We’ve Only Just Begun

My travel companions learning about First-Night Syndrome, courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines.

The first 24 hours of a trip are often the most stressful. After the excitement and anticipation of planning and the bustle of packing, actually traveling to and arriving in a new place can make me want to turn around and run straight back home. I don’t know if it’s that more things can go wrong or if my capacity to deal with misadventures is particularly low as I disengage from easy routines and well-known surroundings.
I’ve had too many first nights of a trip where I lie awake listening to the unfamiliar noises, toss and turn in a bed that is too soft or too hard, inhale odd smells from a hotel pillow, and wonder why I ever left my comfortable home.

I call this “First-Night Syndrome.”

Of course, I’m always jet-lagged and have eaten little or no real food for many hours while feeling over-stimulated and exhausted at the same time, so it’s no wonder that I don’t sleep like a baby.

Sometimes, however, I have good reason for wanting to shred my passport.

Like the flight to Hawaii’s Big Island with extended family on one of my least-favourite carriers, Hawaiian Airlines. I’ve had enough bad experiences with Hawaiian that I’ve begun to suspect that the staff are all members of some underground organization dedicated to the goal of eradicating tourism in their state. On this trip, we had the cross-Pacific leg from Vancouver to Oahu and then the short hop across to Kona on Hawaii. We had an hour between flights, which was plenty of time to make the connection. All seemed to be going well until we approached Honolulu, when the pilot announced that due to the U.S. vice-president boarding a jet in the airport, all flights in and out were on hold. We circled Oahu for half an hour.

I told the flight attendant we had a connection to make and asked if there would be a problem; she reassured me. I didn’t see her fingers crossed behind her back.

As soon as we disembarked, we raced for the departure gate, arriving while the plane was still boarding. However, as the check-in agent coolly informed us, we would not be permitted to board—despite having valid tickets and being right there at the gate—because our luggage still needed to be transferred. I was stunned at this level of ineptitude. Although the entire airport had been on lock-down while the VP wended his merry way through, and every incoming flight had been delayed by half an hour, no one in Hawaiian Airlines had considered that this would mean passengers and luggage would naturally be arriving late for connecting flights, and perhaps some provision should be made for this.

The clincher in this situation was that ours was the last Honolulu-Kona flight of the day, so we were not being delayed, we were being stranded in the airport until the next morning.

After I suggested that, as the late flight was not our fault, and as the airline was well aware of the issue before we showed up, it was probably their responsibility to solve the problem, I was told that if I continued to argue, they would call security. Well done, Hawaiian: I commend you on your customer service training. This agent had aced How to Frustrate and Threaten Clients 101.

In the end, five tired people spent the night in moderate discomfort. The seating in Honolulu Airport is deliberately designed to preclude the possibility of an exhausted traveler lying prone, so I stretched out on the only non-floor area I could find, the cold and very hard narrow concrete shelf surrounding the plants. As I dozed there in some awkward and bruising position, the automatic sprinkler system switched itself on and I was duly watered.

It was a miserable “first night” of travel, just one of many I’ve chalked up. I try to remember that first nights are soon past and the rest of the trip can still be wonderful, if I don’t allow a bad beginning to ruin it. First mornings in a new place can be glorious, as when I woke up in Cairns, Australia, at sunrise to the sound and sight of hundreds of white cockatoos flying into the trees around the hotel. Or the first morning of a long-ago vacation in Hilo, when my companion and I opened our eyes to a huge picture window looking over the tropical ocean with early-morning surfers riding the waves, tinged pink from the rising sun.

Challenging circumstances can also create bonding: when you endure a bad first night along with travel buddies, if you’re lucky, the shared wretchedness creates a unity you might not achieve through many easy, fun days spent together. You gain new respect (or not) for someone based on how they come through the situation. On that not-soon-to-be-forgotten night in Honolulu, I learned that both my sister and my niece are cheerful and intrepid souls in the face of adversity. Good to know.

With the wisdom of age, I’m now able to step back and recognize the symptoms. Whether a disastrous beginning is just a case of nerves or the result of travel gone awry, I remind myself that I’m in the clutches of First-Night Syndrome, that I can get through it, and that the dawn will almost certainly usher in a fresh start to another—happier—adventure.

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One Comment

  1. Ahoy Peeps . Your blog brought back 2 sets of memories this time:
    The Captain and Tenille song and day 21 of a south pacific journey several years ago. In some strange, unpredictable way both memories seem to reinforce each other as , shall we say, “unpleasant”. The song speaks for itself but the journey needs some explanation. After several meetings in Australia and a couple in New Zealand I was finally on my way back via a night flight from Auckland landing in Raratonga, Cook Islands to let some people off, purchase duty free, or collect the beautiful stamps they produce to the background song of an older gentleman playing a ukele. For 26 years he has greeted every plane landing there and has many stories to tell but I digress.

    I reboarded and hoped to catch a little sleep on the night flight but the excitement of the next stop kept my eyes wide awake. A few hours later the plane began its descent and soon the palm trees, mountains, beaches, and bright lagoons appeared as we sped to the runway. As I disembarked , I was greeted by 2 lovely wahines waving sweet smelling leis at the sleepy eyed passengers. Only those who had prepaid for them became receivers!

    During the few days I had there i was able to practice my francais, enjoy baguettes and croissants, travel several other islands, and tried to imagine how Paul Gauguin and his paintbrushes must have felt in Tahiti.

    Although he may have learned there as Jacques Brel did in the Marquesas that even paradise can have a shelf life, both of them stayed until the end.

    I began to understand how the tropics can seduce and beguile travellers with the warm tropical breezes, free flowing alcohol, wahines, pedestrian pace, and each day running easily and unnoticeably into the next until one day the traveller who stayed is shocked at how many years have passed !

    My time had expired and it was time to head home via L.A. . I took Le Truck to the airport after a late dinner and tried to get comfortable on a hard bench with metal armrests. My plane did not depart until 3 a.m. and it was only 10 p.m. the previous day…..
    Oh how those hours dragged on and on with no sleep , a constant eye on my bags, and a weariness that would be clear to everyone later on when I tried to board the plane to Easter Island and just about missed the plane to L.A.!

    So Peeps, perhaps these moments of “less than grandeur travel experiences” can occur at any point of a journey as I had “just begun” my journey from Tahiti to Vancouver……

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