Monday, November 22, 2010

Heading back to the Middle Kingdom

My ability to read potential travel problems has continued to develop with each thousand mile bloc I've added to my Mileage Plus account. I first became aware of this semi-supernatural skill when I was getting out of the car at 4 AM on the departure level of the Albuquerque Airport one summer morning. A shuttle bus pulled into the disgorging lane a couple of car lengths ahead and when the door opened what seemed like a thousand Chinese students began tumbling out. I gave My Lovely Wife a dry peck on the lips and beat a hastier than normal path to the entrance. Once inside I got in the 1st Class line and frantically jumped up and down to attract the attention of the half-asleep ticket agent. She called me over just in time - the Red Tidal Wave was just breaking and had I been 10 seconds slower I would have been an hour late for my plane.

This morning there was no bus and so I said a leisurely goodbye to My Lovely Wife. Turning the corner though my cerebral klaxon sounded as I walked past a little boy, perhaps 9 years old standing alone in the dark wearing an expensive down jacket and guarding what appeared to be a brace of black cordura zippered dinosaur eggs. Little children in expensive clothes standing alone in the dark at the airport is never a good omen and while I like to think that I have a wonderfully magic power, it's likely that an ambulatory bunch of broccoli could read this one. Arriving inside I instantly knew I was right - the 1st Class line was littered with a dozen unmatched suitcases, duffels, and shoulder bags. There was a smaller little boy and a frantic father trying to keep all these metaphorical balls in the air. Over his shoulder was a relic of a bag with a hundred or more paper luggage tags from airports around the world. Odd airports like RIO and even stranger airlines like Pan-Am. I guess these were family mementos and the message was clear - "Don't mess with me because I am a world traveler." It kind of reminded me of those people in Yuma that leave ski lift tickets on their jackets all year long. They were in front of me and I knew I was doomed.

The littler boy stood there distractedly eating an apple while dad disappeared to get his brother. They returned with the dinosaur eggs which turned out to be cases for some sort of helmet, at least according to the conversation I was eavesdropping. An agent called them up which put dad into the next level of frenzy. The boys just stood there trying to be in his way as much as possible. I resolved to remain calm and wait out the hurricane.

Sadly my attempt to enter a Zen state failed - I got called about 10 seconds later. There was only one path for me and it meant winding to my left and cutting directly across their axis of disaster. I picked up my bags and stepping over their piles, cut to the right. The boys, sensing an opportunity to complicate someone else's life dropped what they were doing and stepping directly in front of me, stopped and looked up. This was apparently an early morning test of wills.

Now I'm not the most confrontational person, I'm slight of build, I don't have any tear drop tattoos under my left eye and I lack both gold hoop earrings and a grimy pony tail. I generally suffer in silence and look for a way to get what I need without raising my voice or pulling on my boxing gloves. But enough was enough and so looking at the little imps I said, "C'mon guys" followed with a reasonably nice "Excuse me please."


Of course this turned out to be one of those dads who lives on that planet where kids don't need to be told what to do because they're born fully sentient and embody a complete understanding of the rules and mores of society. Because of their advanced intellectual state, their rights are equal to those of everyone else. And if some of us don't possess that same view, well, we need to be straightened out. Dad looked at me, raised his voice and said, "Hey, he's in line in front of you!" apparently ignorant of the fact that as far as United Airlines was concerned, we were now both at the same place in line.

I took this in for about 8 seconds, continued on my way and turned, looking him square in the eye said, "You travel so you know what the problem is". That took dad back for a second, he looked at me as though in had brought a cricket bat down on the bridge on the bridge of his nose, shook his head and said, "You're right, I'm sorry." I had read him just right and reduced this battle to a knowing wink between two globe trotters. Score one for side of right.

Based on that last encounter it looked like today was going to be a bit of Yin and a touch of Yang. I picked the wrong ID check line that was manned by a Captain Kangaroo clone who spoke like a Mr. Rogers parody who insisted on reading the destination of each boarding pass he stamped and saying the destination with cloying amazement. The guy in front of me was going to "Ooh, Mexico City" and of course the traveler bit, asking what was his most unusual destination so far. "Peru" said Captain Rogers, "Did you see those people with the funny little hats?". I made sure I handed him my domestic pass as I was sure that San Francisco would not get a raise. I was right.


Of course it turned out that the Dad and Lad trio was on my plane. And naturally they lined up in the status boarding line in front of me. They were down to a couple of bags and those dinosaur helmets though so the chaos was more controlled. I gave them a wide berth nonetheless and spent my remaining waiting time staring at the ceiling. We boarded and they had the three 1st Class seats in front of me. While it would have nice to just get on the plane and sit down, we had to have one last drama - the helmet cases would not fit in the overhead bins. The flight attendant jumped in quickly and promised to solve the problem if they would all just sit down and get out of the way. Dad warned her to be careful, they were very fragile. Fragile helmets? At this point my Yin reservoir was full. I was ready for some Yang.

Dad started out by setting the ground rules -

"Boys, look around. Do you see any other children up here in this special cabin?"

"No? Well let's behave in a way that doesn't make the other passengers regret sitting near us. "

Okay, a perfectly clear and well crafted message for a pair of boys whose combined age almost assuredly didn't add up to more than 20. I was doomed. The two little ones sat in the window seats are pointed out that there were other planes here at the airport and that we weren't moving until we were at which point they pointed that out too. We taxied, got up to speed took off and banked to the west, putting the rising sun behind us.

It's amazing what you can learn by listening to other people's conversations.

Divorced - "I can't believe the movies your mother lets you watch."

Artist - "I was up late last night writing letters to people to convince them to buy my sculptures."

Traveling to a Thanksgiving reunion - "Aunt Bunny is coming in from Dubai."

Related to the movie industry - "Why Dubai? Because Uncle Richard is over there shooting a movie."

Geography - "Dubai? It's over there past England and France. You know, past Europe. It's where all the Arabs are."

Big family reunion - "All your cousins won't be there until tomorrow."

The term "Santa Fe" was liberally sprinkled through the remainder of the conversation which pretty much said it all. At least to those of us who live down the road from The City Different. The three of them finally fell asleep and my flight continued without further consternation.

I wish I could say that was the end of our relationship but it was not so simple. Like me, dad had had an oversized bag that had to be checked. Which meant we had to wait in the jet way for the bags to be brought up. We lined up and his came first. He grabbed it and started up the ramp. Mine came up next and I started up behind them. Back on dry land, dad reverted to his own frazzled self. Trying to manage all the carryon bags and the dinosaur eggs was pressing too hard on his organizational skills. The boys were once again on their own and the littler one went up ahead where he stopped and started to swing back and forth on the ramp railing, holding with one hand and planting one foot he was doing one sided vertical snow angels while the other passengers were approaching. I was at the head of the line and I had had enough so giving the little chimp a wide berth I made a move to pass. But it was not wide enough. On his return spin he stuck his arm out straight and hit me squarely in the crotch.

The rest of the morning went reasonably well. I sat in the lounge, ate a banana, went to the gate and boarded on time. I was taking this haul in Coach, having burned up the last of my upgrades on my trip home. Coach is such a crap shoot but I was reasonably sure the seat next to me would be empty, this being one of the perks of being a member with status who riding with the regular people. When a big scary looking guy came down the aisle I knew he was heading for me, I mean I had to expect that in light of my experiences so far. Sure enough he was; I stood up and let him in and he took the window seat. I was grateful for the small favors that life deals us because the first thing he did was to raise his arm rest so thatch could flow into the middle seat. I sat with my fingers crossed hoping that no one else would show up and no one did.

I guess everyone was in for some sort of confrontation on this day because one eventually played out right there in Row 22. Thankfully I was a participant this time. The guy sitting in front of my big scary row mate put his seat back apparently planning go get some sleep. Once back, the guy in front realized that Big Scary Guy's air jet was blowing right in his face. He sat up and turned around and what followed was one of those conversations that would be impossible to make up -

"Excuse me sir, you air is blowing right down my neck. I won't be able to sleep like with that."

"Sorry, I need the air on me."

"But sir, can't you adjust it a bit so that it's not blowing directly on me?"

"It's where I want it."

"But it's blowing right on me."

"Then your seat is back too far."

"That's what seats are supposed to do, go back so we can sleep."

"You seat is back too far."

"I don't understand what the problem is; I'm not trying to pick a fight."

At which point Big Scary Guy reached up and turned off the air with a clearly disgusted flick of his wrist.

From then on it was just that same old long ride on the bus. I joked with one of the flight attendants about how bad it was back here and she laughed and told me that they call it “The Grand Ballroom.”

With three hours left in the flight, Big Scary Guy and his pal got into it again with exactly the same conversation but this time the air stayed on. That got me thinking about what it must be like to be a big scary guy. You simply don’t have to cooperate or negotiate if you have no fear of wimpy little guys sitting in front of you.

This day ended up being one of those great ones in Immigration where you walk right up to the desk. I was praising my good luck when it ended with a passport problem that required a supervisor and a call to the higher ups. I’m guessing some combination of a new visa, being a former resident and my charm.

Because of the fall time change I could no longer catch the earlier flight to Dalian so I settled in for a 3 hour wait. Spent some of the time at my favorite secret Starbucks where I was finally able to gather evidence of the table service that never seemed to be on where I was there with someone else. I had a package of French Fries at Burger King and caught the bus out to the plane. Someone asked where the plane was and I said “Tianjin” which meant a 10 hour ride. Too bad we weren’t on Friedman’s bullet train.

The last emotions of the day surfaced when I rode into Kai Fa Qu. This is the first time in 4 years that I have not been returning to my apartment. This is a business trip. As we passed the smokestacks behind the Olympic Ring Park at the beginning of Jinma Lu, I was reminded how the stink of the air forced me to sleep with the air conditioner on throughout last winter. The lights were the same and the only discernable differences were buildings nearing completion and some new businesses. I got out of the car at the hotel entrance and looked up at my old apartment building. Way up high on the 24th floor a single light was on. My time was over and the torch was passed. I was a visitor now.

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