31 August 2014


Getting back to Papua New Guinea takes a lot of time and a lot of airplane rides. If everything goes smoothly, I can take a direct flight from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Los Angeles California, board another plane to Brisbane, Queensland, and a third plane to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. However, Paul’s job is tied to an airline, so we fly standby. 

If you are not familiar with standby tickets, let me provide a brief overview. People who want to fly places usually get online or arrange for a travel agent to get online and purchase some tickets. Those people have full-fare tickets. Then there are some other people who take a chance and purchase something called a standby ticket, which is a paid fare that allows someone to ride on an airplane if there are seats available, meaning non-purchased seats. The standby fares are cheaper than full-priced airfare but the people who purchase the standby tickets are not guaranteed a seat on the airplane, so there is a bit of risk involved.

When a gate agent calls for everyone to begin boarding, the full-fare ticketholders get to board first. When all of the full-fare ticketholders are on board, gate agents will give any additional seats to passengers who purchased standby tickets. Once all of the revenue passengers are on board – the people who at least paid something – the non-revenue passengers get a shot at the standby game.

First there are the people who work for the airline – the employees, the crew members. If any employees are unionized (at least in America) those with higher seniority numbers take preference over those with lower seniority numbers. After the employees, family members of employees have rank. Employees of company subsidiaries follow, and then their designated family members will be called. As you can see, there are a lot of people who can be considered for standby tickets. Paul and I rank at the bottom of the list because his airline is local, so it is not tied to a major international airline.

Our trip to America was an eventful one that took three days, and a 14-hour sleep by one of us, before we arrived home. My trip back to PNG, thankfully, was eventful in a different way.

I will be completely honest and say that I was not looking forward to returning to Papua New Guinea. If it were not for the husband who I had not seen since July 9, I may not have come back. But the end of August was nearing, so I needed to suck it up.

Living in Papua New Guinea is not awful, but it is also not enviable. There are a lot of other places in which I would rather live. A lot.

But returning to PNG affords me the opportunity to get back into my normal routine. I am able to cook for myself, eat healthy items, eat out less, work out more and find ways to fill my day instead of running from one place to the next trying to see everyone in the entire country since, you know, I was in the country. And then there is that husband of mine who I get to see every day.

I left town on a Monday nearly two weeks ago. When I arrived at the airport, I checked my giant suitcase and headed to the gate, my carryon bags stocked with a change of clothes for the long-haul flight, a laptop, an e-reader and plenty of healthy snacks that taste so much better than airplane food.

I felt confident that I would make the direct flight to Los Angeles that only occurs a few times a week; Paul and I had pretended to book tickets online and saw that there were approximately 20 seats available just days before my intended departure. But, as the boarding process began, the gate agent said the words, “full flight.” I don’t know why people suddenly needed to be in LA but they all felt they needed to be on the flight I had already selected. The last person on the standby list, I was the only person left sitting in the waiting area when the gate door closed.

Thankfully the ticket agent asked whether I wanted my checked bag to go ahead to LA or have it be tagged to only be loaded onto the airplane if I was also on board. After 30 minutes and two pages to the baggage handlers, I was reunited with my checked bag and happy to check myself into a nearby hotel. We did have an idea to purchase a full-fare ticket on another airline but I had a one-hour window to arrange for a new ticket and baggage switch and that just didn’t happen. With no more LA flights that evening, I left the airport in search of a large hotel room, some delivery food and a new game plan.

Tuesday I woke ridiculously early. I didn’t actually sleep the night before – I took a nap. I slept for 3.5 hours and then caught a 4:30 a.m. cab for a nowhere-near-full, 6 a.m. flight to San Francisco. Because I had not slept the night before, I knew I wanted to sleep on the five- to six-hour flight to the West Coast. Though the gate agent had awarded me an exit row seat that provided more legroom, I was smart enough to know that exit row seats do not recline, and I definitely wanted to recline.

When everyone had boarded, I grabbed my bags and headed to the back of the plane, asking one of the flight attendants if it would be OK if I camped out in the back. The blessed, blessed man not only allowed me to take an entire empty row to myself, but he also tossed me a blanket that he said was “rare back here.” That man was a God send! I slept the entire flight, my ear plugs in, my eye mask on, my pillow propped by the window, my seatbelt around my torso and my legs stretched out three seats. Best cross-country flight in history.

In San Francisco, I made my way to breakfast and sat at the gate with a piping cup of coffee, careful not to drink it until I was on board. I don’t know why…maybe for luck? Maybe so I wouldn’t make a mess before I got on the plane? Maybe so the coffee would cool a little before I scalded my mouth and resented the coffee that I chose to love forever in that moment?

There was a flight to LA that departed shortly after I arrived in San Francisco but it wasn’t showing on the board when I arrived so I assumed I would not be taking that flight. Too easy. I was number 14 on the standby list for the flight I already knew was full. I was not counting myself on the plane but I did not have a gut feeling that I would miss it either, so I patiently sat and watched no fewer than five crewmembers in uniform beg, plead and kill with kindness to obtain an open seat on that flight to LA.

I was number 9 on the second flight to LA. Confident that I would not make it onto that flight, I opened my laptop and began working while finally drinking that coffee. When I realized that my name would be called, I frantically ran back to my seat to stow my laptop, grab my bags, throw back the last few sips of coffee, toss the cup into the recycling bin and grab my ticket. I was officially on my way to LA.

Before I left Pittsburgh, I prayed for divine intervention. I did not want to be in PNG but I knew that I needed to be, so I prayed for a smooth trip – I prayed that God would pave the way. I was thankful that I got an extra night in a hotel that allowed me to plan a successful trip west. I was ecstatic to sleep in an entire row on the way to San Francisco. I was pleased to be able to drink my coffee in an airport and not on a plane. I was pleased to make a flight before sitting in the same airport gate area for six hours like I may have done in the past.

When I did board the flight to LA, I was given an aisle seat and, at the last minute, my ticket had been upgraded from the very last row to a seat toward the middle of the plane. Another bonus. People, God knows what he is doing.

When I landed in LA, I had 12 hours of freedom before hopefully boarding my flight to Brisbane, so I checked into a hotel not far from the airport and called a college friend who just happened to have recently moved to the area. I had a lovely day in LA, I had a great time with a friend I had not seen in 10 years and I had a chance to shower and repack now that the international airline would allow me to check a heavier bag. My friend took me to dinner, took me to see her apartment and even walked on the beach so that I could be cheesy and put my feet in the Pacific Ocean before leaving the country once more.

The Qantas Airlines ticket agent was lovely and told me that she selected for me a seat in a row of four that was at the time completely vacant. She told me there was a slight chance someone could end up with a seat in my row, but that my chances were looking good.

People: I had a whole row of four seats available to only me on a 14-hour international flight. It. Was. Amazing. By the time we were ready for takeoff, I had been awake 28 hours or so, so all I really wanted to do was sleep. I had five pillows (one was my own), four blankets and four empty seats. Now, I am not a hoarder like the rest of my family members, so I did not take or use all of them, but I did use two blankets because I usually freeze on the long flights.

People: I slept all but three hours of that flight! That NEVER happens! I was only awake long enough to watch two movies and I paused one to take a nap before finishing the movie a couple hours later. That was the best international flight I have ever experienced. I think lying across 3.25 seats underneath two blankets was, in my opinion, probably better than business class sleeping, though I have never slept in a flat business class seat before. I think I tried once but the nap didn’t actually work as planned.

Landing in Brisbane Thursday morning, I was bright eyed and surprisingly still looking good for a 14-hour flight, though I was thoroughly confused because I left LA on Tuesday and arrived in Australia on Thursday, so Wednesday had somehow vanished, and I had no idea what time it was anywhere. What I did know was that I only had a two-hour flight ahead.

While I waited for the ticket counter to open for my last flight that would see me back in the third world, I got a message from Paul:

                We have a flight to Sydney tomorrow, staying through Monday. If you want to go, I need to know right now.

Well, OK then!

God is so good. He knew I didn’t want to be in PNG so he decided to sweeten my already great trip with five more days in Australia. He’s so amazing.

So I avoided PNG for another five days. I spent an evening in Brisbane before heading to Sydney for four days, where my husband and I finally saw each other for the first time in about seven weeks. My flight landed at the time Paul was taking off, so I had a four-hour head start. I can imagine that he was so excited to be in Sydney, thrilled to see his wife after so long, in the dark, under the covers, sound asleep when he walked through the door at 6 p.m.

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