Safari Slices

Cody Grant

© Copyright 2005 by Cody Grant 


 Someone is speaking in your group and the word travel is heard. It’s a word that calls for attention, a magic word. Images pop in the mind of past vacations taken. A two week vacation is a pleasant and highly prized event, hence the interest. Everyone will offer some dialog concerning travel; perhaps offer a highly exaggerated experience. Certainly a discussion will be joined.

 Yet old habits die hard. For all the choices available most precious vacation weeks will begin and end on a familiar, and now crowded, Interstate. Discussing a new mystical trip to far away locations simply can't overcome the tried and true, the familiar. Perhaps people are only willing to be explorers in their minds. Changes can lose their magical quality in the light of day.

 Most people have indeed spoken of a flying trip, perhaps not to Europe but to a domestic vacation spot. Indeed a flying vacation to Europe only found a true following during the last decade of the 20th century. Still a great number of average citizens continue to be apprehensive of such a trip, particularly since it entails a long flight over an ocean. There are no pills available to chase away apprehension embedded inside the queasy over the ocean flyer. Only a shot of bravery provided by friends, relatives, perhaps even a travelogue on TV might sway the timid.

 Most people are not afraid to fly today, at least on limited flights. However, expressing that truth, it can also be noted that flying over land and flying over a large body of water separates the stalwarts from the white-knuckle types. It can be pointed out to the not-so-sure trippers that flying is actually safer than driving to work! True, planes do fall from the sky occasionally, very occasionally. But then passengers stepping onto the deck of the Titanic believed the huge ship could never sink. Life is always a mystery.

 Anyway if a traveler wants to hit Europe for a vacation the shipboard days of playing shuffleboard on a painted deck is out. Time is king today, as well as money. A fast ocean liner hustles at best speed to get passengers to Europe in five days. A return trip consumes another five ocean days and that would mean more than two thirds of a vacation would be eaten up on travel alone. So in reality getting to Europe means you fly, and forget the mal de mer pills.

 True, setting out on the first leg of a long flying safari can be neck twisting. You don't know what to expect, how to react to the unusual. But international flight crews can be very understanding; they have been well trained on how to be au pairs of the sky. Still if a reader contests this report as being wildly partisan in favor air travel, versus cruise ships or sweating it out on an Interstate, there is always next year to be brave.

 Of course most virgin long distance flyers must be made aware that flying to a dot on a map of Europe doesn't begin with stepping over the threshold of a jumbo-jet. Planning is king (and queen) just to reach the point of entering a jumbo-jet. And that's because many snags can easily pop up, like tin ducks in a shooting gallery. However, you can't blame the jet plane for that!

 It’s fair to state that in spite of those little nibbles of caution in your head you're going on this European trip, say to Scotland. At this stage you brim with a superior feeling and inform all interested parties of the big decision. If you are fortunate the interested parties will persuade you to wait until next year.

 Well after some expense of time (and cash) you have airplane tickets and a flight schedule. You feel much better, maybe a little invincible. Alas such a feeling doesn't last for you quickly realize that you must decide what to pack, especially female trippers. Then there is a shuttle van reservation, baggage scanning, long check-in waits, getting boarding passes, and of course the little prayer to Lady Luck, all precedes stepping into a large jet aircraft.

 For European trippers who originate along the west coast states the journey will begin when its pitch black outside. You can't blame Congress for that though. You can't even blame the hours required by the officious army of airport security people. Those white shirts who love to dig into a carefully packed bag. The reason for the owl like flights is one of time zones. As soon as you leave the west coast you take a giant leap forward in time.

 So western flyers leave their warm beds in the dark and this is not an auspicious way to set off on the big adventure. For potential fliers who dwell on the east coast, it may be late afternoon as they pack and dress however they must suffer traffic indigestion.

 In order to secure their place on this safari travelers on the west coast set their alarm clocks for the darkest, quietest, coolest hour of a young day. Even enthusiastic light sleepers do that as a safety net. And whether the words light sleepers is debatable, it is not a myth that airplanes may often be an hour or so late in leaving a runway or late in getting to a destination, however officious airport people always want you sitting at the departure gate an hour or so prior to a scheduled take off time.

 Anyway your dream on the evening before departure won't be the romantic interlude type, anticipation won't allow that. Most likely you'll dream about possibilities. That is, what will I do if the shuttle driver forgets to pick me up? Or what if the van has a breakdown before it reaches my house? If the shuttle doesn't show on time how long to wait before calling the shuttle office number? And what good will that do anyway since a replacement shuttle (if one is available) would take over a half hour to get to your house from downtown? A person ought to have a contingency plan. Well you see the dilemma.

On the day of your expected flight most likely you will awake before the alarm instructs you to get up anyway. That's because the morning "aura" will feel different than any regular morning. Trip mornings are exactly like preparing for a bombing mission (to ex-Air Force types). A close shave, get dressed, coffee and egg, zip up the flight bag, a last glance around the place, then you step outside into the arms of fate. Except now you hope fate looks a lot like a shuttle van. It’s way too early to expect mom and dad to get up and drive through eerie dark roads hauling you!

 Actually shuttle van drivers in the west are in demand if they are blessed with owl vision since most of their runs are conducted in the dark. Of course having owl vision is no guarantee they will reach your door at the appointed time. They can get lost in new housing developments, even overstay their break at an all night eatery.

 Practically all novice travelers who glance out a window and see a dark, quiet street at 4-a.m. will succumb to trip jitters. What am I doing? I should be in bed. Did I remember to flush the toilet? Did I turn the coffee pot off? Did I put a hold on the mail?

A shuttle driver will break that spell of indecision, especially the established types who have seen lots of bleary eyes before yours. Anyway you should have your luggage bag ready at the door. This should buy you a few minutes of precious time in the toilet.

 An innocent tripper doesn't know what shuttle van drivers dream about, though fat tips is a good guess. Maybe a driver is married to a 200 lb hatchet-faced ice block and so is exuberant about getting up around 3-am. In any case, a traveler’s duty is try to be door-ready before the shuttle driver shows.

 Should you be a mite tardy in leaving warm sheets at the time you should be up and hustling between kitchen and toilet you could become a casualty of a Murphy’s Law day. Oh you are up a few minutes late but that isn't such a big deal—wrong. A van driver may appear at your door 15 minutes early. Now 15 minutes before dawn is quite different than say, 15 minutes before going to bed. So the moral is: When it comes to night shift shuttle drivers, refer to your old Boy Scouts motto.

 Regardless of when you arrive at an airport you will note the roadway outside the terminal looks like Broadway on a Saturday night. Flashing lights, cabs, limos, busses, people hoping in and out of cars. And one more item, police are everywhere making sure no one parks a vehicle at a terminal door for more than 45-seconds. All airports are like that, so flying must be safe!

 After giving the shuttle driver a handsome tip, for showing up and actually getting you to the airport, you move quickly inside the building. Should you be an efficient packer-traveler and have only one carry-on bag you can use a computer station to get boarding passes, so that cuts down on waiting at the counter area. With boarding pass stuff in hand for both Newark and Glasgow you now enter the dreaded lists of bag and person screening.

 On the west coast misery must love company during the early summer kick-off since all aircraft heading for the east coast are fully loaded. Well summer is the airlines "happy" time. At least half the passengers will be low-weight, tight-body college kids. A lively bunch that never run out of things to talk about, or yell about. And they are in constant motion, like they have a built-in gene for that. Adults who speak a foreign language occupy the remaining seats.

 However the drone of the jet engines, the swish of air across the aluminum body gets to most people after an hour in the air and so activity and gabbing aboard an aircraft abates. Sensible passengers nap, a few reach for laptops, which is a dead giveaway they are headed for Wall Street, maybe Madison Avenue.

 Should you have opted for, or been informed you must occupy an aisle seat, then you must accept the law of nature. Sooner rather than later, and napping or not, you will be asked to get out of that aisle seat and allow somebody in the center or window seat egress. The purpose is never stated but you know they have been swallowing free cans of pop like they just trekked in from a desert. Still you hope this deal will not become a habit, as they return to bother you.

 J.F.K. in New York or Newark in New Jersey are the switch terminals for west coasters flying on to Europe and all arrive there during the late afternoon, having already "lost" three hours of their precious vacation time.

There is just about every type / class / color of people in a major airport. But the only people who wear the same neat clothes are flight crews. Black employees at these two major airports appear to run everything, from ticket counters on down to concession stands.

 Wending a way past concession stands it would not be unusual to see a flight crew stop at a walkway greasy spoon. Not only stop there but also pick up plates and begin loading up. At that point a new tripper to sky travel may wonder why greasy spoon food is preferable over airline food the crew can get for free. The answer only comes with frequent flier miles.

 If you are a novice passenger and spot a thin, wiry character at a ticket counter wearing baggy black pants and dark magenta shirt with Security printed on the back, a black band around his head, and cornrows, possibly 18 years old, free of carrying a baton, a gun, a radio, no muscles, just the Security legend on the shirt, hold on to everything. That person is paid by an airline executive to make a traveler feel safer. Don't be fooled, never let go of your carry-on bag for any reason.

 All major airports are a maze of signs, corridors, waiting areas, high price shops, bars, ticket counters, and baggage areas. All of them swing to the beat of speaker announcements. Alas, just like hip / rock music of the day, few people can understand what is being said via the public address system. In any case, even if they could, most of the information provided is bad news. Gate changes, flight delays, even "equipment" changes (which means your seat reservation is now toast) additional screening required, and shoes, jacket, hat, watch, jewelry, belts, steel corsets (if you wear 'em) must be removed before stepping through a security gate.

 At Newark the International Terminal is located miles of corridors from the Domestic side. Not an easy walk even if you remembered to wear your walking shoes and able to pull the bag-on-wheels you trail behind. When (if) you find the International Terminal with time to spare you will discover it is already swollen with people, most looking for some place to sit. Airline God-like executives must believe their own managers’ blarney that there are more than enough seats available in any terminal.

 Wherever a passenger begins their journey to Europe they discover all flights are scheduled to depart around 10-p.m. This time frame is adopted because it allows everyone (except the pilot, hopefully) to sleep during a boring Atlantic flight. That way people won't notice they have lost five hours of vacation due to time zone changes.

But before you get a chance to nap on a European bound flight you are given the opportunity to partake of a late-late dinner. Flight menus usually provide a choice of rubber chicken or leather beef. With that comes a side order of a movie, however you must purchase earphones if you want to hear the oratory. Airlines, like your friendly state government, wouldn't miss out on a chance to dip into your thinning wallet. A couple of hours following the movie the TV screens (on all night) halt the interminable showing of 40-yr old TV shows to display a progress map, complete with miniature plane. That's strictly for those who have insomnia. Happily they discover the distance between aircraft and sun is closing fast since they race toward the other.

 There are many destination airports in Europe that can vex the traveler without portfolio. That is, the rugged explorer type people who decide not to be soldiers of a travel club. However there is still a couple of neat international airports left to greet intrepid explorers. Airports with style and character never hyped in travel brochures.

 In Britain one of these gems is Glasgow Airport, which isn't really in Glasgow at all, it's located in Paisley. In any case a traveler who chooses the Scots airport can whiz through customs, immigration, and baggage places in a fraction of the time (and inconvenience) than say, Heathrow in London.

 There is a minor item a voyager should be aware of if they chose to see the sights in Britain, the law insists all vehicles keep to the left on roadways, which means a steering wheel will be found on the right side of a rental car. And a "wee" warning, now that you find yourself in Scotland, road signs are in English however the information on them is not exactly meaningful, that's if a sign is actually posted.

 For a bona fide explorer of places and customs the lack of meaningful road signs or a fogy message on fogy roads may result in side trips, which are gems of delight. An off the Motorway tourist in Scotland (there are no highways or freeways in Britain) can stumble on a road sign bearing the legend: Ettrick Valley. The Esso road map is consulted and shows this road runs past the house once owned by Sir Walter Scott. Once committed to driving along this narrow country road the anxious tourist would find the term "Valley" misleading since the area covers hills and dales both. At the summit of this Valley hill they could find a panoramic view that would knock your socks off.

 The Green and Pleasant Land, as the Brits sing about, is visible. As far as the eye can discern a vista is filled with a patchwork of different shades of green. Light, dark; bright, deep. Trees, bushes, grassland; it is all the green of life. There are sheep and cows with acres of this lush green to romp on and feed on.

 If your trip is taken at the beginning of summer you would see every ewe has at least one lamb at her six. Such a view can bring a little sanity back to your heart. This is a view, a piece of land, that generations lived on and witnessed every day of their short lives. Smog wasn't invented then, the Beasty Boys never sang rock and roll, the stock market meant you traded a couple of cows for a horse, and maybe a quiver of arrows. Perhaps the world has progressed since those ancient times. But toward what?

 From the top of yesteryear hill you would drive slowly down a thin ribbon of asphalt meant for farm vehicles. And it’s likely you would encounter sheep, who believe asphalt was meant to warm their bellies. A quick toot of the car horn helps move the animals, grudgingly. But have you ever looked an ewe in the eye from six feet away? An ewe with a lamb at her six? You could have seen the identical eye of an identical ewe on this same green land a thousand years ago. Think about that when you hear politicians snow you that, for a few dollars more, your life can be even better than today. In a mother ewe's eye!

 Following this accidental delight you might then decide your luck has been stretched enough for one day and seek a hotel, for vitals, warm beer, and catch up on sleep. The key word you look for on a road sign is Hotel. This would draw images in a traveler’s mind of a Ramada, maybe a Holiday Inn; those images will only serve to stir up a twinge of homesickness. The always-winding roads in Britain ensure you can't drive fast so you easily spot something like a sign bearing the legend: Friars Carse Country House Hotel.

The actual building will not be visible from the road, few motorway hotels are. But usually an unpaved single lane road is provided to reach such a haven. In the case of Friars Carse Country House Hotel you must drive way, way down to the end of the farm like road to reach the actual hotel, an impressive sandstone manor.

 This huge manor house turned into a wayfarers Ye Olde Motel is typical of the once swanky manors which now earn some pounds sterling and, therefore, spare his lordships need to go on the dole. However these digs are not copies of a Motel 6.

 These old world new lodges retain a regal facade and an interior of intimidating opulence. The settings are all quiet, like you are in a library. A tripper might expect to see images of old money, such as W. R. Hurst; movie stars, like Greer Garson, Katherine Hepburn, maybe feisty Winston Churchill, step out of an imposing stoa to greet people.

 Should a neophyte lodger be given a room number, such as 2.9, they should not look for that numbered door on the 2-nd floor. If they forget that little snippet a vacation will become much shorter and eventually the potential lodger would discover room 2.9 is actually on the 3-rd floor! In Britain, the 1st floor is on the 2nd, the 2nd on the 3rd etc. Quaint ideas they have in this country. Must be the new math.

 Something else the old manor / new hotels have in common, it's so quiet at their locales you can hear a leaf fall from a tree. That's what is overpowering; these places are filled with silence. Real nature surrounds you and creates a wall of silence. Rabbits, birds, streams, trees, and the land create an empire. An Empire of Silence, a deserved name. No one rushing along a highway in a pick-up, no 18-wheelers or din of diesels. No school buses or loud voices as school kids ride toward their confinement. No racket of commuter trains clanking; no horns tooting from millions of cars stuck on congested roads. Nothing man made here, around you is the bare, simple, Empire of Silence.

 Man has taken out the real meaning of tranquility from dictionary pages. Luckily birds, rabbits, a stream, and trees around these luxurious British retreats never have to pack their bags and leave. However, a traveler must. "Civilization" insist they leave, and so does the date stamped on a return airline ticket. Man can live in the lap of nature but only for a short visit in the 21st century, in a retreat such as the Friars Carse Country House Hotel.

 Tourists will do what tourists always do as they pack bags at the start of a journey homeward, they look around the scenic view and store a memory for later recall. A sun spreading it’s probing rays across a large field. Birds outside pecking away between blades of grass, searching for their breakfast. Jackdaw with Robin; Thrush with Crow. The world of nature begins a new day in a cycle that is complimentary. It will repeat tomorrow, a reminder, perhaps, of what man used to see as he began to stand erect. You have to ask yourself, has there been progress since that dawn?

 Once the correct roads have been found and led a tripper back to Glasgow airport the car driver will discover the blitz of road signs around the facility have not been installed as meaningful aids, consequently the rental car return lot is a challenge to find. For some still unexplained reason none of the large car rental outfits allow the returning driver to use the same gate that was used to leave the facility. Not only that, a return gate may well be located in a different street!

 However tourists are never left stranded at European airports. Local guides wear bright yellow vests of some type and can be approached as islands of sanity. Should a driver be lucky enough to spot such a person before driving around airport streets seeking entry signs for rental lots it is likely the yellow jacket can speak English, if weighted with a local twist. A sample of this can be provided, assuming the traveler is using Glasgow Airport.

 You pull over and timidly ask a yellow jacket for help to find the car return lot for the outfit that rented you the vehicle. From a smiling face you would be informed of the following, in Glasgow brogue:

 "Aye, fir that yae ha tae gae oot into the road tha and turrrn left. Gie aw the wai arooned tae ya see a white buildun. Ya'll see a drive, folla the drive arooned and sta on yorrr left. The lot place I'll be ower on you'rrr left side."

The smiling yellow jacket will give a wave of his hand and saunter away to perform a similar helpful deed for another motorist with a Malox look.

It appears mandatory that all airports have some type of construction going on around the facility; this includes airports around the USA. In many European sites, Glasgow being one of them, in the International lounge you would note all construction changes have included the frosting of observation windows. In effect, passengers can't observe baggage handlers going through passenger's bags any more. That was always a time passer.

 Flight delays may be either long or short, but a traveler will experience a delay, it’s a given. So a lot of feet shuffling will be visible as a speaker announces a boarding delay. How long? You are not allowed that information consequently a low murmur can be heard after the announcement, which will swell as minutes pass. You will probably feel the tension in the lounge as time tics on and anticipation mounts. You can't see it, its like electricity. The power is there searching for a detonator, a tiny spark will set it off.

 The novice traveler might appraise the charged moments watching the way various people deal with this brittle event. These people began assembling with a different glint in their eyes, a different sway with their body English. You saw lots of smiles in the beginning, heard laughter, saw orderly, passive adults in good spirits, they had expectations. They understood the contract they had agreed to, for a price they would board an aircraft at 11:35 and leave the ground at 12:05. That was the contract in their minds; now someone is trying to change that, change the rules. Some unknown person, a company, had altered the contract. A deep hatred of companies who frequently screw the little guy boils to the surface. As an appraiser you can feel that distrust and see the tension. These people didn't enter the lounge with love for the airline but they did have expectations, and a qualified trust that the airline would honor the contract given.

 What you witness now is smoldering distrust, a rebellion. A situation, given a spark of electricity, that could become ugly. You understand you are looking at 21st century people who have shed their fear of inept big government, of greedy big business. Today people can only be bent so far—or I'll see you in court! A "don't mess with me" line has been drawn on the lounge carpet.

 Then the other guy blinks. Airline stewards leave the lounge and board the aircraft. Passengers are informed general boarding by row numbers will begin. People exhale; danger of a riot has been averted. Time: High Noon. After an aircraft reaches a cruising level passengers lose their adversary postures, they settle in their seats. To aid in helping them forget about switching airlines in the future a meal is served, and a movie is shown.

 With the movie and lunch over, predictable lines assemble for the toilets. If a passenger with a certain medical problem waits to the very last minute they will likely blow up before they reach that important seat. When boarding an aircraft a passenger should take note of where toilets are located relative to their numbered seat and set a plan to visit a "loo" at the first faint rumble of a food cart. For if you think about it, the only way a plane gets any lighter is by burning fuel.

 Most trippers to foreign lands find they must change planes when they return to American shores. And for those who do, there is hope of speedy connections, following custom checks plus immigration checks. However once aboard an aircraft for the final leg home and you see it leave the docking gate your title as journeyman traveler is still not complete. The airline "equipment" quickly stops and sits on the apron, ready to join the line for take off, just sitting.

 After forever, the aircraft might roll forward, for a few feet and a wag might say something like: "Well we are rolling—somewhere." This situation will probably repeat. The next time another voice will chip in stating: "We have stopped again, to take on fuel I think." These voices come from journeymen fliers.

 Eventually the plane slows down and you fly over familiar territory. A first time international traveler might feel an urge to swallow hard. The landing approach causes a head to swing, first to one side of the plane then the other. What you are looking for, well you're not sure, but you do it anyway, because you are now a seasoned international traveler. Been there, done that.

 That same evening as you relax at home your thoughts will wander into an analysis of the journey, still crystal clear. Certain visual pictures will appear clear and bold; those will remain in your memory as the years pass. Gradually you will shake your head in disbelief that you visited a different world, that the man in the yellow jacket at Glasgow airport is helping other travelers now. The ewe that looked you in the eye has again claimed a warm spot on the narrow asphalt road. And you wonder if the same Jackdaw and Robin are looking for breakfast worms on that patch of grass in front of Friars Carse Country House Hotel.

 The wonder of new customs and new vistas you experienced for a few days has enriched your understanding of the world. You shake your head again. In the end, there is no place like home, after the fact of course!

 There are always new memories to make in life. You left a normal routine for the unknown. In effect, you challenged the unknown and returned home richer for the experience. And that's what people are destined to do, challenge themselves. There is a need to do that, grow and explore. Will a new experience be set for your next vacation? It all depends on the answer to this question: Do you really want to step into a jumbo-jet again for another modern safari? Challenges and decisions—phew!.

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