January 1, 2017

Somewhere over Thai Airspace

As I looked at the neighborhoods of Chicago for the last time from the window of the Lyft that I ordered to take me to the airport, I almost became overwhelmed at the thought of leaving this beautiful city that I have called home for 3 1/2 years. True, I’ve lived longer in other places, but Chicago truly has become my hometown. I love it more than any other place I’ve lived in my 48 years of existence. I talk about it proudly to anyone I happen to meet from other places, explaining the rich history, the charm of the green space and parks, the lovely, unmatched shoreline devoid of commercial or residential high-rises that would spoil the view. I tell them about the food they must try, about the free music, the neighborhood festivals. When I do this, I am reminded of the times that I personally have taken advantage of these, and how much I enjoyed them. Sure, Chicago has her problems, the poverty, corruption, violence, winter… but overall, I am in love with her. Frank Sinatra sang about Chicago being his girlfriend. Maybe she was, but Old Blue Eyes is dead, so…

But as much as I love Chicago, I realized a while back that I needed to change. Change my life, change my habits, my scenery, my occupation. Otherwise, I’d miss out on so much of what else this world has to offer. And that would be a shame. So, I’m taking a leap of faith. The totality of my material possessions now fit inside a suitcase, a large backpack, and a day pack. And I’m on my way to Thailand.

I kept thinking that the day was off in the distance. But it crept up on me when I was busy preparing for it. So I found myself in the Lyft, ready to go, but not ready. Not completely ready emotionally, anyway. And not packed correctly for the trip, either. At the airport, I discovered that my suitcase was overweight. Cards Against Humanity has done me in again at the airport. I wanted to bring my whole set because it’s the only game I have left. And it weighs in at over 6 kilos. So, I had to pull my bags over to the side, sit on the floor, and repack everything. Fortunately, I kept my empty messenger bag instead of giving it away, and was able to fit almost all of the cards into that, thus bringing my suitcase in just under the 25 kilos allowed, and giving me a personal item to bring on the plane in addition to the day pack that served as my carry-on. The cards would subsequently fuck me one more time, as the TSA screening machine cannot tell what the dense boxes of material are. For the second time, I had my bags pulled aside and inspected while the TSA agent assured himself that the contents were simply an irreverent game and not blocks of C-4.

 So, at approximately 1:50pm CST on December 30, 2016, I wistfully enjoyed my final glimpse of the Windy City skyline from over the wing of the big Boeing 777-300, and I was on my way to Shanghai. That’s a long flight. Fifteen hours in the air is a tad uncomfortable. I watched several movies instead of trying to sleep, holding my bladder for the first several hours while the cute couple sitting next to me took turns napping with their heads in each other’s laps. They were very nice, though. Eric, a young guy who grew up in the northern suburbs had taken his Chinese girlfriend, Amy back to Chicagoland for Christmas with the family. Eric has been teaching English in Wuhan for the last two years. (How do I keep meeting these people?) So we chatted a bit about China and Chicago. It was encouraging to hear his story about how he was doing well in his chosen profession and life abroad. 

My plans for Shanghai had consisted of clearing customs and catching a train into the city to enjoy some street food with a friend of mine who lives there. However, those plans didn’t work out as I had hoped. First of all, it was explained to me that I would have to collect my baggage in Pudong airport and find a place to store them before check-in on New Year’s Day. I guess that comes with the 14-hour layover. Getting through customs itself took quite a while. Then trying to locate and grab my suitcase and backpack off the carousel was a chore, because everyone crowded around the  moving belt like they were watching a cockfight. I helplessly witnessed my suitcase going around twice before I was able to muscle my way into the crowd and grab it before it took the long, circuitous journey one more time. Finding the place to check bags didn’t take terribly long, but along the way, I was propositioned by a local man who told me that the bag storage was prohibitively expensive, and that it would be cheaper to book a local hotel and take the free shuttle there instead. But I’ve been conned before, so I told him I’d let him know if the bag storage idea didn’t work. I was correct. He was playing me. Then came the issue with paying for the storage. It was cash only, and the only cash I had was Benjamin Franklins, which don’t work as well for paying for things over there. They like pictures of different guys on their currency. So began the ordeal of trying to get RMB, or Chinese Yuan, to pay the fee. The currency exchange booth shut down early, the ATM next to it only worked for Shanghai bank cards, my new Chase Sapphire Visa card didn’t work in the upstairs international ATM (and the toll-free international number on the back of the card wasn’t in service), so I finally just swiped my debit card and took out 300 Yuan, foreign transaction fees be damned. By the time I got my bag storage paid for, I had been in the airport terminal for over two hours, and I was exhausted. I had already told my friend that I probably wouldn’t make it in time to meet her before the train system shut down for the night, stranding her far from home. So I chalked it up to having an experience, not getting upset about it, and plopped myself and my carry-on down in a leather lounge seat inside a deserted priority ticketing area to try to sleep.

Just when I had given up hope of having a decent time in Shanghai, I got a text message from Ming Lee, a Taiwanese girl from couchsurfing, whom I had contacted to see if she’d like to join my now-abandoned excursion into the city to eat, as her layover was around the same time as my own. She hadn’t been able to contact me using the spotty, free airport Wi-Fi. When she found out that I hadn’t left the airport, she was surprised. She was on her way to a hotel that she had booked for $35US, because she didn’t want to sleep in the airport and needed a shower. She offered to let me split the room with her, and I gratefully accepted, grabbed a taxi (after fending off the predatory, non-metered crooks), and joined her shortly after she arrived. We both showered (separately, of course), rang in 2017 by splitting a bottle of water supplied in the room, then went out to grab some food and beer. Honestly, as dull as that may sound to you, that was the one of the best New Years celebrations I’ve ever done. We returned to the room and talked for a bit before going to sleep at 2am. I got about two hours of sleep and woke up before the alarm went off. 

Surprisingly, I felt great, having stayed up over 30 hours since beginning my last morning in Chicago. I grabbed a hot wake-me-up shower, dressed quickly, said goodbye to Ming Lee, and caught a taxi back to the terminal. Getting through the ticketing counter was a breeze. Then I completely failed at being an experienced traveler going through security. I did a great job of unpacking my laptop and tablet to be scanned separately, off with the belt and jacket (shoes aren’t a requirement over here), and proceeded not once, not twice, but three times to set off the metal detector. I had forgotten that I had been wearing a money belt, forgot my cell-phone and wallet, and forgot the change jingling around in my front pocket. I thought the Chinese TSA-equivalent lady was going to brain me with her wand. 

I still had about 40 Yuan left to spend, and so I grabbed a nice breakfast in one of the airport cafes, joined at the table by a delightful young woman from Hong Kong, who has been living in NY going to university. Yu, as her name turned out to be, hadn’t said anything to me, but then let on that she spoke English when she had to translate to me the question from the waiter, “tea or coffee?” So we got to talking about what we liked about Hong Kong, where she was headed to visit her friends, and about New York, where she doesn’t like the pizza. Oh, well. I guess nobody’s perfect. 

My seatmates in the exit row of the plane promptly passed out as soon as we began taxiing to the runway. The two idiots on across the aisle pulled out a large container of Baileys Vanilla/cinnamon-flavored Irish Cream and began swigging directly from the bottle. They went completely unconscious in flight, not even noticing the fat Chinese man with the short legs and big fanny-pack climbing over them to get to the aisle. It was almost comical to watch, but God help us if we had had to ditch the plane, because I believe this was the most inept group of adults in the emergency exit row that I have ever seen.  Nobody seems to understand or care about the safety rules of flight, because more than one person actually unbuckled their safety belts and walked down the center of the plane towards the bathrooms while we were still climbing to altitude. I thought that the flight attendant was going to blow a gasket, but she just calmly grabbed the microphone and said something in Chinese, then sat in her jumpseat smiling until the wayward passengers finally made it back to the safety of their seats. 

I’m currently still on the flight, and we are beginning our descent into Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport, where my friend Titima will be waiting to pick me up. Scheduled landing is at 12:30pm on New Year’s Day, fitting for me to begin my new life. I’m beginning to get a little excited. 

8,611 thoughts on “Onward…”