My granny used to say that everything that happens in life is ‘grist for the mill’. With that in mind, I decided to use my eventful trip from Dublin to Busan last weekend as material for this blog post.
This is a story of mental anguish, physical pain, and paranoid thoughts of death and destruction. But don’t let that put you off, there’s some good stuff in there too.
It all started last Saturday morning in Dublin airport. Barely functional after four hours sleep, and emotional about saying goodbye to my family for another year, I arrived with my ticket. Dublin-London-Tokyo-Busan. Three flights, all on one ticket purchased for the princely sum of €960 on Lastminute.com. The main flight (London to Tokyo) was a British Airways premium economy seat and included a big luggage allowance of two bags at 23kg each. I had emailed Lastminute.com to make sure I would be able to check my bags in to their final destination and receive the big allowance on all three flights, and was assured it would be fine. Two weeks previously I had checked my bags in at Busan and collected them off the conveyor belt in Dublin. I had no reason to think anything could go wrong.
I arrived at the Aer Lingus desk and showed the staff member my ticket. She looked puzzled and then went to speak to a manager. ‘You can only check in as far as London’, she told me when she came back. ‘After that you will have to collect your bags yourself and lug them from Terminal 2 to Terminal 5. Oh, and that’ll be €10 for every kilogram over Aer Lingus’ 20kg allowance. Over €200 please and thank you.’ (I may have paraphrased a bit there). She told me that Aer Lingus would not check my bags past their own flight because then they would become liable if anything happened to them along the way. I told her I had paid a lot of money for a through ticket with a big luggage allowance, that I didn’t have the extra money, that I live in Korea and needed to bring back a lot of things, and I didn’t know if I would have enough time to bring my bags to the other terminal. Her response was essentially ‘not my problem’, even as I burst into tears in front of her.
I asked to speak to a manager, who agreed to waive the excess luggage fee but insisted I had to collect my bags. There was only 1 hour and 40 minutes between the flights, but she said would make it. I asked her if there was a shuttle bus I could catch and she said there was.
Both Aer Lingus staff members were unsympathetic and downright rude. They treated me as a problem to be got rid of, rather than a human being.
I said goodbye to my worried family. I would have cried anyway, but the stress and uncertainty added to the pain of saying goodbye and I was in floods of tears.
I went through security red faced, puffy eyed and fighting back tears. ‘That’s the wrong bag’, the security guard said as I put a small freezer bag with my liquids on the tray. I mumbled ‘Sorry, I didn’t know.’ ‘It’s on all the signs and it’s the same in every airport’, he said crossly. ‘You don’t have to be so rude about it’, said Clare Hartwieg, lifelong dodger of confrontation. ‘You said you didn’t know so I’m just telling you’, he replied, taken aback. ‘Yeah well there’s a nice way to say things and a not nice way. I’m having a really bad day and you’re not helping’.
In my head I re imagine my conversation with the security guard. I say to him:
‘You’re dealing with people in sensitive situations, people leaving their families for a long time and traveling to funerals and God only knows what else. Have a bit of cop on and just be nice to people. Your nastiness could be the last straw for someone.’
As the plane approached London, we began swooping down only to suddenly swoop back up again. Another plane down below had a technical problem so we circled over the airport for a while before landing.
I waited at the luggage carousel and looked at my watch. one hour, 15 minutes left. Then, loaded like a packhorse with well over 50kg of luggage (a big rucksack, a big suitcase, a carry on rucksack and a handbag), I followed the signs for Terminal 5. In the lift an American tourist, complete with fanny pack and London Underground map, asked me ‘Is Paddington the downtown area?’ I wanted to tell him to fuck off but managed a polite ‘I don’t live in London, I’m sorry’.
A sweaty trek along seemingly endless travelators, to an underground train station. The sign said 10 minutes until the next train. I cursed the Aer Lingus manager who had let me believe I could catch a quick shuttle bus.
I finally made it, huffing and puffing and red faced, to Terminal 5. There was only 30 minutes until take-off. I found a British Airways staff member and told her I was worried about missing the flight, and was there any way I could be rushed through? ‘There’s not enough time, you’ve missed it’, she told me. Tears again. The woman was baffled by my situation. ‘Did you definitely tell Aer Lingus you have a connecting flight in London?’
I was brought to a desk where another BA staff member called Aer Lingus in Terminal 2. ‘I have a lady here who’s missed her flight to Tokyo. The reason she missed her flight is because the ground staff in Dublin refused to let her check her bags through. She’s a young lady on her own and she’s very upset about this. I hope you’ll put her on another flight and look after her in the meantime.’ He came out from behind his desk, helped me to turn my trolley around and asked me, with genuine sympathy, if I’d be okay. After the two unpleasant Aer Lingus staff members, his kindness was a relief.
I sat down to calm myself before making the long trek back to the Aer Lingus desk in Terminal 2. There, I was offered two choices: A hotel tonight and the same flight tomorrow, or a flight at 9pm tonight with an 8 hour layover in Bangkok. Desperate to get the hell out of Heathrow and put my head down, I went with the first option. I wouldn’t arrive until 1pm on Monday, meaning I would miss the first day of the new school year. In Korea, missing work for any reason is like walking down Grafton Street in your bra and knickers; you just don’t do it.
At the hotel I enjoyed a bath, a three course meal and He’s just not that into you in high definition. I was tempted to go out and see the sights for a couple of hours, but in the end heeded my mother’s advice to ‘Go to bed, cover your head and don’t get up till the morning’.
After taking full advantage of the hotel breakfast buffet, I arrived at the airport a cautious three hours before my flight. I was greeted with the news that Aer Lingus booked me in the wrong class with the wrong luggage allowance. Those scamps. With the mess sorted out, I boarded the plane which then stood on the runway for nearly an hour. The pilot announced that the delay was due to the engineers trying (and ultimately failing) to put the new movies for March on the system. Because people want to watch the latest movie releases more than they want to get to their destination in a timely manner.
Two thirds of the way into Men, Women and Children, it occurred to me that if the flight was late leaving London, it might be late arriving in Tokyo, and I might miss my connection to Busan.
After getting off the plane I found a ground staff member standing with a sign bearing my name and those of two other passengers. Myself and another passenger, a 12 foot tall Norwegian man, waited while he shouted for a ‘Ms. Lee’ who didn’t show up. I queried whether Min-su Lee could be a man, as Min-su is a man’s name in Korea. ‘Mr. Lee. Whoops.’ He temporarily abandoned the search for poor Min-su and told us we had missed the connection to Busan and would be put on another flight – in eight hours’ time. ‘Oh right. Another thing has gone wrong’, I said to myself. It was difficult to register any emotion about the whole thing.
I was given a new boarding pass and an invitation to the Japan Airlines Sakura lounge. A smiling lady gave me a map showing the restaurant, bar, private showers, private sleeping rooms, massage parlour, business lounge and so on. ‘So do I have to pay for things?’ I asked. ‘No, it’s all free’.
For a while I basked. I sipped wine and Irish coffees and watched the planes. I had a hot shower and a full body massage. I stuffed my face with delicious Japanese food, and then I stuffed my face some more. ‘I could happily live out the rest of my days here,’ I thought.
Then I was overcome by a tiredness that alcohol and sugar couldn’t help. By the time I boarded the flight to Busan I hadn’t slept in almost 30 hours. The shakes were setting in, as well as paranoia. I checked my pulse. 108 beats per minute. Surely that’s not normal? My stomach feels sick. What if I puke? Or faint? Everything has gone wrong up until now, what if the grand finale in this messed up trip is a horrible plane crash? I’m only 26 and I’ve done barely anything with my life. What would my obituary even say? I started to cry silently, hoping nobody around me would notice. I cried about Aer Lingus. I cried about having to work at 8.30am the next day. I cried because I was such an embarrassment crying about everything all the time.
I never thought it could feel so good to be back in Busan. I had longed for it, craved it, fantasised about it throughout those 50+ hours since leaving Dublin. A taxi driver with little interest in the rules of the road brought me to my little apartment. I ate a packet of Monster Munch and went to sleep; the strongly worded letter to Aer Lingus could wait until the morning.