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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Indonesia Part One: Maryland To Jakarta

This was the trip of a lifetime, but also quite the adventure.  There were a few people who clearly thought we were crazy to book the trip in the first place, and then even more crazy to still go through with it after the problems that we had with the bookings.  I'm sure, once I tell the story of the trip itself, many people are going to just think we've gone off the deep end.  It was all worth it in order to see some of the most pristine and lush reefs in the world, and to experience another country and culture that is totally unique to anything we'd ever seen.

I had starting packing New Years Day.  I didn't want to forget anything, and I didn't want to be rushing at the last minute.  I was pretty much ready to go almost three days before we left, so at least the day of departure wasn't stressful from that perspective.  It was 20 degrees when we left home, but I was determined not to bring a coat to the Equator.  We left our house at about noon on Friday, January 21, and headed to Virginia.

Our plane was leaving from Dulles Airport, and my Grandmother's house is about 15 minutes from there, so we were parking our car there while we were gone.  My sister, Shelly, works nearby and was coming to drive us from Grandma's to the airport.  It was a two hour drive, and when we arrived, we saw that my Dad, his wife, and my brother were there.  They had come to see us off, which was a pleasant surprise.  We sat with them and chit-chatted, enjoying some of Grandma's homemade plum jam, until Shelly arrived.

Shelly brought her car rather than her SUV, which was a problem.  We each had a suitcase for clothes and a suitcase for dive equipment, and Todd had two big bags of photography equipment.  I even recently upgraded my backpack to a super-large version.  It was a good thing my dad was there, becuase we ended up putting all of our luggage into his minivan and he and my brother drove us to Dulles (and Shelly headed home).  I shivered in the cold saying goodbye to them, happy that someone in our family was dropping us off.

Dulles was uneventful, which was great because I've had some not so great experiences at Dulles Airport.  Our first flight was on United to LAX.  We left at 5:40pm EST, and it was almost a 5 hour flight to LA.  Once we arrived in LA, we were already getting pretty tired.

We got off the plane in LAX, and we were changing airlines on to Cathay Pacific.  I had only been to LAX once, and it was ages ago, so I had no idea how to find my way around.  We were clearly in the United terminal.  All of the arrival and departure screens were listing United flights only, and no signs were directing us to anything related to international flights, Cathay Pacific, or any other airline for that matter.  Finally, we asked a United employee, and discovered that we needed to leave the airport to go to the international terminal, which ended up being quite a walk.  Don't airports normally have things like signs, trains and shuttles for this type of thing?  It was sort of bizarre.

I have to admit, once I stepped into the international terminal, I pretty much felt like I'd already gotten to Asia.  The US was back in the United Terminal, but in the international terminal, we stuck out like sore thumbs.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, was Asian.  China Air, Korean Air, Japan Airlines, Malaysia Airlines... they all had flights leaving and we seemed to be the only ones heading away from home rather than toward it.  We found the Cathay Pacific counter and checked in for our flight, only to find that they had very strict rules about carry on bags.  Did I mention Todd's giant photography bags?  Well, they weighed about 15kg each, and Cathay Pacific only allowed 7kg of carry on luggage per person.  Usually in such situations, we work it out by paying a fee for overweight luggage.  Cathay Pacific was not interested in this, they didn't want us bringing the bags on the plane at all.  We carried on the discussion, trying to find some compromise (as checking the fragile photography equipment was not something we wanted to do).  In the meantime, I kept quitely kicking my super-large backpack away, hoping they wouldn't notice and ask me to weigh it.  I had no idea what it might weigh, but I had a feeling it was more than 7kg.

Finally, they agreed to gate check the bags, and the manager in charge agreed to personally place them on the plane.  When we arrived at the gate, Todd removed some things from the softer, more fragile bag, and put them in the super-large backpack, and negotiated to be able to check only his durable Pelican Case instead.  Meanwhile, I continued to pretend like by backpack was really, really light, doing things like slinging it around and acting like it was filled with cotton, or perhaps feathers.

At last, we boarded the plane for the 15 hour flight to Hong Kong.  We had paid to upgrade our seats to exit row, and I had the middle seat.  It wasn't as bad as it sounds.  By the time we were in the air, it was past 1:00am Eastern, and I can only partially remember taking off and the first meal service (dinner, Chinese food).  I had my Kindle and I had started reading The Hunger Games on the flight from Dulles, so I continued with that, alternating with watching the personal televisions and trying to sleep.  Still, I think I was only about 3 hours into the flight before I started to panic, feeling like I wasn't going to make it and that I needed to get off the plane.  This was futile, obviously, so I just sat and watched another episode of Modern Family.

I learned that I did the best with short television sitcoms on the flight.  At one point, maybe 10 hours in, I decided to watch Despicable Me, and 90 minutes was just too long to keep my attention.  I had trouble staying awake, yet couldn't sleep when I tried.  In all, I would say I got about 5 hours of sleep on the plane, in 60 minute intervals, with books, television, and general boredom/staring into space in between.  Todd had taken an Ambien and had about the same amount of luck.  Occasionally, a flight attendant would come by and give us water, and occasionally I would get up to go to the bathroom or to get water myself.  Once, they brought us cup o' noodles, which was by far the best cup of noodles I'd ever eaten.  I tried to walk around the plane some, which was interesting because you can see what other people are watching on the television (I'd chosen Cathay Pacific because of it's extensive entertainment options - over 30 movies).  People were also sleeping in some crazy positions, also entertaining (but not mentioned in the Cathay Pacific literature).

It was a relief when they served us breakfast (again Chinese food), and soon after we were on the ground in Hong Kong.  On the way in, we had to walk through this device to check us for fever, which was interesting.  It was only 5am when we landed, so nothing was open in the airport, but it did look pretty nice.  We had about 2 1/2 hours to kill there, but there was nothing to do but wait at the gate.  Thank goodness for free wifi.  I wanted something to drink, but realized that we didn't have any Hong Kong money.  I thankfully found a store that took US Dollars, but then the options were... limited.  I couldn't read any of the chinese writing, obviously, and the drinks were not normal things like Coca Cola (which I thought was everywhere - apparently not).  I finally settled on Green tea, which sounded fine, but tasted gross as it was VERY VERY strong, and unsweetened.  Food options included squid chips and brightly colored marshmallows, and we decided to wait to eat until we were on the plane to eat.

The next flight took us to Jakarta.  It was about 4 1/2 hours, and we enjoyed another chinese breakfast with the same options we'd had on the last flight.  I got the chicken and veggies instead of the omlette, as the omlette was disturbing and I couldn't face it again.

And then, after something like 30 hours, we were in Jakarta.  It was easier to get into Indonesia than I expected.  I thought we would be facing the same grilling about Todd's photography that we'd gotten going to Belize, but no.  They chose a few bags at random to put through the x-ray, and then we were out of the airport and facing about 150 people screaming things at us.  Do we need a ride?  Do we want a taxi?  Do we need a place to stay?  Are we, perhaps, Mr and Mrs Chang?  Do we want to change money?  The answer to the last question was sadly no, and it should have been a yes, since we wouldn't have an opportunity to change money again for a very, very long time.

I had arranged for a car to drive us from the airport to our hotel, and this was shockingly easy to find.  The driver even had water for us to drink, which was awesome.  It was Sunday, and therefore traffic was light.  Apparently, Jakarta traffic is usually so bad that the government requires a certain number of passengers, and drivers will even pay strangers to ride in the car with them so that they can get into the city.  Not so on Sunday, apparently.

We arrived at our hotel, the JW Marriott Jakarta, and before we even could pull up to the hotel, security guards walked around our car with mirrors checking underneath for bombs.  They opened the trunk.  They inspected everything.  This hotel has been bombed twice.  The last time was in July 2009, and that had been a car bomb.  We were cleared and allowed in, and then all of our bags were searched using a method far more thorough than the TSA.  Everything was opened and inspected, and when the guards found that our scuba gear included knives (a necessary piece of scuba equipment), we were asked to check our scuba gear with the bellhops for our stay.  This was fine, since we weren't diving in Jakarta anyway.

Entering the JW Marriott Jakarta
While I waited for Todd at security, I took some time to inspect the wedding signs that had been put up for a wedding that was taking place at the hotel that night.  This was the only photograph that I took in Jakarta, as we were jetlagged and even slightly delirious from the travel.  Apparently, sending signs made of flowers to couples getting married is a big thing in Indonesia, and we even saw the same thing again later when we saw a funeral in Bali.

I don't know if I've stayed in a truly 5 star hotel before, but this definitely was one.  A concierge was waiting for us in the lobby, and she walked us up to our room and took care of getting our other bags and making sure that we had a wakeup call in the morning, as well as arranging a car to take us back to the airport for the rest of our journey.  I don't know if this was normal, or if this was because we're Marriott rewards members (we were using points for this trip), or what.  The room had a bathtub and bath salts, so I took a luxourious bath and changed into shorts.  We set an alarm so that we could take a 45 minute nap, and I am not kidding, it felt like 2 minutes.  We were so incredibly tired, and it felt so good to strech out and actually sleep laying down, rather than sitting up.

After the nap, we decided to find our friends Matt and Ellen, who should have arrived.  We couldn't seem to get a hold of them in their room, but then Todd got a text that they were in the Executive Lounge.  We got into the elevator and started hitting 30, but we didn't have access to Floor 30 since we hadn't reserved Executive lounge privlidges (we could have, but it would have been more Marriott points, and thought it wasn't worth it).  The elevator started moving even though we hadn't successfully pressed the button, but when it opened, it opened on Floor 30, and standing there was Matt, who had gone back to the elevator to go to his room and try and find us.  Too funny!

Apparently, according to Matt and Ellen, we looked like zombies.  I definitely felt like a zombie, and I was wondering when we would feel normal again.  We'd been traveling for a day and a half, and we had a 5am flight in the morning.  Matt and Ellen not only fly business class, but also had spent a few days in Singapore, so they were over their jetlag.  We chatted with them for a while, then went down to the buffet in the hotel.  I had heard nothing but wonderful, glowing things about the buffet in the hotel, but I was so tired, I only kinda-sorta paid any attention to how good the food was.  I did avoid drinking or eating anything questionable such as raw vegetables, since I was really worried about getting traveler's diarrhea.

As you can imagine, sleep came easily when we were back in the room.  Sadly, it was only a short sleep since we were waking up at 3am in order to get back to the airport for our 5am flight.

More to come, so stay tuned...


marathonmaiden said...

15 hour flight?! YIKES! i'd have been a zombie too

Kandi said...

Wow! That is a long flight! And a long couple days of flying.

Mary said...

Funny, you guys don't look like Mr. and Mrs. Chang. ;)

You know, I desperately want to go to Asia at some point, but that flight might just keep me away. I can barely stand the 10 hours to Chile.

Kim said...

Yeah, the flight was brutal. Todd has mentioned that he wants to go back to Indonesia soon... and I just can't face those flights. With everything that went wrong in this trip (and you'll see that there was a lot), the worst thing about the trip was still the flights. Definitely upgrade to exit row or economy plus if you can (and definitely business class if you can afford it)

chuck21050 said...

Great writing, I can't wait for the next chapter. Actually I understand how tired you were. My trip to Hong Kong and Singapore were LONG and I went business class.

lindsay said...

loved reading about it so far :) quite the adventure! (and also a crazy one just getting the trip planned!) i wish i was braver about traveling overseas but i stress too much about not knowing the language...

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