Travels and Travails

Q70 bus kiosks, where you buy a receipt with your MTA card.

Who invented travel? Someone without cancer. And did you know the word travel has the same origin as the word travail? It means difficulty and hardship–being in labor. This is not an etymological accident.

If you break it down, what’s required to actually travel? For this example I will use the travel to New York I’m doing for clinical trial participation. But travel for pleasure (an oxymoron–travail for pleasure?) doesn’t necessarily have a shorter list.

(1) Figure out from the team up at Weill Cornell exactly when I need to be there within the 2-3 day date range on the schedule they’ve given me. Often they don’t decide exactly when they’d like my appointment to be until a week or so before my trip. Do I wait? Do I not wait? Either I book flights early enough to get cheap fares, or I wait until I’m sure exactly when they’d most like me to be there and pay 3-4 times as much for a ticket. My solution has been to book flights so I’m there on Thursdays, coming in the night before. Even so, they’ve now told me I won’t be able to see my oncologist on the last Thursday of May–could I come Wednesday? Not without paying a couple hundred dollars more. I tell them I am content to see one of the nurse practitioners who will be there on Thursday. These checkup appointments aren’t that significant for me anyhow. If my blood draw shows something noteworthy, they will contact me.

(2) Shop for an airline ticket. I’ve done this several ways so far. For the end of this month, tickets were cheap enough I decided to buy one outright.

For my trip last week, my ticket would have been nearly $1,000. But a kind friend bought me a ticket using his miles, so he just asked me a few questions and like magic I had tickets.

For this coming week, I used my own airline loyalty points, but I didn’t have quite enough. So I put the reservation on hold, purchased the additional points I needed, and then….got very confused, as the points took an hour or more to show up in my account, and even when they did, the airline website did not allow me to complete the purchase of the on-hold ticket myself. I had to call them. Long wait, they said, so I opted for them to call me back in 20-30 minutes (it was nearly midnight). When they did call back, it took quite a while to sort out where my points were. Finally, their computer burped and the points came through during one of the several times the airline representative put me on hold. But the website still wouldn’t let me complete the purchase, so I asked the person on the phone to do this. He did (I thought). Well after midnight I settled down and fell asleep.

Then about six days later, when I was on a bus from Secaucus into NY, I was updating the shared calendar Liz and I use. I wanted to put in my flight times for this coming week. Only I couldn’t find any trace of a reservation confirmation or even a reservation. It didn’t exist. Am I going crazy? After convincing myself I really had no reservation (like the late Anthony Bourdain), I looked into buying a ticket, expecting my points would no longer be sufficient or the flights would be full. But halfway through the Lincoln Tunnel, which has great cellular service, I found I could book my original flights for the same number of points. So I bought the ticket, and this time it worked. Whew!

(3) Find accommodations. For most of these trips, I’m just staying one night, coming in the day before my appointment so I am less likely to miss it due to flight delays or cancellations. The American Cancer Society has been wonderfully helpful. I tell them when I need a room, and so far they have found one for me, though they don’t call and tell me where until the afternoon before my trip. One time I was in midtown, for $119 a night plus tax. That was convenient, and a fraction of the normal room rate. Last week I was in Secaucus, New Jersey, but for only $49 a night. Forty extra minutes of travel each way, but I had plenty of time to do that, so it worked out. I still don’t know where I will be staying three nights from now. But I hope they will find me something. My sense is that I get a room when someone else cancels. I haven’t had to sleep on a bench yet.

(4) Figure out ground transportation from airport to hotel to appointment to airport. Yes, I could just take a cab or other car service. That would be simpler. And expensive (cost of cab from LGA to Secaucus would have been somewhere north of $100). Google Maps is my tool of choice, even though it occasionally decides to confuse me. Last week it showed me I could get the Q70 bus from LGA Terminal B to a subway station in Queens. Then take a subway to Times Square. Then walk to the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Then take a bus to Secaucus quite near my hotel. But I also had to figure out who ran each of these services and how to get the appropriate tickets or receipts. I did this by looking at many websites, for an hour or more. Total cost from LGA to Secaucus on public transportation: $10.

(5) Check the weather to decide what clothes to pack and jacket to wear. Easy. Ish. Weather forecasts, especially regarding precipitation, are right about 60% of the time, or so it seems.

(6) Coordinate with anyone I’m planning either to travel with or meetup with during my trip. Last week I arranged to talk with some friends who would also be in LaGuardia the morning I arrived. And after my Thursday appointment, I had some extra time in the city to meet up with Teresa and Bill (Liz’s brother), who were in the city at the same time.

(7) Think through when and where I might eat. Again, Google Maps helps with this. And I take some food with me. Do I need to buy some food in the city before taking my bus to Secaucus? Or do they have food in Secaucus?

(8) Make sure I have enough of each of my meds to last the length of my trip and a few days beyond. This has been difficult lately as our current medical insurance company has opinions on how much of a given medication the pharmacy should give me, even if my doctor has written the prescription for more. I know they are just trying to protect me and those around me from party drug use of my anti-diarrhea medication. So they mean well, right? But last week I had to call the pharmacy for a long discussion, then actually go visit my oncologist’s office for a long discussion, then go to the pharmacy to pick up my med (though still not a full 30-day supply…grr).

(9) Make sure I have enough cash, especially in small denominations, so I can tip as needed.

(10) Arrange for my airport transportation at home. If the trip is one night, I drive and park. If it is longer, Liz or a friend helps me out.

(11) Pack. Packing requires dozens of small decisions and many trips up and down the stairs in our house. In pursuit of one item to pack, I am distracted by another item or task, forgetting about the first. So it takes a long time.

I am not one of those seasoned, professional travelers who has a packed bag at all times, with duplicate bathroom supplies or other items so that they don’t have to be packed and unpacked each time. I got a new suitcase last week, so that made it harder: what compartment do I use for which items? But I will spare you, patient reader, the details of my packing travails (clothing, bathroom items, medications (a big category), electronics and chargers, papers, food items, a mongoose. Just kidding on that last one. But I can imagine packing a dog by mistake.

(12) Prepare to be absent from home. Depending on the length of the trip, I may have to think about trash, recycling, mail, newspaper, appointment rescheduling or cancelling, grocery shopping if Liz isn’t feeling well or if I need some food to take with me.

(13) Charge my active noise cancellation headphones, my electric shaver, phone and laptop.

Thirteen steps already, and I haven’t traveled yet.

(14) Get up (sometimes in the wee hours, depending on my reservations), shower, dress, and eat enough to take my meds but not so much that my stomach might cause problems during flight.

(15) Pack the things I haven’t yet.

(16) Drive to the airport and park. 

(17) Haul luggage to the terminal.

(18) Find the wheelchair person who should be taking me through security to my gate. I do this less because I can’t actually walk that far than because I am conserving energy as much as possible for the travails of travel. I could write a post longer than this one about the problems I’ve had making wheelchair requests and getting them fulfilled. But I’m far too annoyed on that topic to want to write about it any more. I will be receiving an apologetic and no doubt fully explanatory phone call or email from an airline in the next few days. That makes it all better.

(19) Go through TSA security. This is one of the biggest travails of air travel. The waiting in line. The making sure I’ve taken most things from my pockets and stowed them in my luggage but still have my boarding pass and driver’s license handy. The scramble to put things in plastic tubs–shoes, jacket, cane, laptop–and then hoist my suitcase up onto the conveyor belt. Then wait in line again to get body scanned and often patted down in strange places of my anatomy. Then pick up all my stuff and try to get it back where it belongs, without forgetting anything. If I am lucky enough to be in a wheelchair, this process is sometimes more difficult as it is hard for me to get my shoes on while sitting in a wheelchair.

(20) Sit at my gate and wait. Last week the one time I did actually get a wheelchair and get deposited at my gate, my gate changed ten minutes after I’d tipped and dismissed the chair pusher. So I had to hobble to the other end of the concourse, being unwilling to hazard requesting another wheelchair. Wait. Get delayed. Wait. Get delayed. Get some water, maybe some food, time my last trip to the bathroom before boarding.

(21) Board. This has become easier with my wheelchair request status and my cane. I get on at the beginning of boarding and no one questions me. Get the right things in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of me.

(22) Sit on the plane and wait. See whether the person seated next to me flows over the armrest into my space or not. Quickly retract my kneecaps when the huge guy in the seat in front of me tries out his seat recline.

(23) Fly to my final destination if I’ve been fortunate enough to fly nonstop. If not, my trip is twice as tiring. Hope for the seatbelt sign to be off if and when I need the bathroom.

(24) Arrive at destination, often waiting for a gate, a jetway, or Godot, so that we can deplane. Ever so slowly.

(25) If I’m brave, attempt finding the supposedly waiting wheelchair and wheelchair pusher. Otherwise, hobble with cane.

(26) Follow sometimes confusing signage or ask for help in locating my next mode of transport.

(27) Get requisite ticket or receipt if needed for transport. And wait, hoping there will be space for me when my bus or flying saucer arrives.

(28) Get off at the right stop. Again, Google Maps is helpful with this.

(29) Repeat the previous three steps as often as needed to arrive at destination.

(30) Check into hotel, find room, unpack, plan next thing (meal or whatever).

The rest of my standard trip is readily imaginable, as most of the steps are so similar to the ones above. It is all oh so tiring, especially when my destination is New York, where the sidewalks and subways are jammed with tourists, commuters, and residents. The ubiquitous black strollers containing tiny future New Yorkers, the dog walkers with as many as seven dogs at once. The noise is constant–sirens, honking of miffed drivers, the music or speeches emanating from people wanting money, and business people businessing on their cell phones. The smells of food, trash, food, exhaust, and food. The constant scaffolding and construction cones to dodge.

Can you imagine what it would be like if the Travel Channel actually had shows about traveling instead of about ghosts, monsters, food, and museum mysteries? No one would watch such shows. Apart from the attractions at one’s destination, the journey we’re supposed to enjoy while getting there is all too tedious.

I don’t dislike New York. I like the great food (when my gut allows me to partake), the museums, parks, libraries, stores (a few of them), the cafes, the bakeries, the pizza slice shops, bakeries, the street food, and the bakeries. New York is unique and striking. And oh so tiring, especially for a visitor, and especially for a person with health issues such as cancer. Is it travel or travail? For me this month it is both. Again I am compelled to thank the many who uphold me in their prayers or have helped in countless other ways. Thank you. I’m getting through it. Thank you.





4 Replies to “Travels and Travails”

  1. I almost understand. I’ve done the travail of travel, but only once alone….hip injury en route to Thailand. All other times have been with another travailer.
    Praying for you, Mark. Praying for Liz, and everything at home, too.

  2. I do not envy you your travails!! You’re right about the steps being similar and lengthy even for a pleasure trip… and throwing health into the mix makes for a sad cake indeed 😦 I am sorry you have to do so much of it. I pray the benefits outweigh the struggle for you.

  3. I am exhausted with you as I read about your travels. We have mobility issues and have also found air travel to be a problem. I do admire your courage and persistence.

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