Wellington/Auckland, New Zealand: The Story To End All Stories

The night before I left Wellington I packed. I was getting good at this whole preparation thing, instead of running around like a madman a couple hours before my flight. So by the morning, I was ready to leave the country in no time at all.

Jess drove me to the airport and came in to keep me company before my flight. I lugged my large pack, daypack and snowboard up to the check-in desk and fumbled around my pockets for my passport. But it wasn’t in my travel wallet, so then I checked my jacket. But it wasn’t in there either. And then I started getting hot, like when you know something bad is happening and all you’re allowed to do is sit back and watch the horror. That little butterfly in my stomach had butterflies in its stomach. I looked at Jess and the Air New Zealand attendant and quietly said, “I can’t find my passport.”

I used their courtesy phone to call the airport lost & found, to see if maybe it had fallen out of my pocket when I arrived in Wellington. Of course, I had to have it when I landed in Christchurch, but after that, you don’t need your passport for domestic travel, so it could be in any of the cities I had visit: Christchurch, Queenstown, Wanaka or Wellington. Except for Christchurch, I called the every police department and asked if a passport had been returned. I called the embassy and consulate and asked them if they had been given any found passports. Nothing. A very nice woman at the consulate explained to me that if I really had lost it, I would have to get a police report reporting the loss and show up at the Consulate General in Auckland to be issued a replacement. An emergency one could be produced in a day, if necessary. Unfortunately, it was Friday and the Consulate is closed on weekends and all US and NZ public holidays, including Labor Day, which was Monday.

I called up Orbitz and rebooked my flights. The plan was to take an early-morning flight to Auckland, getting me into the city around 7:30 AM. The Consulate opens at 8, so I would be able to put my application in first thing in the morning. There were two options for leaving: I could take a 6 PM flight out that same day, leaving me only 10 hours from the time I land to the time my next plane leaves to get a new passport, or a red-eye flight which left at 3 the next morning. Of course, after thinking about it while on the phone with the travel agent (whom I even asked “Hey … do you think I could get a new US Passport with that much time?”), I took the flight leaving at 6 PM. I love a good challenge.

Now the worst part was that I was supposed to fly to San Francisco that day and spend the weekend with my brother and parents. It would’ve been the first time we’d all be together since my grandfather’s birthday more than a year ago. I only found out that my passport was gone after my parents boarded their flight in Boston.

If you had looked into my eyes on Tuesday morning, you would’ve seen the raw, primal determination of a very desperate man. I pushed young and old out of my way as I made a dash out of the arrival gate. My bags came pretty quickly, and I left them at the airport i-site. After lengthy cab ride through rush hour traffic, I arrived at the US Consulate General. I presented my police report and photo identification to the woman behind the bulletproof glass who then asked “When do you intend on leaving?”, and then laughed when I said “Umm … 6?”

I waited there for about 30 minutes before a man called out my name and asked me for the story. I told him the whole thing, from when I arrived to when I realized I lost it, and that’s when he slapped in front of me my original passport application from 6 years ago and declared “I’ve issued emergency passports at midnight based on this.” It seems their computer system keeps track of all these bits of paper, and since my original application (complete with pictures and fingerprints) was in the system, they could definitively state that I was me. I raised my left hand and took an oath stating everything I had asserted was true (later, my friends would tell me the oath was invalid because I was supposed to raise my right hand), and the consular officer said, “Just sit back down and we should have a new passport for you in about 20 minutes.” Sure enough, less than 2 hours after I arrived at the building, I was walking out with a brand new US Passport. Sure, it was only good for a year, and it didn’t have the picture of Fat Bj on it, but it was good enough.

I watched a movie on my laptop at the airport while I waited for my flight. It was only as I was walking on the airplane did I realized that I was finally going home after 1 1/2 years.

And then everything went in the shitter.

I reached seat 47A with a bottle of water and my book in my hand. I tossed the water on my window seat and began to put my backpack in the overhead compartment. The very spaced out woman in the aisle seat 47B slowly reached over and picked up my water bottle and said, “Thanks …”. I chuckled at the weird joke. She was still holding onto my water as I motioned that I was going to be sitting next to her. “Are you sure?” “Um, yeah, why? Is there a mistake with the seating?” “I don’t know, is there a mistake?” Ok …. She finally got up and let me pass, but then she kept walking down the aisle away from the seats, with my water bottle! I started saying “Ma’am … Ma’am!” I lunged over the seat in front of me and grabbed her by the shoulder and swung her around. “Can I have my water back?” “Sure … I thought it was a gift.”

I sat in my seat thinking about how lucky I was to be seated next to a strange woman and then I started counting the number of hours before we land in LAX. I stopped at 15, and that would’ve barely gotten me to San Diego.

And that’s when things got even weirder. More and more frequently, she would turn to me and speak absolute nonsense. It was definitely English, but it was like she was answering questions that were never asked. For example, I never asked “If you could describe the two of us in numbers, what would we be?”, but as I was staring out of the window, she turns to me and says, “You’re a 12 and I’m an 11.” I made the mistake of asking what that meant, and she explained, “Well there are like 24 hours in a day, so … you’re like half that, and I’m like 11.” So then I’m thinking, “Wait how come she gets to be an 11 … is this like a ranking system?”

Once, she held up her hands, with her fingers touching the opposing fingers on the other hand in a strange symmetrical shape and says, “This is who I am.” Oh my god …

Then she would say, “What can you teach me?” And I held my tongue from saying, “Let’s start with How To Be Quiet.”

Around this time the pilot gets on the PA with news that the co-pilot’s seat has been acting up and they need to get the mechanics in to fix it. It was also around this time that my new friend started complaining about a bump on her forehead and how much it stung. An idea got into my head and suddenly I felt compelled to tell someone. When the crazy woman went to the toilet, I jumped up and went to the back of the plane to talk to a flight attendant. “Hi, you know the woman I’m sitting next to?” By now she had made her presence known to the attendants and the passengers around her, so I had assumed her reputation spread. The flight attendant suddenly stopped what she was doing and looked at me with wide eyes and anticipation. “Yeah …”. “Well, she’s been acting pretty strange and now she’s complaining about a bump on her head, and I was just worried that it was a concussion or something like that.” Another flight attendant walks into the area and the first one turns to her and says “Hey, remember that passenger we were supposed to keep an eye on? What seat was she in?” “47B. She’s on some kind of medication.”

You’ve got to be kidding me … It seems that she crew was warned about her, that she was traveling alone and on medication, and they were supposed to watch her. I told them about her behavior and they promised to stay on top of it. I explained that she wasn’t violent or anything, but that she wasn’t making much sense.

And then she got violent.

In her defense, the crew wasn’t doing much to make us comfortable. It was 2 hours into the Co-Pilot’s Seat Fiasco (a.k.a. Emergency At 20 Feet), and they hadn’t turned on the cabin air conditioner, so the air was hot, humid and filled with B.O. They hadn’t come around with refreshments, nor had they turned on the entertainment system. And to make matters worse, we were supposed to be getting our meals at this point in the flight. So the passengers were hot, sweaty, hungry, dehydrated and bored. Even if you weren’t off your rocker, it was enough to send you to the edge.

The crazy woman started getting quite annoyed at the air system. She would yell out to the plane about how we need air and some circulation. Then she started turning on me, her long-time friend, teacher and #12. Without warning or reason, she would suddenly turn to me and say, “You know what, why don’t you just mind your own business!” Damnit woman, that’s what I’ve been trying to do!!

The flight attendants finally turned on the entertainment system and the air control, so I quickly put on my headphones and tried to focus deeply on Iron Man. Oh but that didn’t stop her, she would either tap me until I took off the headphones and listened, or she would just talk at the side of my face, while I was intently staring forward.

Finally the plane taxied and took off. Soon after we were in the air, they rolled out the food carts and started serving dinner. The crazy woman was quite hungry, and this wasn’t helping her condition. The final nail in the coffin was the fact that they wouldn’t give her any alcohol, as it was one of the stipulations of her being on the flight. This really made her angry, and she started screaming out things like, “The rich are telling the poor they can’t have any wine!” Though purely philosophically speaking, I found it ironic that she would classify the flight attendants as the rich and the passengers as the poor. Maybe she was getting confused with Those That Have Power and Those That Don’t. But I didn’t feel like debating it.

During the meal, they made the standard speech about taking any loose change you might have and putting it in the Unicef envelope. The crazy woman nominated herself as spokesperson for Unicef and gave a hilarious alternative: “You can put any spare change in the envelope and feed children in Africa … or food, you can just send food directly to them.” And then she mimed taking some food off the tray and putting it in the paper envelope. Hey, it got a chuckle out of me …

I started feeling a bit uncomfortable, and at the suggestion of another passenger, asked the flight attendant if there was another seat I could move to. Unfortunately the flight was packed solid and there wasn’t any room left. A minute later they came back and said there was one seat available. “Great, which one?” “This one”, he said, and patted the seat directly in front of the crazy woman. Perfect, thanks for nothing.

One of the other rude things she said to me was “You stink, you smell like formaldehyde.” Now initially I passed it off as a crazy rant, but then I thought about it … I was wearing the jacket and shirt that I had with me in Rotorua. I buried my face in my collar and took a big whif, and I got a nose full of sulphur. Hm … maybe I do stink …That’s one for you, crazy lady.

For the rest of the flight she moved around alot. Much of the time she would spend in other parts of the airplane, bothering other passengers. When we landed, the people around me were patting me on the shoulder and congratulating me. Each one looked at me, smiled and said that I must have the patience of a saint, and that they’re not sure how I put up with it. One guy was chuckling about how he had never seen anyone so completely focused on watching the crap movies they have on the entertainment system. “I don’t think any of those movies has ever had such a captive audience!”

On the bus to the terminal I was making new friends based solely on being The Guy Who Had To Sit Next To That Woman. Then they’d share with me some of their airplane horror stories.

It had been a very long flight, but in the end I was just glad to be that much closer to going home. And hey, I got a pretty decent story out of it.

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