How to survive your 2-day Amtrak trip

I’ve been on the two-day California Zephyr between Chicago and San Francisco; the two-night/one-day Sunset Limited between Houston and Los Angeles; and the two-day Southwest Chief between Los Angeles and Chicago.

So, in terms of your basic needs (sleep, food, using the bathroom, and, if you like, prayer), how will you survive??

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Salt Lake City train station, December 2015; stop on the California Zephyr, Chicago –> San Francisco

Train lay-out

First, know the layout of the train. The trains are pretty cute because they have all these nice touches — like the bathrooms and luggage storage are neatly on the first floor of each carriage, and then you climb these cute little stairs — and it makes you feel like you’re tiptoeing into a new land, past this realm and into the next — and then you’re on the second floor of the carriage, and that’s where the seats are [**if you don’t really think stairs are that cute because you might have trouble climbing them, then no fear — some of the carriages are arranged with seats for disabled or elderly passengers on the first floor]. Across each window are curtains that you can pull back and forth. Then you can walk through your carriage, and the next and the next, and you’ll finally get to a nice big carriage that’s the observation car. There’s no regular seats, just lounge chairs and tables. It’s like your parlor. Below is a cafe car with turkey sandwiches, yummy grapes, and ginger ale, and cheese pizzas, and cheese and crackers, and vegan burgers (quite a nice kitchen).

Sleeping

This account, by the way, is for passengers, like me, too poor to buy a sleeper car. You have only enough to buy a coach seat. Technically, that means you are entitled to exactly one seat, but just listen here. There’s a very good chance you can nab a seat with no one sitting next to you, and if that’s the case, you just stretch out on both seats at night when it’s time to sleep and you’ll be very comfortable. Especially so, because the seats have these massive leg-rests that you pull out from right underneath. It makes the seats twice as wide. So if you lie down, and you have your knees curled up and jutting out a little, they’ll still be supported underneath.

Depending on what train and when you get on, there’s some strategies involved for having two coach seats to yourself all night long:

Strategy #1: you board the train in the middle of its journey. That, at least, has been my experience. This is what I mean. I boarded the California Zephyr at its starting point in Chicago. I was assigned a seat next to someone else. Likewise, I boarded the Southwest Chief at its starting point in Los Angeles. Again, I was assigned a seat beside someone. On the other hand, I boarded the Sunset Limited in Houston. The Sunset Limited had already been chugging all day coming out from New Orleans. Well, all of us passengers boarding in Houston were placed in an empty car, and there were so few of us that everyone (except families who wanted to sit together) got their own seat. It was so comfortable! And throughout the rest of the journey, really no newly boarding passengers were introduced into our carriage, so we stayed the same amount of people and never had to share seats the whole way.

Strategy #2: go get yourself a new seat. So suppose you are in fact boarding the train at its very first stop, and the Amtrak workers herd everyone into a single car. This is exactly what happened to me when boarding the Southwest Chief in Los Angeles. There was a horde of passengers who boarded in LA. Also, they segregate you based on your final location. So everyone who was going from Los Angeles to Chicago had to sit together in the same car, and we filled up the entire thing (and there are like 60 seats per car). I had to sit next to this 70-year-old man who told me, yes, his 50-year marriage had been long, nice, but happy? Um … Well, any case, he was really nice, but by the second night onboard, I really really wanted to stretch out. Every time I took a stroll up and down the train, I would pass through these other carriages where the passengers were not crammed together side by side. Everyone had two seats to their credit, and there were even some empty seats. Those were the lucky passengers who had boarded at stops beyond Los Angeles — they had more room just to themselves, just like I’d had when I boarded the Sunset Limited midway in Houston. So I just took it upon myself, in the evening of that second night, to move to one of those empty seats. I took the little ticket tag that the Amtrak attendants leave hanging over your seat assignment, and re-inserted it at my new seat of choice. It was bad luck, because the Amtrak attendants had cleverly written what my seat number was in the old carriage (seat 8). Well, seat 8 was taken in the new carriage, so I couldn’t do the thing seamlessly, but I found that seat 58 was empty, so that seemed the best bet. Well, no one said anything at all. I had the nicest night ever, lying down and curled up under my blanket and coat, and the next morning, in fact, the Amtrak attendants had swapped out all the ticket tags anyways with new ones. I now fit right in.

Now, this does not always work, but it was my experience on the Sunset Limited, the California Zephyr, and the Southwest Chief. I will add that I did all three of these train trips in December, anywhere from three weeks to one week before Christmas (the time of your trip might affect the crowds).

I have seen other people sleep on the floor of the large bathroom for people with disabilities. You open up the door, and surprise! Someone’s spread out in front of you. It kind of gave me a fright. I do not recommend this.

Once, I was on a 1-day, 1-night trip from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon. That train was miserably crowded. It’s called the Coastal Starlight. There’s not much of the magic and mystery of starlight onboard that train, believe me, both times I’ve been on it. I could not find any empty seats anywhere, but I was able to find 2 or 3 seats free to sleep on in the Observation car. So go check that out if you have nowhere else to go.

Last but not least, bring a blanket and a coat so you can be toasty and warm.

Food

You are going to be doing a lot of sitting, so you don’t need a lot of food. Also, the bathroom situation is not as comfortable as you’d probably like, so the less you eat, the better from that aspect.

On the other hand, you will want to eat because what’s cozier than stuffing your face as you watch the vast landscapes of the country unfold out the window? Here’s how I managed. For breakfast, the best cost-benefit analysis seems to be to go to the dining car and eat their scrambled eggs. It’s pretty good, and it comes with a side of potatoes (or grits, but yuck), and a small croissant. Slather everything with butter (I end up using like 8 of those little butter tubs, which are free and available), and that will be quite nice and filling. It’s $8.50, and that’s about the price of scrambled eggs and potatoes in most cafes, no? And it will last your stomach a long time. That is honestly the only thing I recommend you get from the dining cars. I do not recommend the dining car menu for lunch or dinner. First, the food doesn’t sound all that good — and the stuff that did sound good had pork sausage in it, or something, so I couldn’t eat it anyways. There was stuff like seafood, which I don’t really like. And for dinner, there’s an option of a big steak. Now, this is the last thing you should eat onboard a train when the bathroom situation is so dire. When I was on the Sunset Limited, everyone who ate the steak woke up the next morning complaining about how many times they’d had to use the bathroom, and how crummy they felt. You don’t want this to be you. They do have this nice pasta dish for dinner — but it’s $16 and I don’t think it’s worth it.

Amtrak observation car train
Amtrak observation car

But you can’t survive all day on just scrambled eggs, so what to do? Well, instead of the dining car, go to the cafe car for lunch and dinner. The offerings are pretty good. There’s chicken sandwiches, turkey sandwiches, and you can grab as much mayo and mustard as you like; there’s small cheese pizzas and vegan burgers and fruit and crackers and cheese and chips and big juicy grapes and chocolate and other comfort food. Now, the prices are quite high for what you’re buying, but cheaper than the dining car. They also sells all sorts of sodas, but I don’t recommend buying those — empty calories, and more bathroom trips, and too expensive.

And last but not least, bring lots and lots of snacks with you. I think about a third of my suitcase was just snacks — both salty and sweet. I had:

  • I had 12 little packets of tiny fudge-dipped oreos, yum, yum, yum, except I don’t know if these packets were a good idea. Each one only had like 7 cookies in it. Maybe buy a few of the larger packets instead
  • three apples as a way to clean out my refrigerator
  • eight packs of wheat-and-cheddar sandwich crackers, each of which had 6 little cracker sandwiches in it
  • and something else I don’t remember.

These were nice choices because everything was so individually packaged; so eating one little packet in one go would not result in any contamination of the remaining packets. Nor, like if you bring a big bag of chips, for example, would you have to leave it partially uneaten, leaving it open to the possibilities of spills or messiness. One the other hand, the individual packaging is not good for the environment. On the other hand, you’re on the train instead of the plane, so you’re already doing (almost) the most good you can.

I ate the snacks whenever I wanted; and had scrambled eggs for breakfast; and would buy one single sandwich from the cafe car at night; and one night I was feeling kind of full, so instead of a sandwich I had juicy grapes; and that was it! The snacks lasted two cross-country train trips, several overnight bus trips, and the various stays along the way — it was three weeks in total.

Also, if you are on the Sunset Limited, there’s a certain stop — but I don’t remember which — was it El Paso? — where someone called the burrito lady is standing outside the train tracks, and has a sack full of warm burritos in all flavors, and sells them. The vegetarian ones were only $2. They weren’t that great, to be honest. But very popular. We stopped in El Paso for like 30 minutes, so there was time for everyone who wanted to buy one. She will sell it to you and then give you a Christian blessing.

Amtrak train El Paso
El Paso train station stop; on the Sunset Limited, Houston –> Los Angeles.

If you are on the Southwest Chief, the station in Albuquerque has a restaurant with burgers and pizza. That was very popular, too, though again, I’m not sure if greasy food is the best choice for your train trip. And that brings us to the next topic:

Bathrooms

The way the trains are set up, the bathrooms are all on the first floor of the train, and the seats are all above on the second floor, once you slip behind the bend of the little magic staircase. It’s nice that way, because although you can get up those stairs, the smells of the bathroom mostly don’t seem to follow.

Now, what about the bathrooms themselves? There are about 5 per first first floor, all smushed into one half of the car, and they are tiny closets mostly. Actually, way smaller than most closets. I’m small-sized, and really there was not enough room for me between the door, the toilet, and the sink. It’s kind of gross. But there’s three other options:

1) at the very end of the hallway with the bathrooms, there’s one more door, with a slightly different sign. It’s a “lounge”. You go into the lounge, it has two sinks in it and a cushioned bench and a big mirror. You can brush your hair and do your make-up here, if you like, or freshen up. And there’s one more door inside the lounge, and that goes to one more closet-sized bathroom. It’s still small, but it should mostly be women using this bathroom. So less traffic and a little neater. I recommend it.

2) the bathroom for handicapped people and elderly. This is a large bathroom present on the first floor of the cars. But not all the cars. Sometimes, the first floor is split between racks for luggage on one side, and the bathrooms on the other side. Other times the first floor is split between seats for elderly and disabled passengers one side, and bathrooms on the other. If the cars has the seats for the elderly and disabled on the first floor, then it also has a large bathroom, with plenty of room to move around in. The trick is, if your particular car does not have this bathroom, then just go to the next car over. Is it wrong of me to recommend that people who are able-bodied use this handicapped bathroom? Hmmm, that actually only just occurred to me. Just don’t stay in there too long in case someone who actually cannot use the regular bathrooms is in need.

3) if the closest-sized bathrooms in your car are really dirty, then again, go over to the next car and see if those bathrooms are any better.

Prayer

I will write another post about prayer on the train, stay tuned.

Final thoughts

Think of the train ride as part of your trip, and enjoy it. Most likely, you’ll get to talk to some friendly, interesting people, and be alone with your own thoughts. Don’t count on having wifi. Enjoy the scenery. Enjoy the escape. Just cuddle up on your seat, alone with yourself and your thoughts, and let the train rock and hold you tight.

Amtrak train trip landscape
New Mexico or Arizona, onboard the Southwest Chief, Los Angeles –> Chicago

Why you should definitely not fly from Houston to LA

To get from Houston to Los Angeles by trains, there is no need to everĀ switch trains or any hassle like that: all you do is take one single train, the Sunset Limited. And I think you should almost definitely take the train, and not fly, because it’s a cute train; and it’s nice scenery; and it’s more convenient; and better for the environment; and flying isn’t actually going to save you that much time!

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Sunrise over a river in the Texas desert. View courtesy of the Sunset Limited.

So first, the cute train. I thought it was very cute. There’s little curtains on the windows. The carriages are two stories. You have plenty of room in your seat. I’ve been on this train twice and it wasn’t crowded either time, so hopefully no one will be bumping into you. You can visit the observation car, and the dining car, and the cafe. The train rocks you gently all night long.

 

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Our big, not so pretty, not so sanitary, slightly grimy, yet still endearing and sweetheart-ish train going out west.

The scenery: I don’t normally try to say anything nice about Texas, but the desert scenes were quite nice. The sun rising over the desert rivers was lovely. I had never seen this part of the country before, I had no idea what it would look like. I saw El Paso and Tuscon, Arizona. I saw over the border into Mexico. It was all fascinating to see.

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I think those mountains are in Mexico. We were really close to the border a lot of the way.

Convenience: instead of taking an hour-and-a-half bus ride to the airports in Houston, I just rode the light-rail and then a bus to the Amtrak station. In all, it took about 30 minutes. Plus, the bus took me right through downtown Houston. It was Christmas time, and I saw all the pretty Christmas lights that were up. There were blocks and blocks of golden light glowing in the black night, hovering over all the trees, from city square to city square. And from the Amtrak station there was a view out on all the skyscrapers of the city, all lit up, and even the Ferris wheel by the aquarium. Same with arriving in Los Angeles. We arrived smack in the downtown. I’ve never been to LAX but of course, as everyone else, I’ve heard it’s awful, and far from the city, and you probably don’t want to deal with it.

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Leaving downtown Houston on a Wednesday night in December.
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Arriving in downtown Los Angeles before dawn on Friday morning.

Time: the plane will not save you much time! I’ve worked this out. See, you get on the Sunset Limited in Houston at 7 pm, you spend the next day entirely on the train, and then you get to Los Angeles at 5:30 in the morning. It is a two-night and one-day trip. Well, during those two nights, you’re just going to sleep, and hopefully, you were planning to sleep even if you’d stayed at home, so that doesn’t really count as time lost. The only real time to consider is the full day on the train. In my opinion, this is pretty much exactly how much time you’d spend if you took the plane. If you take the plane, you have to get to the airport 2 hours in advance. The airport is probably an hour or more away from where you live, plus once you get to LA, let’s say (counting traffic) that the airport is two hours from where you’re trying to go. That adds three more hours. Also, you have the stress of airport security and all the crowds and the blinding lights, and the carbon emissions, and most likely, you won’t have a direct flight. You’ll have a lay-over somewhere. Even if you did not have a lay-over, there’s a big chance the plane will be late, and even if the plane wasn’t late, this whole sequence of events will still take you all day to get from Houston to LA. So you really might as well just take the train! No security, no angry people, and you can pretty much bring as much luggage as you can manage to carry.

The overnight train from North Carolina to Florida

We did an Amtrak trip from central NC to Orlando. Let me first say – the train (trains) weren’t all that late! Wow, Amtrak! I know that’s a rare thing for you, so I thought I’d give credit where credit was due.

First, we took the Piedmont train out from central North Carolina. This is really quite a lovely train, and they have a little cafe car where you get can bottles of water and coffee and tea for free. They used to also provide free snacks, but that hospitality was suspended about 8 years ago or so. Back in the 2000s, this train only ran twice a day; and then, around 2010, they increased it to thrice a day; and now it goes 4 times a day! It leaves Charlotte, NC, around 7 am, 10 am, 3 pm, and 7 pm (check the exact times on Amtrak that will suit your station: you’ve got Charlotte, Kannapolis, Salisbury, Highpoint, Greensboro, Burlington, Durham, Cary, Raleigh.) All of the cars are named after things important to North Carolina: The Honeybee, the Cardinal, the Boxing Turtle, the Gray Squirrel. Plus, the whole train just in general nice and clean.

Oh! And when you ride it, make sure to snag the complimentary bus tickets. They will get you one free bus ride and transfer at whatever city you’re disembarking at. So helpful, so thoughtful, when you’re already a little stressed about traveling by train that you don’t have to go dig in your purse for loose change to cover the bus fare. You have to ask them for the bus tickets, though; there are signs on the backs of the seat pockets to remind you.

We took the 3 o’clock train and got to Raleigh around 7 pm, because this train was 1 whole hour late. It was the latest of all our four trains, and considering Amtrak commonly manages to be 2 or 4 hours late, we’ll count this as a win. I was actually glad the train was late, because the Raleigh train station I remembered to be a small, dingy, ugly affair with plastic pea-green seats and stuffy air and glaring lights, in a part of town where there was nothing except empty roads. I soon changed my mind, however, because as we stepped out of the train onto the platform, a nice train station worker ushered us over the elevators. This was the first sign that something was changed! We took the elevator down from the platform to the terminal, then walked up a long, sloping, softly-lighted concourse with soothing white walls, large windows, and long slabs textured in milky-chocolate swirls and whirls pinned up in a long row. What a welcome.

I still didn’t quite realize what was going on, cause it wasn’t until we got to the top of the concourse and stepped out into the train station that I realized the whole thing has been rebuilt, and it is beautiful! Windows everywhere, a hushed feel, gentle lights way up on the high ceiling that goes up three stories; smart little cubbies wherein desks and seats are arranged; cushioned benches that you can nap on! I never saw such a train station! Modern and comfortable all at once.

When we saw all that, we immediately regretted that our train had been delayed after all; but we anyways rested and used the gleaming bathrooms and poked a bit around the station.

Right on time, we got ready to board our Florida-bound train at 8:45 pm. The sun was gone and the sky was dark as we returned to the platform. Peeking in through the train windows, it looked full of passengers who had clambered on in New York City (where this train starts) and D.C. and throughout Virginia. BUT, by some very lucky fluke, we and a handful of other passengers were ushered onto a completely empty car. So it was about 9 of us with 100 seats or so between us. And even though the train made stops all night long – in Southern Pines, in South Carolina’s state capital, in Savannah, Georgia about an hour before dawn – none of the incoming passengers were sent to our car, either. So we all were able to stretch out as best as we could on two seats and sleep. It’s not the most comfortable arrangement, because your legs will be compressed, but the key is to bring a blanket, and a coat, and something soft for your head. To be sure, I did wake up every 1 or 2 hours, but then I fell right back asleep. At 10 pm, they closed all the lights in the train except for a few emergency beacons, so nothing glared in our faces. And although during the daytime the conductors will march down the aisles and loudly proclaim what the upcoming stations are, they don’t do that at all during the night. So there’s no disturbances. If someone is snoring, the sound will probably get lost in the hum of the train.

Also, the cost of a ticket from Raleigh, NC, to Orlando, Fl, was only $79, and I only booked like 5 days ahead of time. The travel time is all at night, so you’re really not losing any time, and we got to see the new beautiful train station in Raleigh, and we got to travel overland and see how the landscape was changing – when we were awake – and it’s just a way more natural way of traveling. AND we got to enjoy our vacation in Orlando without worrying about all the carbon emissions we had carelessly caused for the sake of our fun.

One more thing: we were two people traveling, and so the combined amount was $158. A sleeper compartment cost less than $100 more, at $243. I didn’t think of it at the time but for two people, getting a sleeper could be very well worth the extra comfort. I was traveling with someone older and she was much less comfortable than me, so I kind of wish now we had gotten the sleeper. But for me alone, I find a regular seat very endurable. You lean your seat back as far as it will go, and you raise the cushioned leg-rest, and if it’s too low, then you can stick one of your pieces of luggage underneath to raise it up. I’ve done this trip twice now, to and fro, and it’s been great, even when I had to sleep sitting up all night.

You wake up with the sunrise and all that over northern Florida, and now it’s time for food. Four years ago when I took this trip, they had a dining car, and we had omelettes for breakfast! Alas, the dining car has been removed. So now there’s just a cafe car, but the Amtrak cafe menu was upgraded sometime in the last two years, and it’s pretty good. I got the turkey sandwich once, it was large and savory and filling. We had planned ahead and brought sandwiches, crackers, and biscuits with us. The dining car closed at 11 pm at night, and it opened up at 6 am the next morning. If you need a ‘brieg’, then the cafe car will also provide you with plastic cups, no explanation necessary (Arabs will understand this!)

And I guess that’s it – oh, other than that the train station in Orlando is historic! It was opened in 1927. There was a historic marker outside that gave lots of details. It’s a nice building. When I looked at the map, I saw that it is just a few blocks down from the PULSE nightclub, where the shooting happened. That was a dampening – when a place has been in the news so much, and you unexpectedly show up in the vicinity.

And that is it! The guilt-free, environmentally-friendly, and time-efficient, dare I say – given it’s overnight – way to get from NC to Florida. No stupid airport lines, no rush, no one yelling at you because your bag is too big, no security line, no cops all over the place, and no need to take your laptop and liquids out and take off your shoes. I mean, seriously.

 

The train in Pakistan is faster than Amtrak

Did you hear that, Amtrak?

Okay, it’s notĀ always faster, but just lookie here:

The train in Pakistan goes from Rahim Yar Khan to Karachi in 10 hours. That is 386 miles, or 621 kilometers.

rahim yar khan to karachi

Meanwhile, I have been on the “Carolinian” between Charlotte, North Carolina and Washington D.C. about 50 times. The route, which does an annoying dip down to Selma-Smithfield, is 475 miles (764 km). Ostensibly, this trip is supposed to take 10 hours, too.

amtrak carolinian route

So far, it’s barely better than the Pakistani train. The problem is that the Carolinian is always breaking down, and in my fifty times of traveling on it, it must have come an average of 1.5 hours late. Seriously! Lots of times it’s 2 hours late or more. Last time I checked, there was a cute little statistic on the Amtrak site claiming that the Carolinian was on average 20 minutes late or something. Hahahahahaha … NO!

Pakistan’s train is traveling at roughly 38.6 miles/hour. Last time I rode the Carolinian, it was four hours late. I’m sorry, that’s just unacceptable! And when it is four hours late, it is traveling slower than 34 miles/hour, so yes, it’s slower than the Pakistani train. And even when it’s two hours late, which is very normal for the Carolinian, then the train is traveling at 39.6 miles/hour. Barely better. Come on, Green New Deal, we need you!

Stuck in Pakistan

I wasn’t stuck in Pakistan; but someone I knew was. Let’s call him Jassim.

Jassim went to Pakistan for two weeks to attend conferences at two different universities. Just so you are aware, purchasing a regular tourist visa to Pakistan, at least for Americans, costs almost $200, but because Jassim was going for conferences, it was considered a “business” trip and that bumped the price up to $350ish. He applied for the visa two weeks before his (already-purchased) ticket was set to depart. The visa arrived from the Pakistani embassy one day before he left, and I think that was only because he spent about four hours on the phone trying to get someone at the embassy to expedite things. He wasn’t talking to anyone; he was waiting hours while the “ding-ding-ding” on-hold music played until someone would pick up. Then as soon as someone picked up, the lined dropped; so he had to call again and listen to the “ding-ding-ding” music another hour until someone answered.

Right around as Jassim was arriving in Pakistan, a big explosion occurred that killed 40 Indian soldiers. India bombed Pakistan in retaliation; and then Pakistan shot down an Indian plane and took the pilot prisoner. We texted Jassim during all the commotion to ask, “are things tense?” and he goes, “no, not at all!” But next thing we know, all the internal flights were grounded in Pakistan. Jassim had just finished up the last items on his business agenda in a city called Rahim Yar Khan, and he was supposed to be in Karachi the next day to catch his plane out of the country. It is almost 400 miles (about 620 km) …

rahim yar khan to karachi

and he no longer had a flight to get there! Luckily, there’s a train. Google Maps says there is no train, but there is. It takes 10 hours, and it’s an overnighter. Jassim found out at 4:00 pm that the planes were canceled; and this overnight train was leaving at 4:30! He rushed to his hotel; he still had to pack up all his things. He grabbed everything, helter-skelter, ran down to the lobby, and made to get on his way. At least he wasn’t alone. All his university professor hosts, plus an entourage of about 10 students, were trying to make sure Jassim made the train. In the lobby, there was a hold-up. The rifle-carrying guards who apparently man all of Pakistan informed Jassim that his journey to the train station, seeing as it had been decided upon just minutes before, wasn’t registered and therefore they couldn’t give him permission to go. A big discussion ensued. The university professors were saying, “just get out of the way and let us go!” After a conference of about 5 minutes, the security police relented, and everyone rushed to the station. Three minutes after they got there, the train came chugging through: choo choo. The entourage of students grabbed all of Jassim’s bags and hurried him and his stuff onto the train. The train departed.

So he just barely made it, but unfortunately all the rush was for nothing, because by the next day, all the international flights were grounded, too, and Jassim’s flight out of Karachi, at whose insistence all the fuss with the train had occurred, was canceled.

Jassim’s train pulled into Karachi on February 28, in the morning. He called the American embassy, but they weren’t ready yet to haul in the military and evacuate all American citizens. They told him: call your airlines and keep updated.

On March 1, the airline Etihad announced that all flights had returned to normal operations. Jassim spent hours on the phone to get a spot, but you know that there were two or three days’ worth of missed flights full of passengers trying to do the same, and the earliest anyone would put him on a flight out was March 6. But he kept calling, and by some miracle, eventually a guy got him a seat on the flight leaving in less than 6 hours. Ta-da!

There were so many checkpoints and security lines around the airport that after all that hassle, he still nearly missed his flight. But he made it in the end. Now he was un-stuck from Pakistan.