Friday, December 28, 2012

a nostalgia for the marshrutka

The Turkish Airlines flight was like a dream - as always when flying Turkish. The seats feel like they have more space, there are televisions on the back of each seat with over thirty movies, there are full meals, snacks and free alcohol. Though my row was full, I was fully comfortable on the flight from Tbilisi to Istanbul and on to JFK (in New York City). But then I had to transfer to American Airlines and the whole trip tumbled. American Airlines staff had lost the smiles and friendliness that the transatlantic Turkish staff had, growling at each request and job. Planes were late and crowded and the food - even on a four hour flight - was only available by huge sums of money, like 10 dollars for very small sandwich. Capitalism had turned around and backfired. One of the most pleasant things about the American experience, so to say, is the customer service. But in the airline industry, this concept has all but disappeared in American carriers. At least, to my surprise, there was still a baggage allowance, since most "free" allowances have been done away with in an effort to trim the costs and make room for delivering cargo.

I thought it would be smooth sailing from JFK, since I only had one last connection in Dallas. I arrived in the evening with a connecting flight two hours later at nine. But then the announcement came on, "Due to lightning, the flight crew that was going to service your plane was re-routed to Tulsa." I couldn't check the weather, since there seems to be no free Internet at any airport in the United States - probably so random people like myself couldn't check the weather and make a complaint. There was no clear lightning in Dallas, that I could see for myself out the window, though Dallas does span hundreds of miles either way and there could be a storm somewhere in Dallas that was over the horizon of another point in Dallas - but that shouldn't affect air transit. Anyways, the lightning excuse was rather dubious and I suspected that they were only trying to give their own bad management system a chance to get an available flight crew - or perhaps to fix the plane or something - and meanwhile feed us petty lies so they don't have to seem responsible for the delay. It wouldn't be the first time I've received the excuse of "lightning" which resulted in a canceled or long delayed plane.

The next hour came and the attendant said the flight crew was still in Tulsa. Tulsa was only an hour away by flight, so I was a bit curious as to what was taking so long. However, my own addled mind, awake nearly for a consistent 50 hours already (I hadn't gone to sleep the night before my 5:45 morning flight out of Tbilisi), didn't really want to take the effort to try to resist their delays. I also knew, from past experience dealing with American carriers, that complaints rarely did any good. I was hungry though, so I wandered down to the only cafe open in DFW at this point in the night. Each sandwich was available for ten dollars. I shrugged and sat back down, I could hold it.

Another hour. And another. Four hours total passed until at last the flight crew "arrived from Tulsa" and could resume working on our plane. The passengers in the waiting area - most of them trying to sleep with their arms and legs crooked over armrests or propped up on stacks of luggage - stood up and gave them a hero's applause. I remained skeptical on the true reasons for the delay, but I was glad to get going at last. I finally was able to give my dad a text, "And we're off!"

To which, at one o'clock in the morning in the mountains, he replied, "Zzzzz."

If I were an employee of American Airlines, I would think out my customer service policy a little better. After making a whole flight wait for six hours - regardless of whose fault it was - they could have at least given a free meal or snack while on board. But not even that was given, though the opportunity to buy a 10 dollar sandwich was touted. To which they received a gruff snort from me. I'm sure they went home with an overly guilty conscience after that.

Upon arriving in Colorado Springs, I met with my already tired but excited parents. We caught up for a bit over the next few days and then I went on to find a way to see my friends in Denver. I had forgotten how American mass transit was. It was beginning to seem to me like the American system of mass transit was based of the theory of not allowing people to freely move. My parents live out in the mountains, about 30 minutes from Colorado Springs. As it's not directly in the way of any major ski areas, it's kind of understandable that there is no public transit from their village to Colorado Springs, despite there being a large number of commuters. Next, there's no real public transit between Colorado Springs and Denver, a travesty since there's easily thousands of people who make the trek on a daily basis. So the first time, my parents just drove me the full way to Denver. On the way back, I took the Greyhound, which was characteristically full.

When I had lived in Denver before, I had a motorcycle, so in the winter, I was more keen on taking the bus than riding the motorcycle. There was a normal commuter bus, the FREX, that was in operation at the time. It was clean, usually almost full, cheap, had a regular commuter schedule and had wifi. But as of August this past year, they shut the bus down, citing that there wasn't enough demand to keep it going. However, to me, it seems they just didn't try hard enough with the equation. They could have raised the price by a couple of dollars, or knocked off the expense of the wifi. Instead, they just dropped it altogether, forcing everyone to take back to driving, find a carpool or resort to Greyhound, which is known more as a poor man's long distance carrier than a commuter bus. However, now that the FREX is shut down, the Greyhound is packed with a mix of classes and not so sketch as it was before - having more in relation to the buses in Guatemala or Costa Rica than the kind of buses we should be seeing in the States. But in all honesty, in most places in the States, buses are somewhat impractical for long distance transit, since we're talking about really long distances.

It was strange though, waiting in the Greyhound station. It was easy to see how the demographics were changing, probably due to the disappearance of the FREX. The percentage of the population was less composed of immigrants of Latin American origin - mostly migrant workers who live half their lives in Colorado and the other half in Mexico or further south - and more composed of students and workers who lived in other places in the Front Range. Also there was a Russian woman walking around - identifiable from her stereotypical fur coat, blond hair and high heels - and a couple of pairs of Chinese travelers exploring real Americana, the type that only can be found in Greyhound bus stations.

This made me reminisce about Georgia and Ukraine. It's possible to get anywhere in those countries fairly easily, no matter how small the village - though you might have to invest a day to get to some places. There, and in most areas of the post-Soviet world, they have a combination of trains and marshrutkas, or minivan shuttles, that service the hinterlands. Marshrutkas are not remotely comfortable - usually I'm squeezed in-between a drunken fat man and a fat lady with a box of chickens - and they're not always reliable - I had one driver get in a fight with another driver and ride off with a third driver - but at least they're pretty convenient once you know the routes. It made me dream of a system of small commuter vans in the States, servicing the larger metro areas. They exist somewhere, I'm sure, just not along the Front Range. It's strange though that in a country dreaming of energy independence, more emphasis isn't put on public transit and less on private car ownership.

1 comment:

  1. Have you ever tried Ukrainian food? It is both healthy and very tasty. I strongly recommend you taste local food while your Ukraine vacation. In case you are not going to visit this Eastern Europe country, you can discover more about Ukrainian food in Ukraine travel guide  then look for online recipes and try to cook it at your home.