When I studied abroad in Greece in 2010, I remember one thing from my orientation meeting: The words of my beloved professor Dr. Shea when she told our parents, “Will things go wrong on this trip? Absolutely. It’s going to happen no matter what. I’ve had drug overdoses. I’ve had hospitalizations. I’ve had muggings. I’ve seen it all! But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go.” Problems on the road are inevitable. Dealing with them is all we can do. I have several friends with travel horror stories. But you take your lumps and move on! Sharing the stories makes you feel like you are not the only travel idiot out there. My best friend lost $300 when he told us our flight to Paris was two hours after it actually was. Another friend got the AM and the PM switched on her whole family’s international flights, and they had to pay several thousand dollars in change fees. Shit happens. I get to join the ranks now.
I was sitting on the airport express train in Hong Kong. It’s a high speed train that travels the 14 miles from the city center of Hong Kong to the outer lying islands where the airport is. I was looking out the window at the setting sun over the bay, passing freight cars stacked four high and looking at massive port cranes with high rises shooting up in the distance. I didn’t want to leave Hong Kong. I really loved the city and didn’t get to see enough of it. I listened to my iPod and thought about coming back someday soon. I was relaxed and marveling at Hong Kong’s offerings as I traveled from one place to another.
I checked into my flight at one of the kiosks at the airport. I waited in line to drop my bag and was there exactly 2 hours before my departure. As the check-in lady was checking my passport, I was scanning the area for a Starbucks. She thumbed my pages over several times, and looked at me very puzzled.
Lady: Where’s your visa?
Me: (I open it to the Hong Kong stamp) This is what they gave me.
Lady: Yes, but where is your visa for Vietnam?
Me: I need a visa?!
Lady: I’m sorry if you don’t have a visa, you cannot board the plane.
Me: Can I not buy it at the airport?! Are you sure I need one? I’m American, not from Hong Kong.
Lady: I’m sorry. I cannot let you on the plane or refund the ticket.
Me: What do I need to do to get on this flight?!
Lady: Nothing. It is Saturday and the embassy is closed. It takes two days to apply for your visa online. You can fly out on Wednesday.
Me: Can I change my flight to Wednesday then, while I apply?
Lady: No. You have flight insurance, but it does not cover any changes within 24 hours.
Me: Uh. Uh. Uh. I… Um… I… guess I’ll just take my passport. What should I do?!
Lady: It is okay, we have flights everyday to Hanoi. You stay in Hong Kong three days and try again on Wednesday. You buy visa online today and pick it up on Tuesday at the embassy.
I stumbled away from the counter shaking. I started talking out loud to myself, “Well… that happened. Okay, you fucking idiot. Sit your ass on this bench, apply for the visa, book a hostel for tonight, and book your flight. These things happen.” I did all of those thing on my iPad using the airport’s free wifi in 1 hour. I couldn’t call my mom until 7 that night in order to not wake her up. Ironically though, I was fine almost immediately. I had control over the situation. It was a matter of clicks away. I didn’t have the luxury of letting my shit flip out. I had to fix this issue myself. And I was absolutely not going home anytime soon. My new flight cost me $264. I was so pissed, but the only person I could be mad at was myself.
I got on the train back to Hong Kong Central. I was sitting in the same window seat as before, except everything was going backwards this trip. “Is that a metaphor?” I thought. I put on Sufjan Steven’s “Chicago” and listened to him sing, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, I’ve made a lot of mistakes.” I thought it would make me feel better to hear someone else sing about being human. I listened to the words and started laughing. That’s all I could do. People were looking at me on the train as I laughed pretty hard at my stupidity. I loved it. I was euphoric in laughing at myself. This lasted for about 2 full minutes until it dulled into a hushed giggle in my stomach. I got back to the same hostel I was at before. the receptionist asked me, “Did you miss your flight?”
They moved me to a different dorm room than I was in before. The bed was more comfortable. The room was cleaner, and immediately someone invited me to the rooftop for a beer. I joined a group of 6 travelers that night on the top of the building. We laughed at my stupidity and shared stories of our travel mistakes and misfortunes. I drank three beers without being able to read the label. It wasn’t until I the building began to spin that someone told me they were 12% alcohol. I slurred out, “I uzzzually stop at 2. This is like 9 of our beerzzz!” A Mexican traveler kept telling me, “Chou are young! Chou can drink 19 beers!” I went to bed that night so happy. I woke up not so happy.
But Sunday was beach day with the same 6 people. I swam off my hangover and got some essential vitamin C. On Monday we ate at a Michelin star restaurant for $18 USD and rode the trollies down to another part of the city I hadn’t seen before. I got some great food, some great information for the road, and honestly had the best two days of my entire Hong Kong trip. I reminded myself of this theory I’ve always had: Sometime the Karma gods throw us some shit so that they can repay us later. I don’t think it is because we necessarily do anything bad. They just do it to keep us on our toes. I also was reminded that while I am in the hole $246 for the new flight and $24 for the train to and from the airport, it’s just money. I’m not in the hospital. I didn’t overdose on my 9 beers in two cans. I wasn’t mugged of anything but my pride. But above all of those things, Dr. Shea was right. “It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go.” I had a bump in the road that led to another adventure with some great company. And I’ll never forget to check the immigration requirements again!
If you have travel faux pas, please share in the comments section.
Join the ranks of all the other travel idiots out there!