I decided to go home for Christmas for a number of reasons, but the most pressing of those was that I missed my family, and I wanted to celebrate the season with them.
At first it surprised me, but I guess it really shouldn’t have, that Indonesians were overwhelmingly more supportive of my visiting home than Americans. I heard a lot of “This is supposed to be nine months in Indonesia—not nine months but two weeks at home” or “Go somewhere else; you can spend the rest of your life in America.”
For a while, I even felt guilty telling people I was using my two-week break to go back to the country where I came from.
For once, though, my Indonesian friends and I were perfectly in sync.
When I said I was going home to celebrate Christmas in America, they all simply said, “Of course! You should be with your family. Bring us presents!”
To them, it wasn’t a question of strength or weakness; it was simple: you spend the most important days in your home with the people you love.
My trip home was not a pause on my year of self and world discovery; in fact, I think it was an important part of it. I’m back in Palembang now with a renewed sense of purpose and an even greater confidence in my role this year—to experience, to learn, to grow, and to share.
And also I now have many boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.
Dear GOD it takes an awfully long time to get to the other side of the world. Fourteen days minus all the traveling translates into roughly nine days in America.
Door to door, Palembang, South Sumatra to Bucyrus, Ohio took 49 hours. But if the first half of my year has taught me anything, it’s that even “getting there” is an adventure.
One of my students drove me to the airport, along with two of my fellow English teachers. They asked questions the whole way about what I bought everyone for Christmas presents, whether or not I thought it would be snowing when I arrived, and what perhaps I was thinking I might bring back for them.
“What if you meet your soul mate when you’re home and you don’t want to come back?!” Miss Laily asked.
I assured her that I would come back, soul mate or not. (Not, as it turns out.)
Indonesian airlines only allow 20kg total for baggage, so of course, my luggage was overweight. I was getting ready to fork over all my money when a man behind me spoke up (in English!) and offered to check in with me, so I could use the weight he had left over, thus saving myself tens of thousands of rupiah.
“Merry Christmas!” he said.
“Merry Christmas!” I shouted, and I skipped off down the terminal.
Plane 1: Palembang to Jakarta (1 hour)
No problems at all, except that I had to wait for my bags after the flight and wrestle the beasts onto the shuttle to the international terminal. The sweet customs agents waived the $250 visa exit/entry free, which they sometimes but not always do. I checked in for all of my remaining flights and shuddered only a little when the woman behind the desk said, “And your final plane will depart in just under two days. Here’s your boarding pass.”
And so I waved goodbye to my fat red suitcases and goodbye to Indonesia.
Plane 2: Jakarta to Singapore (1.5 hours)
I had a five-hour layover in Jakarta, but my excitement kept me in excellent traveling shape. Singapore was a different story. A long story. A 12-hour-layover-story.
On the flight there, I flipped through the airline magazine, and I found a picture I really loved. “Marina Bay Countdown,” the title read. Apparently, in Singapore’s Marina Bay, they do the very coolest thing to welcome the new year. They hand out white beach balls of all different sizes, and people write their wishes all over them in Sharpies before releasing them into the bay to go mingle with all the other beach ball wishes.
I wish I could go there, I thought. And then I realized… I could go there. For the first time in my life, I just ripped a page out of a magazine, stood in line and went through immigration, carried the photo to a cab driver, pointed at it, and said, “I’d like to go there, please.”
Now my little wishes are bobbing up and down in Marina Bay somewhere.
It was one of the most liberating things I’ve ever done in my life, I swear. I found it all by myself. Singapore is terrific: all bright lights and friendly people and magical beach balls.
Of course, even after my rendezvous downtown, I made it back to the airport with a whopping nine hours to spare.
Here’s the thing about the Singapore airport: you know that quote from Martin Luther King about how you should be the best at whatever you do, even if you’re a street sweeper? I think someone in Singapore took that line to heart. He or she must have said, “You know, a lot of people are only in our airport on a layover. Let’s make it the best place to have a layover in the whole world.”
They have koi ponds, butterfly gardens, free bus tours of the city (during the day only—drat!), a 24-hour free movie theater, gyms, massage parlors, tons of shopping, little craft and game stations throughout the whole place for kids (and me!), and thousands of computers set up everywhere with free internet. And my personal favorite, the transit hotel.
The hotel (there are actually three, one in each terminal) has a few traditional hotel rooms, but I opted for the budget option. You can rent a small room—bed, desk, and television, in six-hour blocks of time. There are also nicer-than-dormitory-style showers and bathrooms.
So I slept for five and a half hours and then took a (hot) shower before having just enough time to get a sausage and bacon croissant sandwich at Burger King and checking in an hour early for my flight. My body was clean, my appetite was sated, and I was decently well rested.
Plane 3: Singapore to Hong Kong (3 hours)
No big deal. Read the entire The Other Boleyn Girl on the trip home. We just stopped in Hong Kong for about two hours to re-fuel, and then we all board the same plane again.
Plane 4: Hong Kong to Chicago (15 hourssssssss)
This is like the marathon of flights, but I’ve been training pretty hard over the past few months. Honestly, people think 15 hours sounds terrible, but I think it’s just a very different mindset than you have on a four-hour flight. You nap, you eat, you watch a couple movies, you read, you listen to podcasts, and eventually you begin your descent.
Unfortunately, our descent began about an hour too late. I started to get nervous as we were all stretching our legs and gathering our bags. I was supposed to arrive in the evening on Christmas Eve, and I was confident that the Universe would not want me to miss that.
It turns out that the Universe did not really care.
I waited, jumping left-foot, right-foot, left-foot, right-foot for my bags to come out of the machine. From landing to take-off, I wound up with fewer than 45 minutes to make my connections, and we all had to take our bags through customs again. A security guard assured that would be plenty of time; he said the nasty weather meant no planes were leaving on time that day, anyway.
Another lesson: security guards are not in charge of when planes leave.
Nearly all of us trying to make connections, we all got on the train together to take us to the domestic terminal. That’s when we felt the wind for the first time. Oh my goodness, winter was colder than I remembered. The guy standing next to me said, “I don’t think it’s ever been this cold before in my life.” I assured him he was right.
I impatiently went through security for the 59th time before literally running through the airport to catch my plane to Columbus. (The truth is, I have always wanted to have to run to catch my plane. But in my fantasies, I always make it.)
An older woman and I were neck and neck racing through the airport, and it only bothered me a little that she was just as fast as I was. We got to the gate ten minutes before the plane was scheduled to take off.
But the door was closed.
We could see the plane sitting there, but there wasn’t a single person standing outside the door. I banged on it anyway. Nothing.
We later learned that in a rush to beat the winter storms, United was pushing out all flights as soon as they could, even early. I missed it, along with about ten other would-be passengers.
We were instructed to wait in the customer service line, which, luckily, was only about four miles long. We stood and stood and stood. A pretty brazen guy came sauntering up and announced, “Hey, everybody. I just got off a 15-hour flight from Hong Kong, and I sure am beat. Can I just skip to the front of the line?”
I was at once torn: on one hand, who did this creep think he was? And on the other hand, if his plan worked, I wanted to follow him.
Nope. People just turned, looked him up and down, and faced the line again. God bless America.
There is no one casually traveling on Christmas Eve. Everyone wants to get somewhere, and everyone has a heart-wrenching reason for why he or she needs to get there.
One couple (American dad, Malaysian mom) had two really young children who were going to meet their grandfather for the first time. The elderly couple behind me was going to visit their only daughter before she left on a trip to China, and they’d just discovered that all of his credit cards had been stolen.
“Do you have enough money to last until you see your daughter?” I asked.
“Yes, I know! I’m always cold!” the woman with the hearing aid answered. Her husband, though, said they had enough to make it home.
I realized that our situation was exactly like Kevin’s mom’s from Home Alone. Except there were no children left home by themselves, of course. Pretty much, we were stranded at an airport on Christmas Eve.
“Hey, where’s John Candy when you need him, huh?!” I said to the woman from before still standing next to me. At the mention of the words “Home Alone,” though, she burst into tears. Her husband had died two weeks earlier, and she “just didn’t want to be home alone on Christmas.”
Everyone wants to get somewhere, and everyone has a heart-wrenching reason for why they need to get there.
I promised that I would be there, at least, but by then I’m sure I smelled a little and wasn’t much of a consolation prize.
Plane 5: Chicago to Columbus (1.5 hours)
In the end, we made it. I didn’t see the woman again, but she said she was going to try to take an earlier flight into some other Northern Ohio city. I pointed out that her bags would still be heading to Columbus. She said on Christmas, she wanted her people more than she wanted her stuff. Amen.
Other than her, we all boarded the next plane to Columbus that left only a few hours later. We were like a little family; everyone cheered when someone from the original flight made it on stand-by and walked through the little airplane door, weary but victorious.
And I made it home for Christmas. Mom was waiting with my coat, Diet Mountain Dew, and chips and salsa in the car. Four and a half months apart, and she still knows me perfectly.