a working shower. I graciously agreed, and the three of them left, the manager promising to return shortly with a new key.

It would seem that while regular maintenance is not their strong suit, their response time is outstanding. Not five minutes later, I received a call from the front desk asking for confirmation to move me to a new room. I took the opportunity to note that the description in Expedia said that there would be a kitchenette as well. There was a nervous pause before the woman informed me that they had no rooms with both a jacuzzi (which was also in the description) and a kitchenette. It would seem that somebody had misrepresented their rooms to Expedia, which does not surprise me in the least. She sounded relieved when I told her that I didn't care about the jacuzzi, and that all I was interested in was a mini-fridge and a microwave. She let me know that they would be right up with a new room key.

The manager returned to my room 10 minutes later with a new key, for a room just down the hall. He needed to take a moment to check on other rooms, and told me that he would be there shortly. Imagine my surprise when I opened the door and found a full kitchenette, complete with two counter-top burners, a full-size fridge, a mini-bar fridge (which was empty), a microwave, a full-size kitchen sink, a bar-style counter and two barstools. There were even dishes, cookware and utensils in the cupboards. The kitchenette shared a room with the living room, complete with a desk, couch, TV and double-doors opening into the bedroom, which had its own TV. Each room even had its own heating/cooling unit.

The first item of business was to check the shower. Nothing else mattered if I ended up smelling bad in class. I noted immediately that the bathroom light was already on, and that there was already water on the walls of the shower. It would seem that the manager tested it before coming to give me my key. I tested it again myself, and it did seem to work. I thanked the manager for his help as he scrambled around the room to replace a couple of burned out bulbs that I never would have noticed myself. I would later discover that the couch had no springs left in it, but I was already in a much better position than before anyway.

So it would seem that my bad luck might actually be slowing, and my first trip to Houston is starting to become enjoyable. I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous about the trip back home, but it no longer seems as bad as it once did. Despite what was turning out to be the worst travel week ever has turned into something quite liveable indeed.


  1. Ahhhh. The wonderful frontage roads of Houston. I remember those all too well. I wondered what kind of directions I was getting when my GPS said that I was to take a certain exit and then make a U turn. What kind of directions include a U turn? Houston directions!
    As for the screaming kids in First Class, get a pair of Bose Noise Cancelling head phones. They are without fail, the best investment you will make. I doubted it when others told me that, but, believe me, you arrive at your destination feeling much better.

  2. Sounds like a eventual but good weekend!

  3. I'm actually curious to know which hotel this is that caused so much trouble. Mostly because i think it'd be hilarious if it was the same hotel i stayed in when i was in Houston which gave me defective key cards twice in a row.


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