Disclaimer: this is a personal website. All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.
I’ve been in New Zealand exactly a week. In the spirit of a “throw back Thursday,” I thought I’d go back and share with you the gritty details of my trip over. At first I wasn’t sure if I wanted to publish this diary, but I want to document and share with you all the ways in which this trip initially felt impossible before it turned amazing. In fact, if it wasn’t for some of the events in the story, I wouldn’t be as happy in New Zealand as I am today.
8:00 a.m. Monday, August 18th
My mom wakes me up in my favorite way, with a steaming cup of dark roast coffee diluted with Crème Brulee coffee creamer. I know she is making this morning extra special for me, as I can smell homemade popovers baking in the oven—a favorite breakfast pastry that takes getting up early to give it the nurturing time it needs. My dad is busy trying to help me fix my old Mac computer. I look with admiration at parents that are trying so hard to make this transition and final hours in the US special and stress-free for me.
My mom and I high five each other as we’ve both finished my packing. I had packed before I left Chicago, but later realized I’d have to repack because my bags were so overweight.
Two weeks before departure I’d ascertained that books are considered a good gift to give New Zealanders because they are so expensive to buy (someone told me a Lonely Planet to NZ was $50!). I also found out through discussing with several people that certain cosmetic and toiletries are very expensive, and it may also be difficult to find the specific brands that I need because I’m a curly girlie. Therefore, I also had a liter of my favorite conditioner, two bottles of moose, and other products to make these follicles of frizz magically turn into ringlets.
So yes, my bags were drastically overweight. My mom and I would transfer some stuff to the other bag and then back again. Feeling defeated, I called United, and they said that it is $100 for an extra bag anyway and an additional $100 for luggage over 50 pounds. After going to the post office, I discovered it would already be $70 to ship the excess books, so weighing my options (ha!), I decided just to make one bag heavy and pay the fine.
We leave for the airport. I feel surprisingly calm, and I relax in the sunshine streaming through the car windows.
We arrive at the airport and all calmness melts away. I had thought the extra bag would be $200 total. The actual price comes out to $500. And although the United clerk is helpful, I still burst into tears. I was already emotional, and for some reason, the fact that I couldn’t take some simple gifts because of the cost breaks my heart.
I refocus. We discover that if I carry 27 pounds of books on my person the 8,000 miles, the total cost will drop to $300. Even though my parents graciously offer to ship them to me, I get a giant plastic recycling bag and plop them in along with my heavy messenger bag to make it “one” carry-on bag (thanks for the tip, United man!). I put on the heaviest jacket, dawn knee-high compression socks, and lace up my heavy hiking boots to help get rid of some of the weight.
I give my lovely parents a tearful goodbye and walk through security with a backpack on my shoulders, and the giant plastic bag with its visible contents in my arms.
I realize quite quickly that I can’t lug around the books in a plastic bag. Holes begin to form, and there is no pleasant way to carry them unless I drag them on the ground behind me. I’m tellin’ y’all, these just look like Michelle Obama arms, but I’m actually quite the weakling. I attempt to go into five stores to find a tote bag large enough to fit my messenger bag and books. No luck.
I go into the Harley Davidson Store and find a black bag with the logo and a large motorcycle printed on it that just might work. I look from the plastic bag to the Harley one, to the plastic bag. I move on.
My savior is Brookstone! I find this duffle bag that barely squeezes in all of the stuff. I feel relief and find a place to charge my phone. I start texting loving messages to all the beloveds.
My ticket says it’s boarding time, but the flight is delayed. I feel a little antsy because I only have a 50 minute layover in San Francisco before my big 15 hour flight to Sydney.
A beautiful young girl named Marissa sits next to me at the gate and strikes up conversation. She’s going to L.A. to see her dad’s side of the family. She is happy and excited to tell her story. I appreciate that listening to her keeps my mind off of the fact there is not yet a plane to get me to the West coast.
I feel much better as the turbulence subsides and the flight attendants start moving about the cabin.
The elation is short lived. The captain comes on and states that we will land at 10:05 p.m. My flight to Sydney departs at 10:15 p.m. I am in the last row of the aircraft, which means I’ll be the last to get off. Anxiety pulls on my chest.
A flight attendant makes me feel better. The Sydney flight is delayed until 10:35. They will let all of the transfers get off first. The international terminal is on the other side of the airport, but if I channel all of my old sprinting skills, I should make it in time. The flight attendant also says that the Sydney flight knows we’re coming, and should wait. I get up and stretch to get my legs ready for a sudden race against time.
The seat belt sign finally turns off. I pop up so fast the old woman across from me jumps in surprise. For the most part, the travelers on the aircraft remain in their seats to let us panicked souls get through. When I get almost to the front, however, a woman dressed in all blue steps out in the aisle. “My flight to Sydney leaves in minutes!” I cry, as I try to get around her. She scowls at me and yells back, half to me and half at the people starting to crowd the aisle, “Me too! Out of my way! Got to get to Sydney!” Anyone trying to escape steps back and lets us through. A well dressed, distinguished looking man in a business row seat smiles at me and says, “Turn right for International! And good luck!”
I do not turn right. Instead, I follow the woman in blue, who is panting and exclaiming, “Lord Jesus!” The books in my new duffle bag turn to sand bags, and I struggle to keep up with her, even though she is twice my age. I feel like we’ve been running a long while. Too long perhaps. Suddenly, she halts and shrieks, “Oh Lord, thank you! I made it!” I start to smile, until I see that the gate says that the flight is leaving to LA. I look at her with confusion. “I thought you were going to Sydney?!” I breathe at her, and she pants back at me, “Oh no. I just needed to get off that plane, girl. It worked!” I think some not-so-nice thoughts and sprint back in the opposite direction.
I can sense that I’m not going to make it, but I try really, really hard. The duffel bag is too heavy. I alternate between dragging it behind me on the ground or pushing it in front of me like Coach D makes my track athletes do with towels when they are on punishment. People look at me with concern, curiosity, and pity, but no one offers words of encouragement. The hiking boots have come untied, but I don’t have the time to stop and retie them, so I slide in them as I clomp through the international terminal. And I wish I had thought to remove my fleece as I can feel the sweat start to pool on my lower back.
I’m going to need my inhaler, I think as the heavy breathing turns to wheezing. But I try to keep positive, remembering that the flight attendant said that the plane would wait. I finally see Gate 102, which is the very last terminal in the whole building. I run/fall down the escalator, and then literally army crawl up to the desk, where I look up to see a blonde woman looking at me and shaking her head no. I didn’t make it.
I’m having a full blown asthma attack. I’m still lying flat on my stomach from my army crawl. The United people just stare at me as I wheeze and gasp for air. A woman walks up to me and helps me retrieve my inhaler from out of my backpack. I can hear others arrive behind me. One girl bursts into tears. We are all in various degrees of confusion and anger, as we can see the plane still sitting there right outside the window. But the United clerk says it’s too late, the doors are already closed. As I make my way to a garbage can to choke into it until the albuterol kicks in, a man who works at the airport runs to get me some water.
I can finally speak and feel more stable. The gate has emptied except for the woman. Her name is Fern, she’s from Christchurch, New Zealand, and she is my savior. She gets me a trolley I can lean against as we walk all the way through the international terminal and most of the national terminal to get to the United customer service desk.
We make it to the United service desk. My clerk states that the next available flight is at 10:35 p.m. tomorrow. Twenty-four hours from now. Crestfallen, she tells me it’s good news–because there is only one flight a day to Sydney, if the plane would have been full, I’d be stranded until the next possible day. But there is bad news–she says that United will not cover the cost of a hotel because it was not their fault. Apparently, they’ll cover for mechanical or crew issues, but not “air traffic control,” she says, “that, we had nothing to do with.” I also discover that the closest available hotel is an hour away. She looks at me with no sympathy and says, “I can give you a blanket and tell you the most comfortable bench to sleep on.” After a tear squeaks out (I know, I know, lots of my stories involve crying), she says she’ll call her supervisor.
12:01 a.m. Tuesday, August 19th
The supervisor comes. Even though I smile at her, she does not smile back. She repeats what the initial clerk says in a way that shows me she’s annoyed she was called to speak to me. I happen to glance to my right and see three young people whom I remembered from my flight talking to a United employee about eight feet away. I squint and see that the employee is definitely handing them hotel vouchers. I lean forward and, concentrating on not crying again, I ask why other people on my same flight were given vouchers when I am not. I barely finish the last word when she curtly cuts off my question with, “No they are not getting vouchers.” I then point over to the young woman holding one, and the supervisor stomps over to the group.
Supervisor is on the phone yelling very loudly. I pick at imaginary lint on my fleece.
Supervisor comes up my clerk, and without acknowledging me in the slightest, whispers, “you have to give her one now. But I am not happy.”
I hear some of the workers whisper about how the employee who initially gave the hotel vouchers was “dismissed.” Dismissed?! Does that mean sent home or fired? Did I just get someone fired?!
I get my hotel and transportation vouchers but not the $30 in food vouchers that I see the people around me getting. However, I keep my lips closed. I feel like I’ve already asked for too much.
1: 10 a.m.
I wait in the shuttle with Fern. I’m happy to have made a friend. I was initially excited to be stranded in San Francisco, because I thought I could spend the morning gazing at the seals down at Fisherman’s Wharf. But we pass San Fran and head south to San Jose. I forgot that the clerk had said that the close hotels are all full.
We arrive at my hotel. I stand in line and the woman at the desk gives me a hot cookie. I realize I have missed dinner, and this nice gesture is overwhelming. I contemplate leaning over the welcome desk to hug her.
I realize I have left my duffle bag in the back of the shuttle that is pulling off. I sprint back to get it. I really, really, am rethinking those books.
I am finally in my room. I should go straight to bed as it’s really 4 a.m. Chicago time, and I have to catch the shuttle back to the airport at 11 a.m. I turn on the T.V., thinking that I’ll just see what’s on for a second. Problem is, because I don’t have cable at home, whenever I’m around a T.V. I get hooked in its contents. Mmmm. T.V.
I doze off with a Sci-Fi thriller playing in the background.
I’m feeling refreshed after a shower and a comfy bed. Today will be a good day with no sad tears. I hear the stories of how some others got stranded as we take the shuttle back to the airport.
I eat in the airport. A lot. The last real meal I’d had was the popovers the morning before. I don’t care how expensive things are, I just pitchfork food into my mouth until a food baby appears.
On impulse, I decide to buy some Clinique Clarifying lotion at the duty free. I like how it helps my skin, and I figure it will be much cheaper than buying in New Zealand. This is my first experience with duty free.
Fulbright teacher Lauren Zappone Maples posted the following on my Facebook wall after hearing about my missed flight: “This is one of the quotes I live by. It is attributed to Albert Einstein. ‘There are only two ways to live your life. One is a though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.’ Hope you are able to enjoy the miracles of the day… and that you get/got your shower!”
And there have been many miracles. I am showered, and I feel healthy and refreshed. My neck isn’t sore from sleeping on a hard bench. After talking to Jason, he sweetly gets me into the United Club. Fern pays the fee, and we spend the day reading books, writing letters, and talking to each other. After a week of stress getting ready for the trip, it feels like a much needed relaxing day at the spa. All in all, it feels like quite the miracle enjoying a respite of food, good company, and relaxation.
It turns out that Fern is a Maori language educator, and because my project deals with equity in Maori education, she was the most amazing person I could have run into while being stranded for hours. She is just delightful, relaxed, and made me feel like I’ve known her for years.
She is half Maori herself, and after I showed her the reference book I showed her on Maori culture, she laughed at me and politely told me it was rubbish. I then looked at the author, who doesn’t seem to be Maori or even a Kiwi at all. It made me reflect on the importance of perspective and thinking hard about the point of view of the source you use. Fern tells me she’ll hook me up with schools, educators, and leaders in the South Island if I ever make the journey there.
Fern and I have one last “Mauri ora,” or the Maori words for “cheers” before we head down to the real world of the airport. Fern teaches me that “Mauri” means “the essence of life/to be alive” and “ora” means to be “well” or “living.” Just how the Maori hello, “Kia ora” means “wishing to be well.”
On the way out, we see this sign. We wonder if we will spend the next day in the United Club as well.
I go to pick up my duty free. I don’t have my receipt ready (because I didn’t know I had to), so the worker opens my duty free bag to take the receipt inside it. I walk away without even thinking about it.
The doors close to the aircraft, and I’m inside it this time! We are told we are delayed because we had to wait for some transfers. I also discover that we cannot leave too early anyway because Sydney has a curfew–no aircrafts are allowed to land before 6 a.m. Therefore, we must stall. I think that this could have made me upset seeing as I was left behind the day before, but I feel so blessed to have a day to center myself and a day with my amazing newfound friend Fern.
I introduce myself to my neighbor, an American contractor named Michael, and we fist pump to the fact that we don’t have someone in between us for the 15 hour journey.
I decide I will follow Fern’s advice and get on New Zealand time. I will watch two movies, eat a meal, and then sleep the rest of the way. When I wake, it will be 6 a.m. Sydney time.
I’m trying to make it through my second movie,Transference, but I’m so exhausted that it takes me thirty minutes of watching it before I even realize that that blurry actor is Johnny Depp. I decide for the rest of the time to sleep and relax. I use the middle seat to curl into a ball.
I’m in Sydney customs, and they are taking away my duty free. With no receipt and the fact that it’s been tampered with makes me suddenly a threat. I am surrounded. I feel a ball of frustration as I try to keep a cool head a smile on my face. Why would the worker open my bag if it would halt me at customs?
Fern makes me try an Affogato to help me feel better about my duty free/customs hold up. It’s espresso and ice cream together–a perfect mix of my favorite things. Why don’t we have these everywhere in the U.S.?
I don’t have an actual ticket for my Sydney to Wellington flight yet. I just have a piece of paper that says I must see the front desk. The gate I need doesn’t seem to exist. I ask person after person, and no one has any idea where the desk is.
No luck with the gate. I give Fern a huge hug as she boards her plane.
I sit and have a Affagato. At this point, I can’t handle any more stress.
My name booms over the airport intercom. I am being summoned. But I still can’t locate the gate.
To my dismay, I discover that my gate is through the duty free and then underground. How was I supposed to find that?
I am on the plane. I’m next to a gregarious Australian lawyer named Ivan and his hilarious doctor friend named Vincent. They keep me laughing all the way to Wellington. At one point, I open up all of the goodbye/good luck cards I’d received before I left, and for once on this trip, I cry happy tears. I am so blessed to have so many people rooting for me and supporting me. Through all of the stress and frustration, I feel so grateful that I have almost made it not only for me, but also for them.
When we start to descend, Ivan insists that I switch places with him so I can see Wellington for the first time. All of the stress, all of the anticipation, all of the sacrifices were for this. exact. moment. And it’s totally worth it.