I was blessed to have grown up in a small town in New Zealand, where helping each other out is the norm because its completely natural. There’s no premeditated desire to get something in return. I tentatively add that it could be purely for the selfish reason, that they also get joy out of doing it. But I’m not sure it’s even that. Either way, I went out into the world believing that the blessing that is the generosity of strangers was the norm.
Life’s experiences soon taught me that wasn’t always the case and that I’d actually led a fairly sheltered life. The reality of life is that there is not always someone to cover your back. Over the years of travel I became fiercely independent, covering all of the bases myself to ensure that I never had the need to require help.
I had an amazing number, close to 20 years of traveling without incident. Never running out of money, never having anything stolen, never getting myself into a situation where my safety was at risk. Does this mean I’m the most sensible, organised person in the world? Not at all, I was just divinely lucky.
In this, my most recent adventure my luck had run out and I was at my most not sensible and unorgansied. I was heading back to Siem Reap, Cambodia, via layovers in Johannesburg and Hong Kong after 6 months travel in Africa.
I’m listing the errors, pitfalls and just plain bad luck here in the hope it helps other travelers avoid such a nerve- wracking travel experience.
- The driver of a taxi at Cape Maclear had offered me a lift. Unfortunately, he had also offered another four people a lift and they were not willing (understandably) to have me join them. I had to find another taxi quickly and it cost double the price.
- At the first stop, I went to draw money out of my Cambodian credit card. In Malawi the ATM’s will only let you draw out 40,000 Malawian kwacha ($55 US) in one go. On my next attempt to withdraw money it was denied. I was left without enough money to cover all of my expenses from that moment until my arrival in Siem Reap, Cambodia; taxi fare, nights accommodation, transport to the airport, visa on arrival in Cambodia and any drink/food for my 10 hours of layover. There are no ATM’s in Cape Maclear so I had been unable to have any forewarning that I was going to be left without money, until I was already traveling.
A Generous Stranger
Luckily the driver was a trusting man and said I could transfer the money to him when I had it and continued to drive me to Blantrye where my flight departed from
- Without having to pay him, I had money enough for cheap, local accommodation, transport to the airport and the equivalent of $35 US dollars which I needed for my visa on arrival in Cambodia
More Money Issues
- The only bank at the small airport had no American dollars. They could sell me South African rand at $5 for the transaction plus I would then have to get the money converted again with some unknown cost – I did not have this amount of money.
- Johannesburg has no water fountains so I had a 5 hour layover with no food or water
A Generous Stranger
A security guy kindly took me through the security area so I was on the arrivals side of the airport and could get US dollars.
- On arrival at Hong Kong airport I went to get my boarding pass for my Dragon-Air flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia. I was denied boarding as my passport was a week shy of having six months validity
- I begged the customer service people to contact Cambodia immigration to try and get authorisation for me to fly. My reasoning was that I’d lived the last 7 years in Cambodia. Had a bank account there etc. They did, unwillingly send a telex through.
A Few Generous Strangers
Unbeknownst to me, four American guys had overheard my dilemma while I was at the service counter. On exiting the toilets where I’d gone to gather myself the four guys approached me and handed me a beer saying
Here, you might need this. As they handed me a beer.
We overheard some of your conversation. What’s happening now and how can we help?
They were four mates who lived in Taiwan and were off to Macau for the weekend. They insisted on giving me some money and even offered to give me more if I needed it to book another flight. They left to catch their ferry and we never exchanged contact details so I can never let them know how things turned out or exactly how much that piece of good will meant to me. They were just happy knowing they’d helped someone out. I’m not sure what I would have done if they hadn’t been such wonderful people.
No-Go From The Visa Department
- although approval was given by the Cambodian immigration, the Visa side of immigration denied me authorisation to board
- I was stuck in Hong Kong with only the money of generous strangers
- It was a long weekend in Hong Kong so nothing could be done for another three days
- Applying for a new New Zealand Passport can be done online but even an “Express passport” takes from 3-10 days
A Generous Friend
I was lucky enough to have a friend that I’d met in Vietnam who lived in Hong Kong and who very generously allowed me to come and stay with her and her partner in their “Hong Kong style” very tiny apartment for a few days.
A contact in Cambodia that I always get my visa’s through said he could help organise things from the Cambodian side. A high ranking official would provide the airline the authorisation that I was OK to fly.
- I headed out to the airport to try and sort things with the airline. I managed to get the airline on-board with what I was trying to do, I rang my contact in Cambodia and was told the high ranking official was not working that day
- Back to my friends house for one more night.
Squatters Rights At The Cambodian Embassy
- The next morning, while I waited for my Cambodian contacts to do their thing, I visited the New Zealand Consulate-General and the Cambodian Consulate-General to see if there were any alternatives to waiting on an express passport. There weren’t.
- I ended up sitting in the Cambodian Consulate-General office for a few hours simply because I had nowhere else to go. And Hong Kong is an expensive place when you have little.
- Having me sit there for hours made them (the office staff) very nervous. They manager came to the reception area to repeat that there was nothing they could do for me and I said I understood but that I was just going to seat there until I had heard something from Cambodia.
At 12 o’clock I finally did hear from Cambodia that everything had been cleared with the airline.
- Unfortunately it was too late. I jumped on the airport bus and started “attempting” to book a flight for that afternoon during the one hour trip to the airport. My credit card still wouldn’t work, my Mum’s credit card wouldn’t work and an attempt by a friend from Cambodia to use her card, wouldn’t work either. More attempts on different cards still wouldn’t work when I arrived at the airport. The hour before departure time had arrived and no booking could be made.
A Night At The Airport
- I spent the night at the airport. I couldn’t face going back into the city again and try to find a location in the dark with my heavy luggage
- With the great wifi at Hong Kong airport I applied for my “express” passport, arranging a random guy to take a photo of me and contacting a New Zealand friend that I’d known for more than a year to be my Identify Referee
- I was emotionally wrung out but I somehow wasn’t tired and worked online until 4.30 am, with myself and my luggage trolley doing a few strolls around the reasonably big airport in between
- I got a few hours shut-eye sitting upright and woke at 7 am to log on and see that my passport had already been processed and was awaiting pickup by the couriers
- I spent another few hours at the airport, trying to find some decent, cheap accommodation which ended up being a backpackers for $24 a night and got back on the bus into Hong Kong.
A Week Later, Still In Hong Kong
By this time it was now Thursday, a week after I’d left Cape Maclear. I still had only the money the kind guys at the airport had given me. But I still managed to get to see some of Hong Kong, the public transport is amazing and relatively cheap. And there are always 7-Elevens for cheap meals; heat up dinners or pot-noodles. Unfortunately, the coffee shops, or at least the chain-coffee shops will only allow you half hour of wifi for each coffee so I couldn’t spend my time working online there. I worked in the hostel using their wifi instead.
- I saw my passport had arrived in Hong Kong on the Monday as I was following its progress online and so I could finally book a flight. Having to use my Mum’s credit card as the funds had still not cleared on mine.
- Some airlines want to see the credit card used for the booking. I booked with Hong Kong Airlines, one because they were the cheapest and two, because I was assured they don’t ask to see the credit card
A New Passport
My new passport arrived at the New Zealand consulate on the Tuesday. I went, picked it up and headed straight out to the airport. I was hours early for my flight. But I wanted to be early enough to fight whatever fight I was going to have to fight next, to get on that plane. I’d managed to make the money given to me by the airport guys stretch through the weekend. Plus have enough left to get transport back to the airport and pay the $35 US dollars required for the visa on arrival in Cambodia.
I was so nervous going to the check-in counter, worried that some other new drama was going to add itself to this seemingly endless list. But I was checked onto the flight without hassle. It wasn’t until I’d safely passed through immigration that I was able to breath easy again. I was actually going to get on that plane!
It was a horrific week-plus, of bumbling’s, stupid decisions but also of life throwing me some raw deals. It was an experience, not a pleasant one, but one that will never be repeated.
And probably the only thing I’ll really remember out of this adventure, in years to come, is the lovely, unquestioningly supportive people that went to bat for me. It wasn’t little town New Zealand and we’re now living in a very different type of age than the one I grew up in. But there are people out there who just want to help, simply because its the right thing to do. Even complete strangers.