Tag Archives: airport

Washington Dulles International Airport

One good thing about arriving early for flights and long layovers is that it gives you plenty of time to sit around. So I’ll try to be productive and live blog my experiences flying from Washington DC to Los Angeles to Guangzhou to Wuxi. Also arrive early allows you to find the power outlets before they all get taken.

If there’s anywhere I can consider a home base, Dulles airport probably is it. I’m here often enough.

Up front the airport doesn’t look like much. If you have friends or family waiting with you a bit, you’re going to be bored. The main building for arrivals and departures is full of check in counters, a few benches, and a single restaurant. That’s right. If you want to have lunch with others before you leave, you don’t get a choice.

Once you get through security the whole place changes. After security you’ll board an underground train to head to the gates. At the terminals you’ll find all sorts of places to sit and eat. A personal favorite of mine since my college days is Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Not for someone trying to watch their weight, Five Guys burgers are a smorgasbord of greasy goodness. With the regular burger clocking in at two patties and whatever toppings you’d like, the junior burger might be a better fit for many people. The fries are also oversized, a regular serving is enough to feed two people with a bit left over. And the best part about it is the prices are not sky high just because it’s an airport.

Actually until I landed in LAX I never realized how nice Dulles actually is. It’s heads and shoulders above other airports. Decent and inexpensive food, lots of space, easy to find outlets, and wifi that actually works. It’s impressive.

It’s a travel truth that the earlier you arrive before your flight the quicker you’ll go through security. The day you arrive three hours early is the day it takes five minutes to get through. The day you arrive an hour early it takes fifty-five minutes to get through. Either you’re waiting or sprinting, never any middle ground.   So here I am waiting.

The Unfriendly Skies

This is the fourth part of the Peace Corps vs Bolivia saga.  You can read part one here, part two here, and part three here.  There’s one more chapter I need to write sometime during this holiday season.

It was a normal day. I went to work at the school, did my trainings with the teachers, and was eating dinner watching the telenovela with some friends. Unexpectedly our regional director popped into the restaurant/guesthouse I lived in. He told me I had an hour to get my stuff together, we were going to be consolidating in Tarija. It was strange that he was there in person, but not strange we were consolidating. We’d do this just about ever other week because of security scares. Normally it came over the phone though.

He left and headed south to pick up some other volunteers, he would grab me on the way back. My friends asked me what was going on. I lied to them. I told them that there was a conference in Tarija I had to be at for the next three or four days. They never asked me why the regional officer came down at eight PM instead of calling; probably chalked it up to the crazy gringos.

I put my important things together, passport, computer, toothbrush, and a change of clothes and waited to leave. There was a nagging sensation in the back of my head that something was wrong this time, but we’d done this so many times before I thought they were just being nice and giving us a free ride. I told my coworkers I’d be back in a few days and we’d go over the plans for the new garden. That didn’t happen. I never saw them again.

Peace Corps stashed us in the guesthouse we would always use in Tarija. They told us not to leave, but forget that. This was our city and we weren’t scared of anything. We took it as a holiday. All the volunteers were together for the first time ever and that was cause to celebrate. So for three days we slummed around Tarija; buying things we couldn’t find in the villages, using the internet, going to restaurants and bars and clubs, the normal things we would do.

Finally a message came down from our main office in Cochabamba. We were to relocate to Bermejo, a town about four hours south, right on the Argentine border. Was this getting more serious? Should we be concerned? Will they try to slip us out to Argentina since we’re so close? Lots of questions needed to be answered.

But of course there was a problem. Another round of bloqueos was planned for the day so we had to leave at o’dark thirty in the morning to make it through before the protesters came and shut the roads down. The dozen of us pile into cabs we scambled to find and paid out the nose for. We were getting reimbursed so money really wasn’t an object to us. PCVs are notoriously cheap unless the company is paying the tab.

We arrived in Bermejo and checked ourselves into the hotel that the bosses had reserved for us. Again another four days of nothing. Eating and drinking, what else could we do? Another message from Cochabamba, conference call time for us. Living in the far south of Bolivia we were the most remote of the volunteers. Unknown to us, by this time all the rest of the volunteers in the country had been moved to Cochabamba. So there we were, an island of American foreign policy just drinking beer in the sunshine.

The country director gets on the conference call. She tells us that a plane is coming for us to bring the whole lot of us to Cochabamba. Wait a second, since when did this backwater border town have an airport? And why can’t we just go to Argentina? Most of us were hoping for the nice government per diem to take a proper vacation. I still sigh that we missed the opportunity to enjoy delicious wine and butter-tender steaks courtesy of the US taxpayer.

Well Bermejo did have an airport of sorts. The next day after the conference call we gathered our baggage and piled into cabs again. At least the drivers knew where were going. We pulled up to a tiny airstrip. There’s a single man waiting there with a set of keys. He unlocks a padlock, we dip through the chain link fence, and then he pulls out a bottle of wine and waits for us to leave so he can go home. We’re sitting and waiting for an hour or so thinking about this nonsense when there’s this loud drone. Our eyes follow our ears and what do we see? A C-130 making a landing approach. No one’s in the control tower, there’s nothing at all that makes this look like a working airfield. The runway looks like the length of a football field.

Somehow the pilots stick the landing. No sense in turning of the engines, the ramp is let down, we pile on with our stuff and we’re moving even before everything’s sealed up again. For the twenty or so of us, there was a lot of room. Most folks decided it was nap time and made themselves comfortable. One person asked the crew where we were going. Peru they said. What? Aren’t we just going to Cochabamba to be with the rest of the volunteers? These pilots are idiots.

We begin our descent into Cochabamba. No problems landing, we hop on out into the terminal. Who greets us? All the other volunteers. It was like being a millionaire rock star coming off a private jet to adoring fans. By fans we mean people we hadn’t seen since we finished training, for some that was almost two years.

But there’s nobody else in the airport. I know Cochabamba isn’t exactly an Atlanta style hub, but still it’s a ghost town. Then it clicks with us, the pipeline bombing. There’s no fuel for the planes. So the whole air system in Bolivia is shut down. PC called in a whole bunch of favors and scored a military plane from outside the country and got in touch with the right people to open up the Cochabamba airport just for us.

The Bolivian Peace Corps staff herd us back onto the plane. They’re staying behind in case things cool down. There’s lots of work that needs to keep on keeping on. And they’re getting paid for it. We’re just a bunch of shmuck volunteers, it looks real bad if something happens to us.

We take off once again. What used to be a cavernous hold is now packed to the brim with dirty, sweaty, stinking bodies. It was like sauna crossed with eau de toilette if that meant literal toilet bowl water. And flying over the Andes can get pretty bumpy. More than one person got sick. Overall, I’d give the flight a D-. The only reason they scored that high is we didn’t crash.

We landed in Lima to be greeted by the American ambassador in Peru and the Peace Corps Bolivia country director. What happened next is another story.

Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport

When I travel I’m always worried about flying. Not the whole ‘being in a metal tube thousands of feet in the air ensuring almost certain death if we auger into the ground’ worry, but concerned with security and customs all that entails in an airport. There’s a constant nagging feeling in the back of my brain that I’m going to be picked out of a crowd for no reason and need to explain myself to the security people, generally just be hassled. This has never happened to me, but the fear that it might has lead me to get into the habit of the long layover. For me three hours is the bare minimum for a layover, four is better. If they say arrive at the airport two hours before your flight to clear security, I’ll arrive even earlier than that. I don’t mind. I’ll find a corner and pull out my Kindle or laptop and just wait.

So when I’m buying plane tickets I don’t mind the ‘Warning, long wait’ messages that often pop up. Unfortunately this mentality of mind recently caused me some issues flying into Poland. I found some cheap tickets that had to fly through Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. During my flights to Warsaw from Washington DC and from Warsaw I spend eight and a half and twelve hours respectively waiting for my plane. It wasn’t the most awful experience ever, but it wasn’t pleasant either.

Constructed in the early 60s with continuing expansion and renovation, Sheremetyevo is pretty similar in that aspect to other major airports around the world. Terminal D where most of the international traffic is handled opened in 2009 and is by far the most modern part of the complex. Terminal D is bright and clean with a couple of cafes that are open around the clock. Food-wise there are a pair of small TGI Fridays restaurants and an Irish pub that does food as well. At least for the Fridays the kitchens are small and emasculated, only allowing for a handful of dishes to be prepared. I played around with their touch screen menu to see what they served and more importantly how much it would cost before sitting down and they didn’t even sell burgers. There were a choice of four sandwiches and a handful of sides and some drinks. I couldn’t find the prices but I’m sure they were expensive. The small cafes in the terminal were asking five or six dollars for a croissant; sitting down for a meal would be much higher. Before leaving I figured this would be an issue so I brought a couple of things to munch on during my long layovers. Coupled with the fact that the food on Aeroflot flights is pretty decent, I didn’t go hungry.

For a long wait, Terminal D is kind of tough. There are no big reclining chairs anywhere, just rows of normal seats. I’ve heard rumors of a nice sitting area but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist any more. Making matters worse the armrests on the chairs are fixed so you can’t move a couple out of the way and fashion a cot. Outside of the cafes and TGI Fridays there are a couple of duty free shops but nothing else to do. You can stare out the large large windows but they don’t face the runways so you’ll get to watch all the excitement of ground crews loading up an airplane but none of the boring stuff like take off and landings. Pulling out your laptop or smart phone you’ll be able to find a good wifi connection throughout the entire terminal. Note that if you need to charge something up it can be a bit difficult to find a free power outlet. One trick I’ve learned is that throughout the terminal, normally near boarding desks for a handful of the gates, are large electronic signs. Probably about ten feet tall and rectangular, they stick out like white monoliths. Behind every one I’ve seen so far there are two outlets, but the sign only uses one leaving a free space for your computer.

No matter how long your layover is, there’s no chance of getting out of the airport to see the city for a few hours. At least for Americans, Russian visas are a byzantine nightmare. If I was in charge of Russian tourism I would definitely relax those rules a bit. Just about every cross Atlantic flight has a long layover in Sheremetyevo. What would be so difficult about issuing a twenty four hour visa right there at the airport? Pay fifty or so dollars and then be able to visit Moscow for a few hours. They can keep the rules for longer visits. And while tourists who have twelve hour layovers isn’t a huge market share, by allowing them to take in the sights in Moscow they’ll be spending a bit of money outside the airport in taxis and restaurants creating a small revenue stream.

If you do feel the need to explore outside Terminal D, you can walk to Terminals E and F. They are used for more domestic and low cost flights and it shows. Compared to D, these terminals are a bit dark and dingy. They smell of smoke because instead of smoking rooms like many airports there are smoking areas that are near air filters but still exposed. You’ll find a couple of cafes and some duty free shops but the real reason to visit (other than just getting up and about) is that everything is cheaper here. If you’re looking for some simple snacks like a bag of chips or some juice, you can make your way to terminal F where you’ll get that bottle of juice for two instead of four dollars. There a handful of little stands, almost like convenience stores, that say they take credit cards. I didn’t buy anything because I didn’t want to whip out my plastic for a four dollar charge in Moscow. There were a few ATMs in the area, but foreigners can’t use them. It kept sayings that I had to go through customs (which I couldn’t do because of the visa rules) before I could use an ATM. I just wanted twenty dollars or so in rubles so I could buy a couple of things and have some cash leftover as a souvenir. But instead because of all the issues, I ended up just sitting in a corner wasting time on Facebook instead of spending money in Moscow.