“Ladies and gentlemen,” the voice says soothingly. “In preparation for landing, please ensure that your seat backs and tray tables are in their upright and locked positions.”
As we descend into Chicago, I can basically recite the speech by memory. I fly so often that I barely even look up when the announcements happen. It’s the same every time. Just like packing a bag- I know the routine. I’ve finally graduated to the “frequent traveler” lane at the airports. I know a few TSA agents by name. This landing is different. This landing, I stare out the window in childlike anticipation for the next leg of the flight.
The mystery of the Far East is almost mine to behold. Though I am only in Japan for an hour, it will be the first time I have ever set foot in the country. I hold my breath as we skip once, twice and land in Chicago, the sun baking the tarmac in this unseasonable heat wave. The flight is late. I hadn’t left myself a large cushion of time between flights, but there was an unforeseen technical delay in leaving New York. I was worried and excited all at the same time.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the local time in Chicago is 12:15 and the current temperature is… 102 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Thankful all I am doing in Chicago is RUNNING to my gate, I slip my bags over my shoulders and hop uneasily from foot to foot, waiting for the plane to empty.
Come on, come on, come on, come on. I have the patience of a seven year old as I watch people incapable of retrieving their bags from the overhead compartments. A woman in front of me shifts her child from one hip to the other as she attempts to haul a carryon out of the compartment. I reach up and heft it out for her. I need to be off this plane.
She looks at me with a grateful smile and I smile tensely. Move. I think to myself as she shuffles along the aisle.
I get off the plane and to the end of the gangway, finding a gate attendant. “Tokyo?” I ask hopefully.
The arch of her eyebrows as she looks down at her computer says the obvious. We are cutting it close. “Gate 62,” she tells me. “Hurry!”
I nod once and take off down the hallway. Call it luck. Call it providence. Call it divine intervention. My gate was only six away in one of the larger international airports in the United States. I sprint towards the gate, boarding pass and passport already in hand.
The woman at the gate scans my ticket and allows me to get onto the plane.
If you can call it a plane… inside it looks more like a hotel. The first class cabin actually has armchairs that pivot so you can have a business meeting. Business class has recliners and flat screen televisions. I, however, am traveling neither in business class nor first class. I’m traveling in economy. Luckily, I managed to snag an aisle seat on this very full flight. I dump my backpack and my purse under my seat and fasten myself into the seat.
Its not long before the announcements start back up. This time, however, my memorized speech is followed by a translation into Japanese. The lilting voice of the flight attendant repeats the safety features of our 767 aircraft in the deliciously exotic sounds of the Japanese language. I speak enough Japanese to order in a sushi restaurant and watch anime, but that’s about it. I catch the few words I know. Thank you. Everyone. Important. Welcome. I watch in transfixed glee as a safety video plays across the screen in my seat: first in English, and again in Japanese.
“This is really happening,” I think to myself excitedly. I haven’t been to Asia since 1997 and I’ve never EVER been to a country as foreign and exciting as Vietnam. The stop in Japan is only the first step in this adventure. But before that happens, I have twelve and a half hours to fill. The massive plane slowly lurches its way down the runway and turns itself towards the runway. The noise from the engines is deafening and I crane my neck to see the window. The whole plane rattles as we hurtle down the runway. 200, 300 miles per hour the gauge on the screen tells me. Suddenly the rattling stops and my stomach drops. We nose up into the sky, the steaming cityscape of Chicago flying by us.
Traveling backwards across the nation, we chase the sun for the entire trip. Right now, it’s already eleven in the evening in Vietnam. By the time I arrive, it will be tomorrow night.
We settle into our altitude and the reality of my situation sets in.
I have twelve hours. I have no internet. And there are no outlets in Economy. I poke at the touch screen television embedded in the seat in front of me. There are television shows and movies for free.
I watch “Wrath of the Titans.” It’s terrible.
After “Wrath of the Titans,” I pop two sleeping pills and drink two glasses of wine. I watch about 12 minutes of “The Hunger Games” and PASS OUT.
I wake up, not entirely sure where we are. I poke at the handy touch screen and it tells me we’re somewhere over Alaska. I’ve only slept for three hours. What time it is really doesn’t matter and I do my best to forget about silly things like TIME and DATE. I gear up the little television and watch “The Hunger Games” again. I enjoyed it more on the little six inch screen than I did on the IMAX screen.
I grabbed my Kindle fire and read a book from cover to cover. I started a second book and the battery gave out.
Flying is uncomfortable. When we hit the ten hour mark I was agitated. I was irritated. I stood up and walked around. There weren’t many places to go, so I wandered back and forth on my aisle. Just to not be sitting. It was still afternoon, the sun shining brilliantly. I tried to convince myself that it was already Friday.
I tried to sleep some more and couldn’t get comfortable.
I tried to do some writing and couldn’t get motivated.
I was a tangled bundle of nerves by the time we began our descent into Tokyo.
Craning my neck to stare out the window in unveiled glee, I watched as the kingdom of the sun passed below us. I watched my little map curiously, looking for identifiable landmarks.
We touch down at Tokyo Narita.
I left Chicago Thursday at 12:30 in the afternoon. It’s now Friday at 4 in the afternoon.
I have lost an entire day, and the sun is STILL out.
I disembark and find myself in a totally different world. Everything about Tokyo-Narita is bright. I can’t tell if it is because I’m jet-lagged or if it really is this shiny. Every color is vibrant. Every sign is brightly colored. Every store is brightly lit. Everything seems to have an exclamation point. And everyone who works in this airport is beautiful.
I am suddenly aware of my fraying French braid and my wrinkling clothing. The women all have perfect hair and perfect makeup. “Excuse me, ma’am- would you like to try?” the sales women call from the duty-free shops, wielding designer perfume. They are perfect, with their precisely arched eyebrows, tiny waists and designer heels. I jealously eye one woman wearing a pair of Christian Louboutin black heels. I wonder for a moment if they are real. I weave my way through the Japanese security screen and make my way towards my next gate. Everything is surreal. I’m tempted to stop and get some sort of sushi or some form of food, but I can’t seem to identify what is what. If Japanese airports are anything like American airports it would only be a pale comparison of the food in the cities. I stare out a window, hoping to have a glimpse of culture or excitement. Perhaps a pagoda on the tarmac?
Alas, these hopes are unrealized and I find that Narita looks very similar to Connecticut.
I wander around for a bit, feeling like I should do something interesting, and then find my salvation in the form of a charging station. Quickly, I hook the kindle up in hopes that I will have something to do for the next five hours of travel to Hanoi.
In airports, one of my favorite pastimes is people-watching. I find quickly that in this airport it is an interesting task. A part of me is somewhat alarmed at my ignorance. I can’t tell the difference between the different nationalities. Near the charging station, where I am relaxing are many people of Asian descent. I couldn’t tell who was Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Laotian or Thai. I realized there were different languages spoken around me and I couldn’t understand any of them.
It was the first time in all my planning that I was wildly intimidated.
How was I going to get around? How was I going to get the things I needed? How would I eat? How would I know WHAT I was eating?
I suddenly spent time listening to the languages that were spoken around me. In vain, attempting to make sense of some cognates or similarities to languages I knew. It was to no avail.
The announcement came over the speaker for my flight. The only reason why I knew it was my flight was because people started moving near the gate. The translation came over the loudspeaker, heavily accented.
One thing I will say: international airlines have boarding honed to a science. They board the back of the plane first, then the front. Everyone lines up according to where his or her seat is instead of how soon you checked in online.
Quickly, our half-filled flight to Hanoi is boarded. I’m lucky enough to have a row to myself and I tuck my cramped legs beneath me. I watch out the window as the plane taxis and ascends. We head south, and finally the sun begins to set. I can’t say that I am fully convinced that it’s really Friday, but the sky is painted with an array of pinks and purples. The twilight soothes my nerves and the white noise from the engines lulls me to sleep.
I awaken to a language that is extremely foreign to my ears. I know the speech, but the words are so strange. Russian, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic do not help me. Vietnamese is totally foreign to my ears. The men in front of me chuckle and joke back and forth as they fasten their seatbelts. Please ensure your seat backs and tray tables are in their upright and locked positions….. Knowing what the words are holds no relief.
What was I getting into?
I disembark from the plane, half awake, half asleep, and all excited.
I shuffle with the crowd down the stairs into the lines at immigration. A man behind glass says something I don’t understand and I hand him my passport. He looks at it and looks at me. He looks at it and looks at me again.
“No,” comes a heavily accented voice from beside me.
“What?” a teen-aged girl asks, visibly nervous.
“No, is not right,” the accented voice from behind the window says, shaking her head. A uniformed woman hands the passport back to the teenager, shaking her head.
“What do you mean?” the girl protests. There is a conversation that happens between the people behind the window. The man holding my passport shrugs, shaking his head.
“No,” she says again. “Not right,” is all the explanation she gives.
I pale, watching the man who holds my passport. Is there a possibility that I will be turned away? Can that even happen?
The girl beside me opens and closes her mouth, not sure what else to do or say. She clearly knows about the same amount of Vietnamese that I do.
The man who has my passport stares at me. I notice he has a knife at his waist. Better than a gun, but I’m still unsettled.
“What flight?” he demands.
“I uh…” I don’t know what flight I was on. I don’t know what day it is. “Narita,” I mumble uncertainly.
“Boarding pass,” he demands and I quickly hand him all the paperwork I have. Boarding pass, reservations, the printout for my hotel and everything I had printed. Just in case.
He stares at the papers. Then he stares at me.
After a pregnant pause, satisfied, he stamps my passport and shoves the paper back through the window.
Numbly, I take my papers and my bags, looking back to the girl who is still arguing with the woman at the window. I walk through the gate into another world. My baby sister greets me at the other side of the doors. She is tan and her blonde hair is sun-streaked. She sees me from the greeting area and rushes to my side.
“You’re early!” She beams.
“If you say so,” I laugh. We collect my bag (I over-packed. Like…. seriously.) A small man has a sign with our names on it. We follow him out of the airport and into the humidity. We pile into a little car and weave our way through the streets of Hanoi.
I don’t know what day it is. I don’t ask what time it is, but when we get to our guest house, I gratefully collapse on a bed and sleep deeply.