Sunday, September 24, 2006

Home Sweet Home

There really is no place like home. Sure, that sentiment is trite. But truer words were never spoken.

Getting there though is probably what makes one feel that way.

Since all my pals had spent the time throwing gasoline on the fire that is the Chinese economy, there was no way we were going to fit in one cab for the trip to the airport. So we arranged for the hotel van to take us there at the rate of about $100 for 5 of us. Sounds like lot, but it certainly doesn't compare to a US airport shuttle ride. And in China there is no tipping!

Checking out was a breeze, which surprised me since it seemed like I'd been there for months. As we waited for the van, I had to intercede on the behalf of my suitcases when one of the doormen insisted on loading them in a lower-caste "taxi van" that some of my other co-workers had commissioned. They were not going the full way, electing to finish up the final 20k on the Maglev which we had already ridden once on this trip.

The Buick arrived and the concierge immediately decided it was too diminuitive for our needs. So he sent for the "big" van which turned out to be a giant Mercedes beast with more than enough room for all of us. Off we went.

Driving across Shanghai is the same pretty much any time of the day except for that early morning jaunt I described last week. Traffic, that doesn't end until you cross the Huangpu and get into Pudong. So we sat and looked at the ever present laundry hanging from the high ride balconies. The driver was silent as always and the immitation faux burlwood trim on the console was wishing it was part of a Benz on the Autobahn instead of a van on the A20.

We made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare. Naturally the driver dropped us at Row A of the international departure zone not knowing we were checking in at Row P. Another slog across the marble plains, this time gratefully devoid of skimming bats.

Check in was a breeze and my dead weight suitcase did not trip the scales. On the bulletin board was a notice telling all those flying to the US that the must go through security between zones 19 and 22, which incidentally happened to be back at Row A. Another slog, still no bats.

The gel and lotion ban was extended to all flights heading into our air space so they made it clear that we needed to not have those things in hand. All but one of us made it through, Big Ham being nabbed for a prescription ointment (we won't go into those details) that had scrip with it that had his shortened name, not his given version. When he pulled out his American Express card I immediately wondered if this was a pathetic attempt at a bribe, but it turned out the card held his shortened name and that the guards were willing to accept it as identification.

Off to gate 19 for departure, back again in parallel to Row P. We'd now transversed the Pudong Airport completely 3 times, and still no bats.

Waiting for the departure, it became obvious that the Asiana Air 747 at our gate (destination Inchon) was not in a hurry to leave. Even though we were 15 minutes from the purported beginning of boarding. Just for grins I went looking for a monitor, which interestingly are far less common than the plasma screens on every surface that run a tape loop of some European version of Candid Camera. I found one, gate change, nice of them to tell us.

Back to Gate 17, about the equivalent of Row F. And a delay. Chinese airport officials are kind of funny - they talk fast and softly. First in Chinese and then in some sort of version of Traveler's English. Which is to say unless you hold your breath, you miss the messages. The delay was unexplained, but short and I did manage to collect the message that our carry on bags would be searched again. I wondered how that was going to be carried out in a narrow hallway leading up to a jetway at the bottom of the escalator.

They finally called for steerage and down we went. Ten guys were checking bags. My turn arrived and I was called over and asked to place mine on a backwards chair. The official asked me to open the lid, I did, he patted the bag twice, apparently blessing it and sent me on. Hmmm.

The plane was hot as the air conditioning was not working. The pilot apologized and promised she'd fix it personally as soon as we were airborne. I slid into my seat and immediately realized I was once again the victim of genetics - my femur length provided an nice bridge between the back of my seat and the back of the one in front. Realizing that that wasn't going to work for 11 hours, I unloaded all the magazines and catalogues from the seat back and put them in the overhead. I bought myself another 3/4", or enough to prevent sub-patellal blood clots from forming.

We got off once some deal with the paperwork for the fuel was resolved (they wouldn't accept the pilot's Master Card?) and we were on our way.

Not much to tell about the flight, it was long, The Poseidon Adventure is perhaps a bad choice in disaster films for a trans-Pacific flight, the food was routine, including the ritual pouring-of-the-hot-water-into-the-Ramen-sitting-on-your-lap, the other movies were okay although I'm guessing that Over the Hedge was an odd one for the 75% Asian crowd, and I think I mentioned it was long.

My rowmates were kind enough to time their bathroom visits to coincide with me standing up. A refreshing change. The young woman sitting directly next to me couldn't figure out how to let the air out of her neck pillow, compound valves not being her field of expertise. She also had the strange habit of peeling the grapes that came with our meals. And all this time I thought that old Mae West line was a double entendre - "Beulah, peel me a grape." She was little bother until she started throwing up while we were taxiing into the gate at SFO. Luckily she used the bag, unluckily (for the cleaners) she rolled it up and shoved it in the seat back.

We got off the plane, cleared customs and waited for the bags, ours being once again the last ones off the plane. This time though - no rush. Re-checked, went back through security and on to our gate. This time 79 out of ..... 79.

Being back in a US airport, we get treated to all those glorious traveler's outfits that make you wonder what the heck people are thinking. I won't say too much about the giant pregnant woman in the turquoise two-piece outfit consisting of a frilly halter top and hip-hugging parachute pants except to say I wondered if jet lag induced hallucinations were kicking in.

Our flight was there are ready to go once we figured out yet another gate change. Oddly, they boarded us and a second flight through the same doorway and jetway, a United agent down the ramp directing traffic depending on destination. Even with the coaching, two people heading for Denver managed to get on our plane, realizing their mistake just before take off.

The final indignity - a non-reclining seat for the final 2 hour trip. Perhaps better than the inverse angle seat I had on the way over, all those weeks ago.

Pulled in on time and found my lovely wife waiting for me just outside the sterile zone. I was early and out of context so she
didn't recognize me as I approached. Surprised, she stood up and as I went to offer my biggest Shanghai hug, I knocked her newly purchased Starbucks Vanilla Steamer out of her hand, spraying it all over the floor. Retrieving the cup and the lid, we bolted out of there, making it clear we knew nothing of the high temperature lactic disaster that now greeted visitors to the last gift shop at the end of the line.


It was good to be home.

In closing this trip, let me say "thanks" to all my loyal readers. I get a lot of feedback and it's always positive so it's nice to know that my rantings are appreciated. I have a lot of fun writing these updates and I hope they're fun for you too.

Some final words - the big learning for me on this expedition had to do with being open to new things. I'm not an intrepid guy and it wasn't that long ago that I hid my head beneath a blanket for the whole 5 hours of my first drive into Mexico. Here, 12 years later I'm bombing down muddy irrigation ditch roads in a mini-van with no shocks with a guy I've never met who doesn't speak English. Perhaps a tame adventure for many, but a true departure for me.



This last picture - one of a dozen funny translations you encounter on the other sides of the world that are always worthy of a chuckle. And being open to a chuckle is perhaps the most profound message traveling can give you. Because if you can do that, the doors open and the world appears.

Next stop - San Carlos, Sonora. Please stop by again!

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