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Northeast Group Gets to Experience the Best and Worst of Times Over 30 Hours

Northeast Group Gets to Experience the Best and Worst of Times Over 30 Hours

NORFOLK, Neb. – A team of Northeast Community College faculty and students experienced their own version of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” when they returned from Costa Rica earlier this year.

The trip over the holidays included Tee Bush, agriculture and horticulture instructor; Brandon Keller, agriculture business instructor; and Courney Nelson, Precision Agriculture Trainer; and six Northeast students. Like the 1987 movie with Steve Martin and John Candy, the group found a way to get home despite repeated obstacles and frustration.

The original plan was to fly from Liberia, Cosa Rica, leaving at 2 p.m. on Jan. 8, then land in Houston with a short layover. Next it would be off to Chicago, arriving about midnight, then spending about 12 hours in Chicago before flying to Lincoln, arriving about 4 p.m. on Jan. 9, then taking college vans back to Norfolk.

Instead, Mother Nature had her own ideas, bringing a snowstorm to Nebraska and the Upper Midwest, with thunderstorms hitting Texas. Mother Nature also spun a few tornadoes and some lighting over the Lone Star State when they were trying to get home.

And while going from 85 degrees to 0 degrees with -30 degrees wind chills in Nebraska isn’t fun, this time the cold would have been welcomed – just to be home. 

The problems began when flying over Texas, then trying to land in Houston. Their plane circled for about 90 minutes before the pilot announced the jet was out of reserve fuel. That meant they would be landing in San Antonio. The problem was that San Antonio is not an international airport, so there is no customs agent.

As a result, the Northeast delegation and the others on the plane got refueled and spent about 2 ½ hours on the tarmac in Houston – waiting.

“We were able to watch the whole national championship football game on the plane,” said Brandon Keller, noting much of the game took place when they were waiting.

While the plane had Direct TV, there were many minuses. Nobody left Costa Rica with a filled water bottle – Central American countries often prohibit it. In addition, the plane had run out of food and water because there were many young children. The Northeast delegation did without.

Eventually, they took off from San Antonio, landing in Houston about 11:15 p.m., experiencing incredible turbulence. Keller, an experienced traveler, said it was the most turbulent flight he had experienced. The flight usually takes about 30 minutes but ended up taking an hour and 15 minutes. 

The Northeast delegation was pushed through customs. About six flights landed within six minutes of each other because of all the flights being backed up. Another issue was everyone had to rebook flights when they landed in Houston.

After waiting about three hours to get from the back of the line to the front of the line at their carrier, under high stress, they got their flight rebooked. Their best opportunity was flying out of San Antonio. So, they had to find a way back to San Antonio.

“In our brains, we thought we were going to go to the hotel, we’d get some sleep and fly the next day out of San Antonio, where we had just come from,” said Tee Bush. “All of a sudden, it dawned on us that the flight was in seven hours.”

That meant no food and no sleep. And they had to find a way to get back to San Antonio from Houston.

Their first attempt was to try and rent two cars and drive to San Antonio. There was a long line at both car rental places – at least three hours at each one. They decided to book the cars online from their phones while waiting. 

Then at 5 a.m., a woman from the car rental place came out and told everyone that if they had rented a car online in the past 24 hours, it was not available. 

So, Keller and Bush went into action.

“We had the students sleeping on the floor, trying to get as much rest as they could,” Bush said. “We could see them. They were safe. Their stuff was safe. We were standing in line (to rent cars).”

Finally, after getting to the front of the line, they were told they would get their money refunded. 

At that point, they decided to try and get Ubers to take them to San Antonio so they could catch their rescheduled flight. There were no rental cars available to get them there in time, but with Uber drivers they would have a good chance.

“It was a 3 ½-hour trip (by car), and we had five hours to get there,” Bush said. 

They ordered two Ubers -– one of which was supposed to be an XL -- to accommodate nine people, six students and three faculty members.

The two Ubers arrived at the same time, so the four men got into one and the five women got into the XL – only it wasn’t an XL. But there weren’t any other options. There wasn’t room for the luggage and the students in the second Uber.

The men came back, took some of the suitcases and then everyone left in the Ubers, with some students holding their luggage on their laps for the 3 ½ hours to San Antionio. Keep in mind, these Uber trips took place just after 5 a.m. The women’s driver struggled to stay awake - having a couple instances of nearly dozing off.

“He would jerk himself awake,” Bush said. “I kept talking to try and keep him awake.”

After the first time he nearly dozed off, the driver agreed to stop at a gas station so everyone could go to the bathroom and get something to eat. It was the first time any of the Northeast group had food in about 24 hours.

When the men’s Uber driver left the gas station, he left with two students still at the convenience store. After Keller told the driver that two students were missing, he turned around and picked them up.

Remarkably, both Ubers arrived at the San Antonio airport at about the same time. And everyone got through security without any hassles.

Everyone then got on the San Antonio flight to Denver, feeling a bit nauseous due to low blood sugar. Nobody was able to sleep more than a few winks on the plane, due to a screaming baby. At this point, the travelers had been awake for nearly 30 hours.

“When we landed in Denver, the students were just done. They were ready to be home. We were like, ’The mountains are so pretty.’ They were like, ‘What mountains? We don’t care,’” Bush said, with a laugh.

They then flew from Denver to Omaha, but the Northeast vans were in Lincoln, where they had originally departed on December 30th. Because of how expensive car rentals were out of Omaha at that time, they took Ubers to Lincoln. A beautiful thing was the Northeast delegation was in Ubers both at sunrise and sunset on Jan. 9.

When they arrived in Lincoln, they found about two inches of ice on the Northeast vans. There was so much ice, they had to chip away at it to open the doors. It was also below zero with the wind chill.

“None of us had coats because coats are ridiculous to pack on a tropical vacation. The few people who brought coats had them in the van,” Bush said.

So, once they got the vans started, they took turns scraping the ice off and warming up inside. This took about 30 minutes to get all the ice off.

While it was dark, everyone was so sleep deprived that they knew if they went to sleep, they would not be able to get the students home for another day. Instead, Bush and Keller drove the vans back, talking the whole way to the others in their vans. They finally arrived back at the Northeast campus about 9:15 p.m. Jan. 9. It was not a relaxing time driving back as the weather wasn’t the best.

There is one more important part.

“We’re still friends,” Bush said.

Cost Rica Trip Back cutline
While getting home wasn’t fun, the Northeast Community College students who went to Costa Rica said they learned a lot about the importance Costa Ricans put on their small farms. The students who went on the trip are (from left) Dakota Marks, Camille Fowlkes, Kaleb Wragge, Shea Johnson, Kara Peterson, and Caleb Lipp. They provided an overview of their study abroad to Northeast leaders in February. (Northeast Community College)