Escaping Toronto: The hassles of traveling with gear
By Jim Urquhart
As I attempted to leave Toronto I found I had to go into deep Canadian mode to make it possible.
Last week I spent several days meeting editors and visiting a friend in the city. I had looked forward to the trip but I never expected it to be such a mind melting, dignity crushing, blood letting experience to simply go home when it was all said and done. Through my work I get to travel my fair share. Over the last several years I have developed several habits that help me ensure my travels go as planned.
A major one is avoiding traveling by air as much as possible. Traveling by commercial aircraft you are limited by what camera gear you bring along. I never check in any of my gear with luggage. I have seen too many other photographers’ equipment get destroyed by doing so. Also, you are dependent on so many variables that can come into play like weather and aircraft maintenance. I prefer to drive if time allows but seeing as it 1,899.94 miles from my doorstep to Reuters’ Toronto offices I had to fly to return home.
When I was younger I was a student pilot and feel at ease in small private aircraft. But on commercial flights I am stuck in the cabin, packed in with everyone else and so far from the controls. I guess it is that sense of “I am so very screwed” in the event something happens with no control of my destiny. So, if I have to travel by a commercial airliner my next major rule is be sure to have easy access to whiskey. That will come into play later.
After several days of exploring the city, which is really like an urban United Nations with it’s rich mix of cultures, it was time to head out and head home. The night before my departure I stayed out a bit longer than I had intended. But, I had planned enough time to get back to my room, rest up a bit, get all my gear together and head to the airport for my flight home.
It was late, about 3am when I went to my room – that is where Toronto dug its first claw into my back.
Once at the door of my room I was confronted with a key that no longer worked. It was one of those magnetic keys that always fails. When given these I carry two just in case one fails. But both keys didn’t work and it was just hours before I needed to get to the airport and I couldn’t get into my room.
In most instances this would not be a problem, simply go to the front desk and get a new key. But, this time I was staying in an old mansion that had been turned into a guest house in a residential section of Toronto and there was no management on the property at this hour. I desperately called any number I could find associated with the property but to no avail.
After spending more than an hour trying to gain access to my room it was time to give up. It was time to give up on getting on the scheduled morning flight. I called Delta Airlines and had them reschedule me on a flight a couple of hours later that would also take me home via a stop in St. Paul, Minneapolis.
I made the most of this time, hanging out with my friend. I met with someone from the guest house when they showed up for work and got access to my room. I explained very clearly to them that by not having an emergency number to contact staff after hours I had missed my flight.
I soon arrived at the airport in a semi-conscious state. I had already been up more than 30 hours at this point. Arriving at the airport on the way home a bit haggard is pretty much par for the course for me but this time it was without the usual partying hangover that creates my zombie walk of shame.
I checked the weather and the forecast called for a hot day over the west. This meant bumpy turbulent flights that I hate. So once I past security I grabbed one last Canadian whiskey before jumping on my flight. However, just as we were about to pull away from the gate and I was feeling relaxed, about to fall asleep, we were informed that our flight had now been cancelled due to a mechanical failure. I wanted to swear but my chemically induced coolness was starting to take hold.
Once at the ticket counter I confronted the reality that my flight was filled with a lot of angry Americans. One thing I noticed, painted with a general brush, is that Canadians really are much more polite than their hair-trigger neighbors to the south.
At the counter I witnessed professional men having complete meltdowns as they talked about how they needed to get home. I watched one guy juggle phone calls between his wife, his girlfriend and his secretary who was in charge of rescheduling his meetings and not letting his wife and girlfriend ever meet. Many of us Americans think that we may be exceptional in our ways to tackle problems. A group of angry Americans freaking out and swearing at the ticket counter agent working hard to reschedule everyone going to multiple destinations was, I believe, an exceptional trait. In a situation where I would normally feel my stress level raise I stayed cool. At that moment I was a chemically induced Canadian.
When it was my turn to talk to the ticket agent I also had one on the phone. The agent at the counter was smooth and cool but the one on the phone sounded like she was about to loose it. In fact I looked around and to my surprise she was not in line with me. She was in the States. I ended the call and the ticket agent in front of me easily made a new itinerary. I was now scheduled to fly out of Toronto in a couple of hours on a flight to Detroit then another on to Salt Lake City.
This city didn’t want to let go just yet and I was cool with that.
I headed to the pub for some lunch and to watch the EuroCup semi-final between Germany and Italy. Just as I was about to start my meal I received a message from Delta Airlines that my flight to Detroit was now cancelled because of a cracked windshield. Seriously? This was getting ridiculous. I got on the phone to try and schedule another flight out and I ordered a whiskey; this was going to take going deep Canadian to handle this now.
After about 30 minutes on the phone a Delta ticket agent had me flying out of Toronto to Houston but on United Airlines in just a few minutes. All seemed good, but my luggage was with Delta and I would have to retrieve it with only have a few minutes to run, hop on a tram, change terminals and run some more to catch my flight out.
At this moment I had to make an executive decision. If I tried to retrieve my luggage from Delta, I would not make this flight out. It was already going to be close. I make a mental inventory of what was in my checked luggage – just clothing. My cameras, lenses, computer, chargers and medications were all in my backpack, on my back. It was now time for the executive Canadian decision; clothing be damned, I was going home.
As I made my mad dash through the airport it became clear there was no way I was going to make it on time, but the ticket counter was in sight. I rushed up to the United counter where I was greeted by the agent, showed him my passport and explained that I needed him to print out my boarding pass. If he did this quickly I could be on my way home. He calmly informed me that there was a problem with my ticket and something hadn’t gone right in the communication between Delta and United. He worked quickly but it became clear there was not enough time to get it sorted out – I was not going home on this flight either. But he quickly arranged for me to fly out a couple of hours later on another United flight that would take me through Chicago then on to home.
After taking my time getting through security and customs I finally boarded my flight. I sat in the last row near a window not actually believing I was about to really leave.
I had had; one flight to St Paul’s cancelled because I couldn’t access my room to get my luggage, another flight cancelled because of mechanical problems, a flight to Detroit cancelled because of a broken windshield, couldn’t get to the gate in time for a flight to Houston but now I was sitting on a plane getting ready to fly to Chicago. The sun was beginning to set and I knew it was still high in the sky over my home. Home really was in sight if only I could get off the ground in Toronto.
And then just as they were about to close the doors on the plane a dark haired gentleman that looked very familiar to me sat next to me. I tried not to stare, but I knew him from somewhere, a face from years ago. I turned to him and asked him, “Excuse me sir, but are you married to Alisa Hamblin?” With a stunned and surprised look he glanced up at me and said, yes. He seemed confused and I was amazed.
After a day from hell, running from place to place at the airport in a country where I only have a few friends I was now sitting next to my cousin-in-law and he was flying to Utah too. The last time I saw Todd Hamblin in person was 21 years ago when he married my cousin Alisa. He is now an executive working in Toronto after recently moving there. He is in the process of relocating his family to Toronto and here he was sitting with me on a series of flights to Utah.
For the rest of the trip we stuck together and chatted. He sensed what kind of day I had been through and, as the Canadian in me was slowly metabolizing out of my body, he offered comfort and understanding in a way only a family member could. When I arrived in Utah we went our different ways but now I know besides having great friends in Toronto, I also have family.
Oh, and my luggage did show up a day later delivered to my doorstep. But it was just clothes and as long as I have my gear with me it really didn’t matter.