The Sense of an Ending: Days 38-39

I’m so miserable.

It’s 2.30 am. The flight is freezing cold. I’ve never been on such a cold aeroplane. Even though there were two blankets on my seat when I boarded, they are both quite small and really thin and I’m having trouble keeping one of them wrapped around my legs. The other is draped around my arms and shoulders but because I’m uncomfortable in my seat I keep wriggling and the blanket falls away. I feel like I’ve been outside all day on a freezing winter’s day and I can feel the cold seeping into the tip of my nose.

We had another incredibly speedy meal service, but I declined the food because I was still really full from the huge meal in Kuala Lumpur. Even though I’m knackered I’ve tried to close my eyes and fall asleep but I just cannot get comfortable. For a start, emergency exit row seats are narrower because the meal tray is in the arm rest. I cannot put my head back because the top of the seat is too low, so my head has nowhere to rest. If I slide forward so I can lean back my arse goes numb from being on the edge of the seat and I have no lumber support so my back also aches. If I twist my head to the side to try and lean against the back of the chair I get a crick in my neck. I am just feeling so exhausted and yet I cannot get comfortable and fall asleep.

The crew switches off the lights in the cabin and it’s now dark. I try to put the blanket over my head but it leaves my arms exposed and it’s just so cold. I swear that I can see my breath in the gloomy darkness. The Malaysian guy sitting next to me has promptly fallen asleep and is leaning against the arm rest so I can’t even support my arms so I must sit with them folded. I’m yawning like it’s my job, but sleep just will not come.

I begin to curse my decision to take the seven-hour stopover, though on reflection I would still be flying at pretty much the same time if I had taken the flight with the shorter stopover in Jakarta. My mind begins to wander and think about getting home. It’s now Thursday morning. The flight is due to land at about 9 am. With getting through the airport and taking the train home, I’ll probably make it back to my place at around 11.30 or midday. I will need a nap, but not for long because I don’t want to throw my body clock off. I will plan for a couple of hours and fight my way through the rest of the day.

I will need to call my insurance company about my phone and contact the bank to ask them to send me a replacement for the ATM card I lost in Lombok. Laundry will need to be done, and I will probably have to start thinking about what the hell I’m going to do for school this semester. I still don’t have the textbook I will be teaching. I teach the first edition of the book, though I do have the second edition that was released a few years later. I can at least thumb through it and try to gather some ideas. The trouble is that autumn is my busiest time of the year in terms of freelance work, and this semester coming up is a writing semester. Last year I burned myself out because I had 120 pieces of student writing to check each week on top of everything else. At least I didn’t have to make whole new lessons and PowerPoint presentations and supplementary materials. That’s the real kicker.

In my miserable state I am even more resolved to quit my job, though giving notice three days before the start of the semester might be cutting it a bit fine. It’s a risk I’d be willing to take, though. I just really don’t want to go back to school and go through with this semester, and it’s not good for the students to have a teacher whose heart is just not in it.

I try to imagine that I’m lying in my usual sleeping position to try and get some sleep. I can never sleep on my back; I usually sleep on my front in a diagonal position with my leg outstretched, or sometimes curled up on my side. I also cannot sleep sitting up. I’ve tried to position myself more on my side so my neck doesn’t hurt as much as I lean into the side of the chair, though with the belt and the narrow seats and immovable arm rests it’s really not working out well. I so wish I could be one of those people that can sleep on planes. After a couple of minutes I’m too uncomfortable so I reposition myself upright and then try to lean forward and rest my arms on my knees. It’s 3.30 now and this is hell.

Around 4 a.m. I need the loo. I take a wander to get the blood flowing back into my posterior. The cabin is in almost total darkness, save for a few TV screens casting their glow. When I come back to the seat I position myself upright, set the blankets around my legs and arms again, and by some kind of miracle I fall asleep. I only know this because at 5.30 I am awoken by the rattle of the trolley as the cabin crew begin dishing out breakfast. I was in quite a deep sleep too, because I was having quite a vivid dream. The cabin is now flooded with sunlight. I’m surprised that breakfast is served this early as most flights serve it an hour before descent. Perhaps they’re doing it at the usual time for when the flight is not delayed, given that we were originally due to arrive at 7 am. I’m hoping for some kind of breakfasty meal like an omelette or pastries, but I am offered chicken and rice, which is what the flight attendant tells me is a traditional Malaysian breakfast. It’s not bad; it has some kind of spicy sauce on it, which is not breakfasty at all to me. It’s not what I was hoping for, but I eat it all anyway. Eventually I get a coffee and I slug it down.

I spend the rest of the flight with my eyes closed, trying to forget about how much time we still have before we land. I’m too tired to read. I just let the time pass. It is still freezing cold.

We land on schedule at 9.00 am, though we are held on the apron for 25 minutes while we wait for a gate. The captain tells everyone to remain seated as we have not yet docked. When the plane comes to a halt, the flight attendant sitting opposite me has to repeatedly jump up and tell people who are getting their bags out of the overhead bins to sit down as we have not yet docked. A couple of people have rushed forwards to line up and she has to manhandle them back to their seats. I just want to get off this fricking plane now and get going home.

Finally we dock and we can get off the plane. The one saving grace that I have is that I registered for the Smart Entry Service at Incheon airport, which allows me to to use the auto-immigration gates and not queue up with all the other foreigners to have my passport checked. I make my way quickly to the train that runs between the terminals and walk up the stairs instead of the escalators to avoid the crowds. I make it to the immigration desk and ironically the foreign passport line is completely empty whilst I must wait behind ten or so Koreans in the auto-immigration queue. I think about going to the foreign passport desk but I don’t want my passport to be jammed with immigration stamps from Korea. As I get into the queue an airport staff member comes over way to me and asks if I’ve registered for the service. “No,” I want to snap. “I’ve just come to watch the Koreans – what the fuck do you think?”, but I just smile and say “Of course” and show her the label in my passport.

I dash through to the carousel to collect my bag. I’m one of the first there so I get myself into position near the chute that the bags will come down from. The bags don’t appear for a few minutes, and then mine doesn’t come for about 15 minutes. All the while people attempt to squeeze past me to get a little closer to the chute when they see their bags and I just want to shove them two feet down the carousel to the wide gap and tell them to wait the fuck there as it will only make five seconds’ difference.

While I wait I turn on my phone. I have a golden rule that I won’t turn it on until I’ve got through immigration. A few minutes without it won’t kill me. I never understand why people have to have theirs on as soon as the plane’s wheels touch the ground. I can’t connect to the Wi-Fi for some reason, and I have nothing I can use to put the Korean SIM from my dead iPhone 7 Plus into this iPhone 5. Not to worry. I begin to prepare myself for getting out of the airport. Whenever I board a plane I remove everything from my pockets bar my passport and a pen for the landing card. If I keep my wallet in my pocket I often end up knocking the recline button and shooting backwards. My bag is tightly stuffed since I’ve got the crumpets and (English) muffins in there now. I distinctly remember putting my wallet in at the top of my backpack when got to the gate in KL. Now I can’t find it. I fish around in the main pocket and then the side pocket. I’m sure it’s there, but I’m only half looking as I keep an eye out for my backpack.

When my bag comes I move over to a table near the carousel on which people who don’t have landing cards can collect and write on. I lay my hand luggage backpack down and open the pockets. Everything is tightly stuffed in. I pull out my laptop and my book and things inside loosen up. I find my wallet – it had slipped down a bit – and I fish out my cigarettes and lighter. I put the stuff I had taken out of the bag back in, heave my backpack onto my shoulders and set out towards the customs line.

The way to customs has those fabric barriers that stretch out between poles set out in two lanes. Just before I get into my lane a 50-something Korean couple pushing a small suitcase on a trolley slips in before me. They take up about 75 percent of the width of the lane. I already have to slow down my stride because they are walking slowly, and then she suddenly stops dead right in front of me to fish something out of her handbag. I almost slam into her. She hasn’t looked around or even shown signs that she’s aware of anyone behind her. This annoys the hell out of me, cos all I want to do is just get out of this fricking airport and have a smoke. Under my breath I huff “For fuck’s sake!” and I force my way through the small gap she has left. My backpack knocks her arm as I thunder through the gaps, but no fucks do I give. I’m already dreading being back in Korea after the openness I’ve experienced on my trip.

I stomp out of departures and make my way outside. It seems that every time I fly into Incheon they’ve moved the smoking huts. Now they are outside where the buses are but across the street. I spy one and go over to it. I’m cut off by some idiot with a trolley paying absolutely no attention to anyone or anything and then when I approach the hut there’s some Korean guy just languidly standing in the doorway blocking anyone from coming in. I’m in a huff now. “I’d just like to have fucking cigarette if there wasn’t someone in the bloody way” I seethe as I elbow him out of the way and stomp into the hut. If I wasn’t miserable before I bloody well am now.

I get the subway back to Itaewon. Initially I was going to get the express train but I’ve just missed one and I don’t want to wait 30 minutes for the next. The time passes quickly but my energy levels sag as I transfer at Gongdeok to take line 6 to Noksapyeong station. My shoulders are tired and I’m knackered and I just want to drop the bags and have a cup of tea. Although I haven’t had a single cuppa on my whole trip, the Englishman in me decrees that I must have a cup of tea when I get back from a trip. I pick up a small carton of milk from the convenience store and make my way home.

It’s quite strange to be back when I get home at 11.30. The apartment smells musty after being shut up for five weeks through the hot, humid summer and the monsoon season. I throw open the windows and doors. Two of my plants have died. I drop my bag at the doorway and collapse onto the sofa. Finally, after 27 hours I am back and I can relax. I make a cup of tea and plug in all the electricals I had unplugged before leaving. I take a shower and at 12.10 I settle into bed with an alarm set for 2 pm.

As I fall asleep I’m thinking that when I wake up I will call the insurance company. To do so I will need to unpack my computer and use Skype to call them. I suddenly remember taking my computer out of my backpack in the airport when I was looking for my wallet. I don’t recall putting it back into my bag. I would have done, surely, I surmise. There’s no way I would have forgotten to put it back in. I promptly fall asleep.

It’s 2.30 when I rouse myself from my slumber. I go to the backpack and unzip the main compartment. No computer. Shit.

I go to the airport’s website and follow the links to the lost and found section. I see a phone number. I put my Korean SIM into the iPhone 5 but when I call the menu is all in Korean. I check the lost and found section of the website – any lost items are photographed and posted. I search computers and MacBooks but there is nothing. I call a Korean friend and explain what I’ve done. I was in such a foul mood and in such a rush to get out of there and in a mild panic that I might have left my wallet somewhere that I must have been relieved to have located the wallet and not picked up the laptop. He calls the airport and explains the situation. They do have a MacBook, they say, but it’s a MacBook Pro. It’s not mine. I explain where I was – I remember the carousel number – and where the table was. The airport will check, I’m told, and will call back if they find anything. A few minutes later I’m told that they found my laptop and that to collect it I will need to go back to the arrivals gate and present my passport and talk to the customs staff there.

I can do that tomorrow, I’m thinking. I don’t really need it immediately since I have my desktop computer, but my Korean friend insists that I go. It’s just after 3 pm now and if I go immediately I can get the 3.30 pm express train. I get in a taxi and the traffic is light so I get to Seoul Station at 3.20 pm. The express train ticket desk is having problems with the computer so I have an anxious wait as he restarts the computer before he can sell me a ticket. I dash to the lifts and I get in behind a couple of Koreans. As I turn around I am at the door. I’m not thinking straight and I hit the close door button just a Korean girl tries to get in to the lift. The doors close on her. The Koreans let out a gulp of surprise – I guess it looked like I did it deliberately – but it’s too late. The lift descends.

At the airport I make my way back to Arrivals Hall C, from which I emerged. I’ve got my passport ready and I remember the instruction to go to the agent standing outside the doors and tell him I need to go into the customs to collect my computer. I hover at the desk and the guy, a bespectacled twenty-something, roundly ignores me. He’s giving me the wild-eyed ‘Shit, there’s a foreigner looking like he needs to talk to me’ look. I speak slowly and clearly and say I am here to collect a lost computer. He gulps. He blinks. He says, ‘Sorry?’ I feel like twatting him. I mean, seriously – Incheon airport has been voted the best airport in the world for the last seven years and your staff are not able to communicate with international passengers? I can already see how this is going to go.

I repeat myself slowly and clearly. I am here to collect a lost computer, I say. ‘Uh… boarding pass?’ he asks. No, I say. ‘You need boarding pass,’ he says. ‘I called,’ I say. ‘Nobody said I needed a boarding pass. I have to go inside and talk to the customs officer.’

‘Sorry,’ he says. He calls another staff member over and then attends to a Korean who has shuffled up to the desk. We go over the same ground. I don’t have my boarding pass, I say, because no one told me I needed it. I have my luggage tag on my passport, but no boarding pass. He puts me on the phone to someone and we cover the same ground. I get pissy and aggressive when I say I don’t have a boarding pass because I wasn’t told to bring it. If I was told, I would have brought it. ‘Just a moment,’ the voice says.

I stand around for a moment or two. The two desk chaps ignore me. I’m suddenly losing all heart and imagining I will have to go all the way back home and get my boarding pass. The automatic doors open. A man holding my computer walks out. He looks at me and walks over. ‘Is this yours?’ he asks. ‘Yes,’ I say. He hands it to me. ‘Thank you very much,’ I say, but he has already turned around is walking away.

Jesus. I could have been anyone. How would they know this is my property? No checks, no questions, nothing.

Relieved to have it back, I head back on the express train. I never want to have a day like this again. It’s bad enough having to come to the airport twice in a day. It’s 5.45 when I get back and I’m ready to just sink onto the sofa and chill the hell out. I don’t even unpack anything except to pull the contents of my hand luggage bag out and charge a few things and put some stuff on my dining table. I’ll sort it all out tomorrow.

The next day I call the insurance company about getting my phone fixed. I was told that I would need to call and make an appointment for an English-speaking agent to contact me when I enquired from Gili Air a couple of weeks ago. They say they will contact me within in the next two days. Working days? I clarify since today is Friday. Yes, she says, but it’s likely to be today.

Twenty minutes later I get a call. I’m sorry, the agent tells me. No English-speaker can call me until Monday. I ask what the process is. She says that I will need to have the phone checked by an official Apple repair centre, pay for a refurbished unit and then claim on the insurance. They cover around 60% of the price of the refurbished phone. Okay, I’m thinking. I can just go to Frisbee in Myeongdong and do that.

I set off towards the bus stop. As I make my way there I get a call. It’s an English-speaking agent from the insurance company. At least I don’t have to wait until Monday. No, she tells me when I say I’m off to Frisbee. I have to go to an official KT service centre (KT being my phone company). She gives me the address and explains the forms I will need to fill in and the process. She texts me the address and emails me the forms, but I know where the service centre is anyway. It’s in Myeongdong but on the other side, so I have to go to a different bus stop.

When I get there I make my way upstairs and take a ticket. I can see a mile off that this is going to be a pain. Two 30-something technicians are sitting behind desks but I can just tell they no speak the Engrishy. I begin to formulate in my head how to explain what happened to my phone in Korean. I get to the desk and we labour over what to do in Korean. I’m a bit rusty after being away, but I think we understand each other. He heads off to get a refurbished phone and print the forms I need. I begin to fill them in, following the English forms that the agent emailed me. I think to myself how absurd that two smart guys who must me technically-minded and have degrees in some form of engineering have gone through their whole lives without ever learning a word of English in a culture that spends billions of dollars on English-language education every year. I know I shouldn’t expect them to have to speak it and that my Korean could be better, but not one single word of English is spoken.

I’ve filled in half of the form when he suddenly stops me. I don’t know why. He takes the forms away. He tells me that the phone will need to be assessed by a service centre and that I will get a phone call within four to seven days. The refurbished phone he brought out is put away. I am dismissed.

I get lunch in Myeongdong. When I ask for the bill in Korean the lady prints it and hands it to me. She doesn’t say anything. Not even the price. I hand her my card. She swipes it and hands it back. Not a word spoken. I say kamsahanida, annoyng heegaseyo and she says nothing. It’s a bit of a surprise given that I’ve just spent almost six weeks in countries that Koreans consider inferior to them and have been greeted warmly and openly in every restaurant and cafe that I’ve been in. I know the holiday is over now and I feel a bit annoyed about how Korean culture is sometimes.

Back in Itaewon, I’m meeting a couple of friends for a coffee. As I walk up the street I stop in a shop to buy smokes. Annyong hasseyo I say to the shopkeeper. I ask for my brand in Korean. She says nothing and drops the pack on the counter. I hand her my card. Kamsahamnida, I say. Annyong heegaseyo. She says nothing. She hasn’t even looked at me. It’s like I haven’t even existed and she was glad to get rid of me. She just plops my card down on the counter. I now feel even more annoyed and even more regretful that I’ve come back to Korea and that I’ve got to do another semester here. If only I’d sent that resignation email a couple of weeks ago, I think…

There’s one more thing to do after the coffee: Go to the bank and enquire as to whether the travel insurance I got from them at the beginning of the trip covers the damage to my phone. Maybe I can get both of the insurances to cover 100 percent if the phone company only covers up to 60 percent. At least the bank teller is friendly and doesn’t look as if she doesn’t want me to be anywhere in her presence. Unfortunately, the insurance I got covers only medical costs or travel delays.

I get back at 4 pm. I was hoping I might have got a day’s lesson planning under my belt today, but it looks like it’s not to be. Regardless, I get out the version of the book I’m supposed to be teaching this semester. I take a deep breath and flick through the pages to the start of unit 1. Now my holiday is officially over, and it’s time to get back to work.