Thursday, July 31, 2008

Everything was going just fine until I inhaled that peppercorn

After a long hard day of sitting in a conference room planning, my local counterpart Ben and I decided to go out and have dinner. He had mentioned in the past that his wife was from Sichuan and that she had a favorite restaurant here in town that came darn close to the food she was used to. Apparently though the place is so popular that it's nearly impossible to get into and of course reservations are not accepted. But he had a plan to send his wife ahead early as a decoy and so we headed out of work and down the street to the Ya'an Xi Lu subway station.

The place is located on the south side of Shanghai near the soccer stadium, a landmark I am only too familiar with from sitting in traffic jams coming to and from the airport. I was excited to actually get out in the street in that area of town, having not been there before.

The walk down the street to the subway was really hot and damp. Ben pointed out that people in Shanghai are far more inured to this discomfort and so they don't sweat like those of us who have spent time living in the desert. Sure enough, no one's clothes were becoming transparent and no one was sporting a completely sopping forehead like I was. Something I'd never noticed before.

The subway was packed as it always is at rush hour but it didn't matter much because the air conditioning was fantastically cool. Plus it served to equalize all that sweating, we were now as crisp as the locals.

The station where we got off was in the basement of a big department store and so I didn't get to see the neighborhood as I had expected to. We just rode the elevator up to the 5th floor where the restaurant was located.

Coming around the corner it was clear that Ben's description of this place as being popular was not amiss - there were dozens of people waiting out in front in the hallway. The place's name is 辛香汇 which sounds like Xin Xiang Hui which more or less means "work to bring together savory tastes". What I liked about the sign was the English translation - "Spicy Joint." You can check out their web site at this link.

The place was mobbed and noisy on the inside too, but Ben's wife was our ringer and was waiting at a table for us. We sat down and she did the ordering, promising me a tour of the cuisine of her homeland.

Out of respect for my hosts, no pictures were taken so you will have to live with my descriptions of the dishes that came to pass. While waiting I showed off my ample conversational abilities and stumbled mightily through my obvious listening comprehension gaps but we were having fun and once again I had found another person who pronounced my Chinese "understandable." I continue to accept this as the ultimate compliment.

A couple of icy cold Harbin beers got us rolling into the food. The first course was a cold dish of paper thin sliced pork paired with equally thin slices of cucumber, garnished with a pile of chiles and garlic. It was fantastic but my hostess pronounced it adequate only.

Second up was a pile of what looked like romaine lettuce bathed in traditional Sichuan peanut and sesame sauce. Now I've made peanut sauce for a hundred years and it has never come out like this. It was the perfect complement to the previously mildly spicy dish.

Next was a giant bowl of hot chile oil brought boiling to the table chock full of slices of fish and bean sprouts. Covering the surface of the roiling liquid were hundreds of dried chiles that looked a lot like habaneros. Keeping them company was an endless supply of those nasty little peppercorns I've grown to love. The drill here was to taste the broth and determine whether it was hot enough and when judged so, the waitress brought another bowl to remove the chiles. This dish was really outstanding, spicy, tasty and so flavorful you had no idea it was fish aside from the ample supply of bones.

Halfway through that a platter piled high with dried chiles showed up. This was the chicken dish and it was very hot although my companions claimed it was mild. I heard many stories this evening about relatives in Chengdu who prefer their food all but inedible to anyone but a native.

By now I was going into capsaicin shock as most of these dishes were pegging the Scoville Scale. This was some darn hot food and we weren't done yet. We had a long talk about the western palate and how it doesn't adapt well to the textures of many Chinese dishes. The spices and flavors aren't bad, but many of the things I've eaten just don't sit well on my tongue. This conversation wandered into the Chinese notion that all foods have a purpose and a benefit to your body, and so therefore you should simply eat them. I used Sea Urchin as an example of one that just doesn't work well for me, I was informed it's good for my skin.

The final dish was targeted at the few remaining functional taste buds I was still sporting. This was lamb and it was heavenly, the best had been save for last. Tender, moist, hot as the sun, I could have eaten this one all night long.

While picking at the remainders, I managed as the title suggests to actually inhale one of those mean little buggers that were floating with the fish. Now I've aspirated food bits a million times, but there is something special about getting a peppercorn sideways in your lung. You cough, and cough and perhaps it dislodges. But the scorching reminder that it was once there is enough to make you cry a bucket and I did, until my gracious hostess offered me a pack of Kleenex to mop my eyes. The thing finally came out, but the after burn lasted for a long, long time.

The bill came to a grand total of $23 for all that food and beer and we left with plenty of leftovers to continue the suffering tomorrow at lunch. Not for me though because lunch tomorrow will be of the plain old plane variety.

All it all it was a great evening, another chance for me to step outside the confines of my westerness and get treated like an honored local guest. I was the only westerner in sight the whole evening including the train ride out, the dinner, the ride back and the walk home in the humid Shanghai evening back to my hotel. Being an outside is an interesting feeling, one which I have become completely at home with.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Typhoon Fung Wong

Shanghai is in the grips of the remnants of Typhoon Fung Wong which came ashore south of here in the Fujian province after slamming hard into Taiwan while I was crossing the Pacific yesterday afternoon. It is the 8th and strongest storm to come ashore in China during this tropical storm season and in terms of impact, more than 275,000 people were evacuated from the region and 25,000 fishing boats were recalled in that southern province.

For me though it just means more rain and some stiff wind and another "1st" in my long list of things worth keeping track of, my first hurricane in the Pacific Basin.

I really enjoy tropical storms, perhaps naively since I have never really had any personal suffering associated with them. I've been through a few - Hurricane Agnes which rolled across Rochester just as I was about to exit high school and Hurricane Gloria which plowed into southern New England while I was living there in 1986.

The former was the first hurricane of the 1972 season and unique in that it made landfall on the Gulf Coast side of Florida, danced across northern Georgia, went back out to sea and then came ashore again in northern New Jersey before following the Susquehanna River up into my neck of the woods near Rochester. The rains and floods were devastating in southern New York and northern Pennsylvania and I still remember the call for people to come out and fill sand bags along the Genesee River, an unheard of event.

The latter came ashore on Long Island and in doing so exposed how the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO) and been shielding their lack of funds due to their heavy investments in the Shoreham nuclear power plant. When out of state utility crews came to restore power, they were shocked to discover the antiquated and outdated infrastructure on the Island. Seems LILCO had been pouring cash into the failed nuclear venture instead of updating their more quotidian responsibilities and the storm brought it all to light. What I remember most was the sheer blackness of the sky as the storm rolled in late morning (we had been sent home from work) and the grass on my lawn lying flat in the wind. I taped my windows, ate a late morning leg of lamb and rode the storm out in the dark once the power died. It was also the first time I had an appreciation of how the phone in your house relies on the power grid, after 4 days without any, the telephone connection sounded like you were talking to someone in a diving bell.

In the days leading up to this latest trip, the remnants of Hurricane Dolly made their way across New Mexico. In Albuquerque the storm was nothing more than a couple of days of gray clouds and an occasional shower but it really makes you think about the dynamics of our atmosphere. A storm forms on the far side of the Yucatan, crosses than peninsula, curves up and comes in along the Texas-Mexico border, crosses our giant neighbor to the east, dumps enough rain in southern New Mexico to wash out bridges and continues up to the northern fringes of the Chihuahuan Desert. New Mexico, for being a high desert state, far inland can actually get hurricane leftovers from both coasts, and in my time there, has on several occasions.

So perhaps I have a second 1st to add to my tableau - sitting through the remains of two hurricanes that formed in two oceans which came ashore on the two continents I happened to be in over the course of a week.

This storm though pales in terms of local effect. It's still hot and tropical out there on the street but the wind is howling a bit and it's lightly raining off and on. In other words, a nice night to sit inside and eat Chicken Satay, Suckling Pork and Goat Cheese Spinach Rolls which is precisely what I am up to right now. The pork is the most interesting, as it is heavily dosed with that pervasive 5-spice that is so common in the local cuisine. It gets a bit overwhelming after a while as you smell it everywhere, not just in restaurants. Any time there is food nearby, it's in the air.

Today was a work day so there isn't much interesting to report other than a visit to 78, my favorite lunch place. I had the beef stew ramen which was really, really good and so big that it enabled my light dinner this evening. A large bowl of steaming beef broth with a big tangle of noodles and a 5 or 6 pieces of pot roast. Lunch for 2, $7.

It's nice to be back once again in my old haunts as it wasn't long ago that I was ruing the unlikelihood of a trip here due to the shifting of our work up north. I cut my teeth on China here in this hotel and these neighborhoods and coming here now feels like coming back to one of my "homes." There can be extreme comfort in familiarity which conflicts with the old saw that suggests the opposite. I now cherish my time here knowing that one of these days the context for me coming here will either be gone or changed into "fun" travel.

I heard today that I lost my Uncle Walt. I didn't have a huge relationship with him due to a variety of family reasons, but when I did see him he always left a lasting impression. I recall his house and the myriad books he and Aunt Betty had on a wall full of shelves. And I remember a booming laugh that left me amazed as a little boy that someone as unfathomable as an adult could find anything so funny. He had a dry sense of humor, full of irony, which I like to think came over to me in the "Y" genetics of our family. And compared to my small world, he had a broad list of interests. But perhaps what hit home the most today was that up until recently, he was the only person I knew who had been to this wonderful country, having taken that trip long ago when the doors first opened to western tourists. I remember being awed by the fact that someone could actually travel to a place so inscrutable and wondering what it must be like. How funny that I should be writing about him in that very place. He was a great guy, and in my estimation the world is diminished in no small way by his passing.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Just exactly what is a Rutabaga, anyway?

I decided that I would leave the Red Carpet Lounge in time to have lunch at Tomakazu, my little Japanese place on the concourse but that plan was dashed the moment I noticed that I had been running my laptop on batteries, as in not plugged in. The meter was showing a pallid 14% and while I don’t always use it on the plane, I do like to have the option. So I plugged in and resolved to sit there until at least 80%, knowing full well the lunch places would be mobbed by the time I got out there.

The Team USA Water Polo boys made a few more passes to and from the bar, stocking up no doubt for their long haul to Beijing. When the announcement came over that they were now boarding, one passed by telling his friend not to worry, they had plenty of time. That kind of confidence can only come with being young, tanned, blond, fit and tall - the rest of us would be heading to the gate. They finally relented and left the bar when the agent announced final boarding followed by a spirited “Go USA!” A few minutes later I sat and watched as the Beijing flight pulled away from the gate, carrying its load to the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat (yes, I did just say that.)

The computer crested at 82% so I packed it up and headed back out among the rabble. A large group of school kids, early teens, foretold darker times ahead. I crossed my fingers and prayed that they would not be surrounding me on my flight.

I walked past Tomakazu and realized immediately that a hot bowl of soup was probably not forthcoming – it was packed with school kids. Apparently they had emptied the summer camps of California and sent the children to the airport.

Heading down the hall towards the deli at the Lufthansa gates, I set my sights instead on a Panini Caprese, a bread, tomato, mozzarella and olive oil sandwich. But when I got there the line was long and the girls running the counter were not operating at peak efficiency so I headed back to Tomakazu in vain hope that perhaps a table or a seat at the sushi bar had opened up. No luck, in fact that non-eating gentleman was still consuming an entire table as he tried to charm a mother-daughter pair deep into their sushi plates.

I turned around and went back to the deli – more kids, more chaos – so tiring of this yo-yoing I turned around and bought a bottle of water and a bag of cashews figuring I could ride the tide of my earlier (2nd) breakfast until the first meal on the plane.

The waiting area by the gate was uncharacteristically mobbed, with even more kids. Not the same bunch as I had seen upstairs, but a new set composed of multitudes of cute little girls with stuffed animals and a whole pack of EMO-anime-wannabes. It was surreal and it was loud, and all I could think of was that this was going to be a ride to remember.

The din rose and fell with the ever-coming announcements of delays in our departure time. When I had first checked the board before coming to the gate, we were out 7 minutes, now we were down 40. As we neared the purported boarding time I headed up to stand by the gate, figuring that none of these teens were going to be able to follow the boarding patterns and I was damned if I was going to stand behind a throng in Boarding Group 3. Standing there, I had a nice visit with a guy from North Carolina who was deeply concerned by the length of the Business-1st Class line that was being allowed to board while we were being held. We waited some more. And some more.

A guy walked up to the podium and asked after Business upgrades, the agent replied in the positive but he had a ticket that could not be upgraded and so he left dejectedly. His failure and the now really extended length of our wait coupled with the press of antsy children prompted me to ask the same and the answer I got was “30,000 miles.”

“Deal”, I said and the agent went to work just as they began to board the group I had been waiting with. The instant irony of now getting on the plane behind them was not lost on me as I was crushed against the desk by the people I had beaten to the gate earlier. The North Carolina guy took my pretty good seat in Economy Plus as it was not up against the bulkhead where his was and where the closeness of the movie screen is known to cause all sorts of permanent perceptual damage. The agent asked me if I minded being upstairs and I almost swooned - riding upstairs on the big bird has been a dream of mine ever since I first saw the design of a 747 more 30 years ago.

No kids, better food, big seats, upstairs – could it get any better than that?

The 747 attic is a whole different airplane experience - a cozy little nook above the clouds with 7 rows of 4 seats, two lavatories, the pilot and our own private flock of attendants. It’s like your very own mid-sized plane and it was the most wonderful 30 minute wait to take off that I can even begin to remember as I sat text messaging with my phone, letting everyone in the outside world that I had finally hit the big time.

Getting up in the air felt about the same, except that it was really, really cold but the special double thickness blanket took the edge of that. They must factor in the heating properties of the crush of bodies downstairs when it comes to blanket quality. Once aloft the bottomless little tinfoil cups of warmed nuts and a nice Chardonnay, the latter quickly washing away any memory of the whining over in-air drinking that I had been given over to earlier in the day made it just so tolerable. Eventually it seemed to get quite comfortably toasty although at this point it might have been the wine and the blanket doing the talking.

Just for grins I added a glass of ice water to my wine supply and waited for dinner. My row mate, a lumpy nondescript guy with one of those watches that merely looks expensive, sat there unwinding his power cords and concocting plans to make my life miserable. He took a long, long time to decide between the two red wines as neither was a Merlot and he then borrowed my dinner menu, complaining that he had been shorted. When asked he ordered the chicken, the attendant told him he was getting the fish.

The first course arrived – mixed greens salad with orange and ginger duck leg confit on a bed of soba noodles served with a soy-hijiki dipping sauce and sliced jicama. I allowed myself to imagine the scene downstairs where they were almost certainly noshing on either the beef dish or the chicken dish and hoping for the arrival of the drink cart.

The second course – herb-rubbed chicken breast with morel mushroom risotto served with caramelized rutabaga and organic kalamata olive-caper sauce. All quite tasty although the rutabaga came across as cabbage with a sweaty athletic socks aftertaste. In the vision in my perverse mind’s eye, the Downstairs Passengers have just finished eating their little square of German chocolate sponge cake and are wishing they could get rid of the pile of trash on their tray table.

By now completely comfortable inside and outside, you can imagine my extreme displeasure when I discovered that they had substituted cheese cake for the Eli’s Caramel Apple Crisp specified in the menu. I wasn’t quite sure what to do when presented with the choice between that and a fruit/cheese plate so I went with the cake and added a glass of Porto to take the edge of this extreme disappointment.

About this time we hit some turbulence and I was thus presented with the decision of what to save should things start flying around the cabin. I chose the Porto.

Nicely sated and feeling a bit drowsy I switched my music over to some Brasiliano and put my chair all the way back and dozed a bit. It was quite peaceful, the gentle rocking of the plane and visions of the beach in Rio were lulling me off to sleep. True sleep was probably impossible though due to constant lifting of the window shades by the two children one row up, each opening sending a retina scalding shaft of sunlight streaming across my face.

Just as Morpheus was lowering his gray shades over my tired eyes, the flight attendant came by to take away what was left of my wine. I nodded, and just then my lumpy companion decided to help by pouring his red wine in my lap. The blanket caught most of it, but two big tie-dyed bruises were already spreading down the outside length of my right leg. I asked the now animated attendant for a can of club soda to which lumpy replied that club soda takes every stain out of every fabric, a fact that he can speak about with some authority judging from the 3/4 hour he spent earlier in flight scrubbing manically at a 10 square micron chocolate stain on one of the pleats of his tan khaki Dockers.

He was now apologizing at a rate that would make the most obsequious customer service agent gasp with embarrassment. What capped it for me was his offer to “do anything he could do” in order to make it right. Great I thought, go up and tell the pilot to make an emergency landing in Anchorage so that I can run into the local western wear store and pick up a fresh pair of Lee slim fit jeans in Pepper-stone. That folks, is why I bring 2 pairs of jeans on a 2 day business trip.

From that point on I read a bit and slept a bit and listened to some music. Lumpy woke me up a couple of times by lifting the shades to check if the world was still outside the plane. At one point I heard him tell the flight attendant that he wanted chocolate milk. Chocolate milk?

Sleeping was a fitful affair, punctuated by a dry throat due to my mouth hanging open and numbness in the outer two fingers on both hands as the nerves that wrap around my elbows were being compressed by the hard edges of the “traveler’s personal console.” But I got a few winks in and was glad to see at the final time check that we were only one and a half hours out from landing. Depending on how you look at it, breakfast or dinner came about then with the choices being a fruit plate or a steaming hot chunk of pastrami on a linoleum bun. I opted for the sandwich-like meal as I was craving some protein. It wasn’t bad, and it hit the spot which is really all that matters.

My last trip to the lav was held up by the security measures taken to allow the flight deck crew a bathroom break. One of the attendants unhooks and stretches a floor to ceiling wire frame across the hallway and stands behind it while the crew comes out. It looked to me like it would certainly slow down a would-be hijacker whose attack would be limited to reaching through the wires and stabbing at the pilot with a dinner fork.

While on approach, I noticed an atmospheric phenomenon that was new to me. Especially new since it was happening inside the plane. Every 30 seconds or so little waves of steamy air would puff across the ceiling of the cabin. The first time I saw it I thought it was a reflection of the ocean below. The second time I was sure it was clouds and the third time cinched it. Not sure what it was but it was funny to watch. Perhaps some combination of a cold plane landing in a dank swamp and our proximity up there in the attic to the outside world.

We landed and I discovered that if you want to be the first person off the plane, plan on sitting in 18G. Down the stairs and you’re right out the door, just as it opens.

I was the first person from our plane through immigration and out to the baggage claim area where I waited and waited, the fateful words of the Albuquerque check in clerk still ringing in my ears. “Oops, I forgot, I’ll have to walk back there and put a priority tag on your bag.” Yea, right.

Of course, Lumpy’s bag was the second one up the chute and so he beat me out the door by a long stretch.

I came out of the terminal and was immediately staggered by that notorious Shanghai July air – thick, wet and tropical. But in what seemed to be an unending streak of good karma, the taxi line was completely devoid of passengers and there was a herd of cars idling and so I was exposed to the humidity for only a few seconds. The driver I drew actually knew where I wanted to go and so we were off into Shanghai rush hour traffic. I casually commented to the driver that it was hot and he immediately rolled up the windows and turned up the air conditioning. Looking at my watch, I thought I had a good chance of being in by 7 which would just be wonderful. But the karma train was about to be derailed by China’s ever growing automobile population.

My driver took a slightly different way than I was used to and we slid into a traffic deadlock that was without a break as far as the eye could see. We inched along for quite some time before I finally recognized where we were and the proximity to our destination cheered me up a bit. We were close.

A bit more sitting and finally we broke through and made the merge onto the Ya’an Elevated Road. The hotel hove into view and 5 minutes later I was out of the car, $30 poorer but on my way to my room and having a nice chat with the new manager on the way up.

I dropped off my stuff and headed back to the penthouse where my new manager friend welcomed me by my first name. Smart guy. Snacks were still available so dinner tonight is tapas with a beer and a nice relaxing view of Shanghai on a rainy night.

And oh yea, the traffic is still deadlocked down below.

Monday, July 28, 2008

What kind of person orders a double scotch at 6AM?

I'll tell you, a middle-aged bald guy with a starched white shirt containing epaulets, that's what kind.

Drinking on planes and in airports has always been fascinating to me as I am such a cheap drunk and therefore it's hard for me to fathom how the bar flies you see sitting in the all the concourse bars of the world carry on with their lives. I remember switching planes a long time ago in Salt Lake City, essentially a dry state, and seeing the bars packed at 10 AM. I suppose many of these people don't carry on very well; some get off the plane, drive the wrong way down the interstate and kill a family. Others get arrested leaving the airport. But I imagine the bulk of them just manage their travel through a stale alcoholic haze, arriving in a rotten state and looking forward to their next opportunity to continue their buzz.

I've had a drink on a plane exactly two times, both since the beginning of this year. The first was a free Bailey's on one of my Lufthansa legs and the attendant had such a big smile that I couldn't say "no." The second was on my last trip, in business class where it's pretty much an insult to the United Family if you don't pick a glass from the wine list. In this latter case, the sommelier came out of the galley and stood at the end of the aisle lest I claim to be a teetotaler. Neither of these laid me particularly low - it was early in the trip and both were associated with meals - but both did remind me that having a working drink would never mesh with my metabolism.

But today's guy really shocked me. This was a flight departing at 6 AM, and drinks were served at 6:20. He didn't order a Bloody Mary, he had two bottles of Chivas, with a bit of ice. Now since we were heading back in time, he was effectively drinking at 5:20 AM on a plane arriving at 7:00. How can someone do that and have any chance at a reasonable day? Or maybe this is his regular, reasonable day.

While his choice in how to live his life didn't directly have an impact on me, the smell of those two scotches wafting over to my seat did, and it made me feel pretty ill in the way that only a pressing olfactory memory can. Stale drinker smell is pretty evocative, and it's not something I like after coming in from a night of bar hopping, let alone after being awake for all of 2 hours. It was gross, and I was glad when he chugged the lot and went to sleep, leaving me feeling like I was sharing a cab home from the neighborhood tavern with an old rummy acquaintance.

Other than being transported back to the dives of my youth, the trip was easy and the landing was typically fogged in. I got in early relative to the opening of the Lounge and so I wandered up and down the international concourse watching the workers opening up the swank boutiques.

The doors opened to the Red Carpet promptly at 8 and I went in behind a guy who was trying, to no avail, to get his friend in. Not being a Gold Member, his pal was turned away which didn't stop the requester from heading in, apologizing to his now discarded companion. I guess leather seats and free drinks trump work friendships.

The agent at the desk offered me a drink coupon which I politely declined, preferring instead to go for yogurt and a Danish. In the "small world" category, the flooding in Ruidoso was on CNN when I came in and they were talking about the washed out bridges and flooded race track.

The Olympics are definitely in the air. The guy behind me on the first leg was heading to Beijing to help set up the NBC coverage. He spent a lot of time talking to a Grandma in his row about world travels and I overhead that she had worked at Connecticut General, perhaps in the same time frame as my grandpa Charlie. Another tick in the small world column. While sitting here, the men's US Water Polo team wandered in and out in their blue athletic suits. Makes me wonder just how packed the 11:30 Beijing flight will be, and making me doubly happy that I am heading to Shanghai.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The more I travel, the more.....

I have had so many of the oddest things happen to me in the course of the last few years of being on the road that just when I think it couldn't get any weirder, something new pops up.

On time departure and arrival within a few minutes of schedule. Rough ride in followed by the sight of rain as we taxi in.

And then we park. Lightning nearby means they can't use the jetway lest it turn into a microwave oven. So now we sit waiting to get off the plane for a change.

A backwards delay, who would have thought of that?

Source = Blackberry

The Ocotillo Wildcat

This is a very unusual species, seen only in a few parking lots in central southeastern Arizona. I was lucky enough to first encounter it when I was walking into work the other morning. And amazingly, I've seen it every day since.

A not so terribly feral gray tabby that exists apparently on the largess of workers heading into the building. The first time I saw it, it stood up as I approached, stretched and then completely ignored me instead waiting for the woman walking in behind me who had brought it some breakfast. Today, it didn't even bother to look up as I stopped to take its picture.

Left work and headed to the rental car center where the young man managing the buses intended to take us to the airport was clearly way in over his head. Now how this can be, I am not sure. But judging from his propensity for sending buses to each of the bays that lacked any passengers, I would say he needed a queuing theory refresher course. By the time he finally gave us one, we were a horde and there was barely room for anyone to stand, let alone sit. So we sat there in sort of a moving Black Hole of Calcutta silence as we drove to the terminal. The driver announced our arrival in some language that suddenly transported me back to China, it was that unintelligible. But word came back from the front that we were indeed at Southwest.

So now I sit on my little bench waiting. It's an interesting bench, as it's partly detached below and so it moves every time you get up and down. I was fine until a youngish English woman (judging from the accent) came to join me, two positions to my right. She must have been a pro wrestler at some point in her past, because the way she launches herself up and down into her seat (which is about every 8 seconds) she has clearly spent time being thrown to a mat. I thought I was fine when her ample male companion came along in that he would perhaps proved a balance to my side of the fulcrum, but no, she is still hell-bent on wrenching my poor back at every opportunity.

It's getting funny, by now I have been abused by just about every member of the European Community on some trip or another. And they say that Americans are rude travelers.

Ah, she just left.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Today's blog is about hotness

113 when I finally found my car in the parking lot.

105 as I raced through the cotton fields towards I10.

109 when I parked at the hotel.

Do I need to write anything more?

I think this picture conveys the hotness we're talking about here. An unforgiving sky, a searing hot wall, nothing more.

I started the day once again at the Paradise Bakery where I had a nice little quiche and fresh fruit combo. I sat around the corner from the business end of the place, it was just too noisy with all the posturing businessmen yesterday. Who they were posturing for I am not sure, but they were into a full rut for some reason or another.

I took a tall table near the main room, figuring it would be quiet. And it was for a while. The woman in the Volvo station wagon who had played chicken with me in the parking lot roundabout sat off to one side, and an older man sat on my other.

Little Jordon from Saint Charles, LA (they have their hometowns on their name badges) brought a plate of toast to the elderly fellow explaining that she had prepared it just as he wanted it - well done but not incinerated. He said, "Oh."

I ate in peace for a few minutes before Elderly Man started applying butter to his toast. The noise was not unlike someone sanding a deck with one of those big rotary floor refinishing machines. He finally stopped and sat there reading until he was joined by a friend who felt for some reason the need to speak very loudly about children getting intestinal distress from the chemicals they put in pools. I was not sure of the appropriateness of this line of conversation since it was graphic, and we were all sitting around eating, afterall. But he went on despite my glares in his general direction.

Apparently blackened toast was not what Elderly Man wanted, because Companion Man stated to be loudly amazed at the condition of the bread. He held a piece up to an innocent woman who had been eating quietly and asked her if she wanted some. She answered with a polite "no thank you" which was not the reponse Companion Man wanted, so he got up with a huff and went off to yell at the Toast Staff.

Tiring of this pagent I folded up my USA Today and went to work where throughout the entire day, nothing as interesting as the Toast Outrage came to pass.

Beyond that, it was just a matter of nearly dying walking aimlessly around the parking lot looking for my rental car in the aforementioned heat. I found it finally after trying to open a similar car of the same color with a key that did not work. Yes, you are detecting a pattern here. And that pattern extends now to my hotel room whose number I could not remember last night, recalling only that it was on the 1st floor and that it had a "5" in it.

I'm going to have to start renting different color cars (this one is Ruby Red also) and staying in different hotels or one of these nights I am going to end up unintentionally stealing a car and staying in someone else's room.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The tiniest wrinkle in time and space

Here it is 5 hours after the last posting. I said my wait had expanded from 90 minutes to 100, well, it went downhill from there.

I was originally scheduled to leave ABQ at 6:15 with a 6:30 arrival in PHX. I left home knowing the plane was already delayed to 6:40, but I figured as always, it's better to sit around the airport than to sit around home, because things change. Sometimes delays disappear, sometimes you get off at Gibson and end up lost in a neighborhood at the extreme edge of University Blvd.

At 6:20, I checked the board and discovered that we were now delayed until 6:50, that other 10 minutes added as mentioned above which almost always means we're heading down the slippery slope to "it would have been faster to drive." But the gate attendant came on the speaker at about 6:35 and said the plane was on final approach, good news, because for a moment it looked like we would be on our way.

We lined up and while waiting I had a chat with a young woman who was carrying an Amazon Kindle, the electronic book reader that competes with my Sony. I've had a lot of debates with people about which one is better, and it always devolves into a "yes, but" discussion that centers around the Kindle's wireless capability. I for one doubt I will ever want to download a book while sitting in a Starbucks in Poznan, but the device's proponents insist they will not be caught out wanting some book while crossing the Urals and so the argument ends in a stalemate.

She told me she loved it, and was about to return it because it did not live up to her needs or expectations. Little things like a proprietary book format and bad ergonomics. She loved the wireless for surfing, but I countered that I was so wirelessly enabled that one more device wasn't going to make my life any better. And she agreed and went on to tell me about Amazon's generous return policy. Enough for me to decide that my plan to "buy one for grins" was now out the window.

We boarded and sat for a bit and then the pilot came on with the good news - bad news scenario. Seems the weather service was reporting good conditions in PHX, so good that the pilot told us he doubted their update since we were now in a "ground hold" for one hour. New term on me, it's apparently what they call it when flight traffic control tells you they'd really rather have you spend an hour on the ground without leaving than add you to the queue in the wild blue yonder. He didn't know why, or how long but promised timely updates. So we sat there and wondered why they hadn't just let us sit out in the waiting area where there was actually some air to breathe.

He did give us updates as promised, each time with a tidbit more of information. Turned out not to be a weather problem, but rather a plane with a blown tire (not a Southwest plane he insisted) that was sitting on the runway, gumming things up. And so we waited some more while the attendants handed out cups of warm water to delay everyone's inevitable bout of dehydration.

Finally after 45 minutes we were on our way, yet another case of the delay being longer than the flight itself. Turned out I could have just taken the 7:50 flight and stayed home for a couple of hours.

I hate arriving at my destinations in the dark, even the ones I know like the back of my hand. It doesn't really make it harder, it just makes it disheartening. But you play the hand you're dealt and so once on the ground I went looking for dinner, figuring it was easier to find something edible at 7:45 in the airport than 8:30 out on the street.

Had a nice Thai chicken wrap with peanut sauce at the Paradise Bakery on the main concourse, my current favorite noshing spot in this airport. While sitting there, a loud gang of young men speaking in some odd Mideastern tongue came rolling into the eating area with one Anglo in two. He looked completely forlorn, as though he had been swept up by this exotic wave and was trying hard to swim across the current to escape the pull. Naturally, they chose to sit right next to me despite the place being empty, continuing on with their unintelligible banter (to me anyway) while I tried to eat in peace. Reminded me an awful lot of the two French guys who insisted on sitting with me on a little 3-seat bench on the Denver rental car shuttle last Saturday, eschewing every other empty seat on the bus. You see, we were the only 3 people riding it.

The Anglo got his food and continued to looked perplexed when the whole lot of them got up and swept off like a strong desert wind. Peace again.

Once done, I headed down to the rental car bus and was reminded by the oven blast that came through the open doors as to where I was. Darkness doesn't matter here, it's hot all the time.

The ride over to the rental center continued to build my arriving in the dark funk, people just look peeked, greasy and rattled when illuminated by shuttle bus neon. Some guy got on at Terminal 3 and went straight for my knee with his 1980s briefcase, you know, the heavy leather version with the metal reinforcements on the corners. He must have been bothered by the sickening "crack" as it connected with my leg, because he looked back as he sank into his seat. He said something to the effect of "guess I hit something solid" to whit I answered "don't worry, I have another one." To his credit, he did apologize.

Down into the center and into my rental car and immediately to the point where my space-time continuum became distorted.

Two days ago, I was in Colorado, visiting my kids and driving around in a Chevrolet Malibu. Now I'm in Phoenix, driving around in a Chevrolet Impala. What's weird is the fact that the inside of these two cars is identical, right down to every little knob and the controls for the outside mirrors. The beep of the radio buttons, the little symbol on the fan and the fact that the lights stay on until you lock the doors with the identical key fob. For about 30 seconds I really didn't know where I was, and whether I'd even been home in the intervening time. It was as though I turned in my car in Denver, walked across the lot to space L15 and got into another one. And it didn't get any better after that, because I got on the road and drove to an identical hotel.

That routine though was broken by the guest who checked in before me. We both rounded the corner heading for the front door from opposite sides of the parking lot. I immediately began doing the math, to see if I could get there first, but he had a bit of an edge on me and so he hit the desk first.

I knew I was in trouble the minute he opened his wallet. There, arrayed in neat little rows in credit card slots were those little plastic "price saver" scannable thingamajigs that grocery stores give you in order for you to save on the products they mark up for those shoppers unwilling to join their shopping family. I get and promptly lose them, never returning to shop because I can't stand the embarrassment of telling the cashier that I didn't bring the card. This guy though clearly takes his price saving seriously, because there they were in their little blue and green and red neatness, just waiting to be deployed at checkout time.

What I could tell was coming was "a problem", because guys like this always have one. I waited while the clerk ran his card and just as I was about to take command, he turns and asks if his rewards number had been added. She said "no" and he said, "I stay here many times a month, why is it not there." I ran both hands down my face and looked aghast and then realized he was watching me on the closed circuit TV behind the clerk. I wasn't worried, he was short but I did harbor a bit of concern due to the damage my knee had suffered in the earlier briefcase incident. I might not be able to dodge a vicious assault at this late hour.

He went back and forth with the clerk while she explained that they don't check every single guest as it would take all day. I slumped, placing my head on the desk. He finally offered that it was probably his travel agent's fault. Who even uses a travel agent for domestic travel in 2008? I guess guys who line up little plastic scannable cost savings thingamajigs in their wallet do.

Finally he was gone and I got checked in and she laughed, telling me that he was a Marriott Platinum Member but that Marriott had (in its infinite wisdom) upgraded my room and not his. She asked me not to tell him, I told her he deserved it for making me wait.

Off to my upgraded room and a quick return to my temporal displacement - it's identical to the one I left in Lousiville on Saturday, right down to the mirrored closet doors and the little soaps, shampoo and lotion bottles.

I suppose there should be comfort in familiarity, but it does feel weird to go from one place to another while the little details remain constant. Sort of like those times when you wake up in the night and wonder where you are. Perhaps nothing more than another night in another hotel and another day driving another rental car. I think though that I prefer it when things change a bit.

Sometimes it's the short hops that get interesting

Well, interesting only if you find driving to the airport worthy of that special appelation.

Here I am again waiting on another delayed Soutwest flight, this time to Phoenix, my second home. They aren't any crazy people talking to the air here in the waiting area, but as always the humanity on display offers much worth appreciating.

The drive in though was different today, if only for the minor variations on those 19.5 miles that I can usually do with my eyes closed.

It began only 2 miles from home when a cell phone addled driver decided to stop in the middle of our main drag because he saw a nice parking spot opening in front of the local store. Never mind that there is about an acre's worth of parking, this guy wanted that spot, and a good approach so he just stopped in the middle of the road to allow the departing pickup truck a few 1000 yards of clearance. He finally figured out that the road was not a personal approach vector, perhaps due to me laying on the horn.

From there, just the regular haul down Alameda to I25 and into the regular late afternoon slow down at Montgomery. Never mind they recently expanded this section to 6 lanes, for some reason the traffic still crawls through this section. Clearing that, I passed the Big I and into the Safety Corridor (site of my last speeding ticket) and on towards the airport exit.

When the traffic came to a complete standstill.

Looking ahead I could see cars dodging in and out of the lines so I cut across 3 lanes and exited at Gibson, figuring I'd take the age old entrance to the Sunport.

Forgetting the ancestral trail, I turned right onto University figuring there would be an entrance to Sunport Blvd. at the top, given the new hotels and the car parks.

Wrong! I dead-ended in a neighborhood and had to retrace my steps back to Gibson and up to Yale which is the proper traditional way of getting to the parking garage.

Once there, through security and with a coffee in hand (this is starting to sound repetitive?) I settled in for a 90 minute wait until boarding. Well, it was 90 but it expanded to 100 while writing this.

And so here we are, off again to another week living in a Marriott.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

If this were the Middle Ages, these people would be thrown down a well.

The ones with the little Bluetooth thingamabobber stuck in their ear.

I'm sitting in the ABQ airport nursing my latest addiction, an iced cafe mocha and partaking of my favorite pastime, people watching.

It's an amazing thing to watch these hands free phone users, their gestures and mannerisms and facial expressions give the impression that they actually see the person they are talking to. A thousand years ago, or for that matter, a hundred years ago, these people would have been incarcerated, tortured and treated with leeches, wasps and a good dose of hot instrumentation. These days they just blither on blithely as though they're in a real conversation, and that no one is looking at them like they're nuts. Ah, how the times have changed, and perhaps not for the better.

Travel season begins again for me today, with a short hop up north to Boulder to visit the kids and to deliver some couture accessories hot out of the Hongqiao market.

From here though, I am off on the old one, two, three punch of Arizona, China, China/Japan with a week or weekend in between at best. As the work begins to shift 15 time zones to the east, so will I.

But for now, it's world class people on parade, a cup of coffee and time to think.

Source = Blackberry