Exhausted I stand, the tinted glass doors of LAX behind me, inhaling my first breath of the United States of America. What does it taste like? It tastes like freedom and opportunity. No, I lie. It tastes just like the somewhat polluted air of every other country I’ve stepped foot in. But I made it, and after the last 30 hours I’ve had, I don’t know whether I should consider myself lucky, an idiot, or both for even getting this far. Probably both. Let me rewind.
At 4.50am I awoke to find the population of my dorm room in the Hanoi Hostel to have doubled since I went to bed. Confused, yet unabated I quietly brush my teeth and pack up the remainder of my things before jumping into a cab and arriving at the airport at 5.30. The aim was to get there early enough to try and request an emergency exit row seat as I assumed that leg room on an Asian airline would be just like the buses in Asia: Not made for tall white guys. Unfortunately, I was far too early for my 8.30 flight and the check-in counters wouldn’t open until 6.30, leaving me to snack on a chocolate croissant I had packed the night before and watch the cockroaches scurry across the empty hall. Unfortunately, it is when those check-in counters open that my real problems begin.
The Hanoi airport isn’t the biggest, and certainly not best designed airport in the world. International and domestic check-in counters are separated by a few shops and an elevator that blocks vision between the two. This seems logical enough, yet it wasn’t until myself and the two British girls I had met while waiting to check in noticed that China Southern hadn’t opened it’s counters, or even made an appearance as every other airline had that we got worried and began to look afield. Alas, they had opened a counter, in the domestic check-in area, and we were now verging on being late.
When it was my turn to check in everything went as per normal. My bag weighed 12kgs, an eyebrow was raised when looking at my terribly outdated, acne engulfed passport photo and I even managed to get an exit row seat. Things were looking up, that is, until the woman asked me if I had my visa for the USA and China (where I was stopping over for 10 hours). I didn’t have a visa – for either. My stomach dropped. I told her that I didn’t have one for China because I planned on just spending the layover in the airport and that Australians don’t need a pre-organised visa for the USA, or so I had read somewhere. She didn’t like this, at all, and told me that unless I go upstairs to a cafe which had computers (the cafe in fact did not have computers), apply for the US visa, and be back in 15 minutes I wouldn’t be allowed to board. The whole thing just didn’t sound right and after minute or two of getting no where I spoke to the supervisor who offered a solution. It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than missing the flight altogether. I was allowed on the flight to China on one condition, I sign a contract stating that in the event of my deportation from the USA I wouldn’t seek damages from the airline or it’s staff.
Things went relatively smoothly on the China end, except of course for the possible deportation looming above my head. I needed to sort the whole mess out so I bought some dim sim’s at a restaurant with wifi and got to work. As it turned out I was right, sort of. Australians don’t need a visa to gain entry into the USA but they do need to apply and pay for a ‘visa waiver’ prior to entering the country. Fortunately this can be done online and despite the temperamental connection cutting out three times during my application process I was able to apply. The only problem that remained was that even though I had applied, the website encouraged applications to be submitted no later than 72 hours before arrival. Not 20.
With nothing more I could do but wait nervously for my fate I set my mind to the second most important task of the day – entertaining myself. I had plenty of shows and movies to watch but my netbook battery had almost depleted so I scoured the airport for a functioning power point to recharge. Only one exists, near the far end of the terminal, so when I commandeered it I didn’t move, much to the disappointment of other envious travelers.
By 7.55pm I was 10 minutes from finishing the season 1 finale of the show ‘Community‘, my third run through of the season – yes, it’s that good, when horror struck. Boarding wasn’t until 8.20 with the plane departing at 9, however being the overly timeline stressed person I can be I was stopping the show frequently for the last 30 minutes to hear the announcements. There had been four final boarding calls for the flight to Brisbane, whose gate I could see and I suspected this announcement to be the fifth. It wasn’t.
“Attention all passengers flying China Southern Airways on CZ327 to Los Angeles: This is the final boarding call”. Impossible, it wasn’t even 8pm yet and I hadn’t heard the first call (first calls were apparently localized to that gate’s area). Then it occurred to me: I hadn’t (nor realized I needed to) change the time zone on my laptop and phone. In possibly the most panicked state of my life I threw everything into my bag and ran. As Murphy would have it, the gate was as far away from where I had set up camp for the day as it could possibly be, but luckily there was some residual fitness left over from 301 to help me maintain a sprint. I got to the gate, the doors were closed and there was no plane.
My worst nightmare at university was somehow sleeping through or forgetting to set an alarm the night before an exam and missing it. This felt as bad as I imagined the realization of those nightmares to be. The staff at the gate were clearly unimpressed and pointed out that it was now 9.00 and that the big bold font on my ticket stated boarding at 8.20, departure at 9.00 and that I may miss my flight. ‘May’ miss my flight. Some hope!
After what felt like an eternity but was closer to an excruciating 5 minutes of radio chatter, pleas and prayers I was told that there was a special car on it’s way to pick me up and take me to the plane. The car driver showed no intent of racing to the plane and insisted on a slow 20km/hr pace, keeping me in a worried suspense over whether the plane might have just taken off and I was just getting a ride around to make it seem like they tried. But then, I saw it: the blue and white Boeing 777 with anxious ground staff waiting to remove the boarding stairs. I thanked the driver and jumped out well before the car stopped moving and sprinted up the stairs, expecting an all manner of looks and boo’s from the comfortably seated passengers that fortunately didn’t eventuate. I quickly found my exit row seat, suddenly feeling undeserving of the bountiful legroom I had acquired and sat in shame as we waited 10 minutes for a new opening on the runway to depart.
The flight itself was uneventful. I finished ‘Community’ and ended up watching part one of the final Harry Potter movie twice because that was pretty much the only English film that was playing. A far cry from the enormous library that Emirates has to offer.
As I walked through doors of the plane in LA I couldn’t help but smile at the five overweight airport staff waiting with wheelchairs, disinterested looks on their faces and loudly chewing gum in the same manner you see baseball players chewing. The image just screamed of American stereotypes, many of which have proved to be false after spending time here. The immigration counter was to be my final test and the old man at the counter certainly didn’t help my nerves. I handed him my passport and the first thing he asked was “Son, were you on drugs when this was taken?”. I considered being a wise ass and playing along with what I hoped was a joke, but decided that an immigration counter wasn’t the appropriate place. We then moved on to the issue of me having next to no idea of my plans which didn’t sound agreeable to him. It seems that having two weeks of unplanned travel before meeting someone in Seattle for a further ‘few weeks or so’ of unplanned travel before ‘probably going to Mexico’ isn’t looked favouribly upon. Regardless, after a throwing him a few random exit-dates and promises to book a flight I was stamped and sent through. Maybe there was a little freedom in that crisp LA air after all.