Curse of the External Forces

Disclaimer: this hellacious traveling experience by no means overshadows the fantastic blur of a week that I spent reuniting with hometown friends in Laos while celebrating the Laos New Year (think Asian Mardi Gras) and visiting the sleepy city of Luang Prabang.

The root of all evil…

My debit card of 4 years expired a few months before I came to Indonesia. Once renewed, the new expiration date read 3/12. Still haunted by a past memory where I was traveling without a card, I foresaw an impending nightmare of similar magnitude from the day I received it. The bank insisted they would send a new card before the expiration date and everything would be all fine. Banks like to make things difficult and I had no choice, I thought about ‘losing’ my card in order to receive another with a more promising expiration date that would last throughout my service, but it was all too risky.

Early March rolled around, and I was relieved to find that my sister had already received my new card and it was already en route. Time flew and before I knew it, we were already one week deep into April. I grew more and more anxious, getting overly excited when the overweight guy from the post office dropped by my school, only to drop off government paperwork.  As my upcoming trip to Laos crept up, the impatience flooded my fingers and I found myself dialing my bank.

My friend and I had devised a brilliant plan—to have a new card sent to his office in New York and then he’d bring it to Laos the following week. After answering several questions verifying that I was indeed THE Miss Elle Chang, and everything was 95% processed, my call dropped. GAHHHHHH! Cursing the phone gods and wanting to cry at the same time, I called again only to be redirected to a rude and impatience representative named Donna, whom I can only imagine to be a partially deaf, overweight, puppy-hating, old Southern woman with short frayed blonde hair that’s been permed one too many times. She was so rude that I wanted to report her terrible service but she wouldn’t give me any more information about herself and I wasn’t trying to waste more pulsa (Indo phone credits) to hear her raspy-ugly-impatient voice (she was awful!). But she got the job done and promised a new card would arrive.

I took a few deep breaths and headed to my first class of the day, only to return ninety minute later to a package on my desk. Lo and behold, my new card that I had just reported ‘lost’, had arrived. What a relief, right? Wrong. Oh, so so wrong. I phoned the bank again to let them know I had received the new card and hoped they could cancel the new one I’d wasted an hour, while raising my blood pressure to record highs, trying to re-obtain. Apparently I’d struck a cord with the bank gods. They had already canceled the brand new card I was excitedly holding in my hand. Disappointed but hopeful, I was ready to wait, assuring myself the new card would arrive at my friend’s office before he departed for Laos… but the snail mail gods were also after me, and my card didn’t arrive before he left. Don’t worry, I had a back-up plan, but even that ended up failing me eventually which led me to test how much Peace Corps really wanted to bring me back to Indonesia once I was stuck at the labyrinth that is the Bangkok airport ::cue vulnerabilities:: moneyless (sort of, being the ultimate penny pincher, or kip/rupiah/baht pincher), phoneless (sort of, no Thai SIM card), homeless (really, because you need a card to book hotels), destination-less (to a temporary extent), and alone (for real), really, really alone.

Obviously the world doesn’t revolve around me. However sometimes it feels likes there’s external forces out there looking to test me and break me down to nothing. Sure, they kicked my ass and undoubtedly tested the reliability of those around me (whose reliability I had never questioned in the first place) as well as my own emotional strength and ability to travel alone.


Travel nightmare, go…

Friday morning–It was a little bit after 10am. I hugged Joe goodbye and I rode away on a tuk-tuk that I had instructed to take me to the Laos-Thailand Friendship Bridge. But the driver didn’t listen. I knew we were going in the wrong direction from the start, naively thinking he knew a shortcut that I didn’t, having only visited Vientiane for a few blurry days. We ended up at the bus terminal where I had to transfer to another tuk-tuk for some unclear reasons. I still had an ample amount of time to make my 1:05pm flight. I arrived at Laos immigration, passed without any hassles. What I had forgotten was that I had to go through Thai immigration, a three-minute bus ride away. I could have easily gotten on one of the frequent buses shuttling people through, but instead I chose to grab a taxi van that would take me across the border, to Thai immigration and then directly to the airport. The driver insisted we wait for more passengers, ten more minutes, ten more minutes, ten more minutes, which inevitably devolved into what felt like forever. I had told him when my flight would be leaving, but he assured me it was fine, so I continued to wait. Once we arrived at the Thai border, we all hopped out of the taxi van and jetted out to get our passports stamped; only I had yet to fill out my departure card. Usually I am equipped with a pen, but I had left most of my belongings in the taxi along with everyone else’s. I frantically checked every counter that had pens attached to them, but alas none of them worked (!!!), whyyyy pen gods, whyyyyy. Eventually a very nice person lent me a working pen. I filled out my arrival card and was one step closer to returning home. We piled back into the taxi ten minutes later and zoomed to the airport, I had an hour until my departure, I knew I wasn’t going to make it but being the optimist I am, still had some hope that I could, considering how tiny the Udonthani airport was. Alas, I was met with disappointment (which unknowingly would be a prelude for the rest of my day) when the AirAsia check-in counter was left unattended. Even though I had spent $3 on flight insurance which really is a scam, I had no other choice but to purchase another ticket for a flight leaving a few hours later. To my demise, I had only borrowed enough Thai baht to pay for my taxi, not factoring in the possibility that I’d miss two flights during my trip home that day. Because I didn’t have enough baht, that meant I had to exchange US currency that I had borrowed from Joe. But of course the crisp $20 bills that he’d lent me had been stained with a dark red ink somehow and the money exchangers wouldn’t accept most of them. As four different currencies dominated my wallet, I began to suffocate in the confusion of exchange rates, trying to convert rupiah to baht, dollar to baht, kip to baht. The amount of zeros in some of these currencies is enough to trick someone into believing they’ve won the lottery only to wake up to fun inflation rates. I dug around for every last bit. I was still short about $25 (still trying to save enough rupiah for transportation and a hotel once back in Surabaya) from purchasing a new plane ticket back to Bangkok, and with no idea what to do since they weren’t accepting my ‘soiled’ US currency, I emptied my Peace Corps account (which didn’t have much to begin with anyways). I found another money exchanger, where the teller was visibly nauseated by my stained US currency. I desperately begged her to at least accept $20 so I scrape up enough to buy the ticket and worry about the rest later. Once I purchased the ticket and tried not to think about the fact that I just spent another $67 on a plane ticket, I was once again in the clear. Or so I thought…

Friday early evening–The flight from Udonthani ended up departing 40 minutes later than expected. And since I had booked that ticket only a few hours prior, I had gotten the ‘shit seat’ aka very last seat on the plane (and the closest to the restrooms), meaning I’d be the last to exit once landing in Bangkok. I was seated next to a couple who were very affectionate and amongst all of the airport hassles I’d just endured, I was reminded how much I missed Klaas and how much I wanted him to be there with me, telling me everything would be okay. Once on the ground in Bangkok, I only had 45 minutes until my flight departed for Surabaya, but with immigration and security as my final obstacles, I was cutting it too close…

As my back dripped with sweat, my mouth parched, and my breath short, still panting from the stride–from my connecting gate, I tried to gain some degree of composure despite being on the verge of panicking once I reached the AirAsia check-in counter. Sorry, the gates for that flight have already closed. You’ll never make it at this point anyways with immigration and the security checkpoint. I nearly had my first panic attack slash nervous breakdown (simultaneously). I wanted to drop everything, stomp my feet like a little girl just denied the world, and weep right there, not knowing what to do. Being cardless at the airport where nearly everything is exclusively accessible by card was like going to a buffet but having your tongue ripped out (okay, maybe that’s a bad analogy, but you get it). Not only was I cardless, but also I was alone. Thinking I could seek help from the thousands of foreigners around, I put the idea on the back-burner if all else failed, because sketchy stuff happens at the Bangkok airport and I didn’t want to have to explain my unbelievable and outlandish story only to be denied or scoffed at with disbelief. I began to pace the second floor of the Bangkok airport, searching every nook and cranny for free WiFi so I could make an emergency Skype call. I had an ‘alhamdulillah’ moment when a tourist kiosk magically revealed itself, offering 15 free minutes of internet. I immediately logged on and to my luck, Allison (first PC friend and fellow PCV) and Klaas were on gchat, where I proceeded to not only explain my unique situation but also my dire need for their assistance. From that moment, everything else was essentially out of my hands. Allison helped me contact Peace Corps who would later help me purchase my return flight to Indonesia and Klaas booked me a hotel room nearby so I wouldn’t have to sleep at the airport. (Thank you both!). The ticket stuff wouldn’t be sorted out until the following morning, but I was happy to be heading to a hotel where I could take a warm shower, eat pad thai, drink a cheap cold beer, and rest in air conditioning. I called my mom and explained everything where she both laughed but wholeheartedly empathized with me, having once been a backpacker herself. It was comforting to hear her voice. (Gosh, I love my mom!). Most importantly, I was thankful to be safe, feeling a sense of relief by Peace Corps’ promise that I’d be back in Indonesia soon enough. Despite asking myself numerous times (simultaneously laughing out loud sarcastically) ‘how the hell did I let all of this happen to me?’ I still thanked the technology gods, especially the Google gods (rock on).

Aside from the missed flight disaster, I also felt like I was letting a lot people down back at my site for two reasons: (1) that Saturday I was supposed to return to site with a Peace Corps headquarters inspector general visiting from Washington, where she would visit my home and school, (2) that day was also hari Kartini, a day to remember and celebrate an Indonesian hero who fought for women’s emancipation. My school was organizing celebrations and my counterpart had prepared a kabaya (traditional Javanese clothes) and make-up so I could join the festivities. But alas, she was out of the loop because I had no way of contacting her.

Saturday morning–I awoke the next morning, with an e-mail from Peace Corps trying to work out the kinks of my flight home, more than eager to return to Indonesia at this point, I replied several times, waiting for a response, but got nothing when I was sure they had access to email through their suave Blackberrys. It turned out that the Peace Corps e-mail server was having issues (convenient timing, right?) that day of all days. I logged onto the hotel computer (10 kip for 10 minutes), endlessly renewing my minutes,10 minutes felt like 10 seconds, waiting for details on my flight out, endlessly refreshing the page, but got nothing and began corresponding with other PCVs who were online and texting Peace Corps with great vigor and determination to get me back to Java. I felt terrible, having to rely on layers upon layers of people, because of the mess that I was partially responsible for getting myself into. Once the ticket was confirmed, I then had to wait to receive the confirmation e-mail with all of the details. The cost of the new ticket is something I’m still trying to numb myself of, reminding myself to feel grateful that I’m back, but my bank account will surely take a brutal blow once I pay Peace Corps back.

Saturday early afternoon–It was nearly noon and after refreshing my e-mail inbox every literal Nano-second, impatiently waiting for details of my flight to Jakarta, I began to grow nervous at the possibility of missing this new flight which was set to leave two hours later, I was not about to play around with the enormity of Bangkok’s airport once more. Once I received the confirmation and checked out of the hotel, I saw that the next shuttle to the airport (which was only 5km away) wouldn’t be for another thirty minutes. The receptionist assured me if I waited, I’d surely miss my flight. My heart sank, yeeeeeeee-onnnn (just like that). After finding out that the hotel accepted US currency with or without stains, I paid for a taxi to pick me up.

When the taxi arrived and I hopped in, I knew the driver was no ordinary traffic-savvy driver. He was this fragile old Thai man, looking like he could croak at any moment, with the thickest rimmed glasses ever, driving erratically with both feet (Bangkok roads are no joke), stopping in the middle of the interstate ramp to ask where at the airport to drop me off. I desperately clung to the handle above the window, and thought that being so close to the airport, and after all of this, what seemed like travel failures that couldn’t get any worse, being granted death in a Bangkok taxi felt all the more possible.

Noon–Check-in was smooth and I still had an hour to relax before take off so I happily purchased hash-browns at Burger King and hung out in my gate where I was met with the sights of jilbabs (head coverings), batiks (traditional fabrics), and people speaking Indonesian. Once on the plane, I was surrounded by a big group of Thai tourists. I flew on an Indonesian airline, Garuda, which was fantastic, great food, service, movies, and wine! The Thai guy next to me downed three cups of wine within the span of 30 minutes, proceeded to cleanse his palate with a cup of guava juice and then soundly passed out (can ya blame him?). When he awoke, we had arrived in Jakarta, when he confidently blurted out “assalamualaikum”, and I got giddy, overjoyed to be back in Java (something I never thought I’d say which such conviction). The rest of my travels back to Surabaya and onwards to site were smooth and all the more rewarding.

The bank gods may have kicked my ass, but in the end, I survived with the help of others. I feel like everyone needs to experience some extention of in-transit crisis that makes them stronger, more cautious, and responsible travelers. Of course I don’t wish my said experience upon anyone. It was awful, but an entertaining story, right? I’ve learned many lessons, and am jubilantly typing this as I sit outside of my house, one ear plugged into iTunes, the other focused on how alive everything around me is (chirping night creatures, motorcycles, and the utter joy that the arrival of a new baby host niece has brought to those around me).

I surely couldn’t have gotten home smoothly without the help of many; endless thank you’s and indescribable gratitude to Peace Corps staff, namely Bravey and Megan, as well as PCVs Allison and Truong, and my fantastic boyfriend, Klaas, for getting me home safely and dealing with me in a very panicked state. And thank you to Joe and Ben for lending me money during our trip. Will write more about my adventures in Laos soon!

And for the record, I still don’t have a debit card. It arrived in New York sometime last week and is likely going to take another 2-3 weeks to arrive! Wooooo!