Pat, my boss-that-was, and boss-to-be-again, suggests that I
investigate ticket prices, as the best deals are frequently only
available to be ticketed in the U.S. Since I'm investigating a trip of
about 15,000 km, at about a week's notice, the best price available
through the airlines and regular travel agents is a fairly large number.
I call Pat and quote him this number. Pat's office hours in the U.K.
end at about 9am Pacific, so it's fairly hard to set up phone calls
such that we are both available; but I manage it on this occasion.
Pat suggests that the fairly large number is in fact too large, and that I should investigate further. Further investigation reveals the existence of ticket consolidators and bucket shops (delightful name); which buy in bulk, and thus get discount deals from the airlines. I find a price, and email Pat (phone calls being, as mentioned previously, problematic). Pat does not reply.
I email again. No reply.
With approximately the minimum feasible time for ticket delivery remaining before the desired date of travel, I phone. Pat, it seems, has traveled on business; cleverly neglecting to tell me.
I buy the ticket.
The ticket purchase occurs on Friday at about 3pm. I have to receive the paperwork from the travel agent, sign it, and return it along with photocopied identification to the travel agent, in time for her to issue tickets and get them in the courier system before the close of business. This is complicated by the fact that I don't own a fax machine, but is executed successfully nonetheless.
On Saturday I buy a new suitcase; my old large suitcase is in extremely poor nick, and significant portions of it are held together with gaffer tape.
On Monday, the tickets arrive, with dire warnings to the effect that I must reconfirm my reservation with the airlines 72 hours prior to flying. I immediately call and reconfirm, a mere 22 hours prior, with no difficulty. The airline rep tells me that I must be at the airport two hours prior, as this is an international flight; but is unable to tell me whether my flight will be departing Vegas from the international or the domestic terminal.
mccarran.com, the web site for Las Vegas's McCarran airport, is also unable to tell me the correct terminal, at least on the night prior. It shows gate assignments for flights only up to eight hours ahead, and thus I need to check it on the Tuesday morning, just before departing. This is problematic, as my computer is already packed; so I use HeatherG's computer, which sidesteps the problem nicely.
The airline rep was wrong: it is an ordinary domestic flight; and I wait a couple of hours in the gate area for the rest of the passengers to turn up, and to go through the whole getting-on-the-plane thing.
We fly the short hop to San Francisco, and I make my way to the international part of the terminal for my next flight. There is nothing to distinguish it as different, except that to get to it, you have to leave the domestic secured area, walk across 30 metres of unsecured ground, and and enter the international secured area; with all of the attendendant metal detecting, X-raying and explosive sniffing.
As we board the 777, airline personnel collect our exit records. An exit record is a small piece of paper that Immigration give you when you enter the country, to surrender when you leave, to prove that you have left before your visa expired. This is handy for when you want to get another visa to get back in; the INS tend to look unfavourably upon those who overstay their visas.
I have not overstayed my visa; but I have no paperwork to prove it. More than a month before, when my work visa expired, I applied for a tourist visa. The paperwork was duly submitted; and it is expected that the INS will issue a receipt for it. I will likely need this receipt when I attempt to get a visa to re-enter the US. It is to be hoped that this receipt will in fact materialise some time before my stay in the U.K. is over. (Note that the receipt will not actually be a visa: the visa will be the result of the successful processing of my paperwork; the receipt merely indicates that the INS have successfully received said paperwork.)
The 777 is shiny and new. There is a small LCD TV screen in the back of every seat (except, presumably, the backs of the seats in the very back row), and the airline shows movies for about eight of the nine hours of the flight, in order to keep the passengers quiet.
I'm not sure what the shortest route from San Francisco to Heathrow is, but at one point I look out of the window and see pack ice 30,000 feet below.
Coming in to land at Heathrow, we are put into a holding pattern for a few minutes, at an altitude which sets us just above the low cloud layer. Several other aircraft are visible as we turn; some just above, some just below the cloud; like sharks over a coral reef.
The pilot mentions that the temperature on the ground is 4 degrees C (38 F). I have wisely packed my warm jacket at the very top of my suitcase, for easy access. However, at a later stage in the packing, I have unwisely used the jacket to pad my mouse and keyboard. So although the jacket is easily accessible, removing it would leave the mouse and keyboard rattling loose.
Immigration into the U.K. is trivial: a stream of U.K. citizens walk past a single officer with their passports open at the picture page. He doesn't even stamp passports with an arrival stamp. Customs is equally trivial: a stream of people in the "U.K. and E.C. nothing to declare" line simply walk past officials, who seem to be singling out at random perhaps one person in a hundred for actual confirmation that they indeed have nothing to declare.
The non-secure part of the arrival hall is surprisingly tiny, and extremely crowded. There are only two ATMs in the entire terminal (in San Francisco, I had walked passed two ATMs, crossed security, and walked past two more only five metres away), and one of them is out of cash. The remaining ATM has, of course, an extremely long line. I wait, use my US ATM card, and am dispensed several 10 pound notes accordingly.
I buy a ticket on the first bus to Leicester, which is to be at 7:50am, an hour away. It is in fact 30 minutes late. So I wait, some of the time in the tiny bus office and some of the time in the not-quite-freezing cold, for 90 minutes.
The bus ride itself is about two hours. Given that I did not really sleep on the plane, and that it is now past midnight on the following day in the time zone that I had originally woken up in, I have moved into a special sleep-deprivation state that my body goes into when sufficiently messed around by overnight air travel, 14-hour work days, and midnight laser tag tournaments; in which I am tired but not sleepy, and need food, but am not hungry. Worried about the possibility of missing my stop in Leicester, I elect to stay awake for the whole bus journey.
The bus trip is not direct, stopping at Luton airport and at one or two other towns along the way, and has a somewhat surreal quality lent to it by lack of sleep.
England is old, and built on a smaller scale than America. None of the motorways we travel on are wider than the road that we live on in Vegas. We travel under a bridge that looks to be at least 150 years old. Much of the housing we drive past is narrow, cramped terrace houses; many of the shops are converted houses or terrace houses.
There are almost no franchises; most businesses are what Americans would call "Mom and Pop" places (with the implication that this makes them somehow second class). Many stores have signs out the front which have not been repainted for forty years. Many are tiny, and are obviously run by the family that lives directly above.
The countryside is somewhat similar to large chunks of the eastern U.S.; Virginia, say. At a few points along our journey there are small, thin patches of snow lying alongside the road. We drive through countryside and town, countryside and town, and eventually arrive in Leicester.
Pat and Katie have explained that Megazone's office in Leicester is a short walk from the bus station; and that rather than attempt to take a taxi, I should call, and someone will walk out to meet me. This is complicated by the fact that I have no coins, and my phone card is difficult to use from the pulse-dial public telephones. Nevertheless, I eventually get through, and then wait for someone to come. Pat and Katie come out themselves to meet me, and we wander back toward the office, through and across narrow and twisty-turny streets, following a path that in retrospect I have absolutely no hope of reconstructing.
We arrive at the Megazone office.