My job is sending me to San Francisco for training. While this doesn't sound like a big deal to some, I haven't done a lot of traveling. Just take a look my Google Maps data since graduating college.
Figure 1: This aerial view would make you think I'm a nomad that lives along I-90.
I haven't been on an airplane in probably a decade. I've never traveled alone. I really have no idea how airports or other cities work. For your amusement, I've decided to document my trip as I go, focusing on my mistakes and confusion.
Sunday 5:50 PM, - O'Hare Airport
I departed this afternoon from Madison's only airport. It was quaint, and just about everything the air travel experience should be. Even the fellow that makes you remove your belt and shoes under threat of a baton beating was no more authoritative than they should be.
When I arrived at the gate, we soon were shepherded to an airplane that was so small, it looked like it was cut out of a museum exhibit meant to teach kids about airplanes. It was a proper metal cigar tube with wings.
Figure 3: My brave steed, apparently.
But after buckling into my prime window seat, we were asked to leave. The pilot called the delay a "VIP movement". Apparently there was somebody traveling through O'Hare airport who was so important that all other planes needed to wait until he was done. The unenthused stewardist clarified that it was President Barack Obama.
"Thanks Obama!" I whispered. Nobody acknowledged my joke. Perhaps it was too "on the nose".
After milling around in the airport for another hour, we were told to board in the same fashion. Pavement, stairs, window seat, seat belts, and finally lift off.
The flight was comically quick. We were only in the air for twenty-seven minutes. I swear I've made the same drive in only two hours. During the flight, we were assured that since the delay affected all flights in an out of Chicago, any connecting flights were likely still viable. That was good news, but I figured I had better just treat it like it was still the same time printed on my ticket.
O'Hare, in contrast to the Dane County regional airport, is a war zone. People were practically stabbing each other for AC outlets. Parents shoving Mcdonalds cheeseburgers into their kids' mouths. Additionally, navigating this airport was considerably more complicated. My target gate number looked like a foot note out of an obscure academic journal. I followed its promise through a churning sea of angry, weary people.
Figure 4: Just look at these savages…
To my horror, arriving at gate H-11-A I beheld the great walkway retracting. Despite what I had been assured, my connecting flight hat not been delayed. It was still taking off at 5:00 PM, and I had arrived at 5:10 PM.
As I waddled over to the desk, relinquishing my wife's blue polka dotted bag to the ground, a furious bald man stepped in line in front of me. Veins swelled around his temples. He had that "I'm about to make a scene" look about him.
"We need to be on that plane!" He yelled and pointed his big muscular arm at the attendant.
"Sir, we closed the gate ten minutes ago. The walkway has already been retracted. That's not possible."
"Well get us on another flight!" he hollared. His laser-guided trimmed goatee seemed to bristle. The attendant yammered at a keyboard. I knew what the answer would be before she said it.
"There are no more seats on that flight, sir." The man clenched his fists. His female companion, clad in glossy exercise clothes rolled up behind her. She read his frustration and joined in the beratement.
"I don't see how it's our fault that Obama delayed our flight! That's not fair."
"Thanks, Obama" I whispered again. They did not acknowledge my joke. I pulled out my phone and stared at my lock-screen.
"Look! We're doctors! We NEED to be in San Francisco tomorrow because we have patients to treat! Are you guys going to treat our patients instead?"
My thoughts drifted. I imagined walking into a doctor's office being greeted by an American Airline's employee. "Good morning. Your doctor's flight was delayed, so the airline sent me to check your prostate."
"Honey," yelled baldy. "They don't give a RAT'S ASS about us." The two stormed away. I sauntered up to the counter after them.
"Hi… I think I have the same problem as that angry guy." The attendant smirked as I continued, handing her my ticket. "I was supposed to be on that connecting flight." She proceeded to work on the computer.
Wanting to capitalize on our rapport, I added "…and I'm not a doctor, so feel free to take your time." The woman started laughing.
"Don't worry about it - you were put on the next flight out. Your plane leaves in two hours." My mouth dropped in amazement. "And feel free to tell that angry guy that you got the last seat."
Figure 5: I would have traded it for free surgery. Maybe he could surgically make my upper body look stronger…
Which brings me here - Dear Reader. Hunched over a wobbly table for
one, charging my phone at a sticky power outlet that I may or may not
have stabbed somebody for. And I can't help but feel lucky. Now if
you'll excuse me, I need to get to gate
4b. (iii). Hopefully sometime tonight I'll be somewhere in San
Francisco - unless Obama manages to screw that up too. Thanks,
Sunday 9:46 PM, 30,000 ft. above the United States
I get the impression that people who fly are supposed to appear disinterested. I'm doing my best to fit in, but it's all just so exciting. I'm attentive to everything mumbled over the airport loudspeaker. I smirk as the plane lurches forward like a spaceship on the runway. My face is practically pressed on the glass when the plane banks, revealing a wildly new perspective of the familiar Chicago skyline.
Figure 7: Or the familiar Madison skyline - if it even qualifies as a "skyline". The lakes look so tiny from up here.
I finally get to ride in a plane big enough for me to stand in - not that I'll be doing much standing. The plane is 100% booked. I kept an eye out for the angry doctor duo from earlier. Part of me feels guilty for taking what could have been their seat. Part of me wonders if I have any blood on my hands. Let's hope for the sake of my conscience that they were just plastic surgeons and they were late for a tattoo removal or something.
Everything on an airplane seems a lot tinier than I remember. I feel like I've been making T-rex arms for the past three hours. I could get a little more room if I tipped my seat back, but we've been in the air for at least an hour and I feel like that would be totally unfair to the guy behind me. Everybody knows that if you don't change your seat within the first five seconds of sitting down, you really can't change it at all. It's a binding social contract. The guy behind probably has his heart set on keeping the extra 1.5 inches of leg room.
Correction. He has a neck-pillow. Everybody knows that if you use a neck pillow in public, most social contracts don't apply to you. Sorry buddy.
Figure 8: Nothing but the sound of polite snoring and shifting neck pillows.
I'm going to pretend to sleep now. On the outside, I'll be a cool, disinterested air traveler. On the inside, I'm just a little kid pretending he's on a spaceship barreling towards Mars.
Monday 7:51 AM, Equator Coffee Shop, Market St.
Well against all odds, I made it. Sorry I don't have any pictures of my digs yet. I rolled into the hotel at what was biologically 2AM, threw my stuff on the ground, and just sort of collapsed. Five hours later, I my phone stirred me from my coma and I realized I didn't have any toothpaste. I also realized I don't know where anything is.
I mimed several fake phone calls while I did my best to look like I was intentionally walking in zig zags. I already have a good navigation tip for you all: Market Street is the really big road with all the signs that say "Market Street". Sometimes you have to put down Google Maps and just use what little self awareness you have at your disposal.
Figure 10: Is this market street?
Figure 11: Oh - this must be market street.
I have about an hour until work starts. I'm going to use it to catch up on emails and sponge my dried out brain with this delicious hipster fair-trade organic coffee.
Monday 9:30 AM, Zendesk HQ
I met up with coworker Dave and we wandered around the city a bit, then we finally made our way to the office. It's right next to a Chai shop, so the dizzying smell of gingerbread and spices follows you everywhere. I'm already accustomed to the Zendesk style, but as you would expect, they go all out for their Headquarters.
Toothpaste, deodorant, granola, and coffee are starting to make me feel human again.
Monday 8:19 PM, Hotel Abri
Today was a marathon. I really haven't stopped moving all day. It was incredible getting to spend so much time with probably some of the brightest people in IT I've ever met, but maintaining that level of focus was exhausting.
In need of healing, I staggered over to Katayana Ramen - a boisterous hole in the wall three blocks north of my hotel. I could hear their dubsteb playing from across the street.
I ordered a bowl of ramen. The waitress brought me a new reason to leave my hotel this week.
Figure 19: If this bowl of ramen were one of the Black Eyed Peas, it would be Fergie.
This bowl of food may have changed my life.
So here I am in my hotel again. I can't move. I see my running shoes in the corner. What a fool I was when I packed those! The idea of running right now is equally hilarious and nauseating.
Tuesday 8:46 PM, Somewhere in Chinatown
Due to my shyness, I dread every minute I spend outside my hotel room. I'm tempted to spend all night poking around the Internet and falling asleep under a bag of sunflower seeds.
The food is the only thing that gets me to step outside at night. I quickly discovered that carefully planning meals and routes with Google maps is not the way to experience the city. The information isn't fresh, and most of the reviews are overly cynical.
Today, I downloaded a compass app onto my watch and ventured out into the crisp night in search of Chinatown. I slipped into the first restaurant that smelled like fish.
Figure 21: Chinatown
I don't remember the name of the place, but I can tell you that the fish that ended up in my stir-fry was staring back at me through an aquarium minutes before.
Figure 22: Hi - my name is Alex, and I'll be your apex predator today…
My fortune cookie reads, The evening promises romantic interests. Since my wife isn't around, I don't see that coming true - unless we're still talking about food.
The city is different. Nobody carries my favorite beer. The streets are steep. I can't seem to find my hotel room on the first try. But there is delicious food out there, and that is worth the adventure.
Figure 23: Romance, indeed
Thursday 8:01 AM, Zendesk HQ
There is a magical room at the end of the 2nd floor of the Zendesk building called "Feather". Besides the comfy couches and video game themed pillows, the entire wall facing the street is glass. With all the interesting characters that stumble down market street, this room is people watching paradise.
Don't worry, I'm not pretending to work. I got here a few minutes early to catch up on the old blog.
Yesterday, Nick treated me and Dave to Vietnamese food.
That cup of bright orange liquid is not some kind of pumpkin spiced latte. It's a Thai iced tea which was laced with enough caffeine to restart somebody's heart.
After work I set out for the North East side once again in search of The Ramen Underground. It's not very flashy, but I could tell my the number of people waiting in line that I was onto something good. I penned my name on a little whiteboard hanging on the window, then waited outside for twenty minutes before I was led to a tiny seat at the bar.
I ordered the house sake. The waitress brought me a shot glass in a tiny wooden box, then overflowed the glass, letting the precious sake I had purchased spill out. I panicked, and asked the family's slack channel for advice.
I have a cultural emergency. I just ordered sake at a Ramen shop, and they put the little shot glass in a wooden box and made it overflow. Am I allowed to drink what's in the box, or will I look like an idiot?
My wife did some research, and explained that this was the traditional way to pour sake. It is a reflection on the restaurant's generosity. And they were generous.
After dinner, I walked to the pier to burn off some calories.
San Francisco has been generous, and has left my cup overflowing.
Saturday 3:23 AM, 30,000 ft. above the United States
Was I supposed to be home in Wisconsin about six hours ago? Absolutely. What am I still doing in a plane? I'll use that as my cliffhanger.
Thursday was great. Dave and I had the last of our training sessions, then ate lunch at a taco booth. Then after work, I met the one and only Drew Hannay at my hotel for some rascally fun in the city.
I pictured Drew being a cool San Francisco local that was ready to whisk me away to a magical underground sushi restaurant, or show me where the Twitter employees held their fight club. But Drew knew San Francisco about as well as I did. His compass was more accurate than mine, so at least he was kind of useful.
Drew and I plunked into another random Chinese restaurant and spent the meal reminiscing about our college days. He reminded me of a funny story. Around the time of our Freshman year, Google released Chrome and, being the fanboy he was, Drew was trying to get everyone in his dorm to adopt it. I was resistant to change, since I barely knew how to use my computer and I didn't know how to migrate my Safari bookmarks to anything else.
Drew found many creative ways to get Chrome in my dock, but I always managed to delete it. Finally, he had checkmate when he installed chrome and used OSX wizardry to give it the same icon as my beloved Safari. I don't even think I realized it right away. I guess the real punchline is that six years later, we're both Software Engineers and we're chatting in a bar in the bay area.
I was touched that Drew drove all the way up from San Jose to eat Chinese food and get lost in the Tenderloin with his old college suite-mate. He's the real deal.
Friday is where things got kind of disorienting. I was awoken by an automated call from American Airlines at 6 AM. The robocaller mercillesly informed me that my flight has been canceled, and I was to fly out at midnight. It's 3:45 AM right now, so by my watch, I have about another six hours before I can see my family again.
Or who knows. Maybe I'll get another mysterious robocall telling me that my connecting flight is canceled too. Maybe I'll have to live at O'Hare permanently.
Sunday 8:56 PM, Home
Finally home. I walked in my front door yesterday around 11 AM, and I've basically been asleep since. To be honest, I don't even remember being in O'Hare. At some point, I took a picture of this sandwich, thinking it was a joke or something.
My little family met me at the baggage claim. My son looked twice as big as he did only a week ago.
I think it's safe to say that traveling is out of my system. Two connecting flights in twenty-four hours will do that to you, I guess. Take a look at my map now! I worked hard to put that blip there on the west coast.