Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Travel Trauma: Sometimes you just gotta laugh!


Several times last week I remarked that I was looking forward to a relaxing getaway. Traveling by train, taking bus tours and walking to restaurants from a nice hotel was expected to be a welcome respite from the driving I had been doing. I had been dodging rush hour traffic and squinting into the setting sun… all in pursuit of fascinating reading for my travel article followers.

The weather looked fantastic and I had a long-time friend to accompany me on a travel writing adventure. We weren’t, however, expecting it to be this much of an adventure!

Traveling via Snail Train
It was our first time on this railroad. We weren’t traveling all that far… just a two-hour trip. Dinner was planned at our destination and then a relaxing sleep in a vintage B&B.  Our train was 20 minutes late, but that wasn’t unusual. I spent the time looking at the historical photos in the station and reminisced about my childhood travels from Oakland, California to Spokane, Washington.

We boarded the train, directed by two gruff conductors. We climbed the narrow staircase to our upper level seats and settled in. They were comfy. This would be a good little trip, we thought.

We weren’t too far along in the journey when it was announced that there was a one-car trail derailment ahead that might slow us down. The dispatcher would be letting our train know when we could progress. We sat at the station down the line waiting. Eventually we were on our way. That wasn’t too bad! We stopped several more times due to the derailment and then came to a sudden halt not all that far from our destination. The track had been cleared but there was “residual traffic” that needed to use the tracks first. Another 20-minute delay we were told. It turned out to be more like 45 minutes.

At that point we knew we’d miss our dinner at our destination so headed for the dining car. We were both pretty hungry and were looking forward to the warm dinner that we heard announced.

On the railroad, passengers are assigned dinner companions. All tables seat four people. We sat down as directed. A rather huge, World Wrestling Federation type man was assigned to be seated across from us. He pushed the table as he struggled to sit down and fill the two seats. He was unpleasant (I won’t go into details) and we were re-seated across from a nice mother-son couple visiting from Chicago. As we practiced our Italian (Mom didn’t speak English and was deaf), we dined on Swanson TV dinner-type fare on plastic plates. Our Chicago friends said the meals were the same all along the route, even the Salisbury Steak “specials.”

Ok, I made it look pretty good.
But it was very basic!
Our pocketbooks a bit lighter, we made it back to our seats and gazed out the window as the train started once again. We saw familiar buildings and realized we were pulling into our destination… three plus hours late.

We took the first taxi we saw. Enduring open windows and a cab wreaking of cigarette smoke, we made the short trip to our B&B. The innkeeper was very understanding of our need to head to our rooms and recover from our eventful day on the tracks. We enjoyed a good sleep, a nice breakfast and chat. Our cab to the next accommodation arrived ten minutes early so we grabbed our gear and bade our innkeeper adieu.

Cab Patience
Our driver, we soon learned, was deaf and could not speak. But that wasn’t an issue, he had directions and we could correspond via a tablet he kept on hand for that purpose. He was a bit tentative, so I thought he might be new on the job.

We reached the hotel and, since the cab ride had been pre-paid by our hosts (including the tip) we expected to make a quick exit. But, our driver was confused. Through hand signals we found out that he didn’t really understand his taxi company process. He was worried about how he would get paid. Ultimately he made a visible sigh of relief when I wrote on the pad that the taxi company would give him a ticket (that’s the way he would be paid) at the end of the day (I read this on his trip notes from the company).  We parted smiling. There are little things that happen and, alone, not worthy of writing about but wait… there’s more!

Wine Tasting Troubles
We entered the luxurious hotel lobby and stored our luggage. We’d be checking in to our rooms later that day after our wine tasting experience by motor coach. At the appointed meeting time a bus driver/guide didn’t appear in the lobby so we looked outside. The bus was there, waiting, and we climbed aboard.

We were off through the beautiful agricultural lands headed for tasting at three wineries and lunch at one of the most beautiful vineyards in the valley. The lunch was hosted and I had a certificate for two in my hot little hands.

The bus was fun and the driver/guide was amused by her own jokes, down-home stories and rambling, disjointed trivia. There were nine of us (the ninth being another driver who was riding along and helped by giving her directions.)

First Winery Waiting Game
The valley fog was lifting as we were directed to the tasting room. We heard there would be a tour and tasting. A classic car club filled the tasting room so we assumed the tour would be first. But as we strolled around looking at the displays, nothing happened… nada. I think I read every clipping and poster on the wall!

Our winery visit allowed for plenty of time to explore and take pictures.
A half-hour later… nada. Finally the car club finished up and left.  We were invited to taste wine and were given a brief history of the winery owners. The hostess asked how many would be tasting… nine. But wait! One of our participants lacked grey hair! She was asked for her ID. The 22 year old, traveling with her father, was from Russia. They didn’t realize she should have her passport with her so she was denied tastings. Kinda tough when that was what was scheduled for the whole day!

We had our tastings and returned to the bus. The sun was out, and the valley below was now visible… great photo ops. But wait a minute! There was an issue with closing the bus door. It would close and then immediately open (remember this, now). After several tries it closed OK and we were off. Our driver/guide exclaimed… "isn’t this relaxing?" Several of us rolled our eyes.

Second Winery Waiting Game
It was a cute place with great views, bee hives and resident chickens. We were welcomed to a tasting and then went outside to sit under shade umbrellas. Several people ordered pizzas (the driver/guide had said the pizzas were wonderful). Since we had a certificate for lunch at the last winery, we passed on the pizza. Again, we sat. We waited… nada. A half hour later the pizzas were ready and our hungry tour companions were told they could eat them on the bus as we were running late. The pizzas were wolfed down in record time.

The pizza was highly recommended.
We should have partaken.... had we known what was to come.
We were headed to our last stop when the driver took a brief detour so that our young Russian friend could get her passport. We all applauded that decision.

Third Winery – Our Lunch?
Our bus climbed the hill toward the winery. What views! But it looked rather crowded… it was a huge event. We arrived and milled about for a few minutes. Soon a bubbly young woman came running toward us saying she’d been asked to leave the tasting room to take care of our group. I mentioned our lunch certificate and she told us, reluctantly, that our short time there and the crowded conditions wouldn’t permit us time for lunch.

She gave us a marvelous tour and tasting. We were hungry but the wine soothed our nerves and our time there made us want to return. She took a tough situation and made it work. We were impressed.

The wine and tour helped us forget that we were missing lunch.
We boarded the bus and headed back to be dropped off at our hotel, an hour and a half late. We were very hungry (remember, no lunch?) and were looking forward to dinner just down the street.

Give Us Your Credit Card
We stepped up to the registration desk at the hotel. The very professional staff checked us in. There was no mention of my room being covered by our host (as promised). I inquired and the desk staff couldn’t find any notation of that agreement. At that point, our trip had consisted of one problem after another. We started to laugh. What can you do?

I gave them our host’s phone number and they were certain things would be worked out. And after some re-doing of paperwork, it was.

We enjoyed a lovely dinner, nice accommodations and breakfast the next morning. We were relaxed and ready for a second bus tour… this one would take in the natural beauty of the area. We were certain nothing else could possibly go wrong.

Door Dilemmas
Our tour bus driver/guide met us on time at the hotel and we noticed our Russian friends would be joining us too. The driver was actually the company manager and had heard about our mishap the previous day. It was another glorious sunny day as we headed out into the countryside. We felt much better.

His educational narrative was excellent and his demeanor, professional. He knew where he was going and let us know what was coming up. Our first stop included a brief hike, a stunning waterfall and a stop at the snack bar to pick up a sandwich.

Next, he said, we’d pull into a vista point to see another waterfall. We snapped a few photos and climbed back onto the bus. And then this glorious day fell apart.

The bus door wouldn’t close after many, many tries. We couldn’t leave! Our driver/guide quickly problem-solved the issue. But no one had cell phone signals so the poor guy hitch-hiked back to the waterfall park to make his calls… a mechanic for the bus and a taxi to the hotel for us.

Quite awhile later a ranger showed up with our driver/guide and he updated us on everything. He gave the door one last try and found that he could close it but that he wouldn’t be able to open it again without the same problem happening. He offered to get us back to the hotel if we could climb in and out via the front cab door. And we did.

A passenger throws up her hands in disbelief as the bus develops mechanical problems.
What's next?
We made it back. He cancelled the taxi and we were in time for our train trip home. We missed seeing two of the scheduled sights from the bus tour but were happy when we got to the train station and found our train would be on time.

Happy Return
Our train trip home went by quickly (as scheduled) and we toasted the adventure with some wine from the pizza debacle winery we visited on the first day. And, once we relaxed, we thought we’d like to return and see some of the sights we missed… and experience that winery lunch too!

Note: The names of the destination and those involved in the mishaps have been omitted to avoid embarrassing the innocent!