|Our home for the next month or two...God help me.|
We are finally on American soil. And, as you would imagine, the last 36 hours or so has been wild and crazy. It started when our friend Ellie showed up at the hotel to pick us up and take us to the airport, our flight time was 0630 and I figured we'd better get going early since we had 3 kids and about 3,567 pieces of luggage....plus a car seat for the baby. We had way too much stuff - Virginia's friend was supposed to come and pick up a bunch of it the night before but never showed up so we found ourselves scrambling at 0330 trying to figure out what to do with everything. Eventually we got everything taken care of (let's just say that the cleaning crew that cleaned our room found themselves quite a bounty that day) and headed to the airport.
Traveling with a baby can be a blessing and a curse. The blessing part comes when getting through lines because most airlines and airports allow families with babies priority and believe me, that's no small thing. The curse comes pretty much the rest of the time. The best part of flying is usually when you get all your bags checked in but we had so many carry on bags, plus the baby, that moving around was a chore. The flights weren't too bad - hour and a half to Amsterdam, 10 hours to Atlanta and then one hour to Columbia. When we arrived in Atlanta, the terminal was completely packed with restaurants and I told Xavier "Welcome to the US" as he gazed around in wonder. I popped into a news shop and bought a Sporting News NFL Draft preview which costs $4.95. I pulled out a fiver but was aghast when it rung up at $5.35 and I was given my first reminder that I am now in the land of sales tax. Back home in New Hampshire, we do not have sales tax so this was quite a shock to my system. It would be nice if they would just put the price - INCLUDING the sales tax - on the item so you don't have to be scrambling at the register to find enough spare change. Someday when I rule the world...
We arrived in Columbia around 1730 and I was pleasantly surprised to see how nicely they've fixed up the airport. Finishing our journey in Columbia was sort of like coming full circle for me because when I left for Europe in 1998, I had to all my in-processing at Ft. Jackson which is right outside the city which means that I started and finished my European experience at the Columbia Airport. I ran into a lady from the USO at the airport who turned out to be very helpful. The USO was a trip because Ft Jackson is the main basic training post in the US Army so there was a drill sergeant there who had a bunch of new recruits standing at parade rest there. Oh, the memories.
Anyway, I had decided against renting a car at the airport since I would need to rent an SUV to get us and all of our bags to the hotel and then trade it in for a smaller car. I figured we'd just bite the bullet and take a taxi to the hotel since we'd be exhausted from traveling all day and my instincts turned out to be right...sort of. One of our bags got left behind in Atlanta for some reason which delayed me even more and then getting a taxi was inexplicably a tremendous chore. The USO gave me the numbers for three different taxi services that they use; the first one wanted to charge me $150 and actually tried to talk me out of it saying that nobody in the area had a van big enough to take all of us and our bags. I was not deterred however and found one that would do it for $125. We were so exhausted and worn out by that time that I said fine but they had all kinds of problems trying to figure out where to meet us.
Now, let me explain a few things here; first, the Columbia Airport is really small. REALLY small. It is also the home to Ft. Jackson and I'd bet that at least half of the traffic they receive have something to do with the military so you cannot tell me that the taxi companies aren't COMPLETELY familiar with the airport and the USO. They said they needed a phone number to call me at but of course I don't have one yet so I gave them the USO number. They called the USO about 15 minutes later just to "confirm" that we were still there and still needed the taxi. Apparently they sometimes show up only to find that the person found a cheaper taxi and had already left. Anyway, they call and say the guy is waiting downstairs outside the baggage claim so the USO lady loans us a huge luggage dolly for our 3,657 bags and then walked us downstairs only to find that the taxi they sent was a regular taxi car. We called the taxi place and reminded the woman that I had specifically told her that I had two adults, 3 kids including a baby in a car seat, and 3,567 bags (ok, it was only 7 but it felt like 3,567) and so we would need a large van. She says "Oh, my apologies sir, I didn't hear you say two adults, I only heard 3 kids and a lot of bags..."
Now think about that for a moment. Has it come to you yet? If not, it will.
She says she is going to send a van as soon as she can. Meanwhile I'm standing there considering just telling them not to bother and going back in to rent an SUV. After a few minutes, the guy comes over and says he's almost sure he can fit all of us and the 3,567 bags in his taxi. I agreed to let him try because we were so worn out by that time that we REALLY just wanted to get checked into the hotel and get something to eat, then crash. To my surprise, he managed to fit everything - it was probably fortunate that one of our bags got left behind in Atlanta because I don't think that 3,568th bag would have fit. We thanked the USO lady who had been extremely helpful but she apparently was not happy with the taxi driver's effort as she went back inside and called the taxi company to complain that the guy had talked us into cramming everything into his taxi when there wasn't enough room. She was white and the taxi driver was black so he made no effort to hide the fact that he felt her complaint was 100% racially motivated, then gave us a solemn warning not to trust anyone in the area and to keep a small circle of friends while we are here because "people around here are two faced". Things were starting to get just a little surreal. The rest of the ride was enjoyable but it struck me that this area is a lot more rural than I expected. We got checked into the hotel and the wife was so hungry that we decided to go get some food even though it was almost 9pm by that time.
The Outback Steakhouse is right next to the hotel so we just went there and had a less than enjoyable meal. Virginia asked for her steak medium-well done with a little bit of pink in the middle but what arrived was something akin to shoe leather. We complained and the waitress apologized and said she'd have them fire up another medium rare for us to take away. There was another moment of trepidation when the bill came and I suddenly realized that I now have to tip everywhere I go (something is not done in Europe). We finished up, came back and all passed out within 5 minutes, exhausted from such a long day of traveling.
I was woken up this morning at 0600 by the phone. I started cursing whoever would call at such an early hour and it turned out to be Delta Airlines in Atlanta saying they found our lost bag. How nice of her to call so early in the morning and let me know! The hotel features the typical southern hotel breakfast - powdered eggs, sausage, ham and biscuits with sausage gravy. I packed my Mokka so I could enjoy my espresso in the morning but there is no kitchenette here so it looks like I will have to suffer with regular brewed coffee during my stay at the hotel. We have a recovery day today so Im headed out to get a rental car and then we'll explore Sumter a bit. Everybody we've met so far has warned us to stay away from the Walmart but the kids are so excited to see this mythical place they've heard so much about. There is an Ihop across the street from us, a place I haven't eaten at since I was a small child. I'm curious to check it out but I'm afraid of ending up in a World Star of Hip Hop video (some of you might get that).
Should be an interesting an fun week. Stay tuned for more adventures!