The 2010 Southern Comfort Conference (SCC) occurred between September 7-11 this year, and my travel experience was certainly one to remember.

To begin with, I decided to travel by Amtrak. I really hate flying theses days due to what I’ve seen as horrible service by most airlines I’ve flown in the past few years (which includes added fees for things that used to be free in recent years, such as baggage fees and charging for meals, and planes that seem to experience delays that cause missed connections), uncomfortable, cramped seating in planes, and all those security hassles associated with airports, and how one’s arrival at one’s destination and one’s luggage arrival at the same destination seems to becoming more and more of a lottery than an assuredly.

So, I decided to travel by train. My thought before traveling was “How could Amtrak lose luggage? They have hundreds of pieces of checked luggage in their system each day, while airports see hundreds of thousands of checked luggage each day.” And too, I thought “I’m retired. I have lots of time, a laptop, and a Verizon 3G Card — Train travel sounds both European and fun!”

Oh, I sooooo underestimated how many things could go wrong during one cross country trip. Here begins my tale of the worst travel experience I’ve ever had in my entire life. But, I actually had a great time at SCC.

So anywho, let me tell you about my tale of improbable travel disasters — my actual, travel disasters — which include stories not only about my laptop, but about my checked baggage and my cell phone too.

The Acer-Black Coffee Disaster

So, on September 3rd, 2010, I began my Amtrak train ride from San Diego, California to Atlanta, Georgia. On day two of my ride – somewhere in Texas — coffee was spilled on my computer. Image: Acer Aspire 5732Z LaptopTo make a long story short regarding the details of the spill, I had a lidded, aluminum, travel coffee mug that fell over during some railroad track induced “turbulence.” The black, unsweetened coffee in my cup doused my keyboard. I thought my standard travel style lidded cup would protect me from spills, but oh how it didn’t.

Apparently, the coffee got all over the innards of my ACER 5732Z laptop, frying my motherboard (and perhaps my network card as well). Before I even arrived for a planned overnight stay in New Orleans, I found myself to be laptopless.

So, on my cell, I called my friend Monica Helms (who lives in Murrieta, just outside of Atlanta, with her girlfriend Darlene), and told her I needed to find a computer repair shop in her neighborhood. She arrived to me up from the Atlanta Train Station — where the next travel disaster became apparent.

Where’s My Checked Baggage?

My checked bag didn’t show up at Atlanta with my train. I had three days worth of clothing for my train ride (the travel length of my train ride from San Diego to Atlanta) in my carry-on luggage, but that’s all I had. Monica and I had planned to go to a store that did computer repair, but because of the amount of time I waited for the luggage than didn’t show that evening, we didn’t make it to the computer repair shop.

I filled out a form at the Atlanta Amtrak station — and that turned out to be no help at all. More on that later.

[Much, much more below the fold.]Wash, Dry, And Begin Handling Broken Computer Issue

Things looked somewhat hilariously grim at this point, but I decided to laugh at my travel woes and just move forward. So, I washed and dried what little clothing I had (so I’d make sure I had at least some clean clothes) in Monica’s washer and drier, and checked my email on Monica’s ‘puter.

The next morning, Monica’s girlfriend Darlene and I went to the Marietta Micro Center computer store that has a good rep for repairs, but the repair guy there said it would take a week to even look at it. I didn’t have a week in Murrieta/Atlanta.

So back to Monica’s we went, and did an internet search for local computer repair businesses in Murrieta. I settled on That Computer Chick as the close business that sounded pretty professional. And wow, were they ever.

Long story short, about four hours later I was made aware by That Computer Chick that my laptop’s motherboard was unsalvageable, and that I needed a new laptop. Fortunately, my hard drive was still good, so That Computer Chick encapsulated my hard drive’s data within an Island Pro USB 2.0 SATA Enclosure.

So, my plan was to order a brand new ACER 5732Z computer so that I would 1.) have a laptop with features I liked, and 2.) be able to salvage some useful parts from my now destroyed computer, such as the battery (so I’d have two batteries for my new laptop) and the power cord.

The Shopping Nightmare With SaveSonic Inc Begins

On getting back to Monica and Darlene’s house, I got back on their internet and did a search for another Acer Aspire 5732Z. I found SaveSonic Inc. said on their website that they had the product to sell for $450. So, I bought one on my emergency credit card, and set the purchase to be shipped to the Southern Comfort Conference’s hotel on a two-day ship. Image: Judy's Country Kitchen in Marietta Georgia That meant that since I was ordering the computer on a Tuesday evening, the computer should arrive as early as that Thursday — or more likely that Friday. I thought I solved my computer problem, but I didn’t.

Calling Amtrak…Calling Amtrak…

In that four hour window between dropping my laptop off at That Computer Chick and picking the laptop and its encapsulated hard drive, Darlene and I ate at Judy’s Country Kitchen (What a great buffet! I highly recommend the restaurant if you ever find yourself in Marietta, Georgia!), and then I called Amtrak’s Atlanta station to find out if my lost luggage had been found. I didn’t get through, although I’d left two messages — two messages that were never returned. My mental picture of  Amtrak’s luggage handling procedures was beginning to look something like this:

I ended up calling Amtrak’s one-eight-hundred number, and getting put on hold, waiting to talk to the luggage handling department at Atlanta’s  Amtrak station. After 10 minutes of waiting online with the ticketing agent, I ended up waiting yet another 20 minutes by myself to talk to the luggage handling department — literally to be hung up on with no luggage handler actually talking to me.

I was fuming at that point.

What? No Registration?

Pam, Lurleen, and I registered early for the Southern Comfort Conference. Pam and I later signed up to give a presentation about new media diversity, and a discount was to be applied to our registration.

Well, when I went to check in on Tuesday, and my registration was missing. So, even though I was signed up as a presenter, I wasn’t registered for the conference.

On Wednesday morning, two hours of waiting at then Southern Comfort Registration Office and $150 fixed the registration snafu, so my registration problem was corrected. Finally, something actually was corrected.

Another day or three, another day talking to Amtrak

On Wednesday, I called up Amtrak, and after spending a lot of time on the phone on hold, I finally ended up talking to Pat of  Amtrak’s national Customer Relations department. Image: Liz Claiborne Marina Spinner Collection Expandable Rolling SuitcaseShe took a report from me — so this was now the second report regarding my lost luggage taken by an agent of Amtrak. She told me that a report would be sent to all  Amtrak stations.

Now at this point, let me say that my luggage is not a common color combination. I have three sizes of Liz Claiborne’s Marina Spinner Collection — these are rolling, expandable, four wheel suitcases; these suitcases are chocolate brown with pink piping. In other words, my 25-inch high piece of Liz Claiborne luggage should have been relatively easy to spot in the relatively small number of checked suitcases that Amtrak handles nationwide on any given travel day given the limited number of places my luggage could have mistakenly been sent to  – definitely a small number of checked suitcases compared to how many checked suitcases that are handled at United States airports on any given travel day.

However, Amtrak lost my luggage, and was having trouble finding it.

You see,  Amtrak doesn’t match passengers to luggage on trains the same way airlines (post 9/11) track passengers to luggage on airplanes. They also don’t appear to have barcode tracking capabilities that airlines and package delivery businesses (like UPS, USPS, and FEDEX have) for tracking packages. Heck, there are off-the-shelf versions of barcode tracking software — one can only wonder why there weren’t stimulus dollars set aside to improve baggage handling and baggage security in our passenger train system.

But I digress into talking about security when by traveling by train when I had specifically made a choice to avoid heavy security.

What Amtrak’s Customer Relations agent Pat told me on the phone that Wednesday was that if my luggage was found, I would receive a call from Amtrak on my cell phone. I had also given the luggage handlers at Atlanta my cell phone number in my first report on my lost luggage — they also told me I’d receive a call if my luggage was found. And too, my San Diego address and cell phone number were on the tag on my luggage. So, there were three locations where my cell number was available to the luggage handlers of Amtrak should they find my lost luggage — On my pen-and-paper report of lost luggage turned in at Atlanta, in the Customer Relations report of my lost luggage, and on my lost piece of chocolate-brown-luggage-with-pink-piping itself.

By the way, if there ever is a conference that a male-to-female transsexual doesn’t want to be short her luggage, it’s the Southern Comfort Conference. Many of the crossdressers at this conference change their clothing three or four times a day — I just wanted to look nice for the parts of the transgender community I don’t get to see often.

Thursday Afternoon, No New Laptop

Thumbnail link: Pam Spaulding, Autumn Sandeen, and Lurleen In Front Of The First Transgender Pride FlagOn Thursday afternoon — after a few more calls to Amtrak to find out if my luggage had been located — I checked at the hotel’s front desk to see if my new laptop had arrived. It hadn’t, but that was to be expected.

So on Thursday night, Pam, Lurleen, and I went to Monica and Darlene’s for Monica’s annual Southern Comfort Lasagna Dinner. We three had our photo taken in front of the actual first Transgender Pride Flag that ever was created and flown at a pride event — it felt significant to be in the presence of that particular flag with its particular history. Monica Helms is the creator of that flag.

I went and used Monica’s internet access again to find out what the shipping status of my laptop was, only to find out the status for my computer order was still “processing.”

Processing? Processing?

So, I called SaveSonic Inc. customer service number, only to find out that SaveSonic was closed for the entire week before Rosh Hashanah. They didn’t mention that on their website when I put in for a two-day ship of a new laptop to be sent to my hotel.

I had a “break down” moment. None of the “disasters” had really got my goat up to that point, but it dawned on me that even though I took specific actions to try and deal with the issues that kept popping up, I wasn’t having much luck actually taking actions that mitigated my travel problems. My luggage still was missing, I was running out of clean clothes again, and I still didn’t have a computer to blog the convention with.

So, I went kind of emotionally numb that night.

First Day Of An Outfit Worn At SCC Earlier In The Conference

Le *Sigh.*. On Friday morning, I put on an outfit I’d worn first on Tuesday. I only had three-and-a-half outfits that I’d taken with me on the train, so since Tuesday was the first day of the conference…well, I was wearing on Friday an outfit I’d wore to the conference on Tuesday. That moment of wearing an outfit others had seen me in previously was a much more disheartening moment than I thought it would be — but thinking about all those favorite pieces of packed clothing that at that moment I believed I had lost forever just contributed to a pretty disheartening moment.

The top I was wearing, as well as my underwear, I’d hand washed in hotel room sink. The jeans…well, I’d worn the pair on Tuesday, and didn’t have a chance to wash it. Le *Sigh.*

I called the Amtrak Station in Atlanta early Friday afternoon, and my bag hadn’t arrived either on Thursday night or Friday morning. After 84-some hours, I just thought my luggage was gone forever. One more cry, and then I just accepted that I’d never see my checked suitcase ever again.

Of course, the Southern Comfort Conference had their dress ball that evening, and I wore jeans — my shiny violet Blue Plate top, my black palazzo pants, and my black sandals that I planned on wearing that evening were in my missing piece of checked baggage.

Saturday Morning Shopping

Well, It had been a ritual at the convention — Lurleen and I ate breakfast at the hotel’s breakfast buffet as we had every morning at SCC. As usual, it was delicious. A bit after breakfast, I went to the Mall and went shopping. I needed fresh underwear and clothing for the return trip to San Diego. Between Old Navy, Marshals, and Macy’s, I spent $146 on 3 pairs of socks, 3 pairs of panties, 3 bright colored tees, 1 pair of jeans, and 1 vest.

The Crackberry Storm Goes Bright

I set the alarm on my Crackberry Storm for gawd-awful-early so I could catch my Sunday morning Amtrak to New Orleans. Got an automated call from Amtrak at midnight-thirty that Sunday morning telling me my train was going to be delayed by at least three hours. An hour later, while my cell was charging my Crackberry Storm screen turned bright white — so bright it woke me up. The phone wouldn’t reset, so I did what I was told to do previously by a Verizon sales guy — take the battery out and restart the phone. When it came up, my phone was acting funny. I checked my cell, and not only was my alarm cleared on the phone, but everything I’d personalized on the telephone as well.

I lost me entire contact list — and my list hadn’t been backed up. So, if you think I have your contact info in my cell, I no longer do — I lost it on early in the morning on September 12th.

Amtrak didn’t follow procedures and call?

Lurleen and I then got on Atlanta’s Marta. She was heading to the Airport, and I to the Amtrak station. I gave Lurleen a hug, and off at a local light rail station to walk to Amtrak train station.

When I arrived at the Atlanta Amtrak Station, I did a “What the hell, why not?” checks with the Atlanta Amtrak luggage department to see if my luggage ever showed up. The luggage handler told me that my luggage had arrived in Atlanta on the Friday evening train.

I filled out a form at the Atlanta station on pervious Monday evening. I kept calling the Atlanta Amtrak Station and Amtrak Customer Relations multiple times. There was a luggage card on my luggage with my name and cell number on it. I was promised someone would call my cell if my luggage arrived in Atlanta; no one at Amtrak called me when my luggage arrived. I spent $146 I wouldn’t have if Amtrak would have followed their procedures.

Monday Morning Call To SaveSonic Inc.

I called SaveSonic Inc. on Monday Morning from the Amtrak Train Station in New Orleans. I waited a half an hour on the phone waiting to talk to a service agent, and changed the address I was sending my new laptop to — I asked them to send my new laptop to arrive at my San Diego address to arrive on Thursday, September 16th.

Address changed, my laptop was supposed to arrive the day after I arrived home.

New Cell

On Wednesday, September 15th, I took my cell — which by the end of the Amtrak ride back to San Diego didn’t even have a working keypad for dialing numbers — to Verizon. A lot of dollars later, I had a new Droid to replace my Crackberry Storm.

Okay, now I had to begin learning a new smart phone’s interface. *Ugh.*

Again With A SaveSonic Fail

My laptop didn’t show up on Thursday, after I spent the whole day waiting for my laptop at home. I was having a WTF moment.

So on Thursday evening, my neighbor Malia let me use her laptop to check on the shipping status of my new laptop. The status?

Processing.

Seriously?

So, Let’s Call SaveSonic Again And Again!

At 10:20 PDT on Friday, September 16th, I called up SaveSonic to see where the hell my computer was. I was angry before the call — the answering machine message left me angrier. Apparently, SaveSonic is a four-and-a-half day a week operation, and they close each Friday afternoon at 1:00 PM, EDT. Since it was 1:20 PM EDT at that point, I wasn’t going to be able to find out the shipping status of my laptop until the following Monday, September 20th.

On that Monday morning, I called, only to hear from SaveSonic that they didn’t have any Acer Aspire 5732Z laptops available. It literally took them two weeks to tell me this when I’d requested two day shipping not just once, but twice. I told the customer service agent that I wanted to cancel my order — with commentary that their service was “absolutely horrible,” and that I never was going to do business with them again.

Fixing The Coffee Cup Issue

Image: New Stainless Steel Chubby No Tip Travel Coffee Mug One way to make sure I never travel and spill a cup of coffee on my computer again is to get a computer again that doesn’t tip over. When I was in the Navy, there were these wide bottom coffee cups — remembering those cups, I decided to find an unbreakable cup with a wide bottom.

So after shopping local stores that sold coffee mugs with no luck, I went online on Malia’s computer, and found a stainless steel cup that fit the bill on EBay. It’s on order, and should show up soon.

When At First You Fail, Try, Try Again!

So on Monday Morning, I went to the Amazon Marketplace, and ordered a new Acer Aspire 5732Z from Sky Comp. I had my new computer by Thursday morning — I can’t say enough wonderful things about Sky Comp. So after spending a day personalizing my new laptop, I posted two Pam’s House Blend pieces on Friday afternoon.

So ends the tale of my travel nightmare regarding the Southern Comfort Conference. Without qualification, I’d call this the worst travel experience of my entire life.

Hopefully, life is finally back to an approximation of “normal” (as “normal” as my life gets, anyway), and I’ll start posting on a regular basis again.

But *Whew.* I never want to have a travel experience like this last one ever again.

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