My journey to Asia wasn’t an easy one, so it was fitting that my journey home from Asia wouldn’t be easy either. Saying good-bye to friends and family, uprooting your life and moving to another part of the world with a completely different culture is never easy, but somehow both times I managed to find myself with a few extra obstacles to overcome.
After living off my savings for nearly a year (and running out), I was grateful that one of my relatives was a former flight attendant and offered me one of her buddy passes for the trip home. The buddy passes allow you to purchase standby tickets at a significant discount. Standby tickets allow travelers to fill any open seats on the plane, but there are no guarantees. The process involves showing up at the airport as normal and waiting until boarding time has passed to see if any open spots are left. If there is an open space, you get on. If not, you wait to try again another day.
While I had never flown standby before, planes always seemed to have open seats, and I thought this would be no big deal. Additionally, the flight I was looking at flew out of Mumbai, providing me a reason to return to the city and spend a few days with my friends there before going home. It sounded perfect to me.
I made plans to stay with Naren in Mumbai for a few days and then head home. For the first few days, things were great. Naren and I went out on the town, met up with my friends Geeta and Suresh, and I made a new friend, Leah. We also squeezed in some yoga with my new-found yoga teaching skills :).
When it came time to make my final trip home, I prepared myself accordingly. By this point, my backpack was well over 30 pounds and bursting at the seams with months of accumulated clothes, books, toiletries, medicine and souvenirs. While a necessary burden (of love?), my poor back was looking forward to the day I would no longer need to carry all of my belongings with me every place I went. I decided it was time to minimize in order to take home more of the essentials: the souvenirs, of course!
Naren assisted in the process, convincing me this faded yellow shirt could be let go (“But it was a gift from Malaysia!”) and that I no longer needed the three brick-sized Lonely Planets that, alone, made up half of the weight of my backpack (“But I have hand-written notes and memories in there! What if I come back to Asia?”). Eventually I paired down my items to my souvenirs, select clothing and one guidebook, with a promise from Naren he would keep the books and ship them to me if I discovered, in fact, I could not live without them after arriving home.
I put on my favorite purple t-shirt and lone pair of jeans (my designated “going home” outfit), hauled my (slightly) lighter backpacks into Naren’s car, and off we went to the Mumbai airport.
I was in good spirits. At this point, I had been overseas for more than two years. I had spent a year living and working in Malaysia, getting to know the country and its people in depth and making some great friendships. I had explored India and China and Southeast Asia and traveled continuously for nearly a year, a pipe dream I never knew I would actually achieve. And I had recently completed my yoga teacher training course. I had accomplished everything I had set out to do and more, and frankly, I was tired.
We reached the airport, and Naren helped me with my bags and gave me one of those “goodbye forever” hugs you give someone when you don’t know if or when you’ll ever see them again.
I walked into the airport and was ushered into this awkward open space near one of the ticket lines to await my destiny. As I sat on the floor next to my bags, I tried to read to distract myself from the excitement and anxiety of going home after such a long time. As the minutes passed by, I noticed the group of people around me get larger and started to get a little worried. Buddy passes are based on a hierarchy with current airline employees getting priority for the open seats, while those who are friends or family of the airline employees ranked further down. When I met a couple of women who told me they’d already tried and failed three times to get on this flight, I started to get even more worried. To make matters worse, the Indian airport authorities were not forthcoming with information and seemed annoyed when I asked them if there would be seats available.
Sure enough, a couple hours later we were sent home.
While disappointed, I knew there was a chance this could happen and figured I’d have better luck the next night. Fortunately, Naren had waited for me in the parking lot in the chance I didn’t make my flight, and we drove back to the city to wait another day.
The next day, Naren, Leah and I spent another day together, just hanging out watching movies and enjoying each other’s company. I made an effort to follow the standby website more closely and saw the plane was overbooked by about 10 seats, but I was number six on the wait list and still remained optimistic. People miss flights all the time, right?
The next night, yet again, Naren and I headed out to the airport for round two of my attempt to return home. This time, we had a more of a “see you later, maybe” kind of hug.
Again, I was directed to the open space near the ticket line. Again, I watched the waiting group grow around me, this time, with some familiar faces. Again, I watched the Indian airline employees ignore us as we waited for information.
As the night wore on, it became increasingly clear that I would not make this plane either, and I began to panic. I was staying with friends and living off their hospitality, but I could not expect them to keep hosting me and driving me to the airport day after day on the off chance I’d make this flight home. And the stress of mentally preparing to go home and then having it torn away was proving to be too much. This time when Naren came to pick me up, I burst into tears.
Naren was very supportive. We made a plan to look at the standby schedule and determine whether or not my chances of making any of the upcoming planes were realistic before driving out again. After hanging out and watching the overbooked and standby lists get longer and longer over the next two days (not even bothering to drive to the airport), I decided to bite the bullet and buy a full-priced ticket home.
The original plan included a stopover in Amsterdam since there were no direct flights from Mumbai to Detroit. I decided I would purchase a full-priced flight to Europe to a city that then had a long list of open seats for a direct flight to Detroit and try my buddy pass there. Luckily, I was able to find a “cheap” flight to Frankfurt that then had a subsequent direct flight to Detroit with a wide open list of seats available. Additionally, I had a day layover in the city, which would give me one last trip before coming home.
The next day, I packed again for my trip home and we drove to the airport one last time. This time when Naren hugged me good-bye, it was a long one.
As I headed directly for the ticket counter, a rush of relief flooded through me as they took my ticket without question and ushered me to the boarding gate. This was it.
The following day was a bit of a blur. After a brief stop in Beirut, I arrived in Frankfurt to enjoy a day of Europe after having been awake continuously for about 15 hours. When I entered the airport, I was amazed at all the white people around me. After being in Asia for so long, it was strange to blend in.
Frankfurt was beautiful. The day was warm and sunny, and I enjoyed myself walking around the city, taking in the quaint architecture, drinking Apfelwein (yum!) and trying German frankfurters (disappointing). When I finally made it back to the airport that night, I collapsed into a deep sleep on one of benches, the last sleep before coming home.
The next morning I headed to the ticket line to wait standby for my final flight home. My sleep on the airport benches had been surprisingly refreshing, and the standby list still looked wide open. To my delight, the German airline employees were very friendly and told me there should be no problem for me to make this flight. I was even more delighted when they called my name to board first class. Not only was I finally going home, I was going home in style.
I had never flown first class before, and the cushy, spacious seats were welcome after days of stress and travel. As I sipped my complimentary orange juice while waiting to take off, I sat back and sighed in relief. Five days of false starts, little sleep and traveling cross-continent, I was finally going home. Two years, one month and 24 days after my first arrival to Asia, I was finally going home.
The final flight home was fairly uneventful. The blue cheese steak and warm cookies were amazing, though the fully-reclining seats and eye-mask did nothing to ease my excitement. I watched “The Five Year Engagement” and teared up at scenes of my beloved Ann Arbor, now only a few mere hours away.
I was nervous too. I hadn’t seen most of my family and almost none of my old friends during the time I was gone. I had no idea how I would fit in back into their lives. I also had no job lined up and no idea what my next plans would be. Re-adjustment to life back home would be a different kind of adventure.
As the flight attendant announced our final descent into Detroit’s Metro Airport, I was grateful to give up my futile attempt at sleeping and sat up in my chair, anxious as ever to get home.
The plane landed smoothly, but the wait to exit the aircraft and retrieve my luggage seemed to last for an eternity.
When I finally arrived at immigration, I was relieved to find a short line. I looked up at the “U.S. Citizens” sign and smiled. After more than two years of going in and out of the “foreigner” line at airports, it felt nice to belong. The immigration officer was unusually friendly. He flipped through my passport, handed it back to me and said “Welcome home.”
I looked through to the arrival hall and grinned. Two years before, I had left from this very same terminal to move to Malaysia, with only a vague idea of what I was getting myself into or how long I would last. Two years later, I was coming home safe and triumphant, no regrets.
I entered the arrival gate and instantly began looking around for a glimpse at someone from my family. Rows of benches ran throughout a narrow waiting area. I wasn’t actually sure if anyone would be there. After days of stop and go, I had not actually had a chance to confirm with my mom that I had made my flight from Germany. And sure enough, the arrival gate was all but empty.
I sat around for a few minutes, anxious as ever if they were just late or waiting for me to contact them. Finally, I walked to a pay phone (yes, they still exist!) and called my aunt’s house. My nana answered worried. Apparently my mother and brother were on their way and just hadn’t arrived yet. She was happy to hear from me, and I was grateful that they would be there soon.
I sat on the bench and waited. The arrival gate to my back, I stared ahead at the revolving doors and large windows ahead, revealing a parking structure behind a road that led out of the airport and into the rest of the state, my state.
Finally, out of the corner of my eye, I see two figures approaching from the right.
When I saw my mom and brother my grin got even wider. It had been more than two full years since we’d seen each other in person. This was a long hug too.
As we drove back to my aunt’s house, I relished being back home for a Michigan summer. The day was warm, not hot. Lush, sturdy trees dotted the flat Midwestern landscape, broken up with familiar shops, strip malls and houses, which I had never before found endearing. To my delight, the cars stayed in their lanes.
We made it home, and I carried my backpacks one last time. I set my bags on the floor of my bedroom, the same bedroom I’d had for more than two and a half decades, and breathed a sigh of relief. After living like a nomad for nearly a year, this place belonged to me.
As I unpacked, carelessly spreading my clothes, books and souvenirs around the floor, every layer was like unburdening years’ worth of toughness, caution, aggression, self-sufficiency and a general all-around guard that had naturally developed as form of self-protection. While I still had no idea what I would do with my new life at home, I didn’t care. I took my backpacks and placed them in the closet. They weren’t needed any longer. I was home.