Monday, May 18, 2009

Travel in the Time of Swine Flu (apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez for title abuse)

I don’t know what it is about closed doors that makes what appear to be sane people lose their minds.

Last week I made the mistake of arriving for a blood test about 15 minutes before the opening time. I’d thought it was 7:30, it turned out to be 8, and so I sat and polished off Solitaire games 13,734 and 13, 735 on my iPhone. Other people had made the same miscalculation and as they came in that non-verbal communication that occurs between people in the same boat started to kick in. They look at the door, they scan the faces for some acknowledgment and they take a seat with a shrug or a nod. But there’s always one who just can’t tune into the vibe of the collective. Usually a “he”, he needs to take charge of an unmanageable situation and try to make something happen.

On this day it was a puffed up middle-aged guy in a loud Hawaiian shirt sporting one of those silly blue tooth earpieces and emanating a diffusing cloud of cheap cologne. He had his wife with him - apparently she was the one being tested - and he helped her over to a chair. He remained on his feet, pacing back and forth in front of the door, looking in the little window, wondering out loud when it was going to open. As always, there is one in the group of waiters who wants to be helpful and she offered that the door wasn’t opening until the appointed time. Ignoring her, he tried the door. And then he tried it again perhaps thinking he had missed the secret admission code the first time. One the third attempt I stopped in the middle of my game and gave him a look which glanced off the side of his head and shot off harmlessly into space.

Two more tries of the handle and he turned around and paced off into the middle of the waiting room at which point the nurse appeared and announced that the labs were open. I shot up, cut him off (now burdened with his wife) and went off to have my arm stuck. We parted company as he sat in the second waiting area using his little earpiece to yell at someone named “Joey”.

Today I am back on the road. It seems like it’s been a long time since I’ve had anything interesting to write about, and it has been I guess - almost exactly 3 months to the day since I caught the big bird home back in February. This trip is special, being overshadowed by the ongoing H1N1 Flu scare which means I’ll either reach my destination as planned or end up the guest of the Government of the People’s Republic of China at a quarantine hospital on a rocky island in the middle of the Yellow Sea. In either case over the next week I’m looking forward to getting back into the swing of working over there and towards completing the apartment process I began back in January. While having my own place is very exciting to me, I can only imagine what the final steps are going to be like.

I’ve had a couple of trips during this international hiatus – one by car to Tucson and one by plane to Denver – but nothing epic like the regular trip to the other side of the world. In the former case we spent a nice couple of days visiting family and wandering through the remains of some of Junipero Sera’s most northerly missions. Nothing as old as what we were treated to in Spain back in January, but interesting nonetheless, these being embellished with tales of expelled Jesuits and rapacious Apaches. In the case of our Colorado trip, it was a grand time culminating with the combined college graduations of my two kids. Today though I’m back on that grind that starts by getting up at the bleak hour of 4:30 AM and ends with some incalculable arrival time in China in a day’s time.

Arriving at the airport and finding my place at the head of the status line, I was told by one of the desk agents to go ahead and use the kiosk to check in. Now being a United 1K member on an international trip, I have never been subjected to such indignity but apparently things have changed. The agent, sensing my consternation decided to help me by standing alongside me and telling me which buttons to push which only served to make me even more annoyed. Another agent jumped in to offer additional advice and now I had everyone behind the counter working with me to complete the transaction which of course raised the question of why they didn’t just check me in directly in the first place. The crowning moment came when the second guy took my passport and scanned it while the first guy printed out the luggage tags. The net result of this was that it took three of us to get me logged in instead of the one person it normally takes. So much for automation.

Security was horribly backed up, sort of a surprise at this ungodly hour. My Lovely Wife, loyal to the end stayed out in the insecure zone to make sure I made it through without exploding due to airport stress and discovered in conversation with the security guard that this is one of the three crush times at the Albuquerque airport. I wound my way through the endless serpentine and finally ended up at the new full body scan line which requires you to remove everything from your person before being checked. The guy in front of my carefully placed his cigarettes and matches in the bind and dumped his change into the side pocket on his video camera case. Vacation, here he goes.

The flight over was easy and as quick as it could be. The pilot woke me up with an announcement that we were over the Grand Canyon, and sure enough, we were. I took a picture to compliment my growing collecting of shots from airplanes. Lately I try to make the time pass by trying to figure out what we’re passing over, sometimes even taking the time later to check in Google Earth. Yes, I realize I am a Geek. Today though I saw the most perfect cinder cone and a nicely snow clad southern portion of the Sierras.

Approaching San Francisco I am always amazed at how the hills appear to be covered in pale green velvet, reminding me of the antlers of Reindeer. At the ground level I’m sure it looks like thorny scrub, but from up here it seems it would be a nice place to stretch out for a nap.

I collected my over-sized carry-on at the jet way and headed off to the international terminal. The bridge they installed here about 6 months ago makes it so much easier that it used to be, although I will admit I sometimes miss the old 10 yard bus ride and the crowded elevator. Today though I made it over about 5 minutes before the lounge officially opened and so I took a place by the entrance and leaned back on the wall to wait. A guy came by, looked at the door, looked at me and wandered off. A minute or so later, he came by again and repeated the double take. Completing that, he went straight up to the door, ignoring the bundle of morning newspapers blocking the way, stood there and waved his arms under the sensor, expecting the doors to open. He waved a few more times before giving up and wandering off. Perhaps his name is “Joey.”

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