When I got on the wrong plane that fateful December day two years ago, I thought Moscow was done playing cruel tricks on me. I thought that my international missing person story was the trump card for dinner party comparisons; as Brian Regan would say, an “I walked on the moon” tale. But I was wrong.
After my experience with Russian airports on my last trip home, I penned “The Ballad of the Flight,” a little poem that chronicles my terrible time in rhyme. And over the past three surreal, nightmarish days, this verse reverberated in my head:
“Naïve to what the day would bring
We, singing, left our grand hotel;
But there’s a joke in every truth*,
The joke to tell, our airport hell…”
So here, dear readers, is the chronicle of the United 13, a baker’s dozen of Americans who escaped time in a Russian prison by a mere 11 hours. I dedicate this post to you, my dear Amerikantsi, who showed me what our narod is made of!
We arrived at the airport early, got in line and waited patiently for an hour. I was at the back of the line when I heard someone say “cancelled.” No, they weren’t joking. Shocked, I reacted in a laughing, smiling stupor. I turned to the group mates behind me and told them the news.
“Hope, stop it; you’re a bad liar,” one of the guys in my group said. Somehow I couldn’t wipe the idiotic smile off my face. He clearly wasn’t amused, and I wouldn’t be either if I thought someone was joking about something as serious as this. But it soon became clear, that yes, our flight was cancelled. In a normal situation, we would immediately be re-scheduled, get sent to a hotel, etc., but “normal” situations in Russia are about as common as black caviar. About half our group ended up getting tickets, but the rest of us were not so fortunate.
Psychological Experiment, or Just Russian Bureaucracy? The Story of the Lines that Never Moved
After finding out our plane was cancelled, out Russian teacher and assistant RD left, leaving us without cell phones, money, and help in the midst of a situation that would quickly reveal its seriousness. We were hopeful at first, but after waiting in line for over two hours with absolutely no movement, we were told to move to a different line. We rolled our bulky suitcases to a new desk and began to wait. And this is where it got weird. The line didn’t move. No it didn’t move slowly. It didn’t move at a snail’s pace. It did not move. The woman behind the desk sat there, face blank, helping no one. After two more grueling hours, we were told to move again. I began to wonder where the hidden camera was. We waited again. The line did not move. It felt like hell. We did not know who to contact, what to do. We were hungry, subsisting on overly-sugared chocolate that gave us headaches and stuck to the roofs of our mouths. All in all, we waited there, helpless, for 8 hours. Finally, one of my heroic group mates Sam was able to get a United Rep to put us up in a hotel. They sent us to an avtobus, on which we waited another hour and a half. We still had no idea of whether we would get out of the country, but at least we would have a bed for the night. Later, we found out that this day had marked the merger for Continental and United airlines, and there was a freeze on all ticket booking from 11:00 to 5:00, the window we were there.
The United 13
We finally got to the hotel, but the break was short. It was crisis mode. After all, one of my group mates actually knew someone who had been sent to a Russian prison after overstaying her visa four hours. And no, her friend was not a rabble rouser raiding the Kremlin, but a sweet girl trying to get out of the country, waiting for her plane to take off. The Russian police came on to the plane and forcible took the girl to prison. Our visas expired in almost 48 hours. So this was no game.
One of the guys in my group called a formal meeting, which I thought was a very smart idea. This is where things started to resemble my favorite TV show. If you’re not familiar with the premise of LOST, in a nutshell, it’s the story of a motley group of people trying to get off a mysterious island after their plane crashes. One of the reasons I’m so obsessed with it is because I love analyzing group dynamics, the leadership roles people assume, and the tension that builds as they try to reach a common goal. Our group was in much of the same situation. We needed to get off the proverbial island, and when one of the guys called a group meeting, it was extremely reminiscent of Jack Shephard’s rallying of the troops in season 1. He and a few others took the lead in trying to organize a plan, because the clock was ticking 24 style and if we weren’t out of the country by Tuesday, we would be at the hands of the Russian “justice” system.
The Adventures of the Valiant Shelby Macy
Skip to the next morning. Two of us had gotten flights, but the rest of us were pretty sure we wouldn’t be flying out until Tuesday. My amazing friend and hotel roommate was woken at 8:20 the next morning to hear: “You have a flight today at 12:50. You need to get to the airport as soon as possible.” Shelby reacted like a seasoned soldier to the sudden change in plans, throwing her stuff together quickly, yet retaining her characteristic calmness and presence of mind. I ran downstairs to order her a cab, but the receptionist would not comply to my petition. “She’ll have plenty of time with the shuttle,” she said dryly. I tried to explain to her the gravity of the situation, but nonetheless, the young receptionist with the frizzy hair wouldn’t listen. And I could do nothing about it. I had no cell phone. I had no money. No one did. We were literally stranded in the biggest city in Europe. After a very emotional goodbye, Shelby got on the shuttle, and I wondered if I would ever see my dear friend again. I went to my room to relax for a few hours, when I got an e-mail from our coordinator saying that Shelby’s flight was overbooked and she was coming back to the hotel. The avtobus dropped her off three blocks away from the hotel, and she was forced to carry her luggage through a construction zone to the hotel (which I am pretty sure weighed more than she did)! As she maneuvered her gargantuan red suitcase through the ruts and dirt of Moscow construction, the workers started yelling after her “devushka, kuda vui?” (Miss, where are you going?). They seemed clearly amused, and one even helped her carry her suitcase. Shelby notes this as a victory because she made a Muscovite smile! (I’ve heard rumors that this is being considered as an event for the 2014 Sochi Olympics).
The Rage of Russian Babushkas
Skip to the next morning. It was the third day, August 21st, and we arrived at Domodedovo determined to leave this purgatorial madness. Righteous anger pumped through our veins, and we were ready to do almost anything to reach our native land. A large group of Russian study abroad students stood at the United Counter, and we stepped in front of them, trying to explain our dire situation. The leaders, two adult woman, shrieked at us telling us to get to the back of the line. One person told them we weren’t moving, and they screamed again. Another girl from our group yelled back, saying that we had been there for two days. More abusive language from the drill sergeants, American f-words in charming Russian accents. And that’s when I lost it. I looked right at one of the woman and yelled “Our visas expire today!”
She fired back, anger in her eyes “WE DON’T CARE!”
Determined to have the last word, I yelled back, more quietly this time, “We don’t care either!”
In the meantime, two elderly ladies stared at us in disgust, hatred, and advised the younger women on how to deal with the American breed of homo sapien, clearly an evil, under-evolved creature.
“Don’t speak to them in English! They come to our land to war against us! Speak to them in Russian so they can’t understand! The American government is full of corruption.” Then one of my group mates informed me that they both gave our group the middle finger. Classy.
Thankfully, before any blood was shed, the United Representative recognized us and gave us priority. She couldn’t believe that we had been stranded for two days. We got our tickets and boarded the plane to the land of the free and the home of the brave. I breathed a sigh of relief. I shouldn’t have.
You’re Going Home- JUST KIDDING!
Landing safely in D.C.? Check. Customs without a hitch? Check. Rushed goodbyes before sprinting to catch my puddle-jumper to Philly? Check. I sat in the Philadelphia airport, content. Sure, my throat screamed from my newly developed cold, my skin was sweaty with that distinctive traveler’s grime, but I was nursing a Dunkin Donuts hazelnut coffee with cream, chatting on the phone with a good friend from the group, and confident I would be hugging my parents and brother in a matter of hours. So when I handed my “ticket” to the lady at the gate, euphorically awaiting an uncomfortable seat in the US Airways jet, I died a little when she told me the boarding pass, well, wasn’t really a boarding pass. Apparently, the ticket had been “improperly bought.” I hate it when people cry at airport counters. I usually think they’re acting. But this was no role play. Desperate, I lost it. I broke down into tears, explaining my situation to the ladies at the desk. Unfortunately, there was nothing they could do, and my plane left without me. One of the women at the US Airways counter I know was sent by God. She was a short little grandmother with short platinum hair and kind blue eyes. She treated me like her own daughter, calming me down, getting me a magazine, and even walking me to the hotel after she had punched out for the night. Her presence was like God saying, “hang in there honey; it’s going to be alright!” And it did turn out alright in the end. After a sleepless night watching Seinfeld reruns and trying to ignore my growling stomach, I got on a plane the next morning and was able to give my family the huge hug I had wanted to for so long. I am currently sick in every way possible, with a fever, sore throat, and nasty cough, but I am home. And there’s nothing more I could ask for. In the end, this whole ordeal has been a testament to the amazing faithfulness of God in the midst of uncontrollable circumstances. Although it was difficult, along every step of the way, God provided for my needs, and brought me to a place of greater trust in Him. As the psalmist says in Psalm 20, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses (or airlines and airplanes), but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”
*Note- This reversal of the phrase “there’s a truth in every joke” was coined by my dear friends Andrew and Mitchel who had a knack for butchering idioms during our time in Nizhniy Novgorod. I think that the reversal fits the Domodedovo Airport quite well- the truth is that the Russian airport is a tenth as efficient and helpful as American airports are, and the sadistic joke, was that we, poor, helpless Americans, could do absolutely nothing about it!