A trip to the USA in January 2012

What a contrast! This trip was booked and flown on Air New Zealand, and the service was fantastic. Nancy had her knee operation in November and is not yet fully recovered so the travel agent booked wheelchair assistance for us on the complete trip, Wellington-Auckland-San Francisco-Dallas, nearly 30 hours door to door.

The day before the trip I got a text message from the Inflight Concierge on flight NZ8 (the longhaul leg to San Francisco) introducing herself and asking if we needed anything. She double-checked the wheelchair request and made sure it was confirmed for the whole trip. Great service, and a really helpful person.

We checked in in Wellington and they tagged our bags all the way to Dallas. The distances around Wellington airport are short, so Nancy could walk there. We were met in Auckland with a wheelchair and taken between the domestic and International terminals in a van, then escorted up to the lounge to wait for boarding.

On board the 747 we met Susie the concierge – a lovely cheerful, friendly person. She checked to make sure we we’re as comfortable as possible (nothing makes economy class travel really comfortable) and to check that Nancy had been looked after properly.

In San Francisco we were met at the plane by another helpful person, Michael, who had a wheelchair ready for Nancy and escorted us through immigration & customs, on to the inter-terminal train, through checkin and security and all the way to the American Airlines lounge, where he left us to wait for the next flight. The lounge is comfortable and has pine trees growing inside the building – I didn’t ask why but they do give a nice ambience. It also has a shower, so we could freshen up – a necessity after 12 hours flying.

The next flight left on time and it was another three hours flying and two time-zones to get to Dallas.

We arrived in Dallas at 20:00, got our bags and took a taxi to the Gaylord. Something was obviously bothering the taxi driver as he spent the whole trip muttering darkly while driving fast and furiously – I rank this one as No 3 on my list of scary taxi trips. Amazingly we arrived at the hotel without being involved in an accident, although I suspect there were many scared or annoyed drivers in our wake.

The Gaylord Texas is HUGE 400000 square feet under a single roof, 1500 rooms and a convention centre that can accommodate 6000 people and it’s all in the same building, temperature controlled to 72deg F all day every day. The rooms are around the outside and in the centre is a gigantic atrium with a river running through it, fountains and a model town called Lowdown.

After checking in we wanted something to eat, and did a brief tour of the hotel to find a place to eat. The sports bar was fully occupied by a group of fans watching a match, and we ended up at the steak restaurant – absolutely delicious, but way scary prices! We had lobster bisque to start and fillet steak as our main, with truffle fries and sautéed mushrooms on the side, $155 without any wine! Needless to say that was the only night we ate in that restaurant.

Convenience shopping has definitely become the norm in the US, there was even a Best Buy vending machine in the hotel – an electronics store with iPhones, MP3 players, chargers, external hard drives, USB memory sticks and accessories available 24 hours a day and no need to wait for delivery. I purchased a cover for my new iPhone (partly because I did need one, and partly just to use the vending machine).

The next day we went to visit Grapevine – “the Christmas Capitol of Texas”, complete with decorations throughout the shopping area, nativity scenes, animatronic displays and the obligatory creepy Santa sitting on a park bench. Evidently they have lots of shows and displays from November through to the end of January. We took some photos, had a nice lunch and went back to the hotel to sleep off the jet lag.

The next three days were the Agile Alliance (www.agilealliance.org) board meeting, and we accomplished a lot. My fellow board members are a great bunch of people, and it’s a real privilege to be part of that group. We managed to fit in some social time with the other board members, as always our meals together were enhanced by interesting and stimulating discussions.

On Monday morning we checked out of the hotel and went shopping at the local outlet mall. Living in New Zealand we’ve become accustomed to a society that’s largely gun-free. Even the police at home don’t carry guns routinely, so it was a bit of a shock to see guns on the wall in sports stores and the range of automatic weapons available in the hunting store. I do confess that the thought of so many guns so readily available made me slightly uncomfortable.

Even pink-tinted camouflage for the fashion conscious lady hunter.

Monday afternoon we flew from Dallas to Denver, then on to Biose to spend three days with Roberto and Pauline. It was lovely to see them after more than 20 years, and we had a great time just catching up. Nancy & Pauline were close as children and the closeness continues to this day, despite the distance that normally separates them, so Roberto and I mostly sat back and listened as the cousins reminisced – fortunately he and I share many interests so we could chat on the side 🙂

Pauline showed us around Boise and gave us a taste of middle-America. The town is picturesque and we were even treated to a small snowfall. Evidently the snow is very late this year, which is a concern for areas where snowmelt makes up a large part of the water supply.

We visited the Birds of Prey sanctuary in the hills overlooking Boise – it’s really impressive and very interesting. They have a breeding and recovery program for Condors and care for many other predator birds. Up close a Condor is huge, with a 3m wingspan.

Back at Pauline and Roberto’s place we were entertained by the local squirrels – up to six of them were feeding on the lawn in front of their house.

Early on Thursday morning we left Boise for Denver. We’ve never been there before so we hired a car and set out to explore. We drove out to Estes Park and got to see the Rocky Mountains under snow. Magnificent scenery and really great food at lunchtime. We stopped at a restaurant and shared a Bison and an Elk burger. Delicious flavorful meat.

On the drive back down the mountains we saw two coyotes in the bush and managed to get some photos of them.

Back in Denver we checked into the Magnolia hotel and had drinks with Jake Calabrise and Lisa Crispin – thanks for taking the time to catch up with us!

That evening was one of the few that we were alone, so we treated ourselves to a Brazilian BBQ dinner at Fogo de Chow. A magnificent spread of salads and cold cuts followed by never ending supplies of grilled meat of many varieties. As you can see we enjoyed the meal.

Friday we relaxed, Nancy was down with a cold and we both needed to recharge our batteries. We had booked tickets for the Rodeo (the western show is held in Denver every Year), unfortunately Nancy wasn’t feeling up to the night out so I went on my own.

It’s one of those “must do” experiences. I had a great time, there was a real carnival atmosphere and the arena is ringed with stall holders selling everything from Texas hats and cowboy boots to hand crafted silver belt buckles to blown glass (I got Nancy a glass dragon for her collection). Western attire seems to be mandatory at these events and it seemed like everyone was wearing a 10 gallon hat and boots, I felt quite underdressed :-).

The family sitting next to me asked about the empty seat, as they had been unable to get seats together and I said they could take it, which turned out very fortuitous – the man who sat next to me was a connoisseur of Rodeo and kindly explained the rules and scoring principles to me. It’s actually a pretty complex sport with lots of ways to lose points, just holding on to a bucking bull isn’t enough to do well. And it’s a highly paid professional sport as well. There were a variety of events from riding bucking horses (bred for their ability to buck wildly and selling for over $200000!) to bulls (worth over $500000 each) to precision horsemanship and rope skills to “mutton mustering” where young boys and girls (under 10) ride sheep across the arena.

All in all I had a great evening at the rodeo, and will probably do it again if I get a chance.

Just because I could, I decided to take a bike-rickshaw back to the hotel instead of a taxi, sitting on the exposed seat in below freezing temperatures is brisk and refreshing. Central Denver by night is very pretty.

The next morning it was off to Austin for the last leg of the trip.

In Austin we stayed at the Sheraton, comfortable but waay expensive. We arrived on Saturday afternoon and rested through Sunday as Nancy was still not feeling great, and I was also coming down with the cold.

Sunday evening we met up with some of the BABOK 3.0 team and went out for Texas BBQ – another mountain of meat that was kept constantly replenished. We had BBQ pulled pork, brisket and pork spare ribs, along with a few token greens and some beans.

Something that struck me throughout the trip is the importance of tipping in the USA. Every meal carries an extra charge of 15-20%, and for large groups it is automatically added to the bill. Every taxi trip cost at least 10% more than is on the meter and anyone who does something for you then holds out a hand. A “suggested” $1 per bag to put it on the belt at curbside checkin, $2 for calling a taxi, at least $2 for pushing a wheelchair around the airport, etc. It helps to think of it as a tax, and expect to pay 20% on top of whatever you budget for the trip. Coming from a society where we have robust minimum wage laws this additional charge seems very strange but it is (I’m told) important to tip, as the service people are paid a pittance and most of them need the tips to survive.

Monday – Wednesday was a working session and I feel we came up with some really valuable material for the BABOK. It’s great to work with a group of people who are passionate about our topic and where we can bounce ideas off each other – respectful and robust debate resulting in a much better product in the end. We have come up with a Business Analysis Framework which we think will be very valuable to analysis practitioners in the field. As that evolves we will be blogging and speaking about it in community events.

Monday night the team went out together to a Tex-Mex restaurant, another good meal with good company.

Tuesday evening was spent quietly in the hotel, Nancy & I ended up sharing a meal with Julian Sammy, and we had a wonderful discussion about Terry Pratchett the meaning of life. If you haven’t read Pratchett’s books then please do so – deep examination of the human condition in the guise of comic fantasy.

Wednesday afternoon the “locals” left and it was just Masahiko (from Japan), Peter (from Bulgaria) and Nancy & I left. We went out together to a really good seafood restaurant, where we indulged in a tower of prawns, crab and oysters (Peter’s first oyster, I don’t think he’s a convert, and I found a small pearl in one of mine) followed by nicely cooked line fish.

Thursday morning I took a small walk around the Capitol area to get some photos.

Then it was out to the airport to begin the 27 hour journey home via LA. Again the Air New Zealand service was impeccable, we used reward vouchers to upgrade to Premium Economy which did make the flight more pleasant and the concierge Geoff was very helpful and considerate.

We had an enjoyable time in the States, I managed to achieve a lot with both the Agile Alliance and the IIBA working sessions, we spent time with good friends and family and saw places we’ve never been to before. I suspect we will be back to at least some of them 🙂