Thursday, July 31, 2008

USA-DE - Dulles, USA --> Frankfurt, Germany

I wake up at 6:00 am to go to work on Thursday morning, netting about 3 hours of sleep. On the one hand, I suppose messing up your sleep schedule before you leave is one odd approach to battling jetlag. It certainly worked, though I was quite loopy all day Thursday.

My morning meeting with the D.C. Department of Transportation was typical... a 15-minute meeting in an air-conditioned office instead took about three hours and a site visit during a sweltering morning. This is because of certain members of a certain other transportation organization in a certain place that isn't a state just happened to keep asking the dumbest of questions. Things that any engineer should be able to spot just by looking at the plans. Questions that had already been answered just 5 minutes earlier. Then there was the woman whom was just repeating the exact same questions her boss had already asked – questions which weren’t that great the first time around. Maybe it was due to my lack of sleep that I was becoming bothered so?

I just sat silent and tried not to burst out laughing whenever my coworker, Oscar, and I exchanged glances – clearly we were both sharing the exact same train of thought. The site visit was the best part – they were proposing to detour traffic down one of our roads, and I kept insisting that they really don't want to put traffic on that road. Think of the worst road you can imagine, and then think worse.

This road is really just an industrial driveway; not a roadway. It has potholes, utility poles in the middle of the pavement, barrier wall scattered about, and large trucks parked all over the place. I’m not even entirely sure why it’s a State road, other than that I think we have it because it provides access to the underside of our bridges; as well as to some railway tracks. So it’s really just a maintenance access and industrial driveway; not a road for the masses. I proposed the site visit – and tagged along – just so I could see the look on their faces. That option got nixed before we even finished parking our cars.

The rest of the work day was hectic as I tried to finish some assignments, train others in projects that I knew would arise while I was gone, eating lunch, and responding to calls from our Communications division -- whom was attempting to keep the media at bay. I left 30 minutes later than I initially planned to leave -- 1330 instead of an even 1300. I got back to Laurel at 1400, finished packing my bag by 1430, relaxed 30 minutes, and then panicked a couple minutes as 1500 approached & my roommate hadn't yet shown up to give me a ride to Dulles. Alas, he arrived almost right-on the minute & we were on our way about 10 minutes later.

I arrived at Dulles at 1605 – 2.75 hours before flight time. I spent the first 2 hours in queue to check in... the lines were massive. So massive, in fact, that it didn't even stay within the roped-off queuing area. I know, that happens often... but I couldn't even see the roped-off queuing area because it was in a different part of the airport than I was standing in. That's how long the queue was. Throughout my life, I could be considered to be a frequent flier; and I’ve never seen queues that size. I became good friends with my queue-neighbors and we'd periodically hold each other's place as one of us would go find a staffmember just to, again, confirm that we were indeed in the correct line. Sometimes one of my queue-neighbors wouldn't be in the right place, and I'd get a new queue-neighbor; but I can proudly say I was always in the correct line. All two hours of it.

When I got to the end of the queue, I looked back and saw that the queue was only a couple dozen people behind me. I could've seriously just run off and gone into DC for 2 hours... come back... and probably could've gotten through only 10 minutes later. Check-in has changed since I traveled last year... the electronic machines at check-in gave me something that wasn't a boarding pass. Then I gave that to a nearby staffmember watching over my local group of machines... and then I got another thing that wasn't a boarding pass. They tagged my backpack, I bagged it, and then they put it off on the conveyor belt.

I made my way through security. Security was a breeze – since I was solo, they directed me to some other security line on the next level below, right beside the baggage claim. The line went fast. I got onto the crazy shark-bus things that Dulles has, made my way to the terminal, and arrived about a smooth 20 minutes before boarding.

I first went to the counter with my non-boarding pass... the clerk told me he wasn't done with seating yet & for me to sit down. I sat down and waited. Here I made my obligatory calls to the parents (just in case I end up in a gulag in Siberia… though I hear Siberia is nice this time of year) and promptly received my Mom’s voicemail and then my Dad’s voicemail. I suspect my Mom was at work, but my Dad did what I always do (like father; like son) and didn’t realize his phone was turned off. He called me back a couple minutes before I boarded – it’s always good to hear a parent’s voice before you go and throw yourself into a different country, on a different continent, eight time zones away.

20 minutes later they started boarding, and I was still sitting in wait for my boarding pass, seat, or anything that is typical of boarding a flight. I was still confused about the paper I currently had... others sitting beside me were fiddling with their boarding passes – those bar-coded pieces of paper we all know and love. I just had this little thing with some words & numbers printed on a primarily blank piece of paper – it didn't even have an advertisement on the back (if you haven’t flown recently, that started up about 2 years ago).

I went back up to the counter, and voila now I got my boarding pass! Why they didn't tell me I had to come back again – or just give it to me the first time – I do not know. Such is the way things go when security protocols change on a weekly basis. On my boarding pass, I spotted that my seat had the letter E... I counted things out in my head and recognised that this meant middle. Not just middle; middle of the middle.

Now when I first booked (which was a month-long experience on its own), I asked for a window. I was told window seats were booked on this flight... OK, can I get an aisle? Sure, no problem. What do I actually get? I get the middle seat of the middle group of seats. Not even the middle seat of a group nearish to the window.... that would put me within gazing-distance of the great beyond. No, I'm in the "you'd better be a social butterfly" seat, as middle as you can get on a trans-Atlantic airliner.

I first sat down in the wrong seat. I didn’t realize this for about 10 or 15 minutes, when the people who actually had those seats made me realize that I took the wrong row. I’m not quite sure how I got the wrong row, since my row number was 23 and I took 26. Does a 3 look like a 6? Not really. Maybe I was just stuck on various groupings of 3… like maybe I should’ve gone and tried to sit in row 29.

Anyway, in row 26, I was beside a rather large gentleman; and the seat next to me was empty. It was empty because it would eventually be occupied by half of the couple of whose seats I was sitting in. The next to me took up the right armrest without even trying, but I was hoping all along that my left seat would be a no-show. The guy on my right was nice, though: an instructor with the military. I suppose it was the fresh buzz-cut & my choice of fashion (white undershirt and pale-tannish-green cargo pants) which made him first suspect I was a soldier joining him en route to Germany.

My first seat-neighbor was a pleasure to talk to, but I was glad when I discovered I had the wrong seat and was relocated beside two considerably thinner individuals such that I didn't have to duel for the precious commodity known as "armrest space". To my right was a German electrical engineer whom had been visiting the USA on business; and to my left was a vegetarian. So yeah they pretty much fit the stereotypes: the German was tall, lean, and sturdy; and the vegetarian was tiny and petite. I didn’t really hold any conversations with them, but from what short discussions we did have: they were both very kind. I was able to control both of my armrests the entire time – usually having enough space left over that they’d share the part I wasn’t using.

The movies were lackluster, which was a blessing – it encouraged me to actually get some sleep. However, the dinner & breakfast were sub-par, too. Or is it above-par? Basically, this is where the Lufthansa strike made itself apparent. Apparently the strike consisted primarily of the catering staff. Hence, my dinner & breakfast were along the lines of "the flight crew ran off to a nearby grocery store just before take-off." Dinner consisted of a sandwich – a small biscuit with a slice of processed ham & a slice of Swiss cheese.

For what it’s worth, what Americans call “Swiss” cheese is actually Emmentaler cheese – there are lots of cheeses from Switzerland, and Emmentaler is just one of them. However, the cheese on this small roll was so definitely not Swiss that I would not be surprised if Switzerland broke their neutrality just to teach this cheese company a thing or two about Emmentaler cheese.

Fortunately, when you're hungry -- anything starts to look tasty. I ate mine as well as the vegetarian's sitting beside me. It took about an hour and a half before the crew arranged a vegetarian meal... I'm not quite sure how they did it. First, I didn’t even think she’d get a meal at all, and I was contemplating not eating her sandwich just in case she decided to go ahead and eat the ham (which may not have actually contained any ham in the first place). Second, when I heard the crew member say that they arranged a vegetarian meal for her, the thought immediately running through my head was that it’d be some rolls without the ham; or maybe some greens from a couple breakfast meals. However, when I looked over and actually saw it: it was a legitimate salad – and it even looked tasty.

Breakfast was so fantastic that I'm still carrying the vegetarian's breakfast around with me... a bag of chips. That was the primary portion of the meal... a bag of chips. I dearly hope this strike ends before I return on September 1!

Sleeping consisted of trying to fit my legs into positions that would give skilled yoga devotees a second glance. After struggling to keep my butt from falling asleep or to find a position which didn't entail having my toes pinched everytime my seat-neighbors opened or closed their meal tray, I eventually took the cue of my German seat-neighbor and just put my head down on the tray.

This would have been splendid had I been just a couple inches shorter or if the seat in front of me weren't reclined.... instead I craned my neck to fit my head onto the tray. It must have worked, as I was next woken by the announcement that we'd be arriving in an hour. It felt like I was only asleep for 5 minutes (which had been the general theme up until I went into the head-on-tray position). Seriously, sleeping in the middle-of-the-middle seat should be in Wii Fit.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

USA - Preamble

My trip began with an early bout of drama when, on Sunday, Lufthansa went on strike.  So four days before I'm planning to leave, my airline goes on strike.  Fortunately, very few flights were cancelled, though I did run into a couple people whom had been rerouted when a JFK -> Frankfurt flight went kaput.

On Wednesday night, my last night in the country, I finally got around to doing my final pack.  I did a test-pack the night before, which prompted a shopping trip on Wednesday afternoon.  That night, when responsible people would be packing their bags since said "responsible person" knows he has to get up for an early-morning meeting tomorrow, I instead got a phone call from the Russian girls I've befriended the last couple weeks.  These girls: Elizaveta, Kate, Mariya, and Milana, are all from Kaliningrad, which is the little part of Russia off near Poland which isn’t actually connected to Russia.  I guess it’s sort of like their Hawaii or Alaska… except certainly not quite as much of an exotic destination.

So with this phone call, here is where responsibility is trumped by "let's hang out with four Russian girls", with the rational reasoning that it only makes sense to be with Russian people before going to Russia.  I was planning on getting back only an hour later, giving me time to pack my back & get to bed by midnight.  Instead, I returned at 2:30am... thanks to the Czech girl and the two Moldavian guys arriving & encouraging me to stick around a bit longer, and also the need to plan the voyages about America with the Kaliningraders upon my return.

In the weeks prior, the girls had been trying to teach me about Russian culture.  However, I feared that some of the words which they were teaching me would be of little use in regular conversation.  For example, the Russian word for “boobs”.  Here I was worried that upon being introduced to my host-parents, I’d extend my hand and greet them by saying “boobs”.  Fortunately, none of anything that they were attempting to teach me was setting in, as since I was in America: I just couldn’t mentally prepare myself to actually learn anything.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

USA, DC - Today at work...

My day started the usual way... wake up, try not to trip over my own feet, water the plants, drive down the Parkway, and then try to sit at my desk and look busy. However, right at 9am, I got a message that I had to go out toward Bethesda immediately to deal with a traffic issue. Specifically, I had to get to a stretch of road -- Maryland Route 355 (MD 355) -- right in front of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Navy Medical Center (NNMC).

This was my lead: an image from the traffic camera dated July 2, showing the contractor blocking the bus pull-off. I parked along the access to the right (NIH side) and NNMC is located on the left side.

I tried to do a bit of research before I went... I called all our usual field operations folks to see if they knew what was going on. I called the County's Transportation Management Center (TMC), as they usually know EVERYTHING happening in the county, and I trust every single one of the people working there. They reported some construction hassles yesterday which shut down a lane along southbound MD 355 & significantly disrupted bus operations as a result. That is, buses can't pickup passengers (particularly disabled passengers) when they can't pull up to the curb... and the curb lane was shut down. OK so I had a lead: my urgent issue is related to construction.

Next, I pull out my plans for some work that I knew NIH was doing. They just built a new visitors access in a really dumb location, and I suspected that their contractors were doing funky things with traffic. I looked at our video logs and compared 2006 to 2007, just to make sure I was familiar with how things used to look like and how things more-or-less look today. I looked at the traffic cameras at a nearby intersection and spotted a part of the southbound lane coned off, but it was the part they're allowed to cone off.

Staring into the traffic camera, however, I noted something else... a northbound lane was coned off. The northbound side fronts the NNMC and shouldn't have anything to do with NIH construction. There was a federal police officer parked in the northbound curb lane... and as I was watching, a second officer pulled in behind. I started thinking that, perhaps, it had to do with the pending merger of the Walter Reed Medical Center into the NNMC, which is prompting a LOT of construction in the whole area.

This is MD 355, as viewed from the northern side of NIH. The NNMC is along the left side.

Hoping to spot construction, the TMC rotated the camera for me so I could get a look in the other direction, and here's where I REALLY got confused. All this time, I thought I could just resolve whatever the traffic issue was without having to leave my chair. I just thought it'd be NIH's contractor doing something, so I could call NIH and have it resolved. With the camera pointing in the other direction, however, I spotted about 10 SHA dumptrucks lined up along the northbound lane.

Why were WE causing the problems? And why didn't anyone know about it before handing me the assignment??

The County's TMC didn't know anything about this... so next I called our Statewide Operations Center and they didn't have a clue as to what was going on, either. I called up our Fairland Maintenance Shop and got a lead: they were indeed our trucks. I spoke with the boss there and all he knew was that he was ordered to send pretty much his whole fleet there.

The construction site on the right, along NIH; and the wall of SHA trucks on the left, along NNMC.

Staring at the camera, I was at a loss as to 1) why we'd need so many trucks; 2) why were they all lined up in the same place; and 3) why do I not see anyone in lime-green vests milling about? Er, granted, it's common stereotype to see road crews chilling in their trucks and not actually doing anything... but still, not on my watch.

OK, I was getting more questions than answers: it was field time. I told my team leader that I was going to head out and chat with the Feds, and he jokingly mentioned "be careful, they have guns!". If only I knew how right he was. I hopped in my car and about 15 minutes later I was cruising down MD 355. As I passed Cedar Lane -- the northern perimeter of NIH and NNMC -- I looked leftward at the northbound lanes and noticed something peculiar.

Right behind the fence of the NNMC, there were soldiers in battle fatigues lining the perimeter. They didn't immediately appear to have guns, but I spotted assault rifles cleverly hidden behind them, with the length of the gun flush against the back of their legs; and their arms crossed behind their backs ready to wield the weapons if needed. Immediately, my engineer-sense told me that this wasn't typical of most construction sites.

I pulled into NIH's construction access -- which is what up to this point I had still been thinking was the real issue -- and got out of my car. I went north to the nearest signal so I could cross the street & talk to the SHA guys, but instead I spotted a police officer here and started talking to him instead. All he said was that there was a dignitary visiting & with that a voice came over his radio... he immediately began holding back all the pedestrians, me included. I attempted to explain that I was here to talk with someone in charge or with the SHA guys, but he said there was nothing he could do for the next 30 minutes.

The action was primarily occurring just beyond this signal, along the left side. The helipads are located right next to the fence.

I immediately began to recognise that there were more powerful people in charge than there are in the entire State of Maryland, so I didn't press the issue with the officer. I walked back toward my car just as an NIH police vehicle pulled up beside it. Fortunately, I recognised this officer from past projects I have had with NIH, and he was immediately welcoming. However, he also pointed out that as of that moment: I wasn't allowed to walk anywhere nor drive anywhere. The President was on his way. The SHA dumptrucks formed a solid wall of steel between the NNMC helicopter pad and the street.

They completely shut down MD 355 in both directions, pedestrian traffic completely ceased, and I stood there chatting with the officer as I began to hear helicopters in the distance. I thought they were far away, but the sound increased incredibly fast: they were just barely above the tree line and, indeed, buzzed right through the top of the trees as they came directly over my head. After clearing the trees, they dropped down so low that I almost felt like I could reach up and touch them: I'd say perhaps 50 feet or so above me. At a temperature of nearly 90 degrees and only 10 in the morning, the gale from the propellers felt wonderful.

First one chopper, then two more -- as is the standard for the President (for security reasons). I asked if I could take photos, but the officer reminded me (I should've known this already) that if I pointed anything toward the helicopters, I would immediately have a lot of snipers staring at me down their scopes... I certainly did not want to test that path. After the helicopters landed and we were waiting for the President to clear, I looked around and spotted snipers on every single building I could see. They were on rooftops; on ledges; and I even spotted one in a tree just across the street. I don't think I've ever had that many guns pointed in my general direction before, though I suppose it's comparable to the incident up near NSA when I had a guy pointing a sub-machine gun directly at me...

Snipers on top of a building on NIH.

After all that, the only reason I was there was to help clean up the traffic mess that arose after they reopened MD 355. You can't close one of the busiest roads in the entire state for 30 minutes without creating absolute havoc, so that was where I came in. However, none of that is interesting... especially because the only thing I actually did was call TMC and alert them to the chaos. By the way, it turns out I was actually partly correct: it did have to do with Walter Reed merging into the NNMC -- today was the dedication ceremony. Ahh, that was my most fun field assignment yet.

Later, I managed to waste a good share of the afternoon by piling up a coworker's desk with lots and lots of junk for when he got back on Monday (revenge for him getting to have off today)

What we did to my friend's desk... it's probably funnier if you're one of us.