Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Across the Left Pond

My non-love affair with boarding passes continued after my stop at the Singapore check-in area. The agent politely and in a most kindly manner informed me that I would need to check in once again, upon arrival in Seoul. Now I had the skinny on this process from those who have gone before me, but I’m not a trusting sort and often one person’s “simple” turns into a disaster for me. But her pumpkin orange fingernails (matching her security badge) suggested that she was trustworthy and told her I thought her nails were grand. She blushed and sent me on my way.

Security on the international side is not nearly so busy and it was made faster by the guards yelling at us to use an open line. Upon doing so I managed to find myself behind a young couple with backpacks that seemed somehow to defy space and time by stacking piles and piles of articles in the gray plastic bins, far more than they appeared to be carrying. Even with that slight derailment, it was considerably faster than any domestic line would have been.

I had four hours to kill so I hunted down my co-workers and spent some time in the art-deco United lounge watching the travelers. A substantial Indian woman yelled at the desk help regarding the none-appearance of her wheelchair. When the fellow finally showed up, she yelled at him about filling out the paperwork there, versus at the gate. The whole scene seemed sort of inverse colonial.

My pals left to catch the earlier Beijing flight and so I followed intending to get a noodle bowl at my favorite place. Unfortunately, many others had the same idea and there was a substantial line for tables so I went down to the small Italian restaurant at the end of the concourse and had a Panini sandwich. It wasn’t tasty but unexceptional - two squished pieces of bread cradling generous portions of mozzarella and chicken as well as two or three uncooked spears of zucchini.

The Singapore waiting area was a bit different, the clientele clearly heading home to south Asia instead of the Chinese fellow travelers I am accustomed to. A French woman was going through her yoga paces on the carpet, chatting with her daughter who was very precocious 8 to 10 year old, educating her mother in both English and French as to the mistakes she was making in her poses. She gave me the impression of being some sort of hyper-intelligent miniature person, a feeling that was accentuated by her blue-streaked jet black curly hair.

Singapore Airlines has a reputation of doing it right and they do a lot of smart little things very well. While sitting in the lounge, the agents wander about checking passports and initialing boarding passes. This paid off with the fastest loading of a jumbo jet I’ve been involved with. The cabin crew is very well appointed, polite to a fault and clearly in love with taking care of their passengers. The plane – a 777 – was also very nice, tall in the aisles, clean and about as comfortable as the corporate accountants allow it to be. Every seat is fronted with a personal entertainment console loaded with movies, games, news and even PC applications that you can use if you remembered to bring your data with you on a USB thumb drive.

We got off on time, had some drinks and then it was time for food. I opted for the Korean Beef entrĂ©e which amazingly was cooked to pink perfection in the middle of each slice. More incredible was the genuine steel cutlery and even a real-live glass, as in made of glass, glass on the tray. It’s been a long time since I was impressed with the presentation of an airline meal.

Like every other 13 hour slog, this one dragged on. I watched a couple of movies, one old episode of Arrested Development, pretended to sleep and generally sat there in pain as the blood pooled in my feet. The second snack turned out to be what I had seen on my personal menu – a Chix Bun. Imagine an unsweetened jelly donut filled with cold chicken salad instead of strawberry and you’ll have a good idea what I am talking about.

Eventually we began the approach and my transfer worrying reached a crescendo. Coming down, our attendant accidentally left the drapes open revealing the business class cabin. While we had bright white overhead lights, they had soft, rosy pink lights. It’s bad enough that every business seat on that plane is the size of a tech company cubicle, with walls, and that we all have to walk passed them to get to our seats, but do they really rate rose colored mood lighting too?

Standing to exit, I was assaulted from behind by a 4 foot tall elderly Japanese couple who felt they needed to get off immediately. I have to admit with all the domestic flying I’ve been doing, I forgot about Asian airline scrums. They decided the other line was moving more to their advantage and so they climbed across the center aisle seats, changed their mind, climbed back and then did another 180 and went out the other way. Eventually we made our way out and I started asking everyone with a badge that I passed what I should be doing. I just went down the concourse saying “China?” and they all smiled and pointed in the general direction I was walking. Not sure if they were pointing at the country or actually indicating the way I should walk. Making a turn at the end of the aisle, another agent wanted me to go on to Singapore, but the previous agent I’d asked yelled at him and told him I was going to China. A small left jog, a quick security search in which the guard kept imploring me with “jah-kuh, jah-kuh” to which I blindly gaped until I realized she wanted me to take off my coat. Me through the metal detector, my bag through the x-ray along with my jah-kuh and I was expelled into the international terminal, Seoul version.

This part of the world has been at the end of the trade routes with the West for several millennia and it’s still that way today. Ancient bazaars have evolved into modern duty free stores with all the goods you can imagine cramming shelves in brightly lit hanger-sized rooms. You could not spin a cat here without hitting a Gucci, Ferragamo, Coach, Chanel boutique or any of the other major luxe brands as well as all their less glitzy cousins gathered together in general stores. I tried to take a picture that captured the 4 majors on the corner to my concourse, but my lens wasn’t wide enough. Decided instead to record the demonstration bowl of Spicy Ox Stomach Soup at the nearby restaurant instead, by way of cultural juxtaposition. Every one of these stores was mobbed with people making international connections and I had the impression that lots of local people fly in here simply for the shopping.

But let’s back to my boarding pass worries, because I know that’s what you’re all dying to know how that shook out. Turns out there is a transfer desk here on the international side and all you have to do is wait until the airline is ready to print you a ticket (2 hours before departure) and walk up and collect it. I got there about 45 minutes early on the first pass and right on time on the second and pass in had I was ready to resume. This time though I was behind some Brit trying to re-direct himself through Dubai while paying with a ragged bundle of cash comprised of Rubles, Euros and Rands. By now I was floating on a cloud of success that was rudely deflated by the stomach turning comment that the agent made suggesting that I might not really expect to see my bag at the end of this long day, something about starting out with domestic travel, three airlines ago. I just can’t seem to catch a break, can I? She told me she would check and call my departure desk so that they could update me, something I knew would never happen, knowing departure desks on this side of the world the way I do.

I made my way down to the gate and sat and waited for the 9:15 boarding call. A plane heading for Shenzen was leaving before mine and before they closed the door the agent walked over to ask me if that was my flight. A kind gesture I thought.

We boarded on time and I settled in for the short hop. A snack was served – triple-decker ham sandwich, some sort of yoghurt drink and a small fruit salad. At 21 hours into sleep deprivation and 10 PM, I passed on the food and had a couple of Cokes. The four men in front of me had decided to supplement their airline fare with a bucket of very foul smelling “meat nuggets” that seemed to be breaded, deep fried and coated in sweet and sour sauce. They ate them with their fingers, passing the bucket man to man across the aisle. The used the airline sickness bags to contain the bones. I about had to use my bag to contain my last meal, I get sensitive to aggressive odors after being awake for 20 hours or more and this stuff was aggressive.

We landed on time and got of the plane making the pass through customs very quickly. Made my way down to the baggage carousel and waited -the bell rang, the belt started turning and my bag was the third down the chute. My luck had held - no reason to try and fathom the process for reporting missing luggage.

My friends had arrived earlier and were waiting for me with our van, another taxi ride avoided. The streets were decked out with lights and lanterns in preparation for the upcoming Chinese New Year and the contrast between them and Dalian in general was stark – unlike most Chinese cities, Dalian is not a 24x7 visual feast. They shut things down at night here.

It was a quick trip to the hotel, some minor misunderstandings at the desk regarding the type of reservation I had (wanted the room with breakfast, didn’t have that one my card), chatted a bit with one of the reservation clerks about pronunciation as she had demanded that we give her our room numbers in Chinese (she liked mine, said I sounded like I was from Beijing) and it was up the elevator to my room and my impending post-travel crash. Opening the door I was immediately bathed in the vernal pleasure of a 25.0C ambient air temperature. Such are hotel rooms in China in the winter – call the desk and complain and you’re told with a smile that “yes sir, the heating system is working very well.” Adjusting the thermostat just made it worse – an 18 degree set point brought it up to 27.0. I guess they figure it has to be warm to compensate for the beds that don’t have top sheets.

The summary of my day is pretty much “positive” across the board. I found a way across that was far less stressful than the Beijing route and although I doubt I will be able to do it again (due to cost,) it is certainly the way I will send friends and loved ones. I also went out into the wild without assigned seats and made it all the way across in aisle seats, my bag made it along with me via three different airlines and four airports and aside from the Five Spice impregnated chicken dish on Singapore, the food was good. Five Spice flavored food would not even have been a problem if every thing and every place in this time zone wasn’t contaminated with its distinct aroma. I was even treated to a Chix Bun, further extending my culinary range.

Lessons learned - sometimes it just pays to trust in one’s innate luck and not stress about every little detail.

Right, like I’m going to do that.

No comments: