East to California

S Aufrecht

After almost exactly a year, I was headed back to the United States. Most airlines will sell you one-year tickets but will only book you nine months into the future. So a few months ago I had to nail down the return leg of my ticket from Seattle, although I didn’t have any firm plans for what would happen after arriving at SEA. A bit later I made up my mind to go to San Francisco because I’ve never lived in the Bay Area and it seemed like it might be time. So naturally I checked airlines for dog rules (no dogs on Southwest) and booked a one-way to San Francisco. So Kona and I had a three-leg trip, SIN to NRT to SEA to SFO, starting at 7:15 am in Singapore and ending at 2:30 pm the same day in San Francisco.

When the taxi driver asked if I wanted terminal 1 or 2, at about 3:50 am and after two hours of sleep, I tried to remember where I had come in and had met people coming from the US on the same flight, and said Terminal 1. This turned out to be correct, in that the flight had departed from Terminal 1. But it was moved to the new Terminal 3, and I decided to try and walk to the other terminal so Kona could get some exercise and potty time before the trip. Once I realized that I should completely ignore the advice of the taxi drivers, we made good time crossing the 500 or so meters between terminals. While it’s beautifully landscaped, there are no sidewalks for most of the trip, so I was pushing a loaded cart and trailing a corgi while walking on the edge of curving on and off-ramps and splits and joins that were almost, but not completely, devoid of speeding taxis.

After ducking in through car ramp exit, we glided through a nearly empty parking lot, accompanied by surreal muzak.

Terminal 3 is, of course, a giant monument to Singapore’s capabilities. While many recent mega-terminals, such as Bangkok’s, Heathrow’s T5, and going back a few years Denver’s new airport had widely publicized disasters, Changi T3 apparently opened very smoothly. It’s certainly big and pretty.

We arrived more than three hours before flight time, and everything was going smoothly, as I presented Kona’s inch-thick stack of papers, her approved kennel with ball-tip water bottle full of ice, etc. Until the lady asked for an export certificate. Here’s her health certificate, I just got it Monday from the vet. No, you need an export license from AVA (the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority). I called United several months ago and they didn’t say anything about AVA. Well …

Kona and I walked around the check-in area for a while; ran back and forth on the sidewalk outside; hung out with the very nice staff (although dogs are supposed to stay in their kennels in the terminal, nobody gave us any trouble).

People started to show up, and we were moved off to the side as various staff spent quality time on the phone. The problem, it turned out, was that the staff believed (from a checklist, I think) that you need the AVA license. They were pretty sure that without the US would put her in quarantine in Seattle at worst, and certainly not send her back, but they weren’t sure if the airline might get fined. AVA was closed, naturally, and they had trouble getting anyone from the airline with authority. This went on for over an hour, while we made nice with the other passengers and screwed around in the check-in area.

Finally we were waved to proceed, and I arrived at the gate as it was flashing “last call”, which turned out to a bit of hype. And off we went, fleeing the rising sun into the day.

Tokyo Narita features an extra, internal security screen applied after getting off a United flight from Singapore and before getting onto another United flight in the very same concourse. Yay for security theater. Mind dazed from the flight, the lack of sleep, and the stress at Changi, I still managed to reach a realization, aided by the profusion of United 777s at Narita and the announcements for the flight to San Francisco. I could have tried to chang the United return leg to NRT-SFO, skipping the SEA-SFO leg on United(which ended up costing about $300, including $150 for the kennel and $25 for a second piece of luggage. Every time I come back to the United States from a year abroad, air travel has reached a new quantum of suckiness. I asked someone in the security line at SEATAC if we were still doing the shoes thing. “That’s never going away.”).

Finally, Seattle. Immigration: no problem. Health Department: here’s my paperwork. Thank you very much, here’s your stamp. Off you go. Baggage. Wait, where’s my dog? You’ll get her at the main baggage claim. After customs? Yes. Customs: please step this way, sir, for additional inspection. You’ve been randomly selected.

So we go through my vacuum-packed bags, and they confiscate all of the dog food (which was manufactured in the US, possibly from ingredients made in China, and shipped to Singapore for me to buy it; if I wasn’t going to get to eat organic foods, at least Kona, who is not a vegetarian, could. Somehow those variables balance out in my subconscious). But she’s going to be hungry! The customs guy is very nice and apologetic, and yes I could have taped some food to the outside of the kennel and it probably would have gone through, but there are no workarounds at this point, and would I like to keep the scoop?

Finally I repack, put my cleared bags on another belt (because it’s so much fun to wait for your bags to crash down the carousel slide, you’ll want to watch it twice), and head to the main terminal, where I orbit between carousels 1 and 8 watching for the kennel (false alarm, same kennel different dog) and my luggage, having paid three dollars to rent a cart for the occasion. Eventually everything shows up, and Kona is fine. Most of the water bottle has leaked out, predictably, but the absorbent pad lining the kennel has done its duty and the blanket and used t-shirts (for the reassuring odor) are fairly dry, as is Kona. She doesn’t get to eat in Seattle, but she does get to do her business, both barrels, in a glorious, sunny Seattle summer noon tainted only slightly by cigarette smoke and diesel fumes. And then it’s back into the kennel and back into the airport.

Finally, hours later, with a minimum of anxious waiting, we are re-united, Gus picks us up, and after a stop at In-n-Out we head to Whole Foods in Palo Alto for dog food, and soon we are all relaxing at home.

I’m fairly used to returning to the US after time abroad, so the culture shock list this time around is fairly short:

And a confession: much as Singlish was getting on my nerves the last few months, I was gone less than 24 hours before I first missed it.