Friday, August 20, 2010

If China is the Mysterious East, why do I fly west to get there?

Probably the best thing about living overseas is knowing that you’re allowed to go home on a fairly regular basis. On this assignment through a long list of contrived and random circumstances, I’ve managed to keep the space between home visits down to a manageable 5-8 weeks. Unlike most of the people I work with over there, I live alone – my family remained stateside and 5-8 weeks is about as long as I’d want to go without seeing them.

Of course there is a price associated with frequent international travel and its name is “Jet Lag.” Now for something that afflicts tens of millions of travelers on a daily basis, you’d think that there would be tons of information available on how to treat it. But there isn’t. Instead you get about the same volume and quality you get with any internet search, anecdotes, lies and damned lies. You might ask how the Secretary of State does it, jetting all over the place all the time. Well, I did have a seat next to the advance man for the Secretary of Commerce not long ago and his answer was pretty simple, “Cabinet level Secretaries fly on Air Force One or Two and everything they need is available – beds, drugs, doctors and food. But mostly it’s about peace and quiet.” Pushing on that answer we came to the second truth, “They just bull their way through it like the rest of us.” I imagine that the truth lies somewhere in between those two points. A person with a staff traveling on a big jet with an actual bedroom might come out ahead of it simply because of the increased comfort of their travel. They can sleep and eat at will and no one is going to bother them unless there is a crisis in Honduras or Andorra. Most of all they are not subjected to the other side of the equation – taxis, immigration, long lines, hours spent sitting around airport lounges trying to stay awake. I’d be willing to bet that they do a lot less “bulling” than we do.

As far as the rest of the lore goes it comes down to things like:
• Force yourself to sleep and wake up on the right time
• Force yourself to stay awake so you can sleep when you get there
• Take drugs to make you sleep
• Drugs are for idiots

In other words, figure out what works for you and do that. Unfortunately what works in July, 2007 might not work in August, 2010. And things don’t work the same depending on the direction you travel. Traveling west from the US is never a problem – you arrive around 7PM and you’re worn out from the length of the trip. You force yourself to stay awake until a reasonable hour and then you fall asleep. The worst thing you face is waking up at 2AM and having to force yourself back to sleep a second time. The other more permanent effect is waking up regularly at 5, but one could argue that might not be a terrible thing. So we can dispense with west to east travel. Traveling east is the killer. This is the one that requires extraordinary measures to repair the physical and psychological damage you’ve done to yourself.

The first change I made to my routine has to do with minimizing the number of flights I have to take and how early I have to leave home to get started. I used to have to be on the road by 6AM to catch a flight from Dalian to Beijing and that meant getting up at 5 to face an hour’s worth of traffic in order to arrive at the airport by 7. What followed was another hour or so of stress from standing in Chinese check in lines, going through Chinese security, buying something in the Chinese gift shop and then waiting and hoping that the Chinese air traffic controllers would allow the plane to leave on time. Assuming it did leave on schedule the next hurdle was waiting for the Chinese baggage handlers to send up your bag and then rushing upstairs in one of the world’s longest airports to get checked in for the international leg. If the tiniest thing went wrong in even the smallest part of that exercise, you found yourself scrambling to find a hotel room which was followed with trying to re-schedule your flights. Enough of that, I changed the routine to include a night in Beijing followed by a leisurely breakfast, a drive to the airport with time to spare and an easy check in process. While this plan takes most of the stress and risk out of the trip, you still find yourself on the edge of your seat at times. Rush hour traffic on the Airport Expressway can still bite you especially when you get to within ½ mile of the terminal and discover that the police have cordoned off the road, just because, and that all the drivers up ahead in the growing traffic jam are out of their cars and standing around shielding their eyes from the sun while trying to figure out what’s going on. And in my case there is also the required conversation with the cabbie in which I try to tell him that while I seem to be able to speak the language, it doesn’t mean that I understand even a tenth of what he is saying. On the occasion of this trip everything was fine until we he didn’t get my inside joke about being a Dongbei Ren (northeasterner) and asked if my parents were Chinese. He got me back when he pulled the “domestic vs. international” question out of his bag of tricks and so exposed me to words that I had not heard before. However, stilted conversations and the vagaries of traffic are small prices to pay to knock a flight off of the agenda while getting to sleep in for an extra hour.

Business class also helps to make the physical stress of traveling slightly less toxic. I don’t care much about the “lie flat” beds or the better food or even the free alcohol. For me it’s about the quiet in the cabin and the fact that you never have some moron playing with the back of your seat. Especially when that moron has the world’s tiniest bladder and insists on using your headrest as a handle every time they get up. Business is about serenity and honestly, serenity in your surroundings goes a long way towards helping you get through the next 24 hours.

On this day I was lucky enough to get an upgrade but jinxed enough that my seat was one of the back- facing rows. I know from experiencing the Viking Boat at the local amusement park that back-facing is not for me so I looked around and realized that one of my colleagues was sitting a couple of rows up. I asked her row mate if he would swap with me and he agreed – problem solved. I settled into my new seat and as we waited the cabin began to fill up with smoke which is never something you want to see on an airplane particularly one that you have to trust for the next 12 hours. In truth it wasn’t smoke, it was condensation from the air conditioners sucking in all that wet, polluted Beijing tarmac air and cooling it off by dropping the moisture on the people in the window seats. The flight attendants were quite helpful, stealing blankets from the people in the Economy cabin and using them to mop up the business class passengers. Another perk from dedicating yourself to a single airline. Eventually we left and as we crossed 25,000 feet the steam turned to snow and we were treated to sort of a mini-Christmas in August. We flew on, away from the setting sun;, the snow melted and a few hours later we landed.

The most painful part of my trip home is waiting for that final flight. It means a couple of hours in the domestic lounge eavesdropping on countless cell phone calls and trying to be satisfied with strawberry yogurt and Diet Coke. On the upside, United has isolated a back portion of their domestic lounge and made it cell phone free - peace and quiet is a good thing, especially when you’re going to be treated to 5 hours of it. The downside is that many people can’t read “No Cell Phones” signs and all the entreaties for courtesy don’t stop someone from using one of the couches to get in a few dozen sit ups and leg lifts accompanied with grunting worthy of a modern-day female professional tennis player. I will admit though that it was quiet most of the time.

When you’re finally at your home destination and it’s the middle of the afternoon and you’ve been awake more or less for 25 hours, you have to stay awake. Dinner out, unpacking, walking the dog – all things that you must do to avoid going to sleep. Because at this stage sleep is your enemy. So you wander around zombie-like until it’s close to a regular bedtime and you fall asleep hard.

The following morning is it’s best to sleep until you wake up. Getting up at your regular time means you will need a nap shortly after breakfast. I figured out this the hard way when I fell asleep with my face in my scrambled eggs one morning. Better to just stay in bed and wake up feeling like a teenager waking up at 1PM following a hard night of “studying.” At least this way you can put off the inevitable nap until 4PM.

From this point on you have to follow a routine – 1 decongestant and 3 aspirin with breakfast, a normal day with perhaps a short nap and then a death march of drooping eyelids until your regular bedtime at which point you chew a 3mg. Melatonin tablet. Then you either face outright insomnia or a pattern of sleeping for 30 minutes followed by staring at the ceiling for 2 hours. A couple of nights of this and a couple of days of unremitting nausea and yawning and by Day Three you’re feeling good. You’re sleeping, you’re eating and when people speak to you it comes across as your native language spoken at the correct speed.

Pat yourself on the back, you’re all better.

At least until Day Five when it starts all over again. This is the tricky thing about Jet Lag – you can beat it with a combination of mild drugs, forced sleeping habits, some time out in the sun creating Vitamin D and plain old willpower. But just because you finally have that one night of blissful sleep followed by that one day of feeling really great, it doesn’t mean that it’s over. No, it’s time for the Second Round and that one is a real pain. Take the first part and multiply it by 2 and that’s what you’ve got. The good news is that it doesn’t last as long the second time around even if the symptoms are worse. In fact usually a setback only lasts a couple of days. But if you’ve been doing the math here you realize you’ve now suffered for almost a week and a week is just about all the time you have home so you begin to analyze whether or not all this pain and suffering is worth a mere 7 days in your own bed, with your own dog and talking face to face with Your Lovely Wife.

I assure you, it is.









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