Southeast Asia, Day 1: Government Approval for an American Passport

Monday, March 19th, 2018

After an uneventful flight from Port Vila to Sydney (with the exception of the need to use the bathroom while taxiing in Sydney, to which the flight attendant begrudgingly permitted me with the Bislama warning, “if we start moving and something happens to you in there, it’s not on me!”) I raced through the plane to make my connecting flight.

We arrived at 10:55am, and my flight to Kuala Lumpur was at 11:55. After glancing at my flight printout that warned the gate closed at 11:35am, I ran past scores of people to be the first in line for security. One young male security guard, noticing my panicked state, asked when my next flight departed. “Oh, you have an hour, you can relax.” “But it says I need to have my documents checked…ten minutes ago.” “You’ll be fine.” “And I have to go through customs.” “No, not for a transit.” Thank God I didn’t have checked luggage or I’d be screwed.

Even so, I speed-walked through the galleries of expensive shops and perfumeries, seeking my gate. I arrived at 11:12am. The airline moved gates, making for stressful staff, but they were willing to help me get my boarding pass.

I watched the Air Asia flight crew pass with their clickity clack of heels on tile, their bright red suit jackets and pencil skirts a flash of color that was soon hidden behind the check-in desk. They retreated into a row of chairs, locking their mascara-covered eyes on their shiny smart phones in their manicured hands.

The supervisor helped me with my request. She was younger, maybe mid-30s, and directing all the female staff around her like a capital B Boss. I don’t think I’ve ever before been at an airport traveling somewhere where some male staff wasn’t present. She was a badass bitch with a dot matrix printer, a walkie talkie, a phone, and a mic, alternating between all of them sorting out my situation, which was apparently complicated.

Once she scanned my PC passport, she noticed that it was new, so she requested my regular passport. She was on the phone at one point asking for Dan to “give government approval for an American traveling with a new passport. She rarely spoke to me, but she was working hard, directing the flight crew with absolute authority. “I need this screen to read ZONE ONE, this one ZONE TWO, and on the end, ZONE THREE THRU FIVE.” Meanwhile she was printing – my lord was she printing – pages upon pages of dot matrix paper, folding them at each crease, jumping on the walkie (“Delta delta to alpha 5, I need approval on this one”) until finally telling a young attendant named Bella to make an announcement. “I’m scared!” she said as she nervously laughed. In the end, Bella made the announcement on the intercom about the gate change with minor flubs, and afterwards she shrugged down with great exhaustion and a smile.

This unnamed supervisor was soon finished, her Aussie accent assuring me, “Almost finished, yeh?” Quickly she passed me my passports and boarding pass and I was ready to go.

I boarded the flight and soon found out that Air Asia is a discount airline, so everything, including plain water, cost money. They didn’t accept credit cards, and I didn’t have Malaysian Ringgit, so I was left to request hot water) the only free thing. The flight was 8 hours long and didn’t offer free meals or water, so I dug into my hostel-ready snack bag and conjured up a meal by crumbling some chicken buillion cubes into one cup, and oatmeal and cinnamon into the other. Soon I was full on oatmeal and chicken broth, an odd but substantial meal given my options.

After arriving in Kuala Lumpur, I enjoyed some free WiFi and smells wafting from the nearby McDonald’s. I considered buying a magazine, but Wired cost nearly $10, so I passed.

The flight to Phuket boarded on time, but closed fairly quickly, or so it appeared, based on one of the flight crew constantly shouting that the gate was closing while there were still about thirty people to board the flight. I instantly fell asleep on the plane and was jolted awake when we finally took off and when we landed, as my body’s clock was five hours ahead.

We arrived at 8:55pm, and I zipped through customs and found the driver my parents arranged by 9:15. With his limited English and my complete lack of Thai, all I managed was asking him to translate some basic greetings for me. I told him I was Peace Corps, as Thailand does have volunteers and he may know who we are. He did not.

No longer was I in a country of 270,000 people who are all cousins, and where stores closed at 7pm. As we drove to the resort, I noticed restaurants and stalls and grocery stores were still open, despite the time nearing 10pm. I was thrilled to find myself in a bright, neon-lit metropolitan area that suited my needs. At a stoplight, I gazed out my window at a 20-something girl wearing high-wasted floral pants and a black top hop off her motorbike to buy some clothes at a store that sold 99 baht tops. Then I saw her speed off to a grocery store. Because sometimes you want to buy a new shirt and some snacks at 10pm on a Monday, and this is the place where you can do that sort of thing.

Around 10:30pm, I arrived at the resort, which is located near Patong Beach, an obviously touristy area that is evidenced by a nearby Hard Rock Café. And, like in Port Vila, there are loads of Australian tourists who seem to have trouble finding clothes with sleeves (the men) or butt coverage (the women). The car pulls up the resort, where Mom and Dad are waiting for me, and as I step out, Mom rushes over in her little short person trot to give me a huge hug, which lasts for a long time, which makes up for the absence of hugs since I left them in the USA eleven months ago.

My first requirement was to drop off my stuff, and then to eat. We walked over to an outdoor night market, where I got pineapple chicken fried rice served in a pineapple, along with a mango smoothie, for under six dollars. A very similar meal was offered when I went to Luganville in December and cost well over ten dollars.

We walked around a bit, just so I could get a lay of the land, before retreating to the hotel around midnight for some much needed sleep. Tomorrow Mom and I had a girls’ day planned.