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.

“How do you get to Korean Air?” I asked a security guard.

“Just get on that elevator,” he said pointing straight ahead about 100 feet, “go one floor down, and take Shuttle Bus A.”

Piece of cake.

We rolled our three carry-on bags and dragged our “personal item” bags, each weighing more than we did combined, onto the elevator expecting to find a magic “Shuttle Bus A Button.” What we found were four buttons labeled “B,” “A,” “M,” and “D.”

We pushed the “A” button and went down one floor. When the door opened, we saw nothing that resembled anything close to a shuttle bus, so we stayed put. The door closed, and we pushed the “M” button. We went past the original floor and up one level, where the door opened to a bustling entourage of people of every nationality. We decided that wasn’t our floor either.

Onto the “D” button we went.

The “D” floor landed us face to face with a maintenance woman. We decided she wasn’t going to magically whistle for a shuttle bus, so we went back to square one, floor “B,” whatever that meant.

We rolled our stone tablet-filled suitcases off the elevator, where we met a security guard giving us the evil eye and pointing to the security checkpoint.

“No, no, no,” I said. “We’re trying to get out of here. We’re changing flights.”

“You still have to go through security,” she said. She kept right on pointing.

“We were told to get on Shuttle Bus A for Korean Air,” I said.

The arm went down. She sauntered over to another guard and spoke a few words. He walked over and again instructed us to go down one floor. That was the extent of his instructions. I guess everyone just automatically knows how to get around the Los Angeles airport. Back on the elevator we went.

We unpacked ourselves from the elevator on floor “A” and found a nice Asian man who barely spoke English. He pointed us outside and down the sidewalk.

“We were told to get on Shuttle Bus A for Korean Air,” I said.

“Just walk,” he said. “It’ll take about 10 minutes.”

Did he know how much this luggage weighed? I thought we were going to die, and we had not even left the airport – or the U.S. – yet.

We walked and walked and walked some more. Jaynee finally suggested buying a luggage cart. I told her I didn’t know how those racks even worked. They scared me. We could make it.

She stopped for a few seconds to watch a woman unloose one of the carts from the thing-a-ma-jig, and my 9-year-old managed to break the code of the mystical racks. We followed suit. It was the most fantastic trick I ever learned from a 9-year-old and the best five bucks I ever spent.

We passed through security for the second time that day. We were getting really good at taking off our shoes and jackets while simultaneously unloading our laptops and Kindles … dig out your passport, grab a tub, pile stuff in, heave up a suitcase, wait for it on the other side. Grab a tub, pile stuff in, heave up a suitcase … . You get the picture.

We were on our way to Korea.

The flight to Korea was blissful. If I could give Korean Air a jillion stars, I would. We felt like first-class passengers. These people know how to fly … for 13 hours.

We were greeted in our seats with blankets, pillows, toothbrushes and little paper slippers. Paper slippers, I say! The girls had a nice giggle and immediately slipped them ever so gingerly on their little feet.

In front of each seat was a monitor – with a remote control – and we soon learned that every new movie release I’d been too cheap to rent for the past year was available at our fingertips. We didn’t have to share. We each had out own headphones, and the bathroom was just two rows ahead. For the next 13 hours, I enjoyed “Moneyball,” “The Help,” “The Smurfs,” and “Crazy, Stupid Love.” Well worth the bargain price of $832.

In between my own personal cinema experiences, lovely Korean flight attendants dressed to the nines, hair perfectly in place, brought snacks, fruit juices, meals and even once handed us hot washcloths. They smiled and kneeled beside us, talking ever so sweetly, making sure we were comfortable. Every hour or so, the pilot’s voice would drift through the intercom and make announcements in Korean, Japanese and English. What an experience.

I really could have flown a few more hours. Ok, that’s a lie, but the flight was nice, and we eventually landed in snowy Seoul. Don’t ask me what time it was because it was daylight, and I know it should have been nighttime.

Let the jetlag begin!

We lugged our cement-packed luggage off the best plane in the world and asked the lady at the gate where we could find Gate 14 to Chiang Mai.

“Around the corner,” she said in a sweet Korean voice.

“Brilliant!” I thought. “This will be a snap,” which was good because those suitcases were heavy. Justine was in tears because she was so tired, and Jaynee was hoping our stay in Korea would be longer than 40 minutes, which is all the time we had to make our connection.

We knew there was a possibility we might not make it. Our travel agent promised if we missed our flight, the airline would put us up in a hotel room, and we could catch the next flight out two days later.

When I told Jaynee this in the States, she was adamant on not staying in Korea for two days. As we rounded the corner, which actually was another three-quarter of a mile, we met a line about two miles long. Jaynee slumped over, looked at me, and said, “I hope we miss our flight.”

“Me too,” I confided.

We hit the security checkpoint with 10 minutes to spare before our flight took off. I could almost feel the cool sheets of the Korean hotel against my back. Still, I wanted to make a valiant effort. We emerged from security and booked it. Our gate was another quarter of a mile away. We arrived at the gate, where a teeny Korean woman waved her hand and asked, “Chiang Mai?”

“Yes,” I gasped for air.

She welcomed us, and off we went.

I napped a little sitting straight up on our six-hour flight. The girls passed out cold, each on either side of my lap. The flight attendants kept waking me up to tell Justine to move her feet, which were dangling into the aisle. It was either hold them back or have them lopped off by the serving carts. Jaynee had two vacant seats next to her, so she was sprawled out comfortably and out for the duration. She didn’t even wake up for the cup of tofu we received for dessert. Bleck. That was a bad joke … and a bad dessert.

Then we landed, and Sameh and Joanne greeted us at the airport. Sameh is one of our DTS leaders. He is from Egypt. His wife, Joanne, is the cutest little Hawaiian woman I have ever seen. She also works at Create in the administrative offices.

I felt sorry for them as they tried to find transportation at nearly midnight for our semi-truck full of luggage. We piled what we could into their car, and the rest went into a taxi van.

The balm of the night air smothered us like a thick gel. It was hot. It was steamy. It stunk to high heaven. I didn’t care. We arrived at the Create center, located our sheets and pajamas after digging through nearly every suitcase, and hit the hay. A cat cried and bawled and screamed outside our window all night long.

We arose the next morning, needing showers in the worst way. Still in a fog, we located a bathroom with a spray hose on the side of the toilet and a trash can with a note taped to it reading, “Please do not flush any toilet paper or sanitary items down the toilet. Use the trash bin.”

That was our first view of our new home in the daylight.

We remained in a fog for about five days, trying not to sleep in the mornings and wake up at 3 a.m. It wasn’t easy, but we managed. We also managed to figure out the toilets, but that’s a story I’ll save for another day.

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