A simple request, or so I thought. But this was China. And in China, I was soon to learn, nothing is at simple as it seems.
My eight-year-old son, Isaac, and I had left the Philippines the day before for our annual pilgrimage to Southern California where we still maintain a residence and have lots of family and friends. Ivy, my wife and his mom, had already left two weeks earlier.
“I’m thirsty,” Isaac told me about 3 a.m. at the airport in Chongqing, China. And so, we set out to find him some liquid.
It wasn’t by accident that we found ourselves in a city we’d never heard of at 3 a.m. The thing is that I hate spending money. So, to avoid doing it unnecessarily, I’d booked the cheapest passage I could find; on a carrier I also hadn’t heard of called Sichuan Airlines. True, there was not just one but two layovers; 5½ hours in Chongqing and then 14 hours in Jinan. But, heck, I rationalized, all three flights were on the same airline so we should be able to check our luggage straight through. Then just hang out, relaxing, at the airport.
The bad news came at the counter in Cebu; sorry, the agent told us, but we could check our bags only as far as Chongqing. The second disappointing disclosure was that we’d then have to transfer, luggage and all, to a domestic flight leaving from another airport entirely.
Here’s a bit of advice: when someone on a Chinese airplane tells you to consult the ground crew regarding where to catch your connecting flight, don’t believe him. Especially if you’re landing at 2 a.m. in the middle of China. There are several reasons why: 1. The ground crew will be nowhere in sight at that hour; 2. Even if they are, they won’t speak a word of English; and 3. Even if they speak a word of English, they won’t know the answer to your question. Bottom line: my son and I were on our own in the wee hours with what felt like six tons of luggage at an abandoned foreign airport in an obscure foreign town.
Precisely how we managed to make it across that obscure town to another abandoned airport in time for our flight remains shrouded in the darkness of panicked memory; I simply have no idea. Which brings us to the question of that infernal water; at Chongqing airports, apparently, you have to pay to drink from public water fountains. Which, naturally, accept only local currency of which, of course, we had none.
So, we stepped into the only restaurant open at that place and time. “Excuse me,” I said as politely as I could, “may I use my Visa card to buy a bottle of water?”
The answer, simply put, was no. Well, then, I persisted, how about giving us a glass of water for my son? Another succinct and immediate no. And so, properly thwarted, Isaac and I clambered aboard our airplane thirsty.
In Jinan, it got even worse: once again burdened with all our luggage, we had a whole day to kill. By then we had become accustomed to talking with our hands and so, miraculously, were somehow able to communicate our plight to an airline employee. Who, even more miraculously, eventually granted us a voucher redeemable at the nearby Airport Hotel. Never mind that it took us literally three attempts and several awkward interviews to find our way out of the airport and onto the correct shuttle; at least we now had a bed on which to rest, shower under which to bathe and crackling TV set on which to watch local daytime Chinese-language melodramas.
Then the Visa issue made an unappreciated repeat appearance. Yes, the hotel had a restaurant; no, it wouldn’t accept Visa cards or Philippine pesos. Yes, there was another restaurant nearby; no, it too would accept only the local currency. And so, my son and I spent the day hungry.
I’m not sure that there’s a moral to this story. I don’t blame the Chinese airport and airline employees for our misery; it’s not their job, after all, to take care of ignorant foreigners. Oh wait, yes, it is. But never mind, the important thing is that we finally made it to California.
My main takeaway; next time it’s Philippine Airlines all the way. I don’t care how much it costs.
(David Haldane, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, is an award-winning American journalist, author and radio broadcaster who recently moved to Surigao City with his Filipino wife and their eight-year-old son. This column tells the unfolding story of that adventure.)