Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Plague Ship

I can’t imagine how many blogs I’ve started with the line “we got off on time” but I’m trusting it’s quite a few. Here’s another – we got off on time – but with a twist.

I’m sure everyone is aware of that little H1N1 problem we’re having and the response of the Chinese government. It started with the forced quarantine of Mexican nationals who had made the unfortunate choice of traveling to China following the flu outbreak in their country. The picture of the bell hops at a four star hotel in Hong Kong delivering take-out food using the luggage trolleys pretty much said it all. Since that time, those of us with regular travel to these parts have been bombarded with one conflicting message after another regarding the likelihood that we would or would not be allowed to enter the country if we chose to risk a trip over.

Well today’s policy was interesting – the gate agent at SFO announced that anyone holding a Mexican passport or any traveler who had been in Mexico within the past 40 days would not be deplaning to their hotel in Beijing, rather they would immediately be taken to a quarantine facility for a 7 day stay on the government’s dime. Yes, 7 days which made me wonder who would be foolish enough to get on a plane knowing you were heading “somewhere” that wasn’t the place you had in mind. I think I would have headed right back up the escalator and to the closest gate with the soonest flight to wherever I had just come from. Understanding the ramifications, the three of us standing in the pre-board line madly checked our passports to find the date of our most recent Mexican entry stamp.

The flight was just as long as it ever is made worse only by the fact that I was relegated to steerage by virtue of my non-upgradeable ticket. A new one on me, I thought my Business Class vouchers were good regardless, but alas, not so. I did manage to have three empty seats between me and the next guy, one of which I kindly volunteered to a young woman in the aisle seat opposite me - a gesture which made everyone happy.

I spent most of my time catching up on television episodes from this season, stuff I am generally discouraged from watching at home due to its rank stupidity. But it’s fun on the plane to churn through 10 or 15 twenty minute episodes and it makes the time fly by. In general the crowd was well behaved aside from the grandpa sitting behind me who insisted on thrashing my seat every time he wanted to get up bringing to mind the hostile grandpa on my last flight from Dublin who did the same thing. It didn’t matter; I wasn’t counting on sleeping for more than 6 minutes at a time. The only other anti-social person was the guy in the loud shirt and the Wayfarers who had cut in line right in front of me earlier in the day when the lounge opened its doors. At that time he had an excuse, he was so busy talking loudly on his phone that he certainly didn’t hear the epithets I assigned to him and his wife as they cut me off. On the plane, he adopted the same privileged attitude by being the one and only guy to violate the basic rules of trans-Pacific daytime travel by leaving his sunshade up for the entire trip. There’s one in every bunch.

We arrived 40 minutes early, a nice gift given that we were flying into who knows what kind of mess relative to health verification. The bell went off, we all rushed the door and after standing there for a few minutes were instructed to go back to our seats – the health squad was going to take our temperatures on the plane. So we sat as two agents wearing gloves, goggles and masks made their way down the aisles with a forehead measuring thermometer. I spoke a little Chinese with mine and she giggled and moved on after a delay that was just about long enough to make me worried.

From there we went up and out to the next check where we stopped to have a new to me health affidavit stamped. At this stop I was requested to leave my cell phone number. Down the hall to another checkpoint equipped with thermal imaging cameras and then off to one more where the health form was collected.

All of the officials in the international terminal were sporting gloves and masks, making me feel like I’d walked into the modernized treatment of a 12th century plague ship docking somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean.

Earlier in the day at my original check-in (you recall, the one with two agents) I had been handed boarding passes all the way through to Dalian, and my bags were tagged in the same manner. This was a new one, and I don’t like new ones when it comes to my bags having just recently recovered from a baggage fiasco back at Christmas. Well, it all turned out for the better as they apparently now have the domestic transfer process down to a science. You gather your luggage (mine was of course the last one off the plane) and carry it a few steps to a dedicated transfer desk where you show your existing boarding pass and off you go. A huge improvement over the olden days of lugging it all back out to the check-in counters and starting all over again. Sometimes progress is actually good.

Once done with that it was a short trip through the domestic security check and out to my gate with about 2 hours to spare. Time that I would welcome to decompress were it not for the fact that the inside temperature is about 90F. Good plan – combine tons of travelers and locals in a giant hanger and turn off the air conditioning - a classic experiment in disease cultivation.

So I sat and waited for my next flight, nursing a cold bottle of Chinese Evian in hopes that the temperature wouldn’t kill me while exchanging text messages with my pals in Dalian using my China Mobile cell phone which apparently still had some life in it. At least my first official act when I arrive won’t be trying and find someone willing to sell me the minutes necessary to charge it up.

The final leg of these trips is always the hardest; just staying awake is a battle with the pleasant drone of the airplane. I declined the peanuts and accepted the bottle of water, because it’s always smart to horde the bottled stuff when it presents itself.

We arrived to schedule and miracle of miracles my bags were among the first four down the chute. Gathering them I fought my way out through the crowd that was gathering around the lone person checking luggage tags. I just walked by, ignoring them.

My new driver, Mr. Jiang Yi was waiting outside with a sign. He grabbed my cart and led me out to me car – good old Honda Accord license plate C58, it was good to see her newly cleaned and waxed. As we headed off to the hotel, Mr. Jiang told me that he had had 13 years of driving lessons and informed me that he was the best driver in the company. Good news for sure.

I’m staying at a different hotel this time while I assess the state of my apartment. It’s conveniently located across the street from my new building and so an ideal base of operations while I get a grip on the living situation. Checking in was a chore as the three girls behind the counter had about 7 words of English between them. The culmination of the attempt was the refusal of my Chinese corporate credit card – back to American Express for the moment. The bell man brought my bags up and I took time to have a look around the room before heading out to meet a couple of friends in a bar at 5 Colour Town, conveniently located across the other street. I polished off the last of their shared plates of dumplings spiced up with Chinese Tabasco and had a nice chat with the bar girls about my Chinese capability.

Back to the room and into the inevitable coma that follows a 24 trip.

The room was hot overnight, no big surprise here in the land of hot hotel rooms and although the switch on the wall appeared to provide cool air when activated, it couldn’t keep up with the mysteriously hidden heat source. The down quilt in the duvet didn’t help and so I spent a restless night covering up and uncovering and trying to sleep in between. An early morning trip to the bathroom was a surprise when the motion sensor located somewhere in that cramped expanse of marble tile kicked on all the lights the moment I entered the room.

I did make it until 4 AM when a shower and a banana brought me back to some small sense of reality. Today I’m off to meet my relocation consultant and to see where I stand on more permanent digs.

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