February 20, 2020
The PLAN WAS SUPPOSED TO WORK. A traveler’s note: You never want to think to yourself, “Huh, I wonder why the plane is turning around? and why is Pakistan our new destination?”
It was a gorgeous morning in Phenom Penh! A fantastic breakfast and a little time for a few photos before our morning meeting with Orlando, the president of Holland America.
Here was the plan: Holland America chartered a Boeing 777 Turkish Airlines flight that was leaving at 1:30 pm from Phenom Penh to Istanbul, Turkey and would take 300 Westerdam passengers. The remaining guests would have flights out either that evening or the next day at the latest. We headed outside the boardroom to the massive list of room numbers that needed to report immediately with all their belongings to the lobby for transport to the airport.
My room number was not listed. Later tonight perhaps?
I wandered around the lobby, spoke to my office back in Los Angeles, and then the staff from the United States Embassy. I found all of my remaining guests and made sure they understood the plan and to call the office if anything went sideways on their trip home. Then I helped Judy and a few others with their luggage out to the ten coaches waiting to transport everyone.
I came back inside and saw a woman from Holland America giving people their additional flight information, got in line and asked for mine. Her response? Yeah, you are on THIS flight now! But my room number wasn’t listed. Whoops, that was a mistake…. go grab your things! Insert a visual of this girl running.
I caught the second to last bus out of the hotel and it took about 30 minutes to get to the airport. Embassy staff got on the bus and gave us the low-down on what to do. We grabbed our luggage and headed to the check-in counter for our first flight’s boarding pass, and my luggage would be checked through to IAD, Washington D.C. Luckily, my luggage claim check had my other flight listed as another Turkish Airline flight non-stop from Istanbul to Washington, D.C. at 3:30 pm that day. About 4 hours in the Istanbul airport. Perfect.
We had another check-in with Cambodian authorities before we were allowed to go through security and head to our gates. Temperature taken, Cambodian ‘clean bill of health’ looked at, Cambodian customs and health form filled out, boxes checked, and away we go. Get to the gate and Holland America staff let us know the flight is delayed 2 hours. No biggie, go get lunch. What’s another two hours when we are on Day 20?
Judy and Jim had met an amazing couple, Bonnie and Ed, on the ship and I started to pal around with them as well. We really had an amazing gaggle of people toward the end of this journey. Bonnie and Ed invited the three of us up to the airport lounge on their special pass to grab a bite and wait it out in style. The plane arrived early and boarding began. Here we go. Farewell, Cambodia. Your hospitality and kindness will not be forgotten any time soon!
Two things happened that woke me out of this 8-hour exhausted daze of a flight: 1) the crew turned off the massive map showing where we were in the world. It had been on for the last 8 hours. 2) The plane started banking, and kept banking, and kept banking. What is going on? I turn on my video monitor and look at our personal maps. We were turning around!
Not too many people have noticed yet, so I get up and go find the Holland America executive sitting in the back of the plane and ask why we are turning around. She had already asked the crew, and they did not know either. Fantastic.
Then the cabin lights turn on, creating quite the groggy stir among the rest of the near-living, and the captain gets on the loud speaker and in his super-thick Turkish accent says something about landing because of ‘technical reasons’ in Karachi. Wait, Karachi, Pakistan? Did he just say PAKISTAN? We are landing in Pakistan? Seriously? What? Why? What’s wrong with the plane? Why not land in Dubai? It was closer. Why Pakistan?
Now, everyone is on edge again. What is happening?
We waited on that tarmac for over two hours with NO INFORMATION FROM THE PILOT WHATSOEVER! I started having visions of my best friend’s brother and his Navy SEAL team coming to rescue me and the other 299 Westerdamers from a hostage situation. I had similar scenarios running through my head a few days ago with him and his team on a Zodiac pulling along side of the Westerdam and me jumping in from Deck 3. I haven’t seen him in a few years, so it would have been a nice reunion.
Again, we had ZERO control over what happened to us. Instead of a boat we were all on a sealed aircraft. Just waiting. But this was worse, because we were not being told anything.
“WE ARE FLYING TO AMSTERDAM and will begin refueling that will take 20 minutes” And that was it. Nothing else! Did Turkey deny us entry? Holland America staff didn’t know anything. The Turkish Airline crew didn’t know anything. DOES ANYONE KNOW ANYTHING? What. The. Actual. Fuck?
Turns out: Turkey didn’t want us either. Make that a grand total of eight countries that would not take us. The United States, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and now Turkey (AND WE WERE FLYING ON THEIR PLANE!)
Another eight hours on the plane and we land in Amsterdam. Dutch health officials are going to check us out. Have our health forms ready. Off we go. Various checkpoints were put in place by the airport and the Dutch health officials making sure we didn’t have a temperature, had the proper health forms, blah blah blah…
Onboard Holland American staff told us to check our emails for new flight information. While flying from Pakistan to the Netherlands, Holland America rebooked all 300 of us home on commercial flights. I was on a non-stop to IAD in four hours. Barely enough time to get through all this paperwork nonsense, get through immigration, customs, check-in, drop bag, security, immigration again, grab a quick bite to go and get to the gate.
I’m not even going to really talk about the fact that Judy and Jim, and the second half of the plane were stopped at customs immediately getting off the plane. Luckily, the Holland America executive was there and on the phone with someone important who started letting our people back through immigration. My guess: they realized who we were and tried to shut it all down. As soon as Judy texted me they were stuck at Immigration, I legit contemplated ditching my luggage and running to my next flight before they realized I had made it through. I had my passport and everything that would have been in that original ‘overboard ziplock’ and I would make a break for it if I had to.
It took a while, but we all made it through, got our luggage, passed customs, and said our goodbyes one last time before heading to our respective gates. I had a nine hour flight home. I have now spent over twenty nine (TWENTY NINE) 29 hours on planes today.
Grab my things, get off the plane, board the straight-to-customs-bus, listen to two guys bitch about how terrible an 9-hour flight is (wimps) and hit the ground. Global Entry, fill everything out… wait, why is there a giant “X” through my immigration receipt saying to see an agent? WHAT NOW?
Agent, “Ma’am, have you been to Mainland China in the past 14 days?”
Agent, “Ma’am, are you sure that’s the answer you want to give me?”
Liz, “That answer is the truth.”
Agent, “Then why does your passport say you flew into Hong Kong?”
Liz, “I flew into Hong Kong, NOT mainland China, there is a difference, and I flew in on January 31, over 21 days ago.”
Agent, “Ma’am. Just answer the question.”
Liz, “I just did.”
Agent waves to another agent, hands HIM my passport and says to follow him. I know you are to NEVER fuck with Immigration officials, but I sneered at her as I left. Jerk.
Off I go to a little room to be questioned, have my temperature taken, and then was released WITH my passport in hand. I have another urge to start running, but am just. so. tired.
It was just one last test before I got into my Uber and headed home to sleep for a day in MY bed inside MY apartment.
- THE END