Friday, April 27, 2012

From Khartoum to China – The Accidental Business Traveler: Part IV

Once the plane was up, the people started feeding us and wouldn’t stop. This airplane was a little bigger, with a little more entertainment options, but nothing to brag about. Egypt Air, you need to get your act together.

Enough with the journey, let’s move on to the adventure!

As soon as our plane landed, I put on the red wool coat I had borrowed for the trip. I didn’t approve of the color, originally. I’m not exactly a Lady in Red kinda gal; generally preferring not to stand out in a crowd. I guess that means I’m not a Roni, either (cheesy, I know, but it was right there!).

As soon as I stepped off the plane, I let out a primal “Wararoooooook!” Over the course of the next few days, this was to be my standard battle cry. You can consider yourself learned, call yourself a sophisticate, maybe even hold some sort of credentials proving one or the other, but when you get b@#$% slapped by Mother Nature, you turn primal. “Wararook!”

I mean, I know cold. I spent my childhood braving the blizzards of Indiana. Our cold, dry Khartoum winters are famous for “getting into your bones” as the locals say. Rainy winters in Alexandria were not foreign to me, but this? This was insane! I haven’t been near single Celsius digits in years. My senses were doubly offended by the impact of the temperature delta between Khartoum and Beijing. I wondered if my lungs would freeze, if my ears would snap off, if my African body would choose a new way to revolt against this unprovoked assault. My poor African body didn’t care about my work, or my quest for adventure; it just wanted to be left alone.

We walked into the impressive Terminal 3 of Beijing Airport, and my Architectural self was enthralled, shutting up the African. Chinese natives scurried ahead, eager to get home, wearing heavy coats and little else, as elderly Western tourists openly stared at everyone, making comments in their native languages, assuming no one else understood English or German or whatever European dialect they spoke– or not caring.

We went with the flow to find ourselves in “Passport Control”. Dozens of officials waited to clear dozens of lines that the travelers had formed. This was the second sign of how far I was from home. Sudanese couldn’t form a line to save their lives. If someone told a crowd of Sudanese people, “Stand in line and you will receive a million dollar check at the end, and the only condition is that you stay behind the person in front of you,” they will start pushing and shoving, jostling and circumventing, like they needed to prove that money would not stand in the way of national traditions.

I love my country. I love my countrymen, but we tend to relish our chaos and uphold our anarchy. Bless us.

So, I stood in line and shuffled along patiently, avoiding eye contact, yet maintaining physical contact with my hand luggage at all times, as I have learned to do over the years.

When my turn came up, I looked at the diminutive official who looked sharp in her uniform and cap. She sat behind a counter on which rested a device that looked like a super-sized iPhone. Its corners were too round for an iPad, so I maintain that it looked like a supersized first generation iPhone.

The lady took my passport, without a word, and proceeded to flip through the pages. She looked at my pre-marriage photograph, which was also pre-childbirth, which in my case means an entirely different weight category. I wondered if we all looked the same to her, and she couldn’t notice the difference, or if I looked like a completely different person, with my alien features and dark skin tone.

She continued to flip through the pages. Flip, flip, flip. Flip right to the beginning, flip left to the end, and repeat. I wondered if there was a problem, and wondered why she didn’t just ask about what she was looking for. Flip, flip, flip, look up. Flip, flip, flip, look down.

Eventually, she pointed to the iPhone-like device. I looked at myself and smiled, as I automatically do when encountering any type of monitor. Just as I smiled, I remembered Russell Peters stand up routine about Canadians forbidden to smile in passport photos. Great, now I won’t get into China because I smiled. Surprisingly enough, she waved me through. As I said, “Thank you!” I realized, she had not spoken a single word throughout this exchange. I really need to watch The Artist, I thought; speech is over rated.

My traveling companions also took what I estimated to be more than the average passport clearance time. This was largely due to the fact that Sudanese officials do not require entry visas to China. This little tidbit had come up in transit, and would surface every once and again. It tended to cause confusion at first but once supervisors were summoned and phone calls were made, we are waved through. The US Government may not approve of Sudan and Sudanese officials, but the Chinese Government had no problem whatsoever.

We got on a train to claim our luggage (A train! Smack in the middle of the airport! A train, I tell you!) and I kept looking around at the signs. First in Chinese, then in English. Throughout the trip, I found amusement in the English translation of signs. I’m sure they made sense to somebody, somewhere. It was like they had sent people abroad to learn English and they came back and made literal translations in silent protest at the living conditions, they had been subjected to. (You stuck me in a hole in Queens, I’ll show you!)

As I stood waiting for my luggage, that had been marked “Priority” at Khartoum Airport, I stood next to a confused Chinese lady, who picked up every piece of luggage that passed by her and replaced it on the baggage carousel again. Having done this several times, she turned to me and exclaimed, “They all look the same!” My eyes almost popped out of my head holding in my chortle. I wondered if I was on Candid Camera. They all look the same from a Chinese woman! Priceless!

If there is one thing I learned about Business Class travel, it is that the “Priority” tag means diddly.

Baggage in tow, our "delegation" walked towards the exit, and we saw our Chinese contact, Mr. Wang, waiting for us. We had worked together in Khartoum, but by the time our journey was over, I had a newfound respect for Mr. Wang, the Chinese People and China itself.

Monday, April 9, 2012

From Khartoum to China – The Accidental Business Traveler: Part III

Before take off the flight attendant came and asked what we’d like to drink. I asked what was available, and she said, “Everything. Whatever you want to drink.” Maybe, in a less fragile condition, I would have put her claim to the test but I just asked for apple juice and let it slide.

On every flight, there is the snooty flight attendant, the friendly one and the flustered one. Juice girl was the snooty type. I feel a certain resentment coming from snooty service staff. The barely concealed sneer was actually a pout, “It should have been me”.

I noticed that the flight attendants enjoyed the same meals as the Business Class Passengers, so the resentment is as meaningless as it is misguided. She was doing her job while I was seated. No doubt while I was doing my job, she too would be kicking back somewhere exotic and I didn’t begrudge her the pleasure.

I like friendly and flustered attendants. We can all relate to that and appreciate (again) a positive attitude in a thankless job. Except for the part where they spend a lot of time on their feet (as many of us do), I think they have it pretty easy. They are trained in basic procedures and need to draw upon them, as circumstances require. How hard can it be? And, aren’t service staff supposed to have a friendly disposition, by definition? I can’t see a bully dreaming of growing up to serve meals to people in the sky.

The plane was shabby, there was no in-flight entertainment, nor was there an option to raise your feet. Just the basic option of putting your seat back, which even passengers in coach got. Business Class my rear.

The in-flight magazine was also raggedy. I was told, as a very young child, that you can take your in-flight magazine with you. It’s all paid for. Since getting that authorization, I pick up the magazine for casual post-travel reading. I know that most people don’t but why should I be stuck with the well thumbed copy of February travelers, past and present? They need to do something about that. Appoint someone to distribute magazines by ticket price. Business Class get fresh off the presses and kids paying half price get stuck with the shabby ones, that they can eviscerate without embarrassing their parents.

We had gotten the piping hot towels at one point. Who came up with that idea? Why did all the airlines take it up? It’s nice and sanitary and everything, but I would think that if airlines were looking to improve, they would add the numbers of bathrooms on a plane, instead of just making up stuff that has almost zero impact on the quality of the trip. More bathrooms, now, that would get people excited.

Then the food started. Silverware and china. There were some attempts at presentation, like they hired someone to go spy on Qatar Airways, and he came back and said, “They don’t just put the food there, they draw leaves with the ketchup and stuff” so Egypt Air Chef-in-Chief was summoned and told, “Don’t just pile on the food and embarrass us. You need to draw stuff. Put an umbrella, that looks fancy. And kiwi. All exotic like”. I think the only thing that didn’t have kiwi on it was the meat.

So, they give you something to eat, and while you’re still jabbing at your fruit salad, they bring a “hot meal” which is piping hot and cools down to gelatin. Just when you have your tray organized and start a meat/juice/salad rhythm, they ask if you want tea or coffee.

Okay, the food seemed old anyway, let’s just have our evening tea, the Sudanese way, and enough with this hassle. (Food on planes always seems old. Not just stale, but like it's been through stuff. Has stories to tell.)

With the tea, in Business Class, you are offered your choice of bread! White, brown, pumpernickel, pita. Seriously. People pay more for this?

This reminded me of a flight from Nairobi to Khartoum.
An American lady sat beside me. She quickly told me that she worked for the US government and had been on assignment to monitor the elections in Nairobi. I asked her who she was going to vote for in the US. She was taken aback. I thought that this was due to the American taboo of asking who you were going to vote for, but she explained that she hadn’t thought that people in Africa were following the US elections. I already voted, she confided, because I am traveling, I can vote ahead. I voted for Gore.

Really? I asked incredulous. She asked why I didn’t approve. He seems plastic, I replied. I know that doesn’t really make sense, but he doesn’t seem like a robot (Romney) just made of plastic or something. I would have voted for Bush, I said. He seems harmless. (LOL. We all know how that turned out).

Anyway, the traveling American was complaining about everything. Everything. When I ordered something from the Duty Free and the attendant told me they didn’t have change, she rolled her eyes dramatically. I was the one buying and foregoing the theatrics, what was her problem? When they started passing out the meals, she asked where hers was. She turned to me to explain that she had ordered a “special meal”. Of course you did, I said. Why do you say that? She asked. Because you’re American, and apparently what is good enough for everyone else is not good enough for you. She actually did not take offense. She kind of liked it. When she got her meal and saw my meal (chicken, Sudanese always order the chicken on a flight. Ask flight attendants. Drives them nuts because they always run out. They should have factored it in by now). So she looks at my meal and said it looked better than her boiled vegetables. Sometimes, it really is better to go with the flow.

Sorry, Americans, but sometimes, you guys are too much.