Friday, June 25, 2010

Where There's a Melted Mess of Goo, There's Fire

Recently I had the pleasure of turning a one week vacation to Hawaii into a two week vacation driving all over the western US for a week, then going to Hawaii for a week.  For a full description please see my previous blog.

Once I returned on a Friday evening, I was looking forward to a relaxing weekend prior to heading back to work.  Saturday morning Heather informed me that the featherbed we had left in the back seat of the car was venting and had fogged up the windows.  She went off to a wedding rehearsal, where they practice to make sure everyone can make it down an aisle or repeat vows, as necessary, and I got into the car to retrieve my sunglasses to take a ride on my motorcycle.  This is where the story takes a radical turn for the worse. 

Upon opening the car door I saw what Heather was speaking of.  Indeed, the windows were fogged over, but not with a milky white fog of built up water vapor or outgassing of some manmade material.  Instead they were smoky colored.  As I was wondering what was up I looked down at what had once been the center console of my car.  In the place where a plastic base had once stood proudly below the gear shifter was now a space as empty as Bernie Madoff's promises.  The gear shifter had a melted spot and the base of the console was now a pile of black hardened goo, like the volcanic shores of the tropical paradise I had just visited, without the beautiful ocean backdrop. 

Several realizations quickly came to mind: My car caught on fire, this is not good, how much damage is there? is this fixable? how did this happen? why did it go out? why can't the Cubs ever win the world series? what if the house would have burned down? 

Then I remembered that I had left my Ipod nano plugged into Heather's cigarette lighter powered charger.  As I pondered whether this had started the fire I unplugged the charger and followed the wire as far down as I could before it ran into and melded with the melted goo that once was my console/my Ipod/ a coin purse/ my Blackberry that had been in the console compartment.  I was only able to determine which part of the brisquette had been my Blackberry by the general shape, but at least the change in the coin purse was still recognizable.  I pried it out and washed it, happy that despite thousands of dollars worth of car damage I could lessen my loss by 65 cents.

A call to the insurance company and my expectation that my liability only car insurance would not cover it and my hope that my homeowner's insurance might were proven correct and dashed, respectively.  Of course the representative couldn't tell me this until I had gone over every detail of my car and the incident possible.  While cleaning out the car to prepare it for its transition to the big junkyard in the sky, I found the vinyl owner's manual cover had melted to the bottom of the glove box.  I also found Heather's 4th gen Ipod nano - a greater loss than my 1st gen Ipod nano.  It looked unscathed and I tried to turn it on but it was apparently a victim of the high heat.  I waited until Heather got home to tell her what had happened.

I asked Heather do you want the bad news or the really bad news?  The bad news is that your Ipod is dead.  Somehow Heather thought I said her grandpa was dead, which in hindsight didn't seem to phase her as much as I would have expected it to.  We figured out the mix-up only after I had related the really bad news: The car now smelled badly of smoke.  And was no longer able to start or drive.  And was probably totaled.  And wasn't coverd by insurance.  The good news, besides the fact that the feather bed didn't catch fire, and the car didn't go up in flames burning the house down with it, was that Heather's Ipod was only locked.  It still pumps out the incredibly bad music Heather overpaid 99 cents per song for.  Sorry if you like Country music, but that's my opinion.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Vacation: Or Why I Haven't Blogged in 3 Weeks

I have been off the radar for a while while on vacation.  Now it is time to capture my thoughts on the blogosphere once again.  Thanks for coming back.

For our vacation Heather and I normally go on a cheap vacation for a couple of years, such as camping or doing some local sightseeing, then go on a full-on vacation every few years.  This year we decided to visit some friends in Hawaii, and decided to try and save money by flying what in the military is called Space-Available or Space-A for short.  Essentially you go to a military hub and sign up to get on a cargo plane, which can have anywhere from a handful to 70 seats for passengers available, and you hop along for the ride for free, hence the term "hop" flights.  We decided to travel to a base in Northern California to try and hop to Hawaii.  

Warning: This will be an unusually long blog.  Feel free to break it into manageable chunks if it doesn't hold your attention long enough to finish.  What follows is a true story.  Names were not changed.

Friday - Vacation Day (Vaday) 1

Heather talks to the personnel at the military flight terminal. They say they have 6 flights departing for Hawaii on Saturday. We choose to drive through the night to arrive Saturday and increase our chances of getting to the island on our first day.

The GPS keeps asking me if I want to take the “better route available” it has located. I say sure and it reroutes me. The roads keep getting more and more remote.  While driving on a gravel road I swear I can hear the GPS laughing at me. At one point I realize we are running low on gas after leaving a small town, but hate backtracking so I keep driving. As we get further and further into the desert of Utah I start to question my decision. The GPS is showing all gas stations within 50 miles are behind us. I’ve got about 80 miles worth of gas left. I start wondering how far I will have to walk through the wilderness before someone is nice enough to pick me up and take me to the next town. There’s not much traffic on this road. It could be awhile.

We finally find a gas station in the middle of nowhere but I don’t want to pay the $3.14 they are charging, now that the GPS is showing a larger town 50 miles down the road, so I put in one gallon, estimating that I have about 30 miles worth of gas left in the tank, and can get 30 miles per gallon on the additional gas.  An hour later as I’m looking at the guage below E I can’t help but wonder why I didn’t play it safe and put two gallons in the tank, especially with no guarantee that the price will be lower. I start thinking about the walk to the gas station again. We make it and the price is indeed cheaper – 3 cents per gallon. I win! We fill up and drive on. I turn the AC and radio back on and start driving the speed limit again.

After driving 14 hours from Colorado Springs to somewhere in the middle of Nevada, I turn the keys over to Heather so I can take a nap. We are 5 hours from the base. We call for an update on the flights. There are now only two flights on Saturday.  They will have 10 and 19 seats. Heather drives 90 minutes until we get to a small town where we can get a room for 4 hours sleep before taking off again for the remainder of the drive. We don’t get on the flights – there are too many passengers above us on the list. No big surprise. We get a room at the Econolodge downtown to try again tomorrow.  The hotel is cheap but it comes with free Wi-fi.  While moving the nightstand to plug in the laptop I discover that it also comes with a bonus: a free condom.  At least it's still in the wrapper.

Saturday Vaday 2

We get up excited to possibly be leaving today for Hawaii. We leave too early to take advantage of the continental breakfast but that’s ok; there are flights with 15 and 19 seats, and we are around number 22 on the list.

After making my deposit for parking, leaving the car in the long-term parking lot and walking the mile and a half back to the terminal, we find out there is now only one flight, which only has 10 seats. A guy with 3 dependents shows up on emergency leave and takes four of them. He wasn’t on the list but gets priority. We aren’t flying out today either. The next flight is scheduled for Monday with limited seats, and none scheduled for Tuesday so we decide to go to Yosemite for three days and try again on Wednesday.

As I walk the mile and a half to pick up the car and bring it back Heather meets a Marine who is heading to San Diego to try and fly out of their terminal there. There is a plane coming tomorrow with 43 seats available going to Hawaii. The guy at the terminal assures us this is almost a guaranteed bet. We make the decision to drive there and go for it. I get my deposit fished out of the box for the parking and we go to the store and buy a feather bed, some pillows and sheets to throw in the back of the car. I feel like we're on the Amazing Race and headed for the next checkpoint. 

I drive from our location near San Fran to San Diego. We stop at an In-N-Out along the highway where there are at least 20 people in line. We drive on to a Jack in the Box 20 miles down the road where there are only 2 people in front of us. On the way we pass a woman wearing a traditional Chinese pointed straw hat.  I have never seen anyone wearing one of those except in movies about Vietnam.  On the bright side the traffic in LA late on a Sunday night is light. We find a U2 concert playing on the radio and listen to it for a while. We finally arrive in San Diego, where we have never been before.  It’s a pretty city. We find the air terminal and sleep in the back of the Vibe. The fold down seats are nice. So is being 5’6” and 4’11”.

Sunday Vaday 3

We wake up to fogged up windows and the smell of human funk. My shoulder hurts from laying on it and smashing it into the floor of the car.  We’re excited to finally be going to Hawaii, even if a shower will have to wait until we arrive. Heather swears the smell is coming from the feather bed. I believe it is us but can’t smell it once we’re out of the car so all is well. We talk with the Marine Heather met at Travis. We find out shortly before the plane arrives that it is coming from Texas and filled up with passengers for Hawaii at that location. There are only 4 seats left. The Marine and his family get 3 of them. We’re happy for him and wish him the best.

We find the gym to take a shower. The Navy showers have more privacy than the Air Force gym. This surprises me.  I’m still wearing the same shorts to conserve clothes, but finally change my socks. It’s amazing what a difference a shower and clean socks can make.  We head back north to visit Yosemite. Heather gives me a break and drives after I get us north of LA. We drive all the way to Yosemite and there are no campsites available. The Best Western wants $100 for a night. We sleep in the Vibe again, in a mall parking lot. This time we leave the windows cracked.

Monday Vaday 4

Apparently the guys using the leaf blowers at 5 in the morning in the parking lot don’t have any respect for vagabonds sleeping in their car. On the bright side, the car doesn’t smell this time. We get up at 5:30 and are quickly on our way to Yosemite. We decide to explore the Sequoia forest first, which is only a couple miles from the Southern entrance. It is amazing how big these trees are. We hike around a few miles and look at some of the named trees, like “Grizzly Giant” and “Faithful Lovers”. We spot some deer along the way, and some cool red plants that have sprung up here and there.

Heather is getting less and less patient with my spelunking, so when we hit a sign that says parking lot 1.2 miles this way, we decide to head back. After walking what must be more than 1.2 miles I come to the realization that the sign must be off. We keep going. And going.  I ask Heather several times to turn on her watch pedometer so we can get a guage on how far we are going. Heather’s complaints are becoming more frequent, and revolve around me being to blame for getting us lost. The trail is beautiful, if one can shut out the occasional complaints.

I finally decide we have gone much further than a mile, and this trail is going in the wrong direction to bring us back anywhere near where we started. I turn us around. The complaining grows much louder and more frequent. I begin to realize that if Heather and I ever survive a plane crash in the mountains I will be going for help alone. Heather is close to panicking. I begin calculating how far I can carry her if I have to pack her out. I repeatedly assure her that if we follow the same trail out that we followed in, it will lead us back to where we started. She’s not convinced. The odometer measures one mile. We are covering about a mile every half hour. I estimate that we went down this trail for 3-4 miles, so it’s going to take a while to get back. I’m regretting not bringing any food or water. Or earplugs. The odometer reads two miles, then three. I try to remain upbeat, but it is difficult. Heather tries to remain downbeat, and finds it much easier. Finally I see a sign up ahead. It is the sign that lead us here. I realize that I misread it and we were headed down a 5 mile trail to a location down the road. Heather was right – I did get us lost. I’m glad we turned back rather than continuing down that path. I’m glad to be only a mile from the parking lot. Heather finds the energy she didn’t have before now that she knows where she is going. Birds begin singing again. We finally make it back to the car, about 5 hours and 10 miles from the beginning of our hike, and down some water and snacks. It’s good to be back.

Next stop is Glacier point. I figure on knocking out all the southern points so that when we come back to the park in the future we can focus on the northern portion. By the time we get there after an hour and a half driving, with 3 stops for pilot cars in construction zones, we are well rested and ready to go again. The views are spectacular. This is much more enjoyable than being lost in the woods. We take in the sights, snap some photos, and have some ice cream. Then it’s back to the car. Rather than try and make our way through the valley we opt to head south and get a hotel in Fresno, then head back to base tomorrow to make one last attempt at flying to Hawaii. If that doesn’t work we can come back and spend another day in Yosemite on our way home.

We find a Hotel 6 for only 50 bucks. Wi-fi is an additional $3. I buy it. It doesn’t work. I get my $3 back. Before shutting off the computer I realize I can connect to the hotel across the street’s wi-fi for free. I get online and find tickets to Hawaii for $500 each. I go with my original plan and book tickets out of Vegas. Looks like we’re going to make it to Hawaii after all.

Tuesday Vaday 5

We get up early and head to Vegas.  After driving over 3000 miles over 4 days, we are flying out of a city 12 hours and 600 miles from our house. I have seen more of California than I ever wanted to.  I drop Heather off and park the car, then I’m off to the airport on a shuttle. We make our way through the ticket counter and security, get some lunch, and then finally board our flight. The flight is uneventful, with a layover in San Fran, and our friends met us at the airport with leis, water and root beer. We stay up for a while talking with them and then it’s off to bed. Our Hawaiian vacation has finally begun. 

Wednesday Vaday 6 - Friday Vaday 16

We enjoy a week of sun, sand and sea, then fly back to Vegas and drive back home.  Our visit with our friends is great, the weather is awesome, and we thoroughly enjoy ourselves.  Essentially, it is the opposite of our experience trying to get out to Hawaii.  Although we had a blast it is good to be back home.  Another vacation is on the books!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

For Customer Service, Please say: "Frustrated"

While on a business trip in the Washington DC area, I needed to create a travel voucher over the internet via a government travel website.  Normally this would be a simple transaction, but at the hotel I’m staying at there is no free Wi-Fi, so I have to carry my laptop down to the business center (where all the businessmen apparently gather in a cramped room to share 3 desktop computers because professionals don’t own laptops in Hilton hotels’ world) and plug into the LAN there. Granted, my room is only $200 a night, so maybe my expectations are a little high. Just because the Best Western with cigarette burns in the bedspread and hair in the bathtub has free Wi-Fi, that doesn’t make it the standard. Paris has bills to pay after all. Those diamond-crusted sunglasses don’t come cheap.

But back to my travel voucher.  I was uncertain of the amount billed for the airfare, and since I was logged into a landline internet connection rather than unsecure wireless I decided to log on to the credit card website to check my credit card statement. The website said that my password had expired; I had to fill out my information to reset it. After doing this it directed me to contact the web division over the phone to reset the password, as the online option had failed. I called on my cell phone, and worked my way through several unhelpful layers of menus (can the first option be “To hear the rest of this recording in the standard, painfully slow voice-over, press 1 now. To hear someone read the options with a sense of urgency and the assumption that your brain can process more than 30 words a minute, press 2 now. To cut to the chase and hear how to talk to a real person that can answer your question, stay on the line”?)

I finally got to the good part “To speak with a technical representative, press 5 now” and punched the required number. Finally I would be having a heart to heart with someone somewhere in India. The reception on my phone had been fine until this moment, when, and I don’t mean to confuse you with technical jargon, it “crapped out”. It was like I was being jammed by an invisible, yet incredibly irritating, electromagnetic monster outside the room. I went for a walk outside the hotel, at which point the static went from so overwhelming that I was unable to hear anything but fuzz, to simply annoying in a pulsating every few seconds with a wave of static sort of way. As I was on hold for over 10 minutes, I had plenty of time to walk around trying to get out of the dead zone, or more appropriately the gravely injured zone, but to no avail, and eventually, having gotten tired enough of hearing a blast of static in my ears every 2 seconds, I placed the phone on speaker.

Finally, about 15 minutes into the call somebody picked up on the other end. I heard “Thank you for calling Citi government card services, can I have your SHOOWOOP-KHHHH”. I said, “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” “Thank you for calling Citi government card services, can I have your SHOOWOOP-KHHHHH”. I’m not kidding, the static broke in at the same part of the sentence. Did they want my name or my card number? “Hold on” I said, “I’ve got you on speaker, let me take you off so I can hear you better”. I took the phone off of speaker, and nobody was there. The dude hung up on me! After listening to bad elevator music overridden by repeated discharges of static for a quarter of an hour!!

At this point I was frustrated, but unwilling to give up I returned to my hotel room to call from a land line. This time there were no reception problems, and after getting through the menus I was of course placed on hold again, with the admonishment that call traffic was heavy (at 10:00 at night? Really?) and that my wait would be around 2 minutes. I can only assume that this is the same prediction given with the first call, which I missed due to the overriding electromagnetic interference blasting over my phone at that time. 15 minutes of blessedly static-free elevator music later and I had another rep on the phone. “Thank you for calling Citi government card services, can I have your credit card number?” “Who am I speaking with?” I asked. “This is Paula”, the voice on the other end replied. “Ok, I got hung up on by the last guy, so I just wanted to have a name in case that happened again” I told her. I could actually hear Paula laughing on the other end of the line, before she came back with “How can I help you?” So we went through the whole rig-a-ma-role of my information and what I needed, with Paula demurely asking if she could put me on hold a couple of times, and got my online password reset. Paula was very polite, and I was happy to finally have internet statement viewing capability restored, an hour after first trying to log on. You have to love technology. And real customer service when you can get it.