Thursday, May 11, 2006

Log of the Eclipse (4)

Monday, March 27, 2006

Hell

As I mentioned in another post, we were planning on joining a tour sponsored by Sky and Telescope Magazine, which would include not just the eclipse but nine or ten days of sightseeing. The tour was organized by TravelQuest, which specializes in astronomical destinations.

I’d never taken a tour before, with the exception of a two-day tour of Xi’an, which I took because you can’t see the Terra-Cotta Warriors unless you’re part of a tour. Somewhat to my surprise, I enjoyed that tour and learned a lot.

Still, I thought we were taking chances joining a tour for so long. I’d never toured with a busload of strangers and I didn’t know whether I’d like it. On the other hand, if we made our own arrangements, we wouldn’t see nearly as many cool things. And the strangers were likely to be people who were interested in the same kind of things I was interested in, simply because they were going with Sky and Telescope instead of Let’sGoShopping.Com.

So here’s the positive things I learned about tours.

1. If you pick the right tour, you see lots of amazingly wonderful stuff that you might not otherwise know existed.

2. You find like-minded people with whom you make friends. There’s always someone to talk to or to hang with.

3. There are always minions to help you carry your crap around.

4. You end up in really nice hotels that otherwise you might not be able to afford.

5. If you get in some kind of jam, the tour personnel are there to handle it for you.

6. You never have to stand in line to buy tickets or negotiate with foreigners who do not have the good sense to speak English. You can soak up the sights while other people handle all that for you.

And the negatives:

1. Your time is not your own. You get on the bus when you’re told to, and you to go where you’re told to.

2. You eat when it’s time to eat. This means you’re often eating when you’re not hungry (and thus overeating), or you’re starving after traveling for hours and are then presented with a huge buffet (and thus overeat).

3. While the food is plentiful, tours are usually stuck with big buffet meals at big hotels, and the food is mediocre to poor.

4. Too much time devoted to dragging us to places to shop. I want to see cool stuff, not fashion shows. And in a place like Turkey, I want to get away from the ever-present hucksters, not be thrown to them like a beef bone to a pack of hyenas.

5. Contact with the locals is limited to waiters and salesmen.

6. If the tour operator screws up your arrangements, your tour experience can take a swift lethal turn straight to HELL!!!!

To-wit:

Our Monday started very early, to catch the flight from Atatürk Airport to Antalya on the south coast, where we would view the eclipse in a couple days. We— or I should say Kathy— was carrying one unusual item of luggage, an Edmund Scientific Astroscan telescope. For those hopelessly uncool, lost souls among you who haven’t read The Rift, where an Astroscan becomes a significant plot element, let me point out that the Astroscan isn’t shaped like a conventional telescope. It looks like a giant red cherry bomb, or maybe a trench mortar. This means that if you’re carrying the thing around on a shoulder strap (as Kathy did when we were shifting from one hotel to another), people are always asking you what the big red thing is.

The appearance of a tall red-headed woman in apparent possession of a trench mortar can also pose a problem at airport security. The Astroscan looks a lot more like a weapon than it looks like a telescope. So Kathy was always careful to explain to the security people what the thing was before she ever put it through the x-ray machine.

I should point out that, as the Big Strong Guy among us, I had volunteered to carry the telescope. But I was also carrying my beloved old Pentax KM, which I bought new but which is now a vintage collectors’ item, and which with my Vivitar 28-210mm zoom lens weighs about as much as a Sherman tank. So Kathy out of her great compassion said she’d carry the Astroscan herself.

(“Do people ever make fun of you for not going digital?” I was asked on the trip, by someone else who had an equally vintage camera. “Not once they see my pictures,” I said.)

In Turkish airports you go through a security screening right at the door, before you go on to the ticket counter, and we flung our stuff down on the x-ray machine and went through a metal detector. It was only later that I realized with horror that I’d put my camera case on the x-ray machine with everything else, and that if the x-rays were as strong as those in American baggage scanners, I’d just lost all my film. This was a horrific worry that stayed with me through the trip, right up to the point where I got my slides returned, and all the pictures turned out gorgeous.

(And yes, I take slides. I like to see pictures that, once projected, look as big as the real thing.)

Once we got into the airport, we made our way to the area of the Turkish Airlines counter and immediately found a cluster of North Americans standing around looking lost. They turned out to be our new friends, with whom we would spend the next twelve days.

Because we had made our own arrangements to fly to Istanbul and back, we had not acquired actual physical tickets. There was supposed to be someone from TravelQuest at the airport to hand us our tickets.

We waited for this person for a long time and he didn’t show up. (Some people later say they’d seen him, but that he was very shy and sort of crept around on the fringes.) But our reservations actually existed, supposedly, so we all ended up checking our own bags and standing in line to get our tickets.

A number of shocks immediately followed. First, though our group had supposedly been booked to fly on a single aircraft, we found we had instead been booked on two. And we— Kathy and I— hadn’t been booked on either of those. I had been booked on a flight that wouldn’t leave for hours, with a flight number that did not appear on any of the signs scattered around the airport that listed gates and times of departure. And Kathy hadn’t been booked on any flight at all. There was no Kathleen Hedges with reservations, but there was a Paul Hedges. Kathy, no fool, immediately claimed to be Paul Hedges, and got her— his— ticket.

So now we had to wait around Atatürk for the whole morning and a large chunk of the afternoon while those booked on earlier flights got to spend the day frolicking on the white sand beaches of Antalya.

I do not drink alcohol in the mornings. I rarely drink in the afternoons, and then only in company. But I needed something to numb the creeping sense of dread that I had somehow booked us onto the Tour of the Souls Lost in Purgatory, and that the real Paul Hedges would show up at any second and demand his ticket. There was a bar selling beer in giant 20-oz pilsner glasses (for something like $10 each, but never mind). I had several of these. We also found some crunchy sandwiches on Italian focaccia, and so had a pleasant enough lunch.

While waiting we also met several other people from the tour who were likewise condemned to our particular limbo. The only two I can recall at this moment were Cheryl and Debra Silver, two sisters traveling together. At least if we were going to be in limbo, we had some pleasant people with whom to share our doom.

In Turkey passengers also have to go through security before going into the boarding area. Everything got x-rayed again. I went through just behind Kathy, hoping that the security guard wouldn’t notice that the name on her ticket did not match the one on her passport. The guard either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

Our flight was never posted on any of the signs listing departures or gates. Here’s what I think happened: a whole lot of people booked to Antalya for the solar eclipse. Turkish Airlines overbooked, assuming the usual percentage (30%?) would cancel their reservations, and instead nobody canceled at all. (Because it was a solar eclipse, you idiots!)

If this was the case, then I have to say that Turkish Air stepped up to the plate. They simply laid on a whole new aircraft with a whole new crew to speed us on our way.

Once we were actually on the plane and my hideous dread began to ebb, I commenced to enjoy myself. During a flight that lasted maybe 45 minutes, the cabin attendants provided us beverages and an entire meal, which was pretty good as airline food goes. Turkish Air, it turns out, is an old-fashioned state-supported airline, and you get real service with real food, and the knives and forks aren’t plastic, and when they have too many people booked on the flight they just give you a new airplane! I heartily recommend Turkish Airlines for anyone who isn’t doing Izmir-for-three-quid on Ryanair or whatever.

There was a certain amount of suspense concerning whether we’d be met at the airport by anyone from TravelQuest, or whether we’d have to get a bunch of cabs to our hotel. (At least we knew what hotel we were supposed to be at.) But there to meet us was Michel Girardin, our head TravelQuest person, to guide us onto a very own air-conditioned bus. Michel is from South Africa, owns and runs Shiluvari Lakeside Lodge in Limpopo, and hires out as a sort of mercenary travel consultant for TravelQuest when they need someone who is very good at logistics— which, since this tour ended up with three or four times as many people as expected, was what was needed here. He and fellow South African Jean Morrison fought a perpetual battle against lost and looney reservations, incompetent hotel managers, reluctant kitchen staff, and strangely absent functionaries of all sorts. My hats are off to them, as whoever made our actual reservations royally screwed them up (as my wife Paul will testify).

We never actually saw Antalya. The airport was outside the city, and our hotel was an hour further on. The bus transported us across a green and pleasant land, covered with farms and the homes of retired Germans, thousands of whom have settled here permanently.

All private homes, I was pleased to note, have solar roof panels. This is universal in Turkey except for the north coast, where 360-day-per-year clouds and rain make them pointless. (One remembers that the ancient Greeks called the Black Sea the Euxine, meaning the “Friendly Sea.” They didn’t call it this because the sea was in any sense pleasant, but for the same reason they called the Furies the “Friendly Ones”— they were trying to flatter the gods of the sea into not dumping quite so much bad weather on them. History, by the way, records that this strategy failed.)

We passed a series of increasingly stately and majestic hotels to finally arrive at the five-star Sunrise Queen Hotel This enormous, stunning edifice looks like a Raymond Loewy-designed ocean liner that has inexplicably stranded itself on land. It has, to quote the archive, * panorama lift * restaurants * bars * conference rooms (up to 800 persons) * miniclub for children * outdoor swimming pool with children's section and waterfalls * entertainment programmes * tennis * fitness centre * beach volleyball * basketball * table tennis * aerobic. Payable locally: billiard * squash * bowling * sauna * Turkish bath * massage * water sports.

Pretty comprehensive, neh? And the list doesn’t even mention the two heliports on the roof. In addition the Sunrise Queen had a beautiful white beach and the winedark sea beyond.

I would never have stayed in a place like this except that TravelQuest made me. Damn, it was torture!

Our room was up in the eighth sub-basement. That is, eight floors below the entrance. But because the building is on a hill, we still ended up with a private terrace looking directly at the tall cypress hedge that overlooked the ocean.

That night the whole group assembled in one of the dining rooms for drinks, a multi-course meal, and to get a briefing from our leaders. (This was our fourth meal of the day, for those of you who were counting.) The meal was a colossal buffet, the first of many. There was a table the size of my living room for just the desserts. Food was free, drinks were extra.

By chance we happened to sit with Sky & Telescope editor Paul Deans and his wife Pat Price, who became our friends during the ensuing days. Paul was our technical advisor for the eclipse, and gave a talk about what we might expect. In addition he was in touch with ace Sky & Telescope meteorologists in the Mediterranean area, and briefed us on what the weather might intend for The Day. Since the weather so far had been cloudy, we were cheered to discover that on there should be a day of clear weather on the 29th, sandwiched between two other weather systems.

Bloated with many drinks and numerous desserts, we made our way to the sub-basement and bed.

Next on Walter the Eclipse-Chaser: Procession about Pamphylia.

3 Comments:

Blogger Foxessa said...

When, in the previous administration, cultural and educational tours were still allowed by U.S. citizens to Cuba, Vaquero was the cultural liaison and picked most of the activities for the Afro Pop tours, and some others. They were wonderful. And yup, you wouldn't have been able to have experienced any of it without the tour.

I miss them. They often had stretches of being grueling, because we covered so much ground and had so many experiences scheduled, but they were also revealing and wonderful.

My primary complaint is that we had really nice places to stay, in really lovely areas, and we only got to be in them to sleep.

Love, C.

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