The Niva Has Landed

The Niva has landed. Well, its made landfall is what I mean. I found it sitting at Newark Port looking slightly salt encrusted but non the worse for its two weeks at sea. It was certainly looking a hell of a lot better than the Land Rover nearby that had had a container dropped on it. As expected, it’d taken me a good few hours to find the Niva, not least because the taxi driver didn’t know where the port was, even though he’d picked me up from the airport rental car drop-off point which is only four-and-a-half miles away. He said he was from out of town which struck me as being a distinct disadvantage for a taxi driver. Still, he was ok once I’d entered the address into his sat-nav for him.
Niva at port
A burley port worker waited with me while I turned the key in the ignition, just to make sure it started ok. It turned over first time, which surprised the both of us. We then had a look around the Niva to check that everything was as it should be and nothing minor such as body panels were missing. The car was in tact and even the vast majority of the items we’d shipped with the car were still there. In the shipping world it’s a cardinal sin to ship a vehicle with anything in it other than the original tools, so of course we loaded it to the gunwales. We had camp beds in there, folding shovels, winch strops, Jerry cans and a host of crap that was too big or too heavy to send out with our luggage. Just to make sure it arrived in the US I’d been at pains to padlock everything to the chassis so that only the most determined thief or spiteful Customs official could run away with any of it. I was please I’d done so too, the only things missing were two yoga mats. They don’t lend themselves to being padlocked particularly well and the fool that I am, I thought ‘who’s gonna nick two yoga mats!’ Well, it seems that a seaman with a particular desire to be more flexible was away with them. (We had sent them to put under our camp beds so that the ground sheet of the tent didn’t get knackered by the way, nothing to do with yoga all.)

I turned out of the port onto Highway 95 South with the iPod playing in my ears and a smile as broad as the Atlantic itself. There is no feeling in the world quite like hopping into your own vehicle on the other side of the world and driving in the midday sun with the Empire State Building in the near distance. An hour later I turned into the driveway of my second cousin, twice removed (I think) to see Liz and the dog standing there with smiles as big as mine. It was a monumental moment. Liz came running over and literally hugged the car, patting it, caressing it with love and affection. This was the car that was going to take us across the States, through Mexico, into the 2012 Maya Rally and beyond if any of us made it. It wasn’t a car; it was a symbol of our shared future, the vehicle of tomorrow’s adventures.

Since arriving in the USA we had been enjoying the company and hospitality of Hannah and Paul in Princeton Junction, fourty-five minutes south of New York. Hannah is a relation on my mother’s side and has researched our family tree extensively. I was bringing the family tree to life for her and was under strict instructions from my mother not to let the side down. Having not met Hannah or Paul before it was left to chance how we’d all get along. Family relations are no guarantee of harmony. As it happened we got along as though we’d all known each other for years, they were lovely in every respect and made us feel so at home it was hard to leave when the time came. Hannah lectures Latin and Mythology three days a week while Paul is a scholar and a gentleman in every respect. The scholarly bit is even proven with a certificate. He is the Professor of Music and Composition at Princeton University. You’ll just have to take my word for it on the gentlemanly bit though. He has the humour of a comedian and the conversation of a chat show host. (A good chat show that is.) When questioned about being a professor he says “Professors are shmucks just like everyone else”. Well, I can tell you that if that is the case Paul is a far better class of shmuck by any standard; a shmuck to aspire to even. Hannah is also possessed of equal conversation and humour. She has to be to keep Paul in check. (Some of Paul’s compositions can be heard via www.paullansky.com or for Radio Head aficionado’s you’ll know his music already. It was a great pleasure to get to know them and they were happy to let us get on with the job of sorting ourselves out and taking little trips off into the Pine Barrons of New Jersey and beyond to allow our dog, John total freedom to run around in a new country and to see how the Niva was performing after the sea crossing. The close proximity to water for a couple of weeks had obviously paid off. Our first night wild camping in the Barrons on a US Air Force artillery range ended in torrential rain, the second night involved a number of river crossings , all of which were handled without issue. It was the first real test of the Niva since we had got it and it was surpassing expectations so far.Water crossing

All told it took us nine days of trips to Newark and waiting for excess baggage for us to finally get on the road and start heading West. With fond wishes from Hannah and Paul we turned the wrong way out of their drive to head West, we waited until they weren’t looking and turned around to go the right way out of Princeton. Within hours we’d left New Jersey and found ourselves in the unending forests of Pennsylvania looking for a place to camp under the stars. The trip had truly begun. We’d made it kicking and screaming all the way but we had made it, the three of us, me Liz and the recovering drug addict, John.
Camping in P

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Hard Travels

Hard travels headerLiz is somewhere ahead of me, already at gate 300. I’m running through the cavernous departure lounge with a case of camera equipment in one hand, a rucksack over one shoulder which refuses to stay there and slips further down my arm with every running step that I’m taking. Having tried to get through Security at lightening speed I’m also running with the laces of my boots undone and conspiring to trip me up. I have my trouser belt in my mouth and said trousers are determined to fall around my ankles at any moment. My arse is already exposed to the international community of Manchester Airport and there’s every chance that my plane is going to take off without me but with my beloved dog on board. Oh, the adventure of travel.

We thought our departure from the UK had been meticulously planned. The final week of packing up the house, cancelling the utilities, having surplus home furnishings collected and the remaining sentimental items taken over to Mum’s was all supposed to be a smooth transition from sedentary life to a life on the road. Flights had been booked, John’s shipping organised, the car was already steaming across the Atlantic on a cargo ship and an excess baggage company had quoted for the shipping of our additional luggage to be sent from England to Newark, USA. We even had a couple a days to spare for any contingencies that raised their ugly little heads at the last minute. Little did we know that everything would conspire against us to make the next few days a hellish ordeal.

It began with the monumental failure of the house clearance company to actually clear the house. The agreement was that they’d take everything and anything for a sum and sell everything on afterwards. They neglected to mention that they intended to charge us for the removal of anything they felt they couldn’t sell. It’s not the first time we’ve used a clearance company and it’s the usual arrangement that the household items are sold to them for a reasonable sum but a sum which allows them to then sell everything on for a profit. Everyone wins. Well, normally. We had unfortunately commissioned a cowboy and ethically reprehensible character. He’d had the list of our household items for a fortnight and said he’d take everything and pay us for what he could sell. It was only now that we stood in our living room with time slipping away and no other options that he dropped the bombshell on us. His plan was to bide his time until we were backed into a corner and charge us for removing everything, only to then sell it at 100% profit.

Not being especially overjoyed at the prospect of being taken for a ride we told him to get stuffed. A three day frenzy of selling and Freecycle commenced. We did ok selling the more serviceable items and it felt strangely good to be giving away so many of our possessions to total strangers. People were turning up three at a time to take away treasured desks, canoe paddles, settees and a hoard of similar disparate items. Unfortunately it meant that we’d lost nearly three days of breathing space. The final car load of sentimental items went over to Mum’s a couple of hours before midnight. All that remained was to finish packing; a job that had been scheduled to be done just after the house clearance company were due to take everything, but cocked it all up.

We went to sleep on the empty floor or our living room at 02:10 in the early hours and rose again at 04:00am to leave our home for the very last time. There was a slight pang of sorrow as we locked ourselves out of the place we’d called home for the last five years but getting back on the road was the right thing for us. Our good friends Roger & Karen had offered to take us to the airport and we watched a weak sun rise over the slightly frosted fields either side of the M6 motorway as dawn limped in. We were making good time and arrived at the Continental Cargo offices ahead of time to process the paperwork for John’s passage on our flight and have him safely tucked up in his crate in the hold of UA21, due to depart at 09:25am. Rabies certificates were inspected, Fitness to Fly certificates were read and re-read, everything was in order. And then we were left waiting for ninety minutes while staff did nothing either side of the 07:00am shift change. John was left sitting on the land-side concrete in temperatures just a little above freezing and we paced about impatiently looking for someone to do something. Eventually an apologetic forklift truck driver scooped John up and he disappeared into the cargo shed looking at us with confused and worried eyes. We hoped to see him on the other side.

Roger raced us round to Terminal 2 and bid us a speedy farewell as we wheeled three trolleys of bags to check in. Four bags were to fly with us, another five had been arranged to fly with the Excess Baggage Company and join us in the States after the weekend. Our first surprise was that United Airlines had just revised their baggage allowance so we were greeted with a bill for £120.00. We took it on the chin and vowed not to let it spoil what was supposed to be an exciting time as we stood on the cusp of a new period in our lives. We were also aware that time was short if we were going to get our remaining bags to the Excess Baggage Company in the lobby down stairs. The lift was out of order so somewhat to the annoyance of other travellers we dispensed with the trolleys and Liz stood at the bottom of the escalator while I fed five bags onto it from the top before stepping on myself. I thought it was an ingenious solution to a minor problem but the looks from a number of people suggested otherwise. As though some poetic justice was being meted out from said travellers, the Excess Baggage Company doors were firmly shut. The sign on the door stated that it opened at 08:00am sharp and it was now ten-past. We paced up and down, I popped next door to WH Smiths and asked if it was still trading, I was told it was. A further ten minutes passed and there was still no sign of activity. Our plane was due to take off at 09:25am and final boarding closed at 08:45am. We still had to go through security, get across the airport and find our gate. We couldn’t just dump our remaining bags, not least were they full of our carefully selected items for the road ahead but PC Plod may also have something to say about the ensuing bomb threat if we just left them where they were. At the last minute a light flickered on in the shop and was followed by the appearance of a sweating staff member who upon seeing the expressions of displeasure and mild panic written across our faces came to the door and opened up rather rapidly.

“We need to get these bags to Newark, New Jersey please. Our plane goes at 09:25 so we need to be quick.” We almost hurled the bags at him as he explained that his train had been late. He went on to say that it’d take him about twenty minutes to process each bag as we needed to make a list of the contents, complete Customs declarations, liability waivers and measure, weigh and x-ray each bag.
We understood that it wasn’t his fault that the train was late but we were running out of time fast “We have to be on the plane by 08:45, we have a dog on the plane and we can’t miss it.” I went on, “We have a reference number for the quote we were given for sending the bags to Newark, its here,” I showed him.
“Oh, right.” He said, “I’ll still need to complete everything and give you a final price.” He went on to read out in painful details a list of seven terms of service. “You may be charged additional Customs fees, items may be confiscated, shipping may take up to three weeks…….”
“Let me just stop you there! It says on the website that it’ll take up to three ‘days’, not weeks.”
“Well, it could be three weeks if your bags go by sea freight.”
“This is an airport, I want them to go by air please. I don’t mean to be rude but can we just get the bags processed so that we can make our plane.”
“Of course. I’ll weigh and measure them if you could complete the forms. Do you want additional insurance?”
I passed him our bags ignoring the question. Twenty minutes of form filling, measuring, weighing and calculator work ensued as our blood pressure rose higher and higher while the clock ticked.

In short, even through the total weight of our five bags was less than the weight quoted for, the bill came to four times the original quote. It was more than it had cost us to ship our car. We argued, there was nothing we could do, we signed and we ran. It was now 08:40. God, how we ran. Our panicked expressions said it all when we reached the first security check and a sympathetic security officer ushered us to the front of the queue for the empty-your-pockets stage. Just one person was in front of us. As we removed belt, boots, wallets, laptops and bras (almost), we watched the x-ray machine grind to a halt as the operator scrutinised the bag of the lady in front of us. Even I could see that she’d secreted and entire hotel mini-bar in her hand luggage. Not good, not good at all. I wasn’t sure if the operator was trying to read the labels on the bottles or had suddenly fallen asleep but either way nothing was moving. I clutched my now beltless trousers in one hand and boots in the other, willing the machine to move. Finally it did and we pushed passed the lady to collect our paraphernalia as she was taken to one side. I told Liz to just run for it, I’d gather everything up and meet her at the gate. “Just make sure they don’t close the gate. If I’m not there just go. One of us needs to be there in Newark for John!”

Liz didn’t stop to think, she just ran, boots in hand. Gathering up our two bags, the laptop, slipping on my boots and carrying my belt I ran after her with all the grace of a teenager who’d just had the night of his life with several bottles of vodka. Only at times like these do you truly appreciate the role of a belt and the fact that laces should always be done up, no matter what. All gates were located on the other side of the duty free shop, a shop that went on for miles and consisted of narrow isles full of people with wide bags. Like a raging bull I flew through the shop almost screaming at people to move. Most did and those that didn’t were left with a bruise and a shouted apology from a madman on a mission.

Predictably Gate 300 was as far away as it was physically possible to be while still remaining in Manchester. It was miles away. I ran, my trousers were determined to go south, my laces flailed and I gasped for air between the clenched teeth holding my belt. Up on the left I saw the figure 300, I smashed through two closed doors, descended three flights of stairs ≥≤and emerged into a departure lounge shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of people. “Is this the gate for Newark?” I asked someone.
“No, I think that’s it over there.” I looked to my right and there was Liz, standing beside an impassive United Airways member of staff. She mouthed to me “It’s ok, we made it.” I could have fallen to my knees there and then if it weren’t for the very real risk that I would never have got up again.

We made the flight, we eventually found John at the other end and we finally made it to Princeton to be greeted to warm friendship and hospitality by Hannah and Paul, my distant cousins who we had never previously met.

We still don’t have the excess baggage though.