Our Journey Home

Feb 23, 2006

I knew it would be a long trip.  Thankfully, we were still all on speaking terms, even friendly to each other, when it was all over! 

Our Journey Home, Part 1:  Koh Tao to Chumphon

Checkout time at Big Blue Diving Center, Koh Tao (http://bigbluediving.com/en/kohtao/), is 9 AM, but the friendly folks there let us keep one of our two rooms until 1 PM on Monday.  This was so we could go diving one last time and shower before we left to catch our 2:30 ferry to Chumphon.  It was my first dive after getting certified.  I had a lot of fun, but I was already tired for the day when we returned back to the dive center!  Back in the outdoor restaurant, we filled in our log books and I got everything signed and stamped by my diving instructor Matthias (from Sweden), then we showered, ate lunch, and finished checking out.  We then hauled our one roller suitcase, 3 backpacks, and now two small suitcases (stuffed with wet clothing) to the street to catch a taxi to the pier.  The sun was already hot — as beautiful as it was in February, I’d dread to be there in May! 

Once at the pier, we didn’t know which ferry to get on!  There were several leaving for different destinations, along with several hundred people waiting.  (This is a bigger obstacle than it might seem, when no one speaks English or seems to know where the different ferry terminals are located.)  We finally did locate ours, a hard seat, open air rig that appeared old enough to fully justify the discounted fare we had received.  After walking up the gangplank onto the boat and depositing (with some trepidation) our luggage in the general pile of several hundred backpacks (it seemed) which was then covered with a tarp, we opted to check out the "VIP cabin" — it had air cond and soft seats — which cost an extra 40 baht per person.  Big spenders, we are, this amounted to roughly $12.  David had purchased a joint ticket for ferry, transfer to train, and train all the way to Bangkok.  Once at the ferry pier, we transferred to the coach type bus.  The girls and I sat somewhere in the middle, while David with his heavy bag was placed in a front seat.  I knew the bus was driving fast, but David said his eyes "were opened" by the bus ride to the train station.  He said the driver would careen down the road and blow the horn, heaven forbid that some poor soul failed to get out of his way. 

I had already been warned by the young people on Koh Tao not to take the bus in Thailand.  The kind of folks who make it to Koh Tao tend to be rather adventuresome twenty-something year olds, and even they found the buses in Thailand a bit risky for their taste.  Last year, a Thai-based Expat told me that Thai culture is so Confucian that people do nothing to avert risk.  They believe if you’re gonna go, you’re gonna go.  They think that if your appointed time has come, a pinprick will kill you, and if it’s not your time, then nothing will hurt you.  Therefore . . . why bother with things like worrying whether you are driving safely.  As a result, the highways are not very safe, to put it mildly.  I was glad we were taking the train. 

Our Journey Home, Part 2:  Chumphon and the Night Train to Bangkok

When we got to the train station, we had plenty of time to check our bags and go grab a bite to eat.  A quick consult at the Lonely Planet said the best and funnest place to eat was at the outdoor night market, and this turned out to be an excellent choice.  I thoroughly enjoyed perusing the many food options and sampling many items.  The previous night I had purchased a Thai seafood salad from an outdoor sidewalk vendor.  I had been terrified that I was making a terrible food poisoning mistake (remember, if you can’t see where they wash the dishes, you never know what they might be washed in), but the food was delicious and I had no bad effects.  Same for the night market.  First, we ordered some Thai pancakes.  Then some skewers of some chicken.  I was really tempted by the smoked fish, but I’m sure it would have been too spicy for me.  Instead, I got a piece of fish that had been steamed inside a banana leaf.  But when I opened it, it too was spicy.  Delicious, but more than my palate could handle, and I needed something to drink!

Against my better judgment, I first ordered a juice made from a small orange colored citrus fruit that I had never seen before.  Using pantomime, I asked for it to be mixed with ice and blended, just as the local person in line ahead of me had done.  I took comfort from the fact that the woman serving it was wearing latex gloves, somehow reasoning that this meant she had some awareness of germs and cleanliness.  After filling the cup half full of juice and then the rest with ice, she added two spoons of something I thought was sugar and then a shot of syrup.  It turns out, she was adding salt and syrup.  The result was delicious, as David noted something like a virgin margarita.  So, after drinking that all up I got another one made with lime.  Heaven!  After we had surveyed all the food stall offerings, we decided to go back to one particular pad Thai booth where she gave a choice of chicken or shrimp.  I wanted shrimp, David wanted chicken, and Clarissa wanted vegetarian.  We gave up trying to convey the meaning of "vegetarian" so Clarissa ended up with chicken in hers.  It was all fabulous.  We ended our meal just at the right time to walk back the two blocks to the train station and collect our luggage for the arrival of the night train.

After we collected our bags back and went out to wait for our train, the station manager came over and told us our car was already there and that we could go ahead and board it.  The train was adding two cars at Chumphon, and ours was one of them.  So we went ahead and boarded.  I thought it would be wise to go ahead and get a jump on the brushing teeth and toilet before they got dirty.  Wrong!  I collected J and her toothbrush, and opened the door to the toilet area.  The strong ammonia type fumes just about asphyxiated me.  I decided that, although it would be impossible to wait nine hours, at least I should wait until there was wind from the window airing out the little room.  As our berths were already made up for the night, we could climb in them and get settled in, which we did.  Since we had barely slept on the train ride south, David and I opted to take "Simply Sleep" to help us get some shuteye.  We only took one apiece, though, since we didn’t want to be groggy if we needed to wake up for any reason.  The train was mostly full of foreigners — Europeans, it seemed mostly French on this train.  I was mortified when I overheard one Thai woman chattily ask a very nice French man if it was true that French people never bathed!  I didn’t quite hear all the answer but he seemed unfazed, and I did hear the words "soap," and "expensive," and so I presume he was aware of this myth and the reasons for it.   I watched in amazement as another guy quickly stripped to his shorts and walked, barefoot, into the toilet compartment, very quickly attending to all his teeth brushing and other things and then coming out.  I couldn’t help but wonder . . . what insanity led him to walk into that room with bare feet?   

Once again, J was very excited to be sleeping on the train.  Even though we had purchased a berth for her, she opted to sleep with her sister.  So, we used the extra berth to store a backpack.  This time, we all had upper berths, which were very comfy.  When the train docked with our car, we could see the light of the engine approaching, but the actual docking was so gentle that the cars didn’t even bump.  In time, after we were underway, I revisited the toilet compartment and to my amazement found that the toilet on the right side was a western toilet, and it was even pretty clean.  Not that I would have walked in there with bare feet!  As the train glided along the tracks, I fell asleep quickly and easily.  When the train stopped, I woke up feeling like I had slept a long time.  Even though we had set our alarm, I got worried that we might be at Bangkok.  I was a bit sheepish when, having roused myself from a deep slumber to dig my cell phone out of its case and check the time, I saw that it was just 12:30 A.M., five hours away from our destination.  After that, I went back to sleep but I slept only lightly.  Still, it seemed like no time until the Steward was walking around announcing it was "time to wake up!"  5:30 A.M.  I got J and jumped down to beat the rush to the bathroom, then we packed up and had easily 45 minutes of waiting left before the train arrived at the Hualamphong station in downtown Bangkok. 

Our train arrived just after 6 A.M., which allowed us four hours to eat breakfast, then get to the airport and check in for our 10 A.M. flight back to Macau.  I went to the "Information Desk" at the train station and asked the man, who spoke pretty good English, what was the best way to get to the airport.  Very helpfully, he told me to get on train x, which was parked at Dock 6, and it would go to y station which was right at the airport.  The train wouldn’t depart until 6:50, and it was due to arrive at the airport at 8:15.  A bit slow, but plenty of time to spare, and we could eat breakfast at the airport.  I was guessing that the new Bangkok airport, which is a huge, brand new, world class airport, would not be located close to the center of the city.  Bangkok is known for bad traffic, plus a taxi would have to go a long way.  So, taking a train to the airport sounded pretty good. 

As David and the girls waited, I went inside, purchased 3 adult and one child fares for a grand total of 25 baht (about $2.25).  Then we carried all our luggage to our appointed car, sat down and waited.  We quietly watched as the train station turned from night, to dawn, to morning daylight, as the train attendants washed the outside of the train.  The train didn’t leave at 6:50.  It didn’t leave at 7:15.  At 7:30 we began to get antsy.  It finally pulled out about 7:35.  It was a pretty fun train to ride.  It was a non-air cond train on which the windows came all the way down and you could stick your head out, if you were foolish!  There was a lot of vegetation and other stuff beside the tracks, so we told J to be sure to keep all body parts well inside the train!  Still, we got an interesting bird’s eye view of the backside of Bangkok.  Mostly, poor, filthy and littered with garbage.  Although we were enjoying the view of the ride, much to our consternation the train did not seem to be making much progress.  It kept stopping on the tracks, moving very slowly.  The time it was supposed to arrive at the airport was well past, and we had traveled less than half a mile from the train station, still moving at a snail’s pace.  We began to worry whether we would get there in time to check in to our flight before the gate closed.  At the third stop, the train stopped for a long time.  The army soldiers in the car with us got off and all went to purchase drinks and snacks inside the station.  David and I were looking at each other, wondering what to do . . . if we got off the train, would we be stuck in deadlocked Bangkok rush hour traffic?  Would the train start up in a few minutes and make good time? 

After a few minutes of hesitation, David announced, "Get up!  We’re getting off!"  The Thai people around us assured us that the train would be moving soon, but nodded their heads with understanding when we explained we had a plane to catch!  Outside this small station, we flagged a taxi.  We told him "airport," and he said "400 baht."  We agreed with no hesitation, he told us it would take half an hour to get there.  One look at our airline confirmation email, a small sigh of concern, and he lost no time getting us to the airport!  He went on an interstate type toll road, for which we paid the fare, and drove in more or less a straight line at highway speed for about half an hour.  I don’t see any way that slow train could have gotten to the airport in less than two hours, at the rate it was going.  Moreover, I saw no trace of a train station or railroad tracks in the vicinity of the new airport.  I am still wondering what the real story was on that train ride, but I am sure glad that David made that quick decision to get off the train when he did! 

We checked in just one hour prior to our departure and just barely had time to purchase some muffins and eat them before boarding our flight.  The flight to Macau was quiet and uneventful. 

Our Journey Home, Part 3:  On To Macau and Guangzhou      

I like Air Asia.  The airline seems well run, the staff is friendly.  It impresses me that they make announcements in four languages — Thai, Chinese, English, and another language I didn’t recognize.  Our round trip tickets from Macau to Bangkok cost just $160 apiece, and that was actually a high price due to Chinese New Year. 

Once we were through immigration in Macau, we saw an American girl in the airport who looked very lost.  Being familiar with that particular feeling, we stopped to ask if we could assist.  She was an exchange student studying in Singapore for a semester, and for Chinese New Year she and some friends had booked discount flights to Macau (on Tiger airways, another discount carrier) and then to Clark at Manila.  From there, they planned to take a bus 1.5 hours to Manila and then another bus 7 hours to Bora Cay.  But she had made a side trip to see a friend in Hong Kong, got delayed, and missed her flight.  There wasn’t another flight on Tiger for 24 hours, she had no way to get in touch with her party, and they had no set itinerary.  She had no idea whether they would try to wait for her in Manila, whether they would proceed without her to Bora Cay, or where they would be staying in any place.  She wasn’t even sure if she wanted to proceed on to Bora Cay if she wasn’t assured of being able to meet up with her friends again.  Taking her to our house was not an option, because she didn’t have a China visa.  I saw the "quick decision" aspect of David’s personality when (I guess his parental mode taking over), he instructed her to first notify her friend in Hong Kong, make arrangements to stay with them for the night, then get online and check her email to see if her friends contacted her that way after they arrived.  She said she had already called her friend in Hong Kong, and she seemed grateful for confirmation of the course of action she had already though would be the best thing.  As for me, it’s not quite what I would have done.  Her air ticket was already forfeited and she was thinking of purchasing a new one.  I would have checked the other discount airlines to see if any others had flights to Clark the same day.  But waiting until she heard from her friends was the safest option.  I suggested that she not tell her parents about this misadventure until well in the future, and she laughed with complete understanding of what I meant.

As for ourselves, we put our Chinese back to use and purchased direct bus fare back to the China-Macau border crossing at Zhuhai, riding with a load full of returning Chinese.  After we exited Macau and were walking through the corridor to enter into China, we passed a travel agency booth selling direct bus coach tickets to the station near our house in Guangzhou.  I stopped to purchase tickets, as Clarissa walked ahead of us to start filling out the immigration forms.  As Clarissa was filling out her form which requested her visa number, she began searching for her visa and realized . . . she had no more entries left on her visa!!!  We had overlooked a major "minor detail"!  Clarissa had gotten out of sync with the rest of us when I had taken J to the orthopedic doctor in Hong Kong a month earlier!  Surprise!  We need a place to sleep in Macau or in Hong Kong!  The Chinese visa offices were closed for Chinese New Year, all the travel agencies we knew of were closed, we couldn’t find a travel agency open at the China gateway into Macau, and our cell phone batteries were almost dead.  Hordes of gamblers on their CNY holiday were pouring across the Macau border from China.  David felt pretty sure we wouldn’t be able to find a room in Macau on such late notice, with no local resources to help us locate one.  So, as we headed for the ferry to Hong Kong, David called our friend Drew, who lives in Hong Kong, and asked if he would get on the internet and locate us a hotel room in Hong Kong. 

Our Journey Home, Part 4:  Oops, Onward to Hong Kong, Visa, and Guangzhou

By this time, after traveling for more than 24 hours, we were tired and worn.  J began to cry.  In spite of having a 24 lb backpack on her back, Clarissa picked J up and carried her sister until she collected herself to walk again.  I purchased ferry tickets for the next boat to Macau, leaving at 5:00.  The woman told me that the next ferry was sold out, we could either wait until 5:30 or we could get on the 5:00 ferry if we purchased Deluxe tickets (these are in the upper berth and include beverage and light meal).  Given how tired the family was, I purchased the tickets to get us there the fastest, the deluxe tickets for a lot more money.  If I had thought more about it, that it was just a half hour difference, I probably would have opted to wait, but we were all so tired, and here J was already crying.  She told me the ferry was boarding at gate #1.  We passed by the "standby" line, flashing our "Deluxe" tickets at the ticket taker.  Then, we had to go through a long immigration line to exit Macau, then down to the ferry pier, where the boarding gates are located. 

You arrive at gate 5 which is in the middle.  Gate #1 at the far end to the right.  We ran down the terminal, about 75 meters, to Gate #1, only to learn it was the wrong gate.  As I frantically scanned our tickets, I saw that no gate number was printed on them.  We ran from terminal to terminal, until someone told us that our boat was boarding at Gate 11, which was at the exact opposite end from where we had been sent. 

The terminal was full of people seeming to walk very slowly, all walking directly in my path and meandering in front of me.  I began yelling as I ran, "Wo quai yidian, Rang yi Rang!" which in Mandarin (not spoken widely in Macau) means "I have a hurry, make way!"  But I figured Cantonese is close enough to Mandarin, they know what I mean, even though they didn’t act like it.  (I have figured out that a lot of time, when Chinese people act like they don’t understand me, they really do understand what I am saying but bluff about it and pretend they don’t, if I am asking them to do something they don’t want to do or don’t care about.) 

We arrived at Gate # 11, at the very far end of the terminal from where we had been sent, breathless and just after they had closed the gate for boarding.  The man informed me there was no problem, they would just put us on the 5:30 ferry.  But I was so mad and upset, that  I yelled at him, telling him that that we were only late because the woman who sold me the ticket had told me Gate #11.  He replied, "They can’t hold the boat just for you."  I told him I didn’t expect them to hold the boat for me, but that we wouldn’t have been late if she hadn’t sent me to the wrong gate.  He failed to understand that I was upset because I bought the Deluxe seats just to get on that ferry and the woman had told me the wrong gate and had me run, dragging two children and five pieces of luggage, through a human obstacle course, for more than the length of a football field.  Well, I didn’t just "tell" him, I yelled at him animatedly.  He totally failed to get it.  In response to his complete apathy, I wanted to explain more so that he would "get it," but David told me to drop it, which I did.  It’s pointless and not worth my time or energy, even though it took a while for me to get over it.  Although the family "conventional wisdom" is that I’m a laid back person, I have come to realize over the years that I’m not laid back at all, in some respects.   

At least our deluxe seats came with our choice of drinks.  I had developed too much of a headache to take advantage of the beer, so I ordered cappuccino instead, and settled into my seat to watch the hour’s worth of annoying infomercials on the TV during the ferry ride.  While we were riding, Drew called.  He came through for us, a room was waiting for us at the Marco Polo Prince.  Not only that, when we arrived, there were no more regular rooms available.  (Hong Kong is not a fun city in which to locate a last minute hotel room.)  They bumped us up to the 17th floor executive level, to a suite.  No children were allowed on that floor, so we didn’t tell them we had Julianna, and they didn’t ask.  We instructed her to walk in between two adults and to keep absolutely quiet — no talking at all — while we were on the hall, and the staff graciously failed to notice her presence.  What a lovely room with nice, soft beds and down comforters. 

There are worse things than having to spend a day in Hong Kong.  It is a beautiful city, very photogenic.  (I have some good photos in my album in this blog!)   The next day, David worked from the hotel while the girls and I rode the bus out to Stanley.  An unexpected benefit of our detour to HK was that there were still some CNY festivities going on, including a Lion Dance at our hotel!  The Lion is fed lettuce, which he then spits out in a symbolic act which blesses the business establishment.  The Lion Dance ceremony was not purely for the benefit of patrons.  The lion went to each floor of the hotel (we think) and did the lettuce eating / spitting ceremony on each level.  As this is the year of the pig, Canton Road was also decorated with cute piggies, which we photographed. 

We weren’t sure if we would have to lay over in Hong Kong for one or two days, waiting for the visa.  We heard a rumor that recent revisions to visa requirements made it mandatory for visas issued to Americans to take two days to process.  (I’m told this is a tit for tat retaliation to the slow and expensive treatment of Chinese applicants by the American visa agencies; truly I am embarassed when I see the rude and rough way Chinese citizens are treated by our government officers as they pass through USA Immigration counters.)  We made a contingency plan that, if necessary, David would return to work in Guangzhou while I waited out the visa issuance in Hong Kong.  But the next day the travel agency did come through for us — a new visa for a price of 1600 HKD (about $200 U.S.) —  and we were able to get home with Clarissa’s new, expedited visa.  We caught the 7:15 train from Hung Hom Station to Guangzhou.  Having done this many times, we are experts in how to be the first foreigners off the train and how to run to be first in the immigration line.  This exercise was a bit needless, it turned out, because there were barely any foreigners catching the late train back into China on a Wednesday night during Chinese New Year.  So, we were the first foreign family to get through immigration, at 9:30 P.M., and then we were home by 10:00 P.M., about thirty two hours after beginning our journey home. 

After we had collected ourselves in the ferry station, J had told me she wasn’t crying in Macau because she was tired (as I had thought).  She said she had been crying when she learned we had to go to Hong Kong, because she was so disappointed not to be seeing her puppy that day.  Upon our arrival, our puppy Bella reciprocated Julianna’s joy.  All’s well that ends well.  And all that long story is why, I was so amazed to think, that not only were we still speaking to each other and the end of our journey, but we were all in good spirits and getting along well together.  It was a long trip, but I’d do it again in a minute if I had a chance to go back!  Our trip to Koh Tao was a truly wonderful  and memorable vacation! 

  

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