Florida – September 2011

Day 19 – departure

Friday 7th October

Ok, it’s finally here – our day of departure. Well, what a whirlwind holiday this has been. We’ve had so many experiences here that it’s hard to take it all in or even know where to begin with trying to summarise the whole thing. It’s been a truly fantastic holiday which, although has been quite a lengthy one as holidays go, has been all too brief too. We certainly could have used more time so as to spend more time with those friends that we did spend time with but also to spend time with those friends that we didn’t get the opportunity to see this time around. This was never going to be a ‘relaxing’ holiday, but the fervent pace at which we careered through the past two and a half weeks has meant that we have been able to put behind us all the stresses and strains that we had been dealing with in the weeks leading up to our departure. From that point of view, this has to be considered a very successful holiday. Each and every day of this trip saw smiles of pure delight on the kids’ faces and this has to be the one true measurement by which the success of the holiday can be gauged. From a purely physical point of view, both me and Sandy could rally do with a break still. Mentally, however, I would like to think that our batteries have been re-energised again.

Our departure routine was never going to be plain sailing. I’m now writing this on the laptop on the plane and already we’ve had to contend with rising stress levels well beyond those that I would have cared for. Here’s how the day has progressed.

We got up a bit later than normal but still early enough that both Shane and Lisa were sound asleep. We tried our best to keep the kids quite but for all the good it did, I might as well have tried to empty the Pacific ocean with a thimble. Still, Shane and Lisa were fast asleep by the time we headed out for our final trip to the Waffle House to tank up for the no doubt arduous journey ahead of us today.

Topped up with energy, we started the ‘big pack’ and set about trying to recover everything from all the corners of the house. I decided that it might be a good idea to collect all the new toys that the kids amassed between them over the past 19 days and to line these up for a photograph. I could barely get everything into the frame with my 28-300 lens.

Sandy much prefers to do the packing herself but I was restless and felt like a fifth wheel and so ‘helped’ from time to time. Needless to say that this ‘help’ was not welcomed and all I really ended up doing was to increase Sandy’s stress levels.

At one point, I went out with Shane to the nearby Target o procure another duffle-bag. We checked in 3 suitcases when we came here. We’ll be checking on no less than 7 at the airport later today. Fortunately, Jason will be at the airport when we arrive in Melbourne to help with shifting all the bags back to our house.

As we pulled into our street on the way back, we spotted Lisa with Joey & Jennifer walking towards the house. They had gone over to the nearby playground – no doubt so as to get out of Sandy’s way as she continued her quest to squeeze everything into the various suitcases we had. We had packed a couple of suitcases in suitcases on the way out in full anticipation of going home with more than we came with.

When Lisa walked in with Joey, he seemed to have been in a bit of distress. It seems that he was stung by either a bee or a wasp and had a welt on his back with a puncture mark in the middle of it to show for the experience. Sandy gave him something for the pain but he seemed to be tolerating it pretty well already.

Sandy hasn’t had the opportunity to do all the things that she wanted to on this trip and we wanted to get a quite bite to eat on the way to the airport. After we had finally packed the car and bid farewell to our temporary home-from-home, we stopped off at a nearby Chick-Fil-A fast-food restaurant, which was a previous favourite of hers.

We bid a sad farewell to Shane and Lisa after lunch and set out towards Orlando International airport. We took the toll roads but this also meant that we didn’t pass any petrol station and we needed to ensure that the car was full of fuel when it was returned so we ignored the exit into the terminal network of roads to see if we could find a filling station somewhere. We did find one soon enough but the fact that the colours of the pumps for petrol and diesel are exactly reversed in America compared to Australia and Europe did slow me down a little bit. I’m not sure what the attendant made of my presumably agitated tone of voice when I kept pressing the intercom button to try to get someone to help we work the pump. It’s amazing how much IQ you drop when engaged in air travel activities.

We dropped off the rental car with little fuss or fanfare and a porter helped us to the United Airlines check-in counter. This, alas, is where things started to go downhill quickly. Firstly, the it’s an automated check-in system using helpful automated terminal screens. Whoever designed the user interface should be shot, repeatedly and in the head with a cannon – a very large cannon – and then taken away to be tortured, slowly. One of the problems was the fact that we don’t have Australian passports but that we’re travelling to Australia as our final destination with no onward ticket. A United Airlines attendant came to our rescue eventually but then told us that we’d have to go down to the far end of the ticket counter to deal with a real person. Unfortunately, Sandy had already dispatched our porter and so this seemingly simple enough objective was somewhat of a stumbling hurdle given the number of kids and bags that we had with us. Fortunately, the United Airlines attendant decided that he would man the terminal near where we were standing and deal with us himself instead.

I can’t really say that we got off to a very good start with our United Airlines attendant. He first wanted to see our passports, which I duly handed him, and already we hit a stumbling block. It just so happens that our Australia Permanent Residency visas states ‘entry no later than …’ and he wanted us to prove that we had entered Australia after that required date so as to prove that we were in compliance with the terms of the visa. What!? This really threw me, as it isn’t something that I have ever been asked before and nor was it something I was expecting either. After some deer-in-the-headlights stares, Sandy eventually stumbled into he solution to this problem and simply opened the old passports to the pages that showed our initial entry stamp from Australian immigration. This seemed to do this trick and it was lucky that we remembered to bring the old passports along with us. Sandy and the kids have new passports that we procured especially for this occasion. Had we not brought the old passports along with us, I’m not sure what we could have done to satisfy the attendant’s wish to be pedantic.

The attendant processed the passports one by one and mine went through fine. For whatever reason, Sandy’s and the kids’ passports weren’t being accepted. he attendant chuckled and said “I’ve never seen this before.” I had no idea what it was that was so perplexing but I was pretty sure it was not going to represent good news for us. After some banging away at his terminal keyboard, he eventually picked up the phone to call for assistance. A few minutes later and he tells me that he’s been connected to Australian Immigration to sort out whatever the problem was. At this point, I had visions of us spending the next several nights sleeping in the airport terminal building. It seems that our visas were not yet tied into the recently renewed passports but the Australian Immigration people had now corrected this and the attendant was then able to process us all further without incident.

At this point, I’m thinking that we’re home free but then the computer spat out our boarding passes and I noticed that none of the seat numbers matched for the LA-Sydney flight. Judging by the numbers, we would be scattered all throughout the aircraft so I questioned this with the attendant. Sure enough, these would be our seat assignments and none of us would be sitting with each other. We spent the next 20 minutes debating the merits of the airline allowing 5 & 6-year-old children, one of which has an autistic spectrum disorder, to sit on their own and unaccompanied by a parent or guarding on a 14-hour flight. Staggeringly, the attendant didn’t seem to see any problem with this. I was absolutely livid with rage at this turn of events. The very best that the attendant could offer us was to put our names on a seat-change list but I wasn’t prepared to let it stand there. I was convinced that we needed to resolve this here and now if we were to stand any chance of getting us all together on that flight. Our man continued to insist there was nothing he could do but I also continued to insist that the airline sort this out here and now. The best he could offer was to ‘sell’ us an upgrade to our tickets at $130 per person. This would then get us into the same cabin section at least. Eventually, I persuaded him to go and get his supervisor and she came over to see what she could do. The problem, it seems, was the fact that the seat assignments are handled by the staff in LA and only then when the flight ‘opens’ shortly before take-off. The best juggling that the supervisor could arrange was to get two seats together in the economy-plus cabin, for which we wouldn’t need to pay. This still left the other two in the same row but not next to each other and this was still unacceptable but push as we might, there was nothing else that we could do at this point. Their computer system simply wasn’t capable of making the changes needed to get us all together. We would have to settle for just going onto the seat-change waiting list and hope that the ground staff in LA would be able to do something for us when we got there.

The flight out to LA was truly gruelling. Our body clocks were sending us to sleep at just about the same time that we were getting onto the flight and I for one simply cannot sleep whilst sitting up. It didn’t matter what position I contorted myself into either. I swear the dammed aircraft seats must surely be designed for maximum discomfort to those wanting to sleep in them. We landed in LA some five hours after departing Orlando and made for an experience I wouldn’t want to repeat or even wish on the designers of the United Airlines check-in terminal software. As it turned out, our lay-over in LA was an incredibly short one and by the time we made our way through the terminal building from the landing date to the departing one, our flight was nearly all boarded already and we were having to rush just to get on board. I asked the clerk at the front desk what they were able to do regarding our seating problem and he looked at me as if I was from another planet. Despite all the assurances that the ground staff tried to give me in Orlando about the LS staff sorting us out, I was simply told that the flight was full and that there was nothing he could do. We could always ‘come back tomorrow’ instead. With a distinct lack of energy to berate the poor sod, we walked onto the plane and tried our luck with the cabin crew instead. We were amongst the last to board and I attracted the attention of the senior flight attendant and explained our situation. To be fair, several of the flight attendants, once they realised the gravity of the situation, did go out of their way to try to accommodate us. They managed to get three consecutive seats at one of the bulk-heads but there was one man in the forth seat that didn’t want to give up his extra leg-room. They then put out an announcement looking for volunteers to give up an isle seat in favour of a free upgrade to Economy-plus. When this revealed no takers, the senior purser told the last hold-out guy that he would simply have to move anyway and we were finally assigned our four consecutive seats. We took our places just as the aircraft started to move back from the gate. Talk about cutting it close! I initially thought that these bulk-head seats were great, as there was indeed more leg-room, but after sitting down, it became clear that tow of the three centre arm-rests were fixed and did not raise up out of the way to make room for someone to lay down. One of the reasons I was so keen to get a row of 4 consecutive seats (other than to keep the family together – itself a good enough reason in its own right) was so that we could have the kids lay down whilst top & tailing with each other. Sandy and I would then sit on the outer isle seats and, if the flight attendants didn’t notice, I would see if I could slip onto the floor to lay straight. As it happens, the centre arm-rest did raise up and the kids were able to top and tail with each other whilst getting a few hours sleep. The bulk-head row also allowed for much more space on the floor so when my body could no longer tolerate it, I waited for the flight attendants to be out of sight and made my move for the floor. Despite covering myself with covers and other bits and bobs, this camouflage wasn’t enough to hide me from the ever-vigilant flight attendants and it wasn’t half an hour before I felt someone tapping on my head and telling me that I wasn’t allowed to lay there. I did my best to get up into an upright position but I just couldn’t bring myself to get into a sitting position and flopped back onto the floor again. I have a vague recollection of one flight attendant saying something like ‘if the seat-belt sign goes on, he’ll have to get up off the floor’. Fortunately, the flight was a very smooth one and I managed several hours of at least being horizontal. It was still uncomfortable but nowhere near as uncomfortable as sitting in an upright position for 14 hours straight.

And so it was that we bid our final farewell to the land of the brave and the home of the free. We travelled otherwise without further incident back the half way around the world again to Melbourne, Australia. It was a good holiday and we will retain fond memories of it. All we need to do now is to kill the jet-lag and slip back into our normal routine.