Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Four Red "S"s (Or: What NOT to have Printed on your Airline Ticket)

Recently my mother began reading my blog. I know - I've been writing it for almost three years, and she just got on board. I think that says a lot about how blog readership is built. Oh well - I'm glad to have her as a fan. She has been enjoying the blog, and recently told me her favorite post to date has been my husband's crazy story about Tijuana. I chuckled and said, "Yup, that's one of the craziest stories that I know of where I actually knew the person involved." My mom looked me in the eye and commented, "I know another one. Why haven't you written about your trip to Philadelphia?"

Right. That story. I had almost forgot about that story. I suppose if I can share my husband's travel nightmare, I should probably share mine.

It all began when I took a trip to attend a conference in New Orleans. Feel free to read all about that here. That trip was fine: tons of fun, saw some amazing sights, got funky on Bourbon Street, etc. It was the wild trip home that my mother was referring to. When my party and I arrived at the airport, we saw to our dismay that the check-in counter for our airline was backed way up - as in, to the very end of the airport and out into the parking lot backed up. We waited in line for over three hours to reach the ticket counter, where rumors were confirmed. There had been tornado warnings in Dallas, Texas, where we'd been heading to meet our connecting flight, and all flights were cancelled. We were stranded in New Orleans. Typically, this would have thrilled me (a few extra days in a fun city can't be all that bad), but we had work to return to, and Easter holidays with our families. Because the cancellation had been caused to due to weather, the airline couldn't help us out. They did give us a voucher to a hotel, and we were sent away with a small smile of sympathy.

It is never good when you see a line-up like this at the airport...

When we pulled up to the hotel, we noticed immediately it was quite run-down. I was with two other young women, Becky and Erica, and as we walked up to our hotel room door, we noticed that there was a drug deal occurring in the doorway next to our room. We put our heads down and entered our hotel room, securing the lock immediately. Then - oh joy of joys - we saw that the hotel rooms were adjoining, separated by only a flimsy red door. We immediately piled all of our luggage, and any furniture that could be moved, in front of the door. (That didn't stop the smoke from curling beneath the door frame later that evening from the room next door.)

After hours of being on the phone, everyone in our group had managed to secure a secondary flight home. However, none of us were on the same flight, and most of us were all meeting connecting flights in completely different cities. Becky was going to Las Vegas, then home to Canada. Erica was hitting up Seattle on a different airline, and then to Canada. I was to go to sunny Los Angeles, and then to Canada. My flight was the last to leave New Orleans, but I didn't mind. We finally fell asleep, happy that we'd at least be home the next day.

Desperately making calls to find a way home

Only, that didn't happen for me. Sitting alone in the airport the next day, after everyone else had caught their flights, I heard my name announced over the intercom, summoning me to the ticket desk. When I approached to find out why I was needed, I was informed that my flight had, once again, been cancelled, and I was being "temporarily re-routed" to Philadelphia (note: on the opposite side of the continent than where I was originally destined to go). Because my flight was leaving so late now, I would be in Philadelphia overnight, and then would be given a connecting flight home the next morning. Since there wasn't anything I could do, and by this point I just wanted to go home, I agreed.

Everyone in the airport waiting to be re-routed.

When I arrived in Philadelphia, I waited at the luggage carousel until I was virtually the last person in the entire airport. My luggage did not arrive. So I was stuck overnight in Philadelphia with no luggage - okay, fine. No big deal. I had no one to impress. I checked in with the lost luggage desk, and they tracked down my bags for me: although I had been unable to fly to Los Angeles, it turned out my luggage had. The kind people assured me that my possessions were en route to Canada, and I had nothing to worry about.

Not sure what to do with myself, I wandered the airport. Because of the time of night, most parts of the airport were closed and sealed off. The only hotel in the portion of the airport where I was trapped was way beyond my price range. I only had twenty dollars left in American money, and no desire to spend an additional $300 on a portion of the trip that was unplanned and uninsured. I spent my last $20 on dinner in the very expensive restaurant that was attached to the very expensive hotel, and trundled back to the baggage area of the Philadelphia airport, with not much for options. I did have wireless Internet, so I contacted my husband to let him know I was alive and well, just stuck at the airport. Since I didn't know when my flight was leaving the next morning, I had to wait until the ticket booths opened, and didn't dare leave the airport grounds until then.

The view from my 'bed' that night - the Philly airport at 4 a.m.

Here's a fun fact: at night, the kindly airport staff let homeless people into the baggage area to get out from the cold and to sleep somewhere warm and carpeted. And that's fine - it just scared the crap out of me, a young girl stranded all alone with nothing but her purse and a laptop. Most of the people who came to stay for the night were quiet and harmless, but one man insisted on banging his head against the wall and yelling sporadically, then sat and eyed my computer. He never approached me, but needless to say, I didn't dare snooze in my seat for very long. I believe all night, I had about one hour of sleep in total, using my laptop as a very uncomfortable pillow.

The next morning, when the airline booth opened, I was the first person in line. I waited while they painstakingly booted up their computers, set up their little tags and ties, and chatted about who-knows-what. Finally, I was able to show the woman my passport and get my flight home organized. Or not. The woman at the kiosk frowned, double-checked my passport, and stated, "You're not in our system. I don't believe you are flying with us today." I am proud to say that at this point, I managed to remain calm. We sorted out that my new flight home was with their sister airline, and she directed me to the next terminal. I hustled there - but still ended up at the end of a very long line. Not knowing when or how I was getting home, I started to panic.

Sometimes charm doesn't do the trick, but tears do!

At this point, I think the heavens above took mercy on me. A man in a business suit noticed my distress, and after I explained to him my situation, he led me to the security guard responsible for keeping order in the line-up. The guard whisked me to the front of the line, where I apologized to the people behind me without actually feeling bad for butting. My hope was rising. Finally, I was at the ticket booth of the RIGHT airline this time. I handed him my passport.

"Hm. There seems to be a problem," the man behind the counter muttered. My eyes widened, but I remained quiet. "It seems you have been put in first class, but I'm afraid first-class is completely booked. They sometimes overbook flights like that, and I see you are a last minute addition. However, there is a flight later on this evening at 8 p.m. that I can put you on." He tried to appear chipper and positive for my sake.

Maybe it was because he smiled. Maybe it was because I'd used a laptop as a pillow the night before. Maybe it was the one hour of sleep. But I just couldn't take it anymore. I burst into tears, and not just sniffling tears of disappointment. My psyche went all the way back to five-years-old, and I was again a bawling baby. I cried with big, choking gasps, like I was drowning above air. The man had been holding my passport out to me, but instead of taking my passport, I grabbed his hand and began to pet it, trying to calm myself enough to speak to him, to beg him to let me on that flight. Somehow I gasped out, "I just want to go home!" I think he understood me, because he gently pulled his hand from where I was petting it like a cat, and said, "Let me see what I can do." He picked up the telephone.

I cried like this little baby right here.

As I desperately tried to get a grip, he chatted with someone on the other end of the line. Finally, he hung up the phone and began typing on his computer. Soon, the sounds of his little, ancient printer could be heard. He held up a ticket. "There, it's all done. This is your flight number, and your gate number. You'll be going to Los Angeles, and then to Calgary from there." He handed me my passport, and I nodded dumbly, backing away quickly before he maybe changed his mind and kept me in Philadelphia a second more. (I was later told some amazing and selfless person had given up their seat for me, although I'm sure they got something very nice for it.)

I ran through the airport to my gate (still crying, because once it started it just wouldn't stop), hoping that security wouldn't make me miss this flight too. When I'd checked my flight boarding time, there wasn't a big window. 'Oh please, oh please, let the line be short,' I repeated in my mind over and over. It was. I was so relieved, until the security guard checked my boarding pass and waved me over. "Security check," she told me, and led me into the little blue room. She was gruff and harsh, and freaked me out completely. "Stand here, and put your arms out," she instructed me as she flipped through my passport. I did so, turning to face the wall with my back to her. "Having a bad day, are you?" she asked me, indicating my tear-stained face.

"Yes," I replied timidly, looking at her with a small smile over my shoulder, hoping to melt her heart and convince her not to give me a cavity search.

"Turn around," she barked, so I whipped my head back around to face the wall.

"Sorry," I said, the Canadian's response to everything.

"Turn around," she repeated sternly.

"I am! I am!" I began to panic. Did she think I was a terrorist? To my surprise, she began to chuckle.

"Turn around," she said again, grabbing my shoulders gently and rotating me so I faced her and not the wall. I smiled sheepishly. "You ARE having a bad day," she noted. I explained to her a very short version of my story, and told her that I just wanted to get home.

"You want to know why I pulled you into this room?" she asked me. I nodded, and she waved my boarding pass in my face. "See these?" she pointed to the ticket. She was pointing at four capital "S"s circled in pen.

"What does that mean?" I asked curiously. She chuckled again.

"It means you are a potential security threat. From what I see, you would be classified as emotionally unstable." This made me blush. "Okay, you can go. Don't miss your flight!" she laughed, and I grabbed my purse and laptop and took off, hoping I wasn't too late to catch my plane.

Example of a ticket with four "S"s - not mine.

Finally I made it - and then I sat. I needn't have worried: my flight had been delayed. However, I didn't mind, as the break gave me a second to catch my breath, go to the bathroom and wash the tears from my face, get a healthy breakfast of sale-item chocolate from a magazine store, and ponder my four "S"s. Once on the plane (and in first-class for the very first time in my life!), I was able to eat a nice meal, wash my face with a hot cloth, and sleep - ah, the sweet beauty of sleep!

But oh, the story is not done. Because of that delay back in Philadelphia, my plane was landing in LAX with about fifteen minutes for me to get from my arrival gate to my departure gate. The gentleman sitting next was as worried for me as I was. He sure was nice, considering I probably smelled, looked awful, and had drooled on him in my sleep. He told me that his company had some planes at the airport, and that if I missed my flight, he would find a way for me to get home. He wrote down his number for me to call in an emergency, which I lost in my mad dash through the airport. Once off the plane, I ran from gate to gate: skipping through the line at security as I'd learned in Philadelphia, running through the airport with no shoes on (I didn't dare stop to lace up my shoes), flying right past someone who I am fairly certain was Robert DeNiro. I boarded the plane third-last, and finally, was headed home.

Despite all this, I still love to fly, and I still love to travel! If you can make it through an adventure like this, you can make it through anything!

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Catacombs of Rome

I am a morbid person, but not in a bad way - at least, I don't think. I am a morbid person in a 'historical fascination' way. I think graveyards are interesting, and went through a phase where I did grave rubbings or photographed really old or unusual headstones. I used to do cemetery tours as part of my museum job when I lived in Lethbridge, Alberta. I like stories about how famous people died, or learning about the places they were buried at. When I went to Seattle, we had to make a special trip to visit the grave site of Jimi Hendrix, one of my favorite musicians. When I took my Junior High students to Paris, I convinced several of them to accompany me to the Paris catacombs to check out piles of bones.

The interior of one of the catacomb rooms in the Roman catacombs of St. Callixtus

So of course, when visiting Rome, I just had to check out the ancient catacombs of St. Callixtus, also known as the Catacombs of Callisto. Our tour guide gave us the option of spending a day at gladiator school (I know, I know - that would have been a total blast too), or seeing these remarkable and historical catacombs. Naturally, I chose the dead bodies, although I unfortunately did not see so much as a femur during our tour. We boarded our tour bus and headed down Appian Way, en route to an underground burial site built after AD 150 - too cool!

Before descending into the underground tombs, my tour group shuffled into a small chapel whose walls were decorated generously with broken pieces of headstones and grave markers, all dating back to a time when only three numbers were needed to state the year. I barely heard a word the catacomb guide said, so busy was I in surreptitiously photographing the ancient stones. I did hear him say, "No photographs please", but I'm not sure if he was telling the whole group, or noting me specifically. I calmly pocketed my camera anyway.

Before going down to the tunnels, we learn about the tomb markers (displayed now on the walls).

Then it was time to descend into the catacombs. As we climbed down the narrow set of stairs, the air became colder and held a strange, stale smell. I had been expecting tiny, claustrophobic passageways, but surprisingly the ceilings were nearly vaulted, with room on either side of the tunnel for at least three to four rows of tombs stacked atop one another. Sadly for my morbid side, the tombs were all empty. It was interesting noting their size - some were large areas reserved for families, some were narrow and long for the average adult, and some were short and small for babies. Some tombs were simple, some had tables and sitting areas, and some even had the original painted frescoes on the walls.

It is a veritable labyrinth in the tombs of St. Callixtus in Rome!

Light filtered down into the tombs as well - and not just man-made light. Now and then, cut high into the ceilings above were long and narrow ventilation shafts. These were very few and far between, so if you do get nervy by being underground or in labyrinthine passageways, perhaps the catacombs aren't for you.

Leaving the tombs via a very steep staircase!

One of my favorite parts was the room in which the effigy of Saint Cecelia is located. The room is tall, spacious, and has some remnants of the original painted frescoes on the walls. In a nook on the floor, hollowed out from what I can only assume is her original resting place, is a marble statue of Saint Cecelia, a young woman who was martyred for her Christianity, and probably more-so for her affiliation with the late Emperor Valerian. The story didn't move me as much as the beautiful statue, exquisitely carved and surprisingly peaceful (considering the poor girl had someone try to behead her with a dull ax, hacking at her at least three times before burying her alive).

The haunting effigy of Saint Cecelia in the tombs of St. Callixtus.

The Catacombs of St. Callixtus are not the only catacombs in town, not by a long shot. They are part of a much larger network of ancient tombs, including a creepy one of Capuchin monks that I desperately wanted to visit. Alas, we ran out of time that day, and were unable to return. Since I am hoping to come back to Rome again during my lifetime (I have yet to visit the baths), perhaps I can join a full-out day tour of the city's catacomb system, and get the full story!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Celebration Time - Vegas, Baby!

It's time to celebrate! The good news is in - I am cancer-free!

Got the news last week from my doctor - all my December tests came back negative. There's not a cancer cell left in my body (and believe me, they freaked me out when they literally gave me a full-body MRI scan). I am healthy as a horse, and ready to reproduce! Watch out, world, soon there will be a whole troupe of "Wrabbits" ready to explore the world!

Hubby and I are super excited that I'm all done with cancer!

To celebrate, I suggested to my husband a trip down to Vegas for Spring Break. He is an accountant, however, and March Spring Break falls right in the middle of his busiest season: tax season. So he was out. But he encouraged me to go and have the time of my life, just as long as I wasn't alone. I went to Mexico by myself for Spring Break last year, but a week in a resort and a week walking the Vegas strip at night are two different things.

Good ol' Vegas is a-callin' me!

Recently, my cousin Marriann and I reconnected and have been spending more time together. When I ran the idea of a Vegas trip past her, she jumped at it. This morning, while plotting via text message, we booked the trip through Expedia.ca. She only has three days free, so we are jamming as much adventure as we can into the weekend. We will be staying at the Excalibur (where I hope we can go to the "Tournament of Kings" dinner, which is always a blast), are going to a Cirque du Soleil show, and will be taking a morning trip out to the Hoover Dam. I wanted to explore the south lip of the Grand Canyon to walk on the Skywalk, but I don't think we'll have enough time. Next trip, perhaps.

Can't wait to see this - the Hoover Dam...

Marriann has never been to Vegas, so I'm planning on taking her to the Paris casino to ride the Eiffel Tower, to the Bellagio to see the amazing water shows, up the Stratosphere to experience the roof rides, to the MGM to see the lions, and to Freemont for the incredible light show. Any other suggestions? What are your favorite activities in Vegas? I want to make Marri's trip one for the record books (but not like the "Hangover"!)

Euro Disneyland Paris: A Surprise Trip to France

My parents, who are in their fifties and are just now starting to become world-travelers, recently returned from a trip to Disneyland. They went with my sister, who is 24-years-old, and had a total blast! I was inspired as I flipped through their photo album, viewing pictures of them hugging Eeyore, dancing with Jack Skellington from Nightmare Before Christmas, and jumping the line of 500 small children to get first dibs in a picture with Mickey Mouse. Close to retirement, new to travel, my parents are excellent examples that it is never too late to start crossing items off your bucket lists!

I myself have never been to Disneyland: I'm hoping to one day take my own (and as-of-yet unborn) children for a fun family vacation. But I have been to Euro Disneyland in France, so I can write the first half of bucket item #64, "Go to Euro Disneyland". I can't compare the two theme parks just yet, but this is a start.

My trip to Euro Disneyland was completely unscheduled and unexpected. Because of that, I have no tips and tricks regarding pricing, best times to attend, etc.  I was just happy to be there! I was in England at the age of 16 on my own, visiting some pen pals that I had. This was the day before email and social networking, when kids had to actually physically sit down and pen a cohesive and entertaining letter, then fold it, put it in an envelope, buy a stamp, and rely on the postal service to deliver your hard work. I enjoyed writing letters, and did so with great frequency. After years of writing to my two English buddies, it was time to go visit with them face-to-face.

Enjoying the canals and locks of rural England. And no, no one forced me to dress like that.

I stayed with my friend Jenny and her mother, Laraine, who was the mastermind behind the surprise trip to Euro Disneyland. She woke us up early one morning and told us to get ready. Downstairs, she had some food packed in a cooler and we were told to gather some items for an overnight trip in our backpacks. We were dying of curiosity, but despite our pleas, Laraine would not unseal her lips. She was having fun driving us crazy. We got into a coach and it drove us to the coast. There we caught a ferry at the famous Cliffs of Dover. By this time, I had figured out we were crossing the English Channel into France, and Laraine couldn't hold me back any longer.

Cinderella's Castle all dressed up for Hunchback of Notre Dame.

"We're going to Euro Disneyland!" she announced, and we all went crazy (I was with Jenny, her boyfriend Higgy, her younger sister and her sister's friend). Jenny and Higgy were a little calmer than I, because they had been there before. But this was such a generous and unexpected surprise, I couldn't believe my good fortune. Another stretch of good fortune: the regiment of (young) Dutch soldiers who shared the ferry ride with us. For a sixteen-year-old boy-crazy girl, I was having the best day of my life.

Playing "Hide and Go Seek" in Alice's maze at Eurodisneyland.

Once in France, we drove until night fell. It was an overnight coach ride, and the first time I'd ever slept on a bus.  The next day was Eurodisney! The day is a blur to me now, nearly 15 years later. But I do remember acting like a total child, skipping and hopping along, taking pictures with every Disney character I encountered.

Getting cuddled by Eeyore, and by cuddled I mean squished!

We got Higgy sick on the teacups, rode some spectacular rides, watched the Disney parade, and saw an evening show with dinner. My favorite place was Alice in Wonderland's labyrinth, where we got very lost but had a total blast.

Getting lost in Alice's maze in Eurodisney.

If Laraine ever reads this blog, I'd like to thank her again (and again!) for this amazing and surprise journey. What a great gift to a girl from Canada!  (And thanks, Laraine, for helping me get the story straight - after all this time the details were a little fuzzy for me!)

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Dose of Perspective

Some of you may not know that I began writing "Down the Wrabbit Hole" after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer. November 2009 was a bit of a shocking month for me - my husband and I had decided to start a family, and I went into the doctor's office for an annual physical. While checking my lymph nodes, the doctor noted that I had an "abnormally large thyroid".

This abnormality turned out to be three 1.2 - 1.8 c.m. cancerous lumps wrapped around my thyroid. Within six months my entire thyroid was removed, I was put on a daily thyrogen hormone treatment, and had to undergo radioactive iodine treatment to blast away the last of my thyroid cells. So far things are going great, and I'm hopeful for an all-clear diagnosis at the end of this month.

The after-effects of my thyroid cancer surgery.

The most crushing blow for me was not the diagnosis itself, or the surgery, or the radiation, but the fact that my husband and I would have to put off having kids for at least a year or two (we're going on two and a half years now of waiting for the doctors to give us a procreational go-ahead). While I didn't have any Hollywood movie, life-changing revelations during the course of my treatment, I did realize that life is short, and to make the best of it. So instead of beginning a family and settling into a routine of driving to soccer practices and music lessons, I began to focus on one of my other big goals in life: to see the world. I typed up my ages-old travel bucket list into a blog, and thus, "Down the Wrabbit Hole" was born.

Having this list has been somewhat inspirational and consoling to me. While my friends gush about the ups and downs of their family lives and the antics of their quirky kids, instead of being jealous and self-pitying, I can sincerely be happy for them. I know my time will come. Until then, I have the amazing ability to go online, buy a ticket, pack up, and go - go anywhere. In a way, my cancer has opened doors to the world for me that might not have been there before.

A reader of my blog, fellow blogger Milady, specializes in writing about healthy living, in particular living with Mesothelioma Cancer. She writes for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance blog, and asked to do a guest post about my journey, goal-setting, and the power of positive, forward thinking: enjoy!

Goal Setting and Reclaiming Life
by Milady (http://miladyknows.blogspot.com/)

The simplest form of therapy can be had with writing. Keeping a journal of your daily thoughts or reflections on past events is a cathartic way to work through issues that may be present in your life. At the very least, the logging of memories as a way to preserve moments in time helps us to relive the past as it once was. Where a photograph captures our physical presence, words written on a page reveal our emotional and mental state of mind and serve as inspiration from where you’ve been and where you plan to go.

But writing serves as more than just a therapeutic release of one’s troubles. Putting ideas to paper renders them tangible concepts that can be referred back to in the future. So instead of merely using writing as a way to preserve one’s past and make sense of the present, writing can and should be used to create our future.

There are many moments in life when circumstances leave us isolated and full of despair. One of those times is when we're beset by a sudden illness. You're never made to feel more vulnerable to the whims of life than with the prognosis of a disease--from rare cancers like mesothelioma to even more common severe illnesses like breast cancer or autoimmune disorders. In fact, the treatment of many illnesses in itself leaves patients with symptoms of fatigue, both emotional and physical.

The idea of being powerless in the presence of illness is one that can be overcome with writing. Beyond the already mentioned therapeutic benefits, tracking your present and plotting your future by writing down goals is a way to reclaim control of your life. And reviewing those goals as you work to achieve them is a great source of motivation.

Nowhere is it written that by virtue of being a patient one is rendered helpless. Instead, it’s important to never lose sight of the plans you had before you fell ill and the ways you intended on achieving them for we all have life goals.

Two studies, one by Professor Dave Kohl of Virginia Tech, and the other by Dr. Gail Matthews of the Dominican University of California have shown that those who write goals down and revisit them often are the ones who achieve the greatest level of success.

According to Professor Kohl, less than 1% of Americans both write their goals down and review them regularly, but that 1% makes in their lifetime nine times more than those who didn't.

What can be taken from these studies is the fact that we all have in our hands the power to direct our own future. The setbacks of an illness can be overcome with determination, positive thoughts and proactive steps.

With a new year comes a new opportunity to track and achieve one's dreams.

For more about Mesothelioma Cancer, please visit the MCA blog.