By this time, I should be in the air, on a plane to Manila to join my family in time for Christmas Eve. Instead I am here at home, and I have a story to tell.
Dulles Airport is not the easiest airport to get to from the DC area. The cheapest way to get there is by subway and bus: an airport coach picks people up from the West Falls Church Metro station.
After two sleepless nights of packing all the bilin and pasalubong I would be bringing home, my mind was not in the best of conditions. I and my heavy rolling bags were about halfway to that transfer point yesterday morning when I realized I had forgotten my tickets. I got off the train and rode back, lugging my bags with me, climbed back up to my apartment, and took the tickets from the table I had left them on.
I was running late, and the wait for the bus at the Metro station did not help. Fortunately the holiday season had reduced the normal clog of Northern Virginia’s rush hour traffic, and I arrived at Dulles Airport with an hour to departure. I headed for international check-in and handed my tickets to the agent.
“Okay, and may I see your passport, please?”
I write this from my window seat aboard a 747-400 flying from Chicago to Hong Kong: a 15-hour flight. At the time of this writing, I am five hours into the trip, 32000 feet over the endless, icy tundra of Canada’s far north.
In the bustle of packing and preparing, it had completely slipped my mind that I would, of course, need my passport to travel overseas. With only an hour left to get to the plane (with check-in and security screening still not done, and at orange alert) it was pretty clear that I would not be able to make this flight.
I refused to panic.
“What are my options?” I asked the ticketing agent. Trans-Atlantic flight tonight through Frankfurt, or else Chicago to Hong Kong to Manila tomorrow, he said. “But first you need your passport.”
I took my bag and wheeled it back down to the bus stop. The prospect of hauling a 70-lb rolling suitcase back through a subway and bus with two transfers, was not appealing in the least, so I hailed a taxi and bit the bullet: $50 back to Washington.
The cab driver was a friendly Pakistani from Islamabad. I was surprised to find that he had graduated with a degree in video production: he had worked in the TV industry in Pakistan nine years ago, before moving to the USA, where he could only find work as a cab driver. We talked all the way home, discussing life in Pakistan, NTSC and PAL format video, the process of learning from one’s mistakes (such as forgetting passports and plane tickets), and the importance of sending one’s children back to their country of origin to learn about their roots.
I got home, found my passport, and took the taxi back to Dulles, luggage and all: another $50 — fair price for the slim chance that I could still catch a flight to Manila that would arrive by Christmas. The same cab driver had agreed to wait for me, and we spoke more, about life in the US compared to Pakistan and the Philippines. He was of the opinion that his children’s disposition would gain more refinement by going back to Pakistan, as opposed to their staying in the US and buying into the local teen culture.
It was a rather short-tempered, dour-faced woman who saw to my reservations at the desk, but I was resolved to face the crisis with faith and a smile. “Anything you can get me that’ll get me there by Christmas Day,” I said. “For missing this morning’s flight, I’m without excuse.”
The eastbound flight to Manila via Frankfurt was not an option: not at quadruple the cost. There was only one window of opportunity per day to take the Chicago-Hong Kong-Manila connection, and I had missed that window; the next one would place my arrival the day after Christmas. I was crestfallen, but I would take what I could get.
The scowling representative at the counter suddenly excused herself, and disappeared into the bowels of Dulles Airport for no small while. After what seemed an interminable wait, she returned to the counter and gave me two tickets: if I was willing to endure a ten-hour overnight Christmas Eve layover at the airport in Hong Kong, I could land in Manila at noon on Christmas Day. It was good enough, with no other options in sight.
“I’ll take it,” I said with a grin. Cut adrift in Hong Kong for ten hours from Christmas Eve to Christmas morning? The prospect carried with it the spicy taste of adventure: me, my backpack, and a camera, roaming Chinese city streets. It seemed a reasonable — and somewhat exotic — substitute for not being able to spend Christmas Eve with my family, and I would still make Christmas Day.
I took the tickets. My flight would leave at the same time as the flight I had missed this morning, and this time I would be early — with passport and tickets obsessively guarded in my closest pockets.
I stopped in my tracks halfway out of the airport. I had erred egregiously today, and I had come before the airline ticketing counter repentant and without excuse, and this stern, snappish agent had quite possibly pulled some delicate strings to get me this deal, and had waived the penalty charge at that. My Christmas travel predicament had been visited by an angel, and I couldn’t simply walk away.
I pulled a bag of chocolate out of my backpack — extra pasalubong fodder I had packed — and brought it to another section of the check-in counter, with the name of the frowning agent who had expedited my trip home. “Could you give this to her,” I said to the representative with a smile. “She made my holiday.”
“Certainly,” said the lady at the counter, “she’ll appreciate it.”
Taxi home, and another $50 to the same Pakistani driver. It turned out that he seriously needed my fare, having made only $20 the previous day, and the cutthroat competition with other Dulles Airport cabbies was a physical and financial drain on his resources. I was happy to indulge him.
That night, I joined some of the young adults and the associate pastor at First Baptist for a quick, informal dinner. Theology, politics, love, and marriage were heartily discussed over burritos in downtown DC.
It only occurred to me later after dinner: bean-and-steak burritos may not be the best food to eat the night before a trans-Pacific plane trip.
No chances the next day. My catsitter met me the next morning to collect my keys as I headed for the Metro at 6:00am. Passport and tickets were in my pocket, and I lugged my bags with me, down the same route as the day before. As I waited at the West Falls Church Metro bus stop, it was unseasonably — and blessedly — warm, so that the early dawn air spared me its wintry bite. The sun rose just as the bus approached Dulles Airport, rising from behind the soaring concrete and tinting the undersides of the clouds pink and orange. It felt like a good sign.
All this time, my prayer was simply for no more hitches. I was set for a long trip, a Hong Kong overnight, and a Christmas Day arrival, which was more than the best I could have expected — but that didn’t stop me from a last-minute plea at the check-in counter: “Is there any flight you can get me that gets to Manila by Christmas Eve?”
And there was. A seat had freed up, and my overnight layover in Hong Kong was reduced to three hours, a flight landing in Manila just ten minutes shy of midnight, Christmas Eve.
And, with exit row window seats all the way. Those are my favorite kind of seat: great view, unlimited legroom, no jumping over laps to stand up.
“My cup runneth over,” I reflected, as I boarded the uber-cool Dulles Airport elevated terminal bus to get to my plane. I had been pushed right to the edge, and leaned way out over it in faith, (falling off the “cliff” being the metaphor for a total cancellation) and come back from it with more than I had asked for.
Now, I write this from from a departure lounge at the overwhelmingly huge Hong Kong International Airport. After a 15 hour Chicago-HK flight over the Arctic North, my first stop was the airport shower lounge, then Duty Free Cosmetics to get Mom some Lancome. Now, I sit here tapping in to the airport’s hourly-billed wireless access, just one (slightly delayed) flight away from Manila. Reservations were changed, tickets were printed, and I will be arriving in the early dawn of Christmas morning. The Father provided, lovingly and abundantly, and this Christmas, I give thanks.