Seoul South Korea

By Ed Coambs kf9, Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation

I am standing in the Charlotte Douglas International Airport October 13, enjoying one last long hug from my wife before I depart on my travels to Bacolod, Philippines. Little do I know the many lessons that I will learn over the next three days. My travels start with no problems as I board my plane in Charlotte at 6:10 am for departure to Cleveland, OH. The flight goes smoothly to Cleveland and I will have a few quick minutes to grab breakfast before my next leg of my flight to San Francisco. I had briefly checked the airplane in-flight magazine for fast food locations in the airport, identifying a close Burger King. The plane lands and I quickly get off and start moving towards the Burger King. As I approach the area where the magazine reported there would be a Burger King I realize there is not one here. Lesson number one, just because you read it in a magazine does not mean that things have not changed.  I settle for a pretzel dog, I know it seems strange for breakfast but I needed something quick.


            Now that I have breakfast it’s time to get to my next gate. As I approach my gate area it is full of people waiting for the flight to San Francisco. I then hear over the loud speaker, the flight is delayed to San Francisco due to severe rain. Panic starts to set in, I only have two hours between landing in San Francisco and departing for Seoul, South Korea for my next layover stop. I reassure myself that the flight will leave shortly and I will still make my connection. I am however still slightly concerned because I booked my flight from San Francisco to Manila separate from Charlotte to San Francisco and now it is a waiting game.

            Fifteen minutes pass and I am ready to hear the loud speaker come on and say now boarding for San Francisco. No luck though. Thirty minutes pass and it is still an unknown delay. A woman behind me is quickly searching through her IPhone and at this point I am anxious to know if my flight from San Francisco is delayed. So I turned around and asked if she wouldn’t mind looking up my flight info to see if it would be delayed. She kindly says sure what’s your flight info? I dive into my binder full of Kiva info to find my flight info. As I am trying to find my flight info she says “I know Kiva”.  I look up somewhat surprised and inquire how. It turns out she has her own PR Company that works with non-profits including micro finance organizations.

            This starts an instant connection. Lesson number two, you never know who you are going to meet in an airport and more importantly people can be very helpful. All you have to do is ask. (This lesson is learned again and again during my flights) We spend the next two hours or so talking about a variety of things that help pass the time and keep my mind occupied from what is becoming an inevitable missed flight from San Francisco. Unfortunately we never confirmed if the flight was delayed leaving San Francisco or not, but it sure did help to have someone to talk to.

            The Loud speaker blurts out “Now boarding for San Francisco”. Ah, at last it’s time to go. Now on the plane to San Francisco, I get excited because I just know that everything is going to work out. The flight to San Francisco it about five hours and the first half is smooth as silk. Then we start to experience turbulence, then more turbulence, and yes a little more turbulence. The pilot reminds us to stay in our seats with our seat belts on. No problem there, as I am visualizing crashing in a ball of fire. (So maybe my thinking in slightly irrational but still scary.) The final decent into San Francisco was hair raising. We are descending down on the San Francisco bay with rain pelting our windows and wind rocking the plane. The plane bounces on to the runway and seems to slide to the left then to the right and back to the left. Ah, we have landed thank God. As we taxi to the gate, I get a sense of relief that we have made it.

            Now it is time to find out if I have missed my flight to Seoul, but I can’t do that without first getting my checked bag. No problems, down to baggage claim I go to retrieve my bag, then just a short inter airport train ride to the international terminal. One problem though, whoever decided to design the inter airport train did not plan it with the idea that there would be rain coming in sideways with 50 mph wind. As I exit the domestic terminal towards the train I start getting wet, then I get more wet as I wait for the train, and finally the train comes and I ride to the international terminal where once I again I get wet walking into the international terminal. Lesson number three sometimes architects design beautiful buildings and forget practicality. This is the case with the inter airport train system at San Francisco.

            Have I missed my flight? I find the board with the international airlines and it says “Asiana Closed”. Ok so what does that really mean? Well after walking through the terminal trying to find the airline a nice assistant asks me what airline I was looking for. I tell her Asiana, to which she says everyone has gone home because they have no more flights for the day. Well then that means I missed my flight.  It is now about two in the afternoon in San Francisco and I need to figure out how to get to the Philippines. The United assistant recommends that I go back to Continental Airlines who I flew in on and see what they can do to help me.

            Back into the rain I go to the domestic terminal to get my flights rearranged. Here comes big lesson number 4. When you try to save money booking flights and do not book all the flights together from starting point to end point, but rather in segments each airline then does not take responsibility for what happens during your previous flight or what will happen to your next connecting flight. This all becomes very clear once I get to the Continental counter and the agent explains there is nothing he can do. However, the agent gives me the 800 number to Asiana airlines so that I can rearrange my flights with them. He points me to a payphone close to his counter and wishes me luck.

            The next three hours happen in a blur and at a frustrating pace. I call Asiana and Orbitz each multiple times to try and figure out what my options are. Each of them explaining to me that the other can help me get things rebooked. Asiana tells me they have no more available flights until November 3, to which I am very surprised and overwhelmed. After the multiple calls I was left in a quandary as what to do next.

Tired, frustrated and confused I figured my best option would be to get out of the airport and go somewhere where I could think and figure out my next steps. Fortunately for me I grew up in the East Bay of San Francisco. I knew I could either stay with my brother or stay at my old neighbors house. This would give me the chance to get on the web and do some better planning.

The hour and twenty minute train ride to El Cerrito where my brother lives was uneventful. Thankfully my brother lives a block from the train station and so I just walk with my 50 pound backpacking backpack to his house. What I haven’t mentioned so far is that the week before my trip I slipped in a river while hiking and water logged my cell phone, to which I could not revive. This meant I had few if any phone numbers in my head and no simple way to call. I get to my brothers apartment, and knock on the door. Then I knock again. Still no answer I guess I am out of luck, time to go to my old neighbors. I walk back to the train station exhausted and ready to put my feet up and figure out what next. I catch a cab to my neighbors pay the fare and am happy to be at a familiar place.

My neighbors are out of the country but had told me that if I needed a place to crash I was more than welcome to stay at their place. I found the secret hiding place for their key and let myself in. Man it was good to be in a familiar place, have a phone and internet. I promptly ordered a pizza because I was starving. I had not eaten since 10:30 eastern and it was now 6:30 western. While I waited for the pizza I got on the net and started looking for other flight options. Searching the Orbitz website helped me get organized and find new flights for the next day from San Francisco to Manila through Seoul. It did mean that I had to cancel the original ticket that I bought to get to Manila and forgo a $200 refund withholding, but at least I knew I was now on my way to the Philippines. Remember lesson number 4 when trying to save money on flights in the long run it may cost you more not to book all the flights together.

The next morning I wake up ready to try again to get to the Philippines. The rain had subsided and I had a good feeling that I was going to make it. I make my way back to the airport by train, got off at the international terminal ready to check in. I have rebooked on Korean Air and quickly find them in the terminal. Once I was checked in I had a few hours till my flight. So I grabbed my last American hamburger before leaving. I must say it was a great burger.

At long last I board my flight to Seoul on Korean Air. Korean Air is a very impressive airline. All of the flight attendants where very sharply dressed and ready to serve anything you needed with a smile. My seat welcomed me with a pillow, blanket and bottle of water waiting for me. What a nice surprise. Then shortly after taking off the great service gets better with drinks being served promptly. Next an amazing lunch with tasty beef, green beans and much more was served for lunch. With a full stomach I take in a movie from their wide variety of listings on my personal monitor. In total this flight was 12 hours and it seemed like every time I got thirsty or hungry the flight attendants where coming around with either another drink or food. Lesson number 5 if you want a great international travel flight book through Korean Air, their service is amazing.

After the flight I have a two hour layover in Seoul before heading to Manila. Fortunately this was an uneventful layover. However, if you like to shop the international terminal in Seoul has everything. From Gucci, Prada, and a host of other high end names to $10 ties. From Seoul to Manila it is another 3 hours that pass uneventfully. Once landing in Manila the fun begins again.

Like a herd of cows all the international passengers are funneled into immigration, and then onto baggage claim. Admittedly I was concerned that my bag would be the one bag that did not make it. I waited and I waited, and then I waited some more, finally my bag which must have been the very last one that came out arrived. I let out a sigh of relief.  Now I am in a foreign country it is 11:30 pm and I have to figure out where in the airport I need to go to catch my domestic flight to Bacolod, Philippines my final stop.

A kind security guard points me towards a shuttle stop that will reportedly take me where I need to go. I sit on some benches and watch all the people go by. Being an American I am used to quick service and so after sitting ten minutes I am wondering when is the shuttle coming. Then another ten minutes pass and I am still wondering when will this shuttle come. Finally after ten more minutes the shuttle comes and it can accommodate maybe 10 – 15 people and there are probably 50 people waiting. Again I feel like a cow being herded onto the shuttle, but fortunately I get a spot.

It takes five minutes to get to the domestic terminal where my flight will take off from. There are many security guards looking at me and probably wondering what I am doing. Well it turns out that the domestic terminal does not open until 2:30 am and I have my flight at 4:55 am. This means that like many others we sat outside on benches waiting for the terminal to open. No problem I have a book that I can read. So I am reading and then almost all the lights get turned off, then after some time the lights come back on. Then again the lights go off and come on again later. This brings about lesson number 6, flying international will present you with unknown challenges.  But since no one else seemed bothered by the lights I just sat there and waited and waited and waited some more. People start going into the terminal as soon as it opens but by now I was comfortable with what at first seemed odd that we could not wait in the terminal. Mind you it was eighty plus degrees outside and very humid.

At last I enter the terminal and the flight boards leaving for my final destination after three full days of travel. We get in the air and it is still dark, but as we are getting close to Bacolod the sun starts to rise. If you have ever been in an airplane as the sun rises it is a sight to behold of great beauty. Then the plane slowly makes its final decent into Bacolod passing over luscious mountains full of trees and wonder. Now I am getting excited about my destination. We land on the runway and come to stop. Then, all of sudden we start turning around on the runway. What in the world is going on here I wonder. Well after a short freak out session I realize the plane must turn around 180 degrees so that the plane can get back to the terminal. It turns out that Bacolod airport only has I think two maybe three terminals. Suffice it to say it is a small airport.

Ah at last Bacolod where I will spend the next three and half months. I step out of the airport baggage claim into a swarm of taxi drivers. “Need a taxi” “need a taxi” Fortunately for me I am meeting my host from Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation. I meet Presy and off we go in her car no more planes for now, but what an adventure to get here. I look forward to sharing many more experiences with you in the near future.

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