Friday, 31 August 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 1: Arriving into Anchorage, Alaska

I have to admit, it felt a little weird, as I arrived with my parents at Heathrow this morning. I say "this morning" but I'm sitting here writing this under the influence of jet lag, so it might be more accurate if I said 28 hours ago. Heathrow Terminal One, proud to be known as one of the most busiest and vibrant city airports the UK has, was uncharacteristically quiet. I noted a very 'dead' atmosphere from what would, later on in the day, be a very busy terminal. This point aside, typical airport behaviour was still evident: one person outstretched on a row of 5 or 6 seats, a group of very tired tourists wandering aimlessly around, and security personnel standing and supposedly looking tough! I enjoyed a 'last drink' with my parents; a medium hot chocolate at Costa Coffee, which was doing good business for 1:00am. I thought £2.60 a little overpriced for a hot chocolate, but I realised this was to be expected.

Sitting there and sipping away, I suddenly became very tired. The larger bag I have out of the two I'm taking is not easy to hold, so I was pleased to say "goodbye" to the 10.3 kg when the baggage disposal counter became available. After saying my final farewells to Mum and Dad, the next job was passing security, and I must say how surprised  I was at the sure speed of the security process. One conveyor belt; one screening monitor; a couple of staff and no questions asked. I was told to expect long question and answer sessions and individual baggage checks, but this wasn't the case, fortunately.

To get to America, I had to travel firstly to Frankfurt, Germany. I have tried for a couple of days now to find out why, in particular, Frankfurt but all I have come up with is the fact that Condor Airlines- the company I am using to reach the states- is a German based company and only operates from a German airport. The flight to Frankfurt was just as quick as the Heathrow security checks! I was unfortunately dozing in and out, and I reckon a more alert passenger would have wanted my window seat.

Frankfurt International Airport's system is very different to that of the UK's, and it took a few minutes to get my head around it. It wasn't just me either; a young man- slightly older than myself- was asking around, and getting, what it seemed, little in the way of answers. To reach America, I would be taking the DE 4066 Condor flight which meant a long walk to gate 19, although when I got there, there seemed to be little urgency. A couple of the terminal personnel were having a right ol' laugh at some of the passengers names; I thought this a little unprofessional, but after a long morning already, and the thought of a long flight coming, I enjoyed sharing a chuckle.

So, the actual flight to Anchorage took a surprising route. I imagined it would have either gone east over China, or west over the Atlantic, but in actual fact, the plane took what now seems to be the most efficient route; over Scandinavia and the Arctic, over Greenland and into Alaska that way. Travelling at 33395 feet, and again next to a window, the views out of my little shade of glass were quite popular with the other passengers who all seemed to be using my window to take photos out of. We went at about 579mph, although you wouldn't have thought it, because the flight was very long.

For my first trans-Atlantic flight (although we weren't going over the Atlantic as I said) I was a little disappointed with the dinner; I woke up from a nap, looking at a vegetarian dish. Potato and Vegetable bake, accompanied by lemon cheesecake, and what I thought was a flapjack, although it soon turned out to be two very tightly squeezed pieces of bread. Two words about the bread: not eaten!


We arrived at Anchorage, ahead of schedule, at about 10:48am. The views immediately prior to landing were stunning; the meandering Yukon river was reflecting the low morning sun, and as we got closer to Anchorage airport, a number of different geographical landforms could be identified- well, if you knew what they were, that is. Deltas, eyots, mudflats- they were all there, and I noted a large proportion of land being managed carefully for farming. Giant box-shaped farms surrounded by conifer-like trees. Little was being grown though, and I suspect the discontinuous permafrost might have a part to play in that.

The views upon arrival of the majestic mountain ranges were stunning; what wasn't so stunning was the weather, which had decided to open the heavens as soon as we touched down. It wasn't reassuring to see one of the ladies, unloading baggage from the plane, literally throw people's things through the air, but this in comparison to the long wait I had to come would be fine.

The 'customs' queue cancelled out Heathrow's quick and easy process very easily. When I eventually reached one of the armed and uniformed guards behind the counter, it turned out I needed to have filled out a form, so back to the end of the queue I went. What annoyed me slightly after this was the fact that apparently I actually didn't have to fill this out after all, and to top my first US Customs experience off, I was sent into a special room where my bag was searched religiously, and questions were asked. "What's the difference between college and university" was one of them, as was "What jobs can you get with a degree in Physical Geography" and "Why are you so interested in Permafrost?" The whole experience for a while did dis-motivate me a tiny bit, but I proceeded to the tourist information desk where there, in contrast, I had a lovely conversation. The lady, whose name looked like Trudy on her ID, apparently once worked at the Alaska Backpackers Inn, 25 years ago; my residence for the next couple of days. She was working right next to the giant Polar Bear that many guide books refer to as the first in a long line of bears one will see when they enter Alaska.


A quick phone call home, and then I was on my way again; this time, into Downtown by shuttle. The shuttle buses are somewhat different to UK buses. Firstly, the conductor doesn't provide change- "We can't magic change!"- so I ended up unfortunately paying $2 for a $1.75 ticket. Secondly, you don't actually receive a ticket as such after paying. Thirdly, when the bus enters different streets or a different road, an automatic voice naming the street or road can be heard; very useful for the tourist!

I entered Downtown with the mission of firstly finding my hostel, which turned out to be a longer walk than I expected. In any case, I was far too early for checking in, so I decided to do a small tour of 4th Avenue; the avenue that I'm staying on for the next few days. It was doing this tour that I happened to be acquainted with US Road Crossing Procedures, which are very much different to the UK's. You have to cross the road in a certain time, and a sign counts down how long you have to cross; an idea that was on the UK news a few months ago.

Deciding that I would have my main meal on this tour, as opposed to later on, I found a nice cafe which doubled up as a convenience store. I had the Halibut and Fries and a Dr Pepper, and I must stress that I'm on a budget! Incidentally, all that came to $15 which I'm still working out whether it was a rip off or not. I left the cafe, to greet more rain, but I decided to walk on and continue to explore more of 4th Avenue. There's all sorts down here; many different restaurants and it's refreshing not to see someone outside trying to tempt you with deals, as is so often the case.

Picking up a few leaflets from the tourist information desk, it started to rain more persistently, and at last, I could make use of the 'Bag Waterproofing Material' I had bought. I'm not so sure I should be happy to be using it or not, on my first day.

By the time I had returned to the hostel, it was 4:00pm and time for me to check in. The rooms are wonderful for the price, and are decorated with motivational graffiti such as "Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose the shore". I have just been speaking to my room-mate Kevin. He's here in Alaska working in the cement trade at present, but he loves photography and more importantly, he loves exploration. Sounds like we could get on! I better Skype my family now. Until tomorrow, goodbye from Anchorage!

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