Sunday, January 22, 2012

Taking the Long Way Home

Despair at 35,000 feet... and this was the good meal!
You know what they say about the best-laid plans. When I was booking the flights for my trip back to Colorado, I tried to plan everything out properly. I had the flight from Asia to L.A. handled, I just needed to book a flight to get me to Denver from there. Since virtually every airline in America now charges for checked bags, I chose the one airline remaining that lets you check two bags free, Southwest Airlines, thinking this would save me about $100-120. (The other airlines charge $25 for the first bag and $25-35 for the second — each way.) But for whatever reason, Southwest's final flight of the day from LAX to Denver was at 6:20 p.m., and my flight from Asia didn't land until 6:00 p.m., an impossible connection to make. So I booked the flight to Denver for 6:30 the next morning, thinking I'd either stay in the airport (boo!), visit my uncle out in the desert east of Los Angeles, or stay with a friend of mine from KL, who was possibly going to be in L.A. for business at that time (hey, free hotel room). Well... none of that came to pass, so I booked the hotel room at the Radisson while I was in Guangzhou, and that all seemed to be okay, even though it took a $60 bite out of whatever checked-baggage money I had saved by booking with Southwest. (Other airlines had later flights to Denver.)

Things only went downhill from here...
So my uncle decided to make the two-hour drive to my hotel from his place, just so we could visit for a short while (at 3 a.m., mind you), and then volunteered to take me to the airport. However, the roads are not well-marked from the hotel, and we had to take a detour and track back to get to LAX, costing a few minutes. After I was dropped off at the curbside check-in place, there was a massive crowd of people waiting to check in for Southwest (at 5:30 a.m., no less!), and the line inside was even worse. So I stood in the line outside, wondering if I would make it at all. I did, but only barely, and apparently my bags didn't get checked in time, so they were tagged "LATE" like some absurd scarlet letter to announce to everyone what a crappy layabout of a traveler the owner of these bags is. So I got to Denver unscathed, and went to baggage claim where exactly one of my two checked bags made an appearance. The other had not made the flight with me, so it would be coming in on the next flight, which, fortunately, was only an hour later, so I just waited. So, coupled with the long flight, I had an overnight sojourn in L.A. and a delayed suitcase with a yellow-tag scolding from Southwest Airlines.

This, quite grievously, was but a pale, dim harbinger of the misery to come on the journey back to KL.

I already wrote about being stranded in L.A. for 24 hours, so let me continue on from there. Since the employees at Southwest who were there at the airport specifically told me that Southwest would reimburse me for my hotel expense, I got a room nearby, which I also wrote about. I think I made the best of that whole situation, and the time spent there watching the football game and relaxing before heading back to the airport was really not too bad. Once I got to LAX that evening though, I guess things started to unravel. I checked in and gave China Southern my bags some three hours before my flight left, so no problem there. I made my way through the awful security bottleneck at the International Terminal (a little over an hour) and to the gate. Though the Terminal 1 concourse there is actually pretty decent, the actual gates at LAX's International Terminal are dire. Sterile, bare, never enough seats... a truly woebegone farewell to departing passengers. So there I languished for another two hours, then got on the plane for the 15-hour flight back across the Pacific. The flight was completely full, always a nightmare on such an epic flight.

Now think about this... when was the last
time you saw an ashtray at your seat
on a commercial aircraft?
So as I settled into my seat, I noticed something odd. Look at the picture... just what in the chicken-fried hell is going on here? That is an actual ashtray in the armrest of my seat. An ashtray!! Now, this aircraft was a 777-200ER, an aircraft that wasn't even introduced into service until 1997, long after smoking was banned aboard all aircraft. So I can only assume that, at some point, China Southern cheaply retrofitted the plane with seats from another aircraft from the pre-smoking ban days. Lord. That probably explains the sucky quality of the video screens in the seatbacks (and the very limited content selection), which I couldn't even bother to use. So yeah, even though China Southern is the sixth-largest airline in the world that most of the world's population has still never even heard of, they still have a long way to go.

So after an uneventful 15-hour flight across the Pacific that, mercifully, I largely slept through, we landed in fabulous Guangzhou early in the morning on January 10th. The outside temperature was 48°F, about 9°C, and I'm not even joking here, the temperature inside the airport wasn't much higher. I don't know if the heat was not working or if they just never bothered to install it to begin with, but it was flat-out cold inside the terminal. All the workers were wandering around wearing coats and scarves. I half-expected to see a team of sled dogs being mushed down the concourse. Once again, we had to endure the abject silliness of going through immigration and security, all with the added joy of freezing half to death during the process.

What the hell? It's so bizarre, there's not even an
international symbol for it. (Note that all the other
signs have symbols alongside the text.)
Once I cleared the lone security checkpoint and wondered once again what this sign really meant (it doesn't bode well for anyone that the airport has an entire giant sign directing travelers to a place for those whose flights were cancelled), I went downstairs to the gate for the flight to Kuala Lumpur. Yes... downstairs. Unworthy of even getting a real gate with a jetway, the flight to KL boards Air Asia-style, where you walk outside onto the tarmac and climb up a flight of stairs haphazardly propped up against the aircraft. Worse, we had to get on a bus to be delivered to the plane. As I was standing on the bus with all my carry-on booty, this middle-age Chinese woman got on and stood nearby, clearly seething about something. Moments later, she got off, walked over to the gate agents and just completely went off on them, delivering a blistering verbal beatdown... shouting, pointing, screeching, gesturing wildly, the works. It was quite the meltdown. Alas, it was also a Cantonese meltdown, so I have no idea what she was so agitated about. After she finished scolding the agents, she stalked back on the bus and stood there, silently simmering and glowering for another couple of minutes, then, after apparently deciding that she hadn't castigated them quite enough, got off the bus and went and unloaded yet another salvo on the two hapless gate agents, whose ears hadn't even stopped bleeding from the first tirade. Honestly, I cannot imagine what had her so riled up, but she was definitely not amused about something. I thought about filming the whole scene, but can you imagine the drama if she'd have noticed that? Yikes.

Not sure about the Chinese part, but
the English part is a total lie
So this final flight was aboard an ashtray-free 737-800, and really about the limit of what I like to fly on a narrow-body jet — it was about a 4.5-hour flight down to KL. The flight wasn't entirely full, happily, and the seat next to me was empty, which is always a bonus. That, and the fact that none of the planes crashed, really amounted to about the only good parts of the entire odyssey to get back to KL. The food on the long flight from L.A. was adequate (at best... that's what's in the first picture), but whatever crap they served up on the flight from Guangzhou to KL was just hideous. I couldn't even eat it. It was some vile mockery of a chicken dish, and I don't think it was even fully cooked. Avoiding salmonella is one of my standard goals when I eat, so I didn't even sample this mess. I had a couple of forkfuls of rice, and I think I ate the cold dinner roll, too, but that was all. I was so distraught, I even had a glass of wine, ignoring the fact that it was only something like 8 a.m. The "salad" was a half-dozen rubbishy, ill-ripened cherry tomatoes rolling around unhappily in a little melamine dish, nothing more. The whole thing was so pathetic and appalling, I couldn't even be bothered to extricate my camera and snap a picture. Definitely not a memory I wanted to commit to a photo. I can't believe a poor chicken actually had to give its life for that utter sham of a meal. What a complete dishonor. I mean, it's not like the chicken is a noble bird to begin with, but come on. I can only hope that whatever parts didn't go out in a disgraceful blaze of wretchedness for that dish at least got put to a less-humiliating use. Lord... that may just be the worst airline meal I've ever had placed before me. Anyway... once I arrived at KLIA, I cleared immigration, bought my customary bottle of duty-free booze, resisted the urge to drink it on the spot, and wandered out to the luggage claim carousel, happy and relieved that all the winged travel and gruesome, half-cooked poultry was, at last, safely behind me.

See my suitcase here? Yeah, neither did I.
Needless to say, after my travails in the lamentable Guangzhou airport, walking through KL's gorgeous, modern airport, with its myriad shops, free WiFi, and amenities galore (and an additional few degrees of warmth, courtesy of Mother Nature), felt like a total return to civilization. There's not much that Malaysia gets right when it comes to transportation (of any kind), believe me, but KLIA is just a delight to fly in and out of. So, with my liter of booze in hand, along with my carry-on suitcase, my jacket, my laptop, and a portable charcoal grill I got for Christmas, I got my free trolley and eagerly waited for my luggage to arrive. My big bag, the one that weighed every bit of the allowable 23 kg., arrived first and I heaved it onto the trolley, then waited for the smaller bag to make its triumphant appearance, which would effectively punch my ticket to get out of the airport and start the final two legs of my long trip home (airport to KL Sentral, then Sentral to my condo). I waited a few minutes, saw with increasing despair the "last bag unloaded" notice on the monitor, then watched the carousel grind to a halt. No little blue suitcase in sight. Perfect. Pretty much the expected end to, bar none, the worst trans-Pacific trip I've ever taken. So I went to the lost luggage office and filled out the required paperwork, grateful at least that I wasn't in the same sorry boat as the backpacking Australian girls next to me, whose luggage had also gone missing, but who were only going to be in KL overnight at a yet-to-be-decided hotel before setting off for Bali the next day and staying there at an equally yet-to-be-decided hotel. Wow. So I was given a case number and informed that I would get a call once they tracked down my bag. I trudged dejectedly to the bus corral where I bought a ticket for a ride to KL Sentral precisely two minutes after the bus had departed. Sigh. So I had to wait for the next bus, which really isn't as traumatic as it sounds, but I'm going for the total sympathy vote here. I finally departed for the city and arrived about 50 minutes later, a pretty good travel time. I will say this much... the absence of that final bag, which weighed about 20 kg., made schlepping my considerable amount of luggage around KL Sentral infinitely easier, though still quite troublesome. You'd think a massive transportation hub like Sentral would have scores of luggage carts around, but you would be wrong. There are random ones to be found here and there, but they're extremely few and far between. But, tenacious as ever, I managed, and my friend Ivan drove up about 25 minutes later to fetch me. I walked in my condo's door at 4:45 p.m., a staggering, breathtaking 57 hours after leaving for Denver's airport in a snowstorm.

Later that night, I got a call from China Southern airlines, telling me that my bag hadn't actually been lost, no no no, it had actually been purposefully detained in Guangzhou. They said they suspected a pressurized can was in the bag, so they wanted my permission to open the luggage (nice of them to ask) and remove the offending can. Now, fortunately, I had packed my bags with loads of time to spare back in Denver, and actually made an inventory list of what was in which suitcase. Yeah, I know, I'm insane, but I've only ever done this twice, and both times it's paid off. Once was on my initial flight to KL when I moved here and one of my bags got mauled and eaten by the baggage handling system in Los Angeles. And now this episode. I wonder if it's making the inventory lists that's causing the problem?? Hmmm...

Oh, you evil, wicked shaving gel, causing
all this international drama
Well anyway, I consulted my inventory and determined that it could only be the shaving gel that was in there. Though it seems an odd thing to buy in Denver and bring back all the way to KL, consider that the exact same product costs three times as much here, once you convert the currency. Less than $2 (RM6) a can in Denver, about RM18 here. So I tend to stock up when I go back. So, upon hearing this request to open my extremely stuffed suitcase and rifle through it to find and remove my shaving gel, I reflected on a few things. First, China Southern clearly had no problem with the shaving gel flying from L.A. to Guangzhou, so it was questionable as to why this can suddenly presented a problem on the next flight. Second, there was an identical can of this shaving gel in the suitcase that did get flown from Guangzhou to KL, so clearly they were applying the "no shaving gel" rule pretty arbitrarily and inconsistently. And third, HELLO! It's shaving gel. Millions of people pack cans of shaving cream and gel into their luggage every day! I even checked China Southern's website and it wasn't on their "do not pack" list in any form. So in consideration of all this, I flatly refused their request and told them they'd better get their act together and get that bag to me in a hurry. Bizarrely enough, that's apparently all it took, because it was on an evening flight to KL the following day and delivered to my doorstep at 9:45 p.m., intact and unmolested. So because of all this idiocy, China Southern apparently had to pay Malaysia Airlines to fly my bag to KL, then pay some airport guy to drive it out to my place. I will say this much though: In a similar scenario, there's no way America's odious TSA agents would ever ask a passenger for permission to open a suitcase. They'd open it on a lark, forcibly if necessary, take out whatever they deemed to be the problem item, steal any valuables if it suited their fancy, and leave you a note for your troubles. (They apparently did this to my bag in Denver before flying it to L.A., and though they didn't remove anything, they obviously couldn't be bothered to re-secure my brand-new luggage strap around the suitcase because it was gone when the bag hit the carousel at LAX. Awesome. Thanks guys.)

So now, the only thing left to do is try to get my reimbursement from Southwest. So far, they're refusing, but I'm not backing down since it was totally their fault the flight was delayed (they told me it was a baggage unloading issue that delayed the plane from even reaching Denver on time), totally their fault I missed my flight to Asia, and totally their employees who emphatically assured me I would be reimbursed. I'm rather annoyed by Southwest's unwillingness to own up to this and just pay my hotel bill, but I am almost certainly not going to fly China Southern again if there's any way to avoid it. They're just stupid. Stupid airline and an even stupider airport. *Shakes fist*

To end on a more upbeat note, I'll close out with a few photos from the trip that didn't make the previous entries. See you next time...

Shiloh and me in happier, pre-travel times;
I just need an eye patch and a pirate hat


The City and County building in
downtown Denver... all lit up
for Christmas

Frozen waterfall — Idaho Springs, Colorado
(Can it even be called a waterfall? It's not water and it's not falling. Hmm.)

My dad and mom, hunkered down against the
howling winter winds in the mountains west of Denver

A cold, clear late December day in the Rockies

My crazy bird, Shiloh, helping herself to my coffee

8 comments:

Phyllis said...

I am so GLAD I wasn't with you on your trip home Chad but I had to smile when you tell the story. It may take a few years for you to smile about it but there will be a time down the road that you will reread your story and smile! You could write a book and it would sell of your adventures! Thanks for sharing your story. Phyllis, your Mom's Republican friend!!

Chad M. said...

Thanks... maybe that's how I can support myself once I move back to the States! :)

barbmerchant said...

lots of my friends and relatives read your post about the long way home...they couldn't believe how incredibly difficult it was and how good natured you were about all the glitches!! It is what it is...right?
Mom

Anonymous said...

Hi Chad! I am moving to Kuala Lumpur for a marketing job in a few months and they are offering 5000rm/month.
I've researched online but I can't get a clear answer... can you tell me if that is enough to live off of for a single person who plans to live comfortably in KL?

Chad M. said...

Yup, that's more than enough. The average salary for locals here is about half that. You won't be rich at RM5K a month -- sorry, no Mercedes for you -- but you can enjoy a comfy life. Check out the forum at www.expatkl.com (click on the FORUM header). Lots of people ask about cost of living and you can sometimes find some really useful information there.

mdm tanal said...

Mr Chad m, what is your email? Wish to ask you about exploration at rocky mountain.
Pls coonect me at mdmtanal@gmail.com, thanks

barbmerchant said...

Ready for a new post! It has been months!

Klikholidays said...

Wonderful pictures! I especially enjoyed the walking path in the Kuala Sengor Park.

- Would you be interested in Guest posting on our site Klikholidays.com?