Dear Family,

I thought I would post on Colombia, it’s already been a week here, but it’s gone past so quickly I haven’t had really any time to sit down and write. Firstly, I had quite a long journey. I left home at 5:30 on Sunday, and didn’t arrive in my hotel in Pereira until 00:30 in the morning on Tuesday. That meant the total journey was 48 hours. Of course, I spent some of the time on this journey playing Grand Theft Auto at Uncle Mark’s house, so I guess that bit doesn’t count. Speaking of which, Uncle Mark gave me some quite strong Martini’s to drink, so by the time we went for a quick walk into South Orange to get a coffee I wasn’t sure if the trouble I was having walking was down to the smooth soles of my shoes and the icy pavements or the Martini’s. The walk did me some good though and it was great to see Stacey and the girls who’d just come back from a swim meet. Uncle Mark had also made an enormous pot of Shellfish soup, which I ate a lot of. This was important, because United Airlines don’t believe in giving you food or anything nice on their flights.

I got to Newark airport still feeling a bit tiddly, Mark and the girls dropped me off in the car, and I’d had a bit of a sleep which made me feel better. I’d worried a bit about how late we were leaving it, but when I got to the flight, which was due to leave at 20:07, they said it was delayed until 20:30, so in the end, I needn’t have worried. I did fall asleep again in the chair in the departures. A flight to Edinburgh was departing from the next gate, at around the same time. They were calling for missing passengers, so a Scottish fellow woke me up to see if it was my flight. Not sure how he mistook me for a fellow Scott … sitting their half cut and asleep by the Edinburgh flight.

On the plane I fell asleep as we were taxing, and didn’t wake up until we were in the air. At which point the captain apologised for the delay and said we’d be landing at midnight in Houston. Since my flight to Bogota left at 23:54, I realised I’d be missing it. The last thing I’d been aware of at Newark was that they were going to de-ice the place. Later, when speaking with fellow delayed passengers, I was told they took two hours to do this. I asked the stewardess selling the ‘snack boxes’ — luckily I’d had Uncle Mark’s soup, so didn’t need one, what would happen with connecting flights. I was stuck in the corner by the window, feeling very uncomfortable. She told me “I have nothing to do with connecting flights, I’m doing the snack boxes”. I said, “Well, I’m not that worried about snack boxes, but I am worried about my connecting flight”. In fact, I knew she couldn’t do anything about the flights, but I was just looking for her to tell me what would happen when we arrived in Houston, who I should go and see. She could have been more helpful, but I think if I worked for United Airlines I would be grumpy like her as well.

I had been stuck in the back of the plane, with my knees around my ears, and travelling for twenty seven hours (with the break at Uncle Mark’s) by the time we arrived at Houston. It was 00:30 there, which meant it was 8:30 am in the morning in Sheffield. That meant also, that I was a little less sleepy — all that sleeping in the car, the airport and the plane was paying off. And I wasn’t feeling any ill effects from the Martini’s. So I was a little chirpier than the other customers in the long queue at Houston. There was only one lady dealing with the people who needed to make connecting flights. Many of them were trying to get to Austin in Texas, and they’d already had one direct flight cancelled due to “weather”. And our flight was delayed, also due to “weather”. Apparently if a flight is cancelled due to weather, then they don’t pay for you to stay in a hotel or anything. But the people going to Austin were all very cross, because their flight to Austin had been cancelled due to “weather” at 8:00 in the morning, 12 hours before it took off. A supervisor lady arrived to try and deal with them. The supervisor lady said that it might still be ‘due to weather’ because the incoming flight may have been cancelled ‘due to weather’. United only give you a hotel if it’s due to staff shortage or mechanical, unless the staff shortage or mechanical is ‘due to weather’. For example, a pilot is late arriving at your plane ‘due to weather’ then it’s not a staff shortage, apparently. Because I was quite chirpy, I pointed out that in the end everything was ‘due to weather’ because the Sun was responsible for everything on the planet anyway. I don’t know if the supervisor understood my ‘primal cause’ argument, but the Austin passengers seemed to like it. I was also trying to make my jokes very politely, because I feel sorry for the supervisor and the lady trying to sort out the tickets, because they have to work for United Airlines, and I only have to fly with them. Just like me, they’d rather be with Continental Airlines, and they view those days as sort of halycon days, and if you want to bond with them a bit you can always talk about that, so I did.

In the meantime they’d been asking me why I was going to Colombia and I explained that I was coming here to teach students who were waiting for me and if I was put on the flight that left on Monday night, I wouldn’t arrive in time (my flight had been the one leaving on Sunday night). I said that the students would be very disappointed.

The lady at the desk changed my flight to one via Panama, the flight to Panama was leaving the next morning at 8:49 am. I would arrive in Panama around 11:00 and take a flight soon afterwards direct to Pereira (instead of flying via Bogota as was planned). As she was booking the ticket she asked about the students and how old they were. I said oh, late twenties, and then said, that’s changed the imagining you were doing about their little disappointed faces hasn’t it. She told me about her son and grandson, and how he was in the army and had married a Chinese lady. But they got divorced, so her granddaughter lives at home with them, and her son is still in the army. She said she thought it was unusual, when a marriage falls apart, for the husband to get the child and the wife to get the stuff, but I said I thought it was a good deal. When our flight was delayed she’d volunteered to work the late hours moving our flights, and she could do that because her son was looking after the granddaughter, and she didn’t have to worry about having small children. I feel sorry for her that she works for such a mean company.

In the end everyone agreed that we could all go and stay in a hotel (well, the passengers, not the supervisor and the lady who changes tickets) and it seems that even though it’s a nice hotel it’s about 1/2 an hour away from the airport and United have a special deal where it only costs about 60 dollars to stay there. The nice lady took me for a ride in her special drive-around-the-airport-electric car, because the other passengers had all left by the time I finished, and she was worried I’d miss the bus. She liked her car, but it did have a flat tire which meant it squeaked as we drove around the terminal. And to be fair, although she was a nice lady, I think the exercise of walking around the terminal may have done her some good. Maybe she should have had a bicycle or a scooter, like they have in some European airports. Although I’m not sure if she would have let me sit on the handlebars of her bicycle even if she was a nice lady.

When I caught up with the other passengers, we all agreed that it would have been nicer if United Airlines had had a policy that allowed us to go to the hotel straight away. We talked about the man that appears before the safety video starts and talks about his airline (he is the man in charge). One of the other passengers said that he’d like to punch him in his scrawny neck. I knew what he meant, but actually I’m sure the ladies at the airport felt the same. But I’m pretty certain that the people who own United airlines like him, because they just want to make money, and you don’t make money with a big impersonal monopolizing airline by being nice to people. I just wished we didn’t have to see him every time we watch the safety video. I also didn’t like the man from Continental Airlines, but at least he looked a little jollier: meaning that he looked like he could also do with a bicycle to ride around the terminal sometimes.

By the time this had all finished and the bus arrived it was 2:30 am, we didn’t get to our hotel rooms until 3:00am. My flight was leaving at 8:49 am, and they charged 22 dollars for a hotel breakfast (and 10 dollars for WiFi, now you know why United Airlines only pays 60 dollars) so I thought I should go to the airport early for breakfast. I get fretful anyway when I know I have to get a flight and I’m not in an airport. So I ended up sleeping from 4:00am to 5:00am. And then getting downstairs for my bus. I met my friend who wanted to punch the scrawny neck of the man who’s in charge of United airlines on the shuttle bus. He was quite an interesting man who lives in New Jersey and does consulting work in Austin. He has to fly with United Airlines a lot more than me, which might explain why he wants to punch the man in charge’s neck.

When I got to the airport in Houston I went to a special Texan/Mexican Dinner Bar that sold Breakfast Burritos. I ordered the biggest Breakfast Burrito I could find. The lady serving me made lots of suggestions of things to add to my Burrito, which all sounded very good (Guacomole, Sausages, Bacon). So I added them all, later on I found out that each one cost $2 dollars. Which means, that since she gets a 20% tip, that she made 40 cents for each item. In the end my breakfast was more expensive than the one from the hotel, but I didn’t mind too much because I was near my flight, and with all the fuss already, I was just looking forward to getting to Panama, and then Pereira.

We all got on our plane, and I discovered the nice lady who changes tickets had put me in the economy+ section of the plane. This was nice because it meant that, even though I had a Window seat, it was possible to move my legs and even do a bit of work on the plane. The man sitting in the aisle seat was from Houston, and he worked in the oil field industry repairing compressors and engines (for a big engine company working out of Houston). We compared notes for a bit, because of when I used to work on oil rigs. He was on his way to Paraguay to repair a compressor. He was watching videos about stock market investing so I think he got paid a lot of money, but he was dressed more like a rock and roll roadie. I was glad he wasn’t sitting right next to me because he also looked like he should spend more time cycling around airport terminals.

Once we’d got in the plane, we sat there for a while, and the captain said we were just waiting for his co-pilot, who was delayed flying in from Austin. That may me wonder about my friend who wanted to punch the man who leads United Airlines in the neck. And whether he was delayed waiting for his plane. Fortunately, he didn’t have to wait too long, because eventually the other pilot arrived and they drove the plane out onto the tarmac to take off. When we were out on the tarmac, the captain said that they were having a problem with a warning light and they were just going to go back to the gate to see if they could fix it. When we got back to the gate, it turned out that fixing it meant “turning off the plane and turning it back on again”. Or to make it a bit more technical, it’s called a shutdown and restart. Anyway that didn’t work, so they decided to change planes. This reminded me of my experience in the oilfield where we always had a backup of equipment to hand, but we used to switch things off and on again when they weren’t working. In computer science we call this a boot cycle.

We all left the plane, and those of us with connecting flights went to make changes to our connections so that we could still get where we were going. I didn’t join the long queue at the gate this time, I went around to a customer help desk to get things fixed there. The lady there was very nice. She booked me on the 14:00 plane in case they didn’t fix the 08:49 plane (which was now due to leave at 11:00). She said that she felt sorry for me that I’d had so many problems on the flight. She organized for another flight to Pereira from Panama.

In the queue to get back on the plane I met a couple from Texas who had bought a tree farm in Panama and had lived there part time for over 15 years. The farm was on an island. They had a son who was doing a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, I think at Georgia Tech. I told them what a good place it was, which I think they liked. Although I haven’t been there, but other people have told me that it’s a good place, and it seemed nicer to tell them something that they’d like even if I didn’t know whether it was totally true, at least I didn’t think it was untrue. They said to look out for all the ships waiting to enter the Panama Canal when we landed. That was a good tip, and it was nice to be sitting by the window, because there were a lot of ships waiting for the Panama canal.

I was sitting next to my oil field friend again. He told me that he’d rearranged everything for his flights on the phone. He said that way he also got free airmiles. He got the airmiles because the plane failed due to a mechanical, rather than the weather.

I’d decided to buy a hat in Panama, because there is a type of hat called a Panama Hat. Uncle Mark had agreed by text that this was a good idea. I had a seven hour wait in the airport, and I spent most of it looking for a good hat. It was lucky I had this task, because there wasn’t much else to do in the airport. At some point I discovered that all the hats were made in Ecuador, not Panama, and I nearly gave up on the quest as a result. However, I resolved to not allow this to put me off, and after five hours of searching I selected my hat. The long search was particularly hard because the airport only sold four different types of hat. But I had to go into each shop and check weather they were selling the hats for a different price. It turned out that they weren’t. Once I knew this I could buy the hat in the shop with the nicest people in it. I was very excited to have my hat, because I knew that when I arrived in Colombia, I’d be able to fit right it. Everyone knows, that people in South America all wear hats and have a moustache. I’d actually gone for a little goatie beard on this occasion, as I knew there was no way that I’d be able to grow the correct moustache in time. In fact, it’s unlikely I’d be able to grow the correct moustache even if I had a year to prepare.

I was very glad to get on the plane because I was now flying with Copa Airlines. I’d seen lots of Copa captains and cabin crew walking around the airport, and they looked like they were very happy people.

When I got on the plane, which was a bit smaller than the others, it’s only an hour flight from Panama to Pereira (nearly there!) I asked if I could move to the exit row to have more space for my legs. There was no-one sitting there. The man said that I couldn’t because I didn’t speak Spanish. I thought that was interesting because it means that it is less useful to have a non-Spanish speaker there than no-one at all. But I guess that makes sense, because they might shout out ‘Uscita Non Abberto’ or whatever the spanish for don’t open the exit door is and I wouldn’t understand and then I’d open the exit and the plane would fill with water and we’d all die (of course, I’m assuming we’ve landed intact on water here, which isn’t a very common occurance, and it seems that when it does happen everyone gets out and stands on the wings, which they tell you not to do in the safety video). Anyway, he was such a nice man, because he said I could sit there during the flight but not at take off and landing. As soon as we’d taken off I moved to the exit row and promptly fell asleep. I think it must have been 22:30 at night on Panama time, which is the same as Colombia time, which is the same as New York time.

The next thing I knew we were landing at Pereira (with a bump) and I was still in the exit row, without my seat belt on. Now I really grew to like the Copa cabin crew, they were so nice to not disturb me. After all, I wasn’t going to mistakenly open the exit door if I was asleep was I? And I’ve heard that if you are asleep in a motor accident you are relaxed, so you are less likely to get injured (I don’t know if that’s true either, but it was a good thing to tell myself at the time, just like telling the couple going to Panama that Georgia Tech was a good place to do a PhD in Mechanical Engineering). So you probably don’t need a seat belt when you are landing if you are asleep. Anyway that’s the first time I’d landed in a place without a seat belt. And it was very nice to finally be in Colombia. The immigration queue was nice and short, and the people were nicely dressed and smiley. Not like when you arrive in Newark, when the people aren’t very smiley. I still had to show them a special letter, though, telling them that I was here on an academic visit. It was written by the head of the Technical University of Pereira, and they were suitably impressed. However, they weren’t quite sure what it meant what they had to do until a supervisor was called to sort things out.

The airport was nice and small, it took no time for my luggage to arrive. It was nice to see my luggage again because it had a lot of expensive recording equipment in it for the lectures I was going to give. I wondered if its journey had been as interesting as mine. I think it might have been because it had gained a special ‘Urgent’ tag which it didn’t get when Uncle Mark and I had dropped it off in Newark.

I was glad to see my luggage, but I was particularly glad to see Mauricio waiting for me to pick me up and take me to the hotel. That meant I had arrived in the right city. The streets of Pereira were very quiet, and there weren’t many lights, but I could see it was a very hilly place. Mauricio said that the traffic could get very bad. But it was OK at that time. Of course the biggest disappointment was that no one else was wearing a hat. And no one had a moustache either! What films had these people been watching?

Love

Neil