First Impressions on International Travel

As I sit in the Starbucks here at the Changi International Airport in Singapore, I find myself at a rare lack of words. As if my brain cannot quite wrap itself around the reality of what just happened. Flying from Portland, Maine US (PWM) to Detroit, Michigan US to Tokyo, Japan to Singapore, Singapore to Denpasar and Bali, Indonesia, 40+ hours of travel time including layovers.

When I took the TMBA gig and planned out my first travel adventure destination to be Bali, I finally got around (at the age of 31) to getting a passport. I hadn’t travelled internationally, except by car to Canada, and honestly a Mainer in Canada is like a New Jerseyian (Jerseyite?) in New York in terms of logistics.

Fortunately I’ve done a fair amount of domestic travel and flights (though my first of those was not until I was 25) so I’m not totally lost in the mechanics of travel.

International travel, that’s a whole different story.

Yet, somehow it isn’t.

While I soared through the air with the greatest of ease, I tried to jot down in my handy dandy travel notebook a few impressions and observations of my first international travel experience.

I step out of my shell in unfamiliar situations – Put me in a room where I have a bunch of acquaintances and I will find my closest friends and take up residence at the nearest corner booth. Put me in a security checkpoint line and I will find myself explaining to someone how to connect through Narita International like I do this weekly. I think that this will make for amazing stories of people I meet along the way and possibly make me a likely mark for drug mulery.

Being nice gets you places in every place – I committed the ultimate rookie travel mistake. It wasn’t even a rookie INTERNATIONAL travel mistake. It was a general rookie travel mistake.

Chatting up my new friend in line in security I threw my laptop in one bin and my track jacket, silver watch, iPod/Kindle pack, and clear plastic liquids bag in another. After tossing my bags on the conveyor, verifying my passport and boarding info and stepping through the detector an angry agent shouted something in Japanese at the woman behind the belt. “Is this your bag” she asked. This is the last thing you want to be asked in a security checkpoint.

Long story short (but not nearly as exciting (if you want the exciting but longer accounts of stories like this, make sure to sign-up for my Writing on the Webb inbox tales)) there was an issue with a water bottle. Chatting up the agent, being patient and kind, and admitting I made an idiot mistake cleared me through security without further incident.

On that note…

Don’t be an idiot – Sure, coming straight off a plane through the jet-plank-hallway thing to security should pretty clearly imply I haven’t had the opportunity to do anything devious. But rules are rules, even if they are dumb rules. Travel to places that they can deport (or extradite or whatever the heck it is) your ass, trying to adhere to their customs and guidelines tends to yield the least pain and suffering for all parties.

Sure, it took me nearly 45 minutes to stumble through immigration and customs in Singapore. But at least I didn’t get the “Sir, you are going to have to come with us” that the screaming yelling Canadian guy got (uh oh, am I gonna have to rethink my “I’m a Canadian, don’t be feisty with me” confrontation game plan?!)

Aerial View JapanFlying overhead at 30K feet, the world is pretty much all the same – Sure, there are some structural and aesthetic differences. Off the Northern West Coast the Pacific Ocean is a huge sheet of ice, in Tokyo there are fire rigs burning off something in the ports, flying in to Singapore the inter-island roads and highways are lit up like a PacMan path. Yet even with these differences, there are striking similarities like sports stadiums in every major city and agricultural patches of parks and fields.

Yet it is so very different – If Maine isn’t the whitest state in the United States it has got to be in the top 3. If that is the case in Maine it is the OPPOSITE here. If I’ve encountered more than 20 obviously Caucasian people I’d say I was lying.

Suddenly it is like that four-square Sesame Street game, One of These Things is Not Like The Others. To me, everything else is different. But to everyone else the only thing different is me.

Internet service is a luxury for most places not a staple – Honestly, I am Save Drafting this post every 4th sentence. *save* After I wrote the draft in Live Writer. And continued it on my iPod after my computer died. The free wireless here at Changi is shotty at best, though it is free which is bounds beyond Narita and Detroit. My 13 hour flight to Tokyo and my 6 hour flight to Singapore definitely didn’t have wireless either. I had to find those random things to do that DIDN’T involve a connection. Like riding the walkway team back and forth twice in the Detroit airport tunnel. And read. Books. On my Kindle.

Airplane food and service aren’t the devil – I was warned all around “Ugh, airplane food is terrible” and that I would be constantly waiting and frustrated. Either I had the travel trip that was the exception to this rule or I have way lower expectations than most people. Airplane food is not a five-course meal, so I was near floored when I received 3 hot meals and a lunch sandwich from Detroit to Singapore. And the worst behaved flight crew? PWM to Detroit. Stateside. Granted, it was 8 AM, I can be cranky that time of day too.

International travel is simply awesome – This is the concept that leaves me at a loss for words. I keep playing the Louis CK rant on Conan over and over in my head instead, he does a much better job of grasping the reality of the situation.

…did you fly through the air? Incredibly? Like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight? YOU’RE FLYING. It’s amazing! Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going “OH MY GOD! WOW!” You’re flying. You’re sitting in a chair…in. the. sky.

Frankly I am rather humbled at the situation. Seriously humbled.

40 hours ago I was sitting in my parents living room packing my backpack and saying goodbyes. Now I am sitting in an airport that has a POOL ON THE ROOF on the other side of the planet. Can you even stop to imagine for just a moment how awesome that is.

Not even awesome like “Totally awesome, man” but awesome like AWE-SOME…it should FILL YOU WITH AWE each and every time you get on an airplane.

Even more when it is an international flight.

I love being so humbled and awed by these experiences – Sure, I worry sometimes that my enthusiasm and excitement for this trip wears on the nerves of cultured and experienced international travelers. My email to Dan, Ian & David upon preparing to leave included the subject line: OH MY GOD MY PLANE TAKES OFF IN 4 HOURS!!! (Yes, with that many exclamation marks)

I hope that I never lose this sense of wonder at the novelty and strange comfort of international travel. I know it could (probably will) eventually happen.

But I hope it isn’t for a really really REALLY long time.

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23 Comments

  1. Tate

    I love this… Flying has lost all novelty to me (even flying business class for work) and I mostly just dread the time I spend on the plane/at airports. Granted I have had my fair share of travel trauma (and you will too) but thanks for the reminder of how great it can be and how lucky we are to get to experience it!

    have the best time with your new life!!

    • Elisa Doucette

      I imagine eventually it will lose some of its novelty, but I’m really hoping that never happens. Isn’t it funny how we find ways to, in our minds and memories, give more weight and value to negative experiences than positive ones? I’m guilty of that myself far too often.

      Thanks – hope to see you (maybe) sometime this year. Renewed passport in hand. 😉

  2. Amy

    I’m so happy that all your flights went well and you really enjoyed yourself. I had the baggage thing happen in North Carolina, thankfully they can’t kick me out of the country for a bottle of sunscreen. They could probably do that in Japan if they wanted.

    I hope you NEVER loose your big eyed mouth open in awe wonderment of the world. You’ve always had it and it’s something I think more people need. It was great to read about your first of many adventures across the globe 🙂 Can’t wait to talk to you about it!

    LOVE YOU! And I already miss you like kids at fat camp miss cupcakes.

    • Elisa Doucette

      Honestly, I’m less worried about the “kicked out” and more worried about the “caned” thing. But that is a ridiculously unreasonable and extreme level to go to.

      I’m really glad that you said that and feel that way. I do love so much of the world…it’s a beautiful and amazing place. There’s so much to appreciate and love in it!

      Love you back! We’ll talk soon enough. 🙂

  3. Tatiana

    I’ve been traveling by myself since… forever. I’m rarely impressed by air travel (in fact, I particularly dislike domestic travel). But it’s so easy to forget that many people I know have never left the country or their state. Like a friend of mine who had never even been on a plane until she went to work abroad. Or my cousins who semi-recently flew on their first plane. It’s been so long since I remember flying, I don’t know if I ever felt in awe about it. It’s such an uncomfortable experience – that’s all I can think of!

    But – I’m glad you enjoyed flying internationally! The food is better, and if you’re lucky enough to get a nice and empty plane, you can stretch out and take a pretty comfy naps. Naps are only miserable when you’re cramped into a tiny seat for x-amount of hours. T.T

    When do you start working?

    • Elisa Doucette

      Tatiana – Yeah, it is easy to be this awed when you are still new at it, very true. But there is also something to be said just for the experience. Not the uncomfortable seats or stale pretzels or rationed soda and water…but the fact that just 100 years ago people were risking death to put wooden gliders in the air for a few seconds of time. Crowds of people gathered at air fields to watch. Now entire cargo holds of passengers, luggage and pets are flying 30K miles in the air breaking sound barriers and getting us from one side of the planet to the other in 24 hours of flight time.

      To me, it all comes down to what we choose to focus on. The wonder and awe or the inconvenience.

      I’m already working, had a few days here to get settled and have some fun and now hard at it. ‘Cept hard at it is a relative term. Working hard on stuff that matters to me rarely feels like work. 🙂

  4. Grace Boyle

    YAY!

    Airport / plan food is a whole different ballgame internationally. It’s always better…well better than domestic. But it’s good, you’re on that plane for so damn long they bring some goodies along that is definitely edible and depending on the airline, yummy.

    So exciting watching your adventure, cruising first-passport around the world. You are amazing. Enjoy!

    • Elisa Doucette

      That’s the rumor I hear – international flight food will spoil you. I generally don’t really assume I’m eating all that much on a flight anyways so I’m with you – anytime they bring around that little cart I’m usually excited.

      Glad to share – I’m glad you are enjoying! 🙂

  5. Elise Stephens

    I just did my first really big international trip this summer, Seattle, USA to Milan, Italy. It’s so easy to get caught up in complaining about the minute little discomforts, but you’re right, there really are so many comforts that we get to enjoy in this day and age. I love this:

    Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going “OH MY GOD! WOW!” You’re flying. You’re sitting in a chair…in. the. sky.

    It reminds me as well to be humbled and grateful for the amazingness of travel and the opportunity to go to amazing and new places. Thank you for sharing this!

    • Elisa Doucette

      Elise – Yes, I love the Louis CK clip. I first saw it on a contribution from Alan Perlman in the Pas de Deux (http://www.opheliaswebb.com/2011/02/love-and-optimism-and-all-that-is-good-in-the-world/) and have referenced it so many times since.

      For exactly the reason you note. It is an important reminder to be grateful and appreciate the amazingness of things around us. We take so much for granted, but there is so much good in the world as well.

      Love that you traveled to Italy – definitely on my Bucket List of travel destinations! 🙂

  6. Melissa Mullen

    I felt like I was right beside you that’s how well you described what your travel was like. I like that you focused on the amazing-ness of being able to soar to the other side of the world. This was a really lovely post and I’m so glad that it flowed out of you during such a transitional busy time. xo.

    • Elisa Doucette

      Aw, thanks! I like to write as if I were talking and telling the story, so I’m glad that the tone comes across that way. It WAS flowing even though technology wasn’t 100% on my side (half written in a notebook, mostly half written on laptop then finished on my iPod) so it’s good that it came together as “flowing” 😉

  7. Anwar

    Happened upon your blog from a friend’s post on facebook. Hope you wont lose the sense of wonder and enjoyment of travel. After having travel quite a bit myself the last 6 years now I always find a way to just be amazed and in awe of travel, cultures, etc. Sure I’ve complained about flights, travel irregularities, etc, but when people complain about how long it takes to fly to X destination I like to point out how it is much better than it used to be!

    Definitely make sure to keep writing all your trips and observations down. I definitely made the mistake of not keeping up with writing about my travels as much as I would have hoped to.

    • Elisa Doucette

      Anwar – Welcome to my corner of the blogosphere! I’m so happy to hear from someone else who has been traveling regularly and extensively still gets that same feeling about travel. It really is quite amazing!

      And sure, there are some quirks to be annoyed and complain about. But it is so much easier to put them in perspective when you think about the awesome experiences you are having. Small price to pay for such stuff.

      I see from some of your most recent travels you might be in the Asia/SE Asia area. If you make your way down to Bali and Seminyak let me know. Would love to grab a pint or tea or something and chat. 🙂

      • Anwar

        I wish I was in Asia at the moment! I traveled a lot in 2011, so I’m really behind on writing, or at least posting it online. Heading to Canada next week so really the opposite direction and much colder than I’m sure Bali will be! Have fun in SE Asia, it’s an amazing part of the world.

        • Elisa Doucette

          Yeah, probably a little colder. Just a little. 🙂

          Thanks – I’m pretty excited to explore and have fun. Seems amazing, and I’ve only been here a week!

  8. Financial Samurai

    Very cool you are out in Asia for 6 months!

    Hope you get to visit Malaysia and some other places too.

    Best, Sam

    • Elisa Doucette

      Sam – I’ll definitely be traveling a bit. We don’t work round these parts. 😉 I’m sure I’ll be in Malaysia at some point, for now it is looking like my first trip will either be Davao or Chiang Mai, depending on timing.

      Are you in Malaysia as well, or just familiar with it?

  9. Anonymous

    I remember the first time I stepped foot in Asia and was just amazed I’d traveled halfway around the world.  I felt a little bit of that sense of awe and wonder reading this post…I miss that!

    I don’t know when or why it happens…but over time those feelings tend to dim a little…and then a little more…  It feels (sometimes) that when you travel you’re chasing those early feelings of wonderment…kind of sad, actually.

    Not to say that there aren’t amazing experiences ahead…they’ll just be a bit different after a while.  It always helps to stop and look back (or read posts like this) to remind yourself of all the crazy and cool things around you.

    • Elisa Doucette

      I think the novelty wears off a little bit with each trip. Like the Velveteen Rabbit it doesn’t mean that you love it less, your enthusiasm just diminishes over time. I’ve been lucky in life to continue a sense of wonderment in lots of things. 

      But I’m also very aware of the fact that, as you mention, that things will be different after a while. Here’s hoping we can stay as excited about the new things, even if it is a little bit of a different type of excitement.

    • Elisa Doucette

      I think the novelty wears off a little bit with each trip. Like the Velveteen Rabbit it doesn’t mean that you love it less, your enthusiasm just diminishes over time. I’ve been lucky in life to continue a sense of wonderment in lots of things. 

      But I’m also very aware of the fact that, as you mention, that things will be different after a while. Here’s hoping we can stay as excited about the new things, even if it is a little bit of a different type of excitement.

  10. Mike From Maine

    Hey,

    I’m from Bangor, Maine and living in Istanbul, Turkey now. I’ve traveled quite a bit in Europe, Southeast Asia, and Asia. Reading your post makes me miss the open road!

    Take care and have fun!

    • Elisa Doucette

      Crazy! I’ve yet to meet a ton of other Mainers traveling around, so hi!

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