This imminent trip home was our most anticipated event of the year. Like many individuals living abroad, this was our first trip home since the pre-COVID-19 pandemic. The flight prices were twice as high, and at the same time, most flight durations were longer than before. Instead of hunting for better prices, we blindly swiped our credit cards to purchase flight tickets once the US and Malaysia lifted the travel restrictions in the summer. As much as we preferred a year-end trip, we were concerned another travel lockdown might loom when the flu season begins and the COVID-19 cases ramp up again.
Our journey began in the middle of the night when we prepared our trip to catch our flight from Minneapolis (MSP) to Seattle (SEA). It became painfully clear the airport staff tried in vain to keep up with the ever-changing vaccination and travel rules imposed by each country. The MSP staff insisted that we present our vaccination proof (which we had) and a negative test (which we didn’t have). All of these were optional to enter Malaysia since August 1. On the other hand, the SEA staff didn’t bother checking these documents at all. Half of the passengers on the domestic flights didn’t wear masks, while we opted to wear ours the whole time. An unexpected delay at SEA reduced the already tight an-hour transit to less than a half hour in South Korea (INC). We discussed with a flight attendant at the back of the plane the possibility of allowing us to deplane first upon arrival. She convinced us that we would miss our next flight. Sure enough, our next flight had just departed by the time we landed. We discovered there were six more passengers who missed the same flight. The next flight out was 11 AM on the next day — a 19-hour layover at the airport. Because the layover was less than 24 hours, the airline did not provide complimentary hotel accommodations. Instead, each stranded passenger received two complimentary meal coupons. We frantically rebooked our subsequent flights at the lounge area and readjusted our travel plans.
Unlike the US airports, INC required all passengers to wear masks. We could only roam inside Terminal 2. One stranded passenger tried unsuccessfully to convince the security staff to allow him to get outside the airport for a few hours. The prerequisites to leave the airports were a multi-day visit and a visitor visa. Terminal 2 is a reasonably new building — built in 2018 in preparation for PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics. We covered almost every square inch of this beautiful terminal. By 8 PM, the scenes were pretty desolated. As we loitered around, an airport employee kept yelling “TAIPEI” in our direction, thinking we were one of the oblivious passengers who forgot to board the plane on the final calls. After tiring ourselves with long strolls, we found a quiet place to cat nap for 4 hours.
By 5 AM the following day, we were already wandering in the terminal. After our early breakfast, an airport employee met us at the lounge area at 9 AM and ushered us past a labyrinth of secret passages and security checkpoints to Terminal 1. We made friends with a few stranded passengers, which helped everyone to pass the time more quickly. One passenger likened the situation to a group of strangers banded together to fight off the undead in the zombie apocalypse and prevailing. From South Korea, we flew the final stretch to Malaysia in 6.5 hours. Upon arrival at the airport, we wasted another 3 hours queuing in the immigration line and searching for our misplaced luggage. The most infuriating part was when an airport employee informed us that our luggage was stuck in a transit country even though they were in a storage room behind him. Eventually, we sorted this mess out — professionally and with stern voices. We checked into the airport hotel for a night to catch one more flight to east Malaysia the following early morning. This trip was supposed to be 26 hours long (22 hours of flight time and 4 hours of layover). However, the reality was 45 grueling hours with 23 hours of layover. We wore the same clothes — unshowered — for three whole days. Thankfully, we had our toothbrushes in our backpacks. As tiring as this ordeal was, we were grateful to arrive safely with all our belongings.