Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Another day in the clouds

I made a really silly rookie mistake today while waiting to board my flight to Beijing. The flight status board in the lounge was showing a departure of 10:55 vs. the scheduled 11:20 so I left earlier than planned and went down to the gate. Lately, this flight has been going about ½ full but not today – the area was jammed and the lines at the desk were long. One of the agents was pretty much dedicated to calling people up to make seat changes. The international gates at SFO are configured in sort of a funny way - all of the services are on an upper level and you take an escalator or elevator down to the gates which are arrayed two to a section. This gets a bit confusing when the plane at one of the gates is leaving at the same time as the other because the announcements overlap – I guess it never occurred to anyone that announcing a last boarding call to people going to Antwerp in the lounge where the Mogadishu travelers were waiting, might cause some confusion. And that is precisely what got me. An agent came on and announced the beginning of boarding and that we would be using a single line today instead of the regular two – one for special people like me and one for unimportant people like everyone else. So when the call came I went up and stood there, first in line. A confused agent came over and asked me what I was doing and informed me that unless I was heading to Toronto I may as well go and sit down as it was still 10 minutes until they opened the special person line. I was a bit embarrassed but since a 90 year woman made the same mistake I did not feel like everyone was staring at me; 50% of the passengers had her in their sights.

When I have a chance I will have to do a little research about this year’s slate of solar eclipses because my plane today was loaded with tons of people wearing blue polo shirts from a couple of different tour companies proclaiming their participation in an eclipse tour. And what a bunch they were. Without sounding too prejudiced I’ll say that it looked like a science teacher convention with tons of Birkenstocks, long gray beards and eyebrows that had never seen a pair of scissors. And that was just the wives. It was a strange bunch, bringing back to mind the couple in the matching Hawaiian shirts and causing me to conclude that this perhaps was what that chance encounter was foretelling. Again I was thankful to be in the front on the plane.

When we finally got rolling I was stopped at the gate as there was a problem with my ticket. It took the agent a couple of computer screen double-takes before she realized a new seat had been assigned to me and that there was a boarding pass waiting in the pile of changes. It took me slightly longer to snap to the fact that I had been bumped out of 1st Class; a disappointing realization to say the least as getting an upgrade from Steerage to Heaven is virtually unheard of. I moped my way down the jet way and found my seat.

Of late I have changed my regular pre-departure process to delay the unloading and arranging all the stuff I will be playing with and eating during the flight. Too many times in the past I have gotten myself nicely settled in only to discover that my seat had been changed and today, as if on cue my row mate showed up and mumbled, “There is supposed to be someone else in your seat, let me see your boarding pass.” Now I don’t generally relate well to officious people with no authority whatsoever but I had already decelerated into my slo-mo Zen state and so I obliged, flashing it from its place in the corner of my plastic passport cover. He mumbled something else about “straightening this out” and disappeared into the throng of boarding science teachers.

A bit later he returned and told me that his boss, former Governor of Washington Gary Locke and now Secretary of Commerce had been bumped up to 1st Class and so everything was fine. Imagine that, I’ve voted the Democrat party line my entire life and the payback I get is being kicked out of the really cool seats by a member of the current administration. I offered to switch, figuring they had matters of state to work out but he declined saying that he’d have to work less if I stayed put. And so I did but before retreating into my little shell, I did ask if government employees regularly get to fly in Business Class. And it seems they do if their total flight time exceeds 14 hours. I instantly started doing the math on this one – we have a government that is eleventy-two trillion dollars in debt and they fly Business. I work for a company that has eleventy-two billion dollars in the bank and we’re lucky to get the bigger seats in the back of the plane. Something about that equation just doesn’t compute.

One of the neat things about Business Class is the taking of the food orders. We start out with a menu written by some staff writer recently laid-off from “Bon Appétit” and once in the air, the attendants come around and ask for your 1st and 2nd choices, by name. It adds a little bit of personalization to the otherwise dehumanizing aspects of being locked in a steel tube for 14 hours. My sudden seat change reared its head again, as I listened to the attendant butchering my surname with a guy two rows up in the middle seat. The fun continued when she came to me and accused me of being Mr. Locke. Once in the wide blue yonder, I started working on my patented “Sleepy Night Night” process of drinking as many glasses of wine as they will bring. Top that with a glass of Porto with desert and one is guaranteed to catch a nap often before the plates are cleared from the tray table. Of course this process doesn’t work well for me when traveling with My Lovely Wife because in those instances, maturity tends to creep into the equation and I’m lucky to get the Porto. But today I was solo accompanied by the Under Secretary and so I was free to experiment with sleep inducers and worked, knocking off a couple of hours of rest.

My neighbor turned out to be a bit of a fidgety traveler with several complaints about the lack of a newspaper, additional grousing about the missed glass of water (he was off “straightening things out” when they were offered) and an apparent need to eat constantly and consume Cokes at a high rate. The funny thing was, he downed a complete Taco Salad take out plate that he had brought on board in a bag while we waited for lunch to be served. And as is nearly always the case, even odder things happen to those on edge. He ended up on the receiving end of a shower of glass particles caused be a flight attendant tipping over a bottle of wine that fell onto a wine glass which burst into a thousand little flying particles. Luckily he was not injured.

I had a nice conversation with one of the attendants who turned out not only was from Albuquerque but lived at one time in Corrales in a house built by the guy who built my first house. She had even taken riding lessons from the gal down the street. We had a nice chat about all things New Mexico and she treated me very well for the remainder of the flight. She even gave me the lowdown on those chatty girlies on my earlier flight – ticket agents on a one day trip to the City by the Bay.

We arrived more than a little bit early which was nice because once again we had to sit on the plane while the Health Team came on board and checked our temperatures. I passed but they checked my neighbor twice and made a note of his seat position. I told him I was writing an ugly letter to the government if I was quarantined because of him. But we were lucky and off we went - me to the maze of the secondary health check, Immigration, a train ride, luggage claim, transfer desk and domestic security. He to a special air-conditioned bus waiting under the jet way for the diplomats whom I passed on the way out of the plane meeting with their handlers who were doing a cursory collection of their travel documents. And I thought status on United was special.

In case you were wondering, they have not yet balanced the air conditioning at Beijing Capital Airport although I did discover that there are sections of the place that are almost tolerable. Baggage claim, security and Gates 30-50 are not among them, but today my gate happened to fall in the comfortable zone and so I settled down into a seat and started the wait for my next flight.

It doesn’t take long to get back into the swing of things here - people arguing on cell phones, women spitting loudly in the trash cans, piped in music that ranges from Kenny G to a whistled version of Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. A nice rendition of Beethoven’s Midnight Sonata came along before we cycled back to Kenny.

As I was sitting there minding my own business, a young blond woman whom I took to be Italian wandered up to the gate, took a look at the board and grabbed a seat a bit down the line from me. A Chinese youth appeared out of nowhere and started talking to her. From where I sitting it was hard to tell what was going on, but it seemed pretty animated so I watched, making up short stories in my head about where their confab was going.

I looked away from that action and noticed that the flight information had changed, it was now some other flight heading to some other city at the same departure time. Never good news, I got up and walked back down to the nearest display and sadly discovered that my flight had been pushed out and as yet had no gate assigned. Heading back to the original gate figuring I may as well kill as much time as possible in the cool zone, I took a seat behind the young European and her Chinese swain, now joined by a young Chinese woman. The conversation these three were having was pretty funny – he repeating in the only English he had his desire for her cell phone number and email address. She protesting to the Chinese gal that she is married and has two children in Athens (wrong on my Italian assessment) and that it’s inappropriate to give out such information to strange young men. The Chinese gal’s contribution was interpreting for her and telling the Greek gal that he is merely an innocent Chinese youth who wishes to learn more about the Greek culture through an exchange of email. I sat and listened to this until I saw a plane pull up at the gate and decided to verify that it was not heading to Dalian which unfortunately was confirmed.

So now I had a decision to make – I could leave the poor Greek girl there in her Chinese sandwich, doomed to taking the wrong flight to some city beginning with a “J”, or I could be a gentleman and not only save her from her situation but help her on her way to her destination of choice. She had stood up, thinking that it was time to leave so I caught her eye and told her that we had been delayed and that we needed to go find out where and when our plane would be departing.

Travelers are funny, if you impart a bit of information they want the whole scoop. Her English was not great and I pretty much gave up trying to explain that her demands of knowing why we were delayed would not be met. This is China after all. Tiring of her questions and my inability to satisfactorily answer them, I motioned her along and took her to the board where I confirmed that we did in fact have a 90 minute delay and would now be leaving from a gate at the far end of the terminal, ironically in the same place I had earlier planted myself to wait for my flight information to come up on a nearby screen. One thing worth mentioning here is how the flight status screens work at this airport. Each of them is composed of 4 big LCD panels and they cycle through a schedule that is typically 10-15 pages long. Unlike a US system where the screens churn through all the pages, listed by time, here three of the panels list the most current departures (pages 1, 2 and 3 of the schedule) and the fourth screen slowly cycles through pages 4 to 15. If you happen to be on the outer edge of the timeframe, you find a place to sit and wait for your time bracket to appear. And that was why I was familiar with this particular spot in the airport.

On the walk down I asked her reasons for heading to Dalian and she more or less told me about her husband, the Greek ship captain, who was on a one year assignment here supervising the construction of a supertanker at one of the regional shipyards. Clichés like this can only happen in real life. It sounded like the place he was stationed was two hours outside of the city and so an even less exciting place to live and work than I have been consigned to. It didn’t sound like a lot of fun, and I can only imagine the shock that she was in for as they wound their way down one of the expressways into the sticky tropical darkness to some dormitory overlooking the steel yard.

Air China kindly offered us a box dinner to compensate for failing to meet the schedule. I passed but my Greek friend went and grabbed one and then proceeded to ask me to interpret the various offerings in the little divided plastic tray. Some rice, some wilted greens, a couple of meatballs in gravy and some unidentifiable deep fried something which she tried before passing on the rest of the repast. Our Chinese companions sat around us, merrily munching away.

The rest of the trip was de rigueur, I had a hard time keeping my eyes open for the hour it took and my luggage showed up, about all I could ask after 27 hours on the road. Jiang was there smiling and waiting to grab my stuff and the trip back to Kai Fa Qu was made rapid by a complete lack of traffic on the roads. He helped me bring my bags up to my apartment and I suppose I should have showed him the retractable handles on my two big suitcases but it was too funny to pass up watching him walk all scrunched up leading the bags by the handles on the top.

My place was just as I left it, the power was still turned on, the air conditioners had been running and the phone appeared to work even though I never did get a sense of whether we had been successful in trying to pay the bill in advance last month.

Home sweet home, well actually, not even close.

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