Wednesday, May 6, 2009

So there I was...

Deep breath. Ok. Here's what happened.

Before this trip to the states, I was nervous about a lot of things, but mainly 1. Heavy traffic on the way to Osaka because of Golden Week, 2. Being hassled at immigration because Hannah's visa expired and we were in the process of renewing it, 3. Traveling and struggling alone with a 1-year-old who just started walking, and 4. Swine flu complications.

3 out of 4 of those things happened.

We woke up at 4:30 am to leave at 6:00 for Kansai Airport (my flight was to leave at 5:30 pm). Megumi was driving us, and said it usually takes about 3 hours to get there, but because of it being Golden Week and there being a discount on expressway fees, it might take TWICE as long. So leave at 6:00 we did! As I drove away from my beautiful new home in Takamatsu, I kept thinking, "I can't believe I'm going to miss all of the May flowers in Japan," or, "I'm going to miss how peaceful it is here," or "Japan really has become home." I was able to take a short nap (which is a big feat for me - I don't sleep in cars or planes well), and when I woke up, we were in Osaka! At 9:00 in the morning!

"I am surprised! We are lucky! There is no traffic," Megumi said.

"Wow. Will ya look at that," Hans said.

"6:00 am," I yawned.

"Now what?"

"Let's go to the aquarium!"

I'd always wanted to see the Osaka aquarium - one of the largest public aquariums in the world, boasting a central tank that holds 5,400 cubic meters of water, home to manta rays and two whale sharks. It was amazing. Truly. Hannah loved all of the colorful fish, the sea otters (huge!) and the seals. She also loved banging on the glass. Despite it being Children's Day (a Japanese holiday where grandparents take their grandchildren shopping, sight-seeing and shrine hopping all day), we beat the crowd and were able to enjoy the aquarium without too much waiting in line. When we left there was a line outside with an hour-long wait. Lucky again.

I was pretty tired by now. We went to the airport, checked my bags, and wandered around looking at Hello Kitty charms for 2 hours. At 4:00 I said my goodbyes and headed through security. It had already been a 10-hour day, but I was excited for our trip. Then I get to immigration.

"There are two of you?"

"Yes, my daughter and me."

"Where is your daughter?"

"Here on my back."

"Excuse me just one moment."

She waves down some guys from a far-away office, and one of them comes and says "Please come with me." I follow him into what I can only call the interrogation room. Where before sleepy coffee drinkers were lounging in their office chairs, there was now much commotion and meaningless shuffling of papers. "We got ourselves a live one!" they seemed to be saying.

"Are you aware that your daughter's visa is expired?"

"Yes I am. We have applied for a new visa for her. It's now in process. The immigration office said there should be no trouble. Do you see the stamp there? Silly us, we thought her visa was the same as ours - it's easy to confuse 'Mar' with 'May.'"

(Much whispered Japanese speaking ensues. I can catch a few words here and there, but the medical masks they are wearing are really making comprehension difficult.)

"I'm sorry, but your daughter can't leave Japan without a visa."

"She's a US citizen. And an infant. Sir."

(More arguing in muffled Japanese)

"Where is her first entry permit?"

"I'm sorry, I don't understand the question."

"When she entered Japan for the first time."

"Oh, you mean her BIRTH CERTIFICATE? I'm sorry, I don't travel with it."

"Your daughter is born in Japan??"

"Takamatsu. Says so in the passport."

(again with the medical mask murmuring)

"Ok, if you can pay us 4,000 yen, we can give her visa."

"Fine. Where do I sign?"

I fill out the exact same paperwork I had previously filled out in the immigration office 3 weeks ago, and then one of the office workers asks, "do you have Japanese yen?"

"Er, no. I just exchanged it for dollars."

"How much money do you have in dollars?"

"I don't think that's any of your business."

"Ok. It's ok. Can you give us 60 dollars please? It's for the exchange rate."

"Um, you and I both know 4,000 yen does not equal 60 dollars."

"No? You can't?"

"I can give you 4,000 exchanged to dollars."

"Ok. I'll ask."

She then proceeds to "ask," and then comes back asking for $42. Ha! They give Hannah a visa (good for 20 days), and I'm on my way.

When I arrive at my gate, Hannah is restless and wants out of her baby backpack. I'm all too willing to let her down after carrying her through the whole immigration process. She proceeds to show me how she learned to RUN in her two hours with Megumi and Shigeki in the gift shop area. Up and down the aisles she went, like she owned the place. It's one thing to keep track of a walking baby. It's a whole different monster to do it while keeping an eye on your luggage. Christian said "it's like babysitting a ferret with a ball and chain on your ankle." Yes.

While Hannah is making friends with all of the passengers in the terminal, we find out that when our plane arrived in Osaka from San Fransisco, a team of doctors boarded the aircraft to take the temperatures of all the incoming passengers, and they found a baby with a fever. The baby, mother, and everyone within 2 meters of them were quarantined, and now our flight would be delayed indefinitely while a Hazmat team disinfects the aircraft.

Hannah just kept on running. Up. And down. The aisles. Non-stop for almost 4 hours. The estimated departure time was pushed later and later. All the while I was thinking, "there goes my connecting flight in San Fransisco. There goes Hannah's dinner time at the grandparents house. There goes going to bed on time. There goes a full night's sleep. There goes my trip to Rhode Island."

We were finally able to board the aircraft, 3 and a half hours late. Hannah had JUST passed out in my arms, floppy and sweaty and completely exhausted. I slowly made it to the ticket counter, boarding pass in one hand, Hannah in my arms, backpack on my back, and carry-on luggage in the same hand has the boarding pass. Some people let me cut in line - they were well acquainted with Hannah now, and I heard them whisper "man, she is OUT." I get to the ticket lady, and she YELLS at me, "You don't have your passport out! Go back to the end of the line and have your passport ready next time!" Since when do you need a passport to board the plane?! It seems these days you can't even put your passport away to go to the bathroom. I gave her the most betrayed look I could muster, and shuffled out of the way of the other passengers. No one would go ahead of me. They all waited while I shifted Hannah's sweaty body to one arm, slowly slipped off my backpack (while trying to keep my luggage from tipping over), unzipped the pocket and pulled out my passport, all the while praying that Hannah really WAS out. Everyone stared. But not one soul asked if I needed help. Finally, AFTER I had my passport out and my backpack back on my back and my luggage back on its wheels, the other ticket lady came up and said "are you ok? Can I help you with something?"

"Nope, I'm fine now."

I choked on my words, gave her my boarding pass and passport, and bit my lip until I was sitting in my seat on the plane. Then I cried. I was in an aisle seat, Hannah was asleep in the middle seat (the man that booked my ticket said it would probably remain empty), and the guy that was supposed to sit in the window seat took one look at me and said "I'm....going to sit over there and wait until they tell me to move." Luckily, they never did.

We taxied to our place on the runway and sat there for an uncomfortable amount of time. The AC was on full blast, and people were beginning to get cold. The flight attendants kept saying "Yeah, sorry about that. We'll get the heat turned on once we're in the air. We don't have enough blankets now because of the quarantine. Just hang in there." And hang in there we did. Luckily I always overpack, and I had two blankets for Hannah. I hunkered down in my fleece and stared at the seat in front of me. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.


"This is your captain speaking. You're not going to believe this. The good news is, we're number one for taking off. [applause] . . . The bad news is, the disinfectant they used to clean the plane is apparently not approved by the FAA, so I don't even know if it's legal for me to take off right now. I'm on the phone with Chicago right now seeing if there's any way we can keep this legal. We'll let you know when we find something out. [Applause replaced by expletives]"

We waited and waited as the plane got colder and colder from the air conditioning. More people are hitting their call buttons begging for blankets, saying they'll pay anything for just one blanket. Hannah is still asleep, and I ask someone close by to keep an eye on her while I make a jaunt to the lavatory. I get about 10 feet down the aisle and one of the flight attendants stops me and says "Where are you going?"

"To the restroom. Could you point me to the nearest one?"

"The seatbelt sign is still on. You need to be in your seat right now."

"We've been waiting a long time. I really have to go"

"The lavatories are locked right now. I think you'd better sit down."

"Ok. I'll push the call button when I wet my pants."

I sit back down. Everyone's nerves are shot. Children are screaming, people are yelling things out to the flight attendants, even the flight attendants are losing their cool. A woman in the back of the plane starts having a seizure. Chaos. Flight attendants zooming back and forth from this woman's seat. Water. Pillow. Blanket....wait, blanket???

"Get the ones from business class. There's no one sitting there."

A pile of beautiful, cellophane-wrapped blankets magically appears. 50 shaking fists pop up in random areas of the plane, some with singular, angry fingers attached to them. People are angry as can be and me? Well, I'm just glad they had the blankets for the woman with the seizure.

We're back at the gate. The captain announces that it is, in fact, illegal for him to take off tonight. After much sighing and shaking of heads, everyone unfastens their seat belts and takes down their carry-on luggage from the overhead compartments. I stay seated, deciding not to pick up my sleeping Hannah until the line is actually moving. The man who booked my tickets pops onto the plane, all smiles and bows, and says "We are currently trying to find hotel accommodations for everyone, and it will take just a moment. Please remain in your seats while we make these arrangements. Thank you!"

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. I'm visually tracing the lines of the locked tray and the chair in its upright position.

11:00. The happy bowing man makes another announcement.

"We have hotel rooms for everyone, but before you leave the aircraft, we do have a big favor to ask. Anyone who has purchased any Duty-Free items, please leave them on the table on your way out. We are sorry for the inconvenience, but you cannot bring those things back to Japan. Thank you for your cooperation and thank you for choosing United Airlines."

Take down luggage. Put on back pack. Pick up sleeping baby. Shuffle off aircraft. Request a room with two beds. Receive paper with instructions for hotel voucher. Escalator. Shuttle. Immigration again. Baggage claim. Arrivals.

Luckily Hans and Megumi were still in the airport. They were there to pick up two new teachers who had arrived 5 hours after my plane was supposed to take off. Megumi took the new teachers back to Takamatsu, and Hans took the shuttle bus to the hotel with me. We were told that the flight was being rescheduled for 2:00 pm the next day, but by that point I would rather have my eyes pecked out by buzzards than step in the Kansai airport again.

We called UA reservations and said that I would not be on the flight at 2:00, but that we would like to make arrangements for either a rescheduled flight (after Hannah and I recover), vouchers, or a refund. Hans made the call, but since he wasn't on the flight they weren't taking him very seriously. Now it's my task to tell them my story.

This is my rough draft. :)

I love you all. I'm sorry I didn't get back on the horse and take the next flight. Hannah didn't sleep in the hotel - she was wired from her "nap" and all the excitement, and by morning the two of us were NOT fit for travel. I'm hoping to reschedule the trip to KS (and yes, maybe RI too) for mid-June. We'll see what kind of run-around I get from United Air. Wish me luck. I haven't had much of it lately.

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