Monday, February 21, 2011

Juliana's Thailand swim

We bought a tube so Juliana could take a swim at the pool during our stay in Baan Grood, Thailand. Enjoy...

The Miracle of Flight (part 2)

(If you haven't already read part 1, you may want to start here: 

China Eastern plane waiting to be boarded in Kunming, China.

 By Kevin
It was only the beginning. Fast forward three weeks to Feb. 16. With an 8:45 p.m. flight scheduled, we got to the airport around 6:30 just in case there might be any problems. When we bought Juliana's ticket in Kunming, they said that it would also cover the Chiang Mai-Kunming flight back, but we figured we should play it safe and get there early since, in the last-minute confusion, they didn't give us a receipt for either flight. For a tiny airport like this, more than two hours would be plenty, we figured, since they don't allow passengers to check in before that.

Five minutes later and we probably would have missed the flight.

Here's what happened this time around: we got to the front of the check-in line and the woman checking us in – wearing a purple Thai Airways uniform, I might add – told us that our flight wasn't at 8:45 as listed on our itinerary. It was now at 8 p.m. Good thing we came early. This was the third time the time had changed on the flight (originally it was at 1 p.m.). She then asked for the credit card we'd booked the flight with (which unfortunately we'd left in China, but hadn't needed it for any of the other flights). “I don't have the credit card with me. Isn't our passport enough proof that it is us who bought the ticket?”

We can't confirm the ticket without the credit card number.”

Then she asked to see Juliana's ticket.

We don't have her ticket. We paid for it when we bought the Kunming to Bangkok flight, but it was a strange situation and they didn't give us a receipt.”

Why didn't they give it to you?”

I don't know. They had some problems issuing the ticket and we barely made it onto the flight.”

If you don't have a receipt, then you can't fly.”

Grr. Immediately, I went to God in prayer, pleading for softened hearts and open doors.

I looked at the passenger list in front of her. Our names were both listed, as was Juliana's. “Our daughter's name is listed on the itinerary,” I said, pointing. “Doesn't that mean we have purchased a ticket?”

But there is no ticket number listed.”

Grrr. “What can we do?” I asked.

Do you know the name of the ticket agent at the Kunming airport? Maybe you can try to contact the agent?”

No, unfortunately, I don't.”

Well, if she doesn't have a ticket, then she cannot fly.”

I understand.” After a few minutes of wrangling with her, with the realization that it was now after 7 p.m., so time was starting to run short, I made a suggestion: “OK, how about if we purchase another ticket for her now? Is that possible?”

She confirmed that this should work and pointed us in the direction of a ticket agency in the airport. As we left, several other teachers from our organization, who had been at the company's annual conference with us for the last several days asked what was wrong. “We have to go buy another ticket for Juliana,” I explained as I hurried away. “I don't know if we're going to catch this flight.”

The ticket agency was closed. I ran back to the airport information desk. “Where can I buy a China Eastern ticket?”

I learned that there was no China Eastern ticket window in the Chiang Mai airport (and in fact, there are no China Eastern employees there – they only have one flight each day). They suggested we buy the ticket at the same travel agency.

It's closed,” I told them.

Perhaps you can wait until tomorrow...” they suggested.

Our flight leaves in an hour.”

In that case, perhaps you can buy it at the Thai Airways ticket counter. They are partners.”

Confused, since I knew that Thai Airways is mileage partners with United and Air China and the Star Alliance, and we were accruing miles for our China Eastern flights on Delta (part of the SkyTeam), I rushed to the Thai ticket window and explained our situation.

They asked the same questions and began making some calls. As the clock ticked, they suggested calling our travel agent – Expedia. Thankfully we still had some money on our Thai SIM cards, which offer inexpensive international calls, so Ruth called Expedia while I talked to her mother to ask for the credit card number (we'd left it with her to pay hospital bills a few months ago). Expedia told Ruth to call China Eastern directly, but the only phone number they offered was in Pasadena (I recognized the 626 area code from my days at the Star-News). That office was closed since it was the middle of the night in California. Not very helpful.

After making numerous calls, they sent me back to the check-in counter. Since there were no more passengers checking in, the woman at the counter scrambled to find a way to get us onto the flight.

So you don't have a receipt?” She asked. “How about a boarding pass from the earlier flight?”

I dug through our papers and found the boarding pass for our flight from Kunming. Unfortunately, it didn't contain the information she needed.

Here is the phone number for China Eastern's Kunming office, maybe you can call that,” she suggested.

Again, I explained our situation and asked if I could buy an infant ticket over the phone. “Can you call back tomorrow, during regular business hours?”

“Our flight leaves in less than an hour.”

I'm sorry, it is not possible for us to sell you an infant ticket at this time.”

How about a regular ticket?”

That is also impossible.”

So you're telling me that there is no way for us to buy a ticket to carry our baby onto the plane. That is absurd.”


The check-in agent asked if she could talk with the China Eastern representative on the phone, but she got the same answer.

She hung up and scurried over to talk with a supervisor several times. 7:30....7:35. I noticed that she'd printed out boarding passes for the three of us.

You have printed out boarding passes,” I said. “Can we please just use them and get onto the plane?”

I'm sorry, unless she has a ticket, that is impossible,” she said, picking up the boarding passes.

The clock kept ticking. 7:40...Around 7:45, she confided to us: “If something doesn't happen in the next few minutes, you will have to take another flight.”

The prospect of spending a night in an airport with a screaming tired baby was beginning to look inevitable. But we hung onto a thread of hope and asked for God to intercede.

Then suddenly, at 7:50, she hurried over to us and handed me a boarding pass for Juliana. She said that if we hurry to the Thai Airways ticketing counter, they would sell us a ticket. I sprinted a couple hundred yards to the ticket counter. A half-dozen people were in line. My stomach sank. I anxiously tried to make eye contact with the ticket agent I'd talked with earlier, praying that God would clear a path. She waved for me to come to the front and I handed her the boarding pass.

We can sell you a ticket. It will cost 1,150 baht (about $40)”

I frantically scanned my wallet. I counted the baht – 874. Not enough. The rest was with Ruth in the backpack. “Can I pay with a credit card?”

We need cash.”

Then I remembered a separate stash of money I'd put with our passports. Two crisp 1000 baht bills. “Ok, I have it. Here.”

She asked for Juliana's passport and wrote out some information. Then she made a phone call. 7:55. “Ok, we have issued a ticket for the baby. Now go back to the check-in counter.”

I sprinted.

By the time I got there, Ruth already had our boarding passes in hand and was approaching the stairway, hands filled with the baby, backpack, daiper bag and styrofoam ice chest (for Juliana's vaccinations).

We hurried up the escalator and made a b-line for the security check. An airport official, apparently aware of our predicament, offered to take the styrofoam ice chest through security for us. “It's medicine,” I explained, when she asked about the strange container, hoping that the vaccinations wouldn't cause any problems. Thankfully, there was nobody in line. Nobody asked any questions. A clear path.

Then we had to go through the Thai border inspection. Again no line, a clear path.

We were through. 8 p.m. Flight time. We frantically looked for our gate. “Where is it? I don't see it.”

Then we saw several hands raised. “Kevin and Ruth,” someone shouted. “Over here.” Several colleagues from our organization, who were on the same flight, were waiting near a gate. “We haven't boarded yet.”

That's awesome.”

Inexplicably, they'd held the plane for us.

Briefly, we tried to explain what had happened to our colleagues, thanking them for their prayers. “I don't know how we got a ticket for her. They said it was impossible. It was a total God thing. I think He just worked a miracle for us.”

It probably helped that the airport is tiny and the plane only seated 50 – half of whom were returning home from the same conference as us, but it was a complete answer to prayer.

A few minutes after 8, they began the boarding process for the plane, insisting that those with children board first. They looked at us and held the line. We were the first to board. We sat down, smiled, and took a deep breath. “We made it.”

My heart was racing from adrenaline and excitement. God had made a way for us.

Lesson learned. In the future, we won't even attempt to buy an infant plane ticket for international travel at the airport. Probably the best bet is for us not to buy our plane tickets unless we are allowed to buy one for our daughter at the same time. In the meantime, we praise the one to whom all praise is due.

Some will scoff at my suggestion that God cared enough for our situation to answer our prayers. “It's just circumstantial,” some might say. “You would have made it anyway. What about those other times you prayed and God didn't seem answer?” Perhaps He did, but I wasn't willing to hear Him say “no, you need to go through this trial.” Perhaps I didn't paint the picture clearly enough – we had no business getting onto either of these planes. God showed up and made a way. It is only because of His mercy and grace that the hearts of the airport officials were moved upon our behalf.

As I wrote this today, I noticed a quote in a free kindle book, which I've working through a few pages at a time, called “Answers to Prayer From George Müller's Narratives.” I echo the sentiments of Müller , who wrote about God's last-minute provision for orphanages in 19th century England when circumstances looked dour: “it was from the beginning in the heart of God to help us; but because He delights in the prayers of His children, He had allowed us to pray so long; also to try our faith, and to make the answer so much the sweeter. It is indeed a precious deliverance.”

Kunming - Don't lose a finger

Sunday, February 20, 2011

What Happens When We Disappear

 by Ruth
You may be wondering about the month of silence followed by a barrage of blog posts.  Our communication silence is not due to any lack of fondness on our part but is rather because we have been busy traveling.  We have just returned from our annual jaunt to Thailand for our conference and a bit of relaxation during Spring Festival (Chinese New Year).  You usually miss out on this part of our lives since we are too busy traveling around to tell you about it, but this year I will fill you in on a few of the highlights (and "low-lights") of the past month.

Well traveled
We'll start with the bad parts:
*The travel: Each leg of our travel was fraught with frustration and difficulty, which you can read more about in Kevin's posts.  Suffice it to say, we almost didn't make it out of China, and then we almost didn't make it back into China.  But in the end, we got there and back and only aged a few years in the process.

*The sickness: Kevin and I (along with about half of the other teachers at conference) were taken down by a nasty 24-hr stomach bug.  Fortunately, we were not sick at the same time, so someone could take care of the baby, and extra fortunately Juliana stayed well!  Yay for nursing-produced immunities!

*The travel: I already said that, didn't I?  For the most part, Juliana handled the travel very well (her 5-9th flights), but all the upheaval did lead to a crankier, crazier baby.  She definitely cried a lot more than she had been at home, poor thing.  And boy does she have a strong voice...

Going for a swim

Most of the parts were good, though:
*We got to spend five days at a beautiful Thai beach with my good friends Mallary and Chip. It was great to relax in the warm, sunny weather since conference itself is usually a busy time. 

*It was also wonderful to actually hang out with friends!  I loved having a really good friend around - someone you can say anything to without having to explain or justify because they already know you so well.  One day something was bothering me and I thought, "I really want to email someone about this."  Then I realized, "Wait a minute, I have a friend right here!  I could actually talk to her about it!"  I did, and it was very satisfying.

*We got to eat pizza, burritos, hummus, burgers, milkshakes, pad thai, and all number of delicious foods we miss in China.  I'm not going to lie..eating is always a highlight.

*The weather was warm.  The sky was blue with those little puffy clouds.  The people were all smiling and friendly.  These are a few of the reasons my friend calls Thailand, "The land of all good things."

*I got to be around other mothers!  It was so encouraging.  Nobody can commiserate about things like waking up all night long for months on end like someone else who has been there.  It's great to be around other people who can say, "My baby is/was like that too!  You're not doing anything wrong and it will get better!"  And this unique group has lots of practical advice for raising children in Asia.

*Our conference was good (the parts we actually made it to).  It's always nice to be around a lot of people "like us."  In China, it is glaringly apparent that we don't fit in.  Even in America, we're not exactly average.  But among this group of displaced persons, we find others who drink hot and cold water, wear three layers of long underwear and shorts (not at the same time), love dofu and cheese, and live otherwise convoluted lives.
Juliana gnaws on Mallary's finger

It was quite a month for Juliana as well:
*She put her feet in the sand and in the ocean and did a little swimming in the baby pool at the beach.  Did we tell you we bought one of those little neck inner-tubes?  Pretty fun.

*She enjoyed seeing so many new sights.  I could almost see her brain going crazy trying to process it all. Up to this point in China, she would usually fall asleep when we went out (being bundled up helped).  But when we walked down the street in Thailand, her head was constantly whipping back and forth trying to see everything at once.
*She loved being around lots of people.  She is a total extrovert (where did she get that from?).  We would get into the (usually crowded) elevator at our hotel and Juliana would excitedly look around for people to admire her.  She was friendly to other westerners, but she immediately beamed at Asians like they were her best friends.  And (no surprise) everyone loved her.

*Juliana was dedicated!  It was the first time they had done a baby dedication and I'm really glad they did.  It was very special, and we got to write our own prayer for Juliana.  Video to come!  Five other babies were also dedicated - including a three week old, born in Chiang Mai, and a set of twins born to a fifty year old!  There are now 120 children in our group, I think 14 born in the past year.  Juliana will have lots of friends!

*She went to childcare for the first time.  That was a new experience for both baby and parents, but Juliana had fun playing with new toys and even (gasp) fell asleep there once!

*She rolled over for the first time!  That was just a few days ago and already she is flipping over so fast I hardly have time to capture it on video.

*She has started drooling a lot and gnawing on everything she can get her mouth on.  I sincerely hope the teeth will hold off for a while longer!

Now we are back in Weinan, and though the nasty fog/smog/gloom is rather depressing, it's good to get re-settled.  I think Juliana will miss all the excitement and stimulation, but she is probably overdue for some calm time.  We still have two weeks before classes begin. 

Kevin is planning to start preparing for his classes because -for the first time ever- we actually got the class schedule before the holiday!  This means that two whole months before classes started they knew (1) what classes we would teach, (2) days and times for the classes, and in some cases even (3) room numbers!  We are still in shock.

I am planning to use this time to begin Operation Juliana Sleep.  You may hear more about this in the future.  Ideally, I will also go through some of our things and figure out what we can get rid of in anticipation of our move (still four months away).  But we'll see...this sleep thing might be pretty time consuming.  Juliana is a rather "high-needs"/resistant sleeper.

So that was our last month.  And now, back to reality. :)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Miracle of Flight (part 1)

By Kevin

Rule Number One for flying with China Eastern: everybody on the plane must have a ticket. Including infants.

We knew the rule. In fact, when we bought our tickets, we asked both Expedia and the airline – China Eastern – whether or not we could purchase Juliana's ticket in advance. They both said that we could simply wait and buy the ticket at the airport when we arrived. This made sense, because we'd already done it several times in Juliana's young life. Typically, we plop down a fee amounting to 10% of the typical airfare and we're good to go, she gets to fly on our laps. Not today.

Rule Number Two for flying with China Eastern: At the Kunming airport, you can only buy domestic tickets. You cannot buy an infant ticket for an international flight at the Kunming Airport.

This was news to us. Every other airline we've been on with Juliana allowed us to purchase her tickets at the airport (at this point she'd been on five planes – LA to Guangzhou to Xi'an, Xi'an to Beijing, Xi'an to Kunming). So when we got to the Kunming airport just before it opened at 6 a.m. – about two hours before our flight, we didn't anticipate any trouble. But soon, we entered a maze of regulations and pleas for rule-bending in a desperate attempt to board our flight.

When we arrived at the airport on Jan. 27, we noticed that China Eastern only had a domestic ticketing counter, so we casually walked up to the check-in counter for our flight to ask where we should buy her a ticket. We figured we'd simply be directed to some place we'd overlooked and we'd be on our way. We got an unanticipated response. “No, you must go to the China Eastern ticket office in downtown Kunming to buy any international ticket.”

“What? Even to carry a baby on our lap?”

“Yes. For any international ticket. It is impossible to buy the ticket at the airport.”

This posed a problem. At this point there were about 90 minutes left until check-in for our flight would end and two hours until takeoff.

While bemoaning the absurdity that an airline offering an international flight doesn't sell international tickets at the airport, I briefly considered jumping into a cab and going to the downtown office. A round-trip journey into downtown Kumning and back would probably take most, if, not all that time with morning traffic, but . Not to mention that the office probably doesn't open at 6 or 7 a.m.

A foreigner behind us in line, who spoke better Chinese, tried to explain our situation to the ticket agents. This time, the agent said, “Wait a minute, we will see what we can do.” She made a phone call, then returned to her task of checking the other passengers into the flight. We waited several minutes, but since the clock was ticking, we decided to try our luck at China Eastern's domestic ticket counter. We hurried back through the customs gate and found the counter.

We explained our situation – that we needed to buy a ticket so we could carry the baby onto our flight to Bangkok.

Again, no luck. “I am sorry. We can only sell domestic tickets here. To buy an infant ticket, you must go to our office downtown.”

We only have 90 minutes until our flight leaves,” I replied. “That is not enough time.”

“Why didn't you buy the baby ticket at the same time as the other tickets?”

Actually, we tried to, but both Expedia and China Eastern told us that we could buy the baby ticket at the airport.”

We cannot sell international tickets here at the airport,” he repeated. “Only at our office in downtown Kunming.”

I understand,” I replied. “Surely there is a way for us to buy a baby ticket at the airport. I'm sure we're not the first people to try.”

Perhaps you could try the international check-in counter,” the man offered. “Maybe they can help you.”

We were just there. They said the same thing you said.” I tried to gain some composure.

Surely people fly all the time with babies, so you have a way we can buy an infant ticket,” I repeated. “We can't be the first people to have a problem like this.”

The agent talked to a colleague. As they talked I watched as another ticket agent unplugged a telephone from the cord. Then, he moved the phone a few feet to the left and plugged the phone into a different phone line and began to dial. It was now 7:05 a.m. “Just a moment.”

Finally, they reached an agreement on how to proceed. Perhaps, I could call the China Eastern ticket sales office hotline. They unplugged the phone and moved it back in front of me. Fighting the loud echoes that filled the cavernous, glass-and-steel covered airport, I reached an agent and hastily explained our situation.

After a few minutes, she gave a slightly new response: “I am sorry, but there are no economy tickets left for your flight. However, you can buy a business class ticket.”

Flustered, I tried to explain the absurdity of this proposal. “But we don't need a seat. We will carry the baby with us in our arms. She is very small. She is only four months old. She weighs less than most carry-ons. Surely there is a way for us to buy an infant lap ticket. She won't fill up any seats. Can we just carry her onto the plane with no ticket?”

Briefly, my mind flashed to an image of security guards peering at an x-ray of a backpack, asking one another in Chinese, “Did you see that. I think it moved.”

You are right. What is it, a little cat?”

Was that a meow?”

No I think it just giggled. Is it a baby?”

Then my mind snapped back to reality. “We can't sell you an infant ticket. There are no economy seats left.” She just wasn't understanding my argument. Unfortunately, she said there was no way to buy a baby ticket at the airport or over the phone. “Surely there has to be a way.”

But there was still a glimmer of hope: she asked if she could talk with the airport ticket agent, so I passed him the phone. It was now 7:15 a.m. Time was running short. After a few more minutes, he asked for our ticket number. About this time, they rolled a swivel chair out from behind the counter so Ruth and Juliana could sit down, right behind the ticket lines, in the middle of the airport. Ok, so maybe they're trying to imply that this might take awhile.

It was at this time that I began to pray in earnest that God would give us favor. Ashamed at my lack of faith, I asked forgiveness for attempting to do this all in my own and for not leaning upon the One who can do the impossible. I then pleaded that he would connect the airport officials with the right people and that He would make a way for the impossible to be done. This was the turning point. “Give them a desire to help us for the baby's sake, Lord.”

After a few minutes, they asked for Juliana's passport. Progress.

Again, they unplugged the phone, plugged it in again, and dialed another number. Apparently, there are several phone lines at the China Eastern ticketing window, but only two phones. Minutes passed. My heart went heavenward: “Please God, soften their hearts.”

They asked for my passport. Soon, the original agent who helped me, pulled out his cellphone and dialed, putting the phone up to his left ear. “Connect them with the right people, Lord.” Then, another agent held the land-line up to his right ear as he wrote numbers onto a paper. Then, after the calls, they unplugged and replugged the land-line yet again at another spot on the counter.

7:30 a.m. - 10 minutes before check-in for our flight would close, an agent sheepishly asked, “Do you have renmenbi (Chinese money)?”

Does this mean they're going to sell us a ticket?” I asked God as the woman scurried back across the ticket booth. I flipped through my wallet to find out how much money I had. Thankfully, I had 700 left. Surely her ticket would cost less than $100, I thought. Xi'an to Kunming was only 110 RMB ($16).

Again, we waited. Then she came back at 7:33 – “It will cost 590 RMB ($90). We will issue a paper ticket for Kunming to Bangkok and for Chiang Mai to Kunming.”

I pulled out the bills and put them into her hand, grinning. “Is there still time for us to catch the flight?”

Yes, but hurry.”

I thanked them profusely and we scurried off.

We shuffled back to the check-in desk. Since we'd already begun the process earlier, our boarding passes were already printed and our bags were already weighed. “Who told you to leave here and go to the ticket counter earlier?” The agent asked, sternly.

Nobody. We just thought it might help to try the ticket window.”

She shook her head and handed us the boarding passes. “Ok, but next time, you should wait.”

OK, we will.”

You need to hurry.”

We rushed through security: 7:37. Then the Chinese border police: 7:42. Quickly we ran to the gate: 7:45.

We showed our boarding passes and entered the glass-covered ramp to the pane. We were last to board, but we still had several minutes before takeoff. We paused and took a deep breath, gasping at the brilliant sunrise that greeted us. I took out the camera and snapped a quick photo. 

We found our seats, surprised to notice several other empty seats on the flight. “So much for no seats being left on the flight.”

We were extremely grateful to catch the flight, yet perplexed about the spiderweb of misinformation that led to our near-miss . We were bathed in the presence of God's provision for us, yet unsure what our next couple flights might entail. I wish I could say that was the end of the story – and we flew happily ever after. But we were only halfway into our trip.