Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Business trip to South Carolina

last day at myrtle beachI usually don’t blog about my business trips. But I’m doing this one, regarding going to South Carolina in January, because it's a state worth blogging about, and because when I travel for business, I try to still be a traveler, not just a worker, and I'd like to show that.

I was up at 3:30 a.m. for my drive, then flight, to South Carolina, via Houston. That’s my usual time to get up for a business trip back East, because most flights leave the Portland Airport (PDX) at sixish a.m. Lucinda the dog and Gray Max the cat were terribly confused by my leaving in the night, and stood in the dining room with puzzled looks on their faces. The confused looks of pets is both charming and sad. I had everything packed and ready to go before I went to bed the night before. All I needed to do was get up, get dressed (clothes already laid out), brush my teeth, and go - takes me 20 minutes, tops. I took the ancient laptop, the black Macbook I bought in 2008, (2.16 GH Intel Core 2 Duo), still running Mac OS X 10.6.8, because that's as much as it can handle. I have been looking for an affordable computer with Ubuntu loaded on it already, to serve as my travel computer - without success. But since most of my clients, including this one, are still using older tech themselves, I figured the old MacBook might be a better choice than my bigger, newer silver MacBook.

It was a fun hour-long shuttle ride to PDX, driven by a guy from Iraq who was thrilled that I knew where Iraq is and that Northern Iraq is reportedly gorgeous (he assured me it is). I use a shuttle company that’s run by a Kurdish guy, so the drivers are always foreign and always interesting. I just wish they'd drive a little bit faster - that early in the morning, you aren't going to get a ticket for going 65 mph (or more!), on those wide open empty roads from here to Portland, but they just won't do it.

The PDX airport gets rave reviews from travelers, and it would be a great airport to have a layover in, with its free, fast wi-fi and terrific restaurants. But it’s not a layover airport - you start there or you end there. And nothing's open at that time of morning... so, yeah, I don't quite get the rave reviews.

I flew United Airlines for the first time in years - and, wow, United was awful. The check in staff were grumpy and uncommunicative - if they were there at all. They didn't look approachable at all. Also, they have a different way of enforcing the two carry-on rule than any airline I've flown - and ya'll know I fly a LOT. I pride myself on packing light - I have one suitcase which will always fit in the overhead compartment except on those tiny tiny planes, and a computer bag that will always fit in the seat in front of me. That's it. I can take that for any trip that's up to 10 days long, without accessing to what's needed to wash and iron clothes. But United has decided that a pouch around your neck to hold your travel documents is a purse - in other words, one carry-on bag. They will happily take on a traveler, usually a man, taking on two big carry-ons, neither of which are small enough to fit under the seat in front, as well as a large coat, which also won't fit there, but heaven forbid you carry on a pouch of travel documents and a bag, ALL OF which will fit under the seat in front of you, along with a carry-on for the overhead compartment. They demanded I put the pouch in my bag. So I would - and then take it right back out at the plane entrance. I hate when people and companies don't THINK about the reasons behind a rule, like the two-bag rule. I'm taking up FAR less space than guy with two carry-ons and the coat - but I'm the bad guy? Part of the reason this misapplication of the carryon rule irks me so much is that, since my time in 2007, in Afghanistan, I have left that pouch around my neck pretty much the entire time I'm on a trip. The entire time. I started doing it in Afghanistan because I wanted to always be ready to evacuate, leaving everything behind except my passport, money and other key documents in case of emergency. If I ever had to leave a plane in a hurry, I would leave the computer, leave the bags, and pity to anyone between me and an exit who decides, in an emergency, to try to take those things - all that matters is in a pouch on a strap around my neck. I wear it at breakfast. I've done presentations with my little pouch on, even in the USA. I do not leave my hotel room without it. I realized even when I was in Kentucky, with my family, that I had it on.

And I observed that the carryon rule is different for United when it comes to men: I watched men in Houston and in Charleston get on planes with three carryons, and the attendants say nothing at all. Nothing.

Rant over.

With just 45 minutes between flights in Houston, I was sprinting through the airport for my connecting flight. I hate doing that. I hate having to say "excuse me" to people standing in the middle of airport hallways, talking on their phone, or just strolling along, I hate the stress, I hate the rush... I did manage to nab some lunch to carry on - lunch isn't considered a carry-on by United, despite it being far, far bigger than a pouch around my neck.

I thought the hour of sleep I caught on flight #1, and the 30 minutes I caught on flight 2, would be enough, combined with the previous night's five hours of sleep, to get me through to my hotel, no problem. I was wrong. I was already a mess when I got to the Hertz counter for my car - disheveled, dark circles under my eyes... THANK YOU to the wonderful woman at the Hertz counter for checking me in, wishing me a Happy Birthday (had happened a few days before), asking me why I was visiting South Carolina and then what my talk would be about… Oh, the letter I wrote to Hertz… I was in the SOUTH, and the friendliness felt so good.

I left Charleston airport in a Nissan Versa and drove through a gantlet of political signs, and remembered that this is a PRIME primary state! I didn't see any more for one candidate than any other, but I was stunned that I saw no Hillary signs. None, at the airport or on the trip. Isn’t she supposed to win this state? I was so tempted to steal a "Jeb!" sign. Because the campaign slogan of "Jeb!" is so ridiculous. Jeb!

I got lost trying to find State Highway 17 from the airport, but thanks to Google Maps, I found my way. The drive to Myrtle Beach was a delight for most of the trip, through the low country, far out of sight of the beach. I love the trees and moss and swampy lands and the names of the churches and hole-in-the-wall restaurants and bars I passed. And the endless little stands for when it's Sweetgrass Baskets sellin' time. Sadly, it is NOT Sweetgrass Baskets sellin' time. But then nightfall came, and Northern Myrtle Beach turned out to be much farther than I had thought, and I started to stress out. It felt so much later than it was - it wasn't late at all, not by South Carolina standards, not by Oregon time. But I hate driving in darkness. I honestly thought I was going to have to pull over and stay at a motel instead of getting to the one for the conference. And all the ugly big chain restaurants and massive neon signs for beach stuff mega stores… So ugly. So much like Florida. Finally found my hotel, and then my keycard wouldn't work in the parking garage, so I had to come back in. The staff was nice But the hotel looks like a massive birthday cake on the beach, and, of course removes any beach access for locals. And the lobby stinks in that hotel-on-a-beach kind of way. Everything looked cheap. Did I mention I'm not a beach person? It was only 9:30 p.m. when my head finally hit the pillow, with a migraine headache pounding away… amazing that I got to sleep.

And oh how I slept. I woke at what I thought was an hour later, looked at the clock, and it was 6 a.m. I went right back to sleep until 8, and felt fantastic. It was an overcast, cool day, and the beach was empty - and THAT'S my kind of beach day. It was a day off, and I needed it. After a hearty breakfast of grits, biscuits with gravy, scrambled eggs and fruit, I was back in my room to put some finishing touches on my key note and my presentation and to check email. I had the door open to the balcony and the ocean, had the Myrtle Beach Public Information Channel - MBTV - on while I worked. The channel plays oldies while it shows an endless slide of local announcements: rules about the beaches (no glass! pick up after your dog!), local events (community health and recreation fair, story times at the local library), employment opportunities with government offices (the local public library is hiring!), local history notes, and more. The music was fantastic and PERFECT with the roar of the surf in the background.

Every town should have such a public info channel, BTW.

I was so taken aback at the lack of South Carolina accents I was hearing. No one I talked to that first day, other than the woman at the Hertz counter, seemed to have a South Carolina accent. Not even people on the local public radio station, which I listened to on the drive to Myrtle Beach, not even the South Carolina poet laureate I heard on said station, and not the front desk staff at my hotel. I also have to note that the hotel's web site, has NO black people in photos of people enjoying their establishment - yet I saw that it was mostly black Americans staffing it (no photos of that, of course). Anyway, I think I'm going to reboot my Kentucky accent, which I worked so hard to lose. I'm going to start using it again. Everyone was charmed when my sister visited me in Oregon, loving how she talked. I should reclaim my accent....

It wasn't until a group of hotel staff showed up around lunch time that I FINALLY heard Southern accents. Hurrah! They were there to spray the room for bugs. I asked if I should remove my coffee from the room, and the spray guy said "Naw, not if you want a little kick in it." Southern accent AND Southern humor!

You either love Southern friendliness or hate it. I love it. And don't tell me it's a put on, that it's insincere. It's not insincere when I do it, and it feels real to me when I encounter it. I miss it.

I've been to South Carolina before. I just drove through back in 1996, but as a child, when I was, like, 3, my family came here to visit friends of my parents. I don't remember much, but I do remember little things here and there. Like this photo of "real" Indians, which my Dad paid for us to have in the parking lot of a gas station somewhere between Kentucky and Florida and SC.

The second night, I went looking for a bottle of wine, and had a nice chat with a wine shop owner about liquor laws in South Carolina, which are almost as weird as Kentucky's. Later, in the hotel, whilst tweaking a presentation and enjoying said wine, a giant cockroach came dancing up the wall. Don't you fucking tell me it was a Palmetto bug - that's just a pretty name for a COCKROACH. I called the front desk and told them to either come get it or bring a saddle and ride it out. The facilities guy that came up to get it was obviously Latino, so I said, "No met gusta la la cucaracha," and it made him laugh.

I presented twice the first day of the conference. I had thought about going to walk out on the beach later, but it was overcast, cool, and the beach was just a beach - no interesting rocks to look at, no cliffs, just endless hotels and gray skies and gray, muddy-looking water. I just wasn't in the mood.

My last night of the conference where I was presenting, I was invited by a group to join them for supper at Dick's, an infamous tourist trap where the waiters insult the customers. You yell over to the bar "When is happy hour?" And the bartender yells back, "I'm not telling you!" Our waitress at one point said, "Hey, you two, quit yackin' and tell me what you want to eat!" I would find it cathartic to work there. It was a surprising choice, given how nice and sweet and sugary reputation is of the professionals that attend these conferences, but I suspect it was chosen as an opportunity by my hosts to show me they could let loose. My two margaritas went down well, but the fried shrimp and red neck fondue (tater tots with a bowl of cheese dip) gave me horrible heartburn. I'm not really complaining… it was comfort food, and I love comfort.

My opinion of Myrtle Beach, North or otherwise - just not my cup of tea. All those chain restaurants and theme restaurants and massive, ugly beach stuff stores and tourists traps and ugly hotels - yuck.

After all my presenting and schmoozing on the final day of the conference, I gave away my half a bottle of merlot and headed back down Highway 17. It was a gorgeous day - of course, now that I was leaving. Saw a guy on what I think was a KLR, obviously an ADVRider. He was one of only two motorcyclists I saw on the entire trip - Oregon almost ALWAYS has motorcyclists out on the streets, year-round, all weather! Since I was on the road much earlier than I expected, and I'd had such a light breakfast, I decided to stop at the first non-touristy food place I saw. I stopped at some barbecue place where they had a lunch buffet, with a drink, for less than $10. It was full of working class guys of all races except Asian, plus the added bonus of a guy that looked like Santa Claus, driving a red truck with Christmas decorations all over it. Hey, wait… the buffet had collard greens to DIE for, plus baked mac and cheese and even banana puddin'! I sat listening to the accents, the glorious, glorious accents. I had noticed yet again that the people on local radio did not have accents, for the most part, and it made me sad.

I didn't have time to stop to see any of the many state parks along the way - I wish I had. I should have stopped in Georgetown - I had plenty of time to drive around it. It's got a historic downtown and is the site of one of the oldest European settlements in North America. I probably had time to stop at the Center for Birds of Prey. There was plenty to see, and I could have chosen just one thing and seen it. But instead, I went straight to the airport. Which was dumb. And with this ancient computer, social networking is painfully slow - stupid slow. Sitting in an airport for three hours is stupid.

At last, it was time to board my flight to Chicago and, once again, I had just 45 minutes to get to my next plane - and this time, I had NO time to get food. I rarely buy food on a plane - it's ridiculously expensive and rarely good. But I bought the tapas box and, I have to say, it was DELICIOUS: red pepper bruschetta, rosemary crackers, hummus, spreadable peppercorn parmesan cheese,  seasoned pitted olives, almonds, and blueberry flavored dark chocolate acai. A glass of that merlot I bought in Myrtle Beach would have been perfect... I also bought a can of Pringles, and I chomped on them loudly just to annoy the manspreaders on either side of me. Being in the middle seat is never, ever fun, but I hate having to spend much of that time fighting for my own leg space! And the guy on the aisle even had the audacity to leave his tray table down, with all his crap on it, while he went to the bathroom, thereby preventing us from being able to leave our seats!

As we deplaned in Portland, I thought, for the 20th time, I really need to write a blog about the proper way to deplane... I had to scrounge for enough change for my Max ticket, and took so much time that, by the time I got outside, I was watching the train pull away. And at that time of night, the next train doesn't leave for 30 minutes. Sad trombone sound in my head... But, at last, the train left, I texted Stefan so he'd pick me up at the Sunset Transit Center, and I just sat looking at the lights of Portland...

And that was my trip to South Carolina. And a great example of what it's like to be a business traveler. So glamorous. Seriously, it's not glamorous, but I enjoyed it, and wish I could do this once a month. But work has dried up... 

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