Who Moved My Aisle Seat?

Each time, almost without fail, I managed to secure myself an aisle seat in long haul flights. I made it a point to get the booking number as soon as possible and to pre select my seat way ahead before the travel began.

The reason is simple: I have a small bladder and in some cases I had to use the restroom almost once every hour. An aisle seat would save me the trouble of having to politely ask a stranger to allow me to cross his personal space just to relieve myself.

Most of the time I was able to get the seat myself. In some other time, I was lucky that I could ask for a seat change when I checked in. The rest of the time I just had to accept a middle seat.

Such is the case when I was preparing for this flight from Jakarta to Atlanta. I started to have a sinking feeling as I scrolled through the seating plan of the aircraft on the airline website. All aisle seats were not available. If it were a short flight, it wouldn’t bother me. I could survive being stuck between two strangers for two, three or even five hours. But it was a thirteen hour leg. Thirteen!

Arriving at the airport, I made some last attempts to request an aisle seat, but it was to no avail. So I braced myself for the worst.

And it was even worse.

Because of some mobile check in mishap, I was not allowed to check myself thru. I was not to get the boarding pass for my next leg until I checked in at the transfer desk in the transit airport.

During security check in transit in Incheon, they saw a suspicious item as they scanned my cabin luggage. They had to go through all my stuff twice, before they dig out a small pocket knife that I forgot to take out from my bag. The officer gave me a long what-were-you-thinking look before he turned his attention to the next passenger.

And for some not so strange reasons, they selected me for a random secondary physical security check. They went through my bag again, and they frisked me. They swabbed a piece of paper all over my bags, shoes, and outfit for explosive residue. As the result, I was among the last passengers boarding.

As I made my way down the aisle to my row, I saw someone else sat in my seat. I had to politely ask him to move. When I looked for an overhead bin space, all has been taken. I tried to rearrange one sparsely loaded bin to make space for my bag when the passenger sitting beneath it stopped me.”FAA regulations. The attendants put that bag horizontally because it doesn’t fit vertically,” she said. “Please put it back the way it was.”

I could feel the stare of the other passengers behind me. I was blocking their way while frantically looking for a vacant bin. I finally turned to a cabin attendant. “Could you help me find a space for my bag please?” She led me back to that same bin, pushed the content aside and said, “Do you want to see if your bag fits in here?” I pessimistically followed her suggestion, thinking that my bag was too big. But it fit!

I settled down in my middle seat, and tried to read a book. Because of snow, the ground crew had to de-ice the Boeing 777-300 ER, and it took a long time. It was already one hour past the departure time when we were finally airborne. The plane slowly climbed to its cruising altitude to avoid bad weather.

With every passing minute I could feel my bladder filling up to the point of bursting. I looked up the flight progress on the personal monitor in front of me and counted every altitude increase. I wished that the plane already reached 30,000 feet.

Suddenly there was a ‘ping’ on the PA, and the fasten seatbelt sign was off. It’s the sign from the pilot that it’s safe to move around the cabin. I quicky turned to my right hand neighbor and poked her awake. “Excuse me,” I said. I rushed past her to the aisle and walked down to the nearest lavatory.

In retrospect, it wasn’t such a bad experience. Revisiting the whole episode, I found some things I could be thankful for. I now understand that the reason I wasn’t allowed a check through was because I tried to do a mobile check in with a new passport when my US visa was on the old one. Unable to match the new passport number with its database, the system automatically rejected my check in and flagged me for inspection. That’s why I had to personally check in in transit.

The lady at the transfer desk was just arriving at her post when she took my case. She was late for work and was embarassed with her supervisor. And my case took some time to solve. She had to re-register my name, my passport and my visa in the system before she could produce my boarding pass. Yet she was all professional, and gave me a polite smile as she returned my documents.

The security officers who had to check my bag were not happy of having to go over my things. If possible, they would rather disregard their suspicion and let me pass. But they had the responsibility over the safety of hundreds of lives. They had to check. Twice.

And the secondary screening officers? I’m sure if they could choose, they would rather do something other than spending the morning running their hands all over strangers. Who knows the places these people have been to? Yet they did their job respectfully to the passengers. I was not at all feel humiliated for being chosen for a random check while other passengers watched as they rushed to board the plane. With halting English a young officer told me nicely that I had to undergo a secondary check. They patiently guided me through the process. They even smiled when they completed the check.

I learned a valuable lesson from this. You cannot really know what surprises life might throw at you. Sometimes what happens is not what you expected. The most important thing is what you get from that experience. And what you get reflects your attitude. When you react with negative thoughts, it will be a harrowing incident. On the other hand, you will get gold from dust with some patience, humility, positivity, and some bladder control.

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When Another Wish Came True

I’ve written about this a couple of years ago. And then it happened again. And again. So I think I ought to write about it again.

Has it happened to you that you were innocently wishing for something, and then suddenly it unexpectedly came true?

Small example. Let’s say one evening you were bored at home. You began to think about stuff that would make you happy. And then you remembered that little pizza place across town where you had the most fun you’d ever known in the past twenty years or so. You wished you could assemble the gang again for a night out there.

Your phone suddenly rang. It was your best friend asking if you were free because the gang was in town and – what were the odds – they wanted to have dinnner at that place you just thought about!

A few years ago I watched a documentary program on TV (I cannot remember whether it was on Discovery or National Geographic channel). The program showcased a modern miracle in Seoul, a mega city that was plagued with traffic jams.

Instead of building more highway to ease the congestions, the city government decided to do something that may seem to be counter intuitive. They upgraded the public transportation system, and put in place a state of the art traffic information system.

The major unusual step was they torn down a major highway into the city, and restore the Cheonggyecheon, an ancient stream in the middle of the city that for many years had been covered by the highway.

They took water from the river Han, had it processed, and put it into the stream, resulting in a clear water flowing in the stream.

On the day they opened the restored stream for public, the mayor took his shoes off and waded into the clear water. He scooped some water into his palm and took a sip. A stream that used to be so filthy that they closed it under concrete now filled with fresh water good enough to drink.

I was mesmerized by the program. I made a promise to myself to one day go to Seoul and see this miracle for myself.

The problem was I didn’t know how I could make it happen.

Fast forward to 2012.

When planning for a company trip to Honolulu, we made an interesting discovery. Most of the possible flights to Hawaii from Indonesia with single stop must have more than 12 hours of transit. After comparing alternatives from several airlines it was decided that we would fly on Korean Airlines and to fill the 12-hour layover by taking a day tour of Seoul.

We had a great time spending the day visiting temples, palaces, museums, markets, and trying local food. At the end of the tour our guide asked, “We still have a couple of hours left before we have to get you back to the airport. Is there any more place you guys want to see?” I raised my hand and asked, “How about the Cheunggye…” I knotted my eyebrows trying to recall the name. Her face suddenly lit up. “You mean the Cheonggyecheon? Sure! It’s not so far from here!”

As I walked along the paved bank of the Cheonggye stream that cloudy winter afternoon, marveling at the clear fresh water running in it, I wondered at the series of what seemed to be unrelated events that finally brought me there. It was nothing short of miraculous.

Make a wish. Have a dream. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

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Humor Is The Best Enhancer

I gave up hoping for a quick check through the immigration when the officer from the Department of Homeland Security put my passport into a red folder and motioned me to step aside and wait. Out of thousands of passengers arriving in LAX that day, I was one of the lucky ones who had to go through a secondary screening.

The first time I was selected for screening was two years before in Minneapolis-St Paul airport. It was quite a stressful experience. Instead of stamping my passport and welcomed me to the United States, the DHS officer kept my passport and told me to go to a waiting room. When I got there, there were dozens of frazzled people with cluelessness in their tired faces, and a stout, middle-aged, stern DHS Officer who was over his head trying to maintain order in the room. When I came up to him to ask whether I was in the right place, he turned to look at me, point a finger to a row of seats, and in an angry voice said, “SIT!”

It must have been difficult for the officers, too. They had to deal with hundreds of screened passengers, most of who might have difficulties to communicate in English. Looking back at that day now, I understand why the officer had to speak to passengers in short, monosyllabic sentences. It was easier to say with authoritative tone, and easier for foreigners to understand.

But in that day, that was enough to send my adrenaline level way up, and changed me from confused to distressed.

So two years later, when I was told to wait for an officer to interview me, all the harrowing memories came back to my mind. My heart rate began to climb up in antiipation of what was coming at me.

And then, I was surprised.

The DHS officer was a young man, probably in his late 20s, with a unconcerned air about him, and an easy attitude. He greeted my with a smile, and began to check through my data in his system. “Sorry, the system sometimes freezes up on me,” he said apologetically when he had to wait for a few moment for the computer to respond. And while waiting, he made a Donald Duck voice.

Suddenly I felt the tension inside me dropped like a stone.

“Now, I will ask you some quetions to update your information in the system,” he said, in a serious tone. “Okay, first question: are you a man?”

I must have given him a funny look, because the other officer in the next cubicle turned to him and chuckled. “Hey, what if he said ‘no’?” the officer asked with a laugh. Then my interviewer replied earnestly, “In that case, we’re gonna have a biiiiiiig problem!”

I never had a more pleasant time with any other border inspection officers anywhere. I was still smiling when I joined my fellow travelers beyond the gates. And I am still laughing whenever I remember that incident.

I learned two things from that experience.
1. You can have fun while doing a very serious job.
2. When you have fun at your job, other people will be more willing to cooperate with you.

And one bonus lesson:
Have a sense of humor. Life is difficult enough as it is. Why not live it with a happy heart?