Saturday, August 29, 2009

All I wanted to do was go home

Yesterday was one of those travel days when everything that can go wrong, did. I started out early leaving my apartment at 6:20AM to make my 8:20 flight. Jiang and I had a great conversation on the way in about his grandfather’s cat apparently it’s very old (17), very fat and unusually smart being able to follow commands just like a dog. I guess my Chinese continues to advance given that I can more or less follow a conversation on something as off the wall as that.

Checking in was quick and security the same. I was encouraged at the presence of a plane at the gate and I settled in for the 45 minute wait. A German that I’d seen around Kai Fa Qu sat opposite me dressed all in black save for the piece of shiny silver stretchy cord, the kind you get on Christmas presents, that he was using for a belt. I wasn’t quite sure what to think about that.

Around 7:45 the gate attendants showed up around the same time that I heard an announcement about my flight. I didn’t quite catch it and so I checked the board – departure time was showing as 8:20.

Fifteen or twenty minutes later, things seemed to be progressing. The plane was attached to the building, people were lining up in the jet way and by all indications we were heading out. That is until the gate attendants packed up their stuff and left. Which is when I heard the next announcement, my flight was delayed until 9:30. My internal trip calculator kicked into action - I had 2 ½ hours between flights in Beijing, usually a bit on the close side but always workable. Minus an hour, it was getting tough but if we landed at 10:30, I would still make it. I sat back and stewed about that for the remainder of my wait.

We did leave on time to the delay and the flight was quick. Time was ticking away and by my account we’d be on the ground about 10:40 – the window was shrinking. The plane landed and I continued to run assessments as it took forever for us to get to the gate. When the doors opened up I realized why – we weren’t at the gate, we were somewhere out in Northern China where buses were waiting to take us to the terminal. My heart was sinking – while everything was still governed by the wait for my bag, I might still make it. Except that the normally slow bag delivery was bound to be even worse than normal. I was resigning myself to the fact – I wasn’t going to make it and I was beginning to wish I had never checked on in the first place.

The bus dropped us off at the most remote point in the terminal possible. I hurried down the corridor to bag claim – why I don’t know – grabbed a trolley and proceeded to wait. I’ve stood in this place many times before and the wait always seems like forever but eventually the belt turned on and luggage started to appear. Everyone’s but mine that is. I waited and waited and then the belt turned off and I was the last person waiting. Now I had a choice, I could abandon my bag and run to the counter or I could continue to wait and watch my trip crumble completely. I decided I would deal with it later and took off, heading upstairs to the counter. A grim scene awaited me – no one in line. I went up to the agent who sadly informed me that I had missed the last call by a full 20 minutes – no more check-ins within 1 hour of the flight. She offered me Chicago or Washington but with no flight to Albuquerque I decided that staying here was the best course so I collected an itinerary and went back down to luggage claim.

With all the time in the world now, I went back downstairs and told the guard my story – in Chinese – and he let me through. I took a look at the carousel –still no bag – so I wandered off to Lost and Found and relayed my sad tale again. The young man there told me it was on the belt and we went back to find it, upside down and so invisible to me as I was looking for green. I thanked him, picked it up and went off to find a taxi.

The problem with having things get derailed like this is that my brain stops functioning in a linear fashion. Before a cab, I needed a place to stay and before that I needed to find the hotel desk. In Shanghai there is a row of stations for all the major hotels, if there is one here I didn’t find it so I dipped into my emergency file and pulled out a card. I went up and down the escalators a couple of times before deciding to just stop and get organized. After having my plans get disrupted on numerous occasions, I began traveling with cards for major hotels in the transit cities I use. It’s an easy way to start yourself down the road to recovery without needing to ask for help and without having to find wireless to connect to the web. I pulled out the card for the Renaissance Capital and after getting disconnected a couple of times and having to explain that I was making a reservation and therefore did not have one, I managed to book a room.


Finding a cab, I was on my way. My friend Matt had recommended this place – nice, new and relatively inexpensive compared to some of our favorites. Problem is the cabbies don’t seem to know where it is, and neither did the one I happened to get. He looked at the directions card and the map, and turning the latter upside down seemed to help. At one point he pulled alongside a cabbie friend of his, at 100 KPH and yelled out the passenger window for directions. I asked him a few times in Chinese if he knew where the place was, and he answered “More or less.”

As we were getting close, I went to pull out some money and realized I didn’t have any. This little finding put me into a complete panic and I was already trying to figure out how I was going to get myself out of this one, do I ask him to wait while I run to an ATM at the hotel? I don’t know, but I was beside myself until I realized I had taken my cash stash out of my pocket before going through security in Dalian as the little metal anti-counterfeit strands set off the metal detector. Sure enough my wad was there in my messenger bag, right where I had put it. Sensing something was amiss, he was looking back over his shoulder. I told him I couldn’t find my money and he said something which I later realized was “American money is just fine.” I had tried to figure out what he was saying and gave him a couple of stupid answers which he brushed off.

Eventually we pulled off the highway and came to a light – I could see the hotel off to the left. I said something along the lines of “We found it” and he smiled and said yes. And then he said “Jiang li” which was a new one on me. But when he followed that with “200”, I knew where we were headed – he wanted a bribe for getting me there and the little Chinese program in my iPhone confirmed it. Isn’t technology grand, we can now understand that we’re being shaken down instantly, no more dumb looks, no more confusion. Looking at the meter which read “83” I told him I didn’t understand. He repeated what I had said with a tone of “Yea right, you speak Chinese so you know full well what I am asking” and repeated “200”. I told him no way and he replied by continuing to repeat himself. We arrived at the hotel and I told him he was getting 125 and not a miao more, and he gratefully accepted the 27RMB “tip”. I figured $4 worth of karma was a small purchase considering the day I was having.

The hotel was ready and gracious and the room was beautiful with a nice view of the smoggy city. I had a pizza with prosciutto and basil in the restaurant, a simple meal made complicated when I tried to assign the bill to the wrong room number and I had to correct it – in Chinese – with apologies for how tired and confused I was. Done eating, I decided I needed to go out to find some supplies – one of the hazards of traveling light like this is that I don’t bring anything along knowing I have things at home. Normally hotels of this stature provide shampoo, toothpaste and toothbrush but I didn’t think it would be fair to my fellow passengers to board a 12 hour flight without some sort of underarm treatment so I asked the concierge who told me of a 7-11 just across the street. How could deodorant shopping at a 7-11 not be an adventure? Off I went.

It turned out to be a 7-11 just like every other one except this one had a well stocked personal items department. Imagine every top shelf acne scrub in the world – Nivea, Neutrogena, Olay – right across the aisle from Ramen and Cadbury. My options were limited – an aerosol or a tiny little Chapstik sized roll on – I went with the spray, paid and headed back to the hotel.

It was now about 2 o’clock so having the whole day ahead of me I stopped again to talk to the concierge to find out if there was something historical nearby. The simple hotel map had shown Tiananmen in the vicinity so I figured I’d see if it was within walking distance. He gave me a map and showed me the nearest subway station and told me “15 minutes.” As we were talking in Chinese, I might have misinterpreted his time estimate but undissuaded, I gathered my camera and bag from my room and headed out to find it.

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