Tuesday 8am... went to airport (disturbing family schedule, but getting to say goodbye to them). The customs man was very helpful with the sat phones, he gave me extra forms that never were looked at. (Both the carnet and the sat phones were like carrying an umbrella to prevent rain... Very expensive umbrellas!!) Everyone else was in line for fingerprinting. They laughed but helped me when the Skycap took all of my equipment and put it on a single dolly that I then had to wheel down a narrow corridor to the office and back out when we were done. “Wide load” “Watch your toes” “Thank you!”
Waited a long time at gate and again for 4 hours on the plane. Managed to call work to alert our Beijing office to the plane's lateness. Should've arrived at 1:30 pm China time, but came in 6:00 pm instead. 2 funny seat mates. A Canadian man who fancied himself a playful puppy of a ladies man. He was having a grand time chatting up the French speaking stewardess who he felt was flirting with him, singing in the back of the plane or bonding with a group of guys who looked like they walked right off the set of a 'wacky college kids' movie. When he was sitting in the row with us, he badgered the Chinese American girl to speak Mandarin with him (I was impressed with his language skills; he told us he also spoke Portuguese and Italian) and he decided I could be their “Mom” since I was almost twice their age and kept offering snacks. Just to cover all his bases I suppose, he did propose that we have an Oedipal relationship before we landed. DENIED!
On arrival the girl, who I thought on the whole was annoyed with his attention, offered him a ride with her friend, so I suppose she wasn't that annoyed.
While in line at the passport control, it looked like Beijing will have to improve the flow of people before the August crush of people arrive. During the nearly twenty minutes in line, I met a set of cousins from North Carolina who were there for health reasons. One of them was settling the other in at a resort where they would use Chinese medicine to treat the one woman for three months. Other family members were taking turns visiting and would escort her home. I didn't ask, but her gait reminded me of either MS or some form of brain trauma. I have a very low level of curiosity and I doubt that young Francois couldn't have left her condition unknown. The girl looked both surprised and relieved when I didn't inquire after they talked about the spa.
I picked up my cases, balanced them all precariously but confidently on a wheeled dolly and headed off to customs. The “nothing to declare” line was the only option, despite 5 cases of electronic/audio equipment that was clearly “something to declare” and had in fact been declared on my visa request and in the carnet form I carried with me. I routed myself to the customs man and handed over the official looking carnet folder. He only wanted the visa paper, took it off to stamp it and then asked to look at a few pieces of the equipment. The language barrier was pretty extreme, but we managed. Have you traveled internationally before? The few times I have you get the feeling you've been let out of jail and onto the red carpet of a film premier. Of course, you were just the gaffer or something. Those people thronging the ropes all have signs, waves and smiles for the other passengers, not you. Well, this time there was a happy face and a sign with my name and company logo on it. I felt so wanted! I also felt so very relieved since I spoke a total of 2 words of Mandarin. Hello and Thank you. That's it. Japanese? I can at least manage directions, introductions, some restaurant dialog or shopping and maybe a very short conversation about Carl being at the cinema (no, that's only in German I think). Needless to say, I was predisposed to liking her.
Most of the folks reading this are old friends of mine. Some of you are friends I met writing and reading fan fiction for the past few years, but I'd say that if you're reading this, you've known me a while. Let me beg your indulgence then to introduce you to my new friend.
She lives in Beijing and works with our reporter based there. “Faith” (the names have been changed to protect the innocent and because I'm odd about that on the internet) had been told my flight was delayed and changed our flight to a 9 pm one. We thought we had plenty of time to hang out and went casually up to get our tickets. Along the way we checked the electronic billboard (many things in China are in both Chinese and English) and she got worried. Remember, I met up with her around 6:30 and our flight was at 9. We should've had plenty of time, but I did have 5 cases to check on, so the sooner the better for me as well.
Obstacle #1 was that our flight was canceled. Obstacle #2 was that we re-booked onto a 7 pm flight. Obstacle #3 was that I had 5 cases of equipment to check on (well 6 after they said I could only have 1 carry on, never mind that people got on the plane who clearly didn't pay attention to that new rule). Obstacle #4 was that having so many and having them be so very heavy, I had to pay the overweight fee. Obstacle #5 is that you pay that at another area, then take the receipt back to the same window (wait just a minute while she finishes up another person) and finally pick up your paper tickets. Phew! That left us about 5 minutes to our flight time and the lane we picked for security check in was the slowest ever (with several ladies with babies and a strange picture taking procedure that seemed absent at the other checkpoints). Faith was a bit stressed out. I was a bit more nonchalant. Once I got my cases through customs, I was on easy street. Two of our group members had spent 25 hours at the airport just a day or so before. Delays were to be expected. Nonetheless, to be polite, I kept up with her all the way to the gate where we found that our flight hadn't left yet. In fact, the flight time listed on the gate was 5 pm. Huh? There was a crowd of folks, many in volunteer uniforms (look like national guard or army uniforms here) and all looking like they'd been waiting a loooong time.
We stopped by the Starbucks and got a drink. No, I don't drink coffee, but I bought a V8 and shared the cookies I'd bought at Dulles. (Potbelly has a restaurant stall at gate C-3! Yeah!) I gave her a pen that said “Washington DC' and had a picture of the Capitol Dome on it. I'd also bought a similar one for the really cool pianist who was helping us in Chengdu, but turned out never to give him that one since he had been given one from our work before I got there. She liked it and I have one in a different color so I vouch for their niceness as far as ballpoint pens go. She doesn't like coffee either and was hungry, so we went off in search of food. She said they would announce the flight, so we needn't worry. 'K! I totally had to trust her since I didn't have a clue. Along the way, we stopped at the facilities and I was pleased to see the graphics on the doors letting you know which stalls were Western style and which were squat toilets.
After 3 meals on the plane, a dose or two of adrenaline from customs and the cookies, I wasn't hungry but we ended up at a KFC for her. I admitted that one worry I have is that I don't eat pork and in China that's a staple dish. She looked at me and again, we bonded. She lives in China and doesn't eat pork. Again, being me, I didn't ask her why but I did let her know that I was REALLY happy to have a friend who could help me avoid it. My plan going in to this trip was that I would avoid caffeine and pork unless it would be socially impossible. In fact, I don't eat any mammals except beef (rabbit is a major food in Chengdu as well, but it never became an issue) and I'd drop that if cows didn't taste so darned good. Anyway, it turns out that she and I have many things in common. Despite the fact that she's 28 and I'm um, older than that, we're so similar it's spooky. She'd fit right in here. Her sense of humor (in two cultures!) is dry and leans toward the cynical side. She's certain on her career choice and is working toward her goals. She cares about her job and her employer so much that I'm impressed. (This is coming from the person who checked on her only piece of personal luggage so that she could hand carry the company's equipment to make sure it was treated well.) She is married to an American and some aspects of her relationship seem familiar as well. Anyhoooo, our flight finally left around 11 something. In the meantime I'd met a man from Chengdu named Kevin who was heading back to check on his wife and child. He spoke English well after 4 years in New York City. Nice guy. He recommended the hotpot and spoke in glowing terms about the food in Chengdu. He was right (though we never got to share hotpot, everything else was quite good). Seems the flight had been delayed/canceled/posted at imaginary times because of how hard it was to get a flight out of Chengdu. Once our plane arrived, it was emptied and cleaned and then we boarded. Mostly uneventful flight and when we arrived, we had to figure out how to get to the hotel. Many people were sleeping in the airport. Many, many.
Taxis weren't an option for us since they're pretty small and the driver we found at first turned us down rudely after our cases wouldn't fit in his trunk. Faith wandered off into the misty morning (it was 3am) and I stood in between the traffic lanes where the taxi had left me and my precariously loaded down dolly. Buses arrived and departed behind me (Faith nixed that route unless we got desperate) and taxis and cars zoomed off in front of me while I stood on a little patch of yellow paint next to a guard rail separating the bus lane from the cars. Yep, 3+ in the morning, after a day (which was technically days thanks to the international date line) of travel. Sigh. Anyway, finally saw her form along with a man's coming toward me from the fog. So, just like everyone else, I walked along the street against traffic with my mountain of delicate audio equipment perched on dolly that pulled to the right.
I've been in other countries, so I'm familiar with the notion that traffic rules are merely guidelines (heck, I see that here as well, just not as much) but I was still happy to have a seat belt. After an amusing ride, we passed through the heart of Chengdu. It was dark, it was early morning, but it was still impressive. It's big, for one thing. Many people were out in striped tarp tents, for another. Got to the four star hotel after turning around on a one way street and heading back. (Heh. Many times on the trip I tried to imagine how my Sweetie would've reacted... Screams would fill my mind.) The room was wonderful, but I knew it was more like a nap that getting to sleep since I'd be expected to set up the studio the next day. Breakfast was from 6:30 to 10:30, we'd been told. It was 4 am as I set the alarm for 7.