My return travel from the South Island of New Zealand to the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. was about to begin. With roughly 1 billion hours of travel time ahead of me I needed a bit of mental preparation beforehand, rightfully so, this was going to be a long trek.
I prepared by spending the last few days of our trip relaxing in my favorite area of the country, Golden Bay. You’ve got to go out of your way to get to Golden Bay, which is why I like it. It’s not a pass-through place with pass through tourists; it’s a drive over a gnarly and narrow mountain pass with an impatient kiwi on your bumper kind of a place.
I would be making the trek back to the U.S. with my freshly turned 3-year-old as my traveling companion. Her grandparents would be playing guest starring roles in a portion of our return travel and then be splitting off for Australia at the airport in Wellington. Her dad had left New Zealand a week earlier and would not be part of this travel bonanza.
The logistics for our return trip had been planned out perfectly.
- Golden Bay to Picton, stay overnight
- Turn in the rental car in Picton and then hop on the ferry
- Lavishly float for 3 hours to the city of Wellington on the North Island
- Get another rental car upon arrival in Wellington and stay overnight in the city
- Drop the rental car at the airport the following afternoon and fly out for the U.S. where the munchkin and I would continue to endure many more hours of travel
What could go wrong?
Well, there had been talk of a cyclone bearing down on New Zealand right around the beginning of our migration from Golden Bay and in the exact path of our travel, but besides that, what could go wrong?
We stayed our final night in Golden Bay at the incomparably relaxing Sans Souci Inn where the time seems to slip away faster than a handful of water, and we prepared to drive over the slow and winding mountain pass. Our next destination would be Picton, the little seaside town that is host to the ferry terminal. But not before stopping off at Toad Hall in Motueka for some real fruit ice cream and cappuccinos. Toad Hall is one of those places that you walk into and think, “I could live here; right here in this café.” I slowly ate my ice cream cone savoring every bite while taking in the fresh air and enjoying the people watching, then begrudgingly got back into the car to continue onward.
Our one night in Picton was consumed with packing bags in preparation for flying. Any vacation traveler is familiar with the interesting conundrum of space vs. mass. I didn’t buy that much stuff did I? You remove packaging, roll items into your clothing, shove, stuff, and will things to fit. After a slightly damaged finger from forcing zippers and beads of sweat rolling down my forehead from serious exertion, I was packed! All the while the munchkin was having a great time building a choo-choo train out of the piles of packaging I’d removed.
With all the hubbub of packing and hodge-podging a dinner out of our food remnants, we’d barely noticed that the rain had begun. It made itself more prevalent throughout the night and had significantly picked up steam by morning. We were dodging raindrops the size of monkey wrenches as we stuffed the car with our freshly packed bags. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the morning ferry voyage hadn’t been canceled so we hopped-a-board and settled in for the ride.
The 3-hour voyage was filled with rummaging through backpacks, naps, snacking, peeking out the window as we drifted through the sound, and general malaise. It was fabulous.
Upon arrival into Wellington, we heard the news that all flights had been canceled for the day due to the weather and all ferry voyages after ours were canceled as well. On top of that, the road to Golden Bay had been cut off due to the storm. We had managed to squeak through at just the right time, yay!
Next, we jumped into our new rental car and began tearing circles around Wellington in a desperate attempt to find our lodging.
I’ve heard the definition of insanity explained as, doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result. Nevertheless, there we were circling the same several blocks expecting a different result until, ta-da! We miraculously found the teeny alley-road that led to the City Cottages. Fortunately for us, the cottage itself and the location were well worth the stress of trying to find the place. After re-settling our nerves we headed out on foot for a bit of rainy day adventuring in Wellington.
That night, while we were asleep the cyclone swept through doing its best to wreak havoc but surprisingly; it didn’t leave much of a lasting effect. By morning we awoke to blue skies and by afternoon all flights had been resumed. I couldn’t believe it! How had we managed to luck out two days in a row? The travel Gods were smiling down upon us and we happily made way for the airport.
As a parent, my first order of business checking into a long international flight is to try and get a row with an additional empty seat. I’m not sure what the deal is with toddlers, but they have an ability to take up more room than 3 grown adults. What is that about? This time around the flight was relatively full. They would have to charge me a twin seat if I wanted to guarantee a row with an extra seat for $99, or they could put me in a sky-couch for $300.
First of all, what is a twin seat? Second of all, what is a sky-couch?
Twin Seat: An additional available seat that you can buy to block someone else from sitting in it.
Sky Couch: A row of seats that convert into a bed type thing, comfortable for 1 adult and small child, but not more than that.
Well, as great as the sky couch sounds it was more than I was willing to shell out for comfort so I opted to go with the $99 sanity seat. That’s what I re-named it anyhow, and I think it has a nice ring to it.
Yes, everything was going so smoothly that I was beginning to let my guard down. We’d missed the cyclone, I had purchased the sanity seat, we’d all checked-in with time to spare… It was all too easy, too smooth; I was suspicious.
We bid farewell to the grandparents as we each went toward our designated gates. Their guest starring roles in our return travel had come to an end. The munchkin and I sauntered to our gate at the standard 3-year-old pace and boarded our 1st flight bound for Auckland.
I might mention here that my travel companion is cool as a cucumber in any situation. Throughout her life, she has been on cross-country road trips, ferry rides, bus rides, and long flights without a fuss. She requires very little if anything to keep her content while traveling. What I’m trying to say is that she is a traveling toddler unicorn and I couldn’t be more grateful.
I felt rather relaxed on the flight to Auckland thinking that we would have plenty of time once we got there. I planned to mosey over to the international terminal and fill out my postcards that I’d already slapped stamps onto.
I had let my guard down back at the Wellington airport so much so that I barely even noticed when our plane had been delayed on the tarmac before taking off. It wasn’t until the pilot spouted out the weather and current time upon arrival in Auckland that I realized how slim of a window I had to get us to the international terminal.
This was going to get interesting.
Did I have a stroller? No.
Did I have my ever trusty and always handy woven wrap? No.
What did I have? A 3-year-old, 2 backpacks and a very short timeframe.
It was go-time!
I flung the two backpacks around my body and scooped up the munchkin to hit my power-walking stride down the jetway and into the airport. My advantage was in the fact that I’d been to this airport before and I knew how far I had to go. Far.
As I neared the domestic terminal exit I stopped to grab a luggage cart. They are not suitable to put children into and are clearly labeled as such, and so I counted my lucky stars when I was able to fit her skinny little hips sideways into the top rack of the cart! (Sometimes problem-solving does not coincide with rule following) The cart was actually too big to set my backpacks on the bottom rack so I held onto those while pushing the munchkin in the cart.
I began running once I got outside and started following the yellow line that meanders along parking lots and next to buildings eventually leading you to the international terminal. I was passing people left and right, sweating all the while as the munchkin laughed and told me how much fun she was having, great! For the level of stress I felt, I was having a weird form of fun too.
Once we got into the terminal I ditched the cart at the security entrance and headed for the line. The departures monitor had a flashing red notification for my flight; it would be boarding soon. Thankfully this was New Zealand and not the U.S., security is a relatively quick process. After getting through security my eyes darted frantically for signs leading to my gate number. It wasn’t close. In fact, it was the furthest gate possible from the security checkpoint. Of course, it was.
The backpacks were flailing, the munchkin was still laughing, and I really, really had to pee. No time, keep running! The further I went the more astonished I was about how far away the gate was. I had felt like I was in a maze having to weave through duty-free shops and down one corridor after the next until finally, our gate! All the running, all the sweating and here was my flight… not boarding. What? I should be having to yell out, “hold that plane!!!” as they slammed the door to the jetway.
I felt torn. Was I grateful that the flight was boarding late? Or was I frustrated that I just beat feet for 30 minutes to find that I had plenty of time? I think the answer is, Both.
Since I had put in so much effort to get to my gate I decided to hang out there and pride myself on being among the very last to board the gigantic airplane, giving myself plenty of time to find a bathroom.
Eventually, the adrenaline wore off and I began slipping back into my worry-free blissful state, knowing that I had the sanity seat waiting for me on the plane. Upon boarding, we took part in the mandatory “envy walk” past the sleeping pods and back, back, back, to the bellows of the plane where our seats could be found. There they were, I envisioned a sparkly spotlight shining down on them… 3 seats on a 12-hour flight, hallelujah!
You would think I had learned my lesson by letting my guard down the first time but no; I had foolishly let my guard down yet again. At first, things seemed to be going smoothly and then the problem presented itself. The problem was in the form of an approximately 1-½-year-old child seated directly behind our row of 3 seats, and the problem was significant.
Long international flights are generally scheduled to take off in the evening so that people sleep the majority of the flight, which is a great concept unless you’ve got the love child seated behind you. I had several hours to form thoughts and opinions about this little human in the seat behind me and eventually came up with that name. Why? Because this kid had the aggressively forceful kicks of Bruce Lee, crossed with the belligerently loud and undeniable sound decibel of Mick Jagger. And so? -The love child- of Bruce Lee and Mick Jagger was created in my mind.
Of course, my little unicorn toddler slept through it all completely dead to the world around her while I noticed people in the seats surrounding ours watching movie after movie leering in the direction of the love child.
My mind wandered in a sleep-deprived haze, in and out of random thoughts like, “What am I going to do with these postcards? They have NZ stamps on them… I can’t send them from the U.S.”, and “What if they try to take my Lemon Curd away at customs? I love that stuff!” But my attention would be fixated back on the love child when another flying kick connected with my seat. Then I began to wonder about the parents.
It’s surely a nightmare situation when your child acts like a maniac in public but did these parents care? It didn’t seem like they cared. You see, I had made my way past parent solidarity and offering the benefit of the doubt several hours into the flight. I was now in “what I would do” mode.
If that were my kid?
I’d be walking up and down the isles, or bouncing, patting, hugging, soothing, giving milk, giving food, checking diapers, checking for fever, you know, troubleshooting. Yet every time I took a glance back in that general direction it seemed that the mom was playing the part of extra #2. Just nonchalantly blending into the background of a crazy movie scene. Had she given up? Did she need reinforcements? Was she deaf? What was happening back there?!
My little unicorn toddler popped awake lively and refreshed when the flight attendants began giving out breakfast. After breakfast had finished one of the flight attendants walked around the entire plane making balloon animals for every kiddo. Way to go Air New Zealand, nice move.
Eventually, the love child fell gently asleep, which was approximately 7 minutes prior to touching down in San Francisco. That is the breaking point, isn’t it? When a child, any child, has kept you awake well beyond your capacity and pushed you to the seeming brink of death by exhaustion and then just when you have no possible option to sleep any longer, they fall asleep. Rude.
I stuffed all of our scattered items back into the backpacks, disembarked the plane and prepared myself for the joys of customs. On the upside, there would be no panicked rush to quickly make it through customs to catch a connection because the munchkin and I had a 9-hour layover. On the downside, the munchkin and I had a 9-hour layover.
For anyone who is curious, I asked the flight attendant to bring my postcards back to New Zealand with him and drop them in the mail for me; he kindly obliged.
Customs on that day, at that time, in the San Francisco airport was how shall I say? Slow. We inched further and further forward staring at the same people in front and in back of us as we weaved around the barriers. We eventually made it through the line and officially arrived back in the U.S. and with just 7 ½ hours left to go on our layover, we had nothing but time.
I could tell pretty quickly that if I didn’t keep moving it was going to get ugly. Every time I stood still for more than a couple of minutes I felt as if I were on a swaying ship; I was that tired. With that in mind, the munchkin and I hopped onto the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) headed into the city. It turned out to be like the sleep deprivation Olympics in order to actually get onto the BART. First I had to decipher the ticket machine, next was the turnstile, and finally, I had to hit the correct platform. Oh, the brainpower!
Once we settled into our seats I must admit, I was less than impressed. I felt like we were riding in a public bathroom with a whistling teakettle screaming at full blast. The screeching of the tracks felt amplified in my head and I thought it was just me until I looked over to see the munchkin covering her ears. We rode for around 45 minutes before jumping off at a stop. As we crested the stairs out onto the street level I thought, “who’s got the capacity to handle this?” we walked about 2 blocks before I turned around and retreated underground to find our way back to the airport. There was simply too much stimulation for me to handle on no sleep.
Our little BART adventure and re-entering airport security managed to eat up some time, which was a bonus. The rest of our layover went by rather quickly and we were on our next flight bound for Seattle before we knew it.
Much to my surprise, we landed to find snow on the ground in Seattle. Our layover there was just under 2 hours and then we popped onto our final flight, which would be a quick 40 minutes, with an arrival time of midnight. Notice I said would.
Everyone boarded the plane and we were set to take off early. All we had to do was wait for the plane to be de-iced and we’d be on our way. Well, that little task ended up taking about an hour and a half. We waited longer on the tarmac to de-ice the plane than the flight time itself. The irony was lost on no one, including the pilot who mentioned it in his 15th announcement.
By this stage, I was having an out of body experience. I had been traveling for so long that I couldn’t remember when I had started and I couldn’t even begin to speculate about how many hours I’d been awake. The ferry ride to Wellington seemed like it was a month ago! I felt like I was watching a movie of what was happening rather than actually participating in it and there sitting next to me was the toddler unicorn, happy as could be and ready to keep traveling until the end of time.
I felt like a hot mess and she was cool as a cucumber.
Eventually, we got up into the air one last time before finally making it to our final destination.
The munchkin and I both slept until 3pm the following day and my husband came home from work at 4:30pm to find us still in our pajamas sitting at the table eating breakfast.
Our return travel was now buried underneath a sound and solid sleep which made thinking about it seem even more like an odd dream than the reality we’d just endured. But that didn’t stop me from telling my husband in painful detail, all about the love child.