If I told you that my very first diplomatic trip: from the United States to Laos that is, would be a smooth transition, I would be lying. In theory, you would think diplomats would embark on any journey without any major obstacles –I was wrong. In fact, I can say unequivocally that this was the most nerve-racking and challenging trip I’ve ever had! And, I’ve done my share of traveling, in which I’ve encountered multiple obstacles. But nothing comes close to the amount of impediments that I encountered this time around.
There are so many moving pieces when it comes to traveling, particularly, when you are traveling during a pandemic and on Uncle Sam’s stingy budget. Now, we all know COVID-19 has made traveling domestically and internationally more challenging. So much so, that certain countries have closed their borders all together. Laos, is a perfect example of said draconian measures. Currently the borders in Laos are closed and the only way to get into the country is through humanitarian flights from Malaysia. These are flights organized by the United Nations and the only way to get a ticket is if you are a diplomat or an essential worker coming to Laos. These flights only operate on Sunday mornings, which means I had to leave D.C. on a Thursday in order to make it to Malaysia on Saturday, and take the humanitarian flight on Sunday. Essentially, one delayed flight on any of your connecting flights can sabotage your entire trip. So here we go…
On June 30th, I stayed up all night to prepare for the time change and to specifically sleep more during the long flight that way my body adjusts to the 11 hour differential. Now, July 1st is here, I get to the DCA airport at 5am for a flight that’s going to take off at 8am. There were no lines. The Delta representative checked my luggage with a final destination to Seoul, South Korea (plot twist: my actual final destination should have been Malaysia). But neither the rep nor I caught this mistake. She also didn’t tell me that I no longer had a connecting flight from Seoul to Malaysia, so evidently I would have been stuck at the airport in Seoul for at least 3 days.
By the time another Delta representative realized the mistakes, my bags had left to Atlanta without me. The embassy told me to contact the travel agency to book a new flight. The travel agency told me that I needed to be “unchecked-in” from the Delta flight. The Delta customer service line had an 8hr wait time. Meanwhile, I was trying to find the energy to continue making calls and find a solution.
Eventually, the travel agency booked me a new flight for the same day. My new flight was for 9pm, thinking I had all day to get my luggage from Delta. Yet, Delta only returned 2 of my 3 bags to D.C.. They claimed to know my 3rd luggage was in Atlanta but didn’t know exactly where. The options were: 1) fly to Laos and maybe never see the luggage again, 2) ask them to ship it to a friend’s house in the U.S., or 3) wait for them to find my luggage. After a couple of calls, I decided to stay in D.C. and wait for my luggage.
I was forced to find a hotel for a week and ask State Department to change my travel orders, so I could be authorized to work in D.C. for one more week.
On July 8th, my flight was delayed due to weather conditions in D.C.. I was afraid that I would not make my 40min connecting flight in Atlanta, so I talked to a Delta manager and she found another flight. My new itinerary was D.C. – Amsterdam – London – Malaysia – Laos.
All the planes were empty, so I always had an entire row to myself. Everything was relatively smooth until I got to London Heathrow Airport. London’s TSA is more strict than all countries I’ve ever traveled to. You have to worry about your liquids being less than 3oz AND make sure they fit inside a sandwich ziploc bag. Apparently, if all your liquid containers don’t fit inside the bag, you can’t take it — how lovely. They forced me to choose which Sephora beauty products were more important and they threw away the rest, which made me irate.
Then, when I got to the gate for my next flight, the Malaysia Airlines representatives told me that they had to weigh my carry-on. Apparently my carry-on could only weigh 7 kilos (~15 pounds). If it’s more than the that, they make you pay per kilo to check it in. They made me pay 324 pounds, about $450 USD to check-in my carry-on luggage! Insane! And once again, I had no choice but to do it in order to board the plane.
I spent one full day at the hotel inside the Kuala Lumpur (KL) airport without luggage and clothes because I couldn’t get any of my luggage until my final destination – Laos. I had a 28-hour layover in KL, in order to wait for the humanitarian flight. And I got to practice my Latin America skills of hand-washing clothes because the hotel did not have laundry services.
On Sunday, July 11th, I took the humanitarian flight with 15 other people and finally made it to Laos. The embassy staff greeted me at the airport and a van took me to start my 14-day hotel quarantine.