"Welcome home," the customs officer said, stamping my passport and ushering me through without so much as a second glance.
Yes. Welcome home.
Despite being one of the country's busiest airports, my corner of LAX is deserted right now. I am hiding out at gate 55, surrounded by empty seats and solo travelers. The exhaustion from my 14-hour flight is just starting to seep in, as I realize that I have another flight ahead of me. Thankfully, this one will only be 4 hours long.
My inaugural flight with V Australia was a pleasant enough experience. Adequate leg room, seat back TVs, good selection of music and movies ("How to Train Your Dragon" and "I Love You, Too" were both well-received in seat 36C). I was disconcerted by the safety video – it opened with a red paper airplane flying across the V Australia logo. I get it, paper airplanes are cute, but when I'm in an airborne tube of hulking metal, I don't want to be reminded that I am kept afloat by the same laws of physics that keep that paper airplane cruising through the air.
I also made the critical mistake of packing my toothbrush in my carryon luggage. Rule #1 of long-haul flights (not forgetting your passport being a given) is to pack a toothbrush. I was lulled into a false sense of security by all of the flights I've had recently, where I've been given a pair of socks and a tiny travel toothbrush. Not so today. I have the furry teeth to prove it.
Or was that yesterday? It is currently 7:49PM in Los Angeles, a full forty-one minutes before I departed from Sydney. I can't think about it too much. It hurts my brain.
The first thing I heard when walking through the tunnel from the airplane was not a booming American voice telling me about homeland security. It was an announcement in Korean. I knew this because I recognized the Korean for 'thank you' at the end of the message.
Immigration and customs were surprisingly easy – perhaps because, for once, I am in my country of origin and was not banished to wait in the long line of foreigners.
Check-in for my domestic flight was also easy, but I had a rude awakening when I followed the instructions of the self-service terminal. When you fly Delta, you have to pay for your checked bags. This initially came as a shock. It can't be true, I thought. What is this, EasyJet?
Well, it is true. I now vaguely remember something about American-based airlines breaking down their charges, but it never occurred to me at the time of booking. No wonder it was the cheapest direct flight from LA to Indianapolis. I won't be overlooking that detail again. Not for an extra sixty dollars.
I have also forgotten about sales tax. What the hell? My extortionately overpriced water & pizza from the California Pizza Kitchen came to $13.81, which was not the price listed. Then I remembered. Luckily, I was paying by card, which the bored teenager at the register swiped and handed back to me. No selecting an account, no entering a PIN, not even a signature! I could have picked that thing up from the ground.
No doubt there will be more surprises in store for me as this month unfolds. I look forward to seeing what they are. Already I see a man in a ten-gallon hat and a boy wearing mouse ears walking through the airport. Earlier, a woman approached me to ask what kind of phone I had, hoping she could borrow my charger. Earlier still, an elderly woman stopped me while I was eating my pizza and said, "I hope you're going to tell me that pizza is good, right?" People sure are open and friendly here. It's kind of nice. I hope it rubs off on me.