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Trip Report Spain 2005

Author: Ben Shakman (More Trip Reviews by Ben Shakman)
Date of Trip: November 2005

A couple of introductory remarks:
Thanks to all members of the Space-A community that replied to my various posts and provided assistance, advice, and guidance. I especially appreciate the generosity of people who I've never met and their offers of assistance.

My family is slightly odd in that my wife and I are both in the military. I served in Iraq with the Multinational Division Central-South during 2003-2004 and she is serving with them currently on a one-year tour (2005-2006). We have two kids, aged 4-1/2 and 7. There is probably a book to be written in all of this somewhere.

The impetus for us to go to Spain is that I recommended a Spanish officer (who worked for me in the MND-CS) for a US decoration back in January 2004. The US Ambassador to Spain presented the award to him in a ceremony held at the US Embassy in Madrid on 7 NOV 05. I like to travel! I had a conversation with the kids a while back about how they are handling mommy's deployment and the central theme that came out of that conversation was that they both wanted to travel more. Works for me!

I am quite verbose when writing. If your primary interest is in the mechanics of the trip, you will want to read the beginning and the end of the report only. Also, there are more than 100 pictures from the trip posted here: smugmug.com. If you choose to read the trip report while viewing the pictures you may enjoy the story more.

Monday 31 OCT 05
I left work a little early and met Allison (our 7 year-old) when she got off the bus at our house. We wrapped up the small amount of packing that I did not finish during the previous days and went to pick Lizzy (our 4-1/2 year-old) up from the sitter. I called Norfolk, Dover, and Charleston on the way to the sitter's house and decided that Dover was our best bet for a Tuesday flight. They were reporting a 1541 showtime on the 1st and I knew that I would be up most of the night driving if we were to make that deadline.

It was 1700 on the nose when we hit the highway. A couple of hours later we stopped for dinner and both kids fell asleep shortly thereafter. They continued to sleep and I continued to drive. I stopped at 0100 for a potty break and also to borrow a hotel's wireless Internet connection to send my leave form/Space-A signup information to Norfolk, Dover, Charleston, Rota, and Moron. We continued to drive until 0300 when I decided that we had made it far enough that I could afford a 3-hour nap.

Tuesday 1 NOV 05
On the road at 0600 and on the phone every 90 minutes with Dover to ensure that they still had the flight on their schedule. On one late-morning call I learned that the showtime had slipped an hour and decided that was sufficient time to allow us to sit down for a leisurely lunch. We ate in Maryland and then called again once we got back in the car at 1300 -- the flight was still on! I decided that we were probably about 90 minutes away and opted to make that the last call to the PAX terminal before we arrived.

We rolled in to the PAX terminal's parking lot at Dover around 1400 and went in to get marked present for the flight. I asked the USAF uniformed person at the counter about the flight and learned that it had fallen off the schedule hours earlier. The guy sitting next to the person in front of the computer asked him when it was dropped and he replied "earlier this morning." I recognized the voice and was quite perturbed when he held up a piece of paper and said "that's not what this says." Proof that nothing is guaranteed when traveling Space-A. An aside -- we missed a 1600 showtime at Norfolk that we could have easily made if their people were communicating. Lesson learned - I will now ask PAX reps if the information they are giving me is from the computer.

Knowing that Norfolk had two flights on the schedule for Wednesday and there were none projected out of Dover for at least the next 72 hours made my decision quite simple -- drive to Norfolk. We had a nice drive down the peninsula capped off with dinner at the Stingray (delicious grilled scallops) and then a trip across the bridge-tunnel. We pulled into the parking lot at the Navy Lodge knowing that there would not be a room available, but planning to pick up a voucher to stay at another hotel in the area for the same price. The other hotel turned out to be halfway across town and we opted for the Hampton Inn near the main gate instead. I was able to get their "military rate" and only paid $6 more than the Navy Lodge was charging, plus they have an indoor pool. We went for a quick swim and then bedded down for the night.

Wednesday 2 NOV 05
We were up early (a hazard of traveling with my kids) and had a quick swim before breakfast. My wife called while we were eating and the kids got to talk to her over breakfast. We wrapped up the conversation and then headed for the PAX terminal on base. We arrived at the counter 30 minutes before showtime and learned that they did not do the whole roll call thing anymore. We headed upstairs to the dependants' lounge and met some fellow travelers with children about the same age. The four kids played together for hours and then it was time for the bus ride over to Langley to catch the flight. During the course of the afternoon, I struck up a conversation with a retired gentleman who was living in Spain. He offered us a ride to the train station if we made it to Rota and I gladly accepted -- one less piece of the puzzle to put together.

We arrived at Langley at about 1700 and were kept on the bus until 1800. We chatted with the Langley representative who boarded our shuttle and learned that she was unsure which of the two planes (sitting next to each other) we were supposed to board. Rather than attempt to come up with the right answer, she regaled us with a story about how she once put someone on a flight to Iceland by accident. We finally disembarked the bus and walked to the stairs. I stopped at the base of the stairs and asked the USAF person if the airplane was going to Rota and if our luggage had already been loaded. He confirmed that we were getting on the right plane but he had a puzzled look on his face. He asked me why everyone else had asked the same questions. I just shrugged and helped my kids up the stairs.

There were sufficiently few people on board that everyone had their own row of seats and no one needed to sit near the latrines. I fed the kids while the crew finished their preflight work and then we were airborne. One note -- the cafeteria at Norfolk is the sole provider of in-flight meals and they cost about $6. Neither the kids nor I cared for the sandwiches; they were out of fruit and would not substitute anything else; and they don't include condiments or napkins in the bags.

The flight was utterly uneventful with the exception of the fact that the passenger compartment was downright warm. We were down to t-shirts and my kids asked if they could remove their pants before they went to sleep. The loadmaster tried to get the cabin cooled off a little, but it stayed hot for the entire flight -- oh well.

Thursday 3 NOV 05
We landed in Rota and were clear of the terminal by about 1000. Phil (the gracious retiree who offered us a ride) loaded us into his vehicle and we set out for the train station in Santa Maria. He assisted me with the travel arrangements as I do not speak Spanish and we wound up with less than an hour to wait before the local train picked us up and carried us in to Sevilla. I still had not acquired any euros and wanted to get some changed. The exchange rate at the station was horrible (1.51 Euro to the dollar) so I only changed $20.

We spent less than an hour in Sevilla before boarding an AVE bullet train bound for Madrid. The train cost about 168 Euro for the three of us and it was worth every penny to avoid another day of driving. The train was simply amazing -- clean, comfortable, fast, quiet, smooth, and had restrooms and a bar/cafeteria car. The kids took a short nap very soon after we left the station and I stayed up for a while watching the scenery. Their countryside is beautiful and I enjoyed the opportunity to get a small hint of the flavor of a country that I had not visited since I was the age of my children.

We arrived in Madrid 2-1/2 hours later and made a beeline for the phones to call my Spanish friend. It took me a couple of tries, but I finally got through to him and made arrangements for him to meet us at the station. I took the kids and all of our stuff out into the open-air area adjacent to the ticket office to hang out for a while and watch the local people. They have a huge (bigger than a football field) indoor garden in the central train station in Madrid and the kids discovered that the pond was populated with turtles. They had a whole lot of fun trying to get bitten, but the turtles must not have had a taste for little kid fingers that day. They played and turtle-watched for over an hour while we waited for my friend. He finally appeared and shepherded us off to his car -- a Ford Probe! We tore through the traffic in central Madrid and made for El Pardo (his base).

El Pardo is the location of one of the royal palaces and also home to the royal guard -- Willy's unit. He is the platoon commander for the dog platoon and has about 60 soldiers and an equal number of dogs assigned to him. As a junior leader in the regiment, he is friendly with other junior leaders there as well. This state of affairs resulted in some really neat experiences. He took us on a tour of the royal garage and we saw all of the motorcade vehicles and some other really neat stuff including a line of about 50 police-model Harley Davidson's, a bunch of Mercedes, Cadillac, Audi, Rolls Royce, and custom built automobiles. We also had coffee and tea in the bar on base. Of note for those who have not visited Europe -- "bar" has a completely different meaning than it does in the US. In this instance, it was more of a coffee shop. We had coffee, tea, and cokes and donuts for the kids -- except Lizzy, she wanted some of Willy's coffee (my mother-in-law started her on that). The k ids played, the adults chatted, and then we headed for his apartment (piso -- an apartment is quite a bit smaller, more like a studio apartment in the US) to meet his wife and family. Initially, the plan was that we were to stay at the visiting officer's quarters maintained by the Spanish, but neither my friend nor the US military attaché at the embassy were able to get them to verify a vacancy for us. As a result, Willy announced that we would be staying with him.

We arrived at his building at about 2100. He lives on the outskirts of Madrid and south of El Pardo so he appears to be in a great location for getting to work and also accessing the city. His wife was working on dinner when we got there and refused all offers of assistance (a theme that continued through the entire visit). Willy and I chatted some more and my two kids played with his older daughter -- Esther, age 3. She was a little bit shy and my kids are very outgoing so they took a couple of hours to get comfortable with one another. We sat down to a leisurely dinner at about 2200 -- typical dinnertime in Spain -- and had a great meal. The kids and I were completely wiped out after our trip and all of the day's activities so we went to bed just after midnight and slept for 12 hours.

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