Sunday, January 17, 2016

It's the Journey Not the Destination...or So I've Been Told

December 14th was the beginning of the end…of our time in Monterey California.

The Hubs arrived in Monrovia Liberia on the 13th of December, the next day I, with the help of my father in law (Jack), began the arduous task of supervising a full week of packing up our California home in order to move back to Africa. Oh, did I also mention that I had finals that week? No, well I had finals in 3 classes that week.

I assumed that:
-       Packing luggage for four people (luggage that we had to be prepared to live out of for about 3 months)
-       Supervising the packing of the house hold items that we were shipping to Africa
-       Supervising the packing of the items that would go into storage
-       Studying for and taking 3 finals

without the help of the Hubs, would be the craziest and most stressful aspect of our move to Liberia. Unfortunately packing and moving out of our home was only half of the insanity that awaited me.

Although the packing was stressful and I feel as though I botched the whole operation, eventually, for better or worse, it was all over and I was able to enjoy the last few days in Monterey and even see the new Star Wars movie before the flight on the 21st  of December.
On December 21st after a restless night, I woke at 3:00am and began preparing for the flight from Monterey California to Monrovia Liberia. The plan was to fly from
Monterey CA to
Los Angeles CA to
Atlanta GA to
Brussels Belgium to
Monrovia Liberia.

Once in Liberia we would joyfully reunite with the Hubs and spend Christmas together in our new home!

This is what really happened…

We arrived at the Monterey airport two hours early. We checked in easily enough and were told that our bags would be sent straight through to Monrovia! However, when the woman working the counter attempted to print our boarding passes, only the Monterey to LAX pass would print. After some typing and jiggling of wires and a frustrated whack to the printer, the woman told me that I would have to get the boarding passes from a gate agent in Los Angeles. I remember thinking that it was too damn early in the trip for this to be happening, I should have seen this incident as a sign of what was to come. I told the woman that we’d work it out and handed over the five large pieces of checked luggage and confirmed that the luggage did not need to be picked up anywhere along the way.

We found our way to the gate to wait for the plane to arrive. As luck would have it, the gate attendant found me and gave me the rest of our boarding passes! Maybe this trip was looking up after all.

This airplane is really loud!

James is ready for this!
The flight to Los Angeles was short and uneventful. We found our way to the next gate without much trouble and even had enough time to purchase some overpriced stale pastries and a fancy bottle of water. Seriously, how is water fancy?? I’m convinced that the water must be collected from magical icebergs endowed with healing properties and viciously protected by shaggy, blood thirsty snow ponies…Can you think of another reason why water is so expensive? Anyway…

We anxiously awaited our flight to begin boarding. We were ready! All of our electronics and chargers were counted and recounted. We sipped our magic glacier water and nibbled away at our stale breakfast as we watched the clock tick closer to our boarding time…the boarding time arrived and passed. I checked with the gate attendant and she assured me that we’d be boarding shortly. Boarding shortly turned into boarding an hour late! Once on the plane and settled into our seats, a frazzled flight attendant followed by James (who is eleven years old) rushed over to me. “I’m sorry mam, he can’t sit in the exit row!” Sheesh! I suggested that Brenden and James switch places but James quickly told the attendant that Brenden was not old enough to sit there either!

Sitting James and Jacob next to each other with out adult supervision in a public place is a recipe for a humiliating disaster that would likely have led to all four of us being tossed off of the plane. I was forced to take James to the front of the plane, where Brenden was sitting, seat James in Brenden’s seat, send Brenden to sit in my seat, next to Jacob and I would sit in the exit row.

After all of the passengers were boarded and seated in the correct places, we headed to the runway, along with 5-6 other planes. It seemed to take forever just to get off of the ground. Luckily, the actual flying time was only 3 hours and the boys were able to behave themselves for the entire flight, thank heavens!
When we finally arrived in Atlanta we had 30 minutes to make our gate before the plane took off. We busted a move through the airport as fast as we could and made it to the gate with what we thought was 15 minutes to spare but when we arrived, the doors were closed and we were told that we missed the plane by 5 minutes!

Thus began the crazy!

I was told by the gate attendant that we needed to head to the Customer Service desk. As we walked over to the desk I remembered the hubs telling me that should anything bad happen during our travel, we should call the emergency number on the itinerary that was issued to us by the military travel agency. I began repeatedly sending frantic iMessages to the Hubs hoping that he would see them but thinking that he likely would not, ether way it felt good to freak out a little. I called the emergency number and they were no help at all!!!!!!!!!! They told me to “deal with the airline”. At the customer service desk I was told that they could get me to Brussels the next day (insert super cheery customer service voice here). I explained that getting to Brussels the next day would not help me to get to Monrovia because there was not another flight to Monrovia until Friday (Christmas Day). They then told me that I could go to Brussels and stay in a hotel for a few days until my flight left, basically they didn’t want me to be their problem anymore….”Get this woman out of the country as quick as possible!!” At least that is how it felt. Chilling in Brussels (while it sounds fun) wasn’t going to work for me. I told them that I would rather stay in Atlanta until Thursday. We searched for other flights through other cities and countries and called the stupid emergency number about 5 times trying to get the alternate flights approved, the hubs did eventually see my angry, frantic texts and called me. After 2 ½ hours of working this problem we decided that traveling on Thursday, Christmas Eve, through Amsterdam was the safest and best way to complete the journey. 

The next step was to find a place to spend the next three days. I called that dumb emergency number to find out if they would pay for a hotel. They said, “no” and then suggested that the Army might pay for it (reimburse us for the nights) and that they could book it for me at the government rate…gee thanks.

You are probably wondering why the airline didn’t pay for the hotel…. this was all their fault after all…well, they would have paid for it, but they would only pay for the rooms one night at time at a hotel of their choosing. This would mean that I would have to check out every morning, drag my kids and our nine bags plus backpacks to the airport, wait in line at customer service, get a new voucher for a hotel (maybe a different hotel than the one we had just checked out of) schlep myself, kids, and bags back to said hotel, and then do it all over again the next day….uhhhh NO THANKS!!!

I told the unhelpful emergency service that I wanted the nicest room for the allowable rate, which was $138.00. Screw this! I’m stuck here Christmas week; I’m going to a nice place! They booked us at the Home Wood Suites, one bedroom apartment with two queen sized beds, sofa bed, kitchen, and free breakfast and dinner!

I finalized the tickets to Monrovia for the 24th of December and asked the guy for some food vouchers.
I honestly said, “So, are you going to feed us? Cuz, your airline didn’t feed us crap on the plane ride from LA and I have been standing around for the last 3 hours trying to find an answer to this nightmare and my kids have been freaking amazing but I don’t know how long that’s gonna last soooo, yeah.

The guy agreed with me:
a)    That my kids are effing travel rock stars
b)    That the airline, as a general rule, starves people on domestic flights

James waiting at the Atlanta airport
Looking terrible and trying not to cry

We were given $120.00 in vouchers and set off to find the most expensive restaurant that we could. We stumbled upon a steak house and ate our hearts out on Delta’s dime. We then found over priced ice cream and consumed it with as much enthusiasm as we could muster after the day’s unfortunate events.

With our bellies full and some of our energy recovered we headed to baggage claim with the hope of finding our 5 checked bags. The man running the baggage office confirmed that our bags were still in Atlanta (thank heavens for small miracles) and sent us to another location to pick up the luggage. Another hour and we had our unharmed but soaking wet suitcases. Moving 9 pieces of rolling luggage with three kids who have been awake since 3am is no easy task. We lumbered our way out of the airport and after wandering around ground transportation for 20 minutes we found our way to the shuttle that would transport us to our beds.

The Homewood Suites was just what we needed! Unfortunately because the bags were wet, we were forced to postpone meeting our beds until all of the bags were opened and their contents hung up to dry. Our stay in Georgia was pretty dull. We enjoyed the large hot tub and free breakfast and dinner. We were able to walk to restaurants nearby and even “ubered” a ride to see a movie.



Our many bags! 

Hotel staff was great and even made a bed for Picachu
On the 24th of December as we were packing to leave for the airport when the power in the hotel went out! The weather was terrible with thunder, lightning and heavy rain. I was really concerned that we would not make it out and that we would be stuck in Atlanta for another few days. After about an hour the power came back on. We ate breakfast and headed to the airport 4 hours early.

Move to Liberia; take two!
I am glad that we arrived with so much time to spare. The airport was crazy. Flights were being cancelled and delayed; there were angry people everywhere. The shuttle only dropped off in the domestic terminal and although Delta claimed that we could check in for international travel in the domestic terminal, the woman who was checking us in had no idea what she was doing. It took her over an hour just to check our bags in. I was terrified that I would never see those bags again. Eventually we got our luggage checked and our boarding passes issued. We made it through security with out any problems and by some miracle the flight left on time, even with the bad weather. The plane was only half full and we were free to spread out. Although I did not sleep much, James and Jacob each took a row and were soon snoring.

Finally on the plane!
The train to our gate in Atlanta

When we reached Amsterdam we had about 3 hours to make our next flight, which was headed to Brussels. It was early in the morning and there were not many people in the airport. We made it to our gate with plenty of time and settled down to wait for the plane. I let the kids open some Christmas presents, as it was Christmas morning after all, they had a great time making crafts in the Amsterdam airport and loved the little gifts that they received. The flight from Amsterdam to Brussels was only 20 minutes long but that was long enough for Jacob to fall madly in love with the flight attendant. He was waving at her as she gave the flight safety instructions and then told me that he loved her 1,018, he likes to quantify things.
Having fun in Amsterdam

Santa James, and elves


Christmas gifts at the gate!

StarWars is Awesome!!!!

Brenden is a little sleepy

Finally on our way to Brussels

Hoping this goes OK!

Once in Brussels we had an hour and a half until our plane to Monrovia left. We went straight to the gate. I was extremely nervous because of what happened in LA and wanted to make sure that we were there in plenty of time. The gate was PACKED with people. About 40 minutes before the plane was set to board everyone got up and formed a line. I was like, “UH, did I miss something? What the heck is going on??” Feeling like a complete idiot, I asked the gate attendant what was happening, “Why are all of these people in line?” She told me that they were waiting, of their own accord, to board the plane even though there was no announcement to do so.

I have been involved in boarding public transport in Africa before and it can be a daunting and chaotic experience. I did not want to deal with fighting all 300 passengers on this flight, so I asked if we could board with the people who had little kids. I did have a 4 year old with me, that’s little...right? Eventually I convinced them to let us do the pre-boarding and we moved to the pre-boarding waiting area with the grandmas and babies. You are right, I have no shame, to me, it was totally worth it.
The flight was long, about 7 hours to Sierra Leone. 



In Sierra Leone some passengers got off of the plane and new passengers boarded. We were on the ground for about an hour and then flew for another couple of hours to Monrovia. When we landed in Monrovia it was dark outside. We collected our bags and made our way to the door of the plane and slowly climbed down the steps. We were some of the last passengers to leave the plane and we missed the airport bus that was to take us to the terminal. As we were waiting for the bus to return to us I realized that I had left the envelope with the passports in my seat!! I instructed Brenden to watch the other boys and darted up the stairs while incoherently shouting at the flight attendants, “passports, left, plane, be quick.” Some how they seemed to get the gist of the situation and didn’t try to stop my hysterical sprint back to my seat. The envelope was there! I breathed a deep sigh of relief and made it back to my kids as the bus arrived.

At the terminal we were instructed to wash our hands with bleach water from a bucket with a spicket at the bottom, the hubs told me to bring some hand towels because they don’t supply a means of drying your hands. We washed and dried our hands with the towel Brenden had stowed in his backpack. As we approached the door a nurse took our temperature to ensure that we were healthy enough to enter the country. We were all cleared to enter the building and as we did we met the chaos of the Monrovia Airport.

The airport was small and packed with people, although I was told that the airport was slow the night that we flew in. An embassy expeditor met us in the midst of the commotion and directed us to the passport booth. She told us to give the passport agent our passports and to follow her into the baggage claim. I was not really comfortable leaving my passports AT ALL, but I left them with the agent and followed her. The baggage claim consisted of one dilapidated baggage belt that moved just a little too quickly. I was able to snag our bags up with out being pulled along for the ride and Brenden and James were great at holding onto the bags and shooing away the many offers for help with the bags that we received. After all of our luggage was accounted for, we went to the other side of the room where two dudes stood by some tables. This was “customs”, the customs agents asked me to open my bags and I told them that we were diplomats and that we didn’t have to open our bags. He asked for our passports but they were still with the passport agent. The expeditor mumbled something I couldn’t understand and went back to the passport guy. We stood there awkwardly with our 9 bags for what seemed like forever.

Finally, Brenden said, “Did you check her badge mom?”
Me, “Yes, she had an embassy badge”
Brenden, “Someone could be stealing our passports”
Me, “I saw a badge”
Brenden, “Do you want me to go check on the passports? I should go check!!”
Me, “Ok, go, but be careful!”

So, Brenden pushed his way back through the insanity and around the corner to where the passport check was located. He was gone about 5 minutes and then appeared again and gave me the thumbs up to let me know that our passports had in fact not been stolen. He waited with the agent and expediter until the passports were stamped and then joined us as we made our way out of the airport where the hubs was waiting for us.

We greeted each other quickly and headed to the van where we hurriedly loaded our baggage into the vehicle and began the hour drive to our new home.

Thanks for reading friends and family! Until next time…

International Travel Survival Tips
1.    Before leaving any seated or standing area check for your passports
2.    If you miss a flight DEMAND money for food
3.    Spend every penny that the airline gives you for food
4.    Travel with your kids as often as you can. This toughens them up so that they aren’t completely annoying when you have to go to customer service for 3 hours (any form of travel works; car, train, plane, boat etc.)
5.    When traveling over the Christmas holiday have gifts in your carryon luggage just incase you end up spending Christmas in an airport
6.    Don’t trust the airline to actually take care of you when you miss a connection

7.    Bring food when traveling domestically in the USA; they will try to starve you!