Monday, February 13, 2006

From here to there but not yet back again

The first day on the road started with a jolly wake-up alarm at 4:30AM. One of the problems with living in our little corner of the world is the difficulty one has in getting to anywhere. Yes, we can pretty much hop a flight out of Albuquerque and connect to another heading off in any given direction. But, it comes at a price. In order to satisfy the airlines requirement of a 2 hour advance on international flights, I had to take what was available. And what was available was a 6:30AM flight to San Francisco. Knowing the big leg of the trip was going to cost me 13 hours sitting in a tube, having to rise at 4:30 to meet the 6:30 departure seemed nothing more than insult to injury. But, we do what we do, and so I did.

The airport is a funny place at 5:45AM on a Sunday morning. Albuquerque is not New York, so one might not expect crowds and amenities. Yet both were there, scaled down to our provincial size of course. Checking in was painless, and only interrupted momentarily when my agent had to stop what he was doing to confer with a colleague about Mrs. Kzyrchykhvsky’s inability to upgrade to first class at a kiosk. That aside, I was sent on my way.

The new security zone was a wonder of efficiency, light and space, which makes me wonder how something so reasonable could be designed and implemented by the people who run the airport.

I was met by the normal ABQ waiting area crowd – a collection of odd people whom one cannot imagine having any business anywhere, much less on the first flight to San Francisco on a Sunday morning. The highlight of this bunch was a cowboy with long-enough jeans traveling in the company of an 8-week old Husky puppy.

The Canadair 700 can rightly be called a jet and that’s simply because it lacks propellers. But for what it lacks in props, it more than makes up for in maintaining that quaint artifact of travel days gone-by – small seats and cramped conditions. Boarding was a drill clearly borrowed from some Eastern Europe bureaucratic handbook. Loading the 2-row “first class” section was humorous mainly when you consider that those folks had either paid a premium or used upgrade miles to board and debark a half-filled plane with a capacity of 40. First class boarding was followed by “zone” boarding - no longer do they call row numbers, they now call zones. There were three on my little plane and since there were few passengers, they called them all at the same time. I did stare longingly at the boxed breakfast those first classers received, my orange juice and cookie paled in comparison. After diligently buying two suitcases with the intent of doing this entire adventure “carry-on”, mine was duly removed from my hands at the end of the jetway and sent down a flight of stairs to the belly of the plane to suffer the cold with the other, more proletarian bags. It had not bargained for such hard treatment, and I felt bad. This plane you see has no carry-on space, other that what can be crammed under the seat.

We left in the dark and early on, the sunrise over New Mexico and Arizona was quite beautiful and extended in time by our fast, westward travel. Out my window, the horizon was painted dark blue to pink for what seemed a long, long time. The remainder of the flight was uneventful and pretty smooth and quiet considering the diminutive nature of our aircraft. The Sierras were decked in snow and the central valley was covered in clouds. I dozed, doing the repetitive mathematics of how many hours and time zones it was going to take me to get where I was going.

Flying into the Bay Area, we were greeted by fog. Real, thick fog up to the level of the mountains where only the peaks were showing. It was an interesting site – the few coastal range hills around Palo Alto and San Mateo peaking through, looking like shoreline in the sea of mist. As I was wondering how thick this murk was, I noticed the rapid approach of the ground – the visibility could not have been more than 100 yards. We landed, taxied and then waited 15 minutes while they cleared a gate.

SFO is a pretty nice airport – lots of “stuff”, easy to get around and plenty to stare at. I stopped for a quick bite and then decided to head to the international terminal – a spoke on the far side of the wheel. I made my way there and found myself directed through a cattle gate and back out into the general population, sadly on the un-secure side of the security zone. The TSA guard manning the gate wished me a “Happy Valentine’s Day.” Arriving at yet another security check-in, I made my way through helping a Mexican woman whose child was so busy that she was unable to get him and all her stuff heading down the belt. Through that, I headed into uncharted territory.

It being early, my flight was not on the board so I wandered a bit and settled into a nice seat by the window. Read the Sunday Times cover to cover and then concluded it was time to hunt and gather a little lunch. Went to a Japanese bistro but was off-put by the menu, in Japanese, and the little non-descriptive photographs of the food. I suppose they mean something to somebody (judging from all the smiling, eating people) but I was not yet ready to eat lunch in a restaurant with prices in Yen. So I moved on, instead selecting the Café du Monde with food that more closely resembled something I might concoct for a Sunday lunch. Turkey on Panini with trimmings.

Having now spent almost four hours wandering the halls, I decided to check again on the posting of my flight and sure enough – Gate 99 was now attached. The boards were cool, in both English (Shanghai) and Mandarin (上海). SFO has a unique set-up with regards to the gates - upstairs there is ample seating in large, bright sections off the main corridor. Within each of these seating areas is an escalator that takes you down to the gate, where the seating is less ample. Being early, I found a seat and waited to board. As time approached, first class was again boarded early, which in this case actually meant something since the once empty waiting area was now packed. The make-up of the crowd was roughly 25/75 for westerners and easterners. The western business men were stunning in their black and white nylon track suits with t-shirts tucked into their expando-waists. No wonder the world wants to be us!

Ah, zone boarding rears its ugly head for the second time. Naturally I’m in zone 4, the last to board. Now there is one thing I really hate in this world and that’s being the last person to board a sold out plane. Well, that and standing in line to ski, but that’s another story. I get really spun up with visions of having to argue in a dense glottal dialect with some Slovene who’s decided my seat is hers and the unthinkable disgrace of having to check my bag because the overhead bins are fun. Honestly, does this seem fair when where I’ve arrived for the flight 6 hours before departure? (Southwest would be proud of me.) But I managed to get on the plane and find my empty seat (the Slovenes were on the adjacent Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt) and loft my bag into the empty overhead bin.

What a plane! My first time on a 747. I’d always thought that L1011s and 767s and DC-10s were large, but this was a whole new thing for me. You know, if you fly high enough you can see the curvature of the Earth. Well, from my seat I could the curvature of the plane. It is huge, hot and crowded.

We finally got off after the flight attendants spent a good deal of time imploring passengers to get back in their seats.

Spent a bit of time talking to the woman sitting next to me. She is traveling from Houston to Saigon via Shanghai. The “via” being the product of air traffic problems that caused her to miss her direct flight. There seem to be 20 people in her party, including the matriarch of the family who must be 90 years old and coughing. At first I figured that she was spreading some version of virus that was bound to kill me except it dawned on me that she’d caught it in Texas so I was probably immune. I helped them with the seat reclining buttons and the air jets that were blowing air from 31,000 feet down the backs of our necks. La Abuela didn’t need that. We talked about whether Saigon is Saigon or if it’s really Ho Chi Minh City. She said Saigon worked for her.

The first meal came quick. Some sort of chicken thing in brown sauce with rice, salad and some fossilized fruit. And a little piece of banana bread.

That knocked me out for a while and I dozed off listening to the first 10 Bach concertos, including all 6 Brandenburgs. That Reese Witherspoon “Heaven” movie was showing on a badly-out-of-color-tune screen while I dozed.

Woke up, listened to The Ninth (after sneaking Folsom Prison and Matchbox in first) and switched over to Bach Guitar quintets. The thing I’m discovering about surviving for 13 hours in this world of claustrophobia is that you have to switch into super-slo-mo. Now I’m normally a pretty quick guy, I like things busy and fast. But doing that means you burn up all your entertainment before the plane hits cruising altitude. So when they bring a bag of snack food material, you eat them one at a time and savor each one as though they cost $159 a kilo. Crosswords, well you take time to consider every clue, and music needs to be rich, deep and well-considered. Living this way seems to make the time fly. Time flying is also aided when you realize you miscalculated the time zones once again and you get to take two more hours off the watch as a “gimme”.

The second meal was far more interesting. Ramen noodles in a cup. You open, you wait and then an attendant comes along and pours steaming hot water into your lap. Now I ask you, is there anything more intriguing that eating a cup of Ramen soup with chop sticks on a crowded bumpy plane as you cross the International Date Line? I could probably think all day and not come up with anything to rival that.

Two more movies went by – one with Cameron Diaz and Shirley McLaine and the sequel to the Pig Movie (Babe.) The pigs look odd with a green tinge.

In between movies they put a flight-tracker map up on the screen with our little plane making its journey across the sea. At last check, we’d crossed Alaska and were heading out into the Bering Straight. Just about ½ done.

One other thing of note – about 4 hours into the flight, the attendants started to migrate the food carts fore and aft. This went on for what seemed an hour (I was partly asleep). Up and down, up and down, these serious-faced women moving carts. Sometimes two to a cart, sometimes one. Seemed like a scene from Dante, which he might have used had jumbo jets been invented in the 16th century.

Oh yes – a GPS does not work on a plane – can’t catch the satellites. As far as mine knows, I’m still in San Francisco.

Traveling west is interesting from a daylight perspective. The plane is going ~600 MPH, the relative motion of the sun is ~1000 MPH and while night is chasing our tail, it’s slow enough that daylight goes on for a long, long time. For me it’s now 9:10PM in myoriginal zone and the sun is still shining.

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