55 hours to Singapore (part 2)

OK, here we go, the rest of my trip that started here.

I did not sleep well in my Inner Mongolia Hotel room. Stress, unknown plans, hunger – none of that lends to a good nights’ sleep. I set my alarm for 5am. I figure that was a good time to get up, showered, downstairs and out the door. I woke to a form letter slipped under the door, sincere apologies from British Air and assurances our accommodations in Inner Mongolia would be paid in full. No fucking shit… Still no indication of what the plan was now that we are all waking up.

It was probably 5:30 when I reached the lobby to a huge sign –

  • 6am – Wake Up Call
  • 6:30am – Breakfast
  • 7:30 am – Buses depart
  • 10am – Flight departs

OK, 30 minutes to go back upstairs and lay down, stare at the ceiling. My phone rings at 6am with the wake-up call. Another 30 minutes and I go down to breakfast. Another buffet with the gamut of options. I had cereal and yogurt and fruit. And bad coffee. Not know what the day was going to hold, I had another cereal and yogurt.

Out the door and boarded the bus at 7:15am. And we sat. And sat. Annnddddddd…….sat. I kept checking my watch. 7:25am. 7:35am, 7:45am, 7:55am. WTF?! And then we sat some more. Finally pulling away from the hotel at 8:30am.

Another hour back to the airport. But this time we are traveling in rush hour, thankfully going against traffic, out of Hohhot (which I will say, those photos are very deceptive, the pollution was thick, oppressive and depressing) We get to the airport and all pile out.  Immigration is not even open!  The whole plane of passengers and crew walk right through closed lanes. That were dark. It was creepy.

We get to security and now have to do all the – take out your laptop, put your bag on the belt, walk through the metal detector. The extent of immigration at this point, and officer looking at our passport, our boarding card and handing it right back. We get to the gate and sit until 10:30am. In that hour-ish I go to the water fountain about 4 times with my water bottle, I had no idea how dehydrated I was! OK, we all board, in our seats, and ready to take off at 11am. Glad someone figured out how to fuel the plane.

An hour later we are landing in Beijing. We all funnel off the plane to the tarmac, corralled onto buses to go to the terminal. I see a sign with a few people’s names listed, mine included. I figure this is the connections list. The agent holding the sign tells me we are going to gather everyone together, go get our luggage and can then be rebooked. I’ll be on the 3:10pm flight that I was supposed to be on the day before.

The group of us gathers together in a bus and we are off to the terminal! At baggage claim we wait. And wait. And wait some more. Now there is the agent and 3 of us left. All other passengers, all other re-books, have gotten their luggage and moved on. It’s about 12:45 now. 2 hours and 25 minutes until I’m to depart China. The agent bring the three of us to the luggage office. We are told our luggage is “misplaced” and should be returned in 30 minutes. That’s encouraging.

Fifteen minutes later we are offered water and mints. No update on where our luggage is located. One of the men waiting with me asks where I’m going. I told him Singapore, and that I was supposed to be there 8am Sunday (remember it’s now about 1pm on Monday!) He tells me he is going to Japan then back through China for work. And concerned about coming back into the country now that his visa has been stamped. I shudder thinking about that. At 30 minutes he asks the agent about the status of luggage. He’s supposed to leave at 4pm. I’m really sweating it at this point. She tells us our luggage is almost there, she’s sure of it. More encouragement! Then another 15 minutes go by and they wheel in our luggage. Finally!

Another BA agent takes the 3 of us up to the ticket counter. He looks at his clipboard, looks at me, takes a breath in and says “ooooh, you better go first!” The man behind the counter takes my information, looks at me, types on his keyboard and hands me a slip of paper. He points in the direction of a ticket counter. It’s about 1:45 now (1 hour, 25 minutes until I’m supposed to depart)

I walk over to the ticket agent to get the boarding pass and drop off my luggage. This agent looks at my slip of paper, looks at me, shakes her head and goes to another agent at another computer. She walks back, puts that luggage sticker thing on it (I check, it says Singapore) and onto the belt. Then she hands me my boarding pass, looks me directly in the eye and says “You better run!” Great.

I rush to wait for the train to the terminal. It finally arrives, I get on board and we are off! Only to disembark and face immigration. And long lines. Thankfully I see a line towards the end that isn’t as long as the others and as I approach it, an agent directs me to another line that has only a few people – YAY! I get up to the counter and hand the agent my passport. She looks at me, opens up my passport, looks at me again and stamps my exit. Here’s the kicker – on the WRONG PAGE! After all that trauma of the night before to get the “right” stamp, this person doesn’t even look at the “right” stamp, she lets me through with the “wrong” stamp. I don’t care at this point, I’m nearly at the plane. Now it’s time for security again – laptop out, electronics out, shoes off, jacket off…I get through fine. Thankfully ahead of the man behind me that was stopped for having a cigarette lighter. He started raising a fuss and a bunch of agents came over because he didn’t want to give up his cheap, plastic, Bic lighter that I think run about $2 these days. But who am I to judge? I’m almost on the plane!

Sort of. The gate outside of security is “1”. My gate is fifty-something. It isn’t until I’m speed walking down the terminal that I realize I’m going by Gate 1, Gate 2, Gate 3, Gate 4 – so I start running and obsessively checking my watch. I see the gate, I see a line, I slow down a bit. I’m getting on the plane! The gate agent scans my boarding pass and I board a bus. To wait to go to the plane out on the tarmac. It’s about 25 minutes before we are supposed to depart. I’m waiting again… As irritated as I am that this plane obviously is not leaving on time, it’s leaving, and I’ll get to Singapore.

We leave the gate and shuttle over to the plane. We all board and it’s obvious we were the last bus to get there. I think we were on a 777 – are there other planes that have a 2/5/2 row all the way back in coach? I’m practically at the end of the plane, in the middle of those 5 seats. I get into my seat, stuff is stowed, seat buckle on, we take off and I start to fall asleep.

I hear… “Hey Lady?” … “Lady?” … “LADY!”, I wake, look over, the flight attendant looks at me and says, “Fish or Chicken?”  Seriously?! You woke me up to ask about my dinner choice?  Realizing I hadn’t eaten since breakfast I think it’s wise to eat and not go back to sleep, “Fish”.  The tray is handed down that has the sad salad of 3 pieces of lettuce, a cherry tomato and a few carrot shreds. A small, stale roll. Some other unrecognizable vegetable and the fish & rice portion. I take a bit of the fish and nearly gag. Maybe it’s not that bad, I try again, and nope – that wasn’t an illusion, I think this is honestly the worst thing I have ever eaten! I spit that bite out into my napkin. So I eat my sad salad and my sad stale roll and pull out one of those saved protein bars. Back to sleep.

I wake to the plane descending and flight attendants handing out entrance cards. Yay! I’m practically IN Singapore! I fill out my form and start to ready my stuff to get off the plane. We land. We disembark. I go to immigration. I hand the very friendly immigration agent my passport, entrance card, he welcomes me to Singapore. Yay!

I go to baggage claim with the other passengers and wait. And wait, then I wait some more. The claim area is nearly empty. An airport employee walks up to me and shows me a piece of paper. “Is this you?” Fuckity fuck fuck!  “Yes, that’s me.” He proceeds to tell me that my luggage didn’t make it to the plane in time and will be on the next flight arriving at 6:30 the next day. That would be 6:30am Tuesday! He points me towards the luggage office so I can fill out the paperwork to get my luggage couriered over to the hotel.

I walk over and a very cheery agent has me sit at a desk and start to fill out papers. She asks me about the color, approximate size, where am I staying, etc etc.  Then she looks at me and says, “Well, we can likely have your luggage to you about 11am tomorrow…” I immediately burst into tears. Heaving tears so I can barely talk. This poor woman who has no idea what I’ve been through looks completely shocked. She pulls a pack of tissues out of her purse and pushes them across the desk towards me. “I…am..sor-sor-sorr-yyyy.  It’s taken me two-two-two-days to get here and…and…and…” I can’t even talk. She looks at me and asks how soon I want my luggage. I have a moment of clarity, look at her and say, in a somewhat bitchy voice, “As soon as possible!!” She stamps my form with a big red, RUSH (thank you!) Then she says, “Now, I know this doesn’t really help much, but here is 64 dollars to help with incidentals” and pushes 64 Singapore dollars across the desk towards me. “I will need you to sign this form that the amount will be deducted against any claims you may make against Air China” I don’t really care, I sign the form, pick up my bags and take the 64 dollars. Which was actually pretty nice as I had no Singapore cash on me so it saves a trip to the ATM.

I walk out to the cab station and I’m directed to a driver. He looks at me and asks, “No baggage?” I just smile and shake my head. A quick, easy car ride and I’m pulling into the hotel.

I go to the counter to check in. I hand the guy my passport and credit card. He taps away on the keyboard.  “Hm, we don’t have any record of you.” My gawd – I start crying again. I tell him I was supposed to be there the prior day and due to all this travel I had not been able to call my corporate travel to make an adjustment to my reservation. He goes to another computer, comes back with keys and documents. “Yes, we have found you a room!”  Thank goodness!!

I get upstairs and enter a suite. A suite! This room is huge and it feel so comfortable. The first thing I do is log on and email my co-worker arranging the meeting (at 12:39am):

Hey there – really sorry, but I am not going to make it when the meeting starts tomorrow. I just got to the hotel 30 minutes ago and I still don’t have my luggage. The last 56 hours have been a (excuse the language) fucking nightmare and I really just need some time to distress before I can even think about doing anything at all. I will definitely attend dinner, and will try to make it over later in the afternoon but no promises.

And this is the response, 3 minutes later:

No problem Jen; we will adjust. Relax, have a morning drink and hang by the pool and see you at dinner.

What a relief! I take a shower, fill out my breakfast door hanger thing and go to sleep.  I wake up at 8:30 the next morning.  Exactly at 9 my breakfast and luggage arrive together. I eat everything on that plate…everything! I put on my work out gear and go to the gym. I work out for 90 minutes. Go back to the room take a bath and then a shower. Sit on the couch and watch Ellen. It was very relaxing indeed!

I meet up with some co-workers and head out to the evening dinner celebration! Told my story to a few people and had a very nice meal. I even tried some durian which few people agreed to eat. I figure I came this far, how could I deny trying the “king of fruits”? It wasn’t that bad…

The next day we have our meetings. I have dinner with my 2 team mates. Then back out to the airport and leave for home. I was in Singapore for a total of 48 hours. Less time than my entire travel to arrive in the country.

I was surprised how well I was reacting. I wasn’t anxious. I snapped right back. Even my jet lag back in Redmond wasn’t too bad. This is really odd, I thought it would take at least a year before I could laugh about it. But here I am laughing!

…little did I know….

(to be continued)

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55 hours to Singapore (part 1)

At the end of October I took a two week trip overseas for work. First to London for meetings and project work. Then two of us were traveling on to Singapore for a lessons learned event and celebration.

The trip started in London.  It was a really nice week for work and a bit of play. Got to see Wicked, the London Tower, walk across London Bridge, shopping, some nice food and good company. Even more time to spent face-to-face with co-workers I tend to only interact with on the phone.

So what went sideways?

Saturday morning I was supposed to leave London on a direct flight to Singapore on British Air (operated by Qantas).  I left for Heathrow after a quick morning run, packing and breakfast. When I left the hotel everything was on time, but by the time I got to the airport my flight on Qantas to Singapore was canceled due to labor issues. I worked with my corporate travel agent to get waitlisted on 3 other flights, confirmed on a fourth. I knew I wouldn’t get on that 1st of 3 waitlists as it was leaving in an hour and the ticket counter already had a long-ass line of displaced travelers.  So I went for a coffee and some work.

Four hours before that 2nd wait list I went to the airline’s ticket counter. Hm, that 2nd wait list was canceled. I went to the the 3rd wait list airline and that was canceled as well. WTF?! I called my corporate travel agent back – the agent that helped me looks up my record, “Hm, this is interesting. Colleen canceled your waitlist and your confirmation for later this evening” WTF Colleen?! That agent suggested I go back to the BA counter as they would likely have more luck rebooking me to Singapore than she could.

I go back to the BA counter tired, frustrated and near tears at this point. A nice British Air rep that had been dealing with angry people all day (I had been there 6 hours at that point) was able to find me a BA flight to Beijing, then connect on Air China to Singapore a few hours later, plenty of time to connect.  She prints out my boarding pass and as she is about to hand it to me, she has an Oh Shit moment. “WAIT! You need a visa to get into China – hold on a second.” She checks a few screens, breathes a sigh of relief, and tells me that since I’m only connecting through Beijing airport I’m fine, no need for a visa.

My bags are checked, I go through security, grab dinner, get to the gate and line up to board the plane. I get on the plane, seated next to a nice guy – an American that lives in China and in town for Nokia World. We chat a bit about phones and stuff. He tells me he graduates college, knows Chinese and decides to go live in the country for a few years and work – why the hell not? I have dinner, take a sleeping pill and drift off…

About an hour before we are supposed to land in Beijing the pilot comes on and tells us that due to fog, no flights are arriving or leaving Beijing.  We are being diverted to a local airport to wait until we can return to Beijing.  Our diversion is 150 miles away, at Hohhut Airport (i.e. “Inner Mongolia”), the sign indicating a domestic airport. I fall back to sleep (thank you modern medicine).  Two hours into this event the pilot comes back on to tell us we are cleared to return to Beijing. We just need to wait while the plane is refueled, sitting on the tarmac burned off enough we need to top off.  About 45 minutes, or an hour, later – the pilot comes back on again to tell us “Sorry folks, they cannot attach the hose to the plane or figure out what the problem is. Also – sorry to say – the crew is quickly approaching our maximum flight time per regulations, we aren’t getting to Beijing today.  Of course, British Air will take care of putting you into a hotel tonight and getting you into Beijing as soon as possible tomorrow. I’d like to leave about 8am. In the meantime we have to wait for some extra immigration staff to come in and handle everyone on the plane.”

Crap! I don’t have a visa to enter the country.  What the fuck am I going to do?!

So we all disembarked to get through Immigration. I get up to the desk and the agent flips through my passport. “You don’t have a visa!”  “I know, I’m not supposed to be here.” She calls over her supervisor, who doesn’t speak English.  They have a chat, he takes my passport and walks back to his office. “He is going to give you a 24-hour visitation stamp.  You must go apply for a visa when you get to Beijing airport tomorrow, you have to before you leave the country.” He comes back and she hands me my passport. I look inside to see a “temporary visa” stamp with 24 hrs written in.  OK, apply for a visa, great.

We all pile into a line up of tour buses for the hotel. An hour later we arrive at a rather nice-ish hotel. Everyone piles out of the buses, into the lobby and it’s mayhem. No one at the hotel speaks English (given the plane was on its way to China, most of the plane did speak Chinese) so there is a passenger behind the counter helping the English speakers as we get to the front. They aren’t even checking people in. When I get towards the front I see they are just handing people key cards. No collection of name-to-room, confirming we were on the plane, no one knows anything about that evening, the next morning or when we are leaving.

I get up to my room, look around, see the beds look starched and clean, toiletries in the bathroom (although I’m not sure they haven’t been used before), disposable slippers in the closet. I take a deep breath, exhale, and start crying and shaking. For an hour. As if the stress of the last 27 transit hours has finally caught up with me.

When I’m calm enough to get on the phone I call the international emergency services our corporate travel account provides. I explain what happened, I’m in China without a visa, what am I supposed to do?! A nice agent puts me on hold to check. A few minutes later she comes back and tells me that there isn’t anything that she can do and I should call the US Embassy in Beijing when they are open again.

I check out the desk and look at that! And internet cable. So I plug in. (side note, and this probably wasn’t a smart thing to do, I can confirm that Facebook is blocked in China, in fact I tried to publish some of this post and it failed) I look up the US Embassy in Beijing and they aren’t open until 10am on Monday. I should be out of the country by then. So I look up information about traveler emergencies. Since I wasn’t raped, accused of murder or some other egregious event – I have to wait until the office is open. Now I’m obsessing about having enough time to apply for a visa, get on a plane to Singapore, and maybe being retained in China.

My co-worker that I was traveling with, and NOT on Qantas, is already in Singapore at this point. I should have been too, for 14 hours already! She’s online and we start IM’ing. I update her on everything that has happened, or at least an update as we had been texting throughout the day.  I’m hungry and just will eat the protein bars in my suitcase. She encourages me to order room service (doesn’t exist) or find a restaurant, that I should save the bars for when I really need them.  I pack up my stuff and go downstairs, part of me hoping information about leaving the next day is now posted. No such luck, leaving China is still a mystery! I ran into two women in the elevator that were on my flight. They tell me a buffet is set up for those on the plane. So I get off on that floor and walk towards the restaurant.

A Chinese woman approaches me and asks my nationality. “American.” “Is this you?” She shows me a piece of paper with my full legal name and passport number on it. Great, what is this about. “Yes”  She calls someone over. The woman I saw at immigration and her manager walk over. The woman tells me they gave me the wrong stamp to enter the country. That she needs my passport to update it with right one. She’s only going over there (pointing to the other side of the room) and why don’t I get dinner and then she will bring me my passport.  I’m reluctant. She assures me and points to a table I can sit at and watch. So I go get food. I sit down and start to eat. She comes over again.

“What is your room number? I need to take your passport as I brought the wrong stamp. We will be back within 2 hours with your passport.” What? I can only guess what you are thinking dear reader. Yes, I admit, I let her leave with my passport. The second she left the room I felt doomed. What the FUCK did I just do?! (more on that later, I’ve since talked with my therapist about it) I barely finish my meal and race back upstairs. My co-worker is still online and I tell her what happened. I’m crying again, what a FUCKING idiot I am. She is trying to reassure me – what was I supposed to do, it’s the Chinese government. Was I supposed to go back an hour with them and not know that I would ever make it back to the hotel? Was I supposed to refuse and maybe get into a different kind of trouble? She stayed online with me for two hours. In hind sight, SO glad she was there to keep me as sane as possible when I was already spiraling out of control. As the 2 hour mark was approaching I started freaking out even more. At 2 1/2 hours I wanted to leave the room, maybe they wrote the room down wrong, maybe they are wandering the floor, maybe they are in the lobby.  I walk outside my room and I see them approaching me. The one I first ran into at the restaurant with a slip of paper and my name, and the manager who doesn’t speak English. They are both in plain clothes and this really strikes me. Seeing them out of uniform diffuses me, it also confuses me.

She hands me my passport and thanks me for being willing to work with them to do the right thing. We shake hands, they wish me safe travels and leave the floor. I go back to my room and collapse, a rough sleep and still don’t know anything about the next day or leaving Hohhut and all other aspects of actually getting to Singapore. As badly as I just want to go HOME – I’m so afraid corporate travel is going to fuck it up, I just want to get to Singapore. I know people there, one of my co-workers is temporarily living there. It’s a safe interim place to get me back on my itinerary and able to eventually get home!

I’ll pick up the rest of my trip in another post. This one has worn me out…