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Well that was certainly the roughest journey to get to the other side of the world I’ve ever had. And I’ve been to the Himalayas!
It all started on a Thursday, March 19th of 2020 at 9 AM when my mama called and woke me up. My flight wasn’t until 12:30 PM and I had been up for a few hours in the middle of the night, so I hadn’t exactly been in a rush to rise. Using her call as an alarm clock, I groggily pulled myself, recently bleached hair sticking up everywhere, out of bed to finish packing and to make one last trip to drop stuff off in storage. Running a little behind on my way back, I still drove through a neighborhood taqueria for what was to be the last of the delicious burritos of San Diego I was likely to have for the next year and then jammed the five more minutes home to where my sis and mom were waiting for me. Mom had lent me their spare car for the couple days after I turned in my rental and Wendy gave her a ride to pick it up back and to say goodbye. Living ten minutes from the airport, I was relieved and thankful, especially after the painful $50 to get to my family’s house a couple days before, that Mama came to me and dropped me off at the airport.
Mom being Mom, though, was making me feel a little rushed when seeming a bit impatient to head out. I assumed because she wanted to get home but also because it was too hard to grasp leaving a little later than I had originally said without triggering her anxiety. Understandable, and I was probably unintentionally stalling because my heart was torn to leave the home I loved so much, but rushing someone before they can do their final sweep is never a good idea. Something that proved itself to be true when I hurriedly threw all of my Promacta meds (for ITP) in a medicine bag that was in the big beat-up blue suitcase about to be checked. Before that I had planned on taking ten minutes to borrow her pill cutter and throwing one of the bottles back in my purse. She had instead told me I could have it and didn’t seem to be in any mood to wait. I wouldn’t realize until later that I checked them all but what I did realize about thirty seconds after locking the front door was that I had forgot the newly purchased portable battery and international converter that was plugged into the wall next to where I was planning to split the pills. Que swinging by the local OB Target that I had sworn I would never go to for a new converter. Still managing to let feeling rushed distract me from grabbing the right one, I’d later find another surprisingly cheap attachment at a little store in my hotel in Japan. Already off to a typical hot-mess of a Robin start and I hadn’t even hit takeoff.
Oh how I fell in love with Japan Airlines. My small experience in Japan in general, actually. I think I had flown them before but hadn’t had the experience yet to know how good I had it. So unlike me to “pansy out” and actually think smarter than harder, I sprung for the $5 cart to take my gigantic 48 lb suitcase, 41 lb medium-sized one, 22 lb backpack, huge puffer jacket, hoodie and pillows (both regular and neck) for the short ride to check-in. From there it was as smooth as Barry White singing “Let’s Get It On” at last call. The staff was so sweet, helpful and I even got a lot of them to giggle with a little of my happy and bubbly Care Bear stare. Something easy to channel at the beginning of such a trek but oh so not by the end.
The flight attendants continued to be just as lovely the whole way through both flights, as was the two impressive meals served on the first of 12 hours and second of 4 1/2 the day after. Indulging in three mini bottles of complimentary wine of both flights, the attendants didn’t blink an eye. I even managed to watch all but one of the movies offered that looked decent while I, unsurprisingly, didn’t sleep more than dozing just enough to bob my head into being jerked awake. Realizing that I had a 16 1/2 hour layover once making it to Japan, a few hours longer than expected, I sat outside the baggage claim thankful to pull down my mask for a minute and eat the rest of the breakfast burrito from home while contemplating whether or not I should splurge for a last minute hotel. Seriously debating the pods offered in the airport that I’d heard about, in the end I opted for a hotel ten minutes from the airport that offered a shuttle, complimentary breakfast and was even a wee bit cheaper. Cheaper than I’d expect in general given how expensive I’d heard Japan to be. Still, I was balling on a budget until I got reimbursed by the school so the free breakfast tipped the scales for the win. That and needing the de-stimulation time that I wasn’t going to get using the communal bathroom and shower situation that was offered with the pods. Making a mental note to go for the cool experience next time, I hit a few buttons, walked across the street to an almost empty shuttle bus and was on my merry way.
Getting a decent night of six hours sleep, something I rarely do when traveling, I was happy to get back in the sky with Japan Airlines and relaxed when I got off the plane in China. Impressive as I had only had bad experiences flying through the country in the past and had sworn to never fly through it again. Unfortunately those bad experiences took all of about two seconds to continue once walking into the terminal. Holding a paper questionnaire regarding Covid-19 that the flight attendants had given everyone, something I was to find out later was only meant for those going into China, I asked an employee where to go for a transfer to Asiana Airlines. As was to become the norm during my time stuck there, next to no one understood English (how does that happen at an international airport?) and instead of trying to figure out what I was saying, she blew me off by pointing me to the line for quarantine after seeing the paper. Quarantine at the airport, ladies and gentlemen, was only for those entering China; not for transfers. Something I would also find out about half way through the four hours I was detained by employees in full hazmat suits that made them look like astronauts. Asshole astronauts taking their time who were holding my passport hostage and refusing to communicate with me when I tried to express that I was going to miss my flight. Finally being called an hour after I did indeed miss the connection (which would make me also miss the one after that), I found out that checking “yes” to whether or not anyone had tested positive in my community meant in my direct contact areas such as work or home, not city. Also, after multiple employees couldn’t grasp that I was neither leaving China or going in, that the form wasn’t even something I needed to fill out and that I never should have been there in the first place. Double the “oh shit” expression on their faces once the light bulb finally went off. Being told I could go on my way with regretful expressions, not a damn thing was done to help me about the position I had been put in. Cue adding an additional two days of hell, one and a half of which was in China. The country I was least comfortable going through amid the Covid-19 endemic, even for what was originally supposed to be only three hours. Lucky me.
Sent out of quarantine and into airport purgatory, the sparse white-washed large room meant as an exit for those coming off flights and others on their way to go through security was to become my horrible home for the next day and a half. First was the help desks that proved to be no help at all. Once again, no employees understood or spoke decent English and tried to blow me off instead of helping. The closest I got was vague comments about calling the airline to which I did but not before first spending an expensive hour first holding for the booking company with an automated voice telling me it would be twenty minutes for at least forty while I also double-tasked to try to get help online. When a rep in India for kiwi.com finally did get on the line, all he did was tell me after another brief hold that I was neither covered by the guarantee nor the additional insurance I had bought. In a panic, that would be when I did call Asiana Airlines direct and was told that not only would they not help but that I was also being charged a $150 no-show fee. But hey, after that I’d have an open ticket for a certain amount. How does that even work? I mean, how the hell is that justified? I admit that I hadn’t done my homework to try to figure out why but I just couldn’t see how the airline lost out on any profit. If anything they made some by not having to provide meals, having an extra seat to sell last minute and/or making for a more pleasant experience for another passenger by providing extra room. Not that it was needed. The airports and planes were sparse. I had my own row in all three of my four flights. That part was glorious.
Fighting with my recruiter about leaving me abandoned and stranded (it’s got it’s own story), I finally had money wired to pay for a last minute flight a day and a half later on Korean Air. With little in the way of options, I was to be stuck on three plastic chairs in an isolated corner until 6 PM the next day but not before my third or fourth attempt at the help desk. Once employees finally got enough communication through to let me know that no one could help me until a rep for the airline got there the next evening, I gave up. Selecting the option on kiwi.com to buy a new ticket on my own and get partial reimbursement (suck it Mr. India man!) I melatonined myself to sleep on and off while also walking around like a miserable zombie ghost to look for a place to plug in my phone and extra battery. With only a guy in his early twenties who had a hard to understand super strong Australian accent to keep me company, the two or three cumulative hours sleep I did manage to get would leave my hips feeling bruised and favorite jeans ripped from the button on a pocket getting caught. Thinking about how thankful I was for the snacks I brought as I would have had nothing else to eat otherwise, I was even more thankful when an employee actually was the one to come up to me at 6 PM that next day. Without explanation as he went back and forth from somewhere out of sight, he finally gave me a hand-written ticket for my flight (that’s a first) and told me to follow him. Thankful the Australian kid was given a meal (still can’t figure out why he turned down some open-bag trail mix from me a few hours before during those virus times), we said a goodbye and good luck as I followed the once again astronaut-looking employee to an isolated security line. Always without explanation, he spoke back and forth in Korean with other employees, often with others walking up to join the conversation, for long enough to make me feel weird and wonder even more what the heck was going on. Finally walking thorough security there and into another empty washed out room to put my belongings and myself through the security x-ray machines, I was then dropped of at a waiting room that had a friendly young German woman who reminded me of someone I would meet at a hostel. I tried to be friendly and converse but all I really wanted to do was distract myself with watching Grace and Frankie while trying to keep it together.
Once again not being given any update as to why I hadn’t been picked up to go to my flight in a totally different terminal until after the time my it was supposed to leave, I was finally informed that my flight was delayed as I was taken to a shuttle where I was to be the only passenger. A long ride in itself, by that point I honestly wondered if I was about to be dropped on the airway somewhere to fend for myself until I could figure out where my plane was and board the steps. Thankfully that didn’t happen. Finally reaching the terminal, still clumsily struggling with the tons of carry-on stuff that I swore had grown in weight to a million tons, I found out that the flight was indeed delayed two hours. By then the whole thing just felt like one big hot-mess sitcom joke.
Finally getting on the flight with very little notice for me to heave all my stuff back up, especially challenging given that I had tweaked my anterior ankle the day before (I would make a terrible sherpa), I awkwardly made my way onto the plane, once stopping to put all my stuff down to help a woman struggling with her own only to be told by an impatient stewardess to move into the seats while I got my belongings together. She hadn’t seen me put it all down to help the woman who was the one really holding everything up.
So incredibly relieved to get out of that hellish place, I finally made it to and fell into what was once again my own row, spinning out on crestfallen thoughts about how I had sworn I would never fly through China again, how I knew that in reality I always would if it was the only option and how I would rather sit in L.A. traffic. Passing out in a comatose sleep within a few minutes, I only managed to wake up long enough to eat the small meal of a sandwich, piece of pineapple, grape yogurt and brownie. Happy to have it after all that time without a real meal, I was surprised that a meal was served on such a short flight. A flight so short that I was in astounded disbelief that it required such a terrible experience and so much time.
The fun wasn’t over yet. Getting into Seoul at 2:30 AM, I felt a vague sense of internal celebration and hint of relieved happiness for finally making it to S Korea. It was already a huge improvement to see an employee at an information booth where I could ask about the luggage that should have arrived the day before. Having to explain a few times that it would have been delivered via Asiana Airlines even though I had checked it in with Japan Airlines (and grasping to understand how it all worked it myself), I never once thought to use Google Translate to help as I had in the past. When she finally got it regardless, she told me that I’d have to go to Asiana Airlines at a different terminal with a shuttle that wouldn’t start running until 4:30 AM. Knowing that I was probably already fucked before having even gotten there, I stared at her defeated, exhausted and delusional for a short moment before deciding that going to sleep could screw me even farther. Heading upstairs to the door where she had directed me, I continued to dull the pain by watching Grace and Frankie and The Witcher until I was able to catch the shuttle. Another long one, I walked up and down the terminal looking for baggage with the only small moment of success being when I stumbled upon a place to convert my money for what was probably a large enough fee for me to be glad I didn’t understand the conversion. Finally giving in when seeing another information booth after that, I jumped back on the merry-go-round until finally conceding to being told that I had to go to the lost baggage office of Asiana Airlines and that it wouldn’t open until 9 AM. I had only asked where baggage was and, like every other time, no one would give me a straight damn answer. I knew finding my luggage was going to be another battle, so much so that I refused to buy another flight to the island in advance regardless of my recruiter’s insistence (plus I didn’t have the funds to forfeit for another missed flight), but I couldn’t believe it was turning into THAT much of a nightmare. The employees weren’t as uncaring and just plain bad as in China but ugh.
Finally conceding to lay down on another hard bench by a pretty rocked pond with gigantic goldfish, I sat up a couple hours later, still rubbing my eyes, when a thin Korean man in his fifties walked up with the fake friendliness of someone in sales while trying to get me to donate money for kids. A little offended while brushing him off, I thought about how the headache I was getting was so out of character until it dawned on me that I hadn’t had coffee in a couple days. Like a ray of light from the heavens, there just so happened to be a coffee shop right next to me with more comfortable seating. The coffee did indeed cure my headache and there was a caffeinated moment of happy almost human again awakening as the sun rose and I didn’t want to watch shows anymore. Instead I tried to catch up a wee bit on emails not related to the current situation and Facebook socializing only to realize I had calculated the time wrong to join a virtual hangout with the Spanky’s crew. In fact, I had just missed it while sitting there not knowing what to do with myself. Add the bummer to the mountain of bummers of the last four days.
As soon as 9 AM hit, I was on my feet heading to the lost baggage offices of Asiana Airlines to one again go through the process of trying to reach understanding through a language barrier followed by being given a complicated answer that didn’t answer my direct question. Adding to it, I was becoming more and more of a klutz with all the large and heavy stuff that I was carrying. Struggling to get out paperwork to address what a women at one of the stops was asking for, I managed to add to the party when dropping my phone to the ground, breaking it to the point of it’s death. With her not skipping a beat as the look of pain crossed my shut eyes, I continued on until somehow being sent back to the terminal I had been at in the first place in order to meet with someone at Korean Airlines. The good news was that I had first spoken with the man and he not only was pretty fluent in English (my having practiced Korean for months seeming to have gotten me nowhere) but also seemed intelligent and like he could be one of the people in charge. As a side note, it had been nice to watch the sweet women in her twenties at that particular information booth (I made it to that one twice) get excited that I was from the US because, as she told me, her grandmother lived in Texas. Que fighting the blank expression of that being a pretty different world from California.
Taking the shuttle once again and also once again having a hard time finding the place he had instructed, I miserably went to information knowing what was going to happen and was unsurprisingly sent to the wrong office. Continuing to be given wrong information at that wrong office, I argued with the woman I was speaking with until she finally gave in and called the number of the man I was looking for instead of just instructing me how to get to what was undoubtedly another wrong place. Embarrassed at looking like an idiot who couldn’t follow general instruction after she ended up physically leading me, a couple of guys who reminded me of military guarding a door took my passport and started another exhaustive process of procedural BS when the man walked out like a guardian angel, telling them I was with him. The intelligence I had heard through the phone showing behind his eyes, I had a little faith once again but still reminded myself to be ready to crash and burn. It didn’t happen though. He, the first one after all that, actually got it. Having me fill out a basic lost luggage form, he explained that he believed the luggage to still be in China given the complications of my trip and then explained the process of trying to track it along with how and when I would be contacted.
Relieved that it was coming to an end in a way that I felt confident would get it taken care of, I hadn’t had my Promacta for a few days so I was still a little panicked. Especially given that I had started getting the bruises that indicated internal bleeding. At least I thought some of them were from that. There were definitely plenty from getting bumped and banged along the way and a few from my brother in his dark place. Either way, it was especially hard to keep what was left of my cool when he said there was no way to know how long it would take. I managed to compose myself pretty quickly, though, both because I didn’t want to freak out on the person ending my nightmare and also because of remembering oh so many previous experiences where I had felt like the world was ending and just shut down. As a way too high-strung and anxiety-ridden person who lived in the moment, I had always done that, feeling as if there was no other option and that I had once again proven myself to be a fuck up. From those many painful and intense experiences, I had finally learned the hard way (the only way I ever learned) that it just wasn’t true. Telling myself to turn on my brain to think of the big picture in regard to other options, I reminded myself that the next bottle of meds had been delivered to my mom, the three changes of clothes with me should be enough given that I was going to be on quarantine for a couple weeks and that I had made due MacGyver style plenty of times in the past. Both through travel and especially through the burn. I had better survival skills than most.
Thanking him while being surprised by my little moment of glowing up, I figured out how to catch the next bus to the more local airport that would finally take me to my new home. On a roll, I was also thinking about how not having to figure out all the difficulties of dealing with that gigantic luggage with me was pretty damn rad. Floating down that Buddhist river of letting go and going with the flow, I went to the counter once getting to Jeju Air to see if I could get any small amount of refund on the flight I had missed, either to go toward a new ticket or just a regular refund. Already seeing online and through IMing with a rep when I was in quarantine in China, I knew I would be lucky to even get half but it was worth a try. So after explaining that I had kept being cut off with the IM rep when trying to cancel after I couldn’t figure it out online, I crossed my fingers and waited. Not having to pay extra for the luggage meant that the flight would only be around $35 anyway, so it wouldn’t be too painful either way. Well that wait turned into a long one of multiple employees talking about whatever was going on with it while going back and forth between working on their screen and looking on the e-ticket on mine. Once again with new employees walking up to join in, I was starting to jokingly wonder if I was some kind of person of interest and didn’t know about it. In the end they surprised the hell out of me by giving me a full refund. I couldn’t believe it. It was the rainbow at the end of a dark and ugly hurricane tornado. As far as flights and other forms of public transportation went, I could finally exhale. It was over.
With an aching ankle, hips and belongings that still felt next to impossible to manage regardless of checking in the trekking backpack, I treated myself to a bowl of traditional Korean bibimbap as a celebration of making it and then headed to security for my 2:30 PM flight. Grabbing a couple of canned coffees that would be desperately needed the next morning after passing security, I found my seat on the plane, hid the fact that the seat belt didn’t fit, and tried in vain to read a book about the smartest kids in the world that a neighbor had given me at our teenie block party on my birthday back in OB. The attempt was almost a joke as it took less than ten minutes to black out in exhaustion for a flight that was so short that it reminded me of flying from Southern to Northern California in that pretty much all we did was go up and down. Once off the plane and to the baggage claim, mine was one of the first ones out. After going to the bathroom to wash my hands (as my recruiter had asked me to do an annoying amount of times), I opened my laptop planning to send him a message that I was ready to be picked up when I had one last moment of fun as an employee impatiently asked me to move away from the carts so he could add more. Whatever. I balanced my laptop preying that I wouldn’t drop it like I had my phone and sent the message.
Walking out to a pretty tropical setting of trees and shrubbery, I instantly felt the darkness of suffocating hibernation from not going on enough on new adventures over the last year start to break away. A few minutes later, the middle-aged Korean man with salt and pepper hair who had mostly helped and sometimes hindered me so much over the last few months drive up in his small SUV. Opening his trunk for me to put my stuff in (thanks for the help, dude) while uncomfortably expressing how he didn’t know what to say about all that happened to me on the trip, he asked me to sit in the back and we were on our way. Being more than comfortable to sit back there, no doubt both from his being scared of the virus and also from being over me, I was happy to be able to check everything out while not talking. It was about 5 PM on Monday, what was Sunday morning in the US, when I finally pulled up to my new home. Making as quick of an exit as he could, I looked around with a new sense of excitement, confidence that I had made the right decision and being touched by all of the treats and furnishings the manager of the school had left. My favorite of which being a couple of coffee mugs that had little removable spoons built in. Looking at the helpful little post-it notes everywhere, I was surprised by the studio being better than I had expected. It even had a washing machine. Before coming I had thought myself likely to move into a bigger place within a few months. Looking around and quick to organize and clean enough to feel settled, I was already seeing plenty of potential to stay.
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