When I was 16, I was a Rotary Exchange student to Chile. Before my departure, my parents and I attended a plethora of meetings about what it meant to be an exchange student, financial issues, travel arrangements, and general logistics. Some of these meetings were large and included American high school students going to many countries, other meetings were smaller and less formal in format. Throughout these meetings, there were a few key lessons they drilled into our heads (different lessons for parents and for students). One of the fundamental lessons I learned, and I thought it was funny at the time, was that if you had problems while traveling, cry. Moreover, if you see another rotary exchange student crying, cry.
This may seem silly. It did, in fact, seem silly.
Rotary generally has students travel in a group to their country. There were fifty-some of us on our way to Chile—really, I feel sorry for any of the other people who has to share the main cabin of the plane with us. So the idea was that if one of us had a problem and started crying, the airlines would respond more quickly to get the student to stop crying. If an entire group of fifty started to cry—the service would be quicker still and any problem would be solved immediately to stop us from creating a scene.
On the way to Chile, we did not get to try out this theory. I continued to think it was pretty sill—but then I came home. When I came back to the states, I had 5 checked bags all of which were over weight! It’s amazing the amount of stuff one teenager can collect—of course I had help from classmates who all gave me gifts, my ex-boyfriend’s father who gave me a collection of copper statues (beautiful and heavy), my new found love of all things Chile, and 13 huge books of photos. At the airlines counter, the woman told me I could only have two bags. I was prepared to pay the overweight baggage—I was not prepared to choose. As I stood staring at my bags and thinking what was inside of them, I burst out crying. It was not premeditated—it was an involuntary reaction to having pieces of my life taken from me (I may or may not have been a dramatic teenager). The woman, waving her hands in a very impressive fashion, begged me to stop crying and put all my bags through at no extra cost to show me how much she wanted me to stop crying.
Fast forward more than 10 years to yesterday. Yesterday morning I had not woken up yet for my last day at work before my long awaited trip home for graduation when the phone rang. After making the woman explain who she was four times (more because I was still asleep than because of her English), I was told that my flight the next day from Phnom Penh to Taipei was canceled. I asked how I would get home and she said she would look into it.
Now awake, I threw on clothes and went to work to check the internet. I spent most of yesterday morning arguing with the travel agency: No, I did not want a full refund and to buy a new ticket as that would cost me a LOT of money. No, I did not want to spend the night in LA and get in a day late to St. Louis. No, I did not trust them that they could get me through customs in LA including picking up and dropping off luggage in 50 and make it to a flight which left in 50 minutes. No, I did not want to cancel the flight. Many phone calls and refusal of offers later, I had in my hands a list of flights that would get me to Taipei on time to connect with my original flights to the states. Unfortunately, China Airlines refused to let me fly through Bangkok. My option: leave right now and go through Ho Chi Minh. I agree. I had been arguing for 3.5 hours when I get this offer.
I run home and pack in record time (under 5 minutes including climbing and descending the 4 flights of stairs). In my defense, I already had packed all my gifts for other people—just not my own clothes and stuff. I grab my camera, computer, cords, and whatever clothes I see. End result: I have ALL of my pants with me, 3 shirts, 1 skirt, 1 dress, 4 bras, no underwear, no toothbrush, no toiletries at all, only the flip flops on my feet, and no socks.
I run by the office and throw my flash with documents for my boss on her desk. The organization sends a car to bring me to the airport. I get to the airport where I am told to speak with Mr. Leu at Vietnam Airlines who will issue me my tickets. I go to the Vietnam airlines desk and they tell me they have no idea what I am talking about and that I need to pay for the ticket. They call my travel agent and again refuse to give me a ticket. They tell me to go talk to someone at the China Airlines counter.
Time is running low; there is no one at the China Airlines counter. I call the phone number listed on their door. No answer. Its lunch hour and I assume the staff is eating somewhere. I start asking everyone around if they know who works there. No. After the fifth person I ask, I am very frustrated. When I am frustrated, I cry. I start to cry—said fifth person darts around trying to find someone to deal with me. I call the travel agency who says they will call the main office. I am trying hard not to cry, but standing their with all my luggage (and no idea what I have packed) and no ticket I can barely keep the tears at bay. And time is running out.
Crying pays off! They find someone (the cleaning boy) who knows who I need to talk to. He gets someone from China Airlines who gets me someone who gets me a ticket. All I have to do is hand him my ticket referral from the agency. Can’t find it. I think I must have left it with Vietnam Airlines, so they send someone to check. Nope. I rip my stuff apart looking for ticket while tearing up again—besides being frustrated, I am hungry having not eaten since the night before. The China Airlines woman says everything will be alright and not to cry, they will get me home.
I do finally get on the flight and get to Taipei. I spend the night in a hotel (provided by the airlines). At this very moment, I am sitting in the airport in Taipei waiting for my plane. I am on my way home. Once again, perseverance and tears have paid off. I guess that long ago Rotary lesson still holds true: airlines do not line adults (or high school students) crying while in their line and will do anything to make the person stop crying.