I never intended to blog my long weekend trip to Newfoundland via Nova Scotia because it was meant as a very personal trip to just relax and chill with friends. As such, I wrote no intro and took absolutely no notes. But life is funny… and on this occasion, it gave me an adventure that was so epic that I was compelled to immortalize my story.
I spent much of 2019 trying to piece together a time when I could make a return visit to my friends in Gander, Newfoundland. I'd first visited the previous summer and I'd had a fabulous time joining a couple of them in NYC in September. However, such a trip requires at bare minimum a 4 day commitment due to travel/connection times and I had already used up all my vacation days for the year (less the one week I can roll over for emergencies). I realized that the weekend of US Thanksgiving would provide me with the necessary time, but it would be sacrilege not to spend it with my mom and my nieces' family.
During a slow Friday at work in early/mid November, I received an alert of a voicemail from my mom. Curious and slightly worried at why she'd be calling me during the middle of a work day, I dialed into my messages. I was horrified when she said that she'd invited relatives with whom I try not to associate over for Thanksgiving. Not only would it mean not spending the day with my nieces' family (if I was in town, it was unthinkable for me the day with anyone other than my mom), but it would also surely be a stressful holiday. I threw my phone on my desk in disgust and I believe my exact exclamation was "F-- it all, I'm going to Gander for Thanksgiving!"
It was more than crystal clear how my heart wanted to spend the holiday. But was it just a fantasy… or could I really make it happen? Over the weekend, I messaged 2 friends in Gander and I was thrilled that both said they'd be around and would love to see me. Then I talked to my mom and asked for her blessing; always supportive of my international travels, she was ok with my plans. Events actually may have worked out better for her since she was able to enjoy 2 holiday meals: an early Thanksgiving with me on Wednesday night as well as a more traditional meal with her relatives. I would never have left her by herself on Thanksgiving, so the trip was only possible because she had others to share that day with her.
Airplane tickets would have been expensive especially since I was only booking about 10 days in advance, but I was able to use some frequent flier miles. I decided to fly into Halifax early on Thursday, even though the next onward flight to Gander wasn't until 10pm. Long connections are kinda my specialty, and I was eager to wander around and explore a new city. I firmed up plans with my Gander friends, one of whom touched my heart when she offered to make me brunch on Friday.
A few days before I left, I went to see the new movie "Frozen 2" with a friend. The song "The Next Right Thing" totally resonated with me and reminded me of the dilemma with which I'd been faced. I was crushed not to be able to spend Thanksgiving with my nieces and their family (who never asked me about my plans for the holiday)… but I somehow managed to take some little steps that led me to book a return to Gander. And if my holiday was anywhere near as amazing as the one I'd taken the previous summer, it would be well worth the effort.
Note: As mentioned, I'd planned this trip as a highly personal break and never intended to blog it. As such, I took no notes. So please forgive any inaccuracies or omissions. Not only did I leave my DSLR at home, but I also didn't even take as many cell phone pictures as I usually do.
On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, my office traditionally lets everyone leave a little early. As soon as we were permitted to go, I headed to my mom's place stopping on the way at Wawa. Our recent Thanksgiving tradition has been feasting on Macaroni and Cheese- not as a side, but as a main course. It all started when no one liked turkey enough to want to contribute to the premium price for a kosher turkey. Of course I continued the custom- I may have gotten one flavored with garlic aioli for myself, though. I'm pretty sure I also brought chocolate cake for us to eat for dessert; that's always been an essential part of the holiday for us.
I stayed at my mom's for about an hour or 2, regaling her with stories of my travel plans as I often do. She talked a little about the relatives who would be visiting. It was a cheery meal, and I was glad that my mom would have company for two nights in a row. But I couldn't stay too late because I still had to get to my Newark airport hotel.
After stopping at home and feeding the cats, I grabbed my bags and drove to the NJ Transit train station. Normally, at this point I'd be posting on social media about the start of my adventure. But I found myself wanting to stay publicly silent. Part of this was due to the personal nature of the trip? but another part was because I felt some weirdness about not having mentioned my plans to the people who are usually a part of my Thanksgiving. I kept expecting them to reach out to me and ask about plans, and I was flummoxed when that never happened. So I think the only people who knew that I was going away were my coworkers (who had witnessed my infamous phone flinging expletive laden declaration), my Gander friends, my cousin, and the friend who would be looking after the cats.
I arrived at the hotel by Newark airport at around 8:30pm and was granted a comfortable room with a view toward the terminal which was nice, but rather unnecessary for a quick stay. I was much more impressed with the yummy chocolate chip cookie I received at check in. I rearranged some of the contents of my luggage and then went to sleep early. It was a quiet night, but I was excited to be headed to Canada the next day. I had some concerns about the weather forecast for my destinations, but I was confident in the ability of Canadian airports to handle a little wintery storm. Especially since it was just supposed to be rain.
Even though I hadn't slept well, I was thrilled to get up super early because it meant that my adventure was starting in earnest. When I checked in at the airport, I was excited to see "Gander" printed on the 2nd of my boarding passes. It is still unreal to me that spending $38 on a lark to see "Come From Away" in previews would lead to friendships with a bunch of wonderful people whose hearts inspire me every day. While I expected Halifax to provide a fun diversion en route, I couldn't wait to exchange love and warm hugs with friends in my ultimate destination.
The tiny plane to Halifax was configured in a 1-2 formation and just as soon as I'd achieved Silver status on United, I'd been able to secure one of the solo seats with no neighbors near the front of the plane. Even though I hadn't read good things about the passenger experience on Embraer 145 aircraft, I was nonetheless surprised at exactly how cramped this plane was. The overhead storage was tiny! I could barely fit my backpack and was glad I had decided to check my roller bag rather than trying to take it on the plane.
Fortunately, it was only a 2 hour flight. And I really enjoyed the Stroopwafel snack they served so it wasn't all bad. Halifax is an hour ahead of Eastern Time so we landed at about noon local. As the plane taxied to the gate, I gazed out the rain streaked window and wondered what adventures lay in store for me.
I was totally excited to be back in Canada! And halfway to my next destination! If only the flight from Newark had been scheduled even earlier than 8:40am, there might have been a chance of connecting to the earlier flight to Gander (about 1pm iirc) but no worries- I felt fortunate to have a chance to explore a new city. So excited that I almost missed collecting my roller bag at bag claim. In my defense, I'm not sure I've ever previously had to pick up and re-check my bag on any connections that were outside the US. Fortunately, a very kind airport employee directed me not to rush out.
Everyone at the airport was super friendly and helpful… just as I expect Canadians to be. I'd packed for a wet, chilly day because the forecast had predicted huge rains. Since I had waterproof overpants from my trip to Antarctica, I'd decided at almost the last minute that it would make sense to bring them to wear on top of my khakis so I could feel free to wander around without undue worry about getting soaked. Once I was satisfied that I had everything I needed for a day in the city, I went to the security office where I could check my backpack for a moderate fee.
As I headed to the bus stop, I realized that the rain was turning to snow…. and it was already starting to stick to the ground. But this was Canada, they were no strangers to winter precipitation. So I bundled up a little more, putting on my "Come From Away" knit hat and a Buff gaiter around my neck, and huddled under the shelter to wait for the bus to the center of town. I struck up a conversation with a fellow traveler who agreed that the weather shouldn't be a huge impediment despite its surprising turn.
Once I disembarked after about a 45 minute ride, I realized it was slightly mad to be wandering around an unfamiliar city with the wind blowing snow into my face. But the ground was merely wet and I was starving and had my heart set on poutine. So I marched off in the direction of Smoke's Poutinerie, which my research had determined to be one of the best noted places in the city for my desired snack.
I was glad when I reached my destination because sheltering inside gave me a reprieve from the wet conditions. I loved that the restaurant was so bedecked in plaid- very Canadian. Somehow, in all my trips to Canada, I had never tried poutine which is basically French fries smothered in cheese curds and gravy. As I sampled my snack, it dawned on me that this was far from a traditional US Thanksgiving day meal... but it was so yummy! However, it was a lot and I'm not sure if I quite finished my serving.
I spent about 45 minutes in the eatery and when I left at about 3pm, I noticed that the streets were now slushy. Fortunately I'd just purchased a pair of adorable Frozen 2 themed waterproof boots, so I felt suitably attired to continue tramping along to explore. I found the cutest little store that sold handmade ornaments that would be perfect for people I was visiting as well as a friend at home. As I made my purchase, part of me wondered if I'd actually get to see my Gander friends to give them their presents but my outbound flight was still scheduled... and besides, this was an area of the world that was used to a little fall of snow.
My wanderings took me to the waterfront which was eerily, though not shockingly, deserted. On the way, I stopped in Shoppers and various other stores. I'd considered seeing a movie but I decided against it, though the mall in which the theatre was located gave me a welcome break from the weather. Eventually I ended up in Tim Hortons because of course I did since it was Canada. I chilled out for a bit and enjoyed a Coke Zero and a cookie (or possibly a donut).
Although my flight wasn't until after 10pm, I decided I'd had enough of slogging around in the snow and slush, and it would be prudent to head back to the airport early. It was appealing to think about changing into dry clothes and having plenty of time to relax before my flight. So I made my way to the bus stop, expecting to be back at the airport within an hour or so.
The bus stop was located in the middle of a small street that was so congested due both to the snow and the rush hour traffic that it took seemingly forever from the time I could spot the bus at the corner until it was able to reach us. At this point, my plan to leave early was proving to be quite sound. I think I was probably on the bus that had been scheduled for 4:45pm. I took a seat, and was glad to be safe from the harsh outdoor conditions. We were off to an extremely slow start as the drive to get out of the street took just as long as it had to reach us- but at least now I was settled comfortably inside. And there was still a ton of time until my flight.
I figured that once we escaped from the crowded downtown area, the worst would be over. I was wrong. The drive on the highway proved to be shockingly treacherous. It wasn't like a ton of snow had fallen, but the severity of the storm must have surprised a city that was expecting rain. I heard rumors that at least part of the reason for the dire conditions was that the Halifax snow removal budget wouldn't kick in until December, but I'm not sure how truthful that is.
Meanwhile, I could see on the airport website that flights were getting canceled left or right. People were exiting the bus once they realized it might make sense for them to stay downtown. But my flight was still scheduled. Eventually it was delayed an hour- which was actually a relief since by then my enormous time buffer was fading and I was starting to feel nervous about making it on time. I didn't want to worry my Gander friends, but when they messaged me, I replied honestly about my situation.
The bus driver was nothing short of heroic in transporting us all safely to our destination. At one point, the route took us off the highway and our vehicle was skidding and sliding, as were the few cars we saw. But this detour undoubtedly saved us time and stress since it bypassed an accident on the main road to the airport.
At around 9pm, about 4 hours after boarding, we finally arrived at the airport much to my relief. I was never so glad to see an airport- and I'm always happy to see airports. I'd been joking to a friend back home that she should forward my mail to "Bus on the road between Halifax and the airport." As I mentioned, the ride into town had taken less than an hour. 4 hours was more than both of my flight times combined! But the important thing was that I was safe.
I was able to retrieve my backpack from the security office, even though I think it had technically closed, as had many of the airport facilities, so that workers could go home. I shed my waterproof pants and got more comfortable. Word was spreading that the airport was making progress on clearing at least one of the runways and I held onto my optimism. I mean, I just had to make it to Gander… after all, I live a charmed "Come From Away" life. I frequently checked the monitors and was relieved to see that my flight was still scheduled, albeit with a delay. Until, at about 9:45pm, I saw the dreaded word: Cancelled.
Well, this was a predicament. So many flights had been cancelled much earlier than mine so I was sure that the neighboring hotel had long since filled up. Not knowing what to do, I stood in line to try to rebook. I was never clear which queue I should be in, and at one point I switched from one slow moving line to a longer line that was just as painfully slow.
As I waited, I saw an email that my mom forwarded from the relatives she'd had over. The message implored her to take steps that they outlined to "fix" her medical problems. However, I am fairly certain they don't know the full details of her various issues and they never tried to empathize with her predicament. I was furious at them for agitating her, and saddened that an evening which could have been positive and healing for her had been marred. At this point, for right or wrong, my biggest priority with regard to my mom is to keep her spirits up. These relatives had blatantly missed the mark with regards to that goal. I consoled myself that at least I'd successfully avoided the stress of having to deal with them in person. Surely they would have gotten on my case to heed their well meaning but ultimately misguided advice.
At about 11pm, after I'd been in a line that had barely moved for about an hour, Air Canada announced that they were closing their desks so their employees could get home. They said that everyone should already be automatically rebooked onto future flights, but I'd been checking online and hadn't seen any such info. And I had no idea what to do or where to go. Though I was immensely disappointed to have to miss the lovely brunch I'd had scheduled for the next day, I wasn't exactly frazzled; travel is my thing and I was confident that my situation would somehow work out. I figured that the best thing I could do would be to calmly talk about my predicament of being stuck in a completely unfamiliar city to anyone who would listen in hopes that I'd get some help or at least an idea of what to do.
As I was describing my dilemma, a woman asked where I was headed; when she heard that it was Gander, she said that I should stick with one of the 2 other women who were with her because she was headed there as well. She explained that she and the 3rd woman were headed to St John's. I somehow stumbled upon a group of Newfoundlanders trying to get home from a conference! As a fan of "Come From Away", which is a show about how Newfoundlanders opened their hearts to stranded travelers, I couldn't imagine a more fortuitous situation. I can be skeptical of strangers but these were Newfoundlanders so I had absolutely no hesitation joining them. They all seemed to be delighted when I shared my interest in the show.
Because there was a huge rush to get out of the airport, they'd decided to take a break for food while deciding on a plan. That sounded great- I realized that I hadn't had a proper meal all day! The Tim Hortons stand was the only place open, so that's where we headed. I was disappointed that they didn't have chicken fingers available but the grilled cheese sandwich I ended up with was quite a satisfying alternative.
As we ate, someone called all around looking for 4 hotel rooms, one for each of us. I felt grateful that they immediately welcomed me as part of their little group. They'd had an ordeal similar to mine getting to the airport- albeit via cab- so none of us really wanted to head all the way back to the downtown area. But unfortunately, everywhere closer to the airport was all booked up by then. Ultimately they decided to return to the Hampton Inn where they'd stayed for their conference. They didn't seem too thrilled with it, but at least it was familiar. I personally didn't care where I stayed so long as I had a clean room and a bed. I was glad I'd packed a full change of clothes in my carry on; I'm pretty sure I had some basic toiletries as well since I'd originally packed with plans not to check a bag.
Now we just had to figure out a way to get downtown. Fortunately, the airport ground transportation desk was doing a great job organizing rides for everyone who needed them. As the crowds started to dwindle, they wanted to find the most efficient way to transport the most people to where they needed to be. I'm not sure how or why, but they came up with a plan to use a party bus for everyone headed to downtown Halifax! There turned out to be 4-6 other women who'd be joining the 4 of us and we joked about taking a Girl Power party bus. Every time a male went up to the transport desk, I silently hoped he wouldn't be going downtown so he wouldn't ruin the unity of our little group; fortunately, none of them were.
As soon as I saw the colored lights on the steps to board, I knew this late night bus ride would be a memorable experience. And it was! We were all laughing at the blinking neon lights in the interior- and especially at the pole that was right smack in the center! And there was music! Everyone was in great spirits, wanting to make the best of an obviously unexpected and inconvenient event. I felt camaraderie with my felllow passengers who joined us as we cracked jokes about how surreal the experience was. The party bus ride was bizarre and quirky and oh-so-amusing… and a very unexpected highlight of my day. Quite a bargain for about $22 US!
Fortunately the ride to downtown took much less time than the journey to the airport. By then, after midnight, traffic had completely died down and road conditions had improved immensely. The only minor blip was when someone got off and realized another woman had accidentally taken her suitcase at an earlier stop. But that woman had caught up with us and everything was set right.
Once we got to the hotel and checked in, the 4 of us hung out in the deserted restaurant area by the lobby and chatted for a bit longer. We'd already exchanged contact info so that we could text each other photos and video documenting the crazy midnight party bus ride. My heart was full at how the others had treated me like an integral part of their small group; it turns out that they'd all just met at the work conference they'd attended so it wasn't like I was infiltrating a bunch of longtime friends. These ladies' lives may not be documented in musical theatre, but they were absolutely as warm and welcoming as any of the characters in "Come From Away." In fact, it felt like the ultimate Superfan activity to be living out my own wonderful little mini version of the musical.
I arrived in my bedroom after 2am, at which point I'd been up and about for about 19 hours. So many emotions swirled within my head- disappointment that I'd only get to spend a single day in Gander… excitement about the day's surprising adventures… and gratitude for my new friends… But mostly I was exhausted! Travel doesn't always take the path you expect… but if you keep your heart open, sometimes the detours can be the most exhilarating parts.
I was able to sleep in a bit since by the time I finally got to bed, I'd seen that I'd been rescheduled onto the 10:30pm flight on Friday. I'd decided not to call Air Canada to try to get on the earlier 1pm flight because it would have meant having to stay up longer, as well as having to get up earlier. Also, Angela from Gander was going to be on the later flight and it felt right to stay with her. Despite my fatigue, I slept fitfully. I found myself awake at 5am so I decided to check out Google maps to get some idea where my hotel was relative to my previous day's wanderings; it turned out that I was just about a block away from the airport bus stop!
When I finally got out of bed after 9am and peered out the windows of my corner room for the first time, I could see a bit of the harbour. I was surprised that there were no visible signs of the previous day's snow storm. It's like it had all been an incredible dream. But I was in a hotel room in Halifax instead of enjoying a homemade brunch in Gander, so it had obviously been real.
After getting myself ready, I went downstairs for breakfast and was able to meet up with Angela who had already texted me earlier. Although the other 2 women in the group had assured me that they'd see me in the morning, they ended up flying to St John's on an early flight so they were already gone. I was sad not to be able to say goodbye but I'm glad that I've remained in touch with one of them on social media.
Although there were definitely sites in Halifax that would have been interesting to visit, such as the Citadel, I was a bit weary and just wanted to relax and stay inside. So when Angela mentioned her plans to do some shopping at a nearby mall, I was more than glad to join her. After packing up and storing our luggage in the lobby, she led the way which was mostly through indoor corridors. The brief foray outside into the chill air made me glad I had decided against further explorations.
We passed the time wandering through various stores. It always amuses me in an odd way how other countries have assumed the US tradition of Black Friday sales- even though none of them celebrate a holiday on the Thursday of US Thanksgiving. I bought a pair of earrings from friendly vendors at a stand as well as some presents for the friend watching my cats; fortunately it was easy to find cute things that would appeal to her love of Canada and hockey.
Stopping for lunch at a deli market, I ordered a plate of pasta with meat sauce which satisfied my need for comfort food although it wasn't that great. It was a joy sitting and talking to Angela. I found out that she was taking her first trip to Disney World with her family in a few months and I offered to help her plan since I know the parks well. She also mentioned that she wanted to visit NYC to see "Come From Away" sometime in the not-too-distant future which I thought would be awesome. With the way 2020 has turned out, this trip has obviously not been able to happen… but I hope it does one day, because it would be so special to share the show with someone from near Gander who'd watched over me when I was stranded.
Since we weren't very interested in any of the downtown sights, we both agreed that it would be sensible to leave super early for the airport after the previous day's misadventures with transportation. We left after 3, and since everything went without a hitch, that gave us about 6 hours to kill until our flight. We were too early to be able to check Angela's bag though we were able to complete the other check in formalities. When the agent asked if we were together, there was a slight hesitation before we smiled in the affirmative. 24 hours ago, we hadn't even met- but now I felt we shared a beautiful bond.
My first order of business was to figure out the whereabouts of my checked bag. I'd been convinced it would simply be routed onward to Gander with me, but the agent had said that there were bags lined up to be claimed in a corner of the airport. I walked up and down the rows of luggage but did not see any that looked like my purple roller. So I reached out to an employee to check. After he spent awhile researching, he returned and informed me that my bag had been placed on the earlier flight so it was already in Gander. Having recently been on flights that were delayed because the passengers matching some of the bags hadn't boarded, that didn't sound very secure to me. But at least I had an answer.
While I was waiting for the info about my bag, we encountered a couple who were complaining bitterly about not being able to access their luggage. I recall them saying something about needing medication. I thought that by now everyone knew not to check any items as critical as medicine… especially when traveling in areas prone to rough weather! I felt bad for the employees who had to deal with them; they were the worst kind of travelers.
We had more than enough time to explore every inch of the tiny Halifax airport. Taking my turn visiting stores while Angela watched our carryons (I think she may have temporarily checked her bag in the security office I'd used the previous day), I perused every store and took photos of cute merchandise as well as the tub of lobsters at one. I made a few purchases: salty snacks that we can't find in the US, a T-shirt (useful if I somehow I couldn't get reunited with my checked bag right away), and a pair of purple earrings. I typically enjoy walking around airports but there wasn't enough at that airport to occupy my attention no matter how long I tried to stretch things out by taking a 2nd or 3rd look around the stores.
I spent a lot of time chatting with Angela; somehow, conversation remained lively even after spending countless hours together. When I went to take a closer look at the line of trees that were decorated for charity, I noticed a pile of fun props that were meant for posing with. So we both went over and got some fun pictures taken with a "Ready for take off!" sign which expressed a huge understatement for our feelings.
It was exciting when Angela was finally able to check her bag so we could go through security and at least see a different part of the airport. We decided to eat at a fun British pub style restaurant where I had French Onion soup and Chicken Fingers… the latter of which made up for being unable to order any the previous night. I was glad to be able to substitute sweet potato fries for the regular ones. Very tasty meal!
Throughout our time at the airport, we ran into others from Angela's group who were trying to get to their homes, most (if not all) in various parts of Newfoundland. One woman had boarded a flight that got diverted due to fog at her destination, then took off again, but had to turn around and return to Halifax when fog once again covered the target locale. Everyone was friendly and interested in meeting me, the solo American who'd been taken in.
I grew increasingly more excited when I saw the gate announcing our 10:20pmk flight and when we boarded. After the previous day, I wasn't going to take anything for granted! I was so grateful that I'd at least get to spend one full day with my Gander friends. The plane was tiny although it didn't seem quite as crushed for space as the one I'd taken to Halifax.
Landing at Gander Airport at 1am local time was emotional in the best possible way; I'd made it back to one of my happy places and I was oh-so-close to being reunited with my local friends. I made sure to pause while walking to the terminal to take a photo of the iconic "Gander" sign, which was even more beautiful since it was reflected in the puddles on the ground. I don't think that sight will ever get old. But it would be nice if I could land there sometime other than in the middle of the night!
Inside the small baggage claim area, I found someone to ask about my suitcase that had reportedly arrived during the earlier flight from Halifax. To my relief, they instantly knew exactly the item I was talking about. There are definitely benefits to flying into a tiny airport that has no levels of bureaucracy.
Before going our separate ways, Angela decided that we should take one last selfie together to commemorate the fact that we finally made it to Gander. It's crazy how some people can come into your life in the most unexpected ways and end up leaving an indelible mark on your heart. I'd wanted to spend that Friday relaxing with friends- and that was precisely what happened, although it was with a brand new friend rather than the people I'd intended to see. After so much time together, it actually felt a little weird when she was no longer by my side. But we still stay in touch, and hopefully things will calm down and we'll be able to get together again in Newfoundland and/or the US.
I took a very short cab ride to the Comfort Inn where I'd stayed the previous year. At some point the previous evening, I'd called to cancel my first night and I was so glad they were amenable to doing so without charging me. I wasn't upgraded to a suite like I'd been in 2018 but the room was comfortable enough and I was elated to be there. Once I got into bed, I slept soundly for the first time in days; it was like my body knew I was back in a place where I belonged.
I woke up before 11am (9:30am Eastern) feeling relaxed, well rested and content. It was odd to feel so at home in a place that I'd only visited once briefly. Perhaps my comfort was simply due to having gotten past two days that had been full of so many uncertainties… but I think there was more to it than that. I gazed out the window at the familiar sight of the Trans Canada Highway and saw a smattering of snow on the lawns. But at least it was only rain coming down from the grey skies, and the roads were clear but wet. I was nonetheless glad I hadn't planned any outdoor activities.
I was sad that hadn't been able to visit the Gander Bread Box on my previous trip because it had been closed for the holiday weekend. So it was on my list for this year and Lisa suggested I join her and her friend Leo there for Saturday brunch. A sweet and quiet guy who owns a Chinese restaurant, Leo had accompanied Lisa and realOz to NYC a couple months earlier and I'd had a blast with them. Even though he is not depicted in the musical in any way, I was just as excited to see Leo again as anyone else.
Lisa drove by my hotel to pick me up, and it was like we had just seen each other. Such a contrast to my first trip when I'd been so nervous about meeting her for the first time! When we arrived at the restaurant, Leo was already there… and so was realOz! That was a fun surprise; I hadn't known when or even if I'd get to see him. Hugs were exchanged and I felt pure joy to be reunited with my friends.
I decided to order a Touton Breakfast Sandwich (which contained bacon, egg and cheese), even though I was tempted by the "Come From Away" logo next to the menu entry for 2 Toutons. (Toutons are a Newfoundland specialty that are basically fried dough) I also grabbed a bag of chocolate chip cookies for later, because it would have been off brand for me to resist. And I had a Diet Coke… although I admired the Apple Juice boxes which were decorated with illustrations of moose.
I wasn't keeping track of time, but my photos indicate that we stayed for a leisurely duration of 2 hours. Conversation was lively, and the food was delicious. Before leaving, I posed for the venue's traditional "mug shot" holding a blackboard with my name and hometown and standing in front of a wall of mugs. Everyone made sure that a couple of "Come From Away" mugs were highlighted in the background. Such a fun meal- and already worth the trouble to get there!
I hadn't had a chance to purchase any Gander souvenirs on my previous trip so Lisa spent several hours driving me around to do some shopping. Most of that time was spent in a pop up shop for Newfoundland Dog Company where I faced indecision about which cute shirts to get both for myself and for my friend at home. Much of my angst surrounded the limitations of sizes they had in stock. I even had to text my friend to see if a certain size would be ok- and Lisa was nice enough to backtrack when I finally got a response in the affirmative.
I was also able to visit the gift shop across from my hotel which had been closed the one time I'd tried the previous year. I found a lot of cute items there, such as a magnet with Commander Gander on it and a Kiss the Cod soap which was shaped like a fish. I also stocked up on chocolate bars for friends as well as for myself.
Lisa regretted that she had a previous commitment to attend a party that night, but I certainly wouldn't have wanted her to cancel on my account. Even though we only ended up being able to spend a half day together, I'm so glad I had that chance to see her again. I am so grateful for all she's done for me and even moreso for the smiles and laughs we've shared together. Who would ever have guessed that I'd find a kindred spirit in a fellow pasta loving, purple Disney cat lady in Gander, Newfoundland?!?
By the time I got back to my hotel, the rain was changing to snow. Great- just what I needed. I took a little time to recharge and watched the latest episode of the Mandalorian on Disney+ courtesy of the Roku I'd brought with me which easily hooked up into the hotel TV.
At around 5, I was ready for dinner so I contacted realOz who came by with his wife to drive me to Leo's Chinese restaurant. They weren't joining me so we hugged our goodbyes and then he gave me a bag with a few more of the yummy chocolate caramel bars from the Newfoundland Chocolate Company. So sweet- literally!
I was the only guest in the restaurant, though I believe others occasionally came in for takeout. Most of the time, Leo was able to hang with me- except for when he needed to take orders or cook. I perused the menu and was disappointed not to see any of the dim sum that he'd mentioned when we'd talked in NY. Turns out they aren't on the menu. Although I love dim sum, I don't eat it often enough to know what to ask for so we decided that he'd just make me a selection of highlights. I loved everything! It was so fun to eat a restaurant where I knew the owner.
After I was done, I messaged Bonnie to see if she could pick me up. When I told her I was at the Chinese restaurant, she delicately remarked that there are actually 3 of them in Gander. Ooops. Once I clarified my location, she came by to drive me over to her house. By this time the snow was getting really bad and I was wondering if it was safe to be driving in it, but I figured it was just a short distance. En route to her home, Bonnie was kind enough to stop at an ATM so I'd have cash for the cab to the airport.
It was disappointing for both of us that I hadn't been able to do the Friday brunch we'd planned, but the most important thing was being able to see her again since it had been over a year since we'd last met in Gander. I gave her one of the ornaments I'd picked up in Halifax… and then she went upstairs and brought me a wood block on which she'd painted some purple flowers. While most publicly known for her fierce love of animals, Bonnie is also a talented artist (and quite a baker). I treasure that little wood block; it sits on the night table by my bed because I hope it can send me good vibes as I sleep.
If I have to be completely honest- out of everything I had planned on my trip, I was most excited about meeting Bonnie's new 3 legged cat, Boomer. I'd seen photos of him of him and followed his rescue story online. I'm pretty sure I teared up when Bonnie had messaged me that I must meet him; it's as if she'd been reading my mind that I hoped to be able to meet the precious kitty. Now I probably should have been an adult and joined Bonnie and her husband, Doug, on one of the sofas. But I was in my element sitting on the hard wood floor with Boomer and Gracie (the little white dog I'd already met the previous year). I was sociable and conversed with the humans of course; but I was in love with the animals!
After mentioning that I hadn't yet met Beulah, Bonnie called her and then the 2 of us went over for a visit. Bonnie also brought over salted caramel cupcakes that she'd baked- I'd drooled over a photo of them online when she'd made them previously and they were the perfect choice! It was such a treat to meet Beulah- she was really sweet with occasional twinges of sassiness as well. The 3 of us shared many laughs… as well as some tears when talking about people we've lost or are losing. I greatly appreciated their compassion when I opened up to discuss some of the broader issues going on with my mom's health. On a much lighter note, it was cute when the two of them chatted about people that they were getting backstage at "Come From Away". I felt I fit right in with these 2 strong women whose hearts abound with kindness.
Beulah's great granddaughter, Hannah, was staying for the night and she couldn't have been more precious! When she wanted someone to play with, Bonnie sat with her on the floor and I joined her. We helped amuse her by participating in the stories she made up about her toy animals. I'm just a big kid who pretends to be an adult so I totally enjoyed being able to indugle in a little make believe. It's funny how some of my best memories of Gander turned out to be sitting on floors. But of course, I had to be welcome into homes for that to happen and that's surely one reason why I felt so much joy when I was settled on the ground loving on animals and small children.
All too soon it was time for me to go back to my hotel. I had a ridiculously early morning flight but honestly I would have been happy to stay as late as they would have me. I felt such affinity and love, which are qualities on short supply at home. Before getting out of the car at my hotel, Bonnie told me that they were going to fly her to Columbus to see the "Come From Away" tour next fall. I asked her to let me know when those plans were finalized; surely I could find some time to join her. Ohio is so much easier for me to reach than Newfoundland! (narrator: But then 2020 happened and the tour remains unfortunately suspended at the time of this writing)
I stopped by the front desk to ask about getting a cab at the impossibly early time of 4am. While chatting with the clerk, I mentioned my love for "Come From Away". He asked if I'd seen the binder that the general manager, Karen, kept with her mementos from when the town and hotel hosted passengers from the planes that were stranded after 9/11. I hadn't… so he went into the back to find it and told me to take it to my room to read. I was honored he'd trust the book to my hands.
It was already well past 11pm so by all rights, I should have gone right to sleep. But I had to see what was in the binder! The contents included a 5 page typed document of Karen's memories of that period- I was too tired to read through it all, so I took photos to read later. The binder was also a treasure trove of registration cards for the stranded plane people, letters of appreciation, and photos. One of my favorite items was a guest satisfaction card where the submitter had answered the question "What prompted you to choose this hotel?" by checking "Other" and writing in "U.S.A. Bombing." I looked through as much as my eyes would let me and scribbled a brief message of my own at the end. As fate would have it, I left my Roku remote at the hotel and when I inquired about it, I was able to also tell Karen how much I appreciated that the clerk had shared the binder with me.
I wish I'd had more time in Gander. Had I known what 2020 would bring, I would surely have extended my visit by at least an extra day to make up for the one I'd missed. But I'm so grateful to have at least squeezed in one glorious, albeit wet and snowy, day spending time with some of the most welcoming folks on the planet, who I'm honored to consider my friends. And I probably appreciated my brief time in the town even more since there was some uncertainty as to whether I'd even make it there at all.
It's always painful when I have to get up at a ridiculously stupid early time like 3:30am to make a flight- especially if it's at the end of a trip- but somehow I manage. I tend to prefer early flights when possible so that I can be settled at my destination at a reasonable hour. Also, I've noticed anecdotally that later in the day, short haul flights tend to get more behind as small delays on each of their flight legs can add up. If you're on a really early flight, there is a good chance your plane already reached the airport the previous night which means there is one less reason for potential delay. At any rate, there isn't a wide selection of times to choose from for returning home from Gander and the itinerary with the crazy early flight made the most sense.
After returning the binder to the hotel front desk, I got to the airport around 4:20 for my 5:30am flight… which was plenty of time since it's a tiny place. When checking in, I managed to talk the gate attendant into allowing me to check my bag for free. I wasn't trying to get away with anything; it's just that whatever value of fee they mentioned didn’t make sense to me. Despite my new United status, I figured I'd have to pay something because my originating flight was Air Canada. It was a nice surprise that they comped the fee entirely.
It was still too early to go through security (they announce when each flight can do so), so I had some time to wander around a bit. I took an obligatory photo of the steel from the World Trade Center, which you really can't miss. But I also made my way to gaze through windows at the international lounge. Of course, I'd seen it the previous summer (which is how I knew where it was), but I was glad to visit again.
When I was able to go through security, I recall them spending a long time on the woman in front of me. She was a flight attendant but I think she was too new to have the proper badge. I whisked right through.
I'd low key been hoping that my return flight would be canceled so that I'd have a solid excuse to spend an extra day in Gander but it went on as scheduled. It was sad to be at the end of a moment, gazing one last time at the "Gander" sign from my window on the plane. I vowed to return for a longer trip in 2020. (of course we now know that's sadly not going to be possible… which makes my 2019 trip even more precious)
I wasn't looking forward to a 5+ hour layover in Halifax airport, but at least I hadn't spent much time in the area beyond security on my previous adventures. I was overcome with fatigue so I mostly just sat and relaxed since there wasn't much to see. Eventually I got some breakfast at Starbucks: a Matcha Latte, Bacon Gouda & Egg sandwich… and I couldn't resist adding a Peppermint Brownie Cake Pop! I don't typically go to Starbucks at home so it was a nice little treat.
During my long wait, I read the hotel manager's account of her experiences after 9/11 through the pictures I'd taken on my phone. I find it fascinating to read as many accounts as I can of the events in Gander and surrounding towns after 9/11. This was one of innumerable stories, each of which seems to hold a special place in the narrator's heart. The writing seemed to be mostly a train of thought, but it was sincere and heartfelt. I again felt honored that the desk clerk had decided to share this treasure with me.
Going through US customs in Halifax was a breeze; it was so much more relaxed than in American airports. I was glad when it was finally time to board the tiny plane back to the US. The most memorable part of my 2nd flight was having to remain seated on the uncomfortable aircraft for quite some time waiting for a gate to free up at Newark airport so we could be liberated. Of course, as was typical for my trip, it was raining at my destination.
When I picked up my car at the train station, which I have frequented more times than I can count, a glitch caused the machine at the gate to eat my card. I stayed in my car at the gate because I didn't want to abandon my credit card- and also because the machine would not be able to read any cards or tickets with mine stuck in it. Under the auspices of trying to help, the lady in the other lane essentially told me that I wasn't following the correct procedures. I tried to assure her that I knew what I was doing and there were 2 different ways of paying, and she ended up cursing me out. That's how I knew for sure that my break was over and I was sadly no longer amongst Newfoundlanders.
Although brief, my Thanksgiving weekend trip to Canada was suffused with plenty of adventure and joy. I felt invigorated after having spent so much time with friends, both old and new. I don't have a lot of local friends… and all my Newfoundland friends are among the kindest, most welcoming people I've ever met. My heart was full with having lived though my own little version of a story that bore some similarities to the one chronicled in my beloved "Come From Away." Sometimes, when you follow your instincts to do something that may sound crazy to others, the rewards can exceed your imagination. Especially in light of the events of 2020, I am overwhelmingly grateful for my wonderful memories of this little jewel of a weekend getaway to Canada.