Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Amazing Race

Continuing with the blog updates, at the end of June, it was time to go get the orphans once more.  I signed up to go to Latvia again.  This would be my fourth trip to this amazing little country in the Baltics that I have grown to love.  This time, my friend Daniel came along.  Our plan was to head to Helsinki and spend the night there, do a day trip to Estonia, and then spend a few days in Latvia before heading out with our orphans back to the states.  I chose the more civilized routing coming home, and would be traveling with the kids from Riga to Amsterdam to Atlanta before sending them on their way to Kansas City.  Daniel drew the short straw and would head to JFK via Moscow on Aeroflot.  (I joked he had a 50/50 chance of making it home).

We started off on a Monday morning and flew to Chicago to catch the nonstop on our airline to Helsinki.  We had confirmed tickets, but the flight was full.  Daniel, being perpetually positive, was convinced not only would we get on, but we would get business class.  I, being perpetually negative, thought we would get stuck.

We got to Chicago no problem and sure enough, the flight Helsinki was still full and and we got bumped.  While Daniel went into denial, I jumped in and figured out our strategy.  I decided it would be best to fly to London and then get to Helsinki on a staff ticket.  There was a flight leaving at 5:15 that would get us into Heathrow with plenty of time to catch a morning flight to Helsinki.  We might not have enough time to go to Estonia, but we would still have the whole day to see the Finnish capital.

Our luck improved with first class seats to London, but departure time came and went and there we sat.  Finally we learned our plane had a loose panel that had to be reattached.  No biggie, we could still make the late morning flight to Finland.  We push back from the gate and abruptly stop as we apparently almost hit another plane and then they realized our air ducts were frozen, so they had to be thawed out.  Finally at 9pm, four hours late, we take off for London.  At least we had first class seats.

We arrived in London with what would now be a four hour layover, waiting for the 4pm departure to Helsinki.  It actually wasn't too bad, but at this point we felt like it was the Amazing Race and we would never make it.

We did get middle seats in coach (the horror) on Finnair and got ourselves into Helsinki around 9pm that night.  So much for our grand plans.

The good thing about Finland is the summer means more daylight.  We made it downtown and still had enough light to go out and see some of Helsinki.  Daniel had never been before.  I showed him all the highlights of the city center and then we started in on the beer drinking.

We ended the night with more beer and pizza.  Daniel made a friend at the pizzeria, named Ahkmed.

The next morning it was back to the airport to catch our flight to Latvia.

We stayed at the Hotel Centra, located in old town Riga.  I had stayed there last summer.  It is a small boutique hotel.  After unloading our stuff we went out and did a little sightseeing and beer drinking.  For the summer, it was unseasonably cold, but at all the restaurants with outdoor seating, they give you blankets.

Over the next two days, we explored Riga and ate and drank our way around town.

One of the highlights of Riga for me is the bridge with all the locks.  Families that adopt children place engraved locks on the bridge to signify their new forever families.

One of the great things about Latvia is all the beer.  I sure had fun sampling all the different varieties of beer and ciders.

Daniel and I had our farewell dinner (or as he calls it, the Rose Ceremony) at the Blue Cow, one of my favorite restaurants in Latvia.  He had an early morning the next day, with a 5am departure to Moscow.  Mine was a bit later, so we wouldn't be going to the airport together.  We said our tearful goodbyes and went our separate ways, Daniel lamenting that he didn't get a rose.... ha ha.  We traveled well together despite our love/hate relationship.  He is very taken with himself and loves to take "selfies" so I got in the habit of photobombing each one.

The next morning I met up with the group.  I had a pretty easy one this time.  Just four kids and a Latvian chaperone named Ieva.  She rocked.  Her english was great and she was sharp as a tack.  The kids were also older, so I think that made it easier.

We had snacks before leaving to Amsterdam because on Air Baltic, nothing is free.  The kids all drank black coffee.

Our flight to the states from Amsterdam was on Delta.  

Everything went smooth as silk and we made it to Atlanta on time.  Customs was a breeze and we got the kids thru security and to their connecting flight to Kansas City.

After I unloaded them, I made my way to the American terminal where I would catch an evening flight back to Dallas.  Our Airline Ambassador coordinator, Margaret, lives in Atlanta, so since I had a few hours to kill, she came to the airport and had dinner with me before I flew home.

Fast forward to the end of July, and it was time to take the kids home.  I flew to Kansas City and picked them up and we flew on to Detroit.  The plan was to go as far as Amsterdam with them and then meet up with my friend Bobby for a guys weekend in Copenhagen.  

We got to Detroit no problem, and my paperwork indicated we had a two hour layover.  While sitting there I hear them paging the names of the kids and then I get a call from the director of the charity wondering why we hadn't boarded yet.  Turns out the kids were booked on a separate flight as part of some oversight and it was leaving in 15 minutes. Trouble is, none of our paperwork indicated that.

We hauled ass to the other end of the terminal and got to the gate as they were closing the door.  My poor mitral valve sure got a workout.  But we made it and Delta was even kind enough to put me on the earlier flight without a change fee.

We got to Amsterdam and now had a longer layover since we arrived earlier.  The boys wanted to walk thru the terminal and look at girls, so I watched the bags.  Bobby had bowed out of Copenhagen and it turns out all the flights were full, so I ended up getting a staff ticket on Lufthansa to Frankfurt.

Here is the group picture before the kids boarded their final flight home.   Dennis Rodman was on their plane, incidentally.  I wonder if that is how he routes himself to North Korea.

I boarded my flight and as we taxied out to the runway, I saw the Air Baltic plane and knew the kids were on their way.

I celebrated  the end of another successful escort trip with a nice cold German beer!  Prost! 

I spent the night in Frankfurt and then flew home in a comfy first class seat to Dallas the next day.  Daniel wasn't as lucky on the return.  He and his group misconnected in Moscow, where they had no VISAs issued, so they were detained Edward Snowden style at a local hotel until they could be put on a later flight.