The taxi driver who took me the airport yesterday (Wednesday) didn't know it, but he was setting the tone for my whole trip to Florida. He was a few minutes late and as I was worried I'd arranged for him to pick me up a bit too close to my flight time anyway, I said to him that 'we' were now running late.
He took this as some sort of personal challenge and as he strapped himself into his 6 point harness and dropped his helmet visor, I realised I may have made a grave mistake. Mombai's answer to Louis Hamilton shot off, leaving a trail of burning rubber outside my house and probably waking every occupant of my street. It was 5am after all. Hopefully they'll have forgotten the incident by next April when I return.
He broke every speed limit he encountered and at one point, close to the airport, he actually tried a suicidal overtaking manoeuvre that had me closing my eyes and shouting "we don't need to get me there THIS fast". We screamed to a halt at the short term car park barrier at 5:15am, closely followed by most of my internal organs at 5:16am. You cannot be dropped at the terminal building anymore thanks to the Glasgow airport incident earlier this year and so once we'd entered the car park, I went off to find a luggage trolley while Mohinder Hamilton got my cases out of the taxi.. Once paid, he again shot off, presumably thinking that my challenge was still in force until he picked up his next passenger.
With my suspect heart still trying to pump more blood around my body than the drugs would allow, I headed for the departure terminal and on to the checkin-in desk. Here my morning got a whole lot worse.
I checked in my two large cases, got my boarding card for the flight to Heathrow and set off with my 2 smaller cases to find the gate and relax for a while. I'm at that stage in my life now where if I cannot easily find where I need to go, I ask someone who looks like they do. I used to just walk all over the place, trying to my destination by a process of pure luck and basically removing all other possibilities by trying them first. I was in no mood to attempt that on this occasion.
I asked a BMI (British Midland International) employee and she looked at my trolley with the 2 small cases on it and said "you can't have two pieces of carry on luggage, you know". My beating heart suddenly went into spasm and it was all I could do to stop myself having a stroke. Instead I gently wept.
Now I regard myself as a seasoned and knowledgeable traveller and I had made a point of researching the latest regulations regarding luggage but my mistake had been to get this information from the airline site. D'oh. The one carry-on case regulation is unique to travel within the UK and so my internal flight to London came under that category. It was too late to get my checked luggage back again and do some speedy rearranging of contents. So I had to try and cram as much as possible from my small camera bag into my slightly larger case which was pretty much full to busting already with my 6 months supply of medication and my laptop and hard drive and MP3 and associated cables.
It's amazing what you can do when you are on a time deadline. I got most things into the larger case by removing the laptop as they said I could carry this on it's own. This left my camera bag which now contained one pair of swimming shorts and 2 pairs of socks. I took this back to the check-in desk to have it processed as checked luggage. Bet it was the lightest case they've ever loaded into the cargo hold of a plane.
With my now grossly overloaded case and laptop in hand, I got through security and boarded the plane. The 65 minute flight to Heathrow was uneventful and we landed a few minutes before the official time of 8am. My next flight was at 9:55am so I had no reason to rush to get to the gate even though I had to take a shuttle to get from Terminal 1 to Terminal 3.
I boarded the Boeing 777 and was pleased to discover I was next to a normal sized young man from Switzerland who was on his way to Guatemala. And I thought I'd a long trip ! He hardly said a word the whole flight even though I tried to initiate a conversation a couple of times. Fair enough.
My seat, 41C, had been chosen by my going to Seat Guru and it was just as they'd said. This row, and those behind it, had seats that were substantially wider than those in rows 40 and beyond as they had 5 seats in the middle as opposed to the 4 we had. Luxury. I settled in and stretched my legs out in a way they couldn't - and smiled the self satisfied smile of someone who had done his homework and got an A+ and a little blue star from Miss.
A few minutes after 10am we pulled back from the departure gate. We slowly taxied along and moved up to No.1 on the queue and finally turned onto 09R, the main Heathrow takeoff runway. The engines came up to full power and we moved off, the force pushing me back into the seat. As we rapidly gathered speed, there was much more vibration than I'm used to and I noticed others were looking around the way people do when wanting to gain reassurance from others. Suddenly the power dropped and so did the vibrations and then the power returned and then dropped. We were halfway down the runway and it was obvious we weren't going to be able to take off.
We turned off onto one of the service jetways and taxied a bit more before the pilot came over the PA and told us they'd had a computer alert but everything was fine now. I begged to differ and said to Mr. Switzerland, "clean up in aisle 41." It lost something in translation.
And so we went round again and had another go. This time when the engines hit full power, the vibrations were much less severe and the world's largest twinjet aircraft finally lifted off the tarmac, helped in no small measure by the collective willpower of about 300 very relieved passengers and some expelled gasses from yours truly.
A few minutes later the turbulence started. I've been very fortunate with all of my previous flights and have only experienced very sight turbulence and even then the pilot had given some warning or at worst, explained it to us as it'd been happening. This is all good for putting worried minds at peace but this pilot didn't tell us a thing. We were shaken violently from side to side but thankfully not up and down. It went on for quite some time and caused another informative comment from myself that aisle 41 needed servicing again. I was shedding bodily contents faster than an anorexic supermodel.
It was only some time after the turbulance had passed that the pilot came on and apologised for it. He said due to us having to go around again in order to take off, we had been slotted high into the takeoff queue at the last minute and as a result had followed a bit too closely behind an Airbus 330 and had been caught up in it's wake. Holy turbulance, Batman. Thinking about it afterwards, knowing what was happening at the time would've made things worse as I've known planes to have crashed when following too close behind another plane and my already heightened fears would've gone up a few notches.
The next 9 hours passed VERY slowly as the movie selection sucked and I had to try and avoid seeing anything from Mr. Switzerland's screen as he broke off from reading his Rough Guide just long enough to watch the latest Harry Potter movie - and as I want to wait and see it on DVD, I didn't want to see any of it there and then.
We touched down in Miami at 2:27pm just a few minutes late. My date with the US immigration dept was upon me and I felt like that guy at the start of Midnight Express when he was trying to get through Turkish customs with several blocks of heroin strapped to his body. My heartbeat was as loud as his and I was sure the agent would notice the sweat pouring from every oriface.
What was going in my favour was the fact that it was 90 degrees in there and everyone was sweating with me.
After answering a few standard questions and having my finger prints taken as usual, Mr Jolly Smiling Immigration Agent (not) stamped my passport and I was in. Wooohooooo. I didn't have to play my trump card by pulling out my 2003 letter from Homeland Security which basically said I was one of the good guys and posed no threat to the US apart from my ability to get to the front of the line at any event with a buffet.
To celebrate my relief I think I accidentally passed wind again but I didn't care. It was my personal WMD but unlike an atomic bomb, posed little or no threat to anyone. Well apart from a kid nearby who stopped dead in his tracks, looked up at me with wide eyes and flared nostrils and said in a loud voice "mommy I smell poop". Kids eh !!!
And so I was officially IN and able to stay for 6 months. My friends were waiting for me and within 10 minutes of clearing both immigration and customs, I had picked up my cases and we were on our way to Sebring. It was HOT and sunny and then it rained and there was a beautiful double rainbow which accompanied us for several miles. The sun returned and was setting as we approached Sebring and I took this photo out the window of the truck.
It seemed an omen of better things to come and after that trip, they had to be better.
Then I thought about it. Ok, I'd been rushed to the airport, inconvenienced with my luggage, endured a decidedly dodgy takoff and shaken, not stirred, by a bit of turbulence.
But so what ? I mean I'd not died in a fiery explosion at 38,000ft or been vapourised by crashing vertically into the ground at Miami airport. Hey, I'd even had a smooth passage through immigration for a change.
And here I am in hot (93F today) and sunny central Florida till the end of March.
Yes it's certainly going to be a case of having to survive a long winter but you'll be proud to know I feel I'm up to the task. It's my British duty.