Thursday, May 28, 2015

A Slightly Surreal Stateside Trip

Last week we traveled to the States (specifically Hendersonville, NC) to visit David’s mom, who is waiting to find out when/if she can get clearance from her doctors for hip replacement surgery.  We hadn’t been back for three years, due to the length of time it took to get our Permanent Residency for Belize. Needless to say, there was some culture shock to get over, but more on that in a moment.

We arrived at the Charlotte Douglas airport around 9 p.m. on Saturday, May 16. I called the hotel we were booked with, prior to our departure, to make arrangements for their shuttle to pick us up. I was told to call the hotel upon our arrival and head to Zone D. After collecting our checked bag, we made our way to the courtesy phone. Our hotel wasn’t listed as an option. Not seeing a pay phone in the immediate vicinity, we then went to the customer service desk. A misnomer if there ever was one. I told the gentleman (I use the term loosely) about the courtesy phone, and asked if there was a pay phone nearby to call our hotel. He let me know, in a very gruff manner that there were no pay phones and to just use our cell phone. I tried to explain that we live in Central America and our cell phones don’t work in the States. I then asked what he suggested we do. After much grumbling, he finally offered to call our hotel. I showed him our receipt that had our names and confirmation number. When he connected to the front desk of the hotel, the person obviously asked for our names. The guy refused to supply that info, nor would he give the confirmation number. He got frustrated with the hotel rep and ended up hanging up on her.

Fortunately for us, there was a gentleman (in the truest sense of the word) standing next to us and overheard our dilemma. He graciously let us use his cell phone.  He explained that he was having a bad day and maybe some positive karma would come his way by doing something nice for someone. I do hope that positive karma found its way to him as much as the negative karma should come to rest on the customer service guy.

We made it to our hotel and asked for the shuttle service back to the airport the next morning for our flight to Asheville. The only slot open that would get us to the Charlotte airport in enough time was 7 a.m. A bit earlier than we wanted, but better early than late.

The next morning, we went downstairs a bit before the shuttle departure time to return our room keys. When we glanced out the door, we noticed the hood of the shuttle van was open and the driver was trying to get it jump started. Not an auspicious start to the day. After a bit of time, the van roared to life and we were ready to hit the road. About halfway to the airport, a young lady sitting behind us mentioned that she forgot to get her $50 cash deposit back from the front desk. At this point, it was almost 7:30, she had a 7:55 flight, and wanted to know if there was time to turn around. After much discussion, it was suggested she call the hotel and have them send her a check and she wouldn’t miss her flight. Fortunately, all worked in her favor.

We proceeded to the airport check-in area so we could check our bag to Asheville. I let the airline rep know that I had a receipt showing we had already paid the baggage fee online. She said we still had to enter the info into the kiosk. Okey-dokey. But as we went through the screens, the message came up that we needed to pay $25, again. I let the rep know we already paid it, and she said we should have told her that before. Ummm…anyway, our bag got checked and we didn’t need to pay any more money.

The flight to Asheville was uneventful, always a good thing. David’s mom had arranged to have a car service from her retirement village pick us up. In short order, we were in her apartment and settled in for a visit before going out to lunch.
Later that afternoon, we headed over to our hotel to check-in. David’s mom generously let us use her car the entire time we were there, so no rental cars came into play.

Our room at the Day’s Inn was actually better furnished than I expected and that’s pretty much where the niceties ended. Granted you get what you pay for, but in the following days the housekeeping staff consistently forgot to leave coffee and cups. And the Internet connection was painfully slow. I swear we have faster speeds here in little Belize than there.

So now for the culture shock section of the story. After living in a very small town with dirt roads, few street lights, no traffic lights, and rather beat up cars, it was amazing to see so many new vehicles. There was nary a cracked windshield to be found! The volume of traffic was also a reality check, along with the banks of traffic lights and all the signage.

The stores were another matter altogether. We don’t have big box or large grocery stores here in Corozal. Instead we have lots of mom and pop places, meaning you need to make multiple stops to get your grocery shopping done. I almost forgot what it is like to be able to go into one store and get everything on your list. And I almost forgot about all of the choices there are for any given product. It was a bit daunting, but we had a list of odds and ends we wanted to look for, so that kept us focused.

Now let’s talk about the weather. This time of year in Belize we have “feel like” temps that are in the triple digits. The humidity is at least 85%, often higher. We have no A/C, but rely on ceiling fans, as do most of the shops here. This wasn’t the case in North Carolina. Our hotel room contained a unit to provide heat or air and the window didn’t open. All the stores had their A/C on. I quickly learned to take my shawl wherever we went. There were a couple of days where the humidity was around 37%. Eye drops and saline nose spray became my constant companions.

We were fortunate to have some great meals and two, in particular, really stood out. The first was the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, located in Mills River (a short drive from downtown Hendersonville). In addition to their large selection of beers, their food menu contains a plethora of interesting options. David, his mom, and I opted to share a few plates and landed on Duck Fat Fries (thrice-cooked fries, duck cracklings, aged cheddar, hot sauce aioli, and raspberry mustard), Wood Roasted Mushroom Baguette (confit cipollini onions, thyme, arugula, aged balsamic, and manchego cheese), and last, but not least, the Mason Jar Salad (spinach, tomato, cucumber, Kalamata olives, house feta cheese, red wine vinaigrette, and croutons). All three dishes were amazingly good. But if these aren’t enough to tempt you, they also pig cheeks with a porter demi-glace, bone marrow served on crostini and served with beer jam, and charred onion pesto pizza to name just a few of the dining delights.

The other restaurant we were smitten with is called Never Blue, located right on Main Street in Hendersonville. I love that they offer big and small plates, especially for those of us that don’t have massive appetites. David and I decided we would share three small plates: lump crab cakes, chicken liver and duck fat pate, served with flatbread, and for “dessert”, devils on horseback (almond stuffed dates, wrapped in bacon and deep fried topped with crumbled goat cheese, almond dust and mango honey). Swoon-worthy to be sure.

We planned to make a return visit to Never Blue for lunch on Friday, but the Internet gods had other plans for us.  After running some errands Friday morning, we decided to return to our room to check emails and confirm that our Saturday flights were still a go. We were using David’s new laptop and when I pulled up the website for US Air, numerous warning messages opened in new browser tabs. The messages all said, “WARNING Will Robinson! DANGER! Do not pass go! Do not collect $200! Stop everything and call this service number NOW!”

So okay, maybe that wasn’t the exact wording, but you get the idea. Something was seriously wrong. We discovered at that point that the phone in our hotel room would not let us make outgoing calls. Super! Fortunately we had a cell phone on loan from David’s mom.

David called the tech support number, described the warning messages, and found out that his laptop had been severely hacked. He was then transferred to another tech group who gave us a choice: We could take the laptop to a local Geek Squad and have them wipe the malware off the system. This would take anywhere from seven to 10 days and the laptop would need to be shipped to Belize. Cost: $150. The other option was for the tech squad to fix the problem online, real time for a cost of $300.

We opted for the online, real time solution. The tech squad took over control of the laptop and for about the next three and a half hours, they worked their magic while staying in contact with David via the cell phone. Finally it looked like the laptop was back to normal. David could finally hang up the cell phone and he fired up a new browser window. And guess what? Yep, he got hacked again.

Back to calling the tech support guys and another two hours or so later, all was well. David immediately shut down the laptop for fear of getting hacked a third time. We suspect the network at the hotel was breached. David tried to explain what happened and our suspicions to the person at the front desk, but they were less than interested.

We managed to unwind over a nice dinner and some lovely wine, then hit the sack to be bright eyed and bushy tailed for our departure home on Saturday morning. Our flights were on time, with no glitches. We sailed through immigration and customs in Belize and were greeted with friendly smiles by all the agents. By the by, a nice perk of having permanent residency is that you get to go through the shorter line for immigration, instead of waiting your turn in the long “visitors” line. When we got outside the airport, my first words were, “Humidity! Boy I’ve missed you!”

All in all our trip had a somewhat surreal quality to it. Everything we saw in Hendersonville looked familiar, but something seemed to have changed. I think what has changed is me. I’ve gotten used to a slower pace of life, not needing all the “stuff” I seemed to think was important, and am happy without all the hustle and bustle. It’s good to be home.

P.S. When David fired up his laptop when we got home, it worked perfectly – no virus attacks, which makes us think all the more that the hotel’s network was breached.