Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The 'Odd'yssey (Part 3)

Wednesday morning saw us wake up bright and early to head back (once more) to George Bush Intercontinental Airport. We had an early flight north which, hopefully, would mean that we would arrive with a reasonable amount of the day left to take a look around Baltimore, Maryland. Once again Chris drove us down and dropped us off with enough time to spare that we were able to have a spot of breakfast before we had to board the plane. This time we were flying with Delta (who recently acquired Northwest as a subsidiary) and on a significantly smaller plane than some we had travelled on over the last few years.

The first leg of the flight was up to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport which opened back in 1947. Although it is called Cincinnati Airport, it has the code CVG because Covington, Kentucky is actually the closest major city. Indeed, Cincinnati Airport is in Kentucky rather than Ohio (which is the state in which Cincinnati is) hence the second part of the name. As you might see from the photos visibility was poor as it was heavily overcast and raining. This meant for a minor delay as we prepared to land but we were soon on the ground safely. Our next step was to change planes ready for the second leg of our flight.

This time we were on an even smaller Delta Connections flight to take us to Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (the name is certainly a mouthful). After another small delay we were able to take off and made fairly quick time across to Linthicum, Maryland (the airport is about 10 miles south of Baltimore and 30 miles north of Washington, D.C.). While the weather was still fairly overcast there was no more rain and the forecast was that the clouds would clear a little in the afternoon. The airport has featured in a number of films including ‘Silence of the Lambs’, ‘Goldfinger’, ‘Broadcast News’ and ’12 Monkeys’ which gave us some landmarks to look out for. Landing was smooth, as was the transition through to baggage collection (we only had carry on) but that was where the positives ended for a little while.

When Meg and Chris had booked the hotel for Baltimore they had tried to find one in the downtown area of the city, near to the major sporting stadiums. On the website it indicated that there was an airport shuttle to take us to the hotel but when we reached the terminal there was no sign of such a beast. With the assistance of a kindly bystander we gave the hotel a call and it transpired that there was no hotel shuttle. However, there was an airport shuttle which would drop us at the hotel for the generous sum of only $35 per person. Some investigation brought to our attention that it was possible to catch the Light Rail system into Baltimore for something approaching $4 for the two of us. Weighing up the options, we made the short walk to the Light Rail terminal.

Travelling up from the south into Baltimore was fascinating and led to some interesting reflections on parts of American society. This sort of public transport was not well patronised (we were the only non staff members who boarded at the airport) and as we travelled in we noticed that the occupancy was approximately 80% african/american and leaned toward working class. This was a contrast to some of the villages that we passed during the trip which were almost picture postcard representations of what you might expect from a traditional New England town. However, much of the remainder of the journey was through very industrial areas, where the majority of the housing seemed to be run down. As we have come to expect from Americans, everyone was very courteous and friendly making sure we knew where we were stopping and assisting us with getting off safely.

We found ourselves just up from Camden Yards at the stop called Convention Center. Because it was meant to be right by the stadiums we assumed that the hotel wouldn’t be too difficult to find, so we figured on walking there and grabbing some lunch on the way. Having walked off the platform we could see a Holiday Inn so we walked up in that direction. However, on reaching the building we could see (which was right across from the stadium) we discovered that this was not the Holiday Inn which we had booked. It turned out that our Holiday Inn was a couple of miles to the south of where we were and they did have a shuttle but it didn’t pick up from the airport. It would, however, pick us up from the Convention Center, so we waited there.

When the shuttle did arrive it turned out that there were other people that needed to be picked up from a different part of the city, so we wouldn’t be going straight to the hotel. However, the driver was excellent and gave us a potted tour of Baltimore as we drove through the traffic (which was quite heavy for the early part of the afternoon). One of the things that Baltimore has been renowned for is the quality of the education facilities it provides and we had the opportunity to see some of this first hand. Our route took us past the University of Baltimore, John Hopkins University, Loyola College in Maryland, the College of Notre Dame of Maryland and Morgan Street University. When you tie this with the John Hopkins Hospital which has a reputation as a teaching hospital worldwide, then you get an idea of what education means to the community.

The city has a long and distinguished history going back to its founding as a port in 1706 and then a city in 1729. It was named after Lord Baltimore of County Cork, Ireland, who became the first Proprietary Governor of the Province of Maryland. During the early part of its life it was particularly important as a port because it was closer to the Caribbean than other ports (such as New York City or Boston) and so there would be less chance of spoilage on food products. During the American Revolution the city joined the resistance against Britain, and Congress met there during 1776/7, making the city the effective capital of the United States. Of particular significance were events off Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 which led a lawyer named Francis Scott Key to write the lyrics to what would become ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, the American National Anthem since 1931.

After having picked up the other guests we finally made it back to the hotel and were able to put down our bags and rest for a while. It wasn’t long, however, before we went back down in the elevator to catch the shuttle back into the city ready for the baseball game that was to take place later on that evening. When we got into Camden Yards there was still a little while till game time, so we took the opportunity to venture into the Sports Legends Museum which is just across from the Stadium. Inside there were tributes to a multitude of famous (mostly American) Sports people, particularly those who had played in the Baltimore area. Meg was interested to see more on some of the baseball players she and Wayne have talked about, specifically Babe Ruth (who was born only 2 blocks from the museum), Frank Robinson and Cal Ripken Jr. When it came to a focus on some of the more obscure sporting teams in Baltimore we decided to leave and headed off to the game.

Unfortunately, not long after we had arrived in our seats the heavens opened and people were soon scurrying for cover. We had just purchased some dinner (traditional hot dogs and drinks) so we retreated up from where we were seated to just under the scoreboard to get some shelter. As it turned out, the rain lasted a little while and there were lots fun scenes as the grounds crew struggled to get to covers on and off each time there looked like being a break and then it started to rain quite heavily again. Meg wasn’t hugely thrilled and suggested that she might go back to the hotel if it continued to rain which seemed to be enough to scare the clouds into retreating. It was soon announced that play would begin only 40 minutes late, although that was too late for a number of people in the crowd who had already taken the option to leave.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards is one of the more beautiful stadiums in Major League Baseball, having been built in an old railway center where the exteriors of the old warehouses and other buildings have been preserved and turned into offices and apartments. Our seats were in the Eutaw Street bleachers, one of the areas where home runs could possibly be hit, and just around from the bullpens where the pitchers warm up. Just outside our entrance is a Wall of Fame commemorating famous baseball players of the past and in the paving of Eutaw Street are plaques recalling the spot where Home Runs have been hit right out of the park. Even though the Orioles are not having a particularly good season (or decade, if we want to be honest) Camden Yards is still a great place to watch a game.

On this night the Baltimore Orioles were up against the Kansas City Royals whose starting pitcher, Zach Greinke, had been having a particularly good season up till this point. Much to the delight of most of the crowd around us, the Orioles hitters were able to score some runs of him, including a home run up on to Eutaw Street not far from where we were sitting. On both sides were sat some ladies and gentlemen from a local nursing home (along with their minibus driver) who took great delight in telling us that they managed to get to one game a month and that some of them had been watching the Orioles play baseball for their entire lives. They also asked us a number of questions when they discovered that we were Australian and were pleased to welcome us to their city. Although they left with an inning still to play they contributed to the excellent night.

The final score was Baltimore 7: Kansas City 3, which kept the crowd happy as we exited the stadium at the end of the game. Now that the rain had gone it was a beautiful evening and the lights around the stadium and the rest of the city were very attractive. After looking around some more we decided to take a taxi back to the hotel and, during the trip, Meg totally flummoxed Wayne by suggesting that they should skip their planned visit to Washington the next day in order to attend the final game of the series, which started at 12:30pm. While appreciative of the offer, Wayne declined, went out to get some chocolate for his wife, and then came back so they could both get some sleep in preparation for what promised to be a big day.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

The 'Odd'yssey (Part 2)

Our first full day in the USA began with us waking up early. Despite our tiredness the crossing of time zones meant that we were both alert before 6am. Our emergence from our room was to the sounds of numerous children. With Christine’s two, Jessie and Samuel, plus the five children of David and Kelly who were currently at home, we had lots of kids to entertain us. Downstairs we found a wonderful cooked breakfast thanks to Kelly and Christine. Best of all, much of the day was spent at the house (which is large and beautiful) in The Woodlands, a large development in the north of the Houston area, which suffered quite a bit of damage from Hurricane Ike back in September, 2008.

Late in the day, however, we were back off to George Bush International Airport to book some flights with the money that Northwest had given us on the previous day. Our online research turned up the option of flying from Albuquerque to Los Angeles (at the end of our time in the USA) via Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. We also decided to make another internal trip to Baltimore, Maryland. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we chose our dates for this trip around when the local baseball team, the Orioles, would be playing at home. After researching online we tried to book the tickets over the phone however because the English had given us the credit on paper the Americans, who only use electronic credit these days, weren’t able to do so and we had to visit an office.

That evening, when we returned from the airport, Meg was able to fulfil one of her life long ambitions and see Rod Stewart in concert. There were around 20 000 people at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion (which has been completely repaired after it had suffered major damage during Ike) and they were able to experience Rod performing some of his old favourites such as ‘Maggie May’ and ‘Downtown Train’, as well as some hints of what he will be releasing in December. Meg, David and Kelly had a great time, but felt that it might have been better had his shoes matched his trousers. There was lots of interesting people watching to be done as well.

The following morning saw David and Wayne disappear to a local park to play football (although some of the heathens they were playing with occasionally referred to it as soccer). Many of the guys regularly play for a team called Bear Branch and play an annual ‘us vs. them’ game (which used to be the UK versus the rest of the world, but has become a U.S.A versus the rest of the world, due to people gaining citizenship). Sadly for Wayne the temperature was on its way to 98°F (about 36°C) and the humidity was very high. At the end of the first 45 minutes Wayne lay down and struggled to get up again, however he had recovered enough to play in goal for the latter stages of the second half. It was all good fun and a nice introduction to the country.

In the afternoon we went for a drive to the local mall at the Woodlands to grab some supplies and to encourage Christine’s kids to have an afternoon nap. Wayne was deposited at Borders book store, while Meg and Chris drove around the local area. It was a beautiful golf course community with very established trees, in contrast to most of the rest of the area. Meg and Chris joked that it looked like the Brady Bunch’s neighbourhood and was probably the original settlement before the area really got developed.

That evening Chris drove Meg and Wayne into the centre of Houston for something that Wayne had been looking forward to ever since they had found out they were going to be visiting the USA. Major League Baseball team the Houston Astros play at Minute Maid Stadium in the centre of the city and that night there was a game between them and the New York Mets. We had booked tickets over the internet beforehand and had an excellent spot down the 1st base line. Minute Maid is relatively new (it is celebrating the 10 year anniversary) and has a retractable roof, so it is an indoor stadium which still has natural grass on the field. This meant that, despite the heat and humidity outside it was a lovely night on the inside of the stadium.

One of the things that we discovered about baseball in the United States is that the game is only part of what is happening. In between innings there were all sorts of distractions; with people being encouraged to kiss for the big screen (it didn’t focus on us), t-shirts being fired into the crowd, sing-a-longs, and special presentations being done on the field. In front of us were a couple with an 18 month girl. She had a fabulous time toddling back and forth laughing at the strange couple behind her who were paying her so much attention. She particularly liked lifting the seat up and down, seemingly making the strange man rock backwards and forwards. At the end of the 7th inning, when they got up to leave, her parents made sure she said ‘Goodbye’ to the strange Australians (other members of the crowd around us had been very friendly, wanting to know all about us). All in all, it was lots of fun and for those interested in the result, Mets 10 Astros 3.

After the game we got the opportunity to wander a bit through down town Houston. Because of traffic concerns the roads immediately around the stadium were closed to cars, so cycle rickshaws were roaming for customers. Not far away were a series of old church bells, displayed out on the street, which adults and kids alike were taking the opportunity to ring (Meg succumbed to temptation). Houston is very concerned for the history of the city and there were signs giving information on each street corner, as well as on significant buildings.

Houston was founded in 1836 when Texas was an independent republic with its own President, Sam Houston, for whom the city was named. Not long after it became the capital of that Republic, and there is a certain independent spirit about all Texans (and Houstonites in particular) which still reflects that fact. These days it is the fourth largest city in the United States and the largest within Texas (although the state capital is in Austin). It has been the centre of much important American history over the last century and a half, with a significant role in the Civil War and World Wars I & II. Many significant Americans have come from Houston and that is reflected in the way the city celebrates history.

Our trip home was uneventful but late and Monday morning saw us giving David and Kelly an opportunity to get out of the house. Because of the heat and humidity all of the younger kids took the opportunity to go out into the backyard and use the slip and slide. The afternoon was spent back at the Mall, where Meg and Chris got the opportunity to actually look through some of the shops and Wayne was deposited at Barnes and Noble (a few more trips like this and he will have finished reading the book). Samuel and Jessie had a lovely time playing on the equipment in the mall. Shopping in Texas is particularly fun, with things like cowboy boots and hats being a feature, even outside of the specialty Texas store. Sports stores were almost exclusively focussed on the local university teams, University of Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.

One of the things that people outside of the States associate with Houston is the phrase, ‘Houston, we have a problem’. Tuesday saw us travelling to south Houston to the NASA Lyndon B Johnson Space Centre. As well as being the form of a museum devoted to the history of the United States’ travels into space, the Johnson Centre is also the training centre for current space shuttle astronauts and the planning base for their future endeavours. During a tour of the facility we saw the models of shuttles and the space station that are used to familiarise the astronauts with the environments. There were also some of the rockets from previous space expeditions. We also got to hear more about the expectation that there will be a space station on the moon sometime around 2020 with further travel to the moon by 2030.

Even more interesting was the film and interactive display which took place inside the main building. As well as dealing with the history of the space programme we were able to experience a replica of one of the control rooms for a space expedition. One of the staff was then able to take us through what was happening on the television screens behind her which had shots of the actual control rooms which are currently operating for the International Space Station and the Space Shuttle mission which was in space at the time. We were able to watch what was happening in real time, and find out more about the objectives of the mission and the people who were both aboard the shuttle and the space station. This was the best part of the visit, with the member of staff being incredibly knowledgeable and informative and an opportunity to ask any questions we wanted at the end of the time.

The centre was also hosting a tribute to George Lucas and his films which included models of some of the major characters and items such as scripts, cars, and other props from their making. While the Star Wars films were predominant, there was also memorabilia from the Indiana Jones films, ‘American Graffiti’, ‘THX 1138’, and ‘Tucker: The Man and his Dream’. With this, the various displays related to the actual space programme, a huge gift shop, and an enormous playground area with a space theme there was something for everyone to see and do. We hunted down information about the mission which featured Andy Thomas as Australia’s first astronaut (STS-114). We also saw the tributes to Columbia and Challenger and, because it is 40 years since Apollo 11 went to the moon, there was an enormous amount of material available relating to that mission.

Our trip back to the Woodlands was uneventful, except in giving us some more exposure to the Houston traffic, which is not renowned for being good. When we got back it was time to head out for dinner at a standout local Mexican restaurant. Rico’s was great, with the willingness of the manager to find seating for 10 people, take a variety of orders from both the children and adults menu, and get us served incredibly quickly with some fabulous Mexican food. If you are ever in the Woodlands it is well worth the visit. (PS. We don’t receive anything for our restaurant reviews, or anything else we write, if it is in here it is because we think it is worth it).

As David, Kelly and most of the kids were going out to a concert, we got a lift home with Brittany. This was the only opportunity that we had had to speak with her (she had been at her college in Alabama for most of our visit) and it was interesting to hear about her course in Interior Design and talk about what opportunities it opened for the future. Once again we had experienced the openness and friendly, welcoming nature of the people of Texas. Because it was our final night before our trip up to Baltimore we got everything packed up and into the car ready for the following day.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

The 'Odd'yssey (Part 1)

This past fortnight has been as complex as any since we left on our travels, with a combination of packing up our lives ready for the next move to Qatar, combined with the last week or so of work with the attendant farewells. Tuesday July 15th saw our dining table and chairs disappear to the home of one of the other members of staff. On the following day most of our possessions (packed into tea chest sized boxes) were loaded onto a truck to make the trip to Qatar. This left Wayne and Meg in a largely empty house with just a couple of suitcases. Compensating this has been the fact that more people have been taking the opportunity to invite us out as they know we are leaving, so we haven't been spending much time at home anyway.

On the Wednesday evening there was a camp out at the school for the boys who had behaved particularly well during the final term. We were invited to the barbeque dinner as the guests of honour, which was lovely. However, on our arrival Meg discovered one of the boys rubbing his eye which looked very sore. In fact, on closer inspection, the white of his eye seemed to be swelling up. Along with one of the other staff members she took him to the hospital, having rung his mother (who asked her to also call the student's father so that he wouldn't accuse her of lying to him). When they had been waiting a while the boy's father arrived, however he left after an hour or so because he was tired. Eventually, it was determined that the student had had a piece of ash fly into his eye from the barbeque and that he would need to have eye drops for the next few days. His mother had rung the hospital to make sure that he wouldn't be taken home, so at 9:50pm they arrived back at the school. His eye drops had to be refrigerated and administered every two hours; so that evening we found ourselves up at 11:50, 1:50, 3:50, and 5:50, walking out to the tents and putting eye drops into his eye.

Come the weekend we were still recovering from the broken sleep of Wednesday night however we were determined to get out and do things. Saturday saw us drive to Brents Cross to pick up some farewell gifts, sell our clothes dryer to another member of staff, and go to the movies to see 'Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince' [Meg's verdict, 'good']. The following day was overcast with intermittent rain so we went down to Enfield to buy a couple of books with the credit we had accrued at Waterstones. We had lunch in a wonderful pub called 'The Victoria' and then, to kill some time, decided to go to the movies again and watch a double feature of 'Public Enemies' [Meg's verdict, 'excellent'] and 'The Hangover' [Meg's verdict, 'not my taste but very funny and still enjoyable']. That evening saw us venture to Stansted Abbots where a former member of staff was compeering a quiz night. Given that the majority of questions were based on British television we were very pleased to not finish last and it was lovely to see her once more.

The following Monday saw the farewell of another staff member (in the last 12 months there have been 17 members of teaching, boarding or ancillary staff leave the school). Most schools in the county had already finished on the previous Friday but because of the scheduling of training days for staff we were left with two extra days and a bunch of students who were resentful that all their friends were already on holidays. This was complicated by a number of staff and students being off sick and by the end of the day we had our first two confirmed cases of Swine Flu. Although classes were smaller the students that were present were very uptight at everything that was happening.

Tuesday was a very emotional day, being the final day for 5 members of the teaching staff and one of the students (who had been informed the night before that he is changing both his foster placement and his school). Meg made a wonderful speech that all the other staff had trouble following and which saw some of the toughest students in the school overcome with tears. After farewelling the students it was time for saying 'adieu' to many of the other staff with whom we had become quite close. In what is quite a difficult situation the non-management members of staff have banded together to provide support for each other and the students, and we will miss them.

Wednesday saw us packing up our suitcases and the remainder of the house so that three of the single female members of staff can move in there in September. We went into Hoddesdon to organise banks, post office redirects and cancel our account with the library then came back to farewell our home for the last 12 months. One of the other staff members took us to her home (which is much closer to Heathrow) and in the evening a couple of our other friends came over to have dinner and play Singstar before we crashed into bed at around 1:30 am.

Later that morning, at 4:30 am, the alarms went off and we were soon up and packed into Trish's car to make the trip to Heathrow Terminal 4. Our car, Madge, had been sold to another member of staff and had been left in the car park at school for that person to pick up the next time she is in. The trip was relatively quick, and without too many tears we were at the airport ready to book in for our flight to the USA. It was at this point that things began to get interesting again.

Our flights had been booked so that we would fly out from Heathrow at 8:50am to Detroit, Michigan. From there we were changing planes and heading for Houston, Texas to stay with Meg's High School friend, Christine, and some of her extended family. However, when we were queuing to load our baggage we were handed a piece of paper which said that Northwest Airways (the partners of KLM, with whom we had booked the flight) had overbooked and offering us US$1000.00 per person and a night in a hotel if we would be prepared to wait until the following day to fly. Because our time was flexible we were 2 of only 4 people who elected to take the offer and consequently our bags were marked 'Do Not Load' and we moved through Customs and Security to the Northwest Service area to find out where we would be staying and what time our flights would be.

During the wait we got to know the other two ladies who had elected to also be bumped. One was a Canadian teacher who had spent the last 12 months teaching at a school just down the A10 from us in Edmonton, North London. Her mother had been intending to drive down to Detroit to pick her up and take her back across the border to Canada. The second lady was an IT professional from North Carolina who had been in the UK on business. From Detroit she had been booked to fly to Greensboro where her husband was going to pick her up. They were both to make a number of phone calls over the following two hours to clarify their plans and to stop family members from travelling needlessly.

After an hour or so it became clear that we would not be staying in a hotel after all. Instead the airline was going to try to fit us on to alternate flights to other parts of the United States from where we would be able to make connections to our destinations. For our Canadian friend this meant flying to Minneapolis, Minnesota and then catching another flight to Detroit. However, for the lady from South Carolina she was going to be sent to Minneapolis; from there to Atlanta, Georgia; and from there to Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina. This meant her husband would have to change the destination where he would be picking her up and, rather than arriving in the mid afternoon, she would not be touching down till close on Midnight. For ourselves, we would also be flying to Minneapolis and then flying from there direct to Houston, although our arrival time had also been changed from mid afternoon to 9:25pm.

We were able to use some other vouchers from the airline to buy breakfast and then lunch before finally being presented with our $1000.00 in the form of vouchers for flights with Northwest/KLM which have to be used within the next 12 months. Then we boarded the flight to Minneapolis, all sat within a few seats of one another near the front of the aircraft. Meg had no one in front of her so leg room was not an issue and, in all, apart from being very tired it was quite a comfortable flight. Wayne was able to watch 'Gran Torino' and 'Milk' while Meg took in 'He's Just Not That IntoYou' and '17 Again'. On our arrival in Minneapolis we said goodbye to our new friends and went off in search of our luggage. Not entirely to our surprise (given the signs that had been put on our bags back at Heathrow), it was nowhere to be found. When we asked for assistance, we were told just to continue on our flight to Houston and enquire about retrieving our bags on arrival.

The twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, are the home of Wayne's favourite baseball team, the Minnesota Twins. He has been following them since his university days when he remembers staying up late to watch the World Series (he suffered from insomnia back then as now). When he was teaching at Ingleburn High School one of his students, a young man named Glenn Williams, was signed by the Atlanta Braves organisation for an enormous amount of money and by 2005 he was playing Major League baseball for the Twins which had a nice circularity to it. Although we weren't leaving the airport it was exciting for Wayne just to be there. The twin cities are also home to the Mall of America, which used to be the largest shopping mall in the world so Meg is not entirely averse to Wayne's desire to one day live in Minnesota.

Domestic flights in the United States are nowhere near as luxurious as the international flights into the country. We were not served any food, nor was there any entertainment in the way of games, music or television. Instead we ended up chatting to some of the other passengers. One man was a current resident of Houston although he had previously lived in multiple other parts of the USA and travelled extensively outside the country. We were able to ask him lots of questions about the area and the sort of places he would recommend us visiting and he made many enquiries about the life we have been living over the previous 18 months. As well we found out that he and his wife are about to have their first child so there was much discussion about children also. The flight itself was just over 2 hours and we had a tail wind so we landed before schedule.

Meg had let Christine know on Facebook that we would be in around 10pm, so our first port of call was to the Baggage Claims area to find out what had happened to our luggage. After a bit of investigation it turned out that, despite the large signs, our luggage had gone onto our original flight from Heathrow to Detroit. It had then been held up there when no one claimed it but was now headed to Houston on a flight that was due in at 10:15 pm. Christine arrived just before 10, so we elected to wait around to pick up the luggage rather than have it couriered out to the house. Lots of catching up was done by the two ladies while we waited then, once the luggage arrived, it was about a half hour drive back to the home of David and Kelly and their five children (Camden, Parker, Lexington, Dallas, Boston and Brittany). By the time we reached our bed we had been up for well over 24 hours and we quickly fell asleep.