Tuesday, August 21, 2012

21 August 2012 – Travel Log

Scooter's Travel Log
Earth Date 21 August 2012

Note about names: Throughout this journal, I will be using names of people. To protect to a degree their anonymity, I shall use first name last initial or just first name. If you are mentioned, you can probably tell it is you; and, hopefully, you won't mind being mentioned. If you do, you can comment on the post, and your name will be changed to a suitable pseudonym – comments will be moderated and deleted so no one will know of your request. I know there are a great many people out there who worry that too much information is being stored, written, and collated about them on the Internet, so this is my solution, but I really feel I need and want to be able to use actual names.

The day began in the wee hours of the morning, circa 03:30 central daylight time, in the tiny haven of Schiller Park, Illinois, USA – a place tucked tightly between the jagged perimeter of O'Hare International Airport and the western edge of the City of Big Shoulders. I arrived at Terminal One (blue) via motor car chauffeured fittingly enough by my dear mother, aka mumsy or Grandma Nana depending on whom you ask. She did not have the opportunity to take me to college in Lake Forest back in the day (no, you do not need to know the day), so to have the, dare I write, honor of being the one to see me off, officially, as I commenced my fourth journey to 中國 / Zhōngguó – the

Middle Kingdom also known, in my opinion indelicately, throughout the rest of the world as some variation of the English word, China.

Once inside the airport, and after some discussion of the variation between the readings on my newly acquired, digital luggage scale and the 'official' airline scale, my luggage was accepted as was, and I was assessed just one over-weight baggage fee of $200 – what a racket. Prior to passing judgement on me and my two over-stuffed suitcases and two hockey-player equipment-sized black duffle bags, just once, as a good life exercise, everyone should be forced to consolidate their entire life's possessions to the aforementioned bags and one back pack. Minutes later, I passed through security without incident!

My departure gate on the C-concourse rewarded me with a once vaunted now just brain-numbing traversal of the psychedelic Michael Hayden-designed tunnel under the Tarmac. Surprisingly enough, after expeditiously utilizing the lavatory and then acquiring a flaky egg and cheese croissant from the Brioche Doree cafe & bakery, I arrived at the departure gate in the middle of the boarding process – not a moment to spare and proving positive the value of precise planning. Previous experience has made it quite possible for me to utilize specific knowledge both of the aircraft and the airport to ensure my over-stuffed carryon bag and brim-busting back pack will make it into the overhead compartment and with room to spare for, at least, a couple of other passengers. Even this time, though, I was a bit stymied as my bag was a little too over-stuffed, and my backpack, well, there was no way it would fit under the seat in front of me. So, I quickly removed my projector tv from the back pack and asked a flight attendant to stow it in the overhead for me. Moments later, we learned from the flight deck that several small mechanical issues had been fixed – something every passenger about to embark on a four-hour flight is dying to hear – and that we would be pushing back from the gate just as soon as everyone was seated with their seat belts fastened.

As for crazy coincidences, I nearly forgot to mention that I ran into a former AP Biology student of mine, Lee B., mid-cabin. I have no clue how he recognized me, but he looked like the spitting image of himself from his high school days at the Latin School of Chicago. Those of you who know me well will realize that this is not an unusual occurrence for me as I have a curious tendency to run into people I know all over the country.

The second leg of the journey came to a stunning, over-water flight and then landing on the tarmac conclusion in the city by the bay, San Francisco, California, USA.


Believe it or not, SFO International Airport is undergoing a massive re-construction project necessitating a tow to the gate and still a 30-minute early arrival increasing the layover and, therefore, the truly grand departure to 390 pleasurable minutes spent enjoying the free wi-fi of the airport, calling / texting with family members and friends, eating a soon-to-be unnecessary lunch, and scoring the largest single FourSquare check-in ever recorded by this individual of 19 points for first airport terminal, first time at SFO, over 1800 miles since last check-in, first-friend to check-in, and mayor-in-the-house.

Passengers, under my watchful eyes, began filling international gate 302 about two hours before departure as they arrived from feeder flights from around the nation. I arrived 45-minutes before boarding and found they had already boarded the people requiring special assistance, all of the elite-point flyers, and group one. I was group seven, and I wasn't going to mess with the 'luck' of that draw, so I boarded patiently with my group. Upon locating my economy-class row 46, I found my aisle seat on the captain's side of the 374-passenger, Boeing 747-400 occupied by a pleasant gentleman who hoped I would be willing to trade for his window seat in row 35. I accepted with a bow of the head much to the delight of his brother-in-law and sister who had hoped to sit in the same row with him. Row 35 seats B & C were occupied by a young Chinese-American couple and their 19-month old baby aptly called 'Rocky' who appeared as though he could knock out a Russian prize-fighter with one right hook to the jaw.

As I tried to get to my seat with my iPad, fleece vest, bag of snacks, and second half of lunch, over the aisle armrest and between the already-reclined setbacks of row 34, after 'swimming up stream' from row 46 to 35, I tumbled (nearly barrel-roll style) causing a decently ghastly abrasion on my left elbow – ah what would this journey be without a battle wound, right?! This immediately induced panic in my rowmates who obviously felt responsible, yet after much head bowing. apologizing, and receiving of a huge ear-to-ear grin and series of giggles from Rocky, whom apparently believed this was pre-planned entirely for his amusement, all was restored in the temporarily off-balanced world.

The giant aircraft, a monumental achievement in human engineering really, lifted off without incident commencing the third leg of the day's journey a mere 30-minutes behind schedule – time, the Captain assured us, could be made up easily in the air at our cruising altitude of over 38,000 feet or 11,582.4 m for those of you more worldly in your measuring abilities. Rocky, Paul, Kristina, and I could see but a small slice of the world from our over wing-window. Quickly the city faded in the distance as we began our route that took us along the western coast of the USA past Alaska, over Russia, and then down into Beijing. Nearly unanimously, the window shades were drawn to make it easier to see the randomly positioned television monitors, this craft's post-modern entertainment delivery system which was set to broadcast from USA to Asia, four movies starting with The Avengers and ending with the Last Exotic Marigold Hotel, six or eight episodes of the best examples of American sitcoms ever made, and 10 or so various, last-season episodes of "American Pickers" and "Pawn Stars". All-tolled it was scheduled at nearly 12 hours of programming for our viewing pleasure.

Shortly thereafter and much to my complete surprise, we were served a classic airline meal with a choice of beef, chicken, or noodles just like the old days. I took the chicken which was pungently seasoned in the Asian tradition and accompanied by a small side salad, dinner roll, and brownie bite for dessert. My beverage was a full can of cranberry-apple juice which I enjoyed after first asking for "hmmm" and being told, "we didn't have that beverage on board" by the Don Ho-esque comedian flight attendant of the crew. He subsequently offered Rocky some "moo-juice" which none of us caught onto right away causing me to wonder how well his jokes would fly, pun intended, as the flight flew by, again pun intended, by. Having just had what amounted to a $15-lunch in the airport, I wasn't terribly hungry as you can imagine, but I ate willingly and uncertain if there would be additional food given American airline's, I was flying United, recent penchant with nickel-and-diming passengers for onboard food. Then, I began to read Catching Fire, the second book of the Hunger Games, which I had downloaded the previous day to my Kindle App on my iPad as a gift from my niece at my Illinois, going-away extravaganza.

The time-line for the rest of the flight is somewhat hazy because I really got into the reading. I did try to put it down and watch The Avengers, but I couldn't. Much like the first book, this one is also a page-turner. I also became aware that Rocky's naps were going to necessitate careful timing of lavatory breaks – I ended up only using the facilities just once. I do know that we encountered only very minor, barely noticeable turbulence six or seven times – always just around service times as if the pilots and flight attendants were colluding to ensure passengers would be seated thereby easing their lightning-quick dispersal of a complete snack, beverages twice more, and another full meal and beverage. I ate more on that flight than the previous day which included my last American in America meal of two tantalizing slices of Gino's East pizza sadly sans Noah H. Unfortunately, I did not finish Catching Fire, apparently inadvertently catching Zs occasionally instead. As Chinese airspace is still the domain of the military under Chinese law, every flight into China must enter on an approach approved by the military and assigned by the military. This creates some very unusual lanes of air traffic and precise arrival times. We were assigned a 3:55 arrival time despite our more than making up the lost thirty minutes causing us to arrive nearly 45-minutes late. On the bright side, we were able to see the Great Wall of China, not from space, but from the air, out our window as we circled the northern capital city for nearly an hour. Sadly for Rocky, for whom this had been only his second flight, the wing blocked most of his view.

After acquiring my backpack from the overhead compartment near row 46 which required, again, some deft 'swimming upstream' maneuvers, I deplaned thanking and congratulating the crew on a well-managed flight. Looking back on cabin over the shoulder revealed something of a maelstrom seemed to have hit while I read and dozed mostly in comfort. I ascended the jet bridge slope to the beautiful new concourses of the all-new Beijing International Airport which is a modern marvel in its own right built, of course, for the 2008 Olympic Games. Surprisingly, this gigantic facility spreads out the zillions of people so much that it seems no more crowded that Denver International Airport lending credence to the designers strategies. I exchanged currency at an automated machine, no high commissions necessary as no staff was involved, and then passed through immigration in under fifteen minutes where 15 kiosks photographed and documented the passengers and crews of several giant planes all arriving precisely within the same half hour.

From there, it was an escalator to a train to the luggage pick-up. I snared a free cart and proceeded to collect my bags in the baggage claim area. All of bags arrived in short order and from there it was through customs and into the arrival hall where I was greeted by what seemed like several hundred persons all waving flags and name signs. I spotted my dear friend and new principal, Todd D. easily in the crowd – him yelling out my name did not hurt. Hugs were received and then I was merged with four more of the newly arriving members of the International Department of the Beijing National Day School. Todd distributed a log-in and code so that we could email our families of our arrival, however, we had only enough time to write that we had landed safely before we needed to embark on the final leg of our journey, an hour-long, mini-bus ride to the apartment complex adjacent to our new school.

The winding journey, temporarily suspended only once when the police held traffic from entering the highway near the airport to allow emergency crews to attend to a traffic accident ahead, took us passed many miles of typical urban development until, rising in the distance, could be seen the most spectacular foothills observed since my last voyage across Nebraska into Colorado. The image was so reminiscent of the view from the plains of Denver with the sun just beginning to set behind the mini-mountains as to make me feel like I was home. Once in them, our bus diverted southward with rolling peaks and valleys on both sides of us. Towering above was a beautiful pagoda and an ancient temple palace. No one aboard seemed to know their names, however, I had committed to learning them just as soon as I had access to Google® Maps. Still further south we traveled, a total combined travel time of somewhere in the neighborhood of an hour and twenty-minutes (normal circumstances peg the travel time at somewhere close to 45-minutes), when we exited the highway. Todd D. phoned a mysterious set of persons, including a woman named Jasmine, with news of our bus being five to ten minutes away – a figure, incidentally, that did not decrease with each new call however ended up being approximately accurate. During that time, he also phoned in our take-out dinner orders with the majority of us selecting a traditional Chinese Food order of chicken and rice. The time expired just as we rolled up at an intersection of an apartment complex consisting of red, gold, and tan buildings numbering some 16 in total with heights varying from perhaps fifteen to thirty stories, just across the street from the campus of the Beijing National Day School.

We circled nearly the entire apartment complex which seemed to be fewer than five years in age, perhaps two, arriving at the West Gate. Our bus was greeted by a throng of helpful teachers and relatives all of whom immediately pitched in to divvy up the huge amount of luggage and help transport it to our newly assigned apartments. Jasmine, a woman whom each of us would come to know soon as being "the key" to our futures in 中國 / Zhōngguó, co-ordinated the entire production distributing the building access cards and keys to each of us. Our luggage support team knew the lay of the land and, after getting us each safely into our buildings and apartments, explaining the access cards and the keys and the many other smart cards in our envelopes, informed us that our dinners would be delivered in a short while. For whatever reason, I was invited to join my 'protector' guides, Cameron (AP Calculus instructor from Toronto), Al (Cameron's brother visiting on a three-month visa), and Cameron's girlfriend, Grace (a local business woman) in the acquisition of our dinners with Todd and a returning teacher, Jared (Pre-Calculus). We met up at what is called the North Gate of the complex to travel the several blocks to the east to the popular Chinese restaurant.

Along the way, I learned all about Cameron and Al. Todd led the group at his traditional break-neck pace, which is about 10 times faster than I, a person on his third if not fourth wind, could not even normally maintain, so I straggled back a bit from the pack joined intermittently by others catching their collective breaths. Everyone was incredibly nice and informative each sharing his or her own bits of wisdom about the local places to stop and eat this or that or shop for this or that. I am informed of a fact that would be reiterated several times, that the number one cause of injury to foreigners in the area is pedestrians forgetting they are the lowest on the food chain in and amongst the various buses, cars, and bicycles on the roads which are ruled by the law of mass whereby the heaviest object in an encounter has the right-away – therefore people will always be the lowest. Chicagoans can relate the experience of crossing most intersections in this neighborhood to being similar to attempting to run from one side of Lake Shore Drive to the other, not so much during rush hour, but at a time of day when there are fewer, but faster moving cars. The rest can just look up a YouTube® video of the old video game, Frogger, and also get the picture. It is funny because, the roads and rules are still very orderly and things move smoothly and efficiently with green walk signals, cross walks, and count-down timers ticking of as many as 120 seconds. Still, there are throngs of vehicles and pedestrians all turning and moving about creating a delicate ballet of seemingly organized yet ultimately chaotic movement.

Ultimately, we arrived at the restaurant and place the dinner order with the hostess of the restaurant. Loads of people sit out front, sidewalk cafe-style only the sidewalk is approximately 15-feet wide from the building to the street so there is plenty of room for us to take a table and await the food. Todd departed to acquire beverages, and I remained to chat with new colleagues and future friends. We talked about everything under the sun which had now set firmly in the distance. Our food and Todd arrived in no time, and we reversed the journey back to the apartment complex. We delivered the food at various apartments of grateful new teachers, and I took mine back to my apartment. I dined on approximately four bites of the delicious chicken and zucchini over rice dish practically identical to the type one would order in any good Chinese restaurant in the USA when it dawned on me that I was, once again, eating real Chinese food in 中國 / Zhōngguó not American Chinese food in other words. I looked around my apartment which is furnished with the basics which seems to be a combination of things provided by the school and those left behind by previous residents. I can only speculate that residents have almost free reign to decorate and populate their apartments with what ever furnishings they wish as long as they leave behind the basic elements. It is unclear who or what agency accounts for the veracity of this or whether it is truly based on an honor system.

Having visited other apartments in the dropping off of food, I could see that newer towers had more modern upgrades than mine, newer features – such as enclosed glass showers and modern kitchen cabinets, and spectacular glass walls between kitchens and living rooms. Mine is simpler and more utilitarian with eclectic, unmatched furniture.

Chiefly among the appliances, however, is a 5-gallon water dispenser which delivers instant hot or chilled water. I unpacked my single French Jelly-Jar class from Crate and Barrel brought with me in my back pack wrapped in a pillow case as the sole reminder of my own set of dishes stowed in a gigantic storage unit in Colorado. I filled and refilled it with the chilled water gulping it down realizing I had barely drunk any water in the previous sixteen hours. The Rocky-inspired abrasion near my left elbow ached a bit as did the bones surrounding it. I removed the triple antibiotic ointment acquired at the Dominick's in Schiller Park the evening before my departure and rubbed some on the wound causing immediate relief more so that any opportunity for infection would be reduced than of actual pain. I sat and ate four bites of dinner before feeling too full to continue. I plugged in the refrigerator unit and put my meal inside with the fork figuring I would wash and worry about that later. I stepped out of the kitchen and surveyed my surroundings taking note of a living / dining room / alcove full of packed suitcases, I removed just enough clothing for the next day and for sleeping, used the bathroom after figuring out (a) how to turn on the lights / fan / heat lamps and (b) to flush the toilet (two buttons for two types of uses), and headed to the furnished bedroom. I changed and fell into bed.

I urge caution next, for this may appear to be a criticism when in fact it is merely a factual accounting of the event, as you interpret my next statement. When I hit the bed fully expecting to lie their until morning, I nearly shattered my entire endoskeleton. It was rather like falling onto a slab of concrete. Shaken, I rose, confused, firmly believing someone forgot to put a mattress on this new bed. Investigation revealed that no, indeed, there was a mattress, a thin but very thick thing I can only describe as being rather similar to a giant door mat. I learned the next morning that this is the Chinese way as many believe that sleeping on something soft is, ironically given my present circumstance, bad for the bones. Given how my body felt, I took immediately to the sofa futon couch, set my countdown timer on my phone as my iPad™ had too little charge to be trusted to awaken me before expiring and I had no patience to attempt to figure out how or if I could recharge it with my given power converters, power adaptors, and such, and plunged to the futon with pillows robbed from the bed. It was then that I realized the incredible temperature of the place. In the top corner of each room of the apartment, there was a silver unit that vaguely resembled something that might possibly be an air conditioner. They are all placed too high for me to reach. Matt Smaby of the Anaheim Ducks could reach them, but I on a chair only came close. Fingers whirring about, exploring the top, sides, and bottom revealed zero switches, buttons, or other such thing which might possibly enable operation. With frustration running high due to exhaustion more than anything, I noticed a brand name, Galanz, on the front in red lettering. Looking around, I noticed that there were an excessively large number of remote controls for the one tv and cable box. Originally, I had thought these were like from the days when one had a remote for each electronic component in the stereo television world, one for the stereo, one for the tv, one for the cable box, one for the DVD player, and one for the VCR, for example. The corner of my eye, however, revealed the brand name Galanz. Could it be? Could these remotes control the units? I grabbed one up and saw the universal symbol for the on/off switch and pointed it at the unit. Seconds later, the vent on the bottom opened and air began to blow out. A red LED panel illuminated with 26 degrees and a snow flake! Yes. Score. Down arrow buttons on the remote when pressed or mashed changed the setting on the LED. I put it down to 16-degrees – the lowest setting. I then took the remotes to the other rooms and set them all down. Then I laid back down on the futon sofa, content to sail off into dreamland, which I did.

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