It’s 38 degrees and 3:45 in the morning. I am feeding suitcases and bags into a Boeing 737 via a belt loader — a conveyor belt on wheels. The loader slowly carries them up to my colleague who sits just inside the forward cargo hold.
|I toss an odd-sized piece of luggage onto the belt. The move tightens my 50-something year-old back, shock-signaling a warning.
My first week on the job and my body is already pleading me back to an office, a nice warm cubicle somewhere with coffee down the hall.
I throw another bag. Above me passengers seem to glow as they settle inside the warm well-lit cabin, oblivious to my pain.
|The sup yells “let’s go.” to us. He screams it again, trying to be heard above the mighty spooling engines and through our ear protection. Things are often repeatedly incessantly on the ramp until the listener signals understanding. Here we are all a little deaf.
Finally, the choreography begins. The tow-bar guy connects the tow bar to the aircraft’s front landing gear and the sup gets into the tug. We fan out to wing walk. Inertia is overcome and the tons of steel begin to push back away from the terminal.
|The tow bar is released, and the tug moves back and away from the aircraft. Its sentient cargo stir.
Like war drums, the engines scream louder and louder as we scurry back to the terminal’s safety.
The engines are now too dangerous for us to be near. They scream their warning, blasting cold morning air more and more forcefully until the 5:45 begins to roll down the empty runway.
Soon, nearby low-rent neighborhoods will get their wake up call. The mighty Phoenix has risen, and it will continue to do so eight more times today.
You might think Brain drain is a medical term. And there may be such a thing as brain drainage (of course, the medical community probably uses a more technical term), but when Americans say “brain drain”, they are usually referring to a country’s best and brightest leaving home for a country where they can have a better life. Of course, Americans think that place for a better life is always America.
India is a prime example of brain drain. Almost all of my doctors have been Indian. Also, visit Silicon Valley or any other center of high-tech and you might find yourself a minority — that is if you are not Indian. Gifted Indians seem to be endless boarding aircraft for the West. Makes me wonder whose left to turn out the light.
Brain drain into America is one of the things that makes our country great. Despite the angry words of chuckle-headed politicians, the influx of the world’s best brightest should always be welcome here, and most hope they always will.
But brains aren’t the only thing that drain. Other examples include “down the drain,” which means lost forever.
The smell of Mexico City hits me as soon as my redeye flight from L.A. touches down. I imagine a putrefying grease, nauseatingly sweet and tangy to my nostrils. My mind doesn’t want to admit to a culinary attraction. The thick odor triggers both pangs of hunger and guttural convulsions of disgust.
We exit the Aeromexico 737 in fits of starts and stops. Walking through endless corridors, we all look waxy, paled by developing-world florescent lighting. It’s pre-dawn. As we move along, a cadre of airline and security personnel welcome us while suspiciously looking us up and down at the same time.
A few questions, a little bit of paperwork and I’m through customs and in a taxi heading for the Double Tree by Hilton. I look out the window into darkness. The driver speaks to me in Spanish. I understand nothing but agree to everything. Neither of us seems certain we’re going in the right direction but somehow we arrive. I check in. It’s nearly six a.m. but still no sun. I fall asleep, something I couldn’t do on the plane.
Two hours later, a beam of light floods my room from a small gap between two thick curtains. I walk over and pull them apart. The light is blinding. Outside, the architecture ranges from poor to “someone actually lives in that?”. Rusted and torn corrugated roofs are kept in place by large stones. City block after block of jumbled boxes spread out as far as the eye can see, and then vanish in an all engulfing thick, grey smog. Welcome to one of the most populated cities on earth. And the only one that’s actually sinking into the polluted water and mucky remains of an ancient civilization.
Mexico City was originally Tenochtitlan, built on an island in Lake Texcoco by the Aztecs in 1325. But thanks to Cortez, and some unruly neighbors, the city was almost completely destroyed in 1521. And then rebuilt in accordance with Spanish urban standards. The Spanish renamed it Mexico because Tenochtitlan was too hard to pronounce.
Missionaries took to saving souls, which included leveling Aztec shrines and then using them as foundations for catholic churches. The Aztecs’ tradition of cutting the hearts out of living humans and then barbecuing them, was no longer allowed. Of course the hearts weren’t the only things getting sacrificed. Spanish conquerors witnessed decapitations, dismemberment, disemboweling and even skinning. But the Aztecs had a good reason — keeping the cosmos in balance by bathing the earth in human blood.
I get dressed and head out to the lobby where I get the address for the National Anthropology Museum. I hand it to the taxi driver who is confused and tries to confirm the address with me. He speaks no English and simply looks at me and repeats something in Spanish. He does this repeatedly until he feels I have given some tacit approval, and then we’re off into Saturday traffic, hopefully heading for the museum.
We reach a busy, nicer area of the city with trees and space. There are people everywhere. The driver stops and motions to the large building across the street. I see a sign that says museum in English. We made it. I pay and get out.
The museum is huge: two large halls of artifacts. Nearly everything is in Spanish. Inside are entire Aztec temple walls and crypts. There is death and art in every corner. There are baby skeletons and rich grown up skeletons. And then there are countless clay figurines. Everything goes back thousands of years.
The Mexicans seem more at home with death then we are. It pervades their culture, as it should, I suppose. after all, it’s the flip side of life and just as apparent. The Mexicans have no problem with corpses, fresh or fetid. The poor who must rent cemetery space if they can’t afford to buy it, risk having their dearly departed kicked out of their eternal resting places. In fact, one cemetery puts the evicted into a museum where they are depicted in amusing scenes. It’s a popular tourist attraction. The national museum is a little classier.
I read a museum brochure. It explains Mexican history, and includes civilizations in Arizona, New Mexico and California. I am taken aback at first. Those belong to the United States, I think for a moment. But then remember the United States is a late comer, taking those lands in the 1800s. But to be fair, the Mexicans took them from the Spanish earlier. And the Spanish took them from the original inhabitants before that. My head swims. Even Los Angeles, the city where I live, belonged to three different national governments since its inception in 1781. And some people were alive for all three. I leave the museum with its details, dust and death for the airport.
The flight home is aboard Alaska Airlines. The attendants are playful and full of glee. The plane is only about half full so they are taking it easy. It’s a three-hour flight back and soon I am walking through another long hallway to get to U.S. customs and immigration. I make my way through, head out of the airport and hear a taxi driver talking to someone in Spanish. I realize that a line on a map can only change things so much.
Tired of your commute? Try a zeppelin
It’s late afternoon on Friday, and I’m in Long Beach, getting ready to go to Hollywood. The trip is a commuter’s nightmare for most. But for me, it’s a dream come true. That’s because I’ve booked passage on the world’s largest airship, the Eureka.
I’m sitting with six other soon-to-be airship passengers on a balcony overlooking the runway of a small airport. A representative of Airship Ventures, stands before us. He’s holding a seatbelt. “It works like your car’s seatbelt,” he says, clicking it closed for dramatic effect. We watch, entranced by anything he does. The young many goes on to talk about the company — how safe the zeppelin is, and how it’s different from a blimp (a zeppelin has a rigid body, a blimp is more like a balloon). My mind immediately conjures up vintage fiery Hindenburg disaster film footage. I even remember the Waltons episode about John Boy seeing the disaster in person. “We’ll line you up in pairs,” his voice brings me back to reality. “Once you’re onboard, a passenger from the earlier flight will get off. That way, we’ll keep the airship from rising off the ground before we’re ready.” As he speaks, a tiny white speck appears in the sky, right next to his left ear. The Eureka gets close enough for us to see the Farmers Insurance Group name and brand, which is printed on its side. Our host notices the ship, too, and directs us to the elevator. “O.K. folks, please stay together as we proceed to the van that will take you to boarding area.”
A few minutes later he’s arranged us on the field. We’re lined up in two’s like excited kindergarteners waiting to board Noah’s Ark for a field trip. In front of us, the zeppelinapproaches, getting bigger and bigger. Finally it lands and the ground crew scrambles to secure and ready it for boarding. One of the crew motions for me to come. I climb the short ladder and quickly take one of the 12 seats. Soon, the door is shut and we’re quietly floating up and away into the cloudless, blue sky.
Reaching our cruising altitude in less than a minute, we quickly leave our seats. At the back of the cabin, the flight attendant opens a window. “Feel free to stick your head out if you like,” he says. But please make sure your camera strap is secure around your neck. I walk over, stick my head out and look down. Below me, the South Bay is spread out like a blanket of grey and white. I point my camera straight down and start shooting.
We pass over Griffith Park Observatory, circle the Hollywood sign, and then fly over Disney, Warner Brothers and Universal Studios. When we reach Holmby Hills, someone suddenly spots Arron Spelling’s monstrous 56,000 square-foot home. We scamper over to the right side of the cabin, gawking at it like a gaggle of tour bus-riding Midwestern “first-timers.” A few moments later, someone else calls out “The Playboy mansion!” Even at 1,000 plus feet, we’re close enough to spot someone jumping on the mansion’s backyard trampoline.
Above Hollywood, we wave to the pilot in a biplane. It has suddenly appeared and is making wide circles around the airship. The streets and highways below are starting to twinkle with the headlights of cars jamming the freeways. They create a glimmering golden thread, which grows brighter as the sun slowly drops into the Pacific.
We fly over the U.C.L.A. campus, and one of the passengers asks the crew if we can circle the Queen Mary. The pilot gets clearance from Air Traffic Control so we’re on our way. Night has fallen and the basin is now ablaze with lights.
The Eureka sways a bit as we turn to the right. Soon, in the distance, the Queen Mary appears, looking like a child’s bathtub toy. We float out over the ocean, make a quick circle around the ship and then head back to the airfield.
Back on the ground and in the van that takes us back to the parking lot, my fellow passengers are already talking excitedly about future trips they want to take on the zeppelin. One thing is sure, the only disappointing moment during the journey was landing at the airfield and realizing our experience was over.
Airship Ventures offers a variety of tours throughout California, including The San Francisco and Monterey Bays, the Wine Country and Silicon Valley. To learn more, visitwww.airshipventures.com, or give them a call at (650) 969-8100.
She padded towards us like a panther stalking its prey. Slinking across the long bar, her body writhed in a tight Cat Womanish body suit. Like three baby gazelles, we watched her in mute fascination. Her dark brown eyes were locked on the tall, young German next to me. We could no longer hear the club’s cacophony of booming Western pop music and multilingual drunken hoots and whoops. She deftly jumped from the bar and stood facing him, her long black hair dropping and fanning across her slender back as she stood straight and peered into his eyes. She bared two rows of perfect, white teeth between thick, blood-red lips.
“You American?” she asked with a thick Thai accent.
“No, German,” he replied, looking back at her.
Still smiling, she squatted down, slightly swiveled and stood up straight again. “You buy me drink?” “Maybe, later,” he replied.
She frowned and pulled back her shoulders in a stretch that showed off her full breasts. Still staring, she tilted her head to the right and pouted. “Maybe, I no need drink, later. You buy now.”
The German looked at her silently. She smirked and walked away.
It was too early to buy drinks. If we started now we’d be out of money before the night was over. The bar girls knew better than to waste too much time on us. We were young travelers. They wanted older men. Men here on business. Men with credit cards, expense accounts.
The ones who paid attention to guys like us were usually naive. They hoped we might marry them and take them back to our swimming pools and green lawns. For us, poverty had never extended beyond the TV set. It was an abstract subject like dinosaurs. We were the soft, weak children of the suburbs, bottle-raised in big, safe homes with money for college and food at the table. If we got a real taste of the poverty that surrounded us here in Bangkok, we’d probably never be back. I told the German and Tim, the Brit, that many of these girls were from deeply impoverished farms. Parents sell their daughters to pimps for a few hundred dollars. How, for the farmers, daughters are just useless mouths to feed.
“She’s a pretty wild looking farm girl,” the German said. “You sure she wasn’t one of the animals?”
Tim began singing: “How ya gonna’ keep them back on the farm after they’ve seem Bangkok.”
We all laughed, our humor threshold already lowered by a few bottles of the high-alcohol-content Thai beer. And with that, the girls’ plight fluttered away from our impaired consciousness. Such things seemed impossible under the flashing candy lights, the hard pop beats and the drunken, dangerous laughter of men feeling for the first time the power of being able to buy humans, at least for the night. We continued to drink until the room swirled.
The next morning, I woke with a start. My mind quickly calmed me, reminded me of where I was. It was early and a cool, welcome breeze flowed through my small, cheap room smack dab in Bangkok’s infamous backpackers area. I stood up, put on my bathing suit, grabbed a towel and climbed down the small stairway to the bathroom: a toilet, a shower head attached to a hose and a drain at the center of the floor. I locked the door and undressed. Turning on the faucet, I realized there was only cold water. As I rinsed, my body writhed in a full-body unhappy orgasm of pins and needles while pre-language utterances spilled from my mouth. I thought if only I could do this on the dance floor. I shampooed, soaped myself down and did it again. I looked over at the drenched toilet and realized I should have used it before I took the shower. What did I expect for $5 a night? And it included breakfast. I dried myself and headed back to my room where I dressed and readied myself for my continuing Asian adventure.
I went outside and sat down at a plastic chair and table. It felt like an August morning but it was early January. A young girl with white teeth and a page boy haircut brought some fruit and coffee and the first of many bottled waters. I wondered if the fruit was safe to eat. I decided to take my chances.
The backpacker area is a few blocks of ramshackle establishments that offer cheap, tiny rooms to adventurous tourists. There is usually a covered area in front of each inn called a cafe, which usually offers a five-page menu with attempts at Western dishes. The cafes also show bootleg copies of American movies at night. Of course, all this food attracts cat-sized rats that have, through evolution, developed a fecal-brown color so they can easily enter and exit the premises through the ubiquitous open sewers.
Some of the foreigners staying in this area are doing so out of necessity. They have a limited budget that they are trying to stretch out to a year or more. These folks pinch every Thai baht and see the world as paupers. They are noble and smelly. The next class of people are fraternity brothers and sorority sisters looking for adventure, who want to get down and dirty. There are also hippies, eco-tourists, and those who don’t know Thailand has decent hotels.
What’s so special about the backpacker area is how convenient it is. Convenient for thieves and murders, that is. They are like hyenas preying on the weak and young. Yes, mentally weak counts. The hyenas watch and wait for a young drunk Westerner to lose consciousness, to fall asleep outside. In seconds, watch, passport, cash disappear. Hopefully, that’s all they take. The victim wakes up, borrows enough money for a call home. He or she is quickly beamed back by mom and dad — usually no questions asked.
Not that I’m a seasoned traveler. I arrived from Hong Kong in a jacket and sweater. I didn’t know it would be so hot in the middle of Winter. I got a lot of strange looks on the bus from the airport. A traveler in Hong Kong had recommended the backpacker area. But I was now having second thoughts. Maybe I wasn’t as intrepid as I thought. I liked warm water and air conditioners. I would think about it while I did some museum tours. First stop was the Siriraj Medical Museum and cafe.
The Siriraj Medical Center, like all hospitals has two exits. One you walk out of, and the other you’re carried out of. And for those who are carried out, if they’re of interest in some way, they might be displayed in the Center’s museum of medical deformities, notable accidents and the bizarre. On my visit there were foreigners, both visiting and being visited. One display was of a young blonde haired woman. Now forever young, she had apparently trusted the wrong friendly Thai too much and so became a permanent attraction. Another man, eager to sample the exotic, took a little too much of the drugs so readily available. He was photographed dead but with foam still coming from his mouth. He looked like a latte gone wrong. But it was when I came to the children, the dead children, that the place became too much for me. As they say, what’s seen cannot be unseen, and I had seen more than enough. I shakily walked outside into the heat and light and sound of a Bangkok afternoon. Then and there I admitted to myself that I was a true, traveling chicken. And with that admission came relief. I could check out of my little room and into a decent place.
I found my way back to where I was staying and went upstairs. I packed my things into my backpack and shuffled down the tight stairwell. I reached the small table where the manager stood.
“I’m going to check out today,” I said.
The woman, in her thirties, looked at me, placed her hands together and bowed. She opened a book and found my name. “Richard, you are not checking out for two more days. You are checking out early?”
“Yes,” I replied.
She looked disappointed. “Is there something wrong? Why have you decided to leave early?”
“My plans have changed.”
“Your plans? We have other rooms. 105 just opened up. It is a bigger room. More quiet. We can give you that room.”
“No, thank you. The room is fine. I have just decided to leave.”
Have you found a cheaper room? We can lower your charge. She began tapping on a large calculator on the table, suddenly, an older woman came in and said something in Thai. They began to talk. She gestured towards me and they both looked at me and smiled. I smiled back.
“We can give you this price.” I looked down at the numbers but told her it was not the price. She smiled. I smiled. After more of this friendly brinkmanship, She muttered something in Thai and wrote out my bill. I took out my wallet, fuddled with the Thai notes and handed her exact change. She smiled, bowed again. I turned around and walked out the door.
I was the travel king again. I felt taller. I walked down the small walkway to the main sidewalk, looked left then right and had no idea where I was going. As if called by fate, a taxi pulled up and stopped in front of me, the driver smiling. I opened the door and got in.
When travelling by taxi, you have two options. You can insist they use the meter. Do this and they will take every ally and crowded street they can find until they feel the meter shows how much the trip is actually worth. Or you can just ask how much to get to a certain place and they’ll tell you. The meter never goes on and you get there in half the time. It just depends on how fast you want to arrive. The price will always be the same.
The driver looked over at me his head twisted so he could see me.
“Where to?” he asked
“I need to find a hotel.”
He looked puzzled, and pointed at the place I came out of and said “there’s one.”
“No, I need a different hotel. This hotel is no good.
“Ahh” he replied, knowingly, “dis hotel.”
“Ah, you know, I replied, smiling.”
“OKOKOKOKOK. Dis hotel. We go. Vedy nice.”
He took off and soon we were fighting Bangkok traffic where the rush hour is 24/7.
We drove and drove until I began to wonder if he was really taking me anywhere.
“Almost there.” he said, and then he again said, “dis hotel,” and twittered. Something we could agree on. “Yes, yes,” I said. “You know.” Finally we parked and he told me the fare. I looked out the window. We were in front of the Swiss Hotel. He pointed and smiled. “Dis hotel very good. Diserland style. Very clean and proper.” I paid and got out, slightly embarrassed.
The uniformed doorman opened the clear glass door and bowed. I entered and stepped onto a cool, spotless marble floor as two young women in native Thai attire rushed to me, hands in prayer, bowing their heads in greeting. Welcome sir, they said, smiling bright white smiles.
Without even a glance at my dirty backpack and stained T-shirt, they led me to a tall man behind a marble counter, exactly the same as the marble used for the floor.
They quickly checked me in, thanking me profusely for choosing their hotel. The cost was just under $100. Quite a bit more than I’d been paying. But the quality was much higher than I’d get for the same price in America. He handed a bellman my key and I, in faded jeans, tennis shoes, greasy hair and sweat-branded shirt, sheepishly followed the well-coiffed young man to my room.
The room was nice, a palace in comparison to where I was before. I took a long, hot shower, turned on CNN and ordered some ice cream from room service. The ice cream arrived and I called my parents to let them know where I was.
“Hi Rex,” my mom said excitedly. “How are things going?”
“Good, I said.”
“What have you been doing in Thailand?”
“Not much, yet. I went to a museum.”
And so it went.
After the phone call, I laid back and watched Cartoon Network and ate my ice cream. I began to feel ashamed. It was an ongoing battle within. No matter where I went in the world, I ended up in a nice hotel, spending my days at coffee shops and my nights wrapped in Western comfort. One could ask why I even bothered leaving the country. I can have bragging rights about going to all these countries but I’m never really in them. The downtown of any major city is pretty much like any other downtown. They’re like major airports or most people — all the same.
I got so angry at my weakness that I kicked the sheets until my bed was unmade. “No more,” I said, and took my pillow and top blanket and laid down on the clean, thick carpet. The purpose of travel is self-discovery and that’s something that can’t be done in cash-comfort. All those hippies are right. At least they’re earning their travel stripes. It was true. I was lower than a hippie. I looked over at the backpack. What a joke, I thought. I should be traveling with two Louis Vitton suitcases and wearing a pinstripe suit. The bile of self-disgust rose from throat and filled my head. Tomorrow this trip changes, I promised myself.
Morning arrived late and muted golden hues gently caressed me into wakefulness. The freshly painted walls, the beautiful wood cabinet and drawers, as well as the comfortable 72 degree room temperature filled me with rage and shame. I went into the bathroom and purposefully took a shower that wasn’t as warm as I would normally have. It starts today, I said. I got dressed, took the stairs down to the lobby where several employees quickly put their hands together and welcomed me by name. I smiled back and walked out into the muggy, steaming morning.
I wasn’t sure of where I was going. I needed to find a place that served food. All around me where Western fast food shops. McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut… I walked along ignoring the familiar. Soon I came across a few tables placed out on the sidewalk. I sat down and a Thai came over quickly with a quizzical look on her face. She smiled but said nothing. I stood up and walked over and pointed at a few things: Some rice, some mystery meat and bottled water. It cost about 50 cents. I stood up proudly and I felt a little more Thai. Now, what to do with the rest of my day.
I continued my walk. The weather was heating up and the smog made it hard to breathe. I was getting as much oxygen as a climber on Everest and I was already drenched. I wonder if I smelled. The Thai hate people who smell, I had read. But then again, doesn’t everybody? The Thais never seemed to sweat.
My course remained steady until I saw the Bangkok Starbucks. Without a thought, I walked into the familiar air conditioned nightmare. As I was ordering my grande dark roast, I heard my name called. I looked around to see Tim the Brit sitting at a table. “I knew you’d come in if I waited long enough.”
“Hey, Tim. What’s up?”
“Not much. Did you move out of the cockroach arms?
Yeah. It was a moment of weakness.
“I don’t blame you, mate. I wouldn’t be there if I didn’t have to. I’m trying to stretch things out for a year. You should be staying in the friggin presidential suite somewhere.”
“That’s kind of my dilemma. I pay all this money to travel to these developing countries and end up staying in swanky hotels and drinking gourmet coffee. I mean why should I bother coming here.”
“You come here because Bangkok is great, mate. I don’t see what the problem is. Weren’t you with us at the club when we met cat woman? Wasn’t that you? You gonna experience that in LA? You Americans can manage to ruin anything. You live in such a dream world over there in America. You should spread your delusions to whereever you’re visiting. You come here. Your money buys a little more and you can have a ton of fun. But you don’t take advantage. Exorcise that inner hippie and enjoy yourself. You think the one percenters back home give a rat’s ass about you. Do you think they ever consider doing that prince and pauper thing? No sir they do not. Why do you think they are driving around in Mercedes Benz and buying luxury brands? It’s so they can recognize each other. It’s so they know who they can make jokes with about the working classes. Are you saying you want to experience poverty? Why not find some in your own country? I’m sure you don’t have to go far. Look out your window at the Mexican mowing the lawn. He can probably point you in the right direction.”
I sipped my coffee and then said “Yeah, but I still feel I should experience something pure, something local.”
I think you’ve been in the sun a little too long. But even if you’re sincere, You should go to a really backwards place. How about Vietnam? You Americans did a real number on them. Why not go over there to touch your indians.”
“Ah, Lost in America. You like Albert Brooks?”
“Yeah, he’s genius for the most part. But what’s with his accent? Is he from the East Coast?”
“No, Beverly Hills.”
Tim finished his coffee and lit a cigarette. “I bet this is a rarity for you, too,” he said, pointing at his cigarette. Smoking in a restaurant. You ban that but people can buy assault rifles. How can you live with so many contradictions?”
“How’s the queen,” I retorted.
“She’s fine, thank you. How’s your, coff coff, democracy?”
“Doing well, sir. Doing well. How’s your tax rate?”
“Great. How do you like paying more taxes than Exxon? Oh, and how’s your health insurance? You like payin’ that monster mofo every month?”
“No, I do not.”
“I didn’t think so.”
I took another draw from my coffee and wondered how much a refill was.
“Look Rex, I know what you’re talking about, OK? I’ve gone through the same esoteric bullshaite. But I was just lying to myself. If I’m not willing to experience poverty in my own country, why should I do it here? But if you do want to go through with it, go down the street to the travel shop and buy a ticket to Saigon.”
“Maybe I will.”
“Well, finish your skinny mocca latte with a dribble of Egyptian honey first, Mother Theresa.”
“It’s just a regular dark brew, I said triumphantly.”
Back out on the grimy street, I walked towards the travel agency in an angry sweat. It wasn’t just that Brit that bothered me. It was all Brits. That strange reserve and humble self-righteousness. What an onerous group. All of them, thick upper lip, living on those cold, wet rocks in the Atlantic. No matter they ventured out for warmer climes.
Taipei welcomes me with an ice pick in the eye. It’s not a real ice pick, which is worse since I can’t pull it out. I sit patiently and hope it will vanish as quickly as it appeared. I am in a transit area, waiting for the final leg of my flight to Shanghai. I have just got off an all-night flight from San Francisco. I hold my head down and bury my face in my hands. I hope this helps. It doesn’t. Time ticks away slowly. It’s cloudy and rainy outside. But it’s also sticky, sickly warm.
The airport has that sweet yet repulsive odor of mold. Above me, a vent spews chilled air in the airport’s ongoing battle against Taiwan’s warm, moist summer. The bare, florescent lighting doesn’t help my condition, either. Flight announcements repeat endlessly in Chinese. They sound like recordings of a three-legged cat sauntering across a pipe organ that’s seen better days. My fatigue-addled brain feverishly searches for meaning, translating the Chinese sounds in one announcements as “Special K.” I know that “Special K” is never really mentioned, but my brain tells me it’s there each time the recording plays, which is over and over and over and over. I then hear the same announcement in Japanese, and then in English. But only the Chinese one announces “Special K.” The ice pick digs deeper into my grey matter. I go Zen and try to think of nothing, that fails. I try to think of the sound of a softly flowing stream. It doesn’t help. I curl up, as best I can, in the oddly fashionable, oddly uncomfortable waiting-room seat.
I hope for relief. But there is none. The customer-service agents announce that we will soon be boarding. First on, people in need of special assistance and those with small children. The first- and business-class passengers — the airline aristocracy — are visibly irked, but they discover the last drags of sympathy in their carbon-black hearts and acquiesce. For their generosity, they are boarded next. I’m surprised airlines personnel don’t carry them on board. Finally, the rest of us are boarded like cheap cattle.
My seat is far in the back. I sit down and remember reading that slave ships provided more space for their human cargo then airlines do theirs. The thought sends the ice pick spinning.
Maybe I’m dehydrated, I think. I flail my arms until I get the attention of the busy flight attendant. I ask for some water. A few moments later I receive a swallow of tepid water in what looks like a little white paper hat for a Barbie doll. It doesn’t help.
My arms are jammed to my side in an invisible straight jacket of courtesy. If I relax my left arm, it rubs against a stone-faced Asian man. If I relax my right arm, it is battered by the bony flight attendant as she passes by. The pain in my eye and head increases, and I begin to sweat until I’m drenched.
I know that we will have to be at 10,000 feet before I can get up and over to the toilet without a beat down by the attendants. As a precaution I check the seat pocket and find the barf bag. It’s waxy, non-descript and the only paper product without ads printed on it.
I’ve never thrown up in-flight before. If it happens, I wonder if there’ll be a chain reaction. Will I detonate a massive puke chain reaction? I imagine a sour fountain of half-digested breakfasts from around the world overwhelming the barf bags and spilling over like polychromatic lava, warm not hot. I feel my body begin its pre-purge autonomic preparations.
Finally, the captain announces that we have reached 10,000 feet. I stand up and move to the back where the bathrooms are. They are both occupied. Have people been in there all this time? Are they selling those as seats? Is there a bathroom class? The thoughts swirl around in my head and nausea blossoms within me like a dark, foreboding storm. The flight attendant sees that even for a white guy, I’m really white, and She quickly points me to the front where there are four more bathrooms. As the aircraft is still climbing, I begin my own ascent, fighting the g-forces and inadvertently striking passengers as I hastily make my way towards the front. They say nothing, but I sense their eyes drilling me from behind. This is no time for apologies. Would they prefer an acidic shampoo?
I reach the toilet and open the door to a beautiful sight of stainless steel. I close the door, lift the lid and release my payload. As I un-swallow, I experience the sour shadow of my consumption for the last 24 hours. The ghost of orange juice past is particularly nasty.
Still cold from sweat, I’m relieved and happy. I straighten my shirt and rinse out my mouth. I wipe the perspiration from my face. The ice pick is gone. I walk back to my seat, managing to strike a few passengers as I make my way down the narrow aisle. The remainder of the flight is smooth and happy. I am full of sparkling anticipation for my final stop: Shanghai.