Saturday, October 10, 2009

October 8 or 10, 2009 [it’s sort of confusing]

We’re on our way! We left home this afternoon around 1:15 with our “new” driver, Tony. After the debacle last Spring with a substitute driver who forgot to load one of the bags, it was time for a change. Tony dropped us off at PB around 1:45 and we found ourselves at the deserted Continental counter with no other passengers but plenty of assistance. The woman who helped us was able to check our 2 bags all the way to Singapore; she wasn’t sure if she could route them through to Jakarta and we didn’t want to experiment. Still, it saved us the trouble of hauling the luggage through the Newark airport. We were thrilled.

Since our flight wasn’t set to depart until 3:30, we took the time to eat a fast-food lunch at the Burger King near our gate. Mmmmm! Whoppers and French fries. We took our time before going to our departure gate where we had only a short wait. Our flight to Newark was mostly smooth and we landed early. Food note: Our snack was a turkey sandwich accompanied by Fritos and a Hershey bar. Not great but certainly better than peanuts.

Anyway, we were in Newark at 6:15 and found our way from Terminal C to Terminal B only to discover that the EVA counter, which they borrow from Lufthansa, didn’t open until 8:00 p.m. We found some comfortable seating next to Chili’s and killed time until just before 8 when we joined the line to check in.

Check-in was not a speedy process for anyone. Most people had multiple bags to check whereas we had already taken care of our luggage in Florida. But when we finally got to the counter around 8:10, the clerk told us she could have our bags retagged our bags and sent all the way to Jakarta. Easier said than done, of course, as there were computer malfunctions and freezes, but we were assured our bags would be in Jakarta waiting for us. Maybe.

We learned a long time ago that we are too old and stiff to sit in the back of the plane for long flights and our narrow seats from West Palm northward only reinforced our decision. As Business/First Class passengers on EVA, we were entitled to use the lounge which they sublet from British Air. By the time we finished the check-in process and cleared Security, it was 8:45, the appointed time for the lounge to open for passengers. We were among the first to arrive. We relaxed, got snacks and read the paper while we waited; David Skyped with Jon in North Carolina for a few minutes and eventually almost two hours had passed and it was time to join the horde waiting to board the plane.

As we approached the gate, an EVA employee whom we had met earlier asked MA if she wanted her pre-arranged wheelchair for boarding. MA said ‘no’ and the EVA lady then walked us to the front of the line and made us the first to board the plane. We still expect the wheelchair Taipei and Singapore, as well as in Jakarta.

Departure was 11:20, a few minutes late, but with the layover in Anchorage, we should still arrive in Taipei on time. We were fed starting around 12:15 in the morning EDT and finished after 1 A.M., five-and-a-half hours from Anchorage. [Menu note: appetizer of grilled shrimp, hummus, cucumber salad and broiled tomato wedges; entrees of fish for MA and sea bass & pork belly in an Asian sauce for D; dessert of fresh fruit and cookies] MA tried to sleep but had trouble getting comfy even on the almost-flat bed because she kept sliding. Around 2 A.M. she changed the position of her seat and tried again.

While MA slept, David started the journal and then played computer games for a while before he, too, dozed off. He woke around 5 EDT and then catnapped until the lights went on at 6. MA slept through the lights and didn’t awaken until announcements were made at 6:30 announcing our approach to Anchorage.

We didn’t realize until then that we would have to exit the plane in Anchorage with all our belongings. For some reason that makes sense to EVA, their west-bound flights from Newark to Taipei [the only ones they have from the east coast] stop in Anchorage to refuel and change crews. Dutifully, we packed everything – books, computer, MP3, goodie bags – into the carry-on bags and trooped off the plane. EVA staff remembered the wheelchair request, so MA took a short ride to the seating area; the wheelchair attendant suggested she use the chair to guarantee that she would have a place to sit in the in-transit waiting area. At first we thought that she would have to sit in the wheelchair but discovered, once inside, that a large bloc of seats have been reserved for the wheelies.

The waiting area was actually no more than, perhaps, 200 feet from the door of the plane, but after the long march to Security in Newark, we weren’t taking any chances. As luck would have it, there was another plane landing at the same time, and parts of the terminal were locked so we wouldn’t contaminate anything. This resulted in there being no restrooms on the first level of the waiting area and no accessible elevator to reach the second floor. David scouted out the entire first floor and then was directed to an EVA staffer [we think] who was very sympathetic to MA’s desire to use the facilities. When it became obvious that they were not going to be able to open the door leading to the loo without setting off an alarm, they allowed us to return to the plane to use the facilities there. We had to return to the waiting room before being allowed to re-board the plane with everyone else. All told, we were Anchorage about an hour, just enough to interrupt some really good sleep.

Once back on board, we had to listen to the whole safety spiel again; it was like having to attend a second lifeboat drill upon taking back-to-back cruises. The lights stayed on and a snack was served. Our choice was a ham-and-cheese sandwich or a Chinese soup. We both opted for the soup which was quite tasty; it had very thin noodles, dumplings and something green that resembled broccoli stems, some with leaves. Again, it’s like a cruise because all we’ve done on airplanes today is eat and sleep.

The flight to Anchorage took about 7 hours, leaving another 9-1/2 until we land in Taipei where it will be 6:00 a.m. It was 3 o’clock in the morning in Anchorage, but we are keeping our watches on Eastern time until we get to Jakarta. There are too many changes otherwise. Our bodies will think it is 5:15 a.m. when we finally stop flying even though it will be 4:15 p.m. in Jakarta. We will have been in transit for almost 37 hours. Yikes!

We continued to eat our way around the world with breakfast before landing in Taipei [we’ve been eating “healthy” for the most part]. We opted for cream cheese frittatas which were really quite good. They were accompanied by sliced pork and roasted cherry tomatoes. We had mediocre herb omelets on the flight from Taipei to Singapore and will get snacks of some sort between Singapore and Jakarta. And then we’ll be expected to have supper with Briton, Caiden and Carter before collapsing in a collective heap.

We finally saw sunshine when we reached Taipei. We had raced the night from Newark to Asia with no sign of light in the plane’s windows. It was almost like sensory deprivation torture: no sunlight, surrounded by mostly non-English-speaking strangers and taken care of by a few friendly foreign nationals. Or is it Stockholm syndrome and we are starting to associate with our captors? Actually, the staff was great and the EVA personnel were as attentive as they could be, solicitous even, but it was a very long night [and day].

The skies over Singapore were cloud-covered and it had rained recently. Fortunately, we did not have to go outside for anything. We were met at the plane by a wheelie, the name we use for the folks who get to push the wheelchairs through the terminals. Once again, we would have been lost, literally and figuratively, without this assistance. Our young lady got us to a Singapore Airlines counter so we could get boarding passes and then took us to the gate; new opted not to go to the “passengers-in-need-of-assistance” lounge, preferring to simply wait outside the boarding area. We were the first passengers to arrive for our 3:30 flight. In fact, we were there a bit past 12:30 and boarding was not supposed to begin until 2:30. MA read while D updated once again and tried to stay awake.

The Taiwan and Singapore airports are wonders of opulence. Although we were taken aback when we saw Singapore for the first time last year, we now take the presence of really high-end shopping combined with duty-free shops in stride. Both of these airports boast plenty of both, presented in modern settings with plenty of creature comforts. They are what sophisticated, and moneyed, travelers expect now. Most of the airports we utilize cannot compare; indeed, they should not be present in the same paragraph.

We have also found that airline and airport employees are uniformly pleasant, knowledgeable and eager to ensure that foreign travelers, especially, have a good experience. Customer service is a given in Asia, at least, and we have never had an unpleasant experience [Even the immigration official in Cambodia last year was pleasant and polite while shaking Jon down for a bribe/tip.] As an example, today’s wheelie in Singapore went back to the SA counter to be sure that they had our baggage claim information so our luggage would really arrive in Jakarta with us [we hope]. The Counter person had asked about bags, was told we had checked them through, but did not verify the claim check numbers. Had we been on our own, we would not have had the presence of mind to double-check. That’s another reason why we make use of a wheelchair when we travel.

Things were uneventful for the remainder of the day. We had no trouble getting on or off the plane; we had a row of 2 seats in front of a bulkhead; and the ever-present wheelie was waiting for us when we deplaned. She did the legwork for the Indonesian visas, which can be bought at the airport, and guided us through the mob scene at Immigration. We bypassed the line completely, then waited while she again took care of the formalities. Our luggage actually showed up in Jakarta and on our plane! We left the wheelie and searched for Kusnadi, the family’s driver, but were found first by Carter. Hugs and giggles followed and we drove straight home.

The rest of the evening was spent watching The Boys open and play with their goodies [pictures to follow tomorrow] and a home-cooked meal from Mariati – yellow rice, tempe, home-made spring rolls and fresh carrots and broccoli. It was good to be home. Tomorrow we will rest and relax for the first time in 48 hours.

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