Of travel and sleep deprivation

For the past several days I’ve been watching discussions on the AAVSO discussion list about sleep deprivation. Many of these good folks are good observers who try and combine a night time hobby with a day time job. Live lives of of sleep deprivation and broken circadian rhythms. Over the course of a lifetime, these physical abuses can lead to health problems and even a shortened life. But, as I once read in a James Bond book, some people die before they ever live, and I’d rather live while dying. Astronomy is a way of life. Today, while waiting for a flight to Vienna, I saw one listserv poster (whose name I’m purposely omitting) comment that professional astronomers don’t have it as hard as the amateurs because we get to either be fully on a night schedule or fully on a day schedule. I had to laugh. While for some folks that’s true, many observers I know (Bill Keel, I’m looking at you), observe remotely from home, so just like the amateurs we work with, they are trying to do their day job (teaching, research, etc) while observing all night. And with professional astronomy and academia in general, the sleepless nights don’t come just from observing. They are all also triggered by needing to pull all nighters to complete grants, finish projects, and sometimes even to finish grading on university defined deadlines. It sometimes feels like it is impossible to get ahead enough to feel it is safe to take a day (or God forbid a weekend) off just to relax.

For me, the life of an academic includes what can only be described as way the hell too much travel. My career focuses on finding ways to effectively engage people in learning and doing astronomy, and part of that is going out and actually talking to people, both from the stage, and also from a chair at the lunch table or in the bar at public events. I live in a small town, and to be able to effectively reach people, I need to get out of my small town (with a population roughly 1/3 that of Dragon*Con) and go where the masses are. Today, getting away means traveling to Graz, Austria and the International Space University where I and several other astronomy and space science communicators (hi @moonrangerlaura) will be teaching the next generation of aerospace industry employees how to communicate to the public.

In general, travel and I get along. I don’t require a lot of sleep. I bounce timezones without too much hassle. I can sleep in planes, trains, and automobiles like a champ. But today I am suffering from utter, total, and complete sleep deprivation induced travel fail. This follows on the heal of weather and weird passenger fail yesterday.

I am not an inexperienced traveler. I do tend to be a last minute planner if I know no visa is required, but…. But today has been fail at a level epic enough to make a good secondary plot on a tv show.

As you may have seen on twitter, last week I was at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s annual meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. I flew home late Wednesday night, getting in after midnight (technically Thursday) and was home 54 hours (which due to laundry and human interactions wasn’t filled with much sleep) before catching a 6:35am Saturday set of flights that would eventually land me in Austria. And for the entire 24 hours I’ve been attempting to get to Graz, Austria, it has been building levels of fail.

Waking Saturday, the sky was filled with lightening and it was raining not entirely gently. We boarded on time, but took off 10 minutes late. As we neared Chicago, the pilot came on and warned that, due to rain, we would be circling for 25 more minutes (STL to ORD is only about 30 minutes flight time normally). As we circled, my layover shrank, and as we landed 40 minutes late, I had just 20 minutes to catch some caffeine and my next flight. Annoying, but no big deal. Boarding flight 2, Chicago to London Heathrow, I got on, got settled, and had a very not-happy-to-not-be-upgraded Indian (will be important in a moment) sit next to me. As we waited, me on my iPad and him on his phone, working and talking respectively, the plane failed to depart and began to get warmer and warmer. As we hit the 10min-since-we-should-have-left mark, the captain came on and told us they were repairing one of the plane’s air conditioning units. Another 20 minutes, and we were on our way. After a sad breakfast (why would you combine potatoes, onions and peppers with French toast?), the stewardess let the grumpy fellow go lay down in the mostly empty business class. I thus had room to myself and happily worked on a grant (and napped for 20 minutes) until they started preparing breakfast. At this point, the Indian fellow returned from business so he could (not his choice) eat in economy. When he found me still working, he decided to strike up conversation and ask what I do. The conversation quickly turned to how US science and math education is really second rate compared to India and China, and (as we contemplated airline pizza) he sprung on me the fascinating belief that Muslims are the problem with the US, and that the construction of new Mosques is a sign they are trying to take over, and Kashmir and other problems in India were mentioned. Ok, fail. I don’t even know where to go on this topic, so I decided to comment on the fact that personally I find the Tea Party terrifying, and we were able get back to discussing the problems of science education. But seriously, on what planet is “the Muslims are destroying America” topic a logical or valid airplane conversation?

I arrived in London at about 11pm local time and made my way happily to terminal 4 and the Yotel, a small in-the-terminal hotel that allows you get cubbyhole rooms by the hour. Designed for people trying to catch a shower and a couple hours sleep between connections, it is clean, convenient, and has people coming and going at every hour of the day. My “room” was unfortunately right next to a set of 4 stairs in the hallway, and every 40minutes or so, the thump-thump-thump of luggage going down stairs awoke me. Still, it was at least a little sleep. I woke a final time to my alarm at 6:45am London time, thinking I was refreshed but actually completely stupid.

Packing and getting myself out the door, I was on autopilot, and I found myself all the way to terminal 3 before I remembered I wasn’t flying AA to the US, I was flying BA to the EU. Based on remembering from the past that BA flies out of terminal 5, I turned around and headed to terminal 5. Except my memory, while correct, no longer applied. BA now flies some EU flights out of terminal 3. As I attempted to go through security in the wrong place, I was turned around and directed back to terminal 3. (Circles are the perfect shape, aren’t they?)

And here is where I suffered complete fail in security. At Heathrow, your toiletries must be in a ziplock sandwich bag, not a zippered equivalent of a 1quart freezer bag. They have bags to give you and are happy to throw out things that don’t fit (I no longer have toothpaste, since that is the easiest to replace), but I absolutely could not close the bag. My fingers said “no”, and the baggie said “I don’t wanna.” As I struggled I told people to go around me. Finally, the security lady just took the bag and said “that’s fine” and put it on the conveyor belt open. I sheepishly slunk through the metal detector and gathered my things.

My morning plan had been to get to the terminal and through security 2 hours early so I could get breakfast in the BA lounge. But, after the chaos, I found myself in the AA lounge (where the food kind of sucks) with 20 minutes to spare. I scarfed a couple bites, and headed to the gate.

On boarding the plane I promptly sat in the wrong seat. My ticket said 12F (window on the left) and I sat in 12A (window on the right). A friendly mom and daughter sat next to me. They had 12a and 12b, but since they were as sleep lagged as me, they thought that was aisle and middle. All was well until a grumpy business man with the 12c aisle seat demanded his seat. This forced everyone in 12 a,b,c,d, and e to all move so I could get where I belonged. The person in the middle in the other set of seats had begun to hope the window would be empty and he could move, and he was none to happy to have me crush his hope, and for the rest of the flight he pwnd the armrest and made me cling to the arm rest as he spread his arm into my space while he tried to sleep.

By the time I got to Vienna, I just wanted to get myself on the train to Graz so I could sleep a bit. Following my habit, I asked the person at the info desk for information on how to get from the airport to the needed train station. She unhelpfully and a bit sarcastically responded that the train to Graz left the train station, and that I needed to take the train station shuttle bus. Um. Sure. As I walked to the bus station I was attacked by a host of taxi drivers asking if I needed a ride. They were plentiful and aggressive, and a bit intimidating. Making it to the bus station I discovered there are 12 buses and more than 1 train station. I knew from my map what metro station I needed, but not which bus station, and since the metro required 2 changes, I thought (wrongly) the bus was really the right was to go, so I opted to try again to get better info. I saw a friendly sign for a Visitor Center and followed it only to end up in a parking garage (had I gone outside, I later learned, the visitor center was outside at ground level).

Giving up, I turned on international roaming and googled.

I finally found the bus, verified with the driver that it was correct, and settled into a seat. According to the schedule, as best as my high school German allowed me to read, I needed the second stop. Here I should say, my only failing grade on a report card was my German midterm. When the bus stopped after a tedious time driving in traffic, the driver said something incomprehensible. Only one person stood up, and the other family I’d heard mentioning the station I needed stayed on. When we got to the next stop, I tried to confirm with the driver that it was the right place, but… It was not. That incomprehensible thing he’d said had been the stop I needed, and the other family, not speaking any German, had, like me, stayed put (and unlike me didn’t confirm, and were on their way inside). The Bus driver told me I needed to pay another 7 euro and get on another bus. Hanging my head, I headed over, but the second bus driver took pity on me, said taking his bus was dumb, and wrote on my iPhone metro directions. 1 failed ticket machine and 2 euro later I was on my way by rail to the train station, and had vowed that when given the choice of metro or bus, I will next time choose metro. Getting to the correct station finally, I found the 1 available ticket machine blocked by a nun talking to friends. I waited for another machine, and finally got a ticket.

I got to the platform at the exact moment the train I needed was leaving.

It turns out that on Sunday, the train that I’d verified runs every 30minutes actually runs every hour. So I waited. And then almost got on the wrong train. I read the signs. I did what the signs said. Luckily, I asked the train conductor and, at the last possible instant, I was able to run across the platform and catch the right train.

I’m now sitting in a train car with a bunch of 20 something’s who are traveling on holiday. They are exceedingly friendly, and all is finally ok. When I get to Graz, I’m taking no chances – I’m taking a taxi to the hotel, and then I’m going to follow @moonrangerlaura like a baby duckling.

Sleep deprivation makes you dumb. QED.

8 Comments

  1. brendan stallard August 8, 2011 at 7:55 am #

    “on what planet is “the Muslims are destroying America” topic a logical or valid airplane conversation?”

    Pamela,

    Heh, Indian Male telling you that? No surprise to me. I’m surprised he didn’t ask you where your husband was, and why you weren’t looking after him and the children.

    As a now “retired” traveller of many miles, I found your article to be entertaining and wonderfully human.

    You must be a decent cove, I’d have probably told yer Indian fellow to er…”push off.”

    brendan

  2. Mur August 8, 2011 at 9:06 am #

    I have a slight travel phobia. This is exactly why. You’re mighty; I would have broken down and paid the most aggressive taxi drive my second born* for a trip to wherever I was going.

    *HA joke’s on him, I don’t HAVE a second kid.

    Glad you made it safely.

  3. Kylie Sturgess August 9, 2011 at 6:25 pm #

    Brilliant. 🙂 I relate to a lot of this, due to my travels – reminds me of being lost in Manchester (and they speak English there, naturally!) 🙂

  4. Richard Drumm The Astronomy Bum August 12, 2011 at 11:03 am #

    Wow! What a travail!
    Glad you made it to Graz, I hope your return is uneventful & relaxing. Yeah, like THAT’S gonna happen!

  5. Bunny May 16, 2016 at 10:24 am #

    What a plarsuee to meet someone who thinks so clearly

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. While I Was Gone… A Fortnight Of Mostly-Offline Skepticism - August 20, 2011

    […] I didn’t post a link to it anywhere, I also really enjoyed Of Travel and Sleep Deprivation (Better title: My day of #fail) by Dr Pamela Gay as well, since it discusses something that has dominated my life for the past five years or so — […]

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