Thursday, December 04, 2008

The 1st Third

Going home today – a better thought has never been thunk. And after doing my requisite packing, re-packing, unpacking, analyzing, packing and adjusting, I finally arrived at a luggage arrangement that I felt was capable of seeing me back to the west. Well, it is the west even though I will be traveling east.

I have an interesting bunch of stuff today – my two trunks, nested inside each other and completely empty. My steady tree frog green Timbuk2 messenger bag is there for things requiring immediate access and I have my brand spanking new orange-lined black Binhao rolling carry-on bag from the Da Cai Shi market which by the way is a bit like saying “PIN number” or asking for the location of an “ATM machine.”

Da Cai Shi literally translates as “Big Plant Market” which is an interesting name as it sells just about everything but.

After one more late night meeting I crawled into bed and made it about 10 pages into the last chapter of my pirate book, Empire of the Blue Water, the story of Henry Morgan and his rampaging corsair army known as the Brethren. It’s been a great book for the last 6 months as I never seem to get more than 5 pages under my belt each evening, not because it’s boring but rather due to the fact that international travel shifts my daily clock to 9PM for bedtime.

The alarm came early at 5 but I got up and got focused and was ready to roll by 6:15 when James was scheduled to arrive. For some reason I went through a series of forgetting little things like my passport (bed) and phone (bathroom sink) and scarf (desk chair) before making it out the door for the final push downstairs. Seems odd doesn’t it, considering my dedication to packing last night?

I made it down to the lobby by 6:16, four minutes ahead of James, heading straight outside as he keeps the clock in the car 20 minutes fast and is always very early. Not today, my black Honda was nowhere to be seen. I tucked myself into a nook behind one or the giant stone pillars to get out of the death-dealing Siberian gusts and waited. Looking up, I noticed a familiar powder lightly covering the Plexiglas half domes that are held up by the giant pillars – snow. Looking up at the streetlights it became clear – it was snowing. Isn’t that just my luck?

My Chinese cell phone was turned off and stowed in my bag so I retrieved it and powered it up figuring James might be calling to tell me where the heck he was. Sure enough, 30 seconds later I get the news – running late, snowing hard in Dalian. I wouldn’t call what I was looking at as “hard”, but then I grew up in Rochester, home of the 5 meter winters. This was a flurry.

Ten minutes later he rolled in and we were on our way. I asked him if the weather was generally different in Kai Fa Qu than in downtown and he confirmed it.

We motored down the expressway towards town, passing dump trucks with no lights, people riding bicycles in the wrong direction on the shoulder and the early work crews out sweeping the road with their tree branch brooms. In other words, just another winter commute in the Vancouver of Asia.

Every once in a while a gale would blow across the road creating little patches of blowing snow on the road surface. This was dry stuff being dropped by isolated clouds rolling in off the ocean and so nothing was sticking or melting. The road changed though when we made it into town - it was uniformly wet, the result of what must have been rain that changed to snow around dawn. The sweepers had created tiny 1 square foot piles of dirty snow every ten feet or so in the gutters. The streets were also much busier now and the eternal battle between those on foot and those in cars had begun.

I asked James whether he thought the planes would be delayed and he said “Domestic – no, International – almost certainly”, great, just what I need, a “tough love” chauffeur. But we made it in plenty of time, only about ½ hour from start to stop, ironically faster than the normal trip from the Shangri La which sits right there in the city.

International boarding at the Dalian airport is much more civilized than domestic sporting none of the scrums or queues, just orderly little lines. My station was open and I was about 4th in line and the process presented no problems aside from the fact that I noticed that the agent had not tagged my bag through to SFO. She didn’t have much English and I don’t have enough subtlety in my Chinese to deal with a problem of that particular nuance, so I figured I would deal with it from the far side of the Yellow Sea. I had a nice rubdown by the security agent and after a slightly confusing interlude where they boarded some other plane through my gate, I was through the ticket check and heading down the ramp past the hand lettered sign that said “Seoul.” I wasn’t even bothered in the slightest by the moron in front of me who didn’t understand that the perforated part of his boarding pass was intended to stay attached until removed by a designated airpline representative. It wasn’t even annoying to stand there while he rifled the fistfuls of grimy little pieces of paper he had pulled out of his jacket and pants pockets.

The best thing about this China Southern flight to Korea is that it’s short. The stewardess apologized in English that she did not have an immigration form for me, not a problem because I had no intention of leaving the safety of the international transfer terminal. I had a Coke, passed on the highly aromatic hot sandwich, thinking of my pal Matt and his recent trip to the hospital in Beijing and settled in for the hop, reading a couple of good articles about Obama in a month old New Yorker.

We landed a bit early and I followed the lead of the Chinese passengers in staking my spot in the center aisle as we drove towards the gate.

Now it was time to deal with security. I think I’ve written about it before, but if you are making an international transfer here in Incheon, the process is a bit odd. You’re supposed to have a boarding pass from your next flight to pass through from the international arrival corridor to the international departure gates. Problem is you don’t get boarding pass until you’re on the other side of security so it’s a bit of a chicken and egg dilemma. And it doesn’t help that the khaki clad airport personnel don’t speak a whole lot of English other than that necessary to point and say – “Ig.”

In the past I have used my bag check tag that says “SFO” or “DLC” on it in order to prove my final destination. Recall though that today I have no such tag as my pal back there in Dalian had given me the wrong one. I decided on the spot that the ultimate bluff was called for so I walked right up to the lead guard, today with a jaunty white satin sash bedecking his tan suit and handed him my itinerary and said “San Francisco”, pointing at the “If you require emergency assistance call 1-800-CAR-ENOT” section of the page. He looked at it sternly and waved me into the metal detector.

And after standing in line at the gate where the ever so helpful (read I have 1K status on this airline) gate agent inquired about my luggage, picked up her walk-talkie and called my personal luggage concierge to go find my bag and repair that which had been done amiss.

Now I sit in the lounge which is incredibly packed with hordes of Germans. I can’t say for sure but I am begin to suspect that this constant association with my Teutonic Brothers is not simply another test from Lord Buddha this time coming hot on the heels of the barking dogs and the long check-out at Mykal because this place is pretty loud with conversation, clanking of steins and bier haus anthems - all things I look forward to on my layovers. At least smoking is not allowed.

Just now though, one of the Asiana Airlines lounge girls is walking up and down the airless intoning in the most mellifluous sing-song voice, “Munich, time to board.” Maybe there is hope for me after all.

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