It was raining. Having used the same route for many years, when living in England, I had forgotten that the road heading towards Watford, (the road I needed to get to the motorway,) was a single lane, and during rush hour traffic, was always a 'stop-start' scenario. I stopped, and started, and stopped, and started, as I headed for the roundabout, which has exits to three towns. The petrol gauge was not my friend! Having decided not to spend anymore money on fuel, so that I could return the vehicle with an empty tank, thus achieving my goal of justifying paying for a tank of petrol when hiring the car, rather than searching for a nearby station when returning it, was looking to be an unwise choice!
I recalled the days when I worked in a school in Watford, and how I would never use the single lane road, but take the back routes to avoid the long queues. Leaving my mother's house fifteen minutes earlier than planned, was one of my better decisions that Thursday morning, and I finally reached the roundabout, then headed towards the motorway, later than planned!
Once again, my knowledge of 'junctions' was non-existent, and when I saw the sign 'long delays between J16 and J17', I felt sure that these would come after my exit, which was 'J14'. It then occurred to me that my exit on the way to my mother's home was 'J22', and therefore, I was heading backwards. 'J16 and J17' were on my route, and the petrol gauge was still not my friend!
Traffic came to a halt before the now infamous J16, and I sat wondering what would happen should I run out of fuel. I remembered (once again) driving my (old) boyfriend's car, with a faulty gauge, and having to be pushed, by a policeman (no less) into a garage to fill up. A very loud bang comes from the tank as it searches for fuel, and finds only an empty space. I waited for the very loud bang. Each time I crawled forward, under a metal bridge, that displayed in very bright yellow letters, 'long delays ahead', raindrops would fall on the roof of my Tardis, (a red Toyota Yaris, for anyone who wants a small car with lots of space...not an advertisement necessarily for the car, but definitely for the space!) I jumped out of my skin, wondering if this 'was it!'
As we (the rest of the driving population, and I) drove past the awaited junction, the traffic dissipated, and I breathed a sigh of relief. However, as I inhaled again, the light on the petrol gauge came on, indicating, I believed, that there would be one gallon in the tank, and I calculated that with the next round of 'long queues ahead', and the accuracy of my map, I had a 'good' twenty miles left in the tank! We continued to stop and start, and stop and start, even though the road ahead looked quite clear. A broken down vehicle on the left side of the road was causing many to slow down and stare, thus adding to the congestion.
Junction 14 loomed on the horizon. Seeing the sign for the exit gave me some sort of relief, but I then had to rely upon my written map to get the car to where it was meant to go. I made a note of the telephone number of the facility, should I need it, and promptly left it on the refrigerator, with which I shared my small bedroom. Nearer and nearer I came to the exit. Lower and lower the needle on the petrol gauge dropped.
The map from which I took my instructions, did not show that the road forked. In a split second, I recalled the building of Terminal 5, and knew that it was considerably 'off site' compared to Terminal 4. I also recalled that the previous company from which I hired a car, took the Terminal 4 exit, and I chose correctly. Taking the first exit, as was written, I traveled to the next roundabout. My map told me that I was to 'go through' another circle, to 'Northern Perimeter Road', and I trusted that this was the 'another' circle. Watching the needle on my fuel gauge drop further, and listening for the 'bang', I crossed over to 'Southern Perimeter Road'. Panic started to set in! Arguing with myself, that I would have enough petrol to get where I wanted to go, I had to also convince myself that I would find a way to turn the car around and get back to the 'circle' that lied! Turning into the cargo hold area for the Pakistan Airlines, being watched by several confused male folk, (the Yaris may hold a lot of luggage, but the airlines tend to use larger vehicles,) I swung the vehicle around, and planned to turn right at the lights, whether traffic signals permitted or not! They did! Reaching the circle for a second time, I noticed that where the map said 'Western Perimeter Road', it should have read 'Western Perimeter Roundabout'! I took the first exit, and assumed that the original first exit was not the one the map had alluded to!
With even more relief, I thought I recognised some of the buildings along the road, from when we made the trip from the airport, a couple of weeks ago, and then saw a sign for the 'car rental return'. Following the car in front, wondering if they had 'GPS' or were also wondering why the map had shown an extra roundabout, I swerved to the left, and to the right, as the road curved. The sign to my car's rental home appeared like a wondrous beacon, high on the building in large gold lettering. The car coughed and spluttered, and bunny hopped, which indicated it was glad to be home, or that the petrol had indeed all been used up! I did not care, as I drove into the entrance, and followed the instructions of the four men whom appeared to have not much to do but direct the Tardis into a vacant spot!
I was 'signed off', and even brought a cart to load my cases upon. I wheeled it to the shuttle bus, and the very kind driver loaded them into the vehicle, and I was on my way!
In a moment of madness I had decided, the previous night, to change my usual travel attire. Swapping the usual pink 'Blue Bonnet Cafe' t-shirt, for a slightly more sophisticated green v-neck sweater (from Marks and Spencer, no less!) I was greeted with open arms at the Business Class desk, rather than with the usual, "What on earth do you think you are doing in this line", attitude! Considering the reports I saw, online, of 'How the stars travel', I am constantly amazed that anyone questions me. Perhaps if I wore ripped jeans, and stained tops, with battered shoes, and sunglasses, they would have more respect for me, but I find my nice pair of velour trousers and t-shirt are far more comfortable. I wondered whether it was worth changing my attire just for the convenience, or if forcing an apology from a rude member of staff was part and parcel of my vacation experience! A choice to be contemplated in the future.
After enjoying a very nice breakfast in the lounge, (thank goodness for over a decade of 'cross pond' travelling, and airline miles allowing me to upgrade!) I walked to the gate, and waited to board. I had bought a few things to take home, in the airport stores. The duty free shop was far more expensive for chocolates and sweets than the other stores, and the supermarkets in my 'home' village and the surrounds. The boarding was delayed as the plane had arrived later than scheduled. Rather than wondering if anything was wrong with the aircraft, I assumed that there was a strong headwind, which would, in turn, give those on the outgoing flight, a shorter journey due to the opposite tailwind. As I was deciphering this applied science, Dana called to say, "Have a safe flight".
The flight was uneventful. Once again, Jekyll and Hyde attended to me! The first crew member (I would put 'stewardess', but I fear the backlash!) was charming, and jovial. When I replied, "No, thank you! Unless you want to see me dancing up and down the aisles!" when she asked if I would like another champagne and cranberry juice, she responded that it was a long flight, and it "might be fun". Her counterpart barely gave me the time of day, and snorted and grunted at every opportunity! However, the flight, as I said, was remarkably uneventful, and after watching four films, (Bridge of Spies, is in my opinion, a must!) we landed in Houston, and I deplaned.
The text that I received from Dana's sister as I was deplaning, was a little alarming. She was unsure as to whether I had heard 'the news' about their mother, and although he had told me that she was in hospital, he had not said anything more when I called to say "Guess who is back in Texas?" Relieved that it was the same news, (although it was not nice news, it had not gone from bad to worse!) I was not paying attention to what I was doing, and left my hat on board. It was not until I was too far gone along the exit route, did I realise, and I was going to have to report it when I got through immigration and customs.
It would appear that Houston is 'improving' its immigration procedure, and just like my 'perfect road' at home, perfection is still being sought after! Citizens, residents, and Canadians were to line up in one queue. After spending forty five minutes waiting for a booth to become vacant, I walked to the unoccupied machine, scanned my passport, and answered the various questions by pressing on the keypad. A receipt was printed, and I read the instructions for my next move. I could proceed to the customs hall, provided I did not have an 'X' on the slip of paper. My 'X' was so large, it had its own zip code! Ushered to another queue, I saw the time I had to make my next flight dwindle from over two hours, to a 'dash along the halls', but waited patiently, as there was nothing I could do. The screams of "No!", "Hey," and "Someone do something", were eventually adhered to, and the persons in charge of the queues, put back the barriers that had been removed for 'special privileges', (I shall have to see how I can be 'special' for future travel, although it would appear from my ability to get the Jekyll and Hyde hostesses, I am already there!) thus preventing those who were new to the queue, from jumping the same!
Eventually, it was my turn. I had to repeat the same process as when I was at the machine, an hour previously, and answer the same questions. I am not opposed to a strict process, but was unsure as to why it is identical! Having retrieved my passport and identification card, I ran down the escalators, pulled a cart from the pack, and found my suitcases next the carousel which originally housed them, as three new flights had passed through since mine!
The queue for the customs representatives were almost as long as those for the immigration officials. With my ears tuned in to any clues as to how to get through the process more quickly, my antenna picked up the 'local station', and backed up slightly, so that I could be (almost) first in line for the new queue, which was about to be created, following the words, "Can you open a third lane". I was swift in my movements, and subtle. Those that attempted to 'jump the queue', by going under the rope barrier that separated the lines, were shouted at to "Get back in line!" The language that emitted from these people, when they were met with a security guard who was not going to allow them to get to the front quicker than those standing to the south of them, was not for the ears of women, young children, or even sailors! The whole process came to a screeching halt, as one of the officials on the desk refused to continue stamping until a particular offending person was back under the rope, and retained his position that he had before the new lane was opened. More foul language was hurled through the air, and the majority of those in the customs hall were of the opinion that someone was going to have their bags thoroughly checked!
The name 'Cadbury', appears to be universal, and when I was asked if I had bought any food back with me, and my reply was 'only chocolate', the response "Hmm Cadbury's", was received with a nod and a smile. "What else!" I was waved through with a "Welcome home, ma'am", and I ran, as fast as I could with three suitcases upon a wayward cart, to the next stop. The people in front of me had at least a day to get their connecting flight, or they had no idea of where they were going, or alternatively, they were relations of Mrs Hyde! I stood, patiently, again, while the young lady attempting to help them, started to lose hers, and eventually they were told to stand aside, while my cases were scanned and placed on the conveyor belt. The wayward cart was deposited next to the line of its connected relations, as it did not want to be a part of that family; the wheels promptly gave up as it approached the neat stack. I ran up the escalators to the next security line. Being 'pre-approved' meant absolutely nothing to the security guard sitting and watching the herds going through. "It is what it is", I said to myself, and joined what I considered to be the shortest line. As it happens, all the lines seemed to be moving at a reasonable pace, so my choice was a good one. However, there always has to be a 'but', and in this case, the 'but' was a bag that had been left, at the front of the x-ray machine, and no one appeared to be claiming it. The vigilant young man in front of me called the security guard, who stopped the flow of cattle, and hauled the rather large holdall on to the black moving belt. "Oh, there it is", came the response from a fellow on the other side of the dingers. All sorts of things started to run through my mind! Did he not want to be associated with his bag? Why did he not want to be associated with his bag? Then the selfish gene was activated. "Are they in a hurry to catch their next flight?" It would appear not, so I did not have to concern myself that they were going to Austin on the plane upon which I was now in danger of missing!
The text from Dana to suggest that I seek a representative, immediately, and report the loss of my hat, as they would need to know sooner rather than later, to avoid it being thrown away with the trash, was not helpful. The first was when I was in the queue to see the Immigration Officer, and the second was when I was running as fast as my legs would carry me, to the plane which I was about to miss! Gasping for breath, I showed my ticket, and being the last person on the plane, was about to take my seat, when another text arrived. "I left my hat on the previous flight", I managed to squeak to the crew member. Explaining that she could not leave the plane, she suggested I go to the top of the tunnel and report it to the lady at the desk. In the meantime, would I like her to prepare a drink for my return. "Bailey's on the rocks", never sounded (nor tasted) so good! After being told that the procedure was to report it at my final destination, I ran back down the tunnel, took my seat, drank the water that had kindly been left next to the Bailey's, and fastened my seatbelt.
Dana was waiting at the top of the stairs as I exited through the security gate to the open airport. My first stop was to the 'lost baggage' section, where I was told that I would have to report my abandoned hat 'on line'. We went back to the carousel and waited for my cases to arrive. Having had to 'gate check', my 'carry on', I was relieved to see this come down the shute first, followed by one of my other cases. The words, "Final bag" flashed on the screen, and after waiting a couple of minutes, I made my way back to the 'lost baggage' section. "I'm back!" I announced to a smiling employee of the airline. "My bag has not arrived!" It seemed a little odd that one bag would make the journey from Houston, while the other did not, but the lady was rather delighted, and expressed this, when I told her that it was understandable, with all the luggage and aircraft swaps that had to be made, a bag being delayed was to be expected, every so often. It was just a pity it was mine! It was located and apparently enjoying a more leisurely journey than me! I would rather it not be delivered at 1am, but mid-morning, the following day, to the office, would be perfect. We left the building, and drove home!
My bag did arrive, promptly, the following morning, and the tale tell note that it had been checked by customs was obviously the reason for the delay. I was home, safe and sound, with all my bags, almost all my belongings, and a fair bit of my sanity!
Going back to work was not easy, and the first week was a little more traumatic than I had expected. With jet lag, and the inability to sleep, I was soon ready for another holiday! My comment that 'Martin Luther King Day' was my favourite of all the public holidays, was rather surprising to many. However, my reasoning was not. After the Christmas break, and the hype that leads up to it, followed by the doldrums of the first week of January, a day off in the middle of the month is just what the doctor ordered! We have a holiday on Monday, and I am more than ready for the break! What we shall do on that day, and all other activities, such as 'did I ever get my hat back?' remain for me ......... another story!