I was making my way around the world. While it was incredibly sad to be leaving the Southeast Asia time zone I was in, I was looking forward to a slower pace ahead. I had built in some downtime in the Maldives and would be there for six days. I needed the break from the go, go, go I had been doing on my ‘flavors of Asia’ trip to process the culture and experiences I had. But first I had to get there, and that was a day of growth for me…
I was coming from Singapore and had a late evening flight. I stayed in my hotel as long as I could and then trekked to the train station with my bag in tote. I arrived at the airport about seven hours before takeoff, which was okay as I had planned on accomplishing a few things during this time. Some writing, some planning for upcoming days, and just general life admin that tags along on trips like these.
I was hoping to check into my flight and get past security and into a lounge where I could eat for free and settle in for a few hours to be productive. I should have known better. I couldn’t get my boarding pass until three hours before departure. I couldn’t wait all day to eat so I accepted the fact that I’d have to spend some of my dollars for some food. I found the food court and ordered a chicken and rice dish to go. The restaurant itself was jammed pack and I wanted a place where I could set up my computer to work for a bit. And that’s when it started. The order came out on a plate and not a to-go container. I just let it slide until the waitress noticed me about to put a forkful of food into my mouth and yanked the plate out from under me. ‘Yours is to-go. This is not yours.’ I did eventually get my to-go order after a lengthy wait and found a table where I could sit for some time. I do wonder what she did with the plate of food that I had already dug into…
I needed to get a flight changed from Oman to Qatar. I had booked it a few days earlier and as soon as I hit the Purchase button, realized I booked it a day too early. It was completely my mistake and I was willing to pay the change fee, but the system would not allow me to. It was declining my credit card. I have a free service that I use to make toll-free numbers back to The States, and I confirmed with the credit card company that there was not a block. It was an issue on the airline’s side.
The airline is a local airline in the Middle East and doesn’t have an 800 number. I tried to email them explaining my situation. They asked me to call a local Oman number. When I explained that I didn’t have the ability to make international calls, they responded that I should visit the office in Oman. Clearly this wasn’t going to be an easy fix. Since I’m on a budget, I didn’t want to pay for an international calling service but realized I’d have to spend some money to buy minutes on Skype (you can make international calls with this service and it’s very inexpensive). I purchased $4.99 of credit which will probably last me a lifetime, but still, it was not in my budget.
When I reached the airline, the gentleman – who was very nice and accommodating – explained that the credit card was not working for him either. He tried two of my cards and neither was working. I asked him if there was another way to pay and he also suggested I visit the office in Oman. I told him I was in Singapore and he politely asked that I just give him my Singapore credit card then. When I explained that I only had US credit cards, he said he would have to speak with his supervisor the next day. I asked if I could just cancel the flight, pay the cancellation penalty, and then re-book. No, we couldn’t do that since it was already ‘in process’ of being changed. We ended the conversation with him giving me a WhatsApp number to message my booking reference to and he would confirm back the next day how to proceed.
I did as instructed and sent the booking reference to the number he provided. I received a response a few hours later asking me to call the same number I did early in the day. I am back at square one, as it stands today, and not sure this will ever be resolved. But I’ll call again in a few days…
I realized as I was waiting for the gate to open for my flight that I hadn’t received confirmation from my hotel on my airport transfer. I would be landing in the Maldives around 10 pm and wanted to be sure I had a driver arranged. A few weeks back I had requested a room that I could get to with a wheelchair and they responded ‘Well noted,’ which I interpreted as ‘We understand and will make sure you have a room that is accessible.’ The hotel posting specifically listed Wheelchair Accessible, but always best to confirm. During this same correspondence, the hotel asked for my flight information, so I assumed we were all set. But again, I always like to confirm that someone will be there when I arrive, especially if it’s late and dark. I figured I’d just confirm one more time that the room would be accessible and that a driver was arranged. I had a strange feeling something was off with this hotel, and it’s a good thing I listened to my gut.
The hotel hadn’t arranged for a driver, but even more concerning was that the room I was booked in was up a flight of stairs. We exchanged some messages back and forth – I was pretty annoyed and angry at this point – but ultimately, I knew I needed to just find a place to stay for the night, and a place that would be accessible. I was in a mad scramble to find something. Remember that regulation is very different in most of the world, and wheelchair accessible isn’t mandatory. Working elevators aren’t regulated, or even required in most buildings. I have been using a service called Booking.com and they have a filter for ‘Facilities for disabled guests.’ I put this on and was able to find a place that had vacancy and wasn’t outrageously priced. I’m on a budget – as you all know – so this was another stressful component of this last-minute mess. I had read some reviews on the hotel that the lift was a hit or miss situation and didn’t always work, but I had to take my chances and get something set up, at least for the night. I would find a place for the rest of my trip once I got to the islands.
I booked the hotel for one night, hoping and praying I would get refunded for the other hotel and not be paying double the cost. By this point, I was an anxious wreck. I hadn’t been sleeping well in Singapore (the bed was pretty uncomfortable), so I was exhausted. I had a flight in a week that was booked for the wrong day, and I was arriving in the Maldives in six hours at a place that I hoped I’d be able to get into. I didn’t have a driver arranged at the airport, so I’d have to figure out a taxi when I got there.
Now I knew going into this that it was just a matter of time until I had some mishaps with my flights or hotels. I’ve got emails of all sorts flying around – COVID tests, flight confirmations, visa applications, hotel reservations. They’re not in any order and trying to keep track of what’s been confirmed and when and how is just chaotic. I’ve done quite well, and I’m actually surprised I made it this far with no hiccups. But it just was not the day for me to be dealing with this. I was so tired and wrestling with this at the airport with WiFi that only worked about 30% of the time was not ideal.
Once I was able to get my boarding pass and clear security, I headed for the first lounge I thought I could get into (for reference, there are about a dozen lounges at the Singapore airport). I showed the woman my boarding pass and credit card, which I thought would get me lounge access. She politely said that the credit card I had didn’t work for this lounge. I proceeded to pull up the Guest Access of the lounge page on my phone, and turns out, she was correct. She must have seen the exhaustion and frustration on my face and leaned down next to me and said, “Ma’am, would you like to get into this lounge?” I looked at her like a sad puppy dog and nodded yes. She quietly said, “Go ahead, just this one time,” and while I couldn’t see her smile under her COVID mask, it came out strong and clear in her eyes. It’s exactly what I needed at that time.
A few hours later, I found my gate. A11. I was totally confused. There was an extra layer of security behind a giant glass wall and the signs indicated that this flight was going to Saudi Arabia. That can’t be. My gate must have changed. I double checked the monitor and it said A11. It was, however, flashing Saudi Arabia via Maldives. This is odd, I thought. Why would a flight from Singapore do a stopover on some tiny islands in the Indian Ocean and not just go direct to Saudi Arabia? But, then, I reminded myself, cultures. They’re not all the same. And so I lined up with everyone else for an additional security screening. When I got through security and handed the gate agent my boarding pass, she looked at it, took it with my passport, and pointed, “You can wait over there.” Was I in the wrong place? Seriously, I didn’t want to go to Saudi Arabia. And they must know that I’m here alone, right? Women cannot travel to Saudi Arabia without a husband, father, or brother. I had no males with me, nor had I completed the extensive visa paperwork needed to get into Saudi Arabia. Oh, also, I didn’t want to go to Saudi Arabia today!
I waited, after all, what else could I do? Finally, a man came up to me and explained that I would have to get into a different wheelchair to board the plane. By this point, I was frustrated, tired, and totally confused about everything going on. I explained that I could take my wheelchair to the airplane door and then manage to my seat from there. He was not having my response and again told me that he was going to take my wheelchair. I snapped at him – “I told you I don’t need your help” – and quickly reminded myself that I had to restrain my responses. This was not the US and I had to abide by their rules. I relinquished any ounce of control I had and finally said, “Whatever you think is best,” and for the rest of my day, I let the airline employees and hotel workers shuffle me around, pushing me here and there.
When we arrived in the Maldives, I waited patiently for someone to come and help me off the plane. Please, oh please, don’t forget me! I know this flight is going to Saudi Arabia and I want to stay here. Someone came, obviously, and told me that they were getting a lift for me to get off of the airplane. There are no jetways in the Maldives, and it was raining, so rather than climbing down a flight of stairs in the rain, I waited patiently for a lift that came up to the door and lowered me to the ground. I did get to wheel underneath the nose of this giant 787 Dreamliner plane, right there on the tarmac, so that was pretty cool!
The gentleman ‘assigned’ to me as my pusher was incredibly kind. He helped me find an ATM and guarded my back while I got money out. He helped me to get a taxi, and we had to switch a few times. The first one was too small of a car for me plus my wheelchair. He waited until I was able to get into a car that worked for me, and then helped to communicate to the driver where I was going.
I made it to the hotel and the owner was waiting in the lobby. It was a spectacular little hotel, local and small, but the owner was gracious and the room was decent. I had a feeling I would be extending my stay for the rest of my trip in the Maldives, and I did the next morning.
I had breakfast and coffee with the owner the next day and we chatted for over an hour. I learned so much about the Maldives and how they operate. They are a group of hundreds of islands, only accessible by boat or seaplane, and both are expensive! Most of the smaller islands are occupied my expensive resorts, usually upwards of $500 a night. I’m staying on a larger island, in a more local part of the Maldives, and my room is about $65 a night with breakfast included. I’ve actually been enjoying it more than a resort as I’m chatting with the locals and getting to know them.
I asked him if there was concern about climate change and the rising sea levels. The Maldives are almost under water as it is. He explained to me that the Australian government had committed to taking in all 500,000 Maldivian residents if and when the islands ‘disappeared.’ He told me that was 35 years ago and they are all still here, so that’s good news. I hope it stays that way for this group of people. While it’s incredibly gracious of Australia to commit to taking them into their country, they are two different cultures and it would be so unfair to the Maldivians to have to adapt and give up their lifestyles and their homes. You can’t really compare the Maldives to Australia.
I spent the remainder of my day resting. I could feel my brain on overload trying to process the immense amount of stimulation, culture, and knowledge I was absorbing from the past few weeks. I even took a nap…that is not like me! But I knew I needed it, and it’s exactly why I added a few extra days in the Maldives – to rest and process.
I’m on day three in the Maldives now and have three more ahead of me. It’s been raining on and off almost the entire time I’ve been here, but it’s actually been a nice change of pace for me to be still. I’ll sit outside under an umbrella and watch the restless sea, or write while it storms around me. I’ve had some time these past few days to reflect on a number of things.
I’ve thought about how well things work in The States. I know it doesn’t seem that way when we are deeply entrenched into it, but from a faraway place, I can assure you that things are much more operational there. The WiFi always works, credit cards work (and they have your back), processes are in place and well communicated to anyone providing a service. With that comes a culture of litigation. I fear there’s a mindset of ‘I’m always right, no matter what, and if you tell me otherwise I’ll sue you’ and that instead of accepting that we are all trying to do our best, we are always looking out for ourselves and not what’s best for all of humankind. Sometimes you lose, and sometimes you win. But if we – all human beings – are better in the end, isn’t that what we should really be striving for?
I’ve thought about how frustrating my day was – the WiFi was not working, my credit cards were not working, my phone was not working, no one was understanding my English. I knew that there would be a time in my trip – and there will be more ahead of me – when I became so utterly frustrated with the systems of another culture. I’m actually quite lucky it didn’t happen until just now. As I was settling in on my flight to the Maldives, I was feeling the loneliness that I knew would come at some point. To be quite honest, I have really been enjoying solo travel, much more than I could have ever expected, so to be feeling lonely struck me out of nowhere. But when you are tired, frustrated, and not sure how things will turn out, that’s when you want someone by your side.
I sat on that flight and thought, Man, this right here, like it or not, is growth. I am on the other side of the world, and there isn’t a soul on this planet who is going to figure this all out for me. None of the things I was trying to solve for were things I hadn’t figured out in the past. I knew exactly what I was doing, but this time, it was just me. I reminded myself that with pain and struggle comes growth, and with growth comes strength. So, like I have been doing on much of my trip, I let myself feel it. I wasn’t going to give up on my dream! I was going to grow from it, and while it seems trivial as I write this out, I did grow. I know I did, and I’m stronger because of it.
To receive updates on new blog posts, please subscribe here or follow me on social media.