My Life in Airports: Thunderstorms, Money Woes and The Kindness of Strangers

“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”

Aesop

I have forgotten how many airport lounges I have spent time in over the last few months, lost count of the hours spent sprawled across chairs with my bag tucked underneath my head as a makeshift pillow in order to get a bit of shut eye. I’m not sure how many miles I have travelled – by air, or bus, or train – or how many time zones I’ve crossed, but I know one thing: I am tired.

Of course my flight path is a little extreme compared to others due to my having changed plans and itinerary. On one hand I’m lucky because I get to go back to Hong Kong and visit the places I didn’t get to go to because of the bad weather, but on the other, if I have to sleep on one more plane, or kill time in an airport (the most hateful one was Shanghai where the Wi-Fi wouldn’t work, I didn’t have any currency on me and I could not for the life of me find a shop stocking an adapter for Indonesia, only stuffed animals and chocolates) I might scream.

But what’s been going on?

Hong Kong finally brightened up (a bit) and I was able to explore a little more, although I am glad I get to visit again for a few days before I head back to the UK as there’s still so much I am yet to see.

I decided to explore Kowloon on foot rather than take the train and let’s face it, after the amount of bakery wares I’d consumed in Hong Kong, I needed the exercise. I had no set plan but just walked around with the guide book in hand and stopping off at various temples on the way. They were beautifully ornate and the juxtaposition of Eastern temple next to Western skyscrapers made for pretty epic scenery.

 

I spent a lot of time exploring Shanghai Street which, adjacent to the very western, busy and affluent Nathan Road, was like stepping back in time to how I imagine Hong Kong might have been. There were lots of shops selling oversized kitchen appliances, restaurants with entrances made up of huge fish tanks containing all sorts of sea creatures (one contained a hell of a lot of dead fish so it’s safe to say I didn’t go and eat there!)

 

Next up was Flower Market Road which was a small side street full of flower shops. I would have loved to buy some flowers as they were beautiful and smelled amazing but, since I was heading off to Bali the next day, it seemed like a bit of a waste. It was great fun to walk around, watching locals buy huge bouquets. It’s a really vibrant part of town.

I then headed to the Bird Garden which I knew would make me feel uneasy but I wanted to take a look anyway. There are lots of birds in tiny cages, some are for sale, some purely for decoration, but they were so confined and unhappy, I wanted to let them out. There were lots of wild birds flying around and the caged birds kept signing their sad songs. I kept thinking they must look at these free birds everyday and long to be let out. What’s interesting about the Bird Garden, however, is the local old men sitting around on benches playing a game (the name of which I cannot remember) because it seemed like an odd choice.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill for
The caged bird sings of freedom.

Maya Angelou

That night I head to The Symphony od Lights at Victoria Harbour where at 8pm every night they project huge lasers from the tops of buildings for 20 minutes. Its pretty cheesy stuff but makes for some great photographs. Unfortunately, the sky was so cloudy I didn’t get to see many of the lights.

The next day I took the train to Central Station on Hong Kong Island and met up with a friend of a friend who has lived in Hong Kong for five years. She took me for amazing Dim Sum and showed me around the city – I’m excited to go back and explore some more although I don’t think Central Hong Kong really floats my boat as its mostly big banks and brand names. After lunch we went for reflexology in this cute little shop where I had an hour long foot massage which, for someone with super ticklish feet, was surprisingly amazing. I felt so rested afterwards! Then I hopped on the Star Ferry back to Kowloon but it was such bad better weather, I could barely see anything and the journey was very choppy. At $2.50 HK the Star Ferry is a super cheap way to hop between the islands and, on a clear day, I’m sure you can see some great sights.

The next day, I arrived at Hong Kong airport three hours early ready to grab some lunch, peruse the shops for an adapter as I couldn’t find one in Hong Kong, and – most importantly – grab myself $25 US in order to pay for my visa into Bali (bit of a scam when they say you don’t need a visa to enter the country) and change some money to get a taxi and pay for my hostel on arrival. I couldn’t find the currency exchange near my hotel so reasoned I would just do it the airport. The rates are usually good and, besides, I would have plenty of time, plus I wouldn’t have to carry a wad of cash around my dodgy neighbourhood.

But of course life doesn’t work like that, even when you have a plan. The skies opened and out came the thunderstorms. I got moved to an earlier flight to ensure I would actually make my connection which was boarding as I was checking in – queue me running like a crazy person through security and across to gate 509 which I had to get A BUS from the main terminal to.

It was catch the plane vs. get money.

So far so crazy and no ATM. No currency exchange.

Never mind I thought, I can get dollars in Shanghai. No big deal.

Except here I am, my flight delayed by an hour (yet again), the currency exchange will not accept credit card and the only ATM is OUTSIDE the departure lounge which, since I am in transit, I am not allowed to go out to because I don’t have a Chinese visa.

So I found myself dollar-less with no local currency to my name – I had $50 HK which is the equivalent of $6 US – and I was terrified they weren’t going to let me in the country because I didn’t have the money on me. I was a bit of a wreck – completely terrified when I hit immigration in Bali.

Every long-term traveller I have spoken with has discussed periods of ‘burn out’ and horrible, scary situations they have found themselves in.

Now I know that a person sat at home after a hard day’s work might be reading this post and think I sound ridiculous or ungrateful, and possibly a little unhinged, but after a week of insane flights, the nomadic lifestyle I’ve been living has started to take its toll. There’s no sanctuary to be found behind closed doors when travelling, it’s difficult to find – or afford – the space to shut yourself away when the world gets too much. It’s hard to stay on top of everything all the time and sometimes it’s difficult to stay positive when the odds are stacked against you and you find yourself in a scary situation.

And I was right. It was exactly the nightmare I had thought it would be. Stupidly, in the haze of having to catch a thousands flights and hitting weird time zones, I had forgotten to inform my bank that I would be in Indonesia which meant I couldn’t access any cash from ATMs. I was escorted out of the airport (I had to leave my passport behind as insurance) to various ATMS and none of them would work. Luckily I had met a very nice Canadian girl on the airplane and she leant me some cash until I sorted things out. I was able to leave the airport and ended up spending the next 24 hours chilling on Kuta beach, drinking beers and hanging out in a great guest house (Fat Yogi’s in Kuta is worth the visit if you’re in the area) with her and two of her friends. I contacted my mum, who luckily is third party on my bank accounts, and she was able to call the bank and rectify the problem. Don’t make the same mistake I did when travelling, always inform your bank because otherwise you could find yourself stuck in transit without a Canadian lifeline!

Of course, now its all sorted, I can look back on the situation as a positive one. I have learnt to be more careful with things like banking and more prepared when I travel to a new country. I hadn’t even thought as far ahead as Bali and, when the time came to go, I knew nothing about what to expect. It has also made me feel extremely positive; people are inherently good and, while I’m not naïve to trust people with my things (I would never leave my bags out my sight), I think we often think too negatively of people. If it wasn’t for the kindness of a stranger, I would have been a bit more stuck than I was. It’s important to help others out. I am a huge believer in karma and I think that since this girl has helped me, good things will come to her, and I in turn will endeavour to pay the kindness forward to others I meet along the way. And who knows! You may make a new friend and have a great time as a result.

It’s easy to get lost in negativity when you’re alone in a foreign country and shit hits the fan but, once the insane flights are over and you are settled in a place (and have had a good night’s sleep and manage to actually enter a country) the feeling of rootlessness and stress, fear and terror, disappears and you sort out your money woes, stop crying, meet your temporary hostel family, manage to make your bunk bed your own little haven, suss the bathroom situation, then life seems rosy again.

You go back to feeling grateful again, and in love with the lifestyle. I suppose it’s like anything. You have fantastic days and you have god fucking awful days like the airport day where nothing seems to go your way. Nothing is perfect all the time.

So why does all this fear and burnout come about? And what can we do to get over it and feel human again?

Burn out for me stems from not having enough sleep. In the immortal words of Hear Say, it’s pure and simple. I like my kip. I LOVE my bed (reunion T minus 4 weeks) and – this is something I have learned about myself since travelling – I need to have time to myself every day to unwind.

So I guess the answers are simple:

Keep calm

Things happen. I worked myself up into such a state at the airport and yesterday when I couldn’t get money out but everything tends to work itself out. Keeping calm and optimistic is important. Stress only makes the situation worse.

It’s important, now and again, to treat yourself

Whether it be a private hostel room, a hotel, a walk along the beach, an early night or two, a bottle of wine, a nice dinner, new clothes – whatever it is we need, we need to learn to allow ourselves to have it once in a while. What would you do at home when you feel a bit of a misery? You’d do something you love – or treat yourself – to get back on track.

But that’s the thing about budget travellers. We get “the guilt” whenever we treat ourselves because a) it’s not the done thing and b) it’s too expensive.

Well I say, to hell with that. If I don’t have a few luxuries now and again, I will lose my shit so it’s best for all involved really.

Don’t feel guilty about not being “Travel Hard-core” enough

I have been travel hard-core. I have slept in tents, boats, swags, planes, on buses, in airport lounges, and in the most disgusting of hostels for months on end. I have slept outside to a chorus of howling Dingos, hiked the hell out of mountains, and faced challenging situations head on.

I have also slept in a hotel room and literally cried (yesterday morning actually) about having to share a room with people yet again. I’ve eaten in nice restaurants, spent money on nice drinks and bought clothes I didn’t need. I have freaked out on several occasions.

I like mixing up my accoms; while I have mainly stayed in shared dorms, I have also camped and luxed it up (next week my friend arrives in Bali to travel with me for two weeks and YOU SHOULD SEE THE FANCY PLACE SHE HAS BOOKED OH MY GOD I MIGHT CRY THINKING ABOUT IT) and stayed at a friend’s flat a few times in order to feel part of the normal world. I’m heading to stay with another friend in Bali tomorrow, someone I haven’t seen in a long time, and I am very excited!

There is no such thing as one particular way to travel. It’s your experience. As Take That so wisely said: Do What You Like.

Don’t be afraid to switch off

You’re not being rude if you turn down that night out if you’re knackered. Sure, you’re suffering from FOMO but chill out. There will be other nights out (many, many, many) and its best not to make yourself ill with lack of sleep or you’ll be out of action for a lot longer than anticipated.

Of course, if it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity – like seeing the sunrise over Uluru – get out of bed lazy bones, you can sleep when you’re dead.

Take time for yourself

I think I’ve already covered this one but it’s important. Don’t be afraid to take yourself off from the crowd. Don’t be afraid to take a trip alone. I’ve just spent three days in Hong Kong and only spent one afternoon with other people. I loved every second of it.

Even if they pretend they don’t, everyone gets homesick. Everyone craves creature comforts. Everyone wants their own space. Everyone has times where they can’t cope.

And if they don’t, it’s possible they are a) an alien or b) the terminator so it would be silly to compare your human form to their otherworldy/artificialness.

Lighten up

No-one is a machine. No-one expects you to be a machine. Take a deep breath and remember, this experience won’t last forever. You’ll soon be back in your normal life, in your home country, wishing you were back having an adventure again. Although maybe without any immigration based woes.

Oh and lastly, the best way to sleep in an airport is with all your clothes pushed to the top of your backpack (if its front opening like mine) and shoved under your skull as a pillow, your feet at the end of the row for maximum stretching purposes, your main body over two squishy seats, and your mind giving zero fucks if you snore/dribble/swear while you slumber.

Sweet dreams, Wanderlusters, and fingers crossed for me!

How do you deal with stressful situations while travelling?

What’s the most terrifying thing that’s happened to you in another country?

Any tips for eradicating fear and homesickness?

Do you have any stories about the kindness others have offered to you as a traveller?

Let me know!

 (More pictures to follow when I get a better internet connection)

 

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