Sunday, December 27, 2009

In Jimena's Wake

The National Audubon Christmas Bird Count has been conducted year every since 1900 and we’ve been covering San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico without interruption since 1993. Our December vacation on the beach has always been loosely based on the count with a lot of time dedicated to wandering around the environs looking for birds. And the area provides some interesting ones, species that are local and a whole host of visitors that has traveled from the Arctic and my back yard. Each fall, western North America is abandoned in favor of a little time down by the ocean where the temperatures are mild and the food supply less marginal. There are even some that “reverse migrate”, leaving homes in the rainforests of Panama to spend the winter where the Sonoran Desert falls into the ocean.

We’ve seen a lot of changes over the years – from the first count where Isla Blanca, a mile off shore, would start bare close to sunset and end up covered from one end to the other with a standing room only party of Brown Pelicans and Cormorants – to the recent counts, bereft of the thousands of Eared Grebes we used to see, all lost to Avian Cholera outbreaks far to the north on Mono Lake and the Salton Sea. While the CBC as it’s known has never been “scientific”, it has always provided insight into what’s really going on in the environment from the northernmost count at Point Barrow Alaska to the handful of counts that are held in southern Central America. And in our experience the patterns are not good – no longer does Isla Blanca fill up nightly and the thousands of Boobies that once plied the waters along Bahia San Francisco have either disappeared or moved on to more productive climes. Across the board, the birds have disappeared in our short time with them and it doesn’t take a statistician to draw that conclusion.

A couple of days on the beach forces you into a new pattern – breakfast on the seawall and a cursory count of the loons followed by a trip to town for a cup of coffee followed by a drive here and there to see what birds might be hanging around and whatever changes might have been made. Sometime breakfast starts at Rosa’s, our favorite place. Carne Machaca, tortillas and a Pepsi. Sometimes the trip to town is later, around ice cream bar time. But despite the minor changes, the days pretty much fall into the same routine. And sometimes a routine is a wonderful thing to fall into.

This year the place showed a lot changes due to Hurricane Jimena which rolled into town back in November. We were told that it had rained non-stop for 38 hours and the effects were obvious. The bridge on the main road was out forcing a paved detour through the desert for a mile or two. On the far side of that diversion the road had been damaged by water that had built up on the barren slopes of the stony mountains that surround the town and then rolled down the main arroyo in the area, scouring everything in its way. One of our more romantic stops – the San Carlos Sewage Ponds - was at first glance unaltered, but a walk down the levee in search of Least Grebes brought us to an amazing sight – one entire wall of the impoundment was gone which meant that years of sewage sediments had washed down the channel to the sea during the deluge.

Nacapule Canyon is one of our regular stops as it often provides us with some truly unusual birds. For years we had our favorite canyon just beyond town and far more accessible than Nacapule but over the course of the last decade it had been filled with construction debris and so has been degraded as a habitat. So much so that while we still drive in, we rarely bother to spend any time. A couple of years ago we met a fellow from Washington who was down for a week and he spent some time in Nacapule birding in earnest. His birds – Trogons, Orioles and Warblers – made it clear that it was a destination worth the drive, so one morning we went out early and took the road out of town after a fruitless stop at our adopted coffee shop which happened to be closed.

The bridge across the main drainage was gone. Long ago we had taken the traditional dirt road across the stream bed only to find once back up on the sandy pan that this bridge had replaced our accustomed 4-wheel track with a route both paved and shorter. Now we were back to the primitive way, driving slowly by to assess the damage. Blue plastic pipes that once held power and phone lines swung in the air where there had once been half of the span. A six foot diameter conduit had been pulled up and out of the rocks, its end crimped leaving it looking like a giant pastry bag tip. Heading out on the marked road we were slowed significantly by a constant series of small arroyos that cut diagonally through the dirt track forcing us to creep along at 10 or 12 miles per hour. Eventually we saw the canyon walls off to our left and we took the last dirt track heading towards our goal.

We had to cross the main channel one more time before heading up a small hill to the small parking lot. The destruction here was even more vivid – the walls of the stream were stripped of vegetation and now perfectly vertical to the stream bed which was littered with downed trees and boulders. A new road had been cut through and the climb out was easy. We parked the car and walked down the trail at the mouth.

The trail here was completely new and perhaps 10 feet below the surface that we had walked on in previous years. Like the channel below, the canyon was littered with broken palms, uprooted bushes and countless new boulders. The old path which once wound its way along the canyon walls was simply gone, remaining only in a few places where bigger rock forms had provided protection for the land downstream. In short, Nacapule looked nothing like it had before. An hour or so up the trail we found the old palm grove that once served as the crossroads for hikers planning on climbing up and over the mountains. Today, while still a small oasis among the red granite, the paths leading off to the other three cardinal points were simply disappeared beneath tons of rock and displaced vegetation. Unable to go further, we headed back down to the car, stopping to pick out some birds here and there.

On the way in we had crossed a second road, newly bladed and heading back in the general direction of town. I’d decided when we crossed it that we’d try it on the way back, one of the best things about vacation being a complete lack of schedule. And so when we came to it we took an angular right turn and headed back. For a dirt road it was pretty well tended and we were able to get up a good head of speed. A short time into the drive we found ourselves back at the wrecked bridge – the new road cut off across the desert in parallel to the road we’d struggled in on. Our thirty minute ride had been reduced to ten.

Monday, December 14, 2009

There is something special about having a machine gun pointed your way

The drive from Albuquerque to Tucson initially follows El Camino Real; the Royal Road of the colonies of Spain that stretched from the Valley of Mexico north to the southern part of what is now Colorado. First traveled in 1598 it extended Spain’s New World holdings far to the north, but unlike the wealth that was generated by Mexico, little came from that expansion. There was nothing to be found then along this route and today there is little more than Indian casinos, alfalfa farms, half empty reservoirs and a stark beauty that truly reaches its pinnacle in slanted winter light.

Food is a big part of every trip I take. On planes it boils down to the class I’m sitting in; Business is a nice filet mignon and Economy is a sad little salty pile of chicken and noodles. In our car though we have mastered the art of eating on the go, and this is in no small part due to the fact that My Lovely Wife also carries the appellation of Sandwich Queen. We even have a food preparation kit in the door of our car – cutting board, cheese spreader, sharp knife and napkins. Each trip includes a stop at a store for sandwich fixings; today it was Prosciutto, Swiss and Hot Pepper cheeses, cracked pepper turkey, croissants and mayonnaise. Trust me when I tell you that there are few better moments to be had than those behind the wheel, paper plate on your lap staring out the window at gorgeous scenery while stuffing your face with a sophisticated sandwich and getting croissant flakes all over yourself. If there is a heaven, sandwiches and SUV’s must be a part of it. Lunch preparation starts once we get past the last of the traffic at the city limits.

We passed several thousand Snow Geese wheeling above an impoundment near the invisible town of Bernardo. The lower Rio Grande valley is the winter home to many thousands of ducks, geese and Sandhill Cranes in a region that stretches from just north of Albuquerque south to Texas. The highest concentrations can be found at Bosque Del Apache NWR where the legions of waterfowl are mesmerizing as they come in to roost after a day spent foraging on the farms that line the river. Beyond the birds though, the drive just grinds on until you exit the Interstate at Hatch and take a state road cut-off that will deliver you to I-10 at the town of Deming. Hatch is a great little burg, built entirely around the growing and marketing of its famous Chiles. Driving through town you see them hanging in ristras and drying on the tops of the tiny stores along the main street, patches of dark ruby red on an otherwise gray tableau.

We always stop in Tucson mainly to visit with family but also because it provides a nice break that falls just about midway between our home and the beach. The drive could be done in one day, but not the way we do it, getting off at noon and quitting just after dark. Instead it would require a much earlier departure and a lot more driving and neither of us has ever felt it was worthwhile. Not to mention the fact that we’d be sacrificing an excellent dinner and a great visit. Dinner and a bottle of wine put away, we retired to the guest cottage to get some sleep. Sometime after midnight I woke up to a horrible screeching outside the window. I assumed Barn Owl since that is their calling card. But once the screeching ceased, the bird changed its vocals into a “hoo hoo” that you’d expect from a Screech Owl or one of the cousins. I made a note to do some research and went back to sleep once the racket had subsided. In the morning my cousin asked if I had seen the mess it left. Normally Owls leave pellets – little furry balls they regurgitate that contain the indigestible parts of their prey. Skulls, bones and tails. No pellets this morning, rather a whole lot of matter that came out the other end – the patio looked as though someone had kicked over a can of white paint. Vocalizations notwithstanding, only a very big Owl would be capable of leaving us such a calling card. Barn Owl I’m sure.

Off the next morning to our first stop – Green Valley – for a little food shopping among America’s elite retired. They have a great Safeway and we always stop and stock up on the supplies we need for a week of vacation. Green Valley is one of those classic Southwestern retirement towns, although it differs in that it’s a big series of small developments instead of one giant one like the various incarnations of Sun City. It’s a real community with actual citizens and none of them are less than 100. This makes shopping quite interesting because you have to check your attitude at the door and expect to stand around in aisles while little blue-haired ladies berate the store staff for the lack of some product that everyone sold in Akron. From the dedicated golf cart parking to the really long lines for the shot clinic, the Safeway in Green Valley is a short documentary film depicting where we’re all headed.

For the third time in a row I somehow managed to unload our stuff on the belt of an Express Lane and for the third time in a row the checker told me not to worry about it. It’s an interesting error I make, it’s almost as though the collective reduced reasoning function of the ancient clientele somehow infects me. This never happens in my real life, only at the Green Valley Safeway. It might also be that all the lanes are empty and the sign designating “Express” is not very clear. I don’t know, but for some reason I keep making the same mistake year after year. We always compensate by apologizing profusely and bagging our own stuff, something I doubt anyone else does having made the same mistake. Maybe next year I’ll get it right.

Lunch had to be bought a second time as I had managed to forget our supplies from the previous day and our small cooler when we pulled out of Tucson. Didn’t matter – the Capacola I bought was far more appealing than the Prosciutto and the bread was less flaky than the croissants. Sometimes good things spring from blunders. We gassed up across the street from Safeway, having dodged the guy in the Lexus who felt the need to creep across three exit lanes in the parking lot in order to avoid having to wait for me to go by. The gas pump at the Chevron was one of those with a limit - $75 – which meant two separate credit card swipes and a re-iteration of my zip code. Who picked $75 as the limit? If the card is stolen, and the thief happens to know the zip code of the owner, is $75 more palatable than the $87 it took to completely fill my car? Another mystery of modern life to ponder.

We always use the commercial exit in Nogales to cross into Mexico. It’s fast, it’s easy and you don’t have to drive through town. I exited at Mariposa Road and climbed the hill that led up to the border and coming down the other side I was faced with the unexplainable – a back-up of cars leaving the US. Now I am completely accustomed to sitting for untold hours trying to get back into our fair land, but a delay in leaving was a new thing for me. I got in line and waited, trying to discern whether the two sun glassed guards knocking on the windows of the cars were Americans or Mexicans. Neither made any particular sense, why would Americans care why we were leaving? And since when did Mexicans care about us arriving? We poked along until it was our turn for an interrogation and we rolled past without a hitch – they were indeed our fellow countrymen but they didn’t want to talk to us. The reason for the slow down instantly became apparent – a serpentine roadblock of Jersey barriers arrayed in such a way to force you to slalom through at 2 miles per hour. It occurred to me that this might be their response to a recent shoot-out here in Nogales; drug runners trying to drive right though the checkpoint. Well, no one was going to drive right through this bottleneck, and I’ll say it was quite a challenge to simply creep through with my 22 foot long car. After five or so zigzags we were on our way.

A friend of mine asked me the other day if we were worried about the recent violence in Mexico. I’ll admit that I think about it, but it seems pretty abstract and there have not been any problems of note on the roads we take or the cities we visit. It’s a border town thing up north and a Sinaloa thing down south. The region in between has been pretty quiet and in driving along it became apparent why – every intersection on the way out of town was manned by a battalion of Mexican infantry and a host of Federales. They were stopping and questioning every car with Mexican plates, and they waved us right through. Travel in a country where the military is trying to control the roads is an interesting thing – completely and extraordinarily strange for Americans who are lucky to see an Army convoy on an interstate – and quite disconcerting. I’ve never had a 50-caliber machine gun mounted on the back of a black Humvee pointed at me before, and it was instantly obvious that if someone with a load of weed came careening down the road, he was going to open that thing up without a moment’s consideration for everyone else around him. Now that is a sobering thought. We drove on past the sandbag bunkers and soldiers standing around with no particular thing to do.

Getting your car into Mexico used to be a paperwork challenge. The process was created to keep track of cars going in lest they be sold for a profit down in Quintana Roo in a transaction that didn’t involve a cut for the government. Nice thought, but a process that relied on carbon paper and manila folders wasn’t controlling anything of that sort. We used to get a sticker for the car and then peel it off when we got home in spite of the dire stories of Canadians whose credit cards had been charged thousands of dollars in fines for not checking in with the agents on their way out of the country. Over the course of the years the process became more and more simple, and today there is no process for your car as long as you stay within 300 miles of the border. Beyond that I’ve not tested the system. Now you stop, practice your Spanish with the Immigration guys and walk out with a stamped visa. What often took hours now takes minutes.

I’ve been driving in Mexico for almost 20 years now and it’s become pretty easy for me. On my first trip I forced My Lovely Wife behind the wheel – I was simply too scared and unsure of the rules of the road. Now, it’s just another day in the car and compared to the chaos and mayhem I see every day in China, it’s almost boring. 250 miles straight south through the Sonoran Desert, a trip that’s only broken up by a meandering bypass of Hermosillo where the biggest threat are the gang of silly young men at the stop lights who first insist on washing your windshield and failing that stand there banging on your window demanding the money they would have gotten had you let them climb on your hood.

The desert here is even more barren than that in New Mexico and Arizona and only things of interest are the tiny roadside “towns” that have sprung up around a government checkpoint, shrine or crossroad. A Carne Seca stand, a place to have your tires repaired or maybe a Pemex station, nothing to see and no reason to observe the government’s notion that the speed limit on this 4 lane highway should be reduced to 24 miles per hour. You look, you make sure a truck driver is not crossing the road and you barrel on. If there happens to be a speed bump, you do slow down because Mexican speed bumps are fully capable of ripping the bottom off of your car. And besides the Cruz Rosa is usually standing by these hazards collecting money. You give them a few Pesos because in this hard land you never know when those karma points are going to be called in.

As the geography becomes more and more raw and tortured you start to watch for a big mountain dead ahead and a series of volcanoes on your right, the latter being formed as this little piece of the Pacific Plate jammed itself under North America. When these two landforms align you’re almost there, seventy-five miles out of Hermosillo, San Carlos is just up the road. On today’s drive we began to see the devastation of Hurricane Jimena – scoured desert washes, a couple of ruined bridges. The highway itself was reduced to two lanes for a bit as the other side was simply gone. We made the turn off of MX15 and headed towards our landmark – the twin peaks of Tetakawi Mountain and our little home away from home. Another day on the road had come to an end and not at on a cold airport jet way but at the end of a rutted road that led to whitewashed buildings on the beach bathed in late winter tropical warmth and smelling of Bougainvillea.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Travel with 4 wheels on the ground, Part One.

When I was a little boy my father used to take me downtown every August to do a little clothes shopping before school began. His favorite store was called “The National” and it was one of the fancier shopping options in Rochester. It was housed in a big gray stone building that stood on the corner of Main and Stone, just up the block from where my dad held a second job parking cars. I used to love those trips because they generally ended with a hot dog and a chocolate malted from the small cafĂ© on the first floor of Sibley’s, the pre-eminent department store in town which was across the street and up a block. These were the days when the bigger stores had been in business for generations, owned by families that had begun as “dry good merchants” in the early history of the city. Sibley’s was one of those, but to me it didn’t matter, Sibley’s was all about hot dogs and malts.

At the time stores like The National offered “revolving credit accounts” as the concept of using a piece of plastic to buy something when you had no money had not yet come into being. I suspect that these accounts were a holdover from the old dry goods days, when a person’s word was their bond at least until their tab got too bad and they had to leave town on the Oregon Trail. I never did understand what the “revolving” part of the account was, but that was the name and to a kid like me it just meant you signed a little piece of paper which the clerk then put into a plastic capsule that was in turn placed in a glass pipe charged with vacuum. The capsule went in, the door was closed and your signed piece of paper shot up and away to a dim and dusty room somewhere else in the building where men in striped shirts with arm gators and green visors opened them, took the slips and made little notations in big ledgers - your debt next to your name. I always suspected that they built the system out of glass tubes as a way to drive home the point that you were signing your life away – you could watch your money vanish as the system sucked it out of sight. It must have been a blow to my dad’s soul each and every time that little capsule spun off into the distance knowing that he was living beyond his means just to keep me in chinos and striped shirts. Being a kid though I never saw the darker side, I only saw the capsules fly away and that fascinated the heck out of me.

Those systems still exist, almost exclusively in drive-up banks but sitting in Beijing last week it occurred to me that airline travel is the same thing although on a grander scale. You go to the airport, you get put in a capsule and you get sent off to some other place where the capsule is opened up and you’re picked out. What transpires between departing and arriving is traveling per se, but it is travel whose interesting moments are limited to the seat back jammers, loud frat boys and thugs that smell like cigarette smoke. You don’t see the world in between aside from those idiots that open the sunshades just as you doze off.

Automobile travel is precisely the opposite – you get everything in between in the most minute detail. I suppose that walking offers an even richer experience, but it takes a really long time to walk just about anywhere outside of the mile circle around where you are presently standing. And of course in spite of the diminished quality of your travel experience, planes get you there a lot faster. Although driving to China in the early 21st century seems insane, cars do offer a nice alternative between speed and experience and with that in mind we decided to pack ours and head to Mexico.

We have this big old gas guzzling SUV that we keep around for two purposes. The first is buying really long stuff from Lowes or Home depot like the gutters I bought back in October to replace the ones that our mentally challenged geldings made a toy or over the course of the previous year. The second is to serve as our vessel to the beach – a capsule that can carry a bike, some foldable kayaks, a cooler, suitcases, bedding and whatever else we think we have to have for a week of vacation. Our SUV is like a cargo ship headed in the direction of fun and we bought it two days before just such a trip more than 10 years ago.

Similar to airline traffic cars too can have delays. Just like the 777 I most recently saw at PEK Gate 28, I had one when I pulled off the car-bag, hopped in and turned the ignition only to find my trusty boat dead again. I was surprised by this as it had been working a mere month ago for my gutter run. But I wasn’t terribly surprised since it’s happened before. A couple of years ago we went from battery charger to battery charger throughout our vacation, a hassle that culminated with a trip to Auto Zone in Guaymas, Sonora and the amazing discovery that we could be found in their computer by entering our phone number. How far the arm of technology extends these days. We subsequently found out two things after that trip - first, our wiring harness had rotted out and second that our Sears Diehard was just below the cranking power required to start such a mighty vehicle. I fixed the first and ignored the second.

Reasoning that it was the previous two weeks of subzero temperatures that drained the life from my power source I retrieved My Lovely Wife’s Toyota and gave the boat a jump. It started right up so I left it running for a half hour while I arranged the stuff to go in its cargo hold. Figuring it was charged I turned it off and tried it a second time – success, it came right to life. I turned it off and proceeded to pack.

I suppose that a second place where airline and car travel intersect is the stowing of the baggage. Of course the big difference with your car is that you have to do it. I wonder if everyone had to load their own baggage into the plane if they would pack more responsibly? I certainly do when I have to load my car. I view it as a giant three-dimensional puzzle and make every attempt to use all of the space efficiently and intelligently. I stick the bike tire pump down in the wheel well with the boom box. I tuck the life vests along the windows with the pillows. The bathroom bag goes on top for easy access at our midpoint stop. In the end you have a well laded cargo hold where everything makes the utmost sense until Your Lovely Wife tells you to grab that Christmas package out of the big suitcase which just happens to be serving as the stabilizing platform on which all of your packing relies. In that case you shrug and look for opportunities to do the re-packing even more effectively.

All that done and hugs given we hopped on board and prepared to leave. Turning the key once again I was greeted with that familiar “click click click” which means there is just enough juice for the starter solenoid to laugh in your face - our ship was dead once again. Did this mean another vacation metered by begging for battery jumps from strangers in far flung parking lots? Or had I just killed it a second time from leaving the doors open for 3 hours with the interior lights on? I retrieved the Toyota and jumped it again and got it going again.

A stop at the Post Office to inform them of our absence was followed by a stop at the gas station for refueling. A quick run to Sunflower Market for wine and lunch fixings led to one last diversion to Flying Star for an Iced Americano. At each stop our faithful conveyance started without so much as a sputter. The battery was charging, our stuff was loaded, we had food and coffee and we were on our way.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Always have a back-up route, because sometimes you need to use it.

You can only sit around an airport eating Kit Kats and drinking Cokes for so long before you start going a bit stir crazy. I can do it for a couple of hours, but five or more seems like an eternity. When you’re traveling you begin your day with a pre-conceived notion of how the time will flow – where you’ll be, what your transfers look like and which part of the time block you’ll spend sitting on the plane. In the past it used to be all about what time I arrived. Lately, with the travel I’ve been doing, it’s more about whether I’ll arrive at all.

While airport terminals are very busy places there really isn’t much of anything interesting happening. All the activity and motion that sometimes appears dizzying is really nothing more than people rushing here and there. And aside from that ever enjoyable pastime of analyzing the appearance of one’s fellow travelers, nothing of much interest comes from the movement of people. Unless someone falls down or walks into a pillar or something.

The isolation gets even worse when you spend your time in a lounge because the goal of those places is peace and quiet. Sitting in a lounge is all about snacking, waiting for lunch to show up and complaining about the performance of their wireless connection assuming they even have one. Sometimes you write a blog, or polish off a little work email. Or maybe you play a dozen games of Spider. In the end though you spend most of your time checking your watch and calculating how long it will take you to get to your gate, because you certainly don’t want to give up the lounge climate one second earlier than you have to.

After getting bored with taking photographs of the terminal ceiling – it is an interesting ceiling – I had a look at my watch and decided to have a walk down to the gate. Grabbing one last handful of Kit Kats I made my way down the escalator and across the concourse past all the a-list shops. Not too many people shopping this afternoon, maybe everyone was feeling stingy from being so delayed. Today all the shop girls were wearing what appeared to be some sort of gold uniform overcoat. It didn’t seem so cold on the ground floor, but with the Chinese you never know. Sometimes 75F is cold for them.

Over the course of the last year I have switched my standard route from China to home to the path through Beijing. I used to hate it because in the early, pre-Olympic days of the new airport, flying through here meant an unseemly bus ride from the old airport to this one. And the connections were always too close to spend time on an airport tour bus. But eventually Air China started to have a flight from Dalian that enabled me to catch the midday flight to San Francisco and so I started coming this way. Of course this route has not been without its perils – witness my day of forced tourism back in August. But on average, it has worked out well for me.

United Airlines Flight 888 always leaves from Gate 28 which just happened to be on my way to today’s departure point, Gate 23. Walking by, I saw the plane we should have had parked up within reach of the withdrawn jet way, both cowlings off of its left side engine. I figured that was the reason I was still wandering around here instead of being halfway across the Pacific by now. Later I heard that the plane had hit a bird and that was the cause for our delay. Its presence there got me wondering about what plane we would be departing on.

It was now about 3:45, twenty minutes before the boarding time that the geography-challenged agent had written on my boarding pass. Bad news waited at Gate 23 – there was no plane. Now it’s never good news when you’re scheduled to board in 20 minutes and you’re lacking as basic an ingredient as an aircraft. I asked the agent what was going on and she pointed to the runway and said “The plane is right there, it’s arriving.” It became clear right then and there that we would not be pulling back at 5:00, because they were planning to turn around the jet that normally arrives at 3:40. I’ve been on that flight when it has pulled in a full hour early. Normally it’s in at least 20 minutes before its scheduled arrival. But not today when I was waiting for it; no, today it was arriving 10 minutes late.

After standing around and watching the sun set over a Continental plane that was waiting to board for “somewhere” they started calling us up to the lines by the podium. Normally they board the 3 special classes first and together. Today though they decided to board the two classes higher than mine in advance, a move that simply caused more confusion since they’d lined us up all together. I stepped aside and let the more important people pass and then got on and got settled.

There is a certain class of Business traveler that drives me nuts. They tend to be loud and they tend to be aggressive and they tend to sit scattered around the cabin. They have a habit of standing up in their aisles and yelling across the way to their buddies, in a way that guarantees that everyone knows just how important they are and just how experienced a traveler they might be. The impression I get is that they have somehow managed to maintain this behavior from their time spent in their 3rd rate fraternity at their 2nd rate university. Today I had the great misfortune of being surrounded by them. Eventually though they shut up and sat down, one falling asleep and one crossing paths with me again later in the flight when he turned out additionally to be a Seat Button Jammer – one of those morons that thinks it’s best to just push the recliner button and jam the seat back as fast as possible. About midway home he did that and crushed my foot. Judging from the look on his face he didn’t appreciate the choice words I had for him at the time.

We pulled away from the gate a full 40 minutes later than expected and then proceeded to sit on the runway for an additional 40 while we waited for takeoff clearance. We were finally airborne at 6:20 PM. My Albuquerque connection was surely disappearing and my back-up route – San Francisco to Denver – was now in jeopardy as well.

The flight was like any other aside from the almost fisticuffs with the middle-aged frat boy. I flirted with the flight attendants, had a discussion with a Mexican about the desert agreeing that it was more like Flan than Tiramisu and spent some time watching movies and sleeping. A guy in the row ahead of me woke me up twice by yelling, really loudly, forgetting perhaps that he had sound abating headphones on. Don’t know if he was having a bad dream or yelling at the movie he was watching, but whatever the reason it’s disconcerting when people start yelling in a darkened plane cabin. The pilot did make up some time but we arrived about the time my original connection was leaving and so I was quickly into back-up mode – I needed to clear Immigration and Customs as quickly as possible.

Sometimes when you’re rushed and stressed, everything goes wrong. Once in a great while everything goes right. This particular morning was one of the latter – it was as though I was betting Rouge in Roulette and the ball was falling with every spin of the wheel.

I was past the last Border Patrol check in less than 15 minutes and rounding the corner to the United service desk I found it abandoned aside from 3 agents standing around just waiting to help me out. Boarding pass and a waitlist ticket for 1st Class in hand I tore off to the closest domestic security check and found that line short as well. I had 30 minutes to make a gate at the far end of the airport but things were going my way. After two passes through the metal detector I was on the homestretch and I made the gate with 15 minutes to spare. I boarded the plane with my 1st Class ticket in hand and settled in for the next challenge – making a 35 minute connection in Denver.

I sat and had a nice conversation with the guy in my row that had also been on the Beijing flight. Airplane conversations can sometimes be a bit dangerous, and I deftly avoided commenting on his statements regarding the state of our country and the recent political events. Eventually we went our separate ways by donning our headphones; I spent the rest of the flight watching the Great Basin float by. Another plane passed close beneath us, leaving a puffy contrail and mightily impressing me with how fast it appeared to be going when seen from above.

By now my luck had officially changed, we arrived on time and I was out on the concourse in a flash. I merely had to make my way from Gate 49 to Gate 93 and I had 30 minutes to do so.

I started walking, using the moving walkway whenever it was not clogged by the standing lazy. On and on I went for what seemed to be forever. The signs kept pointing the way ahead but I couldn’t understand how 30 more gates could be beyond the 60’s and when I reached the end of the concourse it was even more perplexing. As I stepped off the walkway, I saw one more sign that pointed a way off to the right. Taking that and heading down an escalator, I found myself in the shame of the Denver Airport – the Barbie Jet Departure Lounge. Apparently tacked onto an otherwise beautiful airport, this place was really little more than a cinder block bus station jammed with people who had nowhere to sit. I guess the little jets are not tall enough to use the rest of the airport and so this little ghetto had to be built to accommodate them. I stood and waited, getting asked to move by some guy who felt the need to walk between me and my luggage as opposed to going around. Go figure.

I was first on board and after stripping all the stuff out of the front pockets of my bag in order to squeeze it into the overhead bin; I plopped down for the ride. Two guys stinking of cigarette smoke sat in front of me, one was so fascinated with the cell phone wrist watch that he’d found in the Sky Mall catalog that he felt compelled to talk about it with the people across the aisle, even offering the page number for easy reference. His pal was going on about a fist fight he’d been in, offering a detailed analysis of the angle in which his fist had met the jaw of his opponent and relating how he was able to steal the guy’s sunglasses when the battle was done. A jovial plus-sized fellow with really short legs sat down next to me absorbing a lot of the space I had paid for but it didn’t matter, I leaned against the wall and dozed off until it was time to leave. The flight attendant literally read the safety and beverage instructions off of a script in “See Dick Run” cadence, making me wonder how she could not have memorized it by now.

We took off on time and hit a burst of air that made the plane violently rock from side to side. My neighbor commented that perhaps the pilots had the same experience level as the flight attendant, I countered that at least she wasn’t driving. All was well until I stretched my legs about the time we were getting ready to land and touched the leg of one of the thugs in front of me. He turned around and accused my neighbor of playing footsies with him; my neighbor responded by pointing out that his legs were too short. I volunteered that I’d done it and apologized, telling him the plane was just too cramped. He took a look at me and laughed, a second fist fight avoided. I guess 29 hours of travel and 10 days without shaving gave me the appearance of someone who was not going to forfeit his sunglasses at the end of the fight. Our little encounter brought to mind a paper I’d read away back in college explaining how violent criminals required more personal space than regular people. Case in point I guess.

In the end my 4+ hour delay in Beijing translated into being exactly 4 hours late arriving in Albuquerque. A good use of time I guess, with layovers being replaced by airport sprints and planes that could actually depart and arrive on time. Once in while you get lucky, once in a while you don’t. Today was my day and I was glad of it.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Sometimes the one you expect to get you, doesn't get you.

I’m think I may have found an even more gut wrenching set of words than the traditional, “We need to talk” that haunts our collective memories. My latest candidate is, “Good morning sir, I am sorry to tell you that your 13:40 flight will now be departing at 17:00. Please read this memo for details.” Couple that with the fact that it’s 9:25 and you’re not traveling alone and I think you’ll agree – my phrase is just as bad if not worse.

All week long I was worried that I was going to have a hard time getting out of Dalian. Our pea soup fog didn’t seem to want to go away and from what I’d heard my first stop, Beijing, was even worse. I had friends who left on Wednesday morning who had to do a diving catch at the airport and divert to Seoul because the Beijing route was closed. So when the temperature dropped 20 degrees and the wind picked up on Wednesday night, I crossed my fingers and hoped that it was a good sign. And it was; Thursday came in and went out with the same weather and when I left my apartment at 6:10 this morning I could even see Jupiter twinkling between the high-rises. I was on my way home - the setting full moon gave me a point to reflect on as we drove to the airport.

There was nothing exceptional about the process in the Dalian airport except for getting shoved out of line by a particularly aggressive grandmother. The sign above our departing gate continued to show the wrong flight right up to the moment they opened the doors – I heard the security guard tell an untrusting passenger that the sign was broken. We rode the bus out to the plane and I found space for all of my stuff – everything was falling into place. I had a nice chat with a fellow from Mexico who was heading home on Air China. I expressed my profound empathy.

We arrived on time in Beijing at the closest gate to international check-in I’d ever had. No long hike, just a shortcut through baggage claim and up the escalator where the bleak news awaited me. “The information is here on this printed sheet sir.” Lots of mumbo jumbo about how sorry they were and how they were treating us to a free lunch and how we’d be entitled to a voucher, the use of which is always suspect. The gate agent tried to offer me an alternative – Beijing to Narita, Japan to Washington, DC to Albuquerque. I declined, figuring I’d rather just go to San Francisco and find my way home from there knowing full well that I could always catch a cab to Oakland and grab a trip home on Southwest. Zigzagging across the polar ice cap seemed to me to be quite a bit of extra work so I took my boarding passes and headed to the lounge where I seem to be spending an inordinate amount of my life these days.

On a whim I took a look at the United web site and discovered that I could almost certainly make a connection to Denver followed by one to Albuquerque a far better option than the around the world jaunt the other agent had tried to give me. I guess the Chinese don’t have a good sense of North American geography. I called the reservations desk and put my name on the back-up list. At least I had somewhat of a solution that didn’t involve Bay Area cabs rides and stops in Las Vegas. I also asked if they would be kind enough to hold the Albuquerque plane if I was close and she simply laughed at me.

So now my life is reduced to Vitamin C-squared – Cokes and candy bars – while I sit here watching the time pass by. Hopefully the plane will be at the gate and ready to go when I head down there. If not, my next short tale will almost certainly be from a hotel in Beijing. Lemonades from lemons, as we seem to say a bit too frequently.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Maybe the difference between a whorehouse and a brothel is nothing more than a little fog and neon?

We seem to be in a foggy weather pattern these past few days. I don’t mind it that much, but it makes the driving a bit scarier and as I get closer to my next trip home it makes my nerves a bit edgy. You see, when I get close I don’t want trivial things like weather to get in my way; I want to go, and the daily closure of the airport and the skein of cancelled flights weren’t putting my mind at ease.

In spite of the soup we took a trip into town last night for dinner at a friend’s house. The promise of home cooked Sichuan was all it took to inspire me to make the drive in the zero visibility soup. It’s a weird thing to be motoring along on an essentially abandoned elevated highway when the only things you can see are the decorative lights on the concrete barriers. This was the new road into town, the one I’d actually seen built and which I’d hoped to try one of these days despite having no idea where it went. Jiang knew though and he told me it was generally empty because they’d set the speed limit so low. Cars didn’t use it because it took too long to get where they wanted to go in spite of it being a more direct and safer route. The Chinese are funny that way; everything has to be faster regardless of the quality of the experience. It’s why they punch the door closing button in the elevator the instant they get on. It’s an atavistic need that keeps them moving, just like their economy, their government and everything else around here.

The visibility was literally about a half a car length sometimes getting so bad that you couldn’t see the dashed lines between the lanes. The few cars that were alongside us had their emergency flashers on, creating little orange puffs of light in an otherwise uniformly gray universe. It made me think of bioluminescent fish, deep in the ocean signaling just to see if anyone else was around. Once in a while a car would come out of the cloud traveling too fast, assuming his lighting would keep him safe.

It lifted bit in town and by the time we’d polished off our dinner it was nearly clear. At least until we our trip back home where it miraculously rolled in just as we passed under an overhead traffic warning sign. Quite mysterious, it was as though the sign was holding it back and yet there was nothing about the lay of the land to suggest why it was somewhat clear on the leading edge and opaque on the trailing side. From there we had pretty much the same ride as we had on the way in - flashing lights and segments of near blindness – with the added interest of a number of pedestrians crisscrossing the highway near a container depot on the north side of the port. Dressed in black almost to a person, they would suddenly pop out of the mist and disappear almost as quickly as they’d come. The fact that none of them were sprawled dead in the road set me to thinking that the unspoken traffic rules that govern the mechanics of the road here are so bizarre that it often seems as though the dumbest infractions are protected by the strongest unseen forces. Of course this is not true – I’ve seen many wrecks – but tonight these foolish people seemed to have had a force field keeping them safe as they shuffled along in the fog.

Arriving in my neighborhood, I decided the weather was too interesting not do a little exploring so after sending Jiang back into the mist, I grabbed a camera and headed down the street towards the red light district.

Five Color City is about as weird a place as you can imagine on a clear day, and at night it takes on a whole new level of strangeness between the people on the streets, the neon and the lurking amusement park figures that cling to the sides of the building. Whoever thought this place up had a very warped notion of the role that the Mother Goose tales play in the lives of little western children. All the characters are there – mice, cats, dogs, teapots, foxes and frogs – but rendered in a way that makes them downright sinister instead of cute. I’ve heard that the place was built as a family oriented tourist attraction, now it was an endless line of bars, small restaurants and massage parlors. And I’ve been told on more than one occasion to stay out of there at night, but the lure of all that cheap neon in a dense watery air was too much to resist. Down the road I went past the miniature rendering of the Eiffel Tower in front of the Golden Imperial Hotel, crossing against the light and almost getting hit by a taxi on Liaohe Lu.

The streets are always dark, lit only by the signs for the bars. But tonight they instantly evoked any number of film noire movies I could think of that featured a foggy scene down at the docks in San Pedro, Philip Marlowe in a heavy trench, hat tipped forward and collar up against the damp, waiting for some damsel with evil intent to appear out of the dark. Walking along and looking into the bars, some of the taverns were full of expats trying to have fun, others only had a few bar girls waiting for some money to walk in the door. A few of those special Chinese boys with the bouffant hairdos milled around under the occasional security light. I passed a couple of small groups of girls – high heels and hot pants – walking to or from their work. What little eye contact I made with them was of the “what the heck are you doing out here?” nature.

Stopping here and there I grabbed a few photographs and kept walking. The neon and the mist created a wonderful watercolor effect – pools of reds and blues reflecting up from the dirty streets. I won’t it was beautiful, because above it all the place remained what it was. And no amount of polishing can change that. But tonight it was just a bit softer and maybe even a little bit friendlier in spite of the strange statues that would occasionally appear out of the dark as I turned a corner. A mermaid, an Atlas minus his world and giant teapot hovering overhead in the glow of a streetlight.

A few loud arguments between early drunks were happening off in the dark, their location not discernable because of the mist. I passed a couple of makeshift diners, kabobs cooking on the grills for the workers in the local stores. One was set in a bright red tent and was full of people crowded around the heat coming from the stove.

Unlike most evenings, tonight the place was dead. Those that were there were inside. Besides a few working girls and a person in an apron here and there the only other life I encountered was a group of young men wandering around looking for something to do. I decided I didn’t fit that bill and so took a side alley to a different lane. A few more photos and the place began to lose its allure. I tucked my camera in my pocket and headed back home, this time paying a bit more attention while crossing the road lest I come to rely on those unexplained guardian forces.