Saturday, January 09, 2010

Into the Deluge

One of the interesting things about international travel is your naïve expectation that all the spheres of the universe will magically align themselves into complete harmony, because that’s pretty much what it takes to get you where you want to go. It’s not enough to get to the airport in plenty of time to make it through security, because that part is one of the few you have complete control over. Rather it’s your ability to walk through the thermal imaging device after working up a sweat by hauling your tail down five miles of corridors that will make the real difference in whether your day leaves a smile on your face or finds you sleeping on a faux leather seat in some far-flung airport, or worse, a room with grimy green walls on Quarantine Island. And for every little thing you control, there are a hundred waiting to trip you up.

The most successful multi-city international trips are often those in which your layovers are so excruciatingly long that nothing is left to chance. All those little problems can easily be washed away by simply arranging your flights so that you have five or six hours on the ground in between them. That way, if the airline decides to hold your plane up for an extra half hour to allow some status-laden individual to make a late connection, your whole plan will not hinge on how fast you can get through Immigration at your final destination. Of course, no one in their right mind wants to spend multiple hours sitting around waiting (even with an unlimited Kit Kat supply) just to avoid some minor yet plan-threatening eventualities. And so we make our arrangements to try to balance the two extremes - sometimes the spheres coalesce in perfect harmony and sometimes they collide in cataclysmic ways.

When I’m traveling, my mind constantly rolls through the statistical probability of whether I will or will not make that last connection. Like an old computer punch card sorter, my little brain shuffles and re-shuffles and recalculates with Newtonian precision. The computations begin the moment we pull away from the gate and the processing continues long into the trip, well beyond the point where I’m so sleep deprived as to be questionably capable of doing complex math that involves three time zones plus wind speed and outside air temperature. I usually doze off by doing yet another integration of arrival time, Immigration line length and processing time, time to retrieve bag and duration of the walk to the domestic transfer counter. The numbers roll around in my head like the little numbered lottery ping pong balls offering a continuous stream of more and more precise estimates of whether or not I will have to sprint the remaining 1000 meters to my last gate. The starting point is the time that we actually pull back from the gate, and on this day we were “on time” having squandered an early departure by kindly waiting for some joker running over from a delayed Denver connection. I like slop in the schedule, but only when it’s positive. And while not negative today, my plus column showed a big empty goose egg.

Aside from pointless math, fellow passengers are always the most prolific source of entertainment on a 12 hour flight. Today, a couple of them were worthy of attention.

The first was a youngish Chinese woman that I had first noticed in the lounge. Dressed in blue nylon sports pants with green trim and a bright pink fleece jacket, I’d seen her wandering back and forth while I was vacantly staring out the window waiting for my departure time to come. She was cute – her cheeks were rosy and she had her hair pulled back in a tight pony tail. I left and didn’t see her again until she showed up in the seat next to me on the plane.

She’d brought along four or five bags of Duty Free purchases and she was trying hard to get arranged before they told us to sit down and be still. Alternating between shuffling and re-shuffling the goods by her seat and putting and removing the things to and from the overhead bin, her high speed motions were resulting in her getting more and more flushed by the minute. She took off her fleece revealing a bright lime green thermal t-shirt marred by the fact that it was semi-see-through revealing bunches of little strawberries on her brassiere. Although the tee was a perfect color match to the piping that decorated her pants, the little fruits showing through her shirt were a complete fashion misstep – startling little dark spots in an otherwise pleasing expanse of tree frog green. She brought to mind something a friend had said recently in a newspaper interview about Chinese women - they were very stylish and chic - and I think they try to be. But they regularly miss on one little thing that is so blatant as to blow the entire package straight out of the water and this poor girl’s bra was that one thing.

She finally got the things she wanted stowed above and turned her attention to closing the bin. Mustering all her cute little might she jumped up in the air with both arms on the bottom of the bin and tried to get it to latch but unfortunately lacking the momentum to make the maneuver work, both she and the bin came right back down. Undaunted, she did this over and over again with each attempt ending in the same result. Up she went and own they came until the guy underneath her got up, gave the bin a shove and locked it in place. She sat down in the middle, grabbed the plastic coated safety information card and furiously fanned herself in a futile attempt to cool off. They turned on the seatbelt sign and we backed away, 30 minutes behind schedule.

I had dinner and a couple of glasses of wine and took a short snooze. Waking up I decided to watch a video so I got my gear and set things up, settling back for a couple of hours of entertainment. Apparently my neighbor had the same idea, only she was using a wide-screen laptop and she wasn’t watching network sitcoms - she was watching soft core Chinese porn. I wasn’t sure how offended I should be after watching the second or third encounter between the couple in her movie. I sat there with my right eye on my show and my left eye on hers while she sat there furiously spinning her hair around and around her little finger. The couple in the movie just kept on coupling and after a half hour or so a baby appeared. The dad spent the remainder of the movie playing soccer and the mom spent her time playing with her computer while the baby, now a toddler sat on the floor of their apartment. The movie ended and the second part of the double feature came on, this one considerably darker including one scene involving twist ties and kitchen knives. I stopped watching at that point.

The second person of the day was one of those yutzes that insist on opening the sunshade and blinding everyone else in the cabin. This guy was one row back behind my right side, and each time he let in the sunshine, he bleached my peripheral vision. He’d open, I’d turn and glare, he’d close. We got into this pattern until I tired of turning and glaring and instead put my hand up to shield my eyes. Figuring this out, he’d close the blind again. Until he started doing it just to get me to put my hand up. He’d open, I’d block, he’d close, and I’d lower. We went through this dance several times before I figured out what was going on and just sat there absorbing the light. He figured that my absorption rate was infinite and stopped opening the blind. I guess I won.

Despite my buffer being consumed away back at departure, I made my last connection with no pressure whatsoever. I even had time to chug a half a Diet Coke in the Air China lounge before heading down to the gate. Of course this only happened because I passed the thermal imaging gauntlet, picked a reasonably fast Immigration line, caught the inter-terminal train quickly and found my bag waiting for me at the carousel. But who’s complaining? The spheres aligned themselves as needed.

I’ve been out of all kinds of gates at Beijing Capital but never one down in the basement. 52 was the designation so I headed down the moving walkway towards the end of the C concourse. In most airports, the lower gate numbers are closer to the ticketing areas, but in China you just never know. And so I was not terribly surprised when gates 51 and 52 happened to fall between 17 and 18. I was surprised enough to have to back track because 52 also happened to fall ½ between the breaks in the walkways, but that was easy enough, I just circled back and took an escalator down two floors to the ground level – it seems we would be taking a bus to the plane. This was my first time leaving this way – I’d come in on a bus once before, a ride that cost me my connection. I milled around with the other passengers until they opened the doors, flooding the waiting area with diesel exhaust. We went out and boarded the transport buses, which too were full of fumes. There floors were wet and slick from the slush dragged in by the previous occupants. And it was cold. It occurred to me that the managers of the airport were trying very successfully to create the illusion of a bus station. In fact, they’d managed to out bus station just about every bus station I’d ever been in. We stood there with the doors open watching forlornly as the occasional late passenger would show up and join us amid the smoke, the slush and the frigid air. Eventually the gate agents tired of the trickle and signaled the driver to pull away. He closed the doors and we were on our way to the long climb up the stairs to the plane out on the subzero, windblown tarmac.

As always my trusty driver Jiang was waiting for me when I made my way out of the baggage claim area. We got in the car and headed out of the airport towards home. Once on the highway, he hit me with the news – the woman downstairs from me had called my relocation consultant to tell her that she could hear water running endlessly in my apartment. Making the sound of a waterfall and saying “Hua hua hua” over and over again to add some drama to his story, Jiang related how the consultant had called him, wondering where I was. When they figured out that I was not there, they called the landlord’s agent who in turn called the superintendent who then turned off the water. None of this was good news, as the weather had been unseasonably cold and broken pipes had reached plaque proportions. Of course I wondered why he had to tell me this five minutes into a 40 minute drive. I thought I was done with travel calculations and now I had to start all over again wondering whether tonight was going to end up with a missed connection of a different sort – an uninhabitable house.

I couldn’t get to the bottom of how long ago this had happened nor how long the water might have been running. I kept asking but the details were not emerging, a combination of my lame Chinese and his lack of details.

We arrived and I opened the front door expecting to see the results of a flood, but there were none. Going from room to room, things looked normal at least until I checked my hall bathroom. The signs there were interesting – nothing was wet but the floor was littered with little tiny crescents of dried dust-bunnies. Like so many sandbars on an ancient floodplain, the lint islands radiated out from the washing machine towards the drain at the back of the room under the shower head. I took some time to ponder this evidence; water had once been there and yet now was gone. Jiang went downstairs to get the super to turn the water back on. I dug deeper and found the culprit – the water feed line to the washer was sheared off right at the clamp. A mystery as to how, but not a mystery as to what – this was the source of the flood and my place had been saved from destruction by one thing only – this bathroom was once of those wall to wall to ceiling tiled cubes so curiously native to China. We laugh, but there is clearly a higher plan at work.

I closed the faucet and sent Jiang home. A half hour later the super showed up in slippers and sweatpants and turned the water back on. We chatted in Chinese and he showed me the secret water control compartment – a box hollowed out of the concrete core of the building holding 4 plastic pipes, each with a little orange plastic valve. Like my sprinkler system back home.

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