Sunday, September 24, 2006

What We Did Last Summer -- Part 1 -- Arriving to St. John's

The Autumnal Equinox has passed and fall is here. So what better time to talk about everything we did this last summer?

The major highlight of the summer of 2006 was our trip to Newfoundland -- a trip that began with a casual conversation with our friend Liza a couple of years ago, identifying 2006 as the year in which all our respective children would be old enough to be able to handle the travel requirements and to appreciate the trip. From this first conversation grew a consensus, then an intent, and finally a plan.

My own history with the city of St. John's, Newfoundland goes back to 1997. Off and on, between April and December that year, I spent many weeks there as an employee of a consulting firm working for Newfoundland Telephone on an experimental component of their Peoplesoft project.

While there, I had worked with Kevin and Bernard, two IT staff members of NewTel. Subsequently, I had stayed in touch with Kevin when he and his partners left NewTel and formed their own company. And every twelve or eighteen months, I would see Bernard -- usually when NewTel sent him to Toronto, although he and his wife, Jean, spent a week of vacation here a year ago.

In the lead-up and planning, Kevin and Bernard offered many suggestions for activities, proving once again that the success of any operation depends in no small part on intelligence gathered on site by operatives familiar with the local cultural, economic, and political environment. Kevin invited us to his cottage, and Bernard offered us his front yard as a parking space when we had considered doing the trip in an RV. When we came to our senses and sanity returned (i.e. we looked at the daily cost of an RV rental), our plan scaled down, and as a preliminary move, we shipped a box to Bernard containing some bulky travel necessities.

Friday, July 28 The phone rang at an ungodly hour in the middle of the night. We had already been awake and dressed for ten minutes. It was Liza, confirming that their family was similarly up and getting ready. I drove down, picked up Chris, Liza, and their children, Cameron and Robin, and all their luggage and as previously arranged, hauled them up to our house. While I was gone, Jill -- in a last minute burst of superhuman effort -- reorganized our luggage.

With the entire group together, fed with Chinese barbecue pork buns, and luggage on the front steps, we were ready. Shortly, in a not-quite-large-enough van sent by the cab company, we were on our way to the airport and our charter flight to St. John's. Consolidating the cab ride saved some money -- and saving money is always a good thing. We had gotten a good deal on the airfare as well -- it was sufficiently low that airport fees and taxes actually cost more than the flight. The downside was that we were packed into the aircraft at a density level that showed that the charter company (Skyservice) was committed to the idea of using every available centimetere of room for revenue generating seats. In this model of aircraft interior design, the idea of "leg room" was ruthlessly suppressed. Liza, Jill, and myself merely felt hemmed in -- but Chris, with his nearly two metres of height, felt a more acute level of discomfort.

But we survived the flight -- three hours to St. John's, with a one-and-a-half hour time zone shift ahead from Eastern to Newfoundland Time.

The airport in St. John's was larger and brighter than I remembered from when I was there nine years previously. Insteading of walking down stairs from the aircraft onto the tarmac, and then walking across the tarmac into the terminal building, we debarked onto a jet bridge and from there directly into the upper Arrivals level of a renovated, modern, and expanded international air terminal.

The first glitch in the trip was the rental agency wanting to charge extra for Chris and Liza as the extra drivers. Convincing the clerk to check with her manager regarding the policy on CAA memberships solved that problem (and saved a couple of hundred dollars). The next glitch was less minor -- the 2006 Dodge Caravan that we were assigned was the standard version -- not the roomier, deluxe Grand Caravan version that we had tried out weeks earlier at the beginning of June.

Nonetheless, we managed to cram the luggage -- all the luggage -- into the back, got Corwin and Robin's car seats set up, and got everybody aboard. With the help of directions from the tourist information counter in the airport and Chris' GPS device, we drove into St. John's, with a stop at a Tim Horton's for lunch. The directions were perfect, and with the stop for lunch, we got to the hotel on Le Marchant Road just after the three o'clock check-in time.

Once in the hotel, adults rested, children played, and I came to the realization that crucial contact information for Kevin had been left in a file folder in my briefcase at home. I had printed out an email from Kevin containing his contact information, but I had forgotten to forward the email from my work account to GMail. Although I had my laptop with me, and could connect to my work account, I had archived all of my email in anticipation of being away from work for an extended period of time. The email was there -- but it was physically on the computer on my desk at work, not on the network -- and therefore inaccessible. I had no way of contacting Kevin, and his office voice-mail message indicated what I already knew -- he was gone for at least two weeks, at his cottage somewhere outside the city, where the only way to contact him was through a cell phone number which I didn't have.

While I fretted over how to get in touch with Kevin, I was able to check off an easier task -- that being to get in touch with Bernard. Bernard was still with the telephone company -- now called Aliant -- had also just started his vacation, and was dealing with some errands, but he offered to stop by the hotel that evening. Although I was beginning to have my doubts about how much longer any of us could stay awake, all the pieces of the puzzle were coming into place.

After examining my alternatives with Kevin, I decided that simplicity was best -- I made a phone call back to the office in Toronto where I asked a colleague to turn on my computer, log in, open my archive, and forward the email I needed to my GMail account. Seconds later, and thousands of miles away, I had the information I needed, and was able to leave Kevin a message. I love modern technology....

That afternoon, the two boys -- Corwin and Cameron (age 9) -- walked with me from the hotel on Le Marchant Road down to Water Street -- the St. John's waterfront. We passed some old stomping grounds -- the Delta Hotel, and the Magic Wok Chinese Restaurant.

Although I wanted to continue farther, I faced a mutiny in the ranks -- the boys assured me that twenty minutes of walking had reduced their legs to stumps and they could not possibly climb the hill back to the hotel. There was a light, intermittent drizzle and the air was cool -- a definite difference from the heat wave we had left behind in Toronto.

Making our way back to the hotel with the help of a taxi cab, we waited for Bernard, his wife Jean, and daughter Erin to arrive, which duly came to pass by early evening. Bernard brought along the the box which Chris had sent a couple of weeks earlier. In the lead up to this trip, Chris, Liza, Jill and I had identified some "nice to have items" -- Chris and Liza's camp cooler, books, pocket radios, miscellaneous hardware -- and we had shipped all of this to Bernard so as not to take up luggage space for the plane.

After a brief visit, our evening was rounded out by dinner at the Magic Wok -- a Chinese restaurant at least as good or better as some fine restaurants in Toronto. The culinary highlight of the evening was duck and ginger soup -- light, fragrant, and tasty.

Our Newfoundland vacation was under way!

Continued in Part 2.

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