My trip to New Zealand began the way most trips do for me: with panic. Waking up the morning of October 18th I had a million things to do and very little time to do them, considering I wanted to leave my house by 9AM in order to make my 3:20PM flight. By the time I left my house at 10:30, I was silently willing time to slow down with every fiber of my being. The majority of the reason why I left so late? Packing my backpack, the only piece of luggage I was bringing with me on my year-long (and possibly longer) trip. Even though I’d carefully set out everything I was bringing with me, piling things neatly the night before so that all I had to do was place them in my bag when the time came, somehow I managed to spend at least an hour trying to arrange my pack in the most efficient and comfortable way. New Backpacker Lesson #1: failure to pre-pack your bag will result in misery. Plan accordingly.
By the time my mom and I arrived at Chicago O’Hare around 1:00ish, we were feeling a little more relaxed. I suited up with my backpack and carry-on, gripped my laptop case full of printed-out email confirmations and trip details, and marched up to the United ticket counter ready to breeze through the computerized ticketing process and on to security. Oh, how the mighty do fall. When entering my name and passport details into the ticketing kiosk resulted in the directive to “please see an agent,” I saw the scary shadowy forms of the “What if’s?” I had ignored until that moment starting to take shape. At the counter with my friendly neighborhood stressed-out-ticket-agent, I was informed that my passport had no visa electronically attached to it, and that without one I would be required to purchase a return ticket before I would be allowed to enter the country. [My Working Holiday, which allowed me to work and live legally in New Zealand for up to one year, was issued electronically and meant to be printed from home. While New Zealand Immigration provides waivers for US citizens which allow them to enter the country for up to 90 days without a visa (as long as you have an outbound ticket), I had purchased a one-way ticket since I wasn’t sure when I might leave. The problem was that the airline computer saw that I had a one-way ticket and required the agent to verify my visa before it would issue my boarding passes.] After looking at the (very sketchy-looking) printed version of my e-visa, conferring with her higher-ups, and leaving for 20 minutes, the agent then came back to inform me that my visa numbers weren’t appearing when they searched for them and therefore she couldn’t honor the printed version. When I showed her the official e-mail confirmation from New Zealand Immigration, this prompted another series of consultations with the higher-ups and a phone call to the consulate. 40 minutes later, I was finally triumphantly clutching my boarding passes and checking in my bags. As an apology for the trouble, the agent even gave my mom a special security pass to accompany me through security and to my gate! I loved United Airlines at that moment. Not only was this one of the best moments of my life, it also led to New Backpacker Lesson #2: Always always always print everything, every confirmation email, every flight detail, every tiny little possible detail you can imagine. Because you’ll need it. Trust me.
Unfortunately, the adrenaline rush only got worse as my mom and I became mired in the inevitable quagmire that is airline security. Why is it that when you’re 3 hours early for a flight the line through security is miniscule, but when you’re cutting it close you’re grateful for the line to move an inch in an hour? At first split into orderly lines, the queue for security eventually just became a huge unmoving crowd of annoyed, punctuated every so often with someone pushing past you saying, “I’m sorry, I have to go first, I’m late!” The one upside to this situation was meeting Mr. P, a fellow traveler and the Director of Information Systems at a large group health purchasing company who had flown into Chicago on business. When we eventually got through security he gave us his card, and this led to New Backpacker Lesson #3: Talk to the people around you. Always. If you’re introverted like me, force yourself to. Networking, just like in business, opens opportunities you would never have imagined. It’s key to a successful (and less lonely) trip! As my mom said at the time, “It can never hurt you [to be friendly].”
Finally past security (and not a moment too soon!) my mom and I sprinted through the airport (and up and down several flights of stairs) to my gate. I got to say goodbye to her as I boarded, and I thanked the universe again for letting miraculous, wonderful things like that happen. As soon as I found my seat on the plane I got one of my last phone calls in the United States from Brandon and my brother Loren sending their love, and I could have floated to the ceiling from the way I felt. We departed from a gray and rainy Chicago towards LAX, and my trip had finally begun!
As we made our ascent the flight attendants made several announcements in increasingly annoyed tones reminding us that the captain had ordered them to remain seated, so would however was pushing the call button please desist unless it was an absolute emergency? The call button rang one more time, and it was then that I saw an entire row of people covering their heads and holding up plastic cups to protect themselves from the water coming through the the overhead compartment(s). Apparently the rain wanted to accompany us to LA! The flight attendants stuffed some paper towels up there and called it a day, and I turned my attention to watching Cars 2. That is, until little girl behind me (who had at first been uttering delighted squeals and phrases like “You’re telling me!” and “Oh. My. God.”) starting making a prolonged ear-splitting howl just for the fun of it. That effectively ended my nice peaceful flight. New Backpacker Lesson #4: Bring you patience. You’ll need it even more than your passport details.
When we arrived in LA I spent the first half hour of my four-hour layover lost in the bowels of the airport, trying to find my terminal. Honestly, how hard is it to post signs saying “Our other 4 terminals are completely detacehd and you can get to them this way” or “By the way, you have to take an unmarked shuttle halfway across the airport to get to your terminal, which is unreachable otherwise.”? Once I finally made it to the correct place, I spent the next 3 hours reading my Kindle, trying to find a gift for my hosts in New Zealand (I settled on a bottle of wine), and munching on a $9 sandwich from La Brea. It didn’t really hit me until afterwards that I had just spent $9 on a sandwich the size of my hand. I hate LA.
I boarded the massive Air New Zealand plane and finally felt a bit of excitement as the in-flight security video began to play. People don’t over-exaggerate the fun-loving nature of Kiwis – maybe ti’s because I was in a dismal mood by that point, but the video was absolutely hilarious! In honor of their World Cup win (and because everyone needs to see this video), it can be seen in its entirety here. You’re welcome. (By the way, the pilot and co-pilot of the plane are the coach and captain of the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national team!)
Confined to my middle seat (the butt crack of airplane seating) during the 18-hour flight, I distracted myself by fiddling with the rather sophisticated touch-screen computer in the headrest, and overdosed on How I Met Your Mother and the mini-pints of Häagen-Dazs ice cream that came with our meals. I even slept for several hours, though I kept dreaming that I was flailing around in my sleep and annoying my seatmates so I’m kind of concerned that I actually was. By the end of my flight I had eaten two square meals, slept, caught up on the latest two seasons of HIMYM and even made a friend! But you’ll have to wait for Part 2 to hear about that ;)