Friday, January 17, 2014

1-17-14 International Travel Never Goes Like You Think It Will, No It Doesn't

4 AM: Typing at 4 AM because my internal clock is still set to Korean time, and thinks that it's early afternoon and therefore time to be productive. By the time I finally adjust to American time, it'll be time to fly back to Korea and experience the shakeup all over again. So far I don't have a sleep schedule so much as a time-when-sleep-attacks and a time-when-sleep-is-unobtainable. Like a cat; when you want sleep, it's gone and when you don't want it, it won't leave you alone.

But I'm happy. I'm with the parents and the siblings and it's like I've never left. I've seen my grandma, and I'll soon see my aunts and uncles and cousins and my church family and maybe even my former American students, so I'm looking forward to that. Got out of the house for the first time in two days this previous night--saw my baby brother's basketball game, and he's a beautiful doll of a child. I missed cheering him on at sporting events.

I'm surprised at how undramatic and non-eventful it is to be back home. I was picturing an arrival home with a swelling soundtrack and a 360 camera swirling around to capture our tearful hellos, but instead it was just nice and calm, like I'd only been away to college for two weeks instead of on the complete-other-side of the world for 5 months.

And now I know I can get home! Having never visited (let alone lived) in another country, I didn't know how hard or easy it might be to return home. In August, the move to Korea was such a big step it felt like I was hopping on a steam boat to the New World, never to see the motherland again. But, no. Flying internationally is no fun (and I mean reeeeally no fun, more on that later), but once it's over, you're back with the ones you love. It's so...simple. You can go and you can come back. My mind is kind of blown by how I can have two homes and move between them. It's like discovering I can step into the linen closet and beam myself to Narnia, but with a four-hour layover.

Now the flight story.

I was healthy and hadn't lost any possessions when I got home, but I did look decidedly run down and a bit fuzzy, like a rumpled squirrel.

My flight from Incheon to San Francisco was...12 hours? Not as bad as the 15-hour flight from Chicago to Incheon on the way over, but still so eerie and daunting it was a hairsbreadth away from an episode of the Twilight Zone.

To clarify my stance on flying; short flights (1 to 6 hours long) are fun. They are adventurous. You eat airplane snacks, you watch airplane movies, you do light reading and listen to your ipod. Short flights make you feel all special, like you are Such A Person who is going The Places and doing The Things.

Long flights (8-15 hours) make you forget your ties to humanity. The essence of your mortal soul, crafted and put into your fragile body by the Lord himself, begins to tarnish like a silver spoon left in the screwdriver drawer.

Or maybe it's just me.

Behold, Time Hath Looped In Upon Itself.

I learned a teensy bit from the last flight experience. I packed a full water bottle, so I did not again enter the Thirst Dimension. It was glorious--I was no longer at the mercy of the drink cart, though it came by often enough. I also packed lotion, so every time the top layer of my hands threatened to crack apart, I could soothe it into staying with me.

But I could not sleep. Maybe one of those little life-vest neck pillows could have helped, but I doubt it. I was in economy, so space for my feet to move and knees to bend was not something that existed. I was seated between a middle-aged Korean man and an elementary-aged Korean girl on the aisle side, and the darling girl never made a peep any of the five times I had to crawl over her to get exercise or brush out my squirrelly hair.

The sound system on my seat wasn't working, so I could observe the in-flight movies but I couldn't hear them, and the subtitles were in Chinese. You haven't lived until you've sat in a totally silent airplane under the darkness of a simulated night while endlessly scanning the meaningless Mandarin subtitles of "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs: 2".

I Have No Way Of Knowing If This Image Made Sense In Context.

The crazy thing was that Minji, the adorable little 6th-grade girl beside me, was fine. She sat through the whole flight like a small adult, she slept a little, and generally looked like she was not coming apart at the seems.

While I laid over on my food tray and wedged my head catty-corner in the space between the seats, hoping nobody sent an elbow my way. My neck vertebrae smooshed together a bit while doing so, but I probably got 15 minutes of semi-sleep out of this position before simply flopping forward with the airplane pillow between my forehead and the seatback in front of me.

Pictured: Position Number 1.

I thought it would never ever ever endm but as in August the flight did end and the last two hours were by far the easiest. I said goodbye to sweet baby Minji and wished her luck on her camp (she was going to Boston for Social Sciecne camp), I grabbed my bags (and my life-giving water bottle) and waved farewell to the sweet flight attendant who had praised my Korean speaking ability and who informed me as I got off the plane that someone with my verbal skills was bound to get a Korean husband soon (not if he sees the horror that is me trying to sleep on an international flight, I won't!).

In San Francisco, there was a 3-hour wait that stretched into more like 5 hours because something was wrong with the heating-cooling system on the flight to Paris, so United Airlines gave our plane (the Houston plane) to the Paris people, then fixed the heat on the Paris plane and gave it to us, eventually.

The flight to Houston was fun because it was daylight and nobody was sitting beside me! I had some nice conversation with a sweet girl from Texas, two seats down, and I watched movies and read a book, just as if I hadn't been awake for 30 hours. 

But I began to foresee the scheduling problem that would ensue when we landed. Thanks to the Paris Kerfuffle, my plane would be landing in Houston at 9:05 PM. My flight to Huntsville was scheduled to leave from Houston at 9:05 PM. When I landed, United had vouchers waiting for all of us with connecting flights--none of us could get another flight until afternoon of the next day, so they were sending us to a nearby hotel, with vouchers for dinner and breakfast. 

I was simply stuck in Texas and losing a half-day with my family, but other people had it far worse.

One woman needed to get to New Orleans right away because her elderly mother was being cared for by people, and she couldn't afford to pay them an extra half-day. I listened as an employee told her that if she hurried, she could possibly get to a far-off terminal in time to catch her New Orleans flight, which hadn't yet left for some reason. I'm pretty sure he was just trying to get rid of her, because he didn't offer to find her a cart for transportation or even try to call and see how long her flight might be delayed and to let them know she was coming. 

As she tromped off to the gate in question, it looked like this employee was wasting the time of a tired woman who was worried about her mother. At 11 PM, she and I wound up at the same motel, so I know she missed the flight. I'm sure the service staff had had a long day of dealing with exhausted and irate (if not downright nasty) passengers, but really...that's not a good way to treat people. Even, "I'm so sorry, there's nothing I can do" would have been honest.

I did manage to get my 3 PM Huntsville flight switched to a 8 AM Birmingham flight, a destination my family could still pick me up from. But the matter of what to do overnight was not settled--the hotel I had a voucher for was not one I had heard of before, so it sounded potentially shady and I didn't want to leave the safety of the airport. 

But! Once I went down the escalator, there was no going back up--I was locked away from the food and the stores, which had all been shutting down anyway. I was stranded in the baggage claim area, where the only food was in vending machines, the pay phones were pricey, and the wifi for computers was non-existent. 

My Temporary Home.

I made an angry pay phone call to my Daddy. "I've been awake forever. The food is up there and I am down here, and I don't want to go to this maybe-shady hotel." Oh, I was whining to beat the band. Spoiled toddlers had nothing on me. Daddy knew I was way past using clear logic, but he hinted that a few hours of rest in a hotel room beat chilling in the baggage claim any day.

He was right. 

I waited outside for a hour, searching for the shuttle to the inn. I struck up an impromptu friendship with a girl bound for Buenos Aires who raced mountain bikes competitively, plus a military girl who was being deployed to the Middle East. Finally I got to the hotel (which was not shady) and got a real dinner delivered (Texas Jalapeno Burger), plus some actual sleep. Daddy, you are a genius. 

Next morning, I took the shuttle back to the airport and sat across from a young mother with two sets of twins--2-year-old girls and 6-year-old boys. The talkative 6-year-old twin sat by me and we discussed how cold it is in Canada, how hot it is in Hawaii, and how I sound just like his friend Ellie, though I don't look like her. Darling child.

At the airport, I went through security again and the TSA agent patted down my hair. MY HAIR. My braid was apparently of a size where it could conceal weapons. So. If I ever need to hide something, I'll know where to go. 

The flight wasn't bad, and Daddy and my brothers were waiting for me on the other side. Flying is crazy, but God looks out for his children and maybe teaches them a little patience as they go.