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Wednesday 15 Jan 2014
Auckland, New Zealand

What a journey!

The longest, most exhausting, frustrating journey so far: 

Leave Ecuador on 12th Jan

14:30 - 15.25  Tame Airlines, Cuenca to Quito, 10hr layover

13th Jan

00:50 - 05:30  United Airlines to Houston, Texas, 2hr layover

07:30 - 09.41  United Airlines to San Francisco, 10hr layover

19:45 - 05.45  Air New Zealand to Auckland, arrive 15th Jan (skipping a day over the International Date Line)

Simples, right?

I arrived in Cuenca to a semi-darkened airport.  The shops were closed, the check-in desks were deserted and there was nobody to ask for information.  I waited, writing my postcards, until the desk finally opened 50 mins before the flight.  I was the first person through to security - I had to wait for them to arrive and turn on the x-ray machine - a novelty after the usual scrums. 

Boarding time approached with still no sign of a plane.  It finally arrived 20 mins before we were due to leave, but with few passengers to offload or board, we took off almost on time.  Coming into Quito, I admired the gorgeous mountain views for the third and final time.

I knew I had a long wait, so I loaded my bags onto a trolley and headed to the new airport building, a 3-level mix of shops and cafes, where I filled several hours with blogs, Sudoku and sushi.  When it got late enough, I went to check in again, only to find a huge queue of disgruntled people and a 2-hour delay.  Given that I only had a 2-hour window in Houston, it wasn’t good news for me either.  I read my book for an hour in the snail-like queue until I reached the desk, where the assistant cheerfully reassured me there were several other flights to San Francisco instead.  

Armed with a new boarding pass for the 10:30am flight to San Francisco, I went back for more sushi, but found that while I’d been queuing, everything in the new building had closed, so my only option left was a pretty awful burger from Johnny Rocket's.  We were told there would be water and sandwiches as compensation for the flight delay, I didn't see anyone receive them.  

Once through security, I found a spot on the floor near a socket to recharge my phone, but I had no sooner got comfortable when I was called to the gate.  My bag had been randomly selected for a full search by airport security, so I was led down through the bowels of the airport to a loading area, where my bag stood waiting.  I had to watch helplessly as they cut through my zip-ties, pulled things out of my tightly packed bag, opened pockets and cases and rummaged through the rest.  He then indicated all was fine and pushed it back towards me to repack.  If you've spent a while living out of a rucksack you'll know that there’s a routine and things only fit a certain way.  Repacking is a precise task and things can't be just shoved back in any old how.  Delicate items need to be padded and protected.  This included a litre of gin and a bottle of Marie Sharp's Hot Sauce from Belize that I was taking as a present for James.  It was now past midnight and I'd already been travelling for 12 hours, and I was not a happy camper, especially as the security guys seemed annoyed that I was taking too long.  Hey, you pulled it out, mate, so you can wait for me to put it back!

I made it back upstairs after going through security (shoes and belt off, yet again), dropped back on the floor and plugged my phone in again.  We finally took off around 3am.  There was an empty seat next to me, so I spent an uncomfortable few hours trying to wedge my feet out of the way to let me lie down, but I barely got 2 hours’ sleep in the 6-hour flight.

I landed in Houston as my original flight was taking off, collected my bag and went through to the transfer area to put my bags through a large x-ray machine manned by a very cheerful Caribbean guy.  It was only 7.30am but he was smiling and singing and I couldn’t help laughing with him.  Why can’t all airport staff be so happy and friendly?

I ate breakfast and walked slowly through miles of corridors to reach my next gate… to find a new delay.  At first it was only 1 hour, but they quickly extended that to 2.  Last night, I’d had a choice between three flights to San Francisco.  Typically, the other two were going out on time but mine was delayed.  When this was extended to 3.5 hours, they gave out meal vouchers and put people on standby for other flights.  I was too slow to be wait-listed for the 11.30am flight as too many other people got there first. 

Announcements informed us that:

Our plane was still in New Orleans… with a fault they couldn’t fix.

They’d found another plane in Houston… but still had no crew.

They’d found a new crew… who were flying in from Denver and wouldn’t arrive til 1.20pm. 

I felt half drunk from lack of sleep and grumpier by the minute.  I was assured I wouldn’t miss my connection in San Francisco, but my plan to pass the 10-hour layover in comfort in the Club Lounge had been replaced with wandering to and fro from the gate for the latest news, to the United Lounge along the corridor where I could sit outside and connect to their free Wi-Fi, to Subway for a decidedly unimpressive free salad, and back to the gate again.

We finally took off at 2.15pm (7 hours behind my original schedule) but at least I had a window seat.  The in-flight entertainment had to be paid for again, so I watched a movie on my laptop and watched the scenery instead.  We had a clear view the whole way and I began to recognise the canyon lands below.  I checked with the flight attendant, who thought we should over the Grand Canyon soon.  I was glued to the window for the rest of the flight as I watched my road trip unfold below me. 

I followed our route from the Grand Canyon back to the Hoover Dam on the edge of Lake Mead, across Las Vegas and out through Death Valley.  I even spotted our sunset lookout at Zabriskie Point.  Following the roads across Death Valley and up to the edge of the Sierra Nevadas, I spotted Mount Whitney and the road up to Mammoth Lakes.  Mono Lake was just visible, easily identifiable by the limestone tufa towers ringing the lake.  From there, I tracked the Tioga Pass across Yosemite National Park and scanned the mountains until I spotted the distinctive shapes of Half Dome and El Capitan marking the outline of Yosemite Valley.  As we continued towards San Francisco, I recognised the golden brown hills around Livermore and the huge reservoir that Bill, Donna and I had walked up to (with the tarantula in the car park).  Finally, we reached the bay and I had a beautiful view across the water towards Alcatraz and downtown San Francisco as we approached the San Matteo bridge.  It was fantastic to see the aerial view of what had been such an amazing road trip.  

After retrieved my bags and found checking in for my Auckland flight, I had less than 90 minutes left of my 10-hour layover.  I was put on the aisle in a row with two empty seats, so I was hoping I might get to lie down on the flight, but the empty seats had been filled by the time I boarded.  

In a break from the pattern of my journey so far, Air New Zealand landed us 45 minutes early.  Even the passport agent thought my journey was insane.  I found my bags quickly and got through by 6am.  Happily James was there to meet me, feed me breakfast and put me to bed when he left for work!

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Zoe's Big World Adventure Part II - #4 New Zealand and Australia

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I had so much fun in New Zealand and Australia that I'm going back around again! This time I'll see more of the North Island and catch up with friends and family in Melbourne

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