Monday, May 07, 2007

Boy oh boy

It was a tough slog today.

We boarded for an on time departure and then waited. And waited. And waited some more. The captain came on and told us an interesting tale – while loading the baggage containers, the maintenance crew noted “damage” in the container pit. Now I don’t have a clue about what a pit is doing on a plane, but I do know that the word “damage” and the concept of keeping a multi-ton aircraft in the air might be considered at odds. At least those two terms would be at odds if I was running the show.

He told us we had a couple of options – try and assess the nature and threat of the damage or move everyone to the shiny, new 747 that was standing by out back. Neither good options, but perhaps the latter is a share better than the former? Which is no doubt why they chose the former. Goes to show what I know about running an airline.

The crew chief came on after a bit and told us that they’d solved the problem and that we’d be on our way in 15 minutes. They would move all the containers from the damaged back of the plane to the pit in the front of the plane. There they are with that “pit” word again. So as the plane slowly heated up (despite full bore air-conditioning and all the doors being wide open) those of us on the starboard side of the ship watched as they moved container after container from the back to the front. Two lone suitcases stood vigil on the tarmac, their owners no doubt hoping they wouldn’t be forgotten when the plane finally backed away from the gate.

While we waited, some enterprising guests decided to switch seats. A flight attendant interjected herself into the equation, informing the peregrinators that there were more people coming. She was waved off. These people were on a mission. And so a complex entente of five or six passengers finally settled in amidst a flourish of carry-ons and neck pillows. Each completely satisfied that they garnered the best possible deal in spite of that small-thinking flight attendant.

And it all came crashing down when another passenger showed up and said, “You’re in my seat.” Fifteen minutes later they were all back where they started, their mid-journey exercise brought to a screeching halt by the reality of ticketed traveling.

Which reminds me of a clue from a crossword puzzle I did today. “Approved for travel.” The answer – “visaed.” The crowd groans.

From there is got slightly more interesting. The plane, having heated up never really did cool off despite the reported -62F outside. The movies were a riot, they didn’t match the bill in the magazine and there was no sound. Instead of dialogue you sort of got this weird electronic in and out thing that sounded like the adults on the Charley Brown specials. The chief purser (no longer a flight attendant due to a recent round of promotions) professed her extreme embarrassment and offered an apology and the explanation that the plane is due to be “remodeled.” I can only hope that I get to ride on the improved version with the knotty pine paneling and the lack of damage in the rear pit. The first movie was one I had not heard of and involved Mia Farrow about to lose her farm unless her nephew can go down some telescope that these African warriors set up down into the ground, morph into some sort of cute elf-troll and defeat the mosquito riding bad guys having taken a space trip across the barnyard in a walnut. If anyone recognizes the plot, please leave a comment.

The second one was truly a choice worth remembering – “Letters from Iwo Jima.” A World War II epic seen from the side of the Japanese, the dialogue being completely in Japanese on a plane load of Chinese citizens with English subtitles that perhaps 10% of the plane cabin can actually see due to passenger heads. I guess United was using a second semester marketing intern to do the movie planning this month. That choice was so bad in so many ways it seems hard to believe it wasn’t stopped before being loaded in the VCR (which, did I mention had no sound?)

But we arrived and we got to have our Ramen noodles which almost makes the trip worthwhile.

Nothing special at the airport, no bats or any other rabid flying mammals. None of the ATMs were working which raises an interesting challenge to those that don’t do cash carry-over between trips. The baggage area was mobbed. One of my fellow travelers made a joke about stealing the tree frog green bag off the carousel since it bore a close resemblance to my carry-on. Which it should, because it was mine. First time ever my bag was one of the first off the plane.

We made a plan, got our bags and two of us got restless and headed to the Maglev train, a one hour taxi ride seeming to be a bit beyond our psychic energy reserve.

Rather than ride in the VIP section, we opted to ride among the proletariat. Not much difference aside from the crowd and the cloth seats. Ten minutes at 300 KPH and we were at the station. Luckily there was a skein of taxis waiting. Unluckily I counted which one was potentially ours and it turned out to be the one that was dead-dark with the hood open and a couple of guys feverishly working on it in order to not back up the line.

Of course, he got it going in time to pull up in front of us. I handed him the card for the hotel and he looked and sounded really unclear. I rattled off all the Chinese directions I could including “Ya’an” and “Honqiao” and off we went. To who knows where in a cab that moments ago was dead in line.

But the spirits were smiling and the cab kept running and he took the right route and 61RMB later we were deposited at our door. Check-in, up the lifts and into my room and ta-da – it’s my favorite one. It’s cold, it has glass on two walls overlooking the city and life is good once again.

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