When Sixteen *IS* Enough

Sixteen hours is a long time to be stuck in a single seat in a winged tin can. Sixteen hours is two full work days. Sixteen hours is two full nights of sleep. Sixteen hours is nearly eight movies, watched back to back. Sixteen hours can be forty-eight episodes of your favorite sitcom. (Currently, that is Black-ish in my world. Fantastic!!) Sixteen hours is painful at the eight-hour mark when you realize you have to do everything you’ve already done again before wheels touch the ground again. Sixteen hours can be a tiny bit of torture, both physically and psychologically.

Sixteen hours.

Sixteen hours means different things to different travelers. For some, it is the amount of time it takes to get back to their loved ones. For others, it is the amount of time it takes to leave one life behind and begin a new one. Some travelers do cross-oceanic flights on a regular basis for business and it is just another blip on the work radar, while some are experiencing their first flight over a couple of hours.

Living in China and Malaysia has given me a pretty good tolerance for looooong flights, although this one ranks right up there in terms of hours spent on one single plane. Stateside, I don’t even blink at a five or six-hour flight on the way back to Idaho. It’s all about perspective! (Heck, I hardly need to pack anything to entertain myself when flying cross-country in the U.S. Between the inflight magazine, the safety card, and the tiny package of peanut-free rice snacks, I’m set for more hours than I’d like to admit.) Unfortunately, the young man with whom I shared a row from Atlanta to Johannesburg (cheers for an empty middle seat!) was experiencing long-haul travel for the first time (Emory student- there were a whole slew of them on the flight). I have no idea what his name was, but let’s call him Kevin. He seemed like a Kevin. Kevin had flown regionally a bit, but had never done an overnight, many, many hour-long flight. I’m not sure where he got his travel advice, but he decided it was best to go the comatose route for the duration, so no sooner at the doors been sealed, he popped a sleeping pill (maybe two?), donned an eye mask and noise cancelling headphones and was seriously not heard from again for eight hours. (Multiple of Kevin’s buddies came by to take photos of Sleeping Beauty throughout his lengthy nap. I am sure some gentle ribbing will ensue.)

In general, I have no issue with Kevin’s choice to sleep away as much of the flight as possible, but it did become an issue after I had two glasses of Coke and really needed a quick trip to the lavatory in the sky. Starting with a gentle nudge to the arm, I tried to resuscitate my row-mate, but to no avail. With a hardier jostle, I tried again, but had no luck in even affecting a position change. A bit baffled and unsure what my next step would be, I happened to make eye contact with a guy standing in the aisle, just stretching and biding his flight time. The guy had watched the whole nudge/jostle routine in amusement and apparently I Iooked like I really did need some time away from 23J, because with a smile, he held out his hand as leverage and helped me crawl over top of Kevin. Kevin didn’t budge an inch or make a sound as I made my way from the window to the aisle. Not even a sleep snort.

So, how does one wile away sixteen hours (other than Kevin’s self-induced coma option)? Just like this!

7:10-7:45PM Watch passengers file onto the plane, fingers and toes crossed that the empty middle seat remains vacant, giving side-eye to anyone to slows down in the vicinity

7:45PM– Internal cheer that the plane doors closed and the middle seat is flier-less

7:45-7:50PM– Unload backpack, storing books and headphones in the seatback compartment, de-shoe, shoving them against the plane side to only come out during bathroom breaks, slide backpack into the middle seat foot space clearing up extra legroom, claim extra blanket from empty seat and settle in for the duration

7:50-9:00PM- Bust out a new book- A Very Expensive Poisoning by Luke Harding in this case (I’d say that saving this book for the flight has been killing me, but given its topic of state-sponsored murder, that might be a bad way to go. Plus, I’d only had it two days. But, I did want to start it two days ago!)

9:00-10:00PM- Eat dinner of pasta, breadsticks and brownie while watching Chip and Joanna be adorable as they fix up a crazy, falling apart property, daydreaming of owning a house again one day (Flying solo meant I only had access to one meal, so no item swapping for me this time around. Usually my salad goes to Thad and I get his roll in return. I was not unhappy to find several items I’d eat on the tray though, including a small bar of cheese and package of crackers, so while I would prefer my favorite travel partner to be along, I did survive and not starve this time around.)

10:00PM– Make acrobatic move to get over Kevin and visit the loo, thanks to the aisle dweller from the row in front of me. This was much more awkward for me than Kevin, as he still has no idea it happened and let’s be honest, it wasn’t pretty!

10:00PM-Midnight– Back to A Very Expensive Poisoning to continue to be both horrified and fascinated with the lengths certain current world leaders will go to in order to maintain control

Midnight- 2:00AM- Attempt sleep- curl up in a ball with feet tucked in until legs have lost all circulation, then switch to the bent-in-half position until either the guy in front reclines his seat, possibly causing a minor concussion, or until both legs have again lost all circulation and toes are tingling

2:00-3:00AM- Too tired to focus on reading but unable to sleep and too lazy to find a show worth thinking about for more than three minutes at a time, I stare blankly at the seatback in front of me, much like Puddy when Elaine breaks up with him after their trip to Europe on the fourth season of Seinfeld

4:00- 6:00AM– It is no longer actually early morning, as in the middle of the ocean time is messed up and I have no idea what time it is or what meal I should be wanting. I eat the banana out of random bagged “lunch” brought around by flight attendants. (Avoid the pre-made sandwich and the granola bar that is more crumb than bar. I supplement this snack with the animal crackers I brought in my backpack, knowing that at some point I would be hungry and left hanging by the offered meal service.)

6:00AM- Realizing that Kevin is up and in the aisle, I take advantage of the easy access to make another trip to the tiny ladies’ room, taking along a toothbrush and facewipe to make a measly attempt at freshening up mid-flight, and do a bit of bulkhead yoga as I await my turn in the tiny cubicle of a water closet

6:00-8:00AM- Continue restless sleep activity. Switch positions roughly every 20 minutes. Mostly be awake and annoyed.

8:00-9:00AM- “Enjoy” breakfast/dinner items from the Delta team. I opted for the chicken salad, eating the cold grilled chicken, pineapple and cookies. Watch another whirlwind house renovation thanks to Chip and Joanna. (This time around, I really could have used the trade-deal I have going with Thad. I am sure he would have appreciated my extra salad-offerings in return for his package of cookies.)

9:00-10:30AM-Finish the last pages of A Very Expensive Poisoning just as the plane touches down in South Africa, silently marking another continent off the checklist and rather pleased at my reading rationing. (Antarctica- I’m coming for you, somehow, some way!)

Not able to bear the idea of eight movies (are there even eight movies out there that I would want to watch?) or forty-eight episodes of a TV show (even the witty and well-written Black-ish), I opted for reading, kinda’ sleeping, and a bit of zoned-out staring. Just ten short days from now, I’ll be making the return flight, getting to go through the whole schedule again. A new book will need to be purchased (why, or why, this one time have NONE of my library books come off hold?!) and I’m crossing my fingers and toes for yet another empty middle seat to give just a bit more elbow room to the seemingly never-ending flight. Coming to Johannesburg I was excited about the prospects of exploring a new place and energetic/anxious about leading my first CLO training. Headed home, I’ll be looking forward to seeing Thad again, getting back into the flow of work, and preparing for a spring-full of DC visitors.

“The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who… looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space… on the infinite highway of the air.”
― Wilbur Wright


The Adventures of the Missing Passport (Part II)

Recap, for those who missed “The Adventures of the Missing Passport (Part I)”: Long awaited trip out of D.C., land in Cancun, too excited to catch up with best friend, passport goes MIA. That about covers it! (Click here for the entire story.)

The perfect English, with a slight Spanish accent, “Passports for check-in, please” rumbling around my head, I dug through my backpack, knowing I didn’t have my passport. I keep it in one place- the top pocket of my trusty and well-traveled Jansport backpack, a pocket seemingly made in size and shape to house my passport when I am on the road. One quick glance told me it was not there. I went through the motions of digging through the other pockets of my backpack, my jeans, my suitcase, but all along I knew the effort was futile. It is wasn’t in the passport pocket. I didn’t have it.

As Thad continued to check us in and get the rundown on the pools, the always open buffets, the constant flow of beverages (adult and otherwise), and the tourism options in the area, I started making calls. You don’t work on the Foreign Service payroll for five years and not make a connection or two around the globe. I reached out to a good friend from KL (she was my boss, as the acting Consul General in Kuala Lumpur when I was working there, but bosses and friends are often overlapping on the Venn diagram of Foreign Service relationships). She is currently posted in Mexico City, so I thought she might be able to let me in on who was the American Citizen Services chief in Merida, the closest consulate. My hope was that the ACS in Merida would have good connections at the airport to see if my passport turned up there. She sent me the name of the ACS chief and I couldn’t be more surprised to recognize it instantly, but not from Foreign Service connections. As it turns out, the current ACS chief in Merida was our trainer for Peace Corps China ten years ago. I reached out to a friend from Malaysia who put me in touch with a guy she worked with in Cuba who we happen to have known from China, all to try to recover my passport in Mexico. Yup, that’s the crazy small world we live in!

This story is very long and I am going to try to edit it down for everyone’s sake, but suffice it to say that the ACS chief promised to reach out and see what could be found at the Cancun airport. With the next day being Martin Luther King Jr. Day, nothing more would be done anyway, so we made plans to take the ferry to Cozumel the next morning and called it a night, three out of four of us carrying documents that allowed us to be in the country legally.

Monday rolled around and out to Cozumel we went, enjoying the sunshine, blue skies, and clear water. We did our thing out there, tried our best to ignore the people offering to rent us Jeeps, show us their tequila shops, and sign us up for every possible snorkeling and SCUBA-ing trip available. We gawked at the absolutely massive cruise ship in the harbor (that thing had waterslides on it!) and laughed at the 50++ crowd having a little too much fun at Senor Frog’s at lunchtime. Overall, not a bad way to spend our first full day south of the border. On the ferry ride back to the mainland, I got an email from the ACS team in Merida saying that the Cancun airport DID have my passport and that I should go out and get it. YES!! I could not have been more excited (and surprised) by this development. While part of me was hoping that it had been pickpocketed (taking a bit of the responsibility off of me for the missing passport), I was mostly happy to hear it had turned up and I’d have it back in my possession before dinnertime. High fives and a small happy dance ensued.

As the rest of the crew headed off to an afternoon of lounging by the pool, I hopped in a cab to the airport to go retrieve my passport. It’s about an hour each way from Playa del Carmen to the Cancun International Airport, so not a cheap taxi ride, but worth it to have my stuff back. With the email directions of how to get to customs to get my passport pulled up on my phone, I had to finagle my way through a variety of guards and “helpful” standersby to finally get to the glass doors that mark the customs areas, where my passport was being held. (Thank you college Spanish!) As I reached the last line of defense before the customs officials, the woman said to me, “But you aren’t a man…” in a perplexed tone. I dutifully explained that she must mean Michael, as that is the male form of Michelle and can be an easy mistake to make. She looked at me doubtfully, told me to stay put, and sauntered through the doors to the room I was sure held my beloved passport. After a bit, she came back, said nothing to me, but held the passport up, biodata page facing out.

Yup. That was a dude. Not me.

Apparently, one Mitchell Ross Fillmore (surname changed to protect the innocent) also lost his passport at the Cancun International Airport. Are you kidding me?! (There may have been an extra word between “you” and “kidding,” but I’ll leave that possibility to your imagination.)

The airport did have an American passport, but it was for Mitchell Ross Fillmore. Not me.


Downcast and disheartened does not begin to explain my state of mind. (Even in this moment though, I had to appreciate the humor in the situation. Stupid Mitchell Ross Fillmore. I hate you!)

I spent another hour and a half at the airport while they “searched” a variety of lost and found places, although I don’t get the feeling they were actually doing much behind the scenes. Frustrated and tired, I finally headed back to Playa in the early evening, figuring nothing else was going to happen at the airport and that I would check back in with the consulate in the morning.

After some dinner and time with my feet in the sand, a bit of internet research told me that there was a consular agent in Playa del Carmen, which would save me having to make the drive to Merida to get a new passport. I would still need to get an emergency passport (EPDP for those in consular circles) before I could leave the country, but I could do it all in a few hours rather than making an entire day of it.

9AM sharp on Tuesday morning, I called the consular agency in Playa and asked about getting an appointment for an EPDP.  Once they got over the shock of me asking for the service by the consular name, they told me I was welcome to come in any time before 11AM, so I quickly hopped in a cab and headed down to their conveniently located offices. Once there, I filled out the forms and then had to run the necessary errands that go along with a getting an emergency passport overnighted in Mexico. First it was to the bank to pay the overnight shipping fee and collect the receipt to present to the agent and then it was to the photo studio for passport sized photos, ones that the shop helpfully photoshopped to make me even whiter than I already am! (Thad stood on a corner while I worked on the photos, enjoying a banana milkshake that he’d ordered himself from a street side bodega, taxing his Spanish skills to the max, but making it all the more rewarding to sip.) Back at the agency, I swore the passport oath (I felt like I should give it to myself, I did it so many times in Kuala Lumpur) and then headed back to the resort to enjoy the rest of our vacation, knowing that the awesome agency team in Playa del Carmen and the ACS team in Merida had my back. (‘Merica!)

We spent the rest of the week touring archeological ruins, swimming through caves, bobbing in the ocean and eating way too much, but it was nice to know that the American consular section was able to take care of me quickly and efficiently. (Still, damn you Mitchell Ross Fillmore!)

To wrap up the missing passport saga, I had to get an immigration stamp in my new passport that would allow me to leave Mexico. (Not really wanting to leave Mexico, I thought about using the missing stamp as an excuse to move to Playa indefinitely, but alas, it seems I must return to a job and life on the northern side of the planned wall.) I stood line to meet with La Migra in Mexico, paid in USD cash (the only option!) for a small green stamp and then it was time to say goodbye to the January sun and sand.

The question remains though, how did I know I left my passport at the airport and am to blame for this whole mess when it was Mitchell Ross Fillmore’s passport at customs and not my own? Why not let myself off the hook and tell the story as if I had been pickpocketed, something I would have less control and therefore less blame for happening? Well, once I was re-ensconced in my D.C. cubicle, I sent a quick thank you note to that ACS chief in Merida, wanting to let him know I appreciated the help of his entire team. It didn’t take long before I heard back from him saying that as it turns out, the Cancun Airport DID find my passport and send it to the American consulate in Merida. (What!?! Ugh!!!)  If it had been pickpocketed, it would not have turned up, which means it was my own dumb fault for leaving it on the counter at customs. I can’t even blame Mitchell Ross Fillmore for this one. (Although, I do now blame him for many things around the house. If the trash is overflowing, I yell at Mitchell Ross Fillmore about it. If the peanut butter cookies are a bit overcooked, I blame Mitchell Ross Fillmore for it. And if I can’t find a paper I am looking for or I screw up typing a book review, it is totally Mitchell Ross Fillmore who takes the fall. Pretty much from now until forever, Mitchell Ross Fillmore is my go-to scapegoat.)

Now, back in D.C., I’ve turned in my EPDP and am awaiting my full validity passport (one with a non-photoshopped biodata page) and have taken a few steps to up my organizational game. I am now the owner of an passport/document organizer that will make its maiden voyage with me to Johannesburg in a few short weeks and you can bet I’ll be a bit more careful when filling out my next customs form. No plants, livestock, narcotics or bricks of cash for this traveler!


Me, a sunburn and an EPDP