Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Karmic Recession - by Christopher

We probably should have seen it all coming, but few people do.

Every calamitous disaster that we endured on Monday May 4th could have been avoided with more research, more double-checking and more forethought. We brought these disasters on ourselves through our own lack of responsibility, like mortgage lenders drunk on selling adjustable-rate, unsecured, no-money-down home loans to single mothers on food stamps.

We had to deal with the consequences of our blunders. That’s where the analogy breaks down. We didn’t have the option of a government bail-out available to us. We paid with our frustration, our tears, and our dollars. Our vacation budget, above all else, took the biggest hit.

We dropped the ball so many times that it began to look like we had never held the ball before; had never, by outward appearances, held anything before. Much less the ball.

I write this today from almost a week after the events that follow. I'm able to chuckle but I'm still stinging inside, in the soft nougat center of my pride. It will heal with time and continued success.

In the words of the immortal Chumbawumba, "I get knocked down, but I get up again. You ain't a-never going to keep me down."

Ain't a-never, so true. Ain't a-never gonna.

This is what happened:

We woke up early to catch our ferry to Santorini. Sarah reminded us the night before that the ferry left at 7:50, so we planned our morning schedule to give us ample time to make it to the port on the metro.

Indeed, we did make it to the port in plenty of time for the 7:50 ferry. Which we quickly discovered was an 7:25 ferry.

I found out by asking one of the sailors on a ship bound for Mykonos. I climbed onto the loading platform and gave him a friendly smile. When I asked him, "Where is the ferry for Santorini," he responded by spitting on the ground near my feet, then squinting off at the horizon and saying "It is gone at 7:25. Get off my ship."

I stumbled off of the platform in a daze. My mind was reeling and I could hear a far-off sound like a shout. Then I heard it again louder. Then I heard it and realized it was my name and stopped in my tracks.

A car sped past from my left, missing me by inches. I was standing in the middle of a street and didn't know it. I threw myself backwards out of the path of the next car. Sarah and April were watching me from across the street with looks of grave concern on their faces. If they hadn't been yelling at me, I would have been a casualty of my own distraction.

When I told them the news they were crestfallen. But not as crestfallen as when a ticket agent confirmed the facts to us five minutes later. We stood together in stunned silence each of us completely deflated.

The tickets were paid for and the money was gone; no way to get the 150 EU (about $200) back. No way to defer our tickets to a later ferry. The next ferry left at 4pm and arrived at 3am. And buying the ferry tickets on the day of departure would be expensive.

We sat on our suitcases in the port with our heads in our hands wondering how we blew it so bad. Sarah took all the blame on herself, even against the protests of April and I that it was equally our fault.

We trudged down the street to find an internet cafe and discuss our options. Instead, we stopped in a travel agency. We inquired about flights going to Santorini. I felt obligated to at least get April on a plane to her destination, since our blunder had cost her precious time and money from her 10 day vacation.

We discovered that a seat on a plane leaving at 10am would cost about 125 EU. I forced April to let me pay half of her ticket. Then, Sarah and I started running numbers to figure out how much of a bite out of our budget it would be for us to take the same plane with April.

After a dozen tense minutes of calculating and discussion, we grudgingly decided to make sacrifices in Italy to make up for the total loss on the ferry ticket and the added cost of the plane tickets for the two of us.

And a dozen minutes later, the travel agent told us with a disinterested yawn that there was only one seat left on the flight.

Sarah had been keeping herself together up until that moment. She dissolved into a puddle of tears and sobbing apologies. April and I tried to hug her and console her. The travel agent suddenly cut in.

"Wait! Two are available. Please, you do not cry madame. Is okay. Please, you do not cry."

We bought the tickets and showered the woman in thanks. But it hurt me deeply to hand over my credit card, knowing that with her one simple swipe we were committing ourselves to sleeping in our rental car in the countryside of Italy.

The metro ride to the airport was a long and confusing ordeal. We had to ride one line to another line, make a transfer to a third line and do it all quickly in time to make the flight. We asked for directions from helpful locals at least four times on our way and made it to the airport in time.

We made it in such good time that we managed to meet up with April's friend and our new travel mate Elizabeth Salas as she transferred between flights. I'm not sure that we made the best impression on Salsa as we explained to her our morning. Then she went on her way to her gate and Sarah made a trip to the toilet.

Fourteen seconds later our flight began boarding. April and I shared a look that said, "maybe we're not through this yet." April ran off to fetch Sarah and they rushed back to board a minute later.

Ever since we had decided to fly to Santorini the two sisters had been discussing their various phobias with flying. I've written of Sarah's fear of flying in this blog before. Suffice to say, April shares many of the same terrors. While in the airport they had felt comforted by seeing the many big, jet-propelled airliners cruising around.

As our bus approached one of the large jets, all three of us breathed a sigh of relief that our trip would have minimal turbulence.

Then we drove past the big jet toward a twin propeller job that looked like nothing so much as a coke can on it's side. The sisters didn't have to say a word. I could feel their stomachs drop from where I stood.

The inside of the plane was as tight as an airplane toilet. I didn't see it, but I imagine the airplane toilet was as tight as an airplane overhead compartment. The airplane overhead compartments were as tight as an airsick bag. The airsick bags were the size of a pack of complimentary peanuts. The complimentary peanut bags could not be seen with the naked eye. I'm trying to tell you that it was a small plane, okay?

Everything was going fine until about halfway into the flight when we hit some of the most hellaciously violent turbulence I have ever experienced. Turbulence for me is like potholes on a country road; a minor annoyance. But I saw April gripping her armrest in an iron claw and Sarah mouthed to me across the aisle that she was about to lose it. Her face was pale and I could see she was breathing quick, shallow breaths.

Just then, the turbulence mercifully let up. As we approached the island our vision became obscured by heavy cloud cover. And as we bumped to Earth and slowed to a stop, I noted that we had landed in one of the worst downpours I had ever seen.

We ran through the rain to the bus, which deposited our sopping trio in the terminal. We collected our bags and met with Salsa (who took a jet) and then began to look for a man named Nikos from our hotel who was going to pick us up.

After scouring the tiny terminal for anyone holding a sign, or appearing that they might be looking for us, I took a long walk along the outside of the terminal in the freezing, torrential rain. I came back drenched and empty-handed.

Sarah set out to look for this Nikos elsewhere in the parking lot while I talked with one of the people at a rental car counter to see if we could call the hotel. Ten minutes later, just as I was about to make the phone call, April and Salsa burst into laughter.

Sarah had driven past in the passenger seat of a car we had all seen sitting in front of the terminal but dismissed, since the fellow inside didn't seem to be looking for anyone.

We made our way outside and set off down the road in Nikos's tiny car. We would eventually come to call him Old Nikos, since we would soon meet a New Nikos who would help to solve many of the problems that were waiting for us at the end of our rainy drive.

Old Nikos spoke very halting English and only wanted to talk to me about nice cars he passed on the road and bowling. There was no bowling alley on the island he told us, but when he was back home in Athens he bowled frequently. I asked him what we could do in Santorini in spite of the rain. He misunderstood my question, drew my attention to a passing Porsche, and went back to staring slack-jawed through the monsoon raging all around us.

As soon as we stopped in front of our hotel, I knew we were in trouble. But I suppressed this instinct in favor of keeping an open and optimistic mind.

All the shops surrounding our hotel were closed. The hotel itself appeared to be in the middle of a very haphazard renovation. We were introduced to the rest of Old Nikos's family and were then promptly shown to our rooms.

To say that the rooms were broken, battered and unlivable is to assert that perhaps raw sewage could be unpleasant to bathe in, or that skydiving without a parachute is sometimes inadvisable.

There was an inch of standing water under the mangled beds in our room. The window and the door to the patio were merely suggestions that the elements be kept out. Rain was running copiously from under the door and between the cracks of the window closure.

Our host was completely unfazed, and assured us as she grabbed a mop and began mopping the puddles that she would weatherstrip the door and window immediately. Just as soon as we came downstairs and paid for our whole stay in advance and in full, she added.

I'm going to save you a lot of time and trouble here and simply list all the examples of unbelievable treatment and conditions we endured before we finally demanded a refund and left to find another hotel the next day:

1. The lady who ran the place (Margarita) disputed the amount we owed, even when the email she sent to us agreed with our price and not hers. When we showed her this email, she waved it away and insisted that her new price was the price. She grudgingly relented when Sarah angrily threatened to leave.

2. Within the first hour of occupying our rooms at the hotel, the power went out. Old Nikos fumbled around in the dark and got it back on. Then the power went out again at 3 am. Which meant our heater turned off and the room temperature dropped suddenly as we woke up and realized that all the hastily-applied weatherstripping had simply fallen off. Then the power went off during my shower the next day.

3. And when I turned on the water to take a shower, the water turned off for April's shower, which she was in the middle of across the hall.

4. By 12 pm the next day, our room had an inch of standing water on the freezing tile floor.

5. Our mattresses (yes, we were sleeping on two twin beds) were like especially odorous clumps of dirty clothes. One of the sharp metal springs protruded proudly from my mattress. But I was determined to end the day by getting some much-needed sleep. So I jabbed a foam earplug on the end of it and duct taped it down to the mattress. Yes, I travel with duct tape. And electrical tape if you must know.

6. Each time we addressed our complaints to Old Nikos or Margarita, they told us "Is no problem," and then explained why our complaint wasn't really a problem.

All four of us slept so poorly that night that we slept very late the next day, like 1pm late. After the power went out during my shower I reached my limit of patience. I discussed with the girls and we agreed to leave.

Sarah summoned Margarita and Old Nikos and I told them that we were leaving, that we would pay for the night before, but that we wanted the rest of our money back.

Old Nikos began to angrily argue with us about our complaints. While the power was still out.

I angrily pointed out the makeshift duct tape patch on my mattress and Old Nikos pulled it off and asked, "Who did this!?" as if it was us who put the hole in the mattress and exposed the spring. I told him that it was me who applied the earplug and duct tape because "the spring was stabbing me in the night." To which Old Nikos replied (you guessed it) "Is no problem!"

I calmed myself and simply decided to ignore him from then on. Margarita was the money man, I knew. So I firmly explained to her that we would pack our things and meet her downstairs in a minute to accept our refund and take our leave.

Fifteen minutes later we were standing on the streets of Santorini with our luggage and our refund trying to decide which direction to walk to find a good hotel for the next two nights.

We split up, and I'm happy that it was me who happened upon New Nikos and the Lauda Hotel.

Long story short, we paid a tiny bit more per night for a ridiculously comfortable room, a pool with a coveted view of the caldera and a host who was friendly, knowledgeable and fair. When we left two days later I gave New Nikos one my band's records (The Nevernudes, we called ourselves) and he promptly popped it into the lobby CD player. Each time I came back in the lobby that day I heard myself singing songs over the speakers. I would bet that it's still playing right now.

Thus ends my recount of our day of karmic recession; when all the mean names I called other kids in my third grade class came back around to get me.

I don't know what April and Sarah did to deserve the day we suffered last Monday and I haven't asked them. We don't talk much about the events of last Monday.

Whatever they did, it must have been bad.

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