Day 0:  The furthest point

All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go…  Just like the unforgettable opening verse to John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane.  It’s 6:00 a.m. EST Sunday March 22, 2009 and I need to be at the airport in one hour.

Domestic China FlightI’ve now been up for 20 hours hoping that by forcing my body to stay awake I can knock my internal clock off kilter and adjust to the 12 hour time difference more easily.  My gravest mistake was forgetting what it felt like to stay awake for so long.  As a child, It was common practice to stay up for three days straight, doing nothing but playing video games, pokemon and magic cards.  This caused no ill effects and was actually quite thrilling, especially after catching your second, third, fourth of fifth wind and feeling like you just woke up from a deep slumber.

My colleagues had berated me for only going to China for one week, saying that it would be a waste of time as I would spend the entire first week trying to get used to the time difference before having to return home.  The worst part about this was that it was not my choice to go for one week, that was decided by management and was not something that I had any say in.  Regardless, I put myself through this torture to simply make sure I was effective from day 1.

After a quick lap around the 5th floor of the parking deck at RDU airport I succumbed and left my car in the first open space I saw, regardless of how far it was away from the terminal.  Grabbing my duffle and my laptop bag from the trunk, I rushed off towards the brand-spanking new Terminal 2.  This would be my first time within the confines of the new structure and I was really looking forward to it, as it received rave reviews in all the local papers and a good amount of air time on the local news.

As I stepped inside and scanned the vast space for American Airlines ticketing counter it struck me.  I forgot to mark down where I parked.  Just like last time.  When will I ever learn?  There was no time to dwell however, as there was a bit of a crowd already and I couldn’t take the chance of missing the only flight to Chicago for the day.  I rushed through ticketing and proceeded to security.  The first TSA officer directed me into the bunny slopes line, where as usually I take the black diamond (experienced traveler) line.  Perhaps my rushed demeanor made him think that I was some noob when it comes to traveling.  I longingly looked over at the business men and women in the black diamond line and silently wished that I could be in the express lane as well, since I was in a hurry as it was.

Five minutes later I found myself laughing as one of the “experienced” travelers had no idea what they were doing and was holding up the entire line, since they only had access to a single metal detector, whereas we had two.  After a quick jaunt through the bomb-sniffing machine I was on my way to the gate with plenty of time to rest.  I stopped off at the Carolina Ale House for a spot of coffee and some breakfast to tide me over until my next flight, as I had seen mention of some type of in-flight meal from Chicago to Shanghai; however I had no idea that airlines still provided meals period.

Typically, this is the point where I would mention that I made a terrible decision and ate something that would upset my stomach for the remainder of the day, causing great internal turmoil.  As it turns out, I made one of the best choices that I’ve ever made in the breakfast realm when I ordered the Carolina Breakfast Omelet, which was a three egg omelet with Monterey Jack cheese and crab meat, drizzled in hollandaise sauce and served with a side of hash browns.  It was fantastic.

Two hours later I was sitting in Chicago O’Hare’s Terminal 3 awaiting my international flight to Shanghai.  I was reading/studying my book “Beginner’s Chinese” when I looked outside and noticed the gigantor Boeing 777 Boeing Cargo Loadersitting at our gate.  I was truly taken aback at the scale of this plane.  I sat and watched the cargo crew load what looked like palettes of metal rods into the belly of the plane with a complex conveyor system that was not unlike the ones that we use in our manufacturing line to move our heavy goods around.  I think it goes without mentioning that I flexed my shutterbug tendencies at this point in time.  While I was taking pictures I noticed that the vehicle that pushes the plane back from the gate had a striking resemblance to Batman’s Tumbler with the way that its front wheels protruded from the chassis.  This is completely irrelevant but I might as well explain myself  before you silently wonder why the small blue vehicle is feature almost as prominently as the plane itself in my travel album.

The time was 11:10 a.m. EST on March 22, 2009 as we began boarding the plane.  It became quickly evident to me that on international flights there are three types of people: happy, indifferent and angry.  Interestingly enough the category into which you fall depends entirely on which cabin you are seated in.  Obviously those that are happy are the ones in first class, with their “fully reclining-into-beds” seats that also have the ability to rotate 180 degrees to interface with those behind them.  I’m sure they also get all the booze and food that they desire and the flight staff probably rubs their feet the entire way as well (of course this is only assumption as I’ve never had the pleasure).  The indifferent people are the ones in business class, where the seating is considerably more dense than first class but not nearly as dense as coach, and the leg room provides enough space to bend your legs and not have your knees lodged into the lumbar support of the seat in front of you.  They additionally have the ability to recline to a considerably more comfortable position than the two positions offered by coach seating, which can be described as the following: upright (this is the position for take off and landing), and ever-so-slightly less upright.  I’m no doctor, but I’d say the difference between the two seating positions in coach falls somewhere between 3 and 5 degrees of slope difference.

Finally we come to the angry people stuffed into the back of the plane.  The seating in coach on this particular flight consisted of chairs in the 2-5-2 pattern, which makes a tremendous amount of sense because nobody likes middle seats, and everybody knows that sitting next to somebody that has a middle seat makes you miserable.  So this particular configuration mashes all three middle seats into the five seat set in the middle row of the plane, thereby reducing the number of contiguous miserable people by four.  As if having five people stuffed into a single row wasn’t bad enough, the overhead cargo compartments are exactly the wrong size for 80% of all carry-on luggage and are  located at the perfect height to make sure that nobody smaller than 5′ 10” can close them fully.

I’m not one to complain though, and rightfully so in this situation as I was sitting in the only 5 person row on the plane that wasn’t full, which was three rows from the kitchen at the back of the plane.  There was only one other person in my row, and we each had the aisle seat, which left three seats between us for all of our various gear and accessories.

As I sat down I immediately noticed that my armrest prominently featured a remote control device tethered to the inside of the armrest on a two foot metal cord.  As I pulled the control out I couldn’t help but notice that there were gaming buttons on the bottom of the remote (the part that had previously been obscured by the overhang of the armrest), and that these buttons were labelled, colored, and placed in EXACTLY the same configuration as the old SNES controllers.  This excited me greatly as it almost suggested that the onboard entertainment screens embedded in the back of the headrest of every seat would feature SNES games.  Much to my dismay this was untrue, and the only game worth mentioning was Tetris, which I played the hell out of.

After my exploration of the gaming offerings I decided to peruse the movie selection, and was simply appalled.  The first thing that struck me as amiss was the Comedy genre.  Either my definition of comedy needs an overhaul, or the person that was entering the movie genres for this month realized there were 0 comedies and decided to pick some other random movies and list them as comedy.  The only two “comedies” listed were Slumdog Millionaire and Four Christmases.  Really!?

All complaints aside, the in-flight service was actually very good.  After swallowing the fact that I would be sitting in my cramped little chair for fourteen and a half hours, my mind slowly melted into a pool of ooze.  Traveling through time takes quite the toll on the brain, and somewhere around the time that we passed over the international date/time line and moved forwards a day, I think my mind and being momentarily transferred into Marty McFly’s head from Back to the Future and I started talking about how, “All the coolest stuff comes from Japan!”

Approximately two hours into the flight we were actually served a meal.  The last time I was served a meal on an airplane was back in the 90’s, and I don’t really recall what it was that I ate, but I know that it didn’t even compare to the spread that was laid out before me.  I chose the chicken and was presented with a large tray that consisted of the following items:

  • Dish of green beans, mashed potatoes, and chicken in a reddish sauce
  • Tiny container of cold, buttered noodles with a single shrimp cut in half with a basil leaf and a single sliver of a green bean
  • Side salad with a container of olive oil & vinegar dressing
  • Roll
  • Oatmeal Chewie

Overall, this meal was very satisfying; however there was one aspect that is worth particular accolades, and that would be the glorious treat known as an Oatmeal Chewie.  This delicacy was produced by a company known as Love & Quiches Desserts (you see what they did there?  Clever…), who should be congratulated on not only having the greatest name ever, but also for making such a scrumptious little treat.  This bar of chewy oatmeal tasted like the illegitimate child of a moist piece of carrot cake and one of those Nature’s Valley granola bars… You know the ones I’m talking about, as they have the texture of gravel and taste like concrete slabs… Regardless of this masterpiece of snacks, I was satisfied.

Throughout the flight I was having bouts of boredom from reading my Chinese book and would occasionally select from the slim-pickin’s of the touch screen monitor’s movie collection.  By the end of the 14.5 hour flight I had watched six movies, all of varying levels of quality.  Here are the movies that I watched, presented in list format.  Behold!

  • Slumdog Millionaire: Really quite good, actually
  • 007: Quantum of Solace: Pretty good action flick
  • Four Christmases: Blech, decent at best
  • Kung Fu Panda: This movie was really awesome.  Skidoosh!
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008): Not as terrible as I had expected
  • Madagascar Escape 2 Africa: An okay kids movie

Another particular point of interest would be the second meal that was served.  Okay, well this was actually considered the “lunch-time” snack even though it was not lunch time in either the origin or destination time zones; however it was a small black box, which contained a small ham sammich with a single packet of dijonnaise and a single, mini biscotti biscuit thing that was delicious and had a slight caramel taste to it.

The actual second meal came when there was about one hour left until we hit Shanghai.  The choice was pizza or pasta, and I chose the former.  As it turns out,Quichezza American Airlines’ definition of pizza differs vastly from my own, and what I was actually presented with was a quiche, filled with pizza sauce and covered in baked cheese.  I mean look at that thing (pictured at right).  There is no way that you could consider this thing a pizza pie, as its form factor made for a ridiculously messy meal.  For dessert, this particular meal featured 2 miniature slices of orange and 2 miniature slices of pineapple.  Oh, and also 2 Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies.  Kind of a strange combination I’d say.

After an excess of half a day’s time of travel, we finally arrived in Shanghai.  As it turns out, I was the only passenger on the plane that was transferring to a domestic flight so the remainder of my day was an exercise in confusion and feeling lost.  There were numerous times throughout my 5 hours in the Shanghai Pudong airport that I simply stood and slowly rotated with a look on my face that resembled a combination of fear and regret.  I was utterly and totally lost, and in the domestic flight terminal there was a severe lack of English signs.

This was one time where calling Allie and having her Google Map my location and guide me to my destination would not work.  Especially because I couldn’t use my phone.  I tried connecting to the internets but my laptop was only getting a measly 36 Mbps (man, I thought that was bad… the wireless in my hotel is currently 11 Mbps… I guess that’s karma for you).  So I wandered and shuffled my way to the ‘transfer hall’ to get my domestic flight boarding pass and then recheck my luggage and go through security and finally into the vast space of the domestic terminal.  Did I mention that this is the largest airport in all of China?  Well it is huge.  Look at it!

During my stay at my gate, I noticed a large group of travelers (all of Asian descent) that were all wearing red Nike hats and carrying red bags.  It was strange, I tried to take some pictures, but they were spy shots and didn’t turn out very well.  Finally, around 8:20 p.m. China Time on March 23, 2009 I boarded the plane, sat down in my seat, and passed the eff out.  I can’t even describe to you the sensation that I had when I was jerked awake by our plane landing in Shenzhen, with my arms completely asleep and a stiff neck.  I discovered a bologna sammich in the empty seat next to me (don’t worry it was an in-flight snack), which I slipped into my laptop bag before quickly rushing off the plane.  I was so excited to get to my hotel and fall asleep, as I figured if I was so tired on the plane I must be ready to sleep in my new timezone.

My colleague from Taiwan who was also on end of quarter support in Shenzhen was awaiting my arrival and had arranged for a private car to pick us up and take us to the hotel.  This was greatly appreciated and a huge relief, as the taxis in Shenzhen are shady business and apparently charge some type of 30% service charge at night.  That’s beside the point however as I knew that I was on my way to a comfortable bed and would finally be able to unload the over-stuffed laptop bag that I had been lugging around with me.

50 minutes later I was checked into the hotel and unpacking my belongings when I suddenly was overcome with a feeling that I hadn’t felt in years.  In fact, the feeling was exactly like what I used to feel as a child when I would stay up for two or three days at a time, and what I used to describe as my second, third, fourth or fifth wind.  I was suddenly energized and not even remotely able to lay down in the humongous bed that I had been provided with.  Speaking of which, here’s some pictures of my humble abode, which is actually the opposite of humble and quite lavish.

Well I connected my laptop to the wireless in my room only to find that it was piping into my internet tubes with a stunning 11 Mbps, which was not only severely disappointing but also severely appalling.  Luckily, it only took me about 45 additional minutes to fall asleep.  That may very well have been the best rest that I’ve ever had.