A Long Way from Home

You remember that time you lost your wallet and had to cancel all of your credit cards? Oh man, what a bother that was! What about when your car keys fell out of your pocket and you had to catch a ride to the dealership to replace them? How annoying! Oh, and then there was the time your passport was stolen on the other side of the world and the embassy wouldn’t send anyone to help you and you weren’t allowed to leave the airport without a passport and so you were trapped in the arrivals hall in a really really unfunny version of The Terminal?

No? Just me then.

I’d finished  a month of awesome traveling, starting with work experience in a hospital in Singapore and ending on my best friend’s farm an hour north of Brisbane. 8 hours after leaving Australia, I found myself in transit at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, at the unfriendly end of a 36 hour, three-part journey back to LAX. Upon landing in Malaysia at 6 am I prepared myself for my 8 hour layover, sank into a faux-leather armchair and spent the next 480 minutes on the lookout for departure lounge pickpockets, hungry for their jet-lagged prey.

You see, since becoming a quasi-grown up I’ve had a pretty decent track record for not losing things. The trick, I find, is to have absolutely no faith in yourself whatsoever, especially when carrying around  important items like passports or wallets full of cash or babies or whatever. When I’m airports, I constantly stop to check that my valuables haven’t fallen out of that invisible hole in my bag that may have mysteriously opened up in the intervening five minutes since I last checked for a hole that may have mysteriously opened up in my bag. When using free wifi, I wrap my legs around the straps of my rucksack to deter potential pickpockets (“Mmm, that gross dirty looking backpack must be full of diamonds…”) and I minimise risk by keeping all important documents in a single leather wallet whose location–uh, definitely not the front pocket of my bag–is known to no one but myself. It seems, however, that my weakness comes in bathrooms (I promise that wasn’t supposed to sound like an ad for incontinence medication).

I was about 7 and a half hours through my layover. As I walked towards my gate I removed the holy leather wallet from its sacred resting place in preparation for boarding. The next few minutes have replayed themselves so many times in my head that I’ve started to embellish them with facts that I think must be only semi-true (was there really a tiny Malaysian man with an eye patch and a missing tooth smiling at me as I walked in?). I don’t want to give away too many secrets about boys’ bathrooms to the ladies who read STFU, but the…ahem… ‘peeing section’ was all full, so I headed instead for the first stall. Oh, how I curse the architect who put a little shelf above the toilet so the passenger wouldn’t have to hold stuff while he urinated! Oh, how I hate the airline manager who dictated I should have 16 hours of idleness in which my brain could turn to irresponsible jelly! Oh, how angry I am at the airport staff who informed me that my gate was now open, hurrying me out of the bathroom and toward my waiting aircraft.

But most of all, oh, how utterly frustrated I am with myself that I turned and opened the stall door and left the bathroom and walked to the gate and sat in a spare seat, while my little leather wallet, with my passport, my green card, my boarding pass and the tiny bit of money I had been saving for months and months and months sat on that little shelf above the toilet.

Of course, five minutes later I had a Mysterious Bag Hole Check, and ran back screaming into the bathroom, and of course, it was gone, and of course, neither the cleaners nor the security nor the information desk had heard anything about it, and of course, the airline staff would not let me board without a passport, and of course, my luggage would be removed from the plane, and of course, sir, the police will have to be summoned if you do not calm down and stop flailing about in desperation. I’m only 21, I haven’t had much time yet to experience the more extreme emotions of life, but I think the moment I sat and watched the departure of the aeroplane I had waited 8 hours for to arrive, I got a basic understanding of despair, the feeling that there is nothing that can be done, that you are utterly bereft of any possible options, that were your life to somehow pick itself up and continue, the direction it heads in is entirely indeterminable. That’s a little dramatic. Perhaps it wasn’t full-blown adult despair, but certainly a taster, a kind of Diet version.

I went first to family, grabbing them on Gmail and begging for solutions. My parents are the most resourceful individuals I know, but at midnight, in a country 9,000 miles away, there is only so much that even they, the Captains of Knowledge, can do. I spent the next few hours pressing my desperate head on various help desk counters as reluctant staff joked in Malaysian around me and slowly passed me off down a gradually decreasing chain of authority. Eventually, by 5 pm I was sitting in an immigration office, listening to a catch-22 that in my jet-lag addled state, I couldn’t do anything but smile at. The UK embassy had told me earlier that day that it was strictly against policy to send staff to the airport to deliver emergency passports. The airport authorities, on the other hand, claimed that there was no possible way they would let me enter Malaysian soil without a passport, even if my destination happened to be the UK embassy. No one could think of a possible solution to this conundrum, and no one was willing to give. The boss lady sitting a few desks away certainly wasn’t. Instead, it was Papa Burns, a couple of continents away, who got on the phone to encourage the rusty wheels of bureaucracy. (It sounds like by encourage I mean ‘bribe’. Actually, I think it was more ‘speak rather sternly to’.) You’re never too old to defer to your dad.

To cut a long story short, I was given 7 days of special stay in Malaysia. I lived with an incredibly generous French family who had been our neighbours in Singapore, and in return for the room they let me sleep in and food they let me eat and money they let me borrow for the next few days, I babysat their kids a little bit. Not really a fair trade since their kids were so much fun, and the most consuming task I had while babysitting was thinking of the best way to balance all three of them on my shoulders in the swimming pool at the same time.

Through a combination of string-pulling, helpful embassy staff and, if I do say so myself, some pretty awesome shuttle-diplomacy skills on my part, I managed to replace passport, green card and aeroplane ticket in a measly four days, a task which I was originally told would take a couple weeks.

It was a pretty horrible experience in the end, and not the best way to cap off an awesome month of traveling. My 8 hour layover had become a 96 hour layover, and I still had 20 hours of flying on top of that before I finally arrived home. At LAX I was detained at immigration for an hour while they checked I was who I said I was, and it took me another hour to get through all the lines for customs. After all that, though, I finally emerged in the arrivals gate where my dad and my twin sister Susie were waiting. I saw them a split second before they noticed me. I could see the impatience and the anxiety and the nervousness and the worry splashed across their faces, the same exact look I’d had tattooed across my own for the last four days. They turned at the same time and saw me, and that look just vanished. Susie lifted a sign she’d made that said ‘FINALLY’. At that moment I knew everything was going to be alright.

————————————————————————————————————————

My entire folk collection has been depleted by a failed hard drive, and what with all this traveling and not being able to travel, I’ve been kept me away from doing any music research. Until I restore myself, you’ll just have to make do with some classic Jackson Browne. It’s the best way to keep reminding myself I’m back in California.

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6 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Courtney says:
    1

    I think you may have just described my deepest and darkest fears about traveling abroad.

    Congrats on surviving it.

    Jackson Browne is always appropriate, even if you have lost your folk collection. :(

    Reply
  2. AC says:
    2

    What a horrible ordeal! I am so glad it all ended well and you are safe and sound with your family. Beautiful song.

    Reply
  3. Sam says:
    3

    If this is only ‘Diet Despair’ then I hope never to experience its full-blown, full-fat relative! You very nearly fell into an international black hole which would have seen you left to rot in Kuala Lumpur International Airport, watching bitterly for years as people board thousands of flights, living off packaged sandwiches priced at the equivilent of $7.79…

    Reply
  4. 4

    Oh man, the middle part made me laugh and the end part made me cry! So glad you are safe and sound.

    Reply
  5. Starla says:
    5

    Ahh when Holly tweeted about this, I was sure it would be your other brother Tom. (Sorry Tom!) surely not the Doctor to be one!

    Glad you’re home safe and sound. Like Holly says above, the end part bought a tear to my eye!

    Reply
  6. Tyskland says:
    6

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    Reply


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