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Saturday, October 20, 2007


number 01/2007

Before light dawned on the morning of October seventeenth, 2007, we began the relatively long and equally comfortable journey around the globe to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam via San Francisco and Hong Kong. 2,972 words.

Washington to San Francisco

[HCMC]—We arrived at Dulles shortly before four thirty in the morning. There were hardly any lines at the ticketing booth, which is just as well because we were too inexperienced to manage the automated machine: where was the keyboard? the passport reader? where could we tell the machine that international business-class passengers are allotted two checked bags apiece, and that those bags were allowed to be heavier? This was the first time either one of us had ever flown in a class better than economy, and the newness was immediate, a learning curve that started at the very front of the building. Automated ticketing kiosks are also a learning curve, of course. They are intended to assist experienced flyers streamline the otherwise predictable tediousness of routine travel management. But they are as varied as gasoline pumps, hotel shower fixtures, or snowflakes; these squat grey robots were science fiction compared to the old kiosks in Monterrey, México, and we stood for a few minutes with a finger on the touch screen, the helpful robot telling us to “swipe your passport now,” before a ticket agent saved us by moving us to a full service line. The business class line. It still took a few minutes to explain to her about how we did not have too many, too weighty bags.

Minutes later we were already processed, however. By then, our parents had parked the airport caravan in the short-term parking, and we all said goodbye to one another—one last hurtle after weeks of other goodbyes.

Then we were walking down the long, wide hallway to the checkpoint alongside the large crowd of a Taiwanese tour group we were allowed to pass at the executive rope stands. From here, we made our way through the priority express x-ray machines. We were carted from concourse to concourse by giant, crawling passenger transports akin to a doublewide trailer grafted onto a flatbed semi—a long way from the short red busses that drove us over the Monterrey airport’s tarmac. We walked down the C concourse past news sellers and full-on restaurants already open at five thirty in the morning. We had an hour to kill before our plane began boarding business class passengers first.

I had no idea what to expect, but it was nice. The seats were big and plush, with adjustable headrests, individual armrests, lumbar support. A flight attendant offered me orange juice, water, a mimosa as I stepped through a the cabin. The aisle was large enough to navigate around passengers who had stopped to stow their baggage. Sunshine had been unable to get us seats together on this leg, and she set in the row directly in front of me. It was very quiet in the cabin. I never expected an airplane to be more comfortable than a first-class Mexican bus. About the time we were supposed to be taking off, the standard safety instructions played on the retractable overhead televisions. The captain revved an engine. The plane taxied away from the gate. Soon, the captain announced the rather alarming new that half of the plane’s engines were not working. So we taxied back to the gate again.

Other travelers are crazy. Since whenever, I have a gradually eroding fear of flying. When I was younger, the only part of air travel that spooked me was the landing, when the ground came closer and closer and the plane made quick, sharp maneuvers to line up properly with the tiny rushing knife of asphalt. Now, and for some time, flying frightens me by default, and my favorite part is the landing: soon this will all be over. This is a digression meant to illustrate the tedium of waiting in the plane for an hour while they ascertained the problem. This is by way of explaining the incredulity I feel when I hear other travelers bitching that we hadn’t left already in a plane that can only fly in rapid, deadly circles.

As soon as the mechanic discovered the problem we were all ordered off the plane. We were asked to leave our luggage where it was. We waited for thirty minutes for them to make a decision about whether to cancel our flight. I couldn’t say what I hoped for, really. Maybe for someone to spontaneously invent a teleporter right there in concourse C. At eight forty or so the decision to go ahead and—why the heck not?—get on with the flight was announced to me, to Sunshine, to the large Taiwanese tour group, and we all shuffled back onto the plane, business class first. I was offered a mimosa, water, orange juice, we watched a safety movie, the pilot was apologetic. I crossed my fingers and it worked: the plane made it all the way into the sky and back out again on the other side of the country.

The stranger sitting beside me was polite, pleasant, and all about travel etiquette: he never spoke to me until breakfast was served, as the attendant spread a tablecloth over my telescoping tray table and poured coffee into my porcelain cup. Then we had a refined chat over our meal—some sausage something for him, fruit plate and cereal for me. He’s a CPA, he wore a nice suit. After breakfast, we both returned to reading and giving each other space. I fell asleep for almost two hours, my only sleep since Tuesday morning. I woke up on approach. I wasn’t very nervous anymore; this was almost over. We touched down in San Francisco only two hours into our three-hour layover.

San Francisco to Hong Kong

San Francisco International, at nine, was a lot more crowded than Dulles had been at seven. I changed my watch to local time while we double-timed it through the airport to the international gate. The gates here are numbered, but the concourses are not designated with a letter. We were at forty-something and needed to make it to somewhere in the hundreds, someplace labeled G. San Francisco’s airport is remarkably ramshackle, old, inconsistently signed. The sporadic maps indicated gates only up into the nineties. On the map, San Francisco International looks just like a stink bug. The departures board said our plane was on time. Our layover, which was to be so long before our breakdown in DC changed all that, was ticking away, almost over. Sunshine was our hero here. She somehow noticed the paper sign stuck to a wooden podium directing us down a flight of concrete stairs to the international gate. The man at the gate was wearing a maintenance uniform. The doorway looked like it would open onto a janitor’s closet, and was decorated with Do Not Enter Employees Only written beneath a steady red hand. But paper signs were taped to the cinder block walls, and these depicted a diagonal arrow and read International in an unsteady hand. We seemed to be the only people following this arrow, but okay. It led one floor down to a glassed-in hallway just off a mechanic’s bay in a crook of the tarmac. Towering above us was the right engine of a 727, some of its shell removed. The hallway terminated at an elevator where we were directed to press Floor Two International by another shaky paper sign. By this time we were surrounded by Japanese flight attendants who maxed-out the first elevator car. They had cute plush animals and stickers on their luggage, they had pop haircuts. There were no other passengers but us.

We eventually arrived on the second floor, just beside the sign directing us to our gate, for which we had to ride down one floor on an escalator. Back to floor one. While we were on the escalator, they called for the business and first class passengers to begin boarding. We walked right to the gate and got on the plane. I spent all of twenty-eight minutes on my feet in California.

Once on the plane, this one much bigger than the last, we were directed up the stairs to the business class cabin. Back to the second floor. This was a 777, and it had separate spaces for first, business, and economy class. I never even had to glimpse the latter, but the forward cabin of the first class passengers was eye-opening: instead of seats, they had kitty-corner pods which transformed into full single beds with dashing gimcrack headboard-desks consoles. Upstairs, the business class area was no less pleasant for all its unintimidating convention. We had the very same lounge chairs as the last flight, only they were positioned very far apart. Each had a television in the armrest. Each had a full keypad of control options. I was surprised to learn that my leather carry-on duffel was too round to fit in the overhead compartment, and had already given it to the prompt and businesslike attendant when I realized that there was a whole row of roomy trunks along the floor of the plane. I gladly received my fresh orange juice as I took my seat. I tried to touch the back of the chair in front of me with my toes and I could not.

The plane took off on schedule around one pm San Francisco time, the captain telling us that headwinds had convinced the controllers to dictate a longer, more southerly route than had been the plan. I changed my watch just after takeoff: fifteen hours forward to Hong Kong, even though we were going backwards over the Pacific. Our flight from California to Hong Kong lasted about seventeen hours, but we arrived twenty-nine hours later, eleven time zones and one adjustment for Daylight Saving Time later. Beneath the plane, it got earlier relative to our flight speed as we crossed the longitudes, then jumped forward a day relative to our departure hemisphere. After the sun had risen on us on the Dulles tarmac, it never set again until Hong Kong approach, making for one long day. Within the plane, things were as nice as they could be: glass glasses, silver silverware, champagne and delicate smoked salmon salad with challenging greens. I had a good but academically difficult book and crossword puzzles that were a little too easy for me. I had had almost two hours of sleep in the previous twenty-seven, and after the first hour, our well-mannered neighbors in the business class cabin shut all windows making it cozy and dark like a campsite. There was nothing but the sun-blasted ocean below us, anyway. I had a drink or two, I readied myself for sleep.

But that never came. It was a smooth enough flight. I didn’t get very nervous about it because the plane was so big, the bottom so far away, that I couldn’t really feel much of the flying. I am not scared of riding the elevator. I don’t know why I was unable to sleep. Maybe because I was in public. Maybe the noise. Maybe the jet lag. I tuned into the flight on TV. The little blue map flashes through practical information over a little GPS mock-up of the plane and the blue water below it. The view changes often, and the widest angle showed some land mass. We were going 579 miles per hour. Eventually there was nothing but a black cross over blue. I was too tired to read my book. We were 39,000 feet into the sky. The screen frequently repeated its information in Cantonese. Before long, I know what the fields meant, even in Hanzi. We’ve elapsed this much time, we have this many meters remaining. The opiate of the half light, the weary tiredness, the drinks and coffees and whispers, the crosshair focus of that achingly slow blue map, these cast an otherworldly aspect over the elongated day, I could do nothing but watch, haunted, as it progressed at half-speed but without changing. We crossed the date line shortly before eleven am somewhere, pm somewhere else. I am pretty sure I lived through every hour of that flight, even the ones that merely exist as the conjecture of relativity. Outside it was forty degrees below zero according to the map. Later in Chinese it was still forty below. This is neatly reveled: minus forty is the same in Celsius as it is in Fahrenheit: cold.

(Veracruz to Greensboro)

The longest bus ride I’ve taken in my life was from Veracruz, México to Greensboro, North Carolina, beginning the eighteenth of December just about twelve years ago. The entire trip, including layovers in Huston and New Orleans, took me fifty-two hours from start to finish. I crossed two time zones moving forward. There was a vast discrepancy between the charm and comfort of the Mexican busses versus the ones I had to use over the US border. I thought there was nothing more comfortable than these smooth, highly cooled land liners. They had more legroom than an airplane and cost less than a train. They were clean, their drivers were full of personality, they played movies. I thought that my fortunes would have been much improved had I been allowed to remain in Mexican busses the entire way across the US, too. But it wouldn’t have mattered: fifty-two hours is just too long to sit on any bus.

Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City

My spell broke over the Pacific Ocean, about ninety minutes before arriving in Hong Kong. A large lunch was served and the mood of the cabin seemed to wake along with me. Oddly, this virtual morning coincided with nightfall outside the plane, the opened windows finally and thoroughly lit the cabin with steadily deepening twilight. Soon, it was stone nighttime outside, and the plane was banking over the distinctive skyline of Hong Kong Island and landing at Chek Lap Kok Airport just off the north shore of Lantau. Here we gathered our carry-on bags and made our way through a thoroughly modern airport to board another plane just like the one we’d landed in. This walk did not pass through customs or immigration, we were merely traveling on through to Vietnam along controlled international spaces incidentally inside an award-winning building in one of the world’s greatest cities. Our bags were checked through security on the way off the plane, and then once again, for good measure, as we were boarding again about forty minutes later. In the plane we already knew where the stairs were, which seats were ours, where to put the bags. I suspected I might actually feel damned, faced with the very same landscape, same passengers even, on this new airplane. Like maybe time was looped up, repeating itself. But I didn’t, the business class cabin had finally become comfortable through familiarity.

This was the short leg of our trip. It was filled with nervous-excited chatter about Vietnam, filling out immigration paperwork, some murmured language practice, We gathered all of our documentation, made sure these things were replaced safely in spots that were easy to access. On the televised map between the seats, the plane remained firmly over recognizable bright green landscapes the whole way. Outside the world was moonless and black. The flight attendant tried to offer me food again, but I’d eaten less than two hours before, and couldn’t face the duplicate meal on this duplicate plane. After such a long second flight, the hour and a half between nose-up and nose-down on this third one went by in a flash: the seatbelt sign dinged on, the outside darkness resolved itself into a cloud cover we immediately left behind, my ears started up, and the pinpricks on light out in the void were Ho Chi Minh City.

What kind of first impression can be gleaned from an airplane? On a map, a city looks flattened and compartmentalized. Everything rendered in orderly uniform lines, everything can be seen. In reality, cities spring from the irregular ground and every nook is as isolated as it is accessible. Here was a number of lights, then a dozen, then a hundred, then a city. It spread from me to as far away as I could see out every window. A uniform pattern still: mostly low, cubic buildings punctuated sporadically with blinking skyscrapers. As we closed in my eyes adjusted, the maze of the city deepened. It was not lit up like Hong Kong, but lit from inside like a tent, the cracks in its shell revealing ghostly green flora, narrow fissures of streaming traffic, mystery. It grew more and more intricate before I really got a feeling, with no point of reference, for how close we were getting to the ground. It was fascinating, dystopian, both futuristic and developing. Enticing. Then every window in our air conditioned 777 fogged up and we could see nothing more until we were on the ground and hustled off the plane into Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport, where it was already almost nine thirty, Thursday night. I reset my watch one last time,

I was really tired by then. My lack of sleep made for an almost phantasmagorical trip here, but it also really helped keep my nerves in check for dealing with taciturn officials. Even the open, officious, knee-jerk animosity of immigration agents the world over could not penetrate my protective stupor. I was forced to stand in a different line from Sunshine because the man in the uniform didn’t like me. The next guy barely looked up when I stepped over the yellow line. “Robert” he seemed to yawn inside. I said I was, and he stamped me. Sunshine had actually had to talk. We were met at the baggage carousel by one of Sunshine’s coworkers who helped us on through the airport and on into the sultry slap of the southeast Asian evening.

Ho Chi Minh Cityscape photo © the Author

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It's that time again. Beginner headquarters is picking-up house and relocating back to the United States on July twenty-fifth, 2009, to enjoy a month at home with family and friends. By the end of August we'll have set-up a semi-permanent household in Washington, DC, near the Cleveland Park metro stop on the red line. [DC metro map] Then, sometime after Labor Day, our boxes and boxes of stuff should catch up with us. After that it'll be smooth sailing till sometime in July 2010, when we will be moving abroad again, this time to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina for a little real winter.

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