Connectivity issues caused a week’s delay in this posting – cheers!
I’m 24 hours post one of the more stressful starts to a trip I’ve had. I arrived at my local airport a full two hours ahead of my flight to Sydney, my first trip to Australia and a bucket list destination. I normally print my boarding pass at home, but this week was crazy, and I didn’t even think about it until I was on my way to the airport. I didn’t really worry since I’d left in plenty of time, and our small airport is usually pretty quiet. I didn’t worry, that is, until the desk agent asked me for my visa. I need a visa for Australia? Surely my company’s travel agency would have told us that we needed one when they booked our tickets…right? No. All three of us were hosed, I was just the first one to arrive at the airport and discover it.
Luckily it turns out that you now can get an electronic visa approved “immediately” online for Australia. But that wasn’t clear for much of the two hours that were burning toward our flight’s departure. Through nine calls on my speaker phone in a loud airport while frantically filling out the online form and praying that the “instant” approval would be instant enough, we wondered if we’d be spending our weekend on a plane or with our surprised families. The ending: I’m writing this on the plane, we made it.
Clearly, I learned a lesson from a mistake that I wouldn’t have made back when I was regularly traveling internationally. But as I typed and dialed and frantically tried to make the trip happen, I couldn’t help but remember my most stressful start to a trip that this small visa glitch couldn’t touch. We’d been dropped at the Guangzhou airport 15 years ago by our interpreter who had to leave us at security to bring our oldest daughter home from China. We’d spent the entire morning of the previous day filling out a ream of paperwork, then walking over to the U.S. Consulate to get stamps and signatures and pictures which would allow her to enter America. The agency carefully checked every page to ensure that we’d followed their meticulous instructions to the letter. They placed everything we needed – about three inches worth – in a manila envelope, sealed it, and told us not to open it until we got to the airport. They showed us a map of the airport and walked us through every step of the process, as we’d be on our own then. I put the remaining four inches of paperwork that I’d collected at every bureaucratic stop of our journey into my checked bag so that I didn’t have to lug it on my back halfway around the world. After two weeks away, I was very ready to go home with our new daughter.
The airport process went exactly as they told us that it would, including the harassment from the “bag wrappers” who wanted to shrink-wrap our bags to justify charging us a pittance. It was hard to ignore their persistence, but thank heavens I did…other parents in our group gave in. We got to the counter, broke the seal on our envelope, and handed the agent everything. After an extended time ruffling through each paper, she became very agitated in Chinese. Of course I had no idea what was wrong, but through hand gestures, I eventually realized that something that she was looking for was missing. I watched as all of the other parents and their new children were gradually processed and moved on toward the gate. The agent fetched a man to look through the papers; he fared no better, chattering to her the whole time. As I watched the scene unfold in horror, I realized the gravity of our situation: our translator was gone. We had used all of our local currency and had no usable money. This was before the era of cell phones, but I had no phone number to call anyway. I was sweating profusely, the adrenaline rushing big time.
I suddenly remembered the four-inch stack of papers in my checked bag! I rescued it just before the bag moved away on the conveyor, and handed the lot to the two animated agents. Within two minutes, they located the missing stamp and moved us through. The other parents broke out in applause when we arrived at the gate, just in time to board. I spent the next 30 hours in those sweat soaked clothes, including nine hours of the 14 hour flight with our new toddler crying, unappreciative of being cooped up on the last row of coach in a loud plane with these strange new people. I lugged all seven inches of that stupid paperwork, at least five pounds worth, on my back for the next 30 hours, afraid to turn loose of anything that would prevent us from getting home. I was utterly exhausted.
If I reflect, I have other travel stories that were actually much scarier in terms of what could have been, but none more stressful at the time. I suppose that’s why I took this latest little hiccup in stride. Either way, it was going to work out. After all, it would have also been nice to kiss my family goodnight and sleep in my own bed. Instead, wish me luck sleeping on the plane. Sydney awaits when I awake!
“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” –Lao Tzu