Day 1: On My Way

Seal School: Day 1

Monday 31 October 2011
On My Way

3:30 AM – The first day is going to be the longest and the hardest—in order to get to the airport on time I have to get up very early. Too early. I exchange a goodby kiss with my wife at the front door and my son gives me a ride to the airport. He drops me off, I go inside to get in line for a boarding pass, then on to security. Everything goes in trays on the belt to go through Xray—including my shoes. Then down the hall to the far end and then follow the signs down the stairs to a small waiting room on the ground floor. Since it was recommended to be at least an hour early, I have to wait an hour to catch the next plane. It feels like being in an old movie as I walk across the tarmac and up the steps to board the small two-propeller AirCanada turboprop. The plane probably holds about twenty-eight passengers. I have a window seat over the left wing and, when the engines start up, I can clearly see the plane vibrate, with a lot of engine noise and the smell of fuel. It’s uncomfortably hot inside but there’s nothing to do but suffer through it. I consider that, on the return trip, I might take the train rather than take another flight like this. The stewardess starts a recorded message with safety instructions in both English and French. After a minute or so the recording stops in mid-sentence. She tries a few times to get it going again and eventually gives up and uses the microphone instead, this time in English only. The city below looks beautiful as we head north. It’s still dark when we leave Portland, which adds to the black and white film noir effect. Lights from the bridges reflecting in the water are the only indication of where the Columbia River is—that and the darkness where no street or other lights are visible.

7:15 AM – After an hours flight we land in Vancouver, B.C. The sun comes up as we leave the “puddle jumper,” down the steps, back across the tarmac, and inside the terminal to customs. One line for Canadians and another for the rest of us. We were asked to fill out a customs form before leaving the plane and one of the questions was how long we would be staying in Canada. The customs person, in his bullet-proof enclosure and wearing a bullet-proof vest, wants to know what I will be doing in Canada that only requires me to be there for one day (and probably wonders why I have flown in to do it). When I explain that I’m in transit he signals for someone to escort me to the departure area. I’m the only one at that hour connecting through to an international flight so I’m sent down an aisle to wait for airport staff who escort me to an elevator and down the hall to the international boarding area. It opens onto something like a mini-mall with shops around the perimeter and in the center a large modern native-American sculpture in wood that has a stream emerging from its base which wanders down the hall, ending in a wall of glass enclosing an aquarium with salmon and other fish and sea creatures inside. Beyond this is a small food court and then the long concourse. My waiting area is again at the far end but all along the way are cases showcasing local artists work. I now have a five hour wait for the flight to Shanghai.

I’m pretty much alone in the airport departure area. I look first at all the display cases, then go to the far end to look out the windows at the tall snow-capped mountains just north of Vancouver. I wander back down the hall and back up the other side of the central moving walkways. Having seen pretty much everything there is to see—all the shops are still closed—I go back to the waiting area and try to lay down for a while. This doesn’t work out well as the rows of seats have dividers between every few seats, making it impossible to stretch out. My wife had made me a fried egg sandwich which I ate in my son’s car on the way to the airport but now, as the airport begins to wake up, I think about food again.

10:40 AM – With plenty of time on my hands, I walk back to the food court at the other end of the concourse. They have a hamburger chain outlet, the predictable coffee shop, and a Japanese restaurant, the Hanami Express, where I buy a combo box with two kinds of sushi, a few kappa and a few California rolls, rice with chicken, a few gyoza, and some salad along with a small pile of wasabi and pickled ginger for $12.28 US. The chicken isn’t the best cut, but is edible, and I’m full before I can finish it all. I would have been better off with something less but I’m not sure what food will be served on the long flight ahead, or when, so I want to be sure to have had something to eat.

1:00 PM – The United Airlines twin-engine Boeing 767 is ready to board on schedule. Most of the passengers are Chinese and it’s comical to see them all crowded together at the gate as the announcement for boarding is given. We’re told over the loudspeaker that boarding will proceed by section but this is either not understood or ignored by the Chinese. I had been previously warned that mainland Chinese still have no concept about lining up or taking turns. AirCanada attendants urge the Chinese to sit back down, try herding them into lines, and even repeat the instructions in Chinese—all to no avail. When my row number is called I flank the fracas and go to one of the attendants, tell her my seat number, and am ushered in ahead of the milling crowd. I’m sure many perceived this as unfair preferential treatment. But, after boarding the plane, everyone has to wait for those in the first few economy-class rows who block the aisles while they try to stow their carry-on in the overhead bins. I have another window seat, this time just behind the left wing. I decide to stow my carry-on under the seat in front of me rather than in the overhead rack. I think I will use the long flight time as a chance to get to know the iPad that a friend has loaned me. A Chinese woman, probably in her forties or fifties, takes the aisle seat next to me. She tries to put her carry-on in the overhead bin but there isn’t enough room for hers alongside the one already there so she settles for leaving it under the seat in front of her. We’re delayed in taking off, and the flight attendants are politely frustrated, by the Chinese who, even after the fasten seat belt light comes on, continue to get up and move around the plane, re-arrange their overhead baggage, haven’t buckled their seat belts, or have laps full of things they are repeatedly told to stash under the seat in front of them. The attendants seem like harried dogs trying to herd too many sheep. When the plane finally begins taxiing down the runway the usual instructions are given over the loudspeaker in English and French. It’s obvious most of the Chinese, who comprise at least ninety-five per cent of the passengers, don’t understand a word of what is being carefully explained to them about exits and floatation devices. As the plane takes off it heads west and north over Vancouver Island. I can see below me valleys and lakes surrounded by snow-covered mountains that look as if from the Swiss Alps or the Himalayas. I expect us to head out over the ocean but instead we continue on over more snow-covered mountains. About this time it’s announced that the flight will take us up the inland passage to Alaska, across to Russia, and then down over Japan before crossing to China. Maybe this route has something to do with why our “assistant pilot” has a Russian-sounding name? During takeoff my seat-mate holds a handkerchief over her mouth and has a look of distress. I ask her if she is okay and she replies in English that she gets air-sick. I think talking may distract her so I introduce myself and find out that her name, at least in English, is Lucy. At first we talk about whether or not I get air-sick or sea-sick, but soon we’re talking about other things. I learn that she is alone on the flight, on her way to a business conference for her IT company. She lives, with her grown son in Vancouver, B.C. but was originally from Hong Kong. She asks me about things she’s heard about—does every American go to church? Does the US government mandate a one-week-a-year vacation for all workers? At what age does the average American get married? There’s a USB port and power plug in front of my seat which she asks to use and she spends the early part of the flight playing solitaire on her laptop while I look out the window. Not very long into the flight the stewardess asks me if I can close the window “so they can sleep.” It’s only then that I notice I’m the only one in sight with the window open. Throughout the rest of the flight all windows are kept shut while we sit in our dark crowded tube.

10:00 PM – I realize it’s still bright daylight outside—we’ve been chasing daylight around the globe as we travel west. The plane dims and brightens the lights on a regular basis but on what seems to be a fairly short duration—not long enough to get a good nap in. But it’s impossible to sleep anyway. There’s periodic turbulence, usually in synch with the serving of food (do they have a switch for that in the cockpit?). It seems one way the airline has for keeping passengers distracted/occupied during the long flight is to provide food or drink at regular intervals. Neither Lucy or I eat much—me because I had a big lunch, she due to air-sickness. Most of what they serve is not too appealing anyway—food that can be reheated in microwave or, like a cup of Ramen noodles, that can be reconstituted with hot water. Whenever there’s turbulence the seat belt light comes on and a stewardess comes around to be sure we do. Even without the frequent interruptions I can’t find a position comfortable enough for sleeping. My knee bothers me a bit without a way of straightening it out. I make one obligatory trip to the lavatory and am able to stretch my legs for a minute. I see the long flight as an ordeal to be overcome as a right of passage; as a test—either pass or fail and move on the the next test. In this case there’s no option for failure. My brother had asked me on the phone the day before departure if I was nervous. When I said “no, not really,” he just laughed and said, “You’re a lot like me. I wait to the last minute to worry about things.” I think I tend not to worry at all in advance. Instead, I do my prep work as much as possible in advance then I deal with things as they come up. I may stress about things in the middle of doing them, but not much beforehand. Eventually it’s announced we are about to begin our descent into Shanghai. In the back of each seat in front of us are viewscreens; one of the options is for maps showing our route and where we are in that path which show the plane heading south over Japan before crossing the sea to China. I had hoped to look for Japan out the window but am too late in thinking of it. During the flight I check out many of the channels and shows offered on the small seat-back screen. I watch the movie Cars 2, which I enjoy, and Green Lantern, which I don’t. But anything is a welcome distraction. As the plane starts to descend I re-open the window and can see ocean below, full of what look like cargo ships coming and going. Approaching shore are extremely long straight white lines that appear to be waves—I can’t figure out what they might be. Later, as we cross the shoreline and I get my first sight of the Chinese mainland, I see below a huge circular lake with what seems like an enormous abstract sculpture set in the middle. Near the inland side of this lake is a structure with an interesting shape something like a futuristic metal flower. At first there are wetlands which give way to sectioned, cultivated areas which become more and more filled in by houses. I’m struck by the number of canals and waterways. Many homes are bordered by canals. From the air the cars, freeways, and homes look familiar—as if I’m flying over America instead of China. Only once do I see what looks like a temple in traditional Chinese style. We make a smooth landing into the Shanghai Pudong International Airport and taxi a long way around the first terminal, under freeway overpasses (as if we’re a bus) and around to the newer terminal two. Lucy and I say our goodbyes and I step off the plane and into China.

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