Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Interstates and Airways

Is 1086 miles too far to drive in one day?  It didn't seem too strenuous when I recently zinged along the Interstates en route to Mapleton, Iowa from Raleigh, North Carolina.  I had to pick up something from my friend the mayor of Mapleton that couldn't be shipped, and it's almost 1300 miles from Raleigh.

I left home at 4:55 AM (ET) and was soon on I-40 West, and that evening at 9:25 PM (ET) I pulled off I-80 at Grinnell. Iowa to check in at a Best Western for a few hours of rest, 1086 miles from Raleigh.  Speed limits along the route were mostly 65-70 MPH, and I never pushed more than 6-7 MPH over the limit wherever I was.  Yet I made almost 1100 miles in one day without feeling totally exhausted and spent.

My route took me west to Winston-Salem and then northwest to cross what local radio stations called "Far Western Virginia" (I presume the phrase intended to leave no doubt that the broadcasts emanated from the Commonwealth of Virginia and not that far-off place known as West Virginia).  The Appalachians rose abruptly as the NC-Virginia line approached, and the early November landscape was still gorgeous with autumnal colors.  By the time I reached Princeton, West Virginia, however, the leaves were mostly gone from the trees, and there was a light dusting of snow on the northside shadow areas of the steep mountains.  I joined the WV Turnpike towards Charleston and enjoyed the scenery.

Soon my Toyota Sienna was nosing due west in the direction of Huntington, West Virginia.  As my Charleston NPR station began to fade behind me, I scanned the dial for a substitute.  Suddenly Nat King Cole's voice was crooning "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" through my Bose speakers.  Surely Christmas music was not already on the program!  Halloween was scarcely over.  Nat was followed by Sinatra and then Crosby wailing their own Christmas melodies, and yet, fascinated, I just had to listen.  An announcer came on identifying the stations as Magic 97.9 "All Christmas all the time" and proud of it.  I wondered how this went over in mid-summer and whether their ad revenues dropped between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.  Maybe, I thought, they should play Independence Day Sousa marches in that period.  I admit that I was soon singing along to my favorite Christmas carols.

Farther down the road as I entered Kentucky, Magic 97.9 crackled away into static, and I scanned again, this time picking up a northeastern Kentucky public radio station in the middle of a local news piece on the crowning of Miss Bituminous Coal at some coal festival or other.  Because I missed the opening, I never heard the city, but the the young woman crowned as Miss Bituminous Coal was impressive in the radio interview.  Speaking with a twang, she clearly articulated what a debt her family and her region owed to coal, and she painted a sophisticated, complex picture of the web of business and life that connected remote Appalachia to the world.  The coal industry should hire her as a spokesperson, and I was certain she would go far based on the telling short spiel I was fortunate enough to hear.

It was barely mid-morning, and already I was glad I was driving instead of flying.  On such a road trip, my senses richly benefit from close proximity to what happens in America on the ground.  Flying over is certainly efficient and quick, but it misses everything that's important to connect travelers to life.

West to Lexington, and then to Louisville, I crossed the Ohio River and headed north to Indianapolis.  Skirting the city's southwest corner put me on a path due west to Danville in Illinois, then to Champaign/Urbana, Bloomington/Normal, and Peoria:  American heartland.  By late afternoon I had passed Galesburg and was bearing down on the Quad Cities of Rock Island/Moline (Illinois)/Bettendorf/Davenport (Iowa).  There I joined I-80 for the push across Iowa.

Luck was with me, and I encountered only one serious slowdown, and that was west of Davenport.  It cost me about a half hour.  By nine-thirty I felt it was time to rest, and I chose Grinnell because I like the college.  Also I saw the Best Western sign and figured they'd have room.  I didn't make any reservations in advance because I didn't know how far I'd get.  Sure enough they had a few rooms left.

Best Westerns have been steadily improving their product and image, and their prices, while still modest compared to, say, Hilton's Hampton Inn brand, have risen.  I paid $76 plus tax for a very spacious room with an HD flatscreen and close to 100 TV channels.  The bathroom was first-class, as were all the room's features and amenities, and breakfast the next morning (included) was better than a Hampton's.

Leaving Grinnell at 6:00 AM (CT) the following morning, I recalled that you can't find an Interstate exit in Iowa that doesn't have a really good college or university nearby, and that fact probably tends to keep hotel prices a few dollars higher (parents and alumni, you know) than properties at a run-of-the-mill Interstate exit.

The truckers on I-80, and in fact everywhere, were generally careful and courteous drivers, staying in the right lane except to pass and signaling their intentions (unlike many cars).  My Sienna never gave better miles per gallon, over 23 MPG, because of the steady speeds with cruise control on.  I took in the passing scene while enjoying NPR programs and several traditional jazz CDs.  I departed I-80 at Des Moines, traveling due north to Boone, where I took U.S. 30 (the Lincoln Highway) due west.  I enjoyed watching trains as I closely paralleled the main line of the Union Pacific Railroad (formerly this was the main line of the Chicago & Northwestern) and passed through picture-perfect Great Plains burgs, each one with a distinctive grain elevator near the railroad tracks.  Americana!  You can't get this experience at 30,000 feet.

At the 1278 mile mark I arrived in beautiful Mapleton, which is in northwesten Iowa.  The terrain there is very hilly, with steep ups and downs, sharply different from most of the rest of the state.  After a too-brief visit to load my van, I reluctantly started east again.  I could have stayed for a day to get to know Mapleton, home to 1294 souls.  Recovering well from its encounter last April with a devestating tornado that destroyed or damaged 60% of the town, Mapleton demonstrates the resilience and determination of Midwesterners.

By ten that night I had made my way back to a small town south of Indianapolis about 50 miles short of Louisville, which I knew was only 8 hours driving time from Raleigh.  I slept at a Days Inn where the rate was a mere $59 plus tax, and the room was almost as nice as the Best Western's the night before.  Even the Day's Inn was equipped with a modern flatscreen and offered crystal-clear HD reception.  The hotel also had excellent amenities.  Point being, the gap between the Marriotts and the Hiltons and the Best Westerns and the Days Inns has narrowed considerably.  Aside from points, why stay at a pricey Hilton property now?

Next morning I was off again early, and by 3:00 PM on the third day after leaving Raleigh at 5:00 AM, I was in my driveway: 1278 miles there, and 1267 miles home, for a total of 2545 miles in 58 hours door-to-door.  It was a wonderful experience, marred only by a few traffic snarls (no love lost on drives through Louisville, Indianapolis, or Peoria), yet I made great time and saw the world at eye level.  No wonder Charles Kuralt loved his job.

The very next week I flew to New Orleans and back (via Delta) for a 3-day trip.  Delta treated me well, and the flights were on time.  I was even upgraded on two of the four flights.  Life was good, I thought.  Yet having just made such a memorable cross-country road trip, the contrasts were hard to ignore, as for example:

  • On the road I was, more or less, the master of my own fate.  I could drive as far as I wanted, stopping when I pleased, tailoring the experience to my own liking in unique and unprogrammed existential increments.  Once I passed the TSA security screen at RDU, however, I yielded myself to be herded along on Big Brother's program.  Existential moments vaporized into the X-ray machine like smoke.
  • The connections going and returning were through Atlanta, and it was the same sterile environment it's always been.  "Doors are closing and will not re-open" is the constant refrain of the underground connecting shuttle.  The same tired news stands with the same tired candy bars and magazines.  The same ugly gates.  The soul is soon enough weary.
  • In the fifty-one years that I have been flying, I have always enjoyed looking out the windows of airplanes.  Imprisoned on the aluminum tube as we all are to be sure, it's still a thrill to witness takeoffs defying the laws of gravity.  I never take for granted the beauty of the view from aloft, piercing fluffy clouds and seeing the earth from God's vantage.  Yet more and more I notice that my fellow fliers not only eschew the opportunity to ponder the world from above, but they insist on closing the window shades even before takeoff, pecking away at their Blackberries or laptops, or staring zombie-like at some inane program on tiny seatback screens.  It's not only depressing but positively dehumanizing and more than a wee bit claustraphobic to have the cabin closed up.  I hated it on my recent flights more than ever.
Of course I will fly again, and again and again after that, without regret.  The limits of time and the demands of distance require it.  There won't be so many road trips, but I look to each journey across the face of the earth as a welcome opportunity for my soul's energy enrichment.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Farewell, Hanoi; Hello, Nanning

Christmas Day, 2010 began with another mediocre but filling breakfast at the Luxor Hotel in Hanoi, a place we had come to feel at home in.  Afterwards we walked around the lake in central Hanoi before stopping in a fancy cafe called Little Hanoi just past ten o'clock to escape the sudden strong rain.  Ponchos appeared like magic on the unending stream of motorbike riders passing outside our window while we nibbled on a mid-morning snack of crab rolls and pasta.  It was a relaxing way to spend a Christmas morning, and certainly not traditional by Western standards.

As we anticipated our departure from the city that evening (by train to Nanning, China), our kids reminisced about their favorite Vietnam experiences.  Our son appreciated that the Vietnamese people were all so nice, and our daughter enthused about the whole city of Hanoi and the buffet on the Halong Bay barge.

The rain soon passed, and we crisscrossed many of the streets in the old city, ending up at La Place restaurant near the cathedral in mid-afternoon for a late lunch.  Their food was outstanding. 

Heading back to the hotel on foot, we bargained with street vendors: 50 cents for a face mask; 30 cents for a journal.  The rain presaged a cold snap moving in, and we were glad to reach the Luxor and warm up.

Late in the afternoon a seven-passenger taxi-van (part of our hotel package deal) transported us across the river to the Gia Lam rail station where we waited for our 9:30 PM train for Nanning. 

The Gia Lam train station is small, very depressing, and quite remote.  I had to look hard to be sure the taxi had brought us to the right place.  It's just a half hour from old Hanoi, but the locals on the street stopped to stare at us like they'd never seen a round-eye in the flesh. 

The nearest toilets (out the side and down the street from the station) were filthy and dimly lit.  The stench made me think of some places like it in Malaysia I'd visited. 

The "International Train" waiting room gradually filled up with Vietnamese and Chinese.  We were the sole Westerners. 

A gaggle of twenty-something Chinese girls who spoke pretty good English explained that they were students at a university in Hanoi and going home to China to visit friends and family.  Giggling, they told me that I looked like "Christmas Man" (they meant Santa Claus, of course).  Why? I asked. "Because you are old and fat and have whiskers," they said, smiling deferentially.  I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, but finally concluded that old, pudgy, and bearded is OK as long as I am still vertical.  Anyway, those girls left me with a unique Christmas memory.

We were allowed to board at 9:10 PM (9:30 was the scheduled departure).  The train equipment and crew were Chinese.  The five of us (five including our Italian exchange student whose parents had funded her trip with us) found our "soft sleeper" car and were shown our reserved rooms by the car steward. 

That's where I turned out to be the odd man out.  Each soft sleeper compartment has four beds, and there were five of us.  My wife, our two kids, and our Italian exchange student (a girl) filled one entire compartment.  The steward showed me to a bed in the compartment next door. 

Being separated from my family was no problem, as they were just a few feet away.  But I had to share my compartment with a late middle-aged Chinese man who smoked incessantly in his bed despite signage imprecations in several languages stating "NO SMOKING." 

It is no exaggeration to describe my compartment as constantly filled with blue smoke.  The cadaverous Chinese fellow chain-smoked one butt after another, never sleeping.  I barked at him in English and used sign language to demand he snuff out his coffin nails, and he reluctantly complied. But as soon as I'd drift off to sleep, he would light up another fag.

I complained to the steward, but he claimed not to understand English.  He sheepishly shrugged when I pantomimed the problem and pointed inside the compartment where smoke was wafting out the door as though a bonfire was blazing inside.  It was plain that nobody would enforce the no-smoking policy, so I stayed for a long time in the aisle by the window and dozed standing up to avoid the noxious atmosphere of my soft sleeper compartment.

I lost track of time, partly because of the time change at the Vietnamese-Chinese border, but I think it was around 2:00 AM that we reached Dong Dang on the Vietnam frontier with China.  There all passengers had to vacate their cars and enter the dark, stark terminal building for customs and immigration checks.  All passports were taken, and after 45 minutes of inspections of people and luggage, our names were called to collect our documents and bags.  It was by then very cold (the cold snap I mentioned earlier), and we were exhausted. We trundled back to our compartments, and soon the train was crawling slowly to the Chinese side of the border.

It took a surprising 45 minutes of slow running to reach China where we stopped again for another 45 minutes of customs and immigration checks under buzzing fluorescent lights so bright they made my eyes hurt.  It was still cold, and we were all shivering as we stood waiting our turn.

When we were finally allowed to return to the train, I was relieved to find my compartment mate snoring loudly in a deep sleep.  Better covering my ears than my nose and mouth, I thought, and I was soon sleeping hard, too. 

When I awoke at 7:35 AM we were passing some of the most beautiful landscapes in China or anywhere on earth.  Guangxi Province is famous for its terrain, and the southern part near Vietnam is captivating.  I headed for the diner.

Next blog entry: the beautiful morning train ride to Nanning, punctuated by a delicious, if simple, breakfast of noodles in the diner.