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Even 7,000 miles from home, it's a small world

David Himes saw Jennifer Stevens in Land O’Lakes and asked if they had met before. It turns out they had been snowed in at the Beijing airport in 2010.
Published Aug. 4, 2012

On Jan. 3, 2010, a fresh coat of snow blanketed Beijing as we headed to the airport.

Ten days of blissful vacation had come to an end, and my travel buddy Chris and I were expected back in Seoul to teach English to South Korean kindergartners.

We had marveled at the Terracotta Warriors, wandered through the vast Forbidden City, eaten everything from Peking duck to scorpions on a stick, and hiked the Great Wall.

Now, as we arrived at the airport in a taxi, the capital city seemed smothered in a white haze. Snowflakes that earlier had gently floated to the ground were replaced by heavy chunks the size of golf balls.

Hordes of people crammed around ticket counters. People yelled and pushed. We struggled in the confusion to figure out what was going on. Then all screens flashed messages in Chinese and English: ALL FLIGHTS CANCELED.

We were snowed in.

Chris and I booked a flight for 9 a.m. the next day and sat on our luggage in the middle of the airport. Should we try to get a hotel room for the night? How are we going to call our school director? Did we even secure the flight or was that effort, like so many others, lost in translation?

A red-haired man who had joined us in the ticket line stacked his luggage next to mine.

"Well, I guess we're spending the night in the airport, huh?" he said.

A few minutes later, two American soldiers stationed in Seoul plopped down. Then a young Canadian couple. A burly man from Germany. Some more English teachers. Soon, there were about 15 of us with 20 hours to kill.

"We might as well have some fun," said Chris.

We set up a circle of suitcases and sweatshirts and put any snacks we had in the center. Chris set off to buy some Chinese rice wine. When he returned, we each introduced ourselves and shared stories about our travels. The soldiers spoke of war. We taught each other card games and read palms. The teachers shared secrets on how to silence a room full of rambunctious 6-year-olds.

We took pictures together and shared email addresses before falling asleep. Everyone vowed to stay in touch, but we knew we'd never see each other again.

• • •

Two years later, I found myself at Land O'Lakes High School for new teacher orientation. It was a long day. My head hurt as I walked to the parking lot.

"Hey!" shouted a man. I kept walking. "Excuse me, excuse me!"

I turned around and forced a smile. "Yes?"

The man wore a strange expression and seemed to be studying my face. "I have a weird question for you," he said. "Were you ever stuck in the Beijing airport?"

My mouth dropped. "What?"

"Did you spend the night in the Beijing airport about two years ago?" he asked.

I couldn't believe it. Here we were, 7,000 miles from where we spent 22 hours on that cold linoleum floor, reconnecting in a parking lot in Land O'Lakes.

"David Himes,'' he said, offering a handshake. He had overheard me during orientation, talking to someone about teaching in South Korea. It piqued his interest, since he had also taught in South Korea. He looked over. I seemed familiar.

He told me he was working at Longleaf Elementary and moved to New Port Richey to be close to family. He was getting his teaching certification. He planned to marry in February.

I told him my mother had worked at Longleaf Elementary and that I returned to New Port Richey in June. I was also here getting my teaching certification and was working at Seven Springs Middle School. The commonalities stretched way beyond a night spent at the Beijing airport.

David and his wife, Tania, plan to head back overseas once he receives his teaching certificate. He hopes to work at a Department of Defense school. Last week I left for Bogota, Colombia, to work at an international school for two years. We've exchanged emails again, and this time expect to stay in touch.

David and I share a passion for teaching and travel. It's a big world, though sometimes it can seem awfully small.

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