By Jove, Where Am I?

Posted on September 24, 2010

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In 2002, a couple from Great Britain wanted to travel to Sydney, Australia, but somehow found themselves in Sydney, Nova Scotia. That isn’t just on a completely different continent; it’s on the other side of the planet. In the travel business, it’s about as wrong as you can be.

This was a peculiar story. Incredible, in a way. True, the two cities have the same name, but one is a world-class metropolis of more than four million people, while the other is home to 24,000 residents and is best known for steel mills and coal mines. For someone to be headed for one Sydney and end up in the other requires a series of mistakes that seems nearly impossible. It had never happened before. Could it ever happen again? It could and it has: to an Argentine woman in 2008, a young man from the Netherlands the following year, and an Italian couple just two months ago. What does it mean that in this era of unprecedented global communications, high-speed Internet, and instant access to information of an unimaginable variety, this particular mistake is now happening more frequently? And are there variations? Has anyone ever landed in Rome, New York instead of Rome, Italy? Is there a person out there whose lifelong dream was to visit Red Square, but flew to Moscow, Idaho instead? And if so, why?

I had no idea. But I knew that if I could just get myself into a comfortable position on the couch, I would figure it out. It had been a long day and I was tired, but I wanted to take a quick look at the newspaper, then give this Sydney mystery some thought. Minutes later, I found myself sitting up, the newspaper in my lap, and I was on a train. This seemed odd for a second, but the feeling faded almost immediately, and I began to read. A small ad caught my eye: Volunteer Wanted for Voyage to Jupiter. A free trip? It sounded appealing. The weather was starting to turn cold and a week or two on the east coast of Florida seemed like a great idea. My older brother lives about fifteen miles north of Jupiter, so this would also be a chance to visit him. I got off the train at the next stop and called the toll-free number.

The next thing I knew, I was seated in an office with two men in dark suits. They were talking about the difficulty of the mission, the risks involved. I was a little confused. I knew Miami had some crime issues, but I didn’t realize the problem had spread as far north as Jupiter.

“What would I have to do?” I asked.

“Nothing. Just endure the trip and make it back alive.”

This seemed too good to be true. The two men warned me that I couldn’t tell anyone about the mission.

“Because of the great danger,” I said.

“Yes.”

“But why me?” I asked.

“The truth is, no one wants to go to Jupiter.”

“I do,” I said. “I want to go. Mostly for my brother.”

“That’s good,” one of them said. “Your first words when you put your foot on the ground. That’s one small step for me. One giant leap for my brother. Beautiful.”

That seemed odd, that I would put my foot down and make a weird statement.

“Who should I say it to?”

“What do you mean, who?”

“Sorry. To whom should I say it?” (Wow, I thought. These guys aren’t just overly secretive; they’re sticklers for grammar, too.)

We shook hands and I was flown to an airport in northern Florida. Then I was stashed into a limousine, driven to an unknown location, and handed a helmet and a suit made of Teflon. I tried to explain to the men that non-stick materials tend to give me a rash, but they said I had to wear it. I wondered if they were expecting a scrambled egg fight to break out on the plane, but decided to just cooperate rather than take a chance on missing out on the free trip.

A long elevator ride followed, which I thought was also unusual. Once on board, I fastened my seat belt. I’ve never flown first-class before, but this was even better; it looked as though I would be the only passenger. I didn’t even see a flight attendant, which was disappointing because I had a sudden craving for really tiny cookies. The takeoff was probably the roughest I’ve ever experienced, but once the aircraft leveled off the flight was quite smooth. Long, though. Really long. I’ve been to Japan, so I know how cramped those airplane seats can be and how fidgety I get after a couple of hours. But this trip was endless. It seemed like months.

When we finally landed, I waited for some instruction, a report on the local weather, or at least somebody saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to welcome you to Jupiter. It’s been a pleasure flying with you, and we hope to see you again soon.” Nothing. I unbuckled my seat belt and got up to look around. Then I opened the door and hopped out to get some air. Talk about desolate. I had a strong sensation of having been deceived. You look on a Florida map, and Jupiter is in pretty big letters. It looks like a medium-size town, at least. But trust me: there is nothing there. I didn’t see a single beach. And the weather is horrendous. You expect it to be warm — I mean, that’s one of the reasons I went in the first place — but it was freezing. The day I arrived they were having a storm like I’d never seen. High winds, like a huge hurricane, only more red. “I’ll take Sydney over this any day,” I thought. “Either one.”

That night I looked up and noticed there were dozens of moons in the sky. At last, here was one good reason to head south: much less light pollution. All these years I had thought there was just the one moon.

Then I realized that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten anything. Yet I didn’t feel hungry. Actually, I felt heavy, as though I’d just finished off a large pizza with hot peppers. Even walking was difficult. And there were rocks falling from the sky. Luckily I was still wearing my helmet and Teflon suit. No wonder everyone goes to Orlando, I thought. This place is like being on another planet. Unable to move my legs, I crawled on the hard ground, searching for a pay phone so I could call my brother, or at least get in touch with my wife to let her know where I was. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder, gently shaking me. There are other people here! I turned around, but saw no one. Then the hand on my shoulder again. I looked up and there was my wife, standing over me. I was back on the couch in our living room.

“Did you take a little trip?” she asked.

“I forgot to say the line,” I said.

“What line?”

“The line. One giant leap for my brother.”

“You were having a bad dream,” she said. “You shouldn’t have eaten that whole pizza by yourself.”

“Maybe I should’ve just stayed on the train.”

“Hey, I was reading the newspaper while you were asleep. Did you know there’s a town in New Jersey called Neptune? It looks nice.”

“No, thanks,” I said as I began to run from the room, amazed at how easily I could move my legs. “You can go by yourself.” Then I stopped and yelled back to her. “But make sure you pack your Teflon suit.”

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