Four years ago today, Ben and I went to Thailand to visit our sister Amy for Christmas. What happened next was one of the most dramatic Christmastime experiences of my life. Today, I decided to revisit that memory by reposting my blog post about the experience.
I knew that I’d figure things out eventually and everything would be fine, but sometimes my emotions don’t listen to my logic. I didn’t want to cry, but I felt the tears trickle down the side of my nose anyway. Blast.
What was wrong? Let me make a list:
- I had been traveling for a day and a half, with no end in sight, because…
- Our flight to Kunming, the second leg of our three-flight journey, was delayed for four hours due to a “mechanical issue…”
- Which we didn’t know any details about since we didn’t speak Chinese
- However, we knew we’d missed the third flight entirely
- And we couldn’t contact my sister Amy and tell her what was going on, because we weren’t able to connect to the internet at the airport
- And when the delay was over, and we got on the flight, they kept saying something about going to “Nanning”
- But we didn’t want to go to “Nanning,” we wanted to go to Kunming
- And then the flight attendant got on the intercom and explained in hard-to-understand English that if we wanted to head on to Kunming after Nanning we had to *garbled words* and collect a *garbled word.*
- And I was very confused.
Confusion+tiredness=tears, probably a very natural reaction, but I turned my head to hide them anyway. I looked out the window. And what I saw took my breath away.
What are those squiggly things glinting in the sun? Oddly-shaped ponds? I peered closer. Rice fields! Of course!
We flew down, down, over green forests and red, red dirt, and terraced rice fields all over the hills, making the landscape look like a topographic map. It was unbelievably beautiful.
Nanning turned out to be a tiny little airport with only one gate, and a crisp-but-pleasant breeze blew in our faces as we descended the steps of the airplane, a nice contrast to the freezing temperatures of Shanghai. We followed the crowd across the blacktop, hoping we were doing the right thing.
A lady in a long blue coat stood by a door, yelling something, waving a handful of what looked like blue laminated bookmarks. Her voice was lost in the swift breeze. We left the pack, and walked closer. “Kunming! Kunming!” she was shouting, and so we took some blue bookmarks and walked into the gate area through her door.
It was only a short wait. I had time to use the bathroom. The toilet was the the squatting-kind, which made me feel happy inside, because I was in a place that actually felt Chinese, instead of the sterile generic airplanes and airports I normally find myself in.
And Ben was able to connect to the internet and send Amy an explanatory email.
In short, my spirits were refreshed.
Of course with all the hopping on and off of airplanes and shuttle buses, and with boxed dinners being thrust under my nose every time I began to doze, I was quite tired by the time we reached Kunming. Too tired to keep up with Ben’s rapid pace, I sat down to send Amy another email on Ben’s phone while Ben fetched the luggage.
I typed a message, and clicked “send.”
“Message held in queue,” it told me.
I looked up at the message Ben had sent earlier. That one was also “held in queue.” It had never sent. Amy had no idea why we didn’t show up at the airport.
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t connect to the internet. The only way to get the password was to put in your phone number, and they’d text you the password. Which didn’t exactly work for foreigners without overseas cell service.
Ben fetched the suitcases, left me with them, and ran off to talk to the people at the China Eastern counter about the next flight to Chiang Mai. I was alone in a strange airport with two suitcases I could barely pull, and no way to contact my family. I spread my Tinkerbell blanket on top of the largest suitcase and lay my head on it. Unbidden, another tear trickled down my nose and dripped off the tip.
Suddenly, someone beside me began talking very excitedly in Chinese. I looked up. A lady with a yellow scarf was gesturing wildly to me. She pointed to her phone, handed it to her friend, and scooted up next to me.
I smiled, wide. The friend snapped a picture.
“I want one too!” I said, handing her my camera so she’d know what I meant.
Then everyone in the friend group wanted a picture with me. They all wore magnificent brightly-colored clothing, and they jammed a red hat on my head and took pictures of me in it.
It was so much fun. They knew two English words, “yes” and “hello,” and I knew no Chinese words at all. One lady tried very hard to communicate, pointing to her nose and tapping her hand and holding up two fingers, but I was completely lost.
Then Ben came back, and they wanted to take pictures of us together, though Ben wasn’t particularly enthusiastic.
They gave me a bottle of water, which was nice, since I’d lost mine along the way, and we looked through the pictures we’d taken and gave each other smiles and “thumb’s up” signs until they had to go.
“So what’s going on?” I asked Ben, my spirits once more revived.
“They only fly to Chiang Mai once a day, so we have to spend the night here,” he told me. “They put us up in a hotel.”
“Did you tell them we were brother and sister so they’d give us two beds?” I asked.
“I just hoped they’d figure it out.”
“WHAT? You just assumed they’d KNOW?”
“I told them we were brother and sister.”
We waited for the shuttle, and I longed in my heart for some music to listen to. I had nothing. Even Chinese music would have soothed my soul. Instead I sang, so softly that no one could really hear me over the general airport buzz, and pretended that I was listening instead of singing.
“Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, take a sad song, and make it bet-ter-er-er…”
“That’s what I’ll do,” I decided. “I’ll make this sad song better. I’m in China. I’ve never been to China before. I’ll have fun.”
We walked into the hotel room, and the first thing I saw was that, blessed relief, there were two beds. As I stood there admiring this fact, I heard Ben say, “wow, the shower’s not very private.”
Yes, that is a giant window between the bathroom and the rest of the room. Ben hung out in the hall while I used the bathroom, and then he got his chance to go when I went downstairs to ask how to connect to wifi.
“It’s easy,” said the receptionist. “No password.”
It wasn’t easy, though. Facebook wouldn’t open. Gmail wouldn’t open. Twitter wouldn’t open. Google wouldn’t open. “You can go down and talk to the receptionist this time,” I told Ben.
“It’s weird, though,” said Ben. “I can connect to ESPN just fine.”
“Really?” I tried opening Internet Explorer instead of Firefox. When I typed in “Facebook,” it re-directed me to a Bing search of headlines like “sites blocked in China.”
This was the one time in my life that Bing was more helpful than Google. Because apparently Google was blocked in China. Along with Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, etc.
Thus began a frantic search for an alternate way to send a message. “Can you comment on Mom’s blog?” “I think I had a Yahoo account once.” “Do you remember the password to Mom’s old Juno account?” “Maybe I could post on my blog.” “I guess I can message my fantasy football league members through ESPN.”
It turned out that Blogger was blocked, but WordPress wasn’t, at least not entirely. A basic HTML version of my blog loaded, but it wouldn’t let me post. I tried posting using my phone.
“Success!” I shouted.
“Oh good,” said Ben. “I don’t know how long it would have been until my friends saw this fantasy football message.”
And then we collapsed in gales of laughter at the random and bizarre communication methods we were resorting to.
The next morning I woke up before Ben, and held a towel up while using the bathroom in the off chance that he groggily opened his eyes. I wondered around the hotel looking for breakfast, and found nothing. It was absolutely frigid, and the hotel doors stood wide open. Burr. I returned to our room.
Besides two pairs of crocks and a roll of toilet paper the size of a can of cream-of-mushroom soap, the hotel room didn’t have much. It did, however, have all the necessities in the way of tea-making.
That was quite nice. I wrapped myself in my bedspread and drank tea and ate crackers with peanut butter. Man, it was COLD.
Ben finally woke up. “It’s snowing,” he told me, looking out the window.
“Yep. See the snow on that car?”
“Did we forget to turn on the heater last night?”
“There’s no heater. I checked. There’s no heat in the entire building.”
Happiest of happys though, when I checked the comments of my blog post I saw that, not only were Mom and Amy vastly relieved to see that we were okay, but a girl that Amy and Ben knew was actually living in Kunming at the moment. Amy typed in her phone number, and I scribbled it down on a piece of paper and went down to the lobby to ask if I could use the phone.
Felicia, was the friend’s name, and she was as friendly as friends can be. “I live an hour away, but I’m not doing anything this morning,” she said. “I’ll take a taxi over right away.”
Ben took a walk while I showered. The water was hot, warming me through and through, and I sang “hey Jude” at the top of my lungs. I was making the sad song better.
I hadn’t packed for cold weather, I’d packed for Thailand, but I did the best I could. A skirt, under which was a pair of leggings, under which were my pajama pants, rolled up to the knees. My light jacket over my t-shirt over my long-sleeved shirt. Socks borrowed from Ben, and a light scarf wrapped around and around my neck. My Tinkerbell blanket wrapped around my shoulders. I was as ready as I’d ever be.
“Where do you want to go?” Felicia asked when she arrived, all friendly and smiles.
“Someplace where it’s warm,” I said.
She chatted a bit with the Taxi driver in Chinese. “Do you like hot pot?” she asked us.
“What’s hot pot?”
“It’s a Chinese dish…there’s a heated pan in the center of your table and you put in all sorts of meat and vegetables and make a stew.”
A warm soup in a warm place sounded heavenly. “Sure, let’s do that.”
We walked down the street and around the corner, as I tried to avoid getting water in my not-particularly-waterproof shoes. Flakes of snow nestled into the purple fuzz of my Tinkerbell blanket.
“You just had to be stuck here on the day it snows!” said Felicia.
“Does it not usually snow here?”
“Oh no! They call this the city of eternal spring. A couple years ago it snowed, and people were so excited because it was the first time it had snowed in seven years.”
We stepped into a tiny restaurant that, like the hotel, left its doors wide open. This made me dubious, but it did seem to be warmer in here. Someone gestured to the floor and there, in a square pan, was a pile of burning coals, keeping the customers toasty.
We gathered around the low table: me, Ben, Felicia, and the taxi driver. The waiter brought a pan of broth and set it on the burner in the middle of the table, and then brought us plates of meat and vegetables, and a large kettle full of tea.
This already seems like a core memory, forever powering travel island. Sitting there on that low stool, in a completely unexpected location, with two brand-new friends.
The taxi driver ladled meat and veggies into my bowl. “How do you say ‘thank you’ in Chinese?” I asked Felicia.
“Syea-syea,” she said.
“Syea-syea,” I told the taxi driver. I now knew a word in Chinese.
But what I remember most was the juxtaposition of cold and warmth. The snowy wind blew in the open door, nipping at my nose and freezing my toes. The coals warmed my legs, as I tried to get as close as possible without burning the edges of my Tinkerbell blanket. The soup warmed my insides, and the kindness of strangers warmed my soul.
My logic was right. We figured things out, and everything was okay. We paid for the hot pot with the 400 Yuen we’d been given as compensation for our delayed flight, and gave the leftover money to Felicia hoping to cover a fraction of her taxi cost, even though she insisted it was okay and she was happy to come.
We went back to the airport, checked our bags, and got on the plane for Chiang Mai. We were delayed over an hour while they sprayed the snow off the plane and waited around for other unknown reasons, but at this point that seemed like pittance.
“How many hours have we been traveling?” I asked Ben when we finally reached Chiang Mai and were filling out immigration paperwork.
“Fifty hours,” he said. But I added it up later, and it was actually sixty-two hours. Over two and a half days.
But we fetched our suitcases and walked through the big glass doors, where Amy was waiting with her arms full of hugs.
We had finally arrived.