MVW Travels: Day 22, Tbilisi, Istanbul, Houston, Phoenix

Dateline: Phoenix, Arizona—07 Apr. 2017

The pull of old habits is strong. Once I was home, it was a simple matter of falling back into the same routine I had before the trip. So at long last, let me catch you up with how the trip home went. This is how March 21st went.

The best laid plans...

From the moment I woke up, all my plans for the day went out the window.

My host, Nataly, said she would drive me to the airport since I needed to leave at 4 a.m. to make my 5:50 a.m. flight. I didn’t sleep well, and was up before the alarm went off at 3:30 a.m. Packing was a simple matter of loading the packing cubes into my bag and getting dressed.

Just before four, a car pulled up but Nataly wasn’t driving. It was her friend Martin at the wheel. He spoke very little English, but with my little bit of Russian we were able to figure out what was going on. Something happened to Nataly’s car, and she couldn’t make it. Martin was filling in. As we were talking, I noticed a post-it note on my door from Nataly explaining why Martin was there. So I loaded up my bags and headed out into the dark morning.

This was better than getting left without a ride like I was in Kutaisi.

The only problem was that Martin expected to be paid. Since Nataly volunteered to drive me, I spent all of my lari the day before. Now I needed to change up some currency. Martin took me to one of the all-night currency exchanges on the way.

This one was literally a hole-in-the wall. It was a glass window that was cut into what looked like someone’s bedroom on the ground floor of a multistory building. There was a half-pulled privacy curtain that let me see a bed and TV behind it. After a few taps on the window a moderately disheveled woman came to the window. I slid my last twenty in and asked for 20 GEL with the rest back in dollars.

At least that what I thought I asked for. She counted her stash of dollars and and slid my twenty back out. She didn’t have enough to make the change. I headed back to the car and Martin wanted to try another place, but I insisted on going to the airport and using the currency exchange there. He shrugged and started driving. Later, I realized I used the wrong word and had asked for 10 GEL instead of twenty. Oops.

Along the way I found out he was Armenian, but he preferred to speak Russian. Within a couple of miles I had used up my vocabulary and we finished the ride in silence. At the airport I hopped out to use the currency exchange leaving Martin to circle the traffic loop. But I had forgotten about the metal detectors at the main entrance. Not wanting the hassle, I turned around and waited for the car to come back around. I grabbed my bags and handed Martin the Jackson.

All said, I was at the airport in time for my flight, and Martin had a nice bonus for having to get up so early. I’m going to call that win in both of our books.

So much for that flight...

Inside the airport something seemed off. I checked for my flight on the monitor and didn’t see it. There were also no clerks at the counters for Turkish Airlines. After a few minutes of aimless wandering, I heard a PA announcement—my flight had been canceled.

I wasn’t entirely surprised. The wind was howling outside strong enough to make walking difficult in some directions. In the city it wasn’t blowing like this. But the airport is quite a ways outside of town and there’s not much around that could block the wind.

I looked around for some way to reschedule my flight. After turning the corner around one of the escalators I saw the Turkish Airlines ticket window. It was also mobbed by my fellow stranded passengers. The line was about ten deep and fifteen wide as the idea of “line” was lost in the crush towards the window.

Behind the glass two harried clerks were working to get people rescheduled. It took almost an hour to get up to the counter. I also didn’t wait politely. I took my cuts and with no rolling bags I was able to press in when a space opened up. At one point during the wait the computers crashed and that delayed things even further.

I eventually got my turn and still had to wait. The re-booking was giving the clerk fits. For some reason the US leg of trip didn’t confirm until the fourth try. I also found out that I was being routed from Istanbul to Washington DC instead of New York. I really didn’t care, as the change had shortened what would’ve been a eight-hour layover into a mad dash between gates. With the long layover off my itinerary I decided to cash in my food vouched at the airport cafe.

The cafe was stingy with what I could get, so I settled on a piece of strawberry cheesecake and coffee. When asked what sort of coffee I wanted, my only answer was “the expensive one.” I was feeling a bit wobbly at this point and really wanted the airline to buy me a proper breakfast for my trouble. I ate the faux breakfast and headed out to smoke the last of my cigarettes.

With the wind still blowing strong enough to ground flights, I found out my light wasn’t up to the task. Fortunately I had packed my box of Stalin souvenir matches at the top of my photo bag. The sharp flare up of a match was enough to get the cigarette going. I hotboxed two of them before going back inside.

I was still tired, and fading fast. The expresso and nicotine speedball didn’t do much except make the crash come that much faster.

In the Tbilisi airport there are two escalators that lead up to the screening area on the second floor. The one on the right as a gift shop underneath it. The one on the left has the area below it turned into a garden with plastic trees and grass set into a raised planter with chairs and benches around it. I saw several men sleeping on the “grass” and decided that was the way to go. With a thirteen hour flight ahead of me, I’d have enough time to sleep in a chair.

I climbed over the short wall and found an unoccupied corner and curled up with my bags. I managed a few winks of sleep in between loud travelers and the occasional distressed cat. I got up around 8:30 a.m. to see if my new flight to Istanbul was on the board yet. It wasn’t.

I had three cigarettes left and decided it was a good time to burn another one. The Stalin matches came through for me again, and it seemed like the wind had died down a bit. The chances for a successful GTFO were improving.

Up, up, and away...

Once a gate number came up on the board, I headed upstairs for the security screening and a trip through the passport control booth. Nothing out of the ordinary happened, and I was at the gate in no time. This time I had my new boots with zippers and they started paying for themselves on the trip home.

I still had almost an hour to wait so I found a bar and burned the rest of my smokes. I also found another American, and we chatted away while in line to board.

The flight out was uneventful and the middle seat in my row was empty letting me stretch my legs in a sideways direction. It was also an older plane that didn’t have a screen for each seat. So I plugged in my earphones and caught up on a few podcasts.

The landing in Istanbul was the same as before. We were dumped out on the tarmac and loaded on a bus for the ride into the airport. I’m starting to wonder if any flight into Ataturk airport gets to exit via a gate.

The path to the international concourse was also the same, minus the stop to get a boarding pass. The desk agent in Tbilisi printed the three I needed there. This is when I also found out the ticket agent didn’t know American airport codes. I was actually headed from Istanbul to Houston. Not Washington DC.

This time there was no chance to enjoy the various distractions of the concourse. On the big board my flight’s status was “go to gate.” It also showed that my gate was 229A, which I remember was just up from the 230B gate that the Tbilisi-bound fight used three weeks ago. I also remembered that it was the farthest geographical point from where I was while still staying inside the airport. So I started walking.

I was expecting the walk to the gate to be about the same as the last time. That was a mistake. As I turned the final corner I was met by a crowd of several hundred people being stopped and searched.

The airport had moved in portable security stations and were directing the passengers first through screeners standing at podiums who were doing an initial check to make sure the name on the passport matched the boarding pass. The screener also asked the famous “has anyone given you anything to carry on this flight” question. From there we had to go through a proper passport scan at end of another line. So far, I suspected this might be just the normal you-have-to-do-this-to-get-into-America thing.

I did find this quite funny, as I had a lot less trouble getting into both Turkey and Georgia the first time around. And it was around nine months ago that someone blew up a portion of the airport I was standing in. But America is going to America and no body cavity is safe.

After the passport scan we were directed to another line that snaked back-and-forth twice before dumping us out at a explosive wipe down station. This was a bit more involved and included swabbing the back and front of my hands, my centerline from throat to crotch, and the soles of my shoes. The zippered boots came in handy again. They were also trying to get it done in a way so the plane could get into the air on time. Our dignity was the casualty of this rush.

The whole affair looked like it was thrown together at the last minute. I found out later that it had been. On March 20th the US had issued an order that banned laptops, cameras, and anything bigger than a cell phone from the cabin on flights into the US from certain airports. And Istanbul was one of them.

Due to the time difference, my flight (on March 21st) was one of the first affected by the order. This is why the extra screening was taking place. The order also had a 96-hour implementation window. So by being one of the first through, I didn’t have to check my bag with my iPad and camera in it.

I also didn’t find out about this order until I was home and catching up on the news.

Thirteen hours on a plane in an economy seat is thirteen hours in an economy seat. Not much to report other than a few leg cramps and some laughs with the retired Greek couple sitting next to me.

Landing in Houston meant running the US immigration gauntlet. I was expecting the worst where they’d want to dig though my iPad and photos. What I got was a customs agent that had been replaced by a robot.

The US passport holders were directed into a corral with about twenty kiosks. Once in front of one, I touched the start button on the screen and put my passport on the scanner. I answered the usual questions with a touch of the “no to all” button. It then asked to confirm the flight information it pulled up, took my picture and printed a receipt (which included the picture).

Then I walked to a bored-looking officer who asked if I had anything to declare. Another “no” and with a stamp on the receipt I was on my way through the baggage area. With no bags to pick up, I kept walking and another officer at the exit gate took the receipt stamped receipt and let me leave.

All said, the whole process was relatively painless. I can’t say the same for the foreign passport holders. After leaving the kiosk corral I glanced back to where the line had split. It looked like a nightmare crush of people crowding through the lanes and not enough officers on the night shift to handle them in a reasonable amount of time.

Almost home...

Once clear of the last checkpoint, I found myself in out in the “normal” part of the Houston airport. I must have been one of the first ones through. The international baggage area only had one carousel running and it was for my flight. So when the sliding doors opened, about two dozen heads swiveled in my direction and turned away in disappointment as I wasn’t the one they were waiting for.

Overall the Houston airport is pretty quiet at night. The cleaning crews were out, and all of the shops were closed. It was a short walk to another security checkpoint. Another pass through the micron scanner and I was looking for my gate. In what seems to be a trend, it was just about the longest distance from my location as it could get and still be in the airport.

I was ready to flag down one of the courtesy rides, but there were none to be had. As I walked up to my gate, I found it was already boarding. By the looks of the line left, there was good chance it was almost full. I handed over my Turkish Airlines boarding pass, and the gate agent almost did a spit-take. He ran off to print me one on United stationery and I was able to board. Just as I stepped through the gate, they announced there was no more room for carry on luggage.

Once on the plane, I found my seat—two rows from the tail. There was one spot left in the last overhead bin that fit my pack and jacket. For the first time on the trip I was in a middle seat. So I let the tired wash over me and slept most of the way.


In Phoenix we landed at the little terminal.

Of the four terminals at Sky Harbor Airport, One doesn’t exist (I mean that literally—Terminal One was torn down years ago), Three and Four carry most of the traffic and Two, the little one, is a one-story affair that reminds me of the Hilo airport on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Out of all the times I’ve landed in Phoenix, this was my first time seeing the inside of Terminal Two. It wasn’t much to look at, and the best part was the short walk to the outside.

I figured my best chance of finding a SuperShuttle was to walk towards the rest of the airport. I was rewarded after only having to cross one street. I gave the attendant my address home, and about fifteen minutes later I was in a van and on my way.

The next two days were pretty much a blur as I caught up on my sleep and kept my feet elevated. I saw a foot doctor the next week and had all the dead skin from the blisters cut away.

Then I got sucked back into the whirlwind of normal life as I had to get my taxes together and also start to prep for moving house at the end of April.

What's next?

I’m busy at work on a novel, and hope to have it done soon. I also plan to get back on a regular blogging schedule after the move.

Stay tuned!

Use the MVW Travel tag to see all the posts in this series.