Sometimes It’s Not Such a Small World After All

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about my travel adventures, but usually my mini-rants are about long delays or annoying flight changes. International travel lends itself to these types of circumstances, as multiple flights, often on different airlines, are hard to match up over the course of twenty-four or thirty hours of travel from airport to airport, continent to continent. It’s all a part of the deal.

Last weekend’s travel saga, though, takes the proverbial cake. (The taken cake was no Betty Crocker, cook-at-home-for-a-kid’s-birthday-party style either. We are talking Buddy the Cake Boss, over the top, multiple layers, moving parts and fireworks style cake for the adventure that was our trip from Washington DC to Kuala Lumpur.)

The day started early. E-a-r-l-y. My alarm went off at 2AM, which isn’t even morning in my book, but is what had to happen to get showered, repacked, checked out and in the lobby by 3AM for our not-so-super-Super-Shuttle pick-up. (Okay, technically the alarm never went off, as even though I had set two, I didn’t trust them to get me up on time, so I slept less of a slumber and more of a “lay here with your eyes closed, checking the time every five minutes” kind of sleep. When I was within fifteen minutes of the alarms sounding, I just got up, turned them off and drug my miserable self into the shower.) Our surly driver’s attitude should have clued me in to what a long day it was going to be, but I brushed off her grumpy attitude, thinking it was early and maybe she had been out late celebrating the 4th of July. (When I booked the shuttle, online, I made a note that we would have four large suitcases to check and two carry-on bags, knowing that it is probably a bigger than normal amount of baggage for folks traveling around the States. After all, we are moving to a new country! I was very clear about the amount of space we would need. Well, as it turns out, we were her first pick-up of the run and she was quite displeased with our luggage situation, which Thad stacked neatly and compactly in the back of the van. She proceeded to lecture us about the size of our bags, at which point I nicely told her that I had noted it on our reservation. She said she didn’t care and “What if everyone else has that many bags?” As it turns out, of the other four people we picked up Saturday morning, only one had anything more than a carry-on bag, as his was a mere backpack. I seriously considered pointing this out to her when we unloaded at the airport, but held my tongue, figuring a bit of good karma wouldn’t hurt since we had a whole lot of travel in front of us. If only I had known then how the day was going to go…)

But I digress…

After getting to Dulles International Airport, checking in and clearing security, we arrived at our gate to find out that between the time the counter issued our tickets and our appearance at the waiting area, our flight had been delayed FOUR hours for maintenance issues. Regardless of the worries about what plane-work would require four hours of time and if I really wanted to get on that machine anyway, that put us very close to missing our flight out of San Francisco. Along with everyone else on that flight, we queued up at the United service desk to see what could be done. The solution was a convoluted one that entailed our bags taking a mid-morning flight to SFO out of Dulles without us and Thad and I hopping in a taxi to dash across town to catch a different DC to SFO flight from Reagan International Airport in less than an hour. With few options, we jumped in a cab and asked him to get us across town as quickly as possible, which meant taking our lives in our own hands. With seatbelts firmly buckled, we were off on a ride that would take us swerving onto the shoulder multiple times and weaving in and out of traffic as the morning sun glared through the front window. On the radio played a series of what I can only guess (and hope!) were Islamic prayers. At that point, I was willing to pray along with anyone to get to National in one piece and with a bit of time to spare.

Survive we did.

With no luggage to check and boarding passes in hand (printed by the service desk at Dulles), we headed straight for security. Shoes off. Laptops out. Pockets empty. Grab it all and go! We got to the gate with time for a quick powder room break and then onto the plane we went. Whew. We were back on track for Kuala Lumpur.

Until we hit San Francisco.

After disembarking the plane, we made our way to the gigantic electronic reader board, only to see that our flight to Hong Kong was also now delayed, but just an hour. No problem. We’d have time to grab a bite to eat, stock up on snacks and continue on the journey.

And then one hour turned into two, which rolled into a third. There was no way we were going to make our Hong Kong connection.

Back to the service desk we went.

This time though, things became more complicated, as we were changing airlines, from United to Cathay, so we didn’t yet have boarding passes and we were going to have to recheck the luggage in Hong Kong. While I guarded the backpacks, Thad sweet-talked the gate agent into coordinating with Cathay and pushing our bags on through to Kuala Lumpur and getting us a second booking, this time on the flight for the following morning, in case we didn’t make the connection. There was still a bit of confidence that we would be able to make a quick transition in Hong Kong, so we were hoping to be on-track with the original plan, but had a plan B put together, just in case.
We didn’t make the connection, by less than twenty minutes.

But, we were met at the gate by a United representative who had hotel and food vouchers in-hand, who told us not to pick up our luggage since it was booked through and who told us we had two seats on the morning flight to Kuala Lumpur.

While it wasn’t ideal, a bit of a rest day in the travel itinerary was not the end of the world. United booked us in a decent hotel that was attached to the airport, so we never had to leave the confines of the building, which turned out to be ideal since it was pouring rain the next morning. Thad, thinking ahead, had packed himself some overnight items in his carry-on bag, as we’ve traveled enough to know that on multiple leg trips, overnight is always on the table. I, on the other hand, an eternal optimist, just knew that we were going to make all of our connections and be tucked away in our new beds before I’d need a change of undies or clean socks.

Optimism failed me.

Luckily, Chinese hotels always have toothbrushes as part of the bathroom “stuff,” so while Thad was showered in an entirely new outfit as we headed back to the airport on Sunday morning, I at least had clean teeth and was smelling like a boy from the deodorant I “borrowed” from my dear husband to get me through the day.

Well rested and ready to go, we sauntered on up to the Cathay ticket counter and handed over our passports, anticipating a quick turn-around since we had no luggage in tow. We watched at as the counter attendant clicked on buttons. And then typed some more. And then looked at our passports again. And then hit a few more keys. Finally, she looked up at us and said, “But you have no reservation.”

What? United, what did you do? (Or not do?)

At this point, I still have no idea where the breakdown happened, but break-down it did. The woman in San Francisco said we were booked on that flight. The man in Hong Kong said we were booked on that flight. And yet, we were not booked on that flight.

There were lots of seats though, so soon two boarding passes whirled out of the printer. Before walking away, we double checked to make sure our bags would also make the flight. And again, she looked up at us and said, “But we have no bags for you.”

What? United, what did you do? (Or not do, again?)

Overnight our bags had disappeared. It took nearly an hour of wrangling, calls from Cathay to United, us sitting on a bench, us reminding the counter we were still waiting, more calls and then finally, bags! It sounds like United locked the bags up for safe-keeping, but then didn’t have a morning attendant to answer the calls or retrieve the bags until just minutes before our flight took off.

We wove through security (yay for not having to take your shoes off in Asian airports!) and darted through immigration (yay for a diplomatic line!), arriving at our gate in time to walk right on to the plane, which was nearly done boarding.

I flopped down in my middle of the row seat, happy to be on board for the final leg of this ridiculous journey. At this point, it was all out of our hands. We were on the last flight of our trip and we were 90% sure our bags were as well.

The math is a little tricky with time zones and datelines and all that crazy international clock manipulation, but as close as I can tell, from DC hotel to KL home, we were on the road for nearly forty-eight hours. Forty-eight hours of stress, haggling with airlines, rescheduling pick-ups and just trying to make it from flight to flight. Needless to say, we are happy to be ensconced in the air conditioning of our new house, settling in for a new two year adventure.

Washington DC. San Francisco. Hong Kong. Home.

Mere Moments to Decide My Fate

Sometimes in life we are all forced to make some big choices, knowing that the path we choose will dictate our futures, for better or for worse. At nineteen, I decided to get married, which may not seem to be the most prudent decision, but one that fifteen years later I can attest worked out just fine. Or a couple of years after that we decided to sell our home and cars and give away our adorable pot-bellied pig for a two-year stint at Peace Corps Volunteers in western China. Then there was that little choice a few years ago to walk away from my teaching career to become the terribly monikered “trailing spouse” of a US Foreign Service Officer. None of these choices was made lightly or without a good deal of research, but we don’t always have the luxury of time to think through the big ones; sometimes they are thrown at us and we are given mere moments to determine our future.

This is exactly what happened to me today. My back, bum and possibly sanity depended on a single spur of the moment decision. Standing at the United counter at SFO I had to make an on-the-spot determination that would have long-lasting (at least ten hours!) consequences: window seat in economy class or upgrade (for $140) to a middle seat in “economy plus.” Oh the pressure! There’s no time for pro/con charts, no time for color-coding and organizing information about each option, no time to assess the possible consequences of each choice on an individual basis.

Standing 5’10”, those extra six inches of legroom are tempting. But, with an extra suitcase returning with me from America, (filled with nacho cheese, hot sauce, a couple pairs of shoes and a book or two) spending more money wasn’t wasn’t inviting at all.

What’s a girl to do?

Quickly, I mentally rushed through my options as the gate attendant looked at me expectantly. Window to lean my head on for ten hours but with my knees crushed against the seat in front of me that will be unceremoniously kicked back at the first opportunity or half a foot of extra space, but stuck in an uncomfortable middle-man situation that may or may not result in actual access to the arm rests? (My personal rule is that the middle-man always gets the “shared” armrest as a tiny consolation prize for taking one for the team. Sadly, not everyone recognizes this simple karmatic alignment of air travel.)

“Ma’am, which seat would you like?”

Window! I’ll go window!

As I now sit on the floor of SFO charging my laptop before the trans-Pacific flight to Narita, I am left to question my decision. Will my back and bum make me regret not having extra space to curl my legs up in front of me mid-flight? Will I actually be able to sleep for an hour or two, propped against the wall of the plane? These are the consequences that can only be determined with time, when I unfold myself from that crammed economy seat ten hours hence.

She may not have proposed marriage or posited the possibility of moving to the other side of the world, but the United gate attendant did force a major decision with no time to really consider the good and bad of each possible option. Okay, I’ll admit that in the big scheme of things this doesn’t even qualify as a minor decision, but with nothing else to occupy my mind during my four-hour layover, I’ve had a lot of time to ponder the possible repercussions of the choice.

Window it is. Now, only time will tell…

Brangelina, Meet My Luggage

As the move to China edges ever nearer, my OCD-like need for organization and control is kicking in to overdrive.  The fact that the last week has been filled with *huge* forward progress is only serving to add fuel to the crazy-lady fire. (Chinese visas have come back, pack-out has been scheduled and tickets to LA and on to Chengdu have been issued!)  It doesn’t help that I’m done with ConGen, that all of our visitors have come and gone and now I have all day to sit and fret about minor details.

One particular point has recently embedded itself in my brain, much like a grain of sand would do in an oyster. (Clam? Mussel? You know, the sea-dwelling, hinged-shelled creature that inadvertently makes lovely jewelry for my fingers and wrists and neck.) Well, the hours of irritating my mind finally paid off with a jewel (or a plan as the case may be) while I was in the shower this morning. (Why is it that the shower is the home to so many brilliant ideas? I used to come up with the best lesson plan ideas while I was in the shower- ways to make kids enjoy writing sonnets or a great new expository essay idea or the perfect activity to help solidify Greek and Latin word parts in the minds of 8th graders.) Anyway, what is this latest tiny nuisance? Luggage. Baggage. Suitcases. Call it what you will, but when moving to the middle of China for two years (and then to lands unknown) the specifics become quite important.

The issue, percolating in my brain, has been about how to get the maximum use out of the luggage allowances we are given, especially providing that the rest of our belongings will arrive anywhere from a month to two months after we set foot in Chengdu. This means planning both casual and work-wear. (Yes, I said work!  I’ve had two job interviews in the past week, which look promising. An added bonus to interviewing via phone from the opposite side of the globe is that pajamas are a perfectly acceptable outfit to wear while discussing your background in education and your enthusiasm for taking on a variety of projects at the same time.) But clothing isn’t the only thing that has to go in those bags. With the rest of our shipment weeks, or months out, daily use items like dishwasher soap, mosquito spray and alarm clocks need to be considered as well.

The State Department allows each family member to check two bags as part of the travel process. Thad and I each bought a large, hard-shelled suitcase last spring as we prepared to move out here. (While I love the color and size of these cases, I do have regrets. They are too heavy!  When nearly ten of my allotted fifty pounds are spent on the container itself, I end up having empty space inside because I am over on weight before I run out of room! Lesson learned.)  So that is two bags, both in good condition. I own another roller-bag, (this one sporting an adorable 70s floral pattern) that is a perfect size for carry-on.  Last week, I ordered Thad a nice shoulder-strapped garment bag for his suits. The one we brought to DC with us is not only too small to fit his growing suit collection, but it is definitely not high quality. I’ve seen what China can do to luggage (on our first move there, my bag came off the carousal in Chengdu looking like it had been used as a buffer in an epic battle between kung-fu pandas.)  Figuring we’ve both got two arms (okay, mine may be weak and lacking in the strength department, but they can pull a suitcase or two), so we each have two rolling bags. That means we’ve currently got an empty hand!

Luggage shopping, here I come!

I knew just what we needed to take that final, coveted spot in our baggage family. I’d seen this bag several months ago, have visited it at the store several times and finally, today, adopted it into our diverse luggage home. (My baggage collection is a bit like Angelina Jolie’s family. I see it. I like it. I add it. It doesn’t matter if it matches what I already have.)  This newest bag is a bit of dark maroon, paisley-pattered perfection. This little guy (okay, not so little, especially once expanded) fills out our last spot. Now, I can roll my hard-shell and one other case. Thad can roll his hard-shell and one other case. (I told him I would carry his garment bag, since I am the one who wants the extra bag to begin with, but we all know when the time comes, I’ll be much to wimpy to actually roll two bags, have my own carry-on and haul the suit bag. But, it sounds good for now.)

So, with that bit of sand successfully coated in slime until it became a beautiful sphere of pearl, my mind is free to conjure up the next unnecessarily worrisome detail. 5 weeks and counting…