Houston, We Have A Problem

December 28th, 2015

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Part One

            Everybody has a personal hell. You know… that thing or place that drives them crazy, that person or group of people that makes them go mad—we all have it. For some, it’s going to the dentist or talking politics with the uninformed. Maybe it’s family reunions or being stuck in traffic that for others can cause deep misery beyond thinkable limits. Some are able to handle their personal hell with perhaps more grace than others, and some people seemingly can't cope at all.

            This however, is the story of the thirty hours I spent in my own, lonely, miserable personal hell.

            It was the morning of December 28th, 2015. Actually, it was the butt crack of dawn on December 28th when my day started—4:45 a.m. to be exact. I was headed home to Tulsa, Oklahoma after having spent a wonderful week in Mexico City with my family for Christmas. I had to get back for work so my dad booked me on the first flight out through Houston.

            At 7:55 a.m., United Airlines flight 428 took off as scheduled. Thirty minutes into the flight (and into the start of what was going to be an epic nap), the pilot began to make an announcement over the intercom that would change everything. To my utter horror, he informed us that due to an unspecified maintenance issue, he was turning the plane around and taking us back to the Mexico City airport.

            Landing back at the airport was less like an airplane landing and more like a scene from that movie where the guy is holding a camcorder and running from a monster (I think it was a monster? I never saw it. Anyway). Except instead of running from a monster, I was desperately fielding visions of my life flashing before my eyes as I gripped the arm rests to keep my body from jolting out of my seat during what I'm sure could be inducted in the Word Record Books for the roughest landing in the history of airline piloting.

          Once on the ground, we waited several hours to find out that we would have to deplane and be transported via bus back to the airport terminal for rebooking at the United counter.

            It was during those several hours of waiting that I made a crucial mistake: Anxiety knocked on the door of my mind, like a friendly neighbor wanting to borrow sugar, and I let him in. Before I could take it back, before I could close the door and secure all the locks, anxiety took over. Like a character from the movie Inside Out, but in this case anxiety somehow locked up all other emotions in a glass cage where I could see how destructive he was being, and selfishly took over the control panel of my brain.

            Now it was 3 hours after we had originally taken off, turned around, shuttled like cattle back to the airport, and made to wait in a painfully long and slow line. By this point, I was so miserable I could barely see straight; it was all I could do hold in the tears. When my turn finally came to rebook my flight, I devastatingly found out that I wouldn’t be able to get to Tulsa until the following morning at the earliest, and that I would have to stay the night in Houston due to full flights.

           Not only did this mean that I wouldn't be able to make it back to work on time, but I now ran the risk of not seeing my sister and her family one last time before they flew back to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. They had been in Tulsa for the holidays and were leaving the following afternoon, and I anticipated spending a short time with them upon my return to Tulsa.

            My only option was to take the next flight to Houston departing at 1:00 p.m. They gave me a food voucher worth $7 that I used to buy some miserable looking fruit and yogurt before going through the security checkpoint again.

           It took 20 minutes to find my gate, because the flight wasn’t listed on the departure screen (it should have taken off 4 hours earlier, remember?). Once I found it, it was like I was reunited with the “Others” from LOST. Slowly, I began recognizing people’s faces from my earlier flight. This time though, their eyes were droopy and weary, their faces somber with a distinct hint of anger, and their hair a matted mess, much like mine, much like the “Others” from LOST.

          Just when I kept reminding myself that it simply couldn't get any worse, I learned through the whispers and murmurs of my fellow passengers (because of course, no announcements were being made), that the 1:00 p.m. flight was now delayed until 6:00 p.m.

            It was at this point that I reached new levels of anxiety and desperation that I’ve never quite felt before. I felt my world caving in, like I was a character from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, but instead of shrinking to a tiny size in a real world and running from hungry ants, I shrunk to a tiny size falling deeper in desperation, running from the anxiety trying to eat away at me like a disease.

           But somewhere along the way, amidst all this misery and frustration, I began seeing the ways God found to bless and comfort me. The first was through the sweet lady that I sat next to on the first flight. Her name was Rebecca. She helped hold my coffee when my hands were full and I needed to move my things. She let me borrow her phone to call my dad when we landed back in Mexico City. She stayed by my side, like an angelic motherly figure when we trekked off the plane, onto the bus and through the airport again. The last time I saw her was right before heading to my gate the second time. She asked me if I needed to use her phone again to call my dad. I told her thank you, and as I hugged her goodbye I began to cry. Partly because it had already been an emotionally frustrating day, but mostly because she was a kind soul and a bright light to me when my tiny world was so dark. I will never forget her.

 

Part Two

         When I found out that I would have to wait 5 more hours in the Mexico City airport, I called my dad. He suggested I find the United Airlines lounge, so that I could at least rest a little. In a somewhat aimless fashion, I began walking around trying to find said lounge. I approached a couple that I recognized from my flight and asked them if they knew where the United lounge might be. The woman, lovingly acknowledging my tear-stained face, said: “No, but come with us! We’re going to the AirFrance lounge, you must come as our guest.”

         In the lounge I had access to free wifi, food, drinks, clean restrooms and a comfortable sitting area. Donna, Ramon and I talked for a long time and I learned that they are Christians who attend Lakewood Church in Houston. Their generosity and love towards me was the kind that people read about in books, like a story from the Bible, it was so beautiful and pure. They made sure I was taken care of, like a daughter or a family friend that had been in their lives for years. They asked me questions about my life, and cared so deeply for me that by the end of our time together they were literally calling me their adopted daughter. They only have one daughter and I told them to tell Ana Pau that she now has a sister. Even now, thinking about them and remembering their kindness, I am brought to tears. I’m blown away that God would put me in the path to meet them, and to be taken care of by them.

            At 5:00 p.m., we found out our flight was delayed again, until 8:40 p.m. Almost a 13- hour delay due to maintenance issues. It was at this point that we learned that the reason we turned back was because there was a fuel leak in one of the engines, and when we (barely) landed, there were 2 fire trucks on the ground in the event that we went up (or came down?) in flames.

The pilot & airport maintenance checking the engine after we landed.  

The pilot & airport maintenance checking the engine after we landed.  

            At 7:45 p.m., we walked to our gate. An hour later we were boarding. In that hour, Donna, Ramon and I made friends with another gentleman who was traveling alone named Nadim. Together the three of them tried calming me when anxiety was keeping me from seeing straight. They talked about their lives and kept me distracted as we waited. Twenty minutes after everyone settled in for a second time however, a voice came over on the intercom: the flight was now cancelled due to immigration closing at the Houston airport.

            Does anyone know what you get when you make a large group of Mexicans very, very angry? Well, let me tell you: it starts with a mob, which quickly turns into a riot, which then escalates massively to form a mutiny. That’s what you get. A FREAKING MUTINY. People yelled and cussed very loudly, throwing around threats to the United Airlines and Airport officials alike. As we deplaned for the second time that day, one woman, in a wild rage, demanded her stroller be brought to her immediately: “Who is going to bring me my stroller, sir?!” she wailed at one poor airport worker. He tried calming her. “I don’t give a damn, I want my stroller NOW!” she cussed.

            Together as a group, we had to go back through immigration. At one point we thought we were going to have to each stop at the immigration counter for our documents to be reviewed, so as to make sure we were entering the country legally. This was when the pinnacle of the mutiny emerged. “How is it possible we have to have our documents reviewed?! WE NEVER LEFT THE COUNTRY!” people screamed and cussed. Others formed circles around airport workers, demanding explanations, screaming and cussing even louder. I couldn’t believe what I was experiencing. Finally they let us through, without having to stop individually. The mutiny was just getting started.

            Once at baggage claim, we waited another 30 minutes to an hour for our bags to come through. This was when the original mob of individually fuming Mexicans formed to become an organized group in search of justice. One woman took it upon herself to pass around a notepad for all to write down their names and e-mails, in true class-action lawsuit style. We were more than just victims of a long-delayed flight, and more than just sharers in a horrible, horrible day. We were in this together; we had each other’s back: we were one.

            For the third time that day, I made it back to the United Airlines counter. Thanks to Ramon, I didn’t have to wait in line because he had gone ahead to be one of the first to get there. Donna and Ramon decided that they would not be going to Houston any more, and cancelled their trip that was only meant to be a short one. But because they cared for me, they waited to make sure I was taken care of, to make sure I had my food and hotel vouchers, before leaving to go home. They asked Nadim to look after me, and like a brother, he kindly agreed to see to it that I was taken care of. At the airport hotel we had dinner together and he made sure that I was okay.

 

Part Three

December 29th, 2015

            At 9:00 a.m. the next day, my flight took off from Mexico City and landed in Houston at 11:00 a.m. Once I made it through customs and security, I realized a flight was taking off for Tulsa in a short 20 minutes (I was scheduled to be on the much later 5:00 p.m. flight). With the faint hope that I would make it, and that there would somehow be room for me, I ran as fast as I could through the entire Houston airport. I had a moment where I saw myself from a birds-eye view as Kevin McCallister from Home Alone 2, racing, panting, sweating through throngs of people, desperately attempting to not be left behind.

          I ran to the literal farthest point that the Houston Airport expands to, to the absolute last gate in the most remote area of the airport before reaching the tiny United Express jet to see if I could make it on. “Was this a joke?” I had to laugh in disbelief as I ran.

            The woman behind the one-man desk was unamused when my sweaty, exhausted, and out-of-breath self arrived.  She took my boarding pass and went on her computer. “I’m scheduled to be on the later flight,” I gushed. “Is there any way I can make it on this one?” She didn’t say a word. Five minutes later, she was printing me a new boarding pass and letting me on. As she handed me my ticket, I swear I almost kissed her. She had no idea what she was doing; she had no idea she was handing me a piece of actual gold. Instead I looked at her with tears in my eyes and relief in my voice and said, “Oh my God…thank you.”

            30 hours after my traveling fiasco began, I made it home. But my story doesn’t end there.

            When I got off the flight, I ran again, as fast as I could, to the other side of the Tulsa International Airport. My sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew were about to board for Dallas to head back to Brazil.  

            Like a scene out of a movie, I saw my sister across the airport, and ran to her. She ran to me. As we embraced, my niece was getting out of her stroller, and she ran to me. I ran to her. On my knees in the middle of the airport I hugged her so hard she almost cried. But I didn’t care; I was crying too.

            I made it in time to see, hug, and spend time with them for about twenty minutes before they left. Truly, everything I had experienced, all the delays and tears and frustration all culminated in that moment. I got to hug my niece! And play with her and my nephew and talk to my sister and brother-in-law. It was amazing, and the best reward for all I had gone through.

With the Adams in the Tulsa International Airport

With the Adams in the Tulsa International Airport

         I realized through this experience that I get severe anxiety when things don’t go as planned in situations that are out of my control. Traveling is just one of the ways that happens. I don’t experience that kind of anxiety often, thank God, or I think I would have to seriously consider some kind of medication to help me through those ordeals.

          Sometimes I still can’t believe how God redeemed me through all of this. Despite all of the awfulness I endured, God made it up to me ten fold by helping me get on the earlier flight, therefore getting to see my family just before they left. Not only that, but He connected me with people that took me in like family and helped me make it through the terrible ordeal. Without them, I probably would have never stopped crying. But they kept me company and made me laugh and stood by my side like family.

          This whole experience showed me that even in our deepest, most sincere personal hell, God is still present. He is still there to comfort, to guide, to love, to care. Through people, God makes himself present; He makes himself known. And God will always take even our worst experiences and turn them around for good, to further prove His love for us. How good is God, to have allowed me to experience all of that, and still make it a story I can share? He is good, my friends. He is very, very good.