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April 17, 2008

Our first 24 hours of international travel

After spending the whole day staring at stacks of clothes to decide what to stuff into four suitcases nearly filled up with everything other than clothing, we got everything packed and loaded into the mini-van for the trip to the airport.  The girls were incredibly excited about the plane trip so we let them stay up until we left for the airport at about 10:30 PM.  We thought they'd fall asleep during the hour long drive to SFO but they were still excited and oblivious to just about anything other than getting on that plane.  Michael graciously offered to drive us so we didn't have to hassle with long term parking, dragging luggage and kids and car seats on and off of shuttle buses and high parking fees.  We gave him $100 and a $50 Trader Joe's gift card as a "thank you".  He also agreed to take possession of the cat for the next 3.5 weeks and check on the house from time to time.  So far so good.

We pulled up in front of the Cathay Pacific terminal and Andrew started pulling suitcases out of the back of the van while Gwen started vomiting all over herself and her car seat.  She was wearing the PJ's we intended her to wear for the 14 hour flight to Hong Kong and she was sitting in the car seat we intended her to sleep in during that flight.  10 minutes later, we were standing in line to check luggage while frantically digging through suitcases for clean clothing to cover our sad tired shivering little girl.  I got her cleaned up with antibacterial wipes and stuffed the soiled clothing into zip-loc bags (I always travel with a bunch of those!) while Daddy used antibacterial wipes to clean up the car seat and that worked pretty well too.  We cleared that hurdle then headed to our gate to wait to board the plane and our two happy girls ran around charming the heck out of everyone. 

We pre-reserved a bulkhead row on the plane so we were looking forward to our worn-out kids sleeping peacefully in their comfy seats for most of this flight. With a 1:30 AM takeoff time, we were almost certain everyone would be tired enough and comfortable enough to sleep for most of the trip.   With that in mind, we boarded the plane and reached our assigned row only to see that it was obviously NOT the bulk head.  The flight attendant looked at our reservation itinerary and told us that our pre-reserved seat row wasn't the bulk head on this plane.  I didn't understand how that was possible because I used www.seatguru.com and knew where the bulk head was and I was looking at that site when I was on the phone talking to the Cathay Pacific agent.  In the end, it turned out that we had an aircraft type change and row 36 wasn't bulk head on this plane.  Now we had several interesting problems to solve and the most important one was that our car seats won't really work anywhere other than the bulk head.

My girls have legs but, unfortunately, there's no room for legs if they're in the car seat and there is a row of seats in front of us.  Plus, the person in front of is certain to get kicked constantly for 14 hours and won't ever be able to recline without injuring my child so I'll spend the whole flight watching them to make sure they don't attempt it (and heaven help them if they do!).   There wasn't any other choice:  we had to have the seats checked as luggage and fly without them.  W.I.T.H.O.U.T them.  A sobering realization even if you're not drinking (and we weren't yet.  Okay, we didn't drink at all but it might have helped...)

Gwen and Maddy have only slept in two places the entire time they've been our daughters:  Their crib/toddler bed and their car seat.  They have never ever slept in a chair and this fight wasn't going to quickly be an exception. 

At 4:00 AM (their time), both of our lovely little girls were still wide awake and seeking entertainment any place they could find it.  They found it by playing 15 times with every travel toy we brought (and hauled in and out of the overhead compartment) and destroying the contents of the seat pocket in front of them.  Then they used their seat cushion as a trampoline and made conversation with all of the sleeping passengers around them. Finally, they collapsed like a dropped marionette and fell into a coma-like sleep that lasted about three hours before jolting awake and screaming and kicking in exhaustion induced hysteria that they wanted off of the plane and wanted to go home.    Several passengers were probably more than willing to help them get off the plane but the flight was just barely half way to destination and we were 33,000 feet over the ocean and hundreds of miles from land.  There were still another 6 or 7 hours to kill.  Andrew managed to kill most of it by sleeping (not sure how) while I dozed off and on for a sum total of about two hours while the kids did the same.  It's a blur to me now so there's not much more I can write about it other than to say that the "kids meal" we pre-ordered was excellent!  There was enough food in two of those to feed all four of us and the food was actually good!   

We finally arrived in Hong Kong at 6:30 AM (local time) and made our way through baggage claim and customs without delay.  Then we searched for the B13 counter so we could catch a pre-paid shuttle to the hotel.  We found the counter, got our sticker, stood in line then took off in a mad dash through the airport to the bus terminal (I swear, the locals practically run with their luggage carts and, like folks in mainland China, seem to have made an national passtime out of cutting you off or cutting in front of you). 

I couldn't run with my cart for three reasons: 

  1. It was piled so high with four suitcases and two car seats that I couldn't see over the top.
  2. Gwen and Maddy were in front of me -- running slowly while wearing their heavy backpacks -- and I didn't want to run them over.
  3. Andrew wasn't with us.  He took a flight to Taiwan immediately after kissing us goodbye at the B13 counter.

Everyone else got to the elevator and bus a full minute before we did and I didn't see which of four buses they boarded.  I watched one pull away as I tried to remember the name of our hotel so I could flag someone down and ask which bus we should be on.  I stopped to dig our hotel reservation out of my backpack and as I pulled my bag off my back, the girls begged to take off their backpacks too because they were tired from running with them.  I didn't see the harm so I let them.   I committed the hotel name to memory, shoved the paperwork back into my backpack and reached for my children.

Then I noticed that Gwen was missing. 

I totally lost my mind as I stared at the empty places where several large buses had previously been.  Did she get on that bus?  I grabbed Maddy by the hand and ran around frantically calling Gwen's name.  A few people were looking at me and smiling since they couldn't know that this strange word the Caucasian woman was screaming was the name of her three year old daughter.

Before we left home, I made special little tags for each of the girls and attached the tags to their backpacks.  The tags explained that they were US citizens and don't speak any language other than English even though they are Chinese.  Our name and cell phone number is on that tag as is the name of the US Embassy.  I also intended to put the name of our hotel there too (but I didn't).  So Gwen was lost and she didn't have her little tag.  She knows her name but when she says it, it sounds like "Whnee Tonkess"  (We call her Gwenny and neither of our girls can pronounce the G so it's always "Whnee".  If you know our real last name, you'll understand how close yet far away her pronunciation is).   

I really had a horrible feeling of dread that she was gone forever.  I fleetingly wondered if this was how "lost" children in other countries eventually end up in orphanages and get adopted by other families.  It seemed horrifyingly possible.  Who do you contact if you lose your 3 year old in Hong Kong?   I wanted to die but I had to still be a functioning parent to Maddy.  Then Maddy squeezed my hand and looked at me and said "Mommy, there's Whnee".  And she pointed to her standing behind that mountain of luggage on our cart.

I held both of my babies in my lap all the way to our hotel.  They fell asleep as soon as the bus started moving and slept the entire way there with their pretty faces pressed against my chest.   It was a long drive but I didn't mind.  It was the best 30 minutes of my day and probably a half hour of my life that I'm likely to always remember.

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