Friday, October 14, 2011

Traveling to Cambodia

Phnom Penh airport. Photo obtained from Wikimedia Commons. Author: Chikumaya

We’ve arrived in Cambodia! After three months in the States, delay after delay in the paperwork, problem after problem with our shipment, we finally arrived in Phnom Penh two days ago. We arrived on Thursday, 6 October, and it now is Saturday, 8 October … although there’s no telling what day it will be by the time this post is published. We don’t have internet yet, so I’m typing and saving and assuming that I’ll be able to get online from the embassy sometime next week, or even that we’ll have our own internet up and running within the week.

The trip was long, but not as painful as I expected. We took 4 flights, with a total flight time of around 25 hours and an additional 17 hours or so waiting in airports (or at the hotel within the airport complex, in the case of the 8-hour “overnight” in Bangkok). We’ve been blessed to have earned a ridiculous number of frequent flyer miles on United, which turned out to be the only—yes, the only—airline that met our travel requirements, so we were able to upgrade from economy to business class for the two longest flights (11 and 7 hours). Business class on those flights made all the difference in our travel experience. We were able to put our feet up, and despite some mechanical problems with my seat, we were able to recline far enough to sleep in relative comfort. Even Alexa got in on the act, as we took her out of her carseat so that she could lie on her daddy’s chest for a while and sleep more comfortably.

So why did we fly United, even though Delta holds the contract for U. S. government travel between Washington, DC, and Phnom Penh? Two reasons. Their names are Cleo and Isis. It was much more difficult than we ever anticipated to arrange to fly two cats as accompanied excess baggage. On the way back from Egypt, we took them in the cabin with us and had no problems … but we were able to do that only because we hired a pet expeditor, who was able to “convince” the airline representatives that they were within the in-cabin weight restrictions. We’ve been told that the airlines in Asia actually weigh the cats, and they are strict in their adherence to the rules. And, well, our cats are fat. Isis weighs approximately three times the upper limit for in-cabin travel, and Cleo is barely above the limit. People here at post told us not to ship the cats as unaccompanied baggage, or we’d have to wait weeks for them to clear customs. That left accompanied baggage. I don’t think Delta actually had a problem with that; the problem was with the regional carrier affiliated with Delta here in southeast Asia. They wouldn’t allow us to bring both cats, or maybe they wouldn’t allow us to bring either cat. I don’t remember, as Jeff is the one who did all the research. But it turns out that Thai Air, affiliated with United, had no problems taking our two fat cats as accompanied baggage. We did end up taking one “extra” flight, though, because United only allows one pet on its DC to Tokyo run. We ended up flying from Baltimore to San Francisco, and then on to Tokyo. From there, we flew to Bangkok, then on to Phnom Penh.

In Bangkok, we had maybe 45 minutes of worry that we wouldn’t be able to continue to Phnom Penh. We had made all the necessary arrangements for the cats, including paying United the associated fees. But Jeff is paranoid, so when we arrived in Bangkok, before we went to the hotel, he checked with the Thai Air representatives to make sure everything was okay. Yes, sir, everything’s fine, just check in before your flight and don’t worry about a thing. Uh huh, right.

It turns out that we had paid United their fees, both for the cats and for the extra bag we brought, but United had not charged us the fees for Thai. It took 45 minutes, three desks, three customer service representatives, and two supervisors to figure out the problem and rectify it. To be fair, though, the first customer service representative was excellent, as she consulted with the others and with her supervisors, and then personally escorted Jeff to the second desk and all of us to the third. She was full of apologies and was careful to make it clear that she realized that we’d done nothing wrong and that none of this hoopla was our fault. We, in turn, tried to make it clear that we realized that she’d done nothing wrong, that Thai had done nothing wrong, and that this hoopla was not their fault, either. So I guess we all decided to lay the blame at the feet of United, who was not there to be offended. I’m not sure if the problem really was that United was supposed to collect all the fees and distribute Thai’s to them, or if the Thai representative from the night before should have realized and told Jeff that there would be additional fees to pay. In any case, it all worked out and we arrived at our gate mere minutes before boarding began. I even had time for a quick trip to the restroom.

From there, it didn’t take long. The flight to Phnom Penh was a little less than an hour. In that time, the flight attendants managed to offer us breakfast and countless cups of tea or coffee. They even provided jars of baby food for Alexa. Luckily, she slept the whole way, so the flight attendants didn't see that she would have rejected their generosity in favor of our grown-up food. Since we've been here, I've noticed that Cambodian servers in restaurants have seemed surprised when we order regular food for Alexa and then even more surprised when she eats it, so I do wonder if it's a cultural thing that toddlers her age still eat baby food here.

I’m not sure if the airport here in Phnom Penh is very small or just very efficiently laid out, but it took us only a few moments to walk from our gate to immigration. A Cambodian man from the embassy met us and helped us to claim our luggage—seven 70-lb bags, a stroller, and two cats, both still alive and meowing furiously—and walk through customs. Our sponsor met us outside and we caravanned in two SUVs to our new home. I didn’t look around as much as I thought I would during the drive; I was too busy chatting with and getting to know our sponsor. My first impressions, though, were positive. There was lots of greenery, interesting and at times beautiful architecture, and traffic that was unruly by American standards but tame by Egyptian ones. I look forward to getting to know the city better in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

We received a pleasant surprise during our drive—our sponsor informed us that our permanent quarters were ready for us. We’d been told previously that we would be in temporary housing until mid-November, as the previous occupant of our house had been asked to stay until mid-October, and then a month would be required for the make-ready. I’m not sure how the quarters were vacated and made ready for us so early, although I assume that the previous occupant didn’t extend his time here after all, but I’m grateful. There are only two downsides to moving directly in here, both very minor: we don’t have immediate internet access as we would have in the hotel, and we are not being forced to become familiar with another area of the city just yet. I’ll gladly accept the delay in internet service and the fact that I must motivate myself—rather than being motivated by where I live—to become familiar with different areas of the city in exchange for knowing that we’re finally home, we don’t have to be ready to move again in a few short weeks, and we can begin the process of settling in fully.

I won’t say too much about our home just yet, as this post is getting long and I want to do it justice with a post of its own. Suffice it to say that this home is spacious, with some beautiful architectural details, and it will meet our needs quite well. More on this later.

Written on Saturday, 8 October 2011.

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