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December 31, 2008

The Peanut Gallery vs. Mexico

The Peanut Gallery went to Mexico this Christmas. It was an amazing, generous gift from my parents to the entire family that we all went together on a Carnival cruise to tour Progreso and Cozumel. There are 9 of us, including Schondy and me, my brother, my sister and her husband and two children, and my parents. We had a lot of fun and it was great to see everyone all in one place, especially since that doesn't happen very often given where Schondy and I live. I'm hoping Schondy will get some of his pictures of the trip posted soon, and when he does, I hope he'll include some information about what we did on the cruise. But I have another story to tell. The story of how we got to and from the cruise and the merry adventures we had along the way.

Ok, so you have to know that things started off simply enough. And before we left, it was absolutely smooth sailing. The morning of the 19th, Lulu was delivered to the wonderfully kind people who were going to take care of her for the week, and the cats' toys were packed and ready to go for when their babysitters arrived later in the evening to pick them up. Schondy and I were all packed and we even had a friend who'd offered to drive us to the airport. (Thank you to all the kind, generous people who helped us over this vacation. We truly could not have done it without you)

Our first inkling that things might not continue so smoothly came when we arrived at the airport at 10:30 for our 12:19 flight. While sitting at the gate, waiting to board, we looked up at the sign and realized it said our flight was delayed and that we wouldn't be leaving until 12:45. Hm. Our layover in Houston had only been about 45 minutes to begin with. Now what?... Okay. No panic. We'll just... um... run for it. Yeah. That's it.

So after a while longer of panicking, our flight finally left at... 1:15. And we had bulkhead seats! Glorious legroom! And our pilot assured us that we'd be early into Houston. Okay. Still not panicking, but at this point, we're discussion contingency plans. Maybe there are other flights to Mobile. Maybe there are flights to Birmingham. Or maybe Montgomery. We can just call Mom and Dad and have them pick us up in one of those cities. No panic. We'll be fine.

When we hit the ground in Houston, the flight attendants on the plane announced that some people had extremely tight connections and asked that those people be allowed to exit the plane first. We jumped up, ran out, and were first to meet the gate agent, who asked where we were flying to. We breathlessly told her Mobile, at which point she flipped through the boarding passes in her hands and handed us two of them for a flight... on the 20th, arriving in Mobile at 2pm. Well, here's the thing. Notice how I said before that we left the house on the 19th? And, well, we had a ship to catch in Mobile on the 20th, and we had to be at the terminal before 2:30. See the problem? I think my response was something along the lines of, "But we CAN'T!" The lady was gearing up for a fight when I said that, but I was just... um... panicking.

So off we trotted to the customer service desk, where we told our plight to the nice lady behind the counter. .. who assured us there was nothing she could do. We tried everything - flights into Montgomery, flights into Birmingham, flights into New Orleans - anything we could thing of to get us further east before we had to start driving. Meanwhile, I've been calling my family all along, keeping them informed of the situation and letting them know the plan of the moment, which changed about 1000 times. We found out in the course of talking to this lady that we were caught in the same mess as thousands of other people. Flights were cancelled all over the country. Flights were delayed, over-booked and generally messed up everywhere. There was literally NOTHING the airlines could do. At some point in here, the very nice lady also wrote down 3-4 phone numbers to call various car rental companies to reserve a car.

We also learned that because we were flying on "reward" tickets (purchased by my parents with some of their thousands of frequent flyer miles), if at any point, we didn't take a part of our journey with them, the entire rest of the trip would be canceled. That's right, our tickets on our return flights would be canceled if we didn't fly with them... which is how we ended up with the last two tickets on a flight bound for New Orleans, leaving at 9:30 that night. We'd still have to drive from New Orleans to Mobile, but it's only about 200 miles and we could do that, then sleep the rest of the night in Mobile and be ready to meet the ship by 2. We felt reasonably good with this plan, so decided to figure out where our luggage had ended up in all the kerfuffle. So off we went to the baggage services area.

In baggage services, we talked with another very nice lady who punched all our information into the computer, and then said (very casually), "Why was it you didn't get on the Mobile flight?" Turns out, that flight had been delayed, too, and had left about 45 minutes late. Meaning: we could have caught it.

The very nice lady then said, "Oh, your New Orleans flight has just been delayed and now won't be leaving here until 12:30am." Now, she had no idea what we'd been going through, but this comment, of course, stopped us dead in our tracks. It was at this point that we said... "Give us our bags. We're done gambling with you guys. We're driving the rest of this trip."

We'd already looked it up. It was 480 miles from Houston to Mobile. If we left... now-ish (8:30pm), we'd get to Mobile about 4am. It wasn't the best of plans, but at least we knew we'd get there and wouldn't be stranded in random airport #3. When we asked for our luggage, we got exactly the answer you'd expect: "The baggage handlers are so backed up, that right now, baggage retrieval requests take 2-3 hours to process. But if you're sure, please fill out the information on this little slip of paper and we'll start looking." Seriously. She wasn't kidding. So we filled out the little slip of paper and took off to talk to a ticket agent about leaving the airport behind without losing our return flights (remember how I said they'd be canceled?).

So we got in line with the hundred other people trying to get new flights or check in for their flight or... whatever and tried to get up to the front to talk to someone about keeping our tickets. When we got through to talk to someone, we told them what we wanted and were told that we'd have to talk to the customer service center on the phone. Well, I'd been on hold with them pretty much the entire time we'd been in line and still nothing. So the lady at the counter called. And they generally get through much faster. And she was told the same thing - if we jumped ship, we'd lose our return tickets. Happily, the regional manager was in the Houston airport right then, and just happened to be walking by and heard what was going on. He approved the change. :-) (Thank you, Mr. Regional Manager. If I knew your name, I'd send you a thank you card.)

So while Schondy confirmed all that information, I called Hertz to reserve a car. That part, at least was easy. We knew it was going to take another hour or more to get our luggage, so while we waited on that, we took off to the car rental place to pick up our new mode of transportation. Turns out to get a navigation system, you have to pay extra, but at this point, we didn't care. This is how we ended up with a brand new, shiny white Ford Explorer with a nav system to drive to Mobile in.

When we got back to baggage services to pick up our luggage (~9pm), we sat around for a good 20-30 minutes until the very nice baggage services lady found us and told us... wait for it... "Oh, I just found out where your luggage is. It's in Mobile. It made the flight you missed."

Okay. To take stock of the situation, it's 9:30pm:
Where are we: Houston Airport
Where our luggage is: In Mobile, AL, waiting for us
Mode of transportation: Explorer to Mobile, AL, return flights after the cruise confirmed
Time until ship leaves: 14.5 hours
Additional problems:
Because of all the phone calls to parents, customer service and car rental places, my phone is DEAD.
We have not eaten in... many hours.
We will not be getting any sleep tonight.

So off to the Explorer we go. We have nothing but the clothes on our backs and whatever junk we threw in our carry on bags. This means we need a store. What's open in Texas that might be able to help us? Why, Super Wal-Mart, of course! So on the way out of the airport parking, we stop to talk to the women in the booths, who tell us to head south on 45 to get to a Wal-Mart. After a couple wrong turns and a few minutes in the WRONG part of town (where we bought a map of the area because we hadn't yet figured out the nav system in the car), we find ourselves shopping at Wal-Mart. At 10pm. Less than a week before Christmas. In Houston, Texas. Surprise! The place was a zoo.

Wal-Mart gives us a car charger for my phone and some random travel food to keep us from starving. Starbucks gives us some human rocket fuel to keep us awake. And we give the Explorer instructions to point us to Mobile. While we drove, we called the hotel in Mobile where we'd been planning to sleep and told them what had happened. Despite their 24-hour cancellation policy that should have meant we had to pay the entire amount at this late date, they gave us our money back and said it was not a problem (Thank you, very nice lady at the Battle House Hotel in Mobile!!)

The drive was long. Very long. We called the family every 1-2 hours to let them know where we were. We ate broccoli and hummus (well, I did. Schondy just fed it to me as I drove). It was the foggiest night EVER. At no point did we have the road to ourselves, which was very interesting. There was one truck we kept trading places with that was most festive with its Christmas lights wrapped around the front grill. We saw a truck that was on fire. We listened to WAY too many badly-sung Christmas carols. And we arrived in Mobile at the airport at about 6am.

If you've never been to the Mobile, AL airport, lemme tell you - it's tiny. We walked into the front door at 6:15 and found a sign at the ticket counter saying, "Ticket counter closes 30 minutes before all scheduled flight departures. The sign on the wall told us that there was a flight departing at 6:22. That meant we had some time to kill. So I left Schondy there to grab the first person to appear who looked like they might work for the airline, and I wandered off to talk to the Hertz people about returning the Explorer.

Hertz doesn't open there until 7:30am. So we waited. And after a good 20 minutes, the airline people came back and gave us our luggage (hooray!!) And then we could go back out to the Explorer and clean it up while we waited for Hertz to open. And then they were open and we could return the car (hooray!!). And then we went over to the airport customer service desk to ask about a cab and a hotel in which to sleep.

Here's an interesting factoid for you: most hotels won't check you in before 9am. It was 7:45am. But we were stubborn and asked that we get a cab to the hotel anyway and I was going to see if I could talk my way into a room. The 3 ladies at the customer service desk were just as helpful and polite as they could be and called Henry to bring the car around and drive us in to town to the Ramada. (Did I mention the Mobile airport is tiny?)

Henry was a chatty one. Very nice and friendly, but I have to confess that neither Schondy nor I was in much mood for in-depth conversation at that point. A good 20 minutes later, we arrived at the Ramada in downtown Mobile and I presented myself at the counter to ask for a room (knowing full well that it was 8am and they had said over the phone that they wouldn't check me in before 9). She said no. I'm not sure how she managed it, because I know she looked me straight in the eye to do it, and I'm sure I looked exactly as tired as I felt. But she said no.

So I said I was going to take advantage of her complimentary breakfast and coffee while I waited. She said that was fine. I think she knew she didn't have any other choice. At 8:55am, I presented myself back at the front desk and asked for a room again. She happily gave me one.

But then. We got to the room and discovered... that the key cards didn't work. So back to the front desk I went, where she programmed them again. And then they worked. And then we slept, after calling the family to let them know where we were and ask for a wake-up call promptly at noon. And that was when I discovered that one of the suitcases had been inspected by the airline and the gift I'd wrapped and packed for my niece had been discovered and the TSA agent, to make a point to me, had packing-taped a TSA inspection notice to the gift for me! So thoughtful of her! It fit right in with the whole adventure.

At noon, we got up, dressed, threw all our junk in the suitcases and checked out of the room, asking the girl at the counter to call a cab for us so we could get to the cruise terminal. And for the next couple days, we had a wonderful, marvelous time. The room was small, but comfortable. The food was really good. It was wonderful to see the family. It was wonderful to see their faces when they saw me for the first time in a long time.

It was all wonderful and glorious until Schondy came down with a cough. And then the cough turned into a fever and chills and a nasty little head/chest cold. But he was a trooper. And he went with the rest of us on the excursion in Progreso where we toured the Mayan ruins and saw the flamingos and hung out on the beach. And then we went on the excursion in Cozumel where we saw the crocodile and toured the lighthouse and snorkeled along the reef.

And then I got sick with the cough and the fever and the head/chest cold... and the sea sickness. We were quite the pair, Schondy and I. Thanks to copious amounts of Tylenol and copious amounts of patience from the family, we made it all the way back to Mobile on Christmas day, only to find that the horrible weather that had made things such trouble on our trip out had continued, and the fog in Mobile Bay was too thick for the ship to make it into port. We were supposed to be on the dock in Mobile before our scheduled debarkation time of 8am. We finally debarked at about 5pm. We all remarked about how bad we felt for the hundreds of people leaving on the ship we'd just arrived on and how they were getting royally gypped on their cruise, which would leave a full day late due to the weather.

And then we drove from Mobile to my grandfather's house in Montgomery, where we opened Christmas gifts and had our Christmas dinner of ham sandwiches. And then the rest of the family headed north, going home to Kentucky and Tennessee, and Schondy and I spent the night at my grandfather's house. The next morning, we got up, repacked the suitcases and prepared to catch our 11:30am flight out of Montgomery to Memphis. And it went soooo smoothly. No problems, no missed flights, nothing! We even had time to grab some food in Houston. We had bulkhead seats! It was great!

We should have known that the other shoe had not yet dropped... er... flown, as it were. Because when we arrived in San Jose and went to the baggage carousel, we waited, and waited, and waited, and... only one of our suitcases had made it to San Jose. And the suitcase we DID have was NOT the one with our toothbrushes or shampoo or soap or razors or pajamas. So we filed a request with the baggage services folks to get our luggage delivered to the house when it finally showed up. And then we went home.

And we gathered up the children from the various houses they'd occupied while we were gone. And then we got ready for bed as best we could without toothbrushes or shampoo or soap or razors or pajamas and slept like the dead!

The wayward suitcase arrived at the house at about 2pm on the 27th of December, officially marking the end of the merry circus that was our trip to Mexico. I wanted to make sure I recorded the whole craziness while it was still fresh in my mind. And I would like to point out that thousands of other people went through experiences very similar or much worse thanks to the weather and tons of other circumstances completely beyond the control of the airlines, the car rental companies and the cruise lines. So I consider us very lucky, indeed, to be home with most of our dignity, most of our belongings, and a seriously wacky story to tell the grandkids.