Thursday, 15 March 2007

Cheese Steaks and Cream Cheese

My first adventure south of the border, and using my Canadian Permanent Resident (PR) card...

My company has an office in Horsham (about 30kms north of Philadelphia), where most of our senior management are. I went out there for a short 2-day trip last week (8-9 March). The trip there was more eventful than the trip itself.

I was booked on a flight leaving at 7h20 on Wednesday morning, and being the paranoid South African passport-holder, I arrived promptly at the airport at 5h15. The way things work when you fly out to the US from Toronto's Pearson International Airport, is that you clear US Customs and Immigration before you board the plane. Canadians have no idea how privileged they are when entering the US - they have their own separate line and they basically get waved through with minimal questions and hassle. Thankfully I was not asked too many questions, having secured a 10-year US B1/B2 visa (visa for business/pleasure) and having only a small carry-on suitcase didn't raise any flags.

We were herded on to the plane at about 7h00, only to be told that we would be delayed till about 8h15 as our plane needed to be de-iced before takeoff. We were in a really small plane (something like 12 rows of 4 people!) with no screens, so the flight attendant has to demonstrate the safety procedures - which he did with much aplomb and gusto. At least he had a sense of humour. De-icing done, we went out to the runway... and then were told that Philly had closed their airport due to poor visibility in the snowstorm, and that our flight had been cancelled.
It was quite amusing, as the passenger in the seat next to me had put on his mp3 player and earphones, and dozed off. We were in the first tow, so when the door opened to let us off, he woke up startled and asked, 'What happened?' Oh, I was so tempted to just tell him we had landed at Philly....

Anyway, all 38 of us were then given the option of being pushed on to the next flight leaving at 11h30, or trying to make other arrangements. I opted to take the next flight and spent the next three hours wandering around the airport and then dozing in the waiting area at the gate.
We boarded at about 11h15 and were then told that the snowstorm was continuing and Philly Airport (PHL) had asked that we delay slightly and aim for 'wheels up' at 12h30. And then... our flight was cancelled yet again! We had the same flight attendant and he was very apologetic - I had to wonder if the final decision to cancel the flight was PHL's or Air Canada's.

We were then told that we had to go back through Canada Immigration to 'repatriate' ourselves, since we were officially in the US, having passed through their immigration. What a pain - it was really busy, with long queues - almost an hour long wait. When the Canada Immigration officer asked where I was arriving from, I said... "The runway." And then she asked if I had bought anything to declare! (Yes... a magazine.) I realised afterwards that Canadian residents are only given a duty-free allowance for a minimum 24 hours absence from Canada. So my first use of my Canadian PR card was a non-event really.

So all-in-all I spent a grand 8 hours (one whole business day) at the airport. Grr. On arriving back at my office, I spoke with our Horsham office - apparently it was not a heavy snowstorm at all, but just constant snow. Sigh - the sissies at PHL closed their airport for 2-3 cms of snow! So the next morning I once again trekked out to the airport (with a strange feeling of dejavu), for the 7h20 flight from Toronto Pearson International... No hitches this time, and we landed on time. Whew.

Anyway... Philadelphia... seemed like a quiet city, didn't get to see much of it though :( I had a rental car to drive up to the office, and took the scenic route through the city centre, mostly avoiding highways. This was a bit painful, as the roads are set out very much like Pretoria, with a grid of one-way streets. Luckily it was just after rush hour, but traffic was busy nonetheless. I found it strange and confusing that, in streets with traffic in both directions, cars were parked in the median between the lanes - this means that you have pedestrians running around all the time, and you need to be so much more aware of a car door suddenly opening in front of you. Brave people.

Our office is in a sleepy suburb, where there's not much to see or do. So I drove back out to Philadelphia the Thursday night, as there's an outlet mall there ;) I must say, it was interesting in that the demographics are similar to SA - this being a bit of a shock to me, having been in Toronto now for so many months. I am now used to seeing many Asian and Oriental faces everywhere.

I arrived back in Toronto on Friday evening, and it felt like coming home. This time, clearing Canadian Immigration was a breeze - no lines, a stamp in my passport and a wave of the hand.

Next trip, I will have to make a point to stay a bit longer, perhaps have Brendon tag along and stay for the weekend. I would love to make a trip out to King of Prussia Mall ... the second largest mall in the US, and the largest on the East Coast. Another side trip would be out to Lancaster to see the Amish way of life.

And no, despite the heading, I resisted the urge to buy a Philly Cheese Steak. And I can get Philadelphia Cream Cheese any time here.

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