Wednesday, 29 September 2010

A really long trip

When I went to Brazil last summer, I had never been on such a long flight, or trip, in my life—I was in the air for a solid 9.5 hours between Atlanta and Brasilia, with an overall trip time of about 20 hours, including all car rides, flights, layovers, and shuttles necessary to get me from Williamsburg, VA, to Pirenopolis, Brazil. Little did I know then that it was good preparation for this summer’s trip to Perth, Australia: I left Falmouth at 9 AM on a Monday morning and arrived in Perth at 3 PM on a Wednesday. I’m too lazy to do all the time zone math in order to calculate the exact length of that trip, but the bottom line is that it was long. However, because I was routed through Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I got to add two continents to my growing list of visited landmasses (Asia and Australia, for anyone who is not geographically inclined; this coming winter I will also check off Africa, but I suspect it will be a while before I get the 7th and final continent, Antarctica). The other benefit of flying through the Malaysian airport and having such a ridiculously long layover there was that I got to spend the night in a transit hotel (which, prior to this trip, I did not even know existed) in the same time zone as my destination; this was very effective in helping me battle jet lag. But I digress.

As I said, I left Falmouth at approximately 9 AM on Monday morning, which gave me enough time to endure the 5-hour train ride and 15-minute Heathrow express ride required to get me to the airport. It was a distracting train ride because the car was incredibly full, and only kept getting more full as we went on. I have no idea where everyone was going on a Monday morning, but it seems that all of Cornwall and Devon were desperate to relocate. Directly in front of me were a couple with a baby that could only be kept quiet with the aid of a rattle. Further on up the car were two caretakers and their mentally handicapped wards, one of whom periodically asked for food/drink/blanket with a heart-rending and ear-shattering bellow. This is yet another example of how impressively blasé the Brits are about handicaps; people with crutches/walkers/canes/wheelchairs/etc. are out and about in public much more than in the US, as are individuals with all sorts of physical deformities and intellectual handicaps, and nobody bats an eyelash. I felt bad for these guys, though, because (as I learned through a bit of unintentional eavesdropping) the handicapped toilet on the train was out-of-order, and they had nowhere to take their wheelchair-bound ward.

During the ride, I amused myself with music and games; not to harp on about how awesome my iPhone is, but I was also able to use it to determine which terminal I needed to get to once I reached Heathrow. As per usual, once I got to the airport it took me very little time to check in and get through security, leaving me with oodles of time to wander around wondering why on earth they tell you to arrive two hours before your flight. There was one slightly interesting event during check-in that came back to haunt me once I reached Malaysia: The woman at the Delta desk informed me that I would need to collect my luggage once I arrived in Kuala Lumpur and then immediately re-check it so that it could be sent off to Perth. I immediately thought this sounded bizarre, since normally you have to go through immigration in order to retrieve your luggage, and I would never be leaving the airport; however, when I asked her about this, she assured me that I definitely needed to go to the baggage claim area once I reached Malaysia. We shall return to this concept later.

My trip from London to Amsterdam was not very interesting, though I encountered an airport feature that would be a recurring (and annoying) theme throughout my journey. You know how you can’t ever take bottled drinks through the security checkpoint prior to the terminal? Well, in many airports, there is now a second screening process to get you from the terminal into the gate; at this point, you have to throw away anything you purchased between the previous security checkpoint and the new one. I understand why we are cautious, in general, but I am not quite sure I understand why we are that cautious. I wasted three different nearly-full bottles of water/juice during my trip because of this new technique, and I did not like it.

Things got much more interesting on the flight between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur; given that the flight was the longest I’d ever taken (11 hours), how could they not? First of all, I discovered that my ticket placed me right in the middle seat of a three-person row. *sigh* For a long time, the row remained empty, and I began to get excited that I might actually have two or more extra seats to myself, which I could use to stretch out and sleep. Alas, no. My aisle-side seatmate arrived and immediately asked me if I was Norwegian, a question he explained by saying that he (a Norwegian) and several members of his company were being sent to Kuala Lumpur together, but that the different travelers had not previously met and were looking for each other on the plane. It turns out that my window-side seatmate was one of these, as were the three men in front of us. Thus, for the first hour or so, my two row-mates chatted to each other across me, which would not have been particularly annoying except that one of them had extremely bad breath and it kept wafting in front of my nose.

I preoccupied myself by perusing the list of movies I could watch between Holland and Malaysia. I was on a quest to catch up on all the films I’d missed in the last several months. I saw “Shrek 3,” “Kisk-Ass,” “2012,” and “The Wolfman.” As you may notice, this is approximately 8 hours of film, which is a good portion of the flight. That is because I am pretty much incapable of sleeping on long plane rides unless I am able to position myself horizontally. I have a blow-up travel pillow, but I can never seem to get comfortable with it—it is always too flat or too low or too high, and the built-in seat pillow tilts my head forward at a funny angle. During this particular flight, I also had to contend with my neighbors. Both of them were dozing and, as they slept, began to take up increasingly more space—my space. Their legs and arms started bumping into mine and I kept folding myself smaller and smaller in order to avoid contact. The only advantage of this was that it forced me to find a position that was actually fairly easy on my bad back, such that when I arrived in Malaysia after 11 hours of sitting, I was less sore than I often am after only a couple hours in the car.

This is a good time to register a complaint about the airline and airplane itself. Back in the golden days when I first started traveling abroad, planes were not as crowded as they are today. This is an actual fact, which I can prove by offering the evidence that in the majority of those flights, I had at least one and sometimes two or even three empty seats next to me. I could lift up the arm rests, spread out some pillows and blankets, and recline in comfort for the duration of the flight. Lately, though, I’ve been on one sold-out flight after another, and there is just no room to breathe. Also, while some airlines have fairly comfortable planes (e.g., Virgin), others do not. Previously, I considered Delta to be a pretty lackluster company, but on the way to Malaysia I discovered that their affiliate, KLM, is even worse. On this particular flight, there seemed to be a problem with the air conditioning, such that it was boiling hot all the way to Kuala Lumpur; this completely caught me off-guard, since I always prepare to be frozen stiff during airplane rides. I had to strip off both my jacket and sweater and sit around in a tank top--and I was still hot. Despite the heat, the staff did not come through the compartment with drinks during most of the “night” (the latter half of which was actually “day,” since we were flying into the sunrise); by the time we arrived in Malaysia, I was sweaty and parched.

In this heat-stricken state, I wandered into Terminal C of the Kuala Lumpur airport with two goals: a) take care of my baggage issue, and b) find my transit hotel so I could shower and enjoy a loooong nap. I had decided on the way to Malaysia that the London check-in lady couldn’t be correct about my baggage, so I wanted to find the local airline desk in order to ask. On my way to do this, I passed my hotel and dropped off my carry-on luggage; the lady at the desk told me where to find the airline information people. When I got there, I started at one end of the counter, was referred to the other end, and then slowly worked my way back from one person to the next until I finally located someone who told me that the KLM-specific staff weren’t in yet. I was told to go to the main terminal, which was a short “aerotrain” ride away. The aerotrain was not your typical shuttle between terminals—it did not roll along the ground on rails, but was balanced by super magnets so that it hovered in the air as it moved. Pretty cool. In the main terminal, I found a general information desk where I was told my baggage would go all the way to Perth without any interference on my part. However, the woman who gave me this information also misread the ticket and thought I was going from Perth to London, so I didn’t feel too confident in her proclamation. Thus, I wandered around some more—a trip that included a journey down to the immigration area and back to Terminal C—before I finally found a KLM person who told me that the lady in London didn’t know what she was talking about, and that I could rest easy that my luggage would be in Perth once I got there. Whew.

That settled, I grabbed some food and headed back to my hotel. Prices in Malaysia seem exorbitant given the amount of local currency required, but through the wonders of exchange rate, they are actually very affordable. I spent something like 35-40 ringgits on 2 drinks, a sandwich, and a muffin, but that was only about $11—pretty darn good for airport food. Oddly, my sandwich was purchased from an Irish deli, which I thought seemed a little out of place in Kuala Lumpur. What was really crazy, though, was how many duty-free shops there were; I have never seen so many. If the prices there were similar to the prices at the restaurants, I understand why--people must have been getting some amazing deals on high-end designer merchandise. There were also several specialty shops geared towards Middle Eastern and Muslim customers, which I found interesting; they sold head scarves and burkas and traditional regional dress in a variety of rather beautiful (and, I am guessing, upscale) fabrics. As I mentioned in a previous post, the majority of travelers I passed were, indeed, Muslim, so I could see why these shops might be particularly popular. As an aside, I will mention that the majority of non-Muslim travelers (who appeared to be mostly Middle Eastern and SE Asian in origin) were clearly from northern Asia (especially Japan, but also China, Korea, etc.). The proportion of white people was infinitesimal, while the proportion of native English speakers was even smaller; this was quite an eye-opening and humbling experience for someone who otherwise has never been somewhere where she looked or felt in the minority.

Back at the hotel, it felt absolutely wonderful to take a shower, eat non-airplane-food, and then crawl between the crisp, clean sheets of my bed to sleep. I went to bed at 5:30 PM (local time) and didn’t need to leave the hotel until 6:30 AM the following morning, so I was able to get quite a bit of rest. However, I couldn’t sleep all the way through the night because it was just such awkward timing for my body. With stops and starts, I did manage to make it until about 5 AM, at which point I finally gave up and departed. I had several hours before I needed to report to my gate, so I headed to the Starbucks (is there an airport anywhere in the world without a Starbucks?) and took advantage of their free wireless access while drinking an enormous cup of caffeinated tea (just to further confuse my body). Not only did the Starbucks have free wireless, but the whole airport did, as well. How civilized--all airports should have free internet. I was able to send e-mails, catch up with the news, and even download a new album onto my iPod. After all that tea, I eventually had to head to the toilet, and this is what I found there:

(A squat toilet, also known as a Turkish toilet, which I had heard of before but never seen.)

To be fair, this was only one of three stalls, but I can confirm, after repeated sampling, that this style of toilet was present in each of the restrooms in the airport. I am not sure why anyone would choose to use this when she could use one of the two “regular” toilets next door; given the number of women in burkas, I thought perhaps it might be an easier style to use when you are maneuvering lots of skirts and robes? Anyway, I didn’t give it a try. I also didn't try the little hoses next to the toilets, which I always find odd because I don't understand how you're supposed to dry off after giving yourself a mini shower. That doesn’t mean that I completely avoided walking on the wild side, though. As I wandered around trying to amuse myself prior to catching my flight, I passed a Japanese noodle restaurant at just the moment that my stomach started growling for more food. It was only 9:30 in the morning, but the noodles looked good, so I sat down and had noodle-y chicken broth for second breakfast—I even used chopsticks, and it was delicious:

(I felt pretty good about using my chopsticks to eat this until I watched the Japanese girl at the next table over--she was holding the sticks much further up, which is a sign of better control, and she did it much more gracefully. Oh, well--I get points for trying.)

Soon enough it was finally time to catch my flight, and after passing through the second security check, I managed to set my passport down on a seat in the waiting room and then wander off without it. Thankfully, I happened to notice its absence before I got onto the plane and left it behind in Malaysia—that would certainly have been my worst travel mistake to date. My flight to Perth was operated by Malaysian Airlines, which was a huge upgrade from Delta and KLM. For one thing, there was a ton of leg room in front of my seat, and for another thing, there were three seats between me and the next passenger over (also, the hostesses had really cool uniforms). I plugged myself into my iPod, pushed aside the arm rest, and curled up for a nice, long nap.

After flying 11 hours from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, you think you must be near Australia, but, in fact, another 5 hour journey is required to get to Perth. When I awoke, we were over land again and flying low enough that we could clearly see the bright red soil and sparse scrubland; there was no question about where we were. I’m not sure why we were flying so low, since such flights are normally conducted at 30,000 or so feet; perhaps there is just so little competing air traffic in Western Australia that it doesn’t matter, and/or the sky is so clear that there are no clouds to obscure the view. In any case, it was cool to catch a glimpse of the land that I would be traversing in the near future (also a little daunting, given its remoteness and excessive size).

Before I could do that, though, I’d need to make it through Australian immigration and customs, which can be pretty hard-core. The immigration bit isn’t any different than in the US or UK, really, but the customs people are very intense about what can and can’t be brought into the country. The landing card you have to fill out has tons of questions about all sorts of things that you may or may not be carrying or have come into contact with during your travels. Because they live on an island, and have had serious problem with introduced pests of various sorts, the Australians have to be pretty careful. They are even concerned about the dirt on your shoes—one question asked whether you were carrying anything that had come into contact with dirt or carried dried dirt, such as cleats, etc. The scientist in me wanted to point out that all of us were wearing shoes that carried some amount of dirt from foreign countries, but I didn’t think that would go over very well. In any case, I was slightly worried because my suitcase contained an entire plastic box full of "pookies," the Metamucil-like bran cookies I eat every day. You aren’t supposed to bring any food into Australia, though I couldn’t quite tell whether they meant the “normal” sort of forbidden food (e.g., meat, cheese, nuts, fruit) or all food; this was the defense I planned if my hidden stash was discovered.

After making it through immigration, I headed to the baggage area to see if my suitcase had successfully made its way from Kuala Lumpur. As always, I was accosted by a second security guard on my way to the conveyor belt. I don’t know what it is about me, but people love to stop me for further questioning. As far as I can recall, this always involves young male security people, so I’d like to think they just find me attractive and want an excuse to talk to me. I think that’s probably unrealistic, so one day I would love to ask someone why they’ve pulled me aside—do I look suspicious? dangerous? I find it very difficult to talk to these people because I’m usually quite distracted and tired, which makes it hard to provide answers without sounding as though I’m making something up. In any case, I was finally waved through and, lo and behold, almost immediately found my suitcase—miracle of miracles! Keeping my fingers crossed, I headed towards the customs area and was directed into the line of people whose bags would be sniffed by a little beagle. Part of me thought that was pretty awesome, since I love animals and all, but part of me thought this made it pretty likely that my pookies would be rooted out. The beagle seemed utterly fascinated by my carry-on, and it took the customs lady several attempts to get him to move on to my main suitcase; I have no idea what he was smelling in there, unless perhaps it was the remnant smells of my parents’ cats. After he took a couple perfunctory sniffs of my suitcase, I was waved on, and my heart lifted. My pookies and I had made it without incident and were about to begin our journey through the land down under.
Stay tuned for the next installment, in which I: drive on the right side of the car and the left side of the road, all by myself; discover Aussie hospitality; identify my first Australian avifauna; go shopping at an Aussie mall and find things outrageously expensive; pay $20 to go see a movie by myself; and return to the airport to pick up my husband so that our belated honeymoon can begin.

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