Tuesday morning at 6am I woke up for the last time in China after getting a whopping two or maybe three hours of sleep. I headed out into the living room where my suitcases waited to do some last sorting of papers I wanted to take with me on the flight home to Canada.
I finished the last little bits of packing I needed to do before it was time to head down to load the car our university provided to take me to the airport (and later Julianne for her afternoon flight). A co-worker/friend heard Julianne and I coming out of our apartment and decided to see me off (though she initially thought it was ‘us’ leaving at the same time). We got downstairs and saw what we thought was the car but the driver was nowhere to be seen.
Our university student-assistant showed up to help and make sure everything was ready (i.e. the driver!) and we all stood around in the morning heat and humidity sweating and wondering where the driver was although he did have five minutes before the set time to leave. It was a little awkward (in my mind anyways) standing there with two other people besides Julianne and I because I wanted to spend my last few minutes with her alone . . . but it couldn’t be helped. Julianne will spend several weeks in America while I’m in Canada with each of us taking some time off and preparing for the next ‘big adventure’ overseas teaching English (more on that later). We just made do in spite of wanting to be alone, and me being a little distracted with worry about where the driver was and if he was going to show up.
The driver shows up on time (my cell phone time was running slow) and we load the car. Our co-worker/friend gives me a hug and then heads upstairs, and I ask our student-assistant to give me a minute to say goodbye to Julianne. We say our goodbyes and I get into the car which looks like a 2011 model–very new and very nice! The ‘irony’ behind all this being that we had to stalk the university liaison/secretary for six days with no success by cell phone messages (that went unanswered!!!) until finally on Monday morning (the day before we leave!) our student-assistant calls her and asks her to confirm that we have a car booked for each of our departure times to get us to the airport (a perk that our contracts give us) . . .
Anyways, the car pulls out and I pick up my camera thinking I’ll snap my last shots of China on the way to the airport but I’m so tired that I decide to just enjoy the ride (and watch traffic to make sure we don’t get in an accident on the way there!). Twenty minutes or so later we arrive at Changsha’s “International” Airport and I get my luggage and head into what I hope is the international departures area (signs are not good).
Inside, I look around to see that the overhead lights are not turned on (but think that could just be to save power) and wonder where I’m supposed to go and wait when there are very few English signs. Outside the doors I had entered was a sign saying “Hong Kong” and three other destinations so I had assumed that since my layover/transfer was there that I was heading into the right place.
Then I see another expat trying to talk to a security guard who apparently has no English but is posted at the ‘international’ desk . . . nice! The guard grabs an employee who is entering through the barrier and asks her to talk to the expat–I hear “Hong Kong” and see her head nod and I decide to walk over and confirm with her that I’m also in the right place. She looks a little exasperated to be doing a job that probably is outside her job description but is friendly and helps me out.
The other expat and I introduce ourselves and I find out that he’s an American teacher but was only in Changsha on business for a short stay. We sit down and begin talking as we wait for the 9:30am official opening time for the check-in counters. The conversation is good and time passes pretty quickly.
Then a bus pulls up and several Chinese travelers begin piling into the waiting area and I suggest that my new friend and I move our luggage over to the place we’ll enter through a barrier once everything opens–and it’s a good thing we do because even after positioning ourselves right next to the barrier a Chinese woman walks past everyone and puts her suitcase in front of ours . . . and later I move it behind us when she goes off to do something, ha!
Another woman gets escorted by a guy in a military uniform to the front of the dozens of people now waiting and put in front of us and I let it go because she’s probably some high ranking/rich person’s relative or girlfriend and complaining would only get stares and being ignored.
And then it’s time to check-in. We show our e-ticket printouts and passports and get waved over to an X-ray machine which we put our stuff through–and that’s when I get pulled aside for the first time by a security person and asked to go into a side-room for an inspection of one of my suitcases.
I put my suitcase up on a steel table while my friend continues on to the check-in counters. I open my suitcase and ask the woman what she would like to check–no answer, she just smiles. She roots around in one particular area and pulls out . . . wait for it, wait for it, an English textbook audio CD and asks me where I bought it. EFL/ESL CD’s are possible contraband on outgoing flights??? LOL! REALLY! I tell her it’s mine and that I bought it outside of China years ago, and then we’re finished. The bizarre thing, as if this could get more bizarre, is that the STACK OF BURNED CD’s I had in another part of the same suitcase never got any attention . . . yeah.
I then head over to the check-in counters thinking that I won’t have any more issues with my luggage other than one of them might be slightly over weight–wrong!!!
I see my new friend and we say hi as he passes me in line. I wait for a woman to finish and then head to the counter. The clerk begins processing my e-ticket and I put my first suitcase up on the conveyor belt to be weighed and, apparently, X-rayed again! The first suitcase goes through fine with no problems and I even don’t have to pay for what I think is a couple kilograms over in weight.
Then my second suitcase rolls into the X-ray machine . . . and that’s when I begin to feel like things are beginning to get crazy. For a minute nothing is said but my suitcase stays inside the scanning box, and then I’m asked to come behind the check-in counter. I walk over to where there is a door that leads behind the counter and knock–it doesn’t open. I walk around the corner back to the counter and a woman tells me to put my camera/lens backpack on the ground, squeeze between a post and the counter that looks dubiously just big enough for me to squeeze through–and I laugh and look her in the eyes and without any hesitation at all say “Uhm, no, my backpack is NOT staying out here” as I highly doubt anyone at the airport would give a damn if it was stolen with all my camera equipment.
I heft the backpack over my head and at the same time squeeze through the small space and then I’m standing behind the check-in counters and see a long row of conveyor belts leading out of the scanning boxes for each of the check-in booths–and there’s no way for me to get to my suitcase which is two sections down, but of course there’s a girl waving at me to come over to her and an older guy sitting at a computer screen with a big frown on his face . . .
I walk over to the edge of the first conveyor belt, and say “What do you want me to do? Do you want me to get the suitcase? Do you want me to step over the conveyor belts?” The girl looks mortified and says nothing but keeps gesturing, and the scanner dude glances at me and continues to scowl at his computer monitor while saying nothing.
I set my backpack down because we’re behind the counters, and climb up onto and over two conveyor belts. I ask my questions again, get no answers but gestures (because in an international airport it makes no sense to hire people who have some English skills!), and I pick up my suitcase and lug it back over the conveyor belts to a table.
I ask the girl again what do they need to see, and what are they looking for–no answers, just nervous smiling and gesturing for me to open the suitcase. I open it and immediately show her my two AA battery chargers thinking that that is probably what she, and scowling dude, want to see–nope, and the gesturing continues. She asks scowling dude a question and he fires off an irritated answer, and she then begins poking and prodding my suitcase aimlessly searching for what I don’t know.
I point at the upper part that isn’t open, and she nods enthusiastically so I open it and show her what is there while trying not to move stuff too much cause I had packed it carefully to make opening and closing it not too difficult–no luck, she still hasn’t found whatever dude wants her to find.
Oh, did I mention that he’s ten feet away and already inspecting someone else’s luggage AND can’t see my suitcase or what the girl is doing? Yeah.
We return to the main compartment of my suitcase and I decide to show her all the other electronic things (some power cords, an iTouch charger head) and she shakes her head. I then show her a pair of large sized studio-grade head phones I have and she also shakes her head no–but by this point she has been told by scowling dude that he wants her to focus on the right side of my suitcase. Knowing that there is NOTHING but my tightly rolled tshirts, socks, and underwear on that side I begin to lose my patience as I’m sweating in the heat and humidity of the check-in area.
I step away from the girl and towards the scowling dude, and call out to him and wave at him to cover over and HELP HER! He looks at me like I’m a mosquito asking for a blood donation and I look back at him like he’s a lazy officious oaf that needs to get off his ass and do his job since he’s the one that pulled me aside for an inspection that isn’t finding anything!
I ask him in an exaggerated tone “What are you looking for?!” He then actually stands for a second and says something to the girl who moans and says what I’m sure must be “I have no idea what to do” and then finally makes an effort to communicate by gesturing the shape and size of the object he is so keen to find.
The gestured outline is exactly that of the head phones I had ALREADY SHOWN TO MINNY MOUSE!!! I pick them up and hold them out towards the dude and he scowls at me and immediately rejects them as the object he is searching for in spite of them being the right size and shape. It seems he was wishing for a mortar-shell-rigged-to-a-clock-with-ticking-fuse but after I insist and the girl has gutted the right side of my luggage he gives in–and then, of course, tells me I have to put my suitcase back through the scanner one more time which means me lifting it four feet up in the air and over the counter while squeezing through the slit of space that isn’t meant to be used as an exit to do so–I should have insisted that one of the clerks or security people do it as that’s ‘normally’ THEIR JOB not the paying customer but I just wanted the whole ridiculous inspection to be over with–and then it was, finally!
Having already lost two kilos through sweating I head over to customs and actually get a semi-friendly agent. She doesn’t say much other than a few questions to check details of my departure and she lets me keep my foreign expert permit. This surprised me because when you leave South Korea after a contract you normally have to hand over your alien registrati0n card and I just assumed this would be the case here too–but I got to keep it.
I then go to the waiting area by the departure gate and find my American friend. I buy 3 bottles of water and a Coke for 64 yuan (major rip-off!) and we sit and talk while waiting. I had earlier joked that it’d be funny if we were seated together and once we get on the plane we see that he’s sitting directly across the aisle from my seat, lol.
During the 90 minute flight to Hong Kong we chat the whole time talking about his wife, family, teaching career in the US, and business he does in China, and I trade teaching stories and experiences and observations about my time in China and South Korea with him.
We land in Hong Kong and I tell him I have to ask if I need to re-check my luggage and unfortunately I never get a chance to say goodbye as we got separated exiting the plane. I did, however, give him my blog url so if he’s reading this he’ll know what happened.
After disembarking from the airplane everyone got onto a huge bus that transported us to the airport itself–which is GI-NORMOUS!!!!
I look around inside and have no idea where I need to go so ask, and find out I have to walk about THIRTY GATE NUMBERS to my departure gate. At first I don’t think it’ll be bad because they have the moving sidewalks but then notice that both lanes are moving towards me, so I begin to walk a lot faster because I only have a two hour turn around and don’t want to somehow miss my connection. With my heavy backpack and satchel I lose another couple kilos as I walk quickly towards the gate . . .
I find the gate with about 15 minutes to spare before boarding begins and then backtrack because Julianne had asked me to get her a bookmark or postcard in Hong Kong. I find some cool panoramic fridge magnet pictures and buy two, and then look for somewhere to buy a sandwich and drink because I didn’t know how long it’d be before they’d feed us on the flight for the first time, and the 90 minute flight had given us a tiny packet of pretzels and small glass of juice/pop/water . . . so I was pretty hungry.
Unfortunately, even after walking back a couple hundred feet I didn’t see any food places that had what I wanted so I resigned myself to waiting for the first meal on the plane.
As I walk down the boarding tunnel to the plane I see a man wearing a kind of fedora hat, light-weight summery European style short sleeved shirt and pants munching away on a wrap and wonder where he’d found it. He scarfs it down just as he reaches the entrance to the airplane and seconds before an attendant who’d begun to stare at him with a ‘where-the-hell-do-you-think-you’re-taking-that-food-look’ . . . and that was my first introduction to the Argentinian Geriatric Brady Bunch Gang.
Before I continue on with that little gem of my travel story here is a picture of the view from inside the Hong Kong airport. I really liked the mountains and clear blue sky with some white clouds (unlike Changsha’s grey-blue-at-best skies).
Getting back to the Argentinian Geriatric Brady Bunch Gang . . . apparently a group tour of 26 Argentinians was a part of the flight I was on and the vast majority were seated directly around my seat. On my left was a Chinese Tiger-Mom (definition “a mother that could be a genetic hybrid of Mao/Hilter/Stalin/Sarah Palin/Mary Poppins-on-crack”) and her high school/first year university-aged daughter who sat directly beside me. In front of me were Argentinians, behind me probably the oldest Argentinian of the group (who gets a ‘special’ place in this blog post), and to my right where the largest central rows of seats were was the main bulk of the gang.
Four of the old boys in the gang spent a good portion of the first six hours of the fourteen hour flight chatting up the ladies (who were all 50+ I think). I got to experience the joys of one guy in particular leaning his hands, elbows, and hips on the back of the chair in front of me where I was trying to watch movies, and then on the head of my own chair which was fantastic as he kept shifting his weight making my seat bob, dip, and go up and down a little; glaring at him did nothing and I didn’t want to get into a conversation with Roberto Benigni‘s Argentinian cousin from “Life is Beautiful” . . . the one thing I did like about the entire group was their insanely powerful joie de vivre as they stood in aisles of the plane and chatted away with each other as though at a party and not on a plane.
It began with three chatting by the bathrooms but they realized after an hour that they were blocking the stewards/stewardess and other travelers trying to get through and to the bathrooms.
Later, six of them made the space in front of the emergency exit their hang out, laugh, talk, gesticulate energetically, and have fun spot. (I know the pic is blurry but I still can’t believe that no one told them they couldn’t congregate there.)
While I admired their unique (I’ve NEVER seen this many people all stand in groups and chat, and walk around to their friends sitting down and chat, for so long during an international flight) energy and manner of making time pass while flying, I really didn’t care for how loud they were after the lights were turned down and some people were trying to sleep and/or watch a movie, etc.
The old guy behind me, around the seven hour mark of the flight, apparently began to have some major issues with his legs . . . and decided to work out his pain/tinglies and frustrations by KICKING THE UNDERSIDE AND BACK OF MY FREAKING CHAIR IN RAPID FIRE BURSTS OF 3 and as many as 10 HARD KICKS!!!
I would sit up and turn and glare at him but it somehow failed to register. I said stop in English but a good number of the gang on the flight couldn’t speak much English (though you’d think ‘stop’ might be one of the few words most would know).
Finally, after about the sixth (I lost track!) chair attack I got a flight stewardess to come over and asked her to ask the man to stop. Two younger guys sitting beside the old guy also said they were worried about the man’s kicking/spasms and the stewardess tried to suggest to him to stand up and walk it off around the aisles of the plane. After gesturing and repeating the suggestion he finally stood up and walked down the aisle and I was able to get back to sleeping without thinking a little kid was sitting behind me (which has happened before!) bored and losing his mind but entertaining himself through exploring the percussive and acoustic properties of my chair back . . . why the old boy couldn’t have told himself to get up and move around I don’t know . . . oh well.
Another thing that happened during the flight that surprised me was the Chinese girl sitting beside me, who spent most of the flight sleeping, ended up at one point falling asleep with her head on my thigh. She had begun trying to sleep on the backseat tray but invariably she would fall asleep enough that she’d slowly slide more and more off of it and then onto my leg. She sounded like she was exhausted and fighting a cold and I really didn’t care if she used my leg as a pillow cause she was tiny and it was never for very long cause after ten minutes or so she’d wake up, realize her head was on my leg and pretend it wasn’t, lol, and then she’d reposition herself on the tray and fall asleep again to repeat the whole pattern. I thought it was cute and remembered some of the high school girls I’d taught in Korea and wondered why she was flying to Toronto (later, I saw she is a university student on her customs form).
I amused myself in different ways during the flight to help time pass. The first half of the flight I tried to sleep as much as possible so that my jet lag and transitioning to Canada time wouldn’t be too bad. While on a trip to the bathroom I decided to shoot my first ‘me holding my camera mirror self-portrait’ . . .
Fourteen hours later the flight lands in Toronto–yahooo! After clearing customs I stepped onto the motorized sidwalk and was shocked at how fast it moved (I’d been on it during past trips through the airport but it had never been set at so fast a speed!).
I picked up my luggage and then walked outside to meet my parents . . . my jet lag/exhaustion was a little strong but not too bad. I feel bad for Julianne because her total travel and flight time will clock in at over 30 hours by the time she gets home in America. My 20 hours or so of travel time is nothing compared to that.
And that’s my story . . . it’s great to be back in Canada and this morning for breakfast I ate something I hadn’t had in a LONG TIME: really good cantaloupe!!!
Well, time to go get ready for my first full day back in Canada. I’m going to go and try to get some rolls of film developed, and if they do it quick enough I’ll upload them to my flickr page later today.
Oh yeah, the other thing I want to do is walk around a grocery store . . . oh baby!!!