23 hours, a hot washcloth and a spray nozzle

The balm of the night air smothered us like a thick gel. It was hot. It was steamy. It stunk to high heaven. I couldn’t pinpoint the smell, but I didn’t like it. My head was cloudy from little sleep. I couldn’t read one single sign. No one spoke English.

That initial step onto the streets of Chiang Mai, thankfully, was the worst. The 23-and-a-half-hour flight, surprisingly, wasn’t too bad.

We boarded our U.S. Airways flight to Los Angeles on New Year’s Day 2012. A stern Polish woman checked us in at 6 a.m. at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. She scared me to death. She meant business. When she figured out we were international flight rookies, though, she softened up.

We arrived in L.A. an hour and a half later, and the race was on.

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