Arrival

I won’t even pretend that I knew/know what time we arrived.

I do know that we got stopped by immigration coming in because- AGAIN – they couldn’t find X in the system. A very helpful officer led us to another desk, checked the email attachments I had saved on my phone, and told us that the Visa office had mis-entered X’s passport number. That’s why the attendant at JFK hadn’t been able to find it. I sent him a mind-message of thanks for giving us the benefit of the doubt and pushing us through anyway.

We cleared customs and gathered our boxes- most of which had been ripped, opened and searched, or crushed in transit. As it was such a huge load, we were instructed to wheel our trolleys over to a green line set apart from other arrivals and await the sniffer dog. A sleek black pup nosed its way across our things, pausing a few times, but never sitting down. I breathed a sigh of relief. I was pretty sure I hadn’t packed anything suspect, but I have a deep-seated fear of K-9 units (long story for another time).

Merv, our Rotary host counselor was awaiting us just outside the doors. I recognized him from his Facebook photos and our one, spotty, Skype session.

Throughout our journey, I had been having periodic episodes of “Holy shit, this is actually happening!!!” It still felt gauzy- this idea that we were actually moving to Australia. The sight of Merv, though, set it firm. My eyes stung with tears of gratitude.

We exited the airport into gorgeous 75º sunshine and breezes. We loaded up the truck and trailer that Merv had brought to collect us, and headed for our AirBnB.

Arrival

Scott met us outside the door of our temporary home. Merv took off to return the trailer, and give us some time to collect ourselves before picking us back up for a tour around the city. We took turns showering and wandering around the garden behind the house.

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O pointed out a papaya tree, several birds making unusual (to us) sounds, and a GIGANTIC spider. X flushed the toilet repeatedly to see if it really did swirl the opposite way.             It does.

Merv returned and drove us around some. I tried to memorize street names and landmarks but, after all the travel, my brain was just mush. We agreed to meet again the following morning at 9am.

B, X, O and I walked to a nearby grocery store, bought a few things and came home to collapse in a heap.

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…endless airports…

4:30am- The line to check baggage at RDU winds through the fabric strap lines, around the desk and out to the door. People in pajamas chat with others in three-piece suits, everyone remarking on how time disappears in this place. One woman wipes away tears as the teller tells her that she has missed a connecting flight, for the third time, and they have no idea where her belongings are. A man with matching hat, t-shirt and actual neck tattoo that all say “TATTOO” bounces on his heels and pulls his hair in frustration.

The family BLOX trundles through this with our five baggage trolleys loaded high with boxes. Despite sleep deprivation and hunger, we’re all in pretty good spirits. I make friends with the couple behind us in line. They are headed to a resort golf tournament for young professionals in Puerto Vallarta.

Once checked in, I say goodbye to my yuppie friends and we make our way to security. We say good bye to Kristen and pose for this photo:

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Security stops Brian and checks his carry-on. He has brought a bicycle wheel truing stand with him. The woman laughs as she pulls it out, muttering “and here, I thought I’d seen it all.” Brian tells her she doesn’t know the half of it. We are cleared and shooed through. BLOX takes up a lot of space, and the other travelers are struggling to get by.

The flight from RDU to JFK is quick and uneventful. It seems like a good start to our adventure.

But then we get to our connecting gate. Though there are maybe seven China Southern Airlines employees there at the gate, only one young man is sitting at the desk. He is simultaneously checking in people (like us) who are moving over from Delta to CSA, taking calls on two telephones, texting with his manager, and trying to manage a crowd that is increasing in both numbers and annoyance levels.

He calls us up, scans our passports, looks perplexed. Scans again. And again. Finally, he looks at one of the documents and points at X. “He isn’t in here. We cannot board him without clearance. Are the rest of you still going anyway?”

WHAT?!!!

Um, no… we are not just ditching one of our kids at the airport in New York.

I start pulling paperwork out of my pockets. Here is his Visa approval email (hot off the presses), our custody paperwork, supporting documents…

Xabien hears his name and starts asking questions to my right. An agitated woman approaches on my left and is yelling in rapid-fire Cantonese at the attendant. He responds to her quietly and, with a flick of his hand, she melts back into the crowd. Clearly, he is a magician. I send a silent plea, hoping his mind-reading powers catch it.

He scans X’s passport one last time and smiles. “There you are!” He hands our papers back to us, “You are all set. I found him.”

We thank him profusely, and follow the motions of another attendant to join the other travelers in “line.” We quickly realize that lines are a subjective subject with this airline. It’s more a jostling, shoving mob of bodies that sort of squishes through vaguely defined parameters.

Sample 1: “Line”

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Our seats are not all together. We put the boys in the two that are adjacent. I take a window seat next to a very elderly couple. Brian moves toward his seat after getting the boys settled. Someone has put a toddler in his seat, and no one wants to move her. The plane is full to capacity, so he stands in the aisle for a while while the flight attendants tap shoulders, asking everyone (except the toddler and her mother) to give up a seat for him. Three people shift around to make room for him. He will be moved again, twice, during our long flight. The toddler who stole his seat begins her 16-hour screaming session.

The reading light in our row is broken and, despite the efforts of my seat mate to fix it, will stay dark for the duration of our flight. However, this plane is equipped with a screen in every seat back. The couple next to me starts watching America’s Next Top Model. The husband will watch the same episode three more times in a row, after his wife falls asleep. I discover a circus channel and settle in for long haul.

A few hours in, I check our flight path and realize that we are flying over the Arctic Circle. Luckily, there is enough light outside for me to snap off a few quick photos out the window.

 

I think I fall asleep after this. Or, at least I fall into that fugue state that excessive weariness, dehydration and lack of time/space context creates. My memories of the next ten hours are a bit scrambled.

***

Sometime o’clock in the morning: Guangzhou, China.

We touch down and nearly all of our fellow passengers spring up and start yanking luggage down as we taxi toward the gate. The flight attendants pretend to make attempts to have them reseat until we are still, but they quickly give up and smile sweetly as the crowd crushes into the aisles.

We are led through a gauntlet of interior and exterior spaces, from freezing cold hallways to a place on the tarmac that is slightly warmer, but pouring down rain. We are pointed to a shuttle bus, packed in tight, and start off. B turnes to me and mouthes “Where are they taking us?” I shrug. It’s really too late to question that, isn’t it? We are going wherever they take us.

Where they take us is a phenomenally cold terminal. We have a three hour layover here. It was supposed to be five hours, but the “line” situation at JFK put us back quite a bit. I realize this as a blessing, as it is colder inside here than out.

We head off in search of food and warmth. The other parts of the airport are just as cold. We exchange some money and find a noodle place that offers a free glass of wine with every bowl. I destroy a helping of squid and prawns in curry sauce and a strangely strong sweetish red. B has oxtail soup, and the boys opt for plain noodles (X) and vegetable fried rice (O).

Afterward, we head back down to the crowded gate area. A team of four men continually move ten-foot long racks of seats around the space- for what purpose I am not sure. As flights are called, people shove their way around the space, completely ignoring the calls of the airline staff, and pack onto various awaiting shuttle busses. There is next to no room available to wait.

B lays out on the marble edge of a long planter under the stairs and falls asleep. The boys and I smash into two available seats next to a group of laughing women in traditional Ghanian brocade skirt sets, ornate sandals, and puffy NY Mets baseball jackets. Two of them are clutching blond-haired American Girl dolls. They are taking photos of each other one at a time, posing against a concrete column.

I fall asleep with both kids’ heads on my shoulders.

At some point, we are nudged and pointed to another “line.” We board a shuttle bus and are carried by the human current across another tarmac, through another rickety stilt hallway, and onto a plane. We are seated all together this time, in the middle row- four across.

This is a 9 1/2 hour flight. Everyone falls asleep immediately. The attendants wake us every so often to place water or vegetarian plates in front of us. Xabien misses his last meal because I am unable to wake him. I wipe the drool off his face with my wet nap and let him snooze.

And then, after forty hours of travel- through excitement and fear, exhaustion and hunger, cold and discomfort, screaming babies and circus clown shows  …

We arrive in Brisbane.

Departure

Shortly after 1am, I awake to what sounds like a clown nose honking beside my head. I am curled around O, my snoring 9-year-old, on a twin bed in my mother-in-law’s basement apartment. My husband is likewise smashed on a twin mattress with X, our 12-year-old, just a few feet away. We are all trying to power-nap our way through these last few hours in the United States. My phone alarm is set to wake me up at 2am to leave for the airport, so why is it summoning me an hour early?

I try to focus my eyes on the too-bright screen. Four emails have come through in as many minutes. My heart jumps when I see that they are from the Australian Visa & Immigration office. We have been approved. I am suddenly wide awake.

For months, we have been slogging the uphill road of immigration. In many cases, the paperwork they required could only be obtained after our arrival in Australia. A catch-22 that was maddening and took many late-night emails and international phone conversations to resolve*.

* I will pause here to acknowledge my privilege in being a native English speaker with access to resources that allowed me to pursue these issues with a (relatively) minor amount of anguish. I have walked with people as they navigated these same systems without the luxuries I enjoy and cannot even begin to understand the complexities of that situation. I could go on on this topic for quite some time, but maybe that’s one for another blog.

So, with only three hours before airport departure, we receive the approvals required to make this entire venture a reality. This really is a representation of our lives- a dogged determination combined with a Pollyanna-ish optimism that allows us to keep moving despite all appearances being that it most definitely will not work out.  But it did, it does, every single time. Or it doesn’t, and we do something else.

I wait an hour to wake up the rest of the family and our two friends who spent the night to help take us to the airport. Due to the snow and ice from “Superstorm Jonas” in the days prior, we had to park the vehicles way up at the top of the hill. Brian and Ermano dragged our cargo boxes up the night before on the boys sled- working until well after 11pm.

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And here we are, walking our luggage up at 4am (sorry for the poor quality- it was dark, and I was too tired to try very hard to get a clearer shot).

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We have to take two vehicles, as the truck and trailer are chock full of our cargo- three bicycle boxes and seven 20”x20” shipping boxes. This will be all our worldly belongings for the next year and a half. I wonder which very important things I have forgotten to include.

Guess we’ll find out when we arrive in Australia.

Next stop: ….endless airports…

It’s the Final Countdown

It is 5am when my brain lights up- an internal alarm that screams “How can you sleep when we have so much to worry about?!!”

In twelve days, my family will step aboard an airplane and forever change the course of our lives. We do not know what we are walking into, and we do not know where it will take us. In may ways, we do not know what we are leaving behind here at home. But we’re doing it.

When I was younger, I travelled a lot. I love it. I live for it. This poking about in the unknown exhilarates me and makes me feel alive. It is not that way with everyone, and I am continually trying to keep that in mind as we work together as a family to make this happen.

Brian (the husband) and X & O (the sons) are figuring out where in the spectrum of homebody <—-> adventurer they are. Some days, this is easier than others. The boys are, by turns, excited to meet new friends and sorry to say goodbye to those here. The comfort in it is that we are scheduled to return in less than two years. Having a time-stamp on it alleviates a lot of stress, we’ve found.

Also, as we keep saying “We live in the future. We can keep up via video chat.” This is a concept that seemed far-fetched when I was a child. So much so that it was featured in a little show called Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (there, I dated myself. I don’t care) along with a talking chair and a genie in a box. The idea was preposterous. But it is now a reality that makes the very-far-away feel not so daunting.

My To-Do list is nagging at me now. It beckons from across the table, distracting me from writing, telling me I’ll never get through it if I keep looking online for videos of Pee Wee Herman using his picture phone. I suppose I should get back to it now.

From here out, I will be updating the blog more frequently. Stay tuned for further adventures in international travel with the BLOX family!

 

I don’t have any photos to accompany this post, so I will leave one here of Pee Wee in his picture phone booth. I found it while avoiding my to-do list.

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