My journey had it’s optimistic origins in effortless smiles and Asian efficiency in Vancouver this gloomy March morning. God am I glad to be heading for the sun.
The real journey begins as I encounter the strangeness that is China, 11 hours later. Evidently, they are unwilling to let our plane go from their authoritarian grip. After a four-hour bleary-eyed stopover, the powers that be declare that something is amiss with Beijing airport traffic control and we may be induced to consume yet more Chinese Starbucks to wait out the boredom. I had been fortunate to find a charging station to refresh my various electronics – my only source of distraction other than the pure entertainment of slaughtered ChinEnglish being relayed over the PA. I always think Public Address systems should be re-named Public Redress – full of apologies for leading hapless travellers astray with incomprehensible instructions that neither Chinese or English speakers are likely to ever fathom.
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My hopes leapt when I spied a bleak looking console that offered instructions for free airport wifi in exchange for my passport. I reluctantly fed it into some dubious scanning port imagining it might be consumed by the machine and I would become another statistic: stateless and marooned at Beijing airport for the rest of my days. After half a dozen attempts a brief message flashed up that I now was in possession of an official Free Wifi ID, which could somehow be used on my phone to detect Chinese signals. Despite the hopeful WiFi symbol appearing on my phone, it was accompanied by unreadable Chinese characters: doubtless informing me they now had captured my first-born and would be monitoring all my communications into perpetuity. It’s an odd feeling to know that Big Brother really is watching you-even though there is the illusion of freedom with the peppering of various icons of American freedom such as KFC, Pizza Hut and Starbucks throughout the airport. The Peoples Republic seems ever present- although it’s less about the people and more about what the republic forbids one to do. For example, some arcane law forbids the wearing of hats in the airport. Luckily my lawless head-cover is stuffed deep in my checked-in luggage, which if all goes well, will soon be wending it’s way to India – theoretically to coincide with my arrival. Altho those bastions of the free market gave me scant assurance, they did offer up a predictable latte, safe and sound in it’s bland similarity to the product sold everywhere across the so-called free world. It’s the one time that I don’t try to seek out some quaint Oriental equivalent – such is the power of reassuring symbols of the universality of consumer culture.
Up to now Chinese Airlines has been all smiles and efficiently and I relinquish my suspicion that my ridiculously cheap airfare would relegate me to be standing semi-vertically packed like so many sardines in our airborne tin can. As it turns out when I initially boarded the plane in Vancouver my dear friend Masha had sprung for a Emergency Exit seat. Everything costs in these deregulated uber-competitive times; but the vast expanse of legroom – and nobody occupying the adjacent seats – was well worth the $115 upgrade. However my luxury was only to last for the first, and longest, 11 hour leg.
Re-Boarding in Beijing, as I was herded into cattle class along with my economy peers, I got to experience first-hand what densification truly means in the brave new world of air travel. The lottery of online purchase landed me bang in the middle of the middle seats, and I was literally moulded to my space – not an iota of body movement possible without stealing precious real estate from my neighbours. They had staked out every square inch anyway. The glamorous days of enjoyable air-travel have long ago been relegated to the dungeons of bodily contortions and replaced by oppressive regulations that treat everyone as potential bombers. Gone are the glory days when I could walk onto Freddie Laker’s Airbus at Heathrow unmolested and buy a ticket as though I was boarding the # 210 for Wapping Central. Many hours of being marooned on the runway made it abidingly obvious that this ordeal had just begun. Flight CA947 non-stop from Beijing to Delhi had just had it’s first stop – and we hadnt even left yet.
Luckily I had made suitably sensible provisions for such an occurrence of low level hell, and brought a veritable pharmacopeia supplied by my willing psychiatrist whom I had assured I had to be rendered insensible to endure – survive even -7 hours of being on an airborne animal farm. First I sucked back an old favourite that has usually served me well in such situations: a powerful sleeping pill that generally should knock out a horse. An hour later the screaming children behind me were no match, so I downed a couple of benzo’s for good measure. Time was that I would accompany this cocktail with a healthy dose of Jamiesons’ finest- but sobriety and old age forbid such a glorious concoction. However even this veritable pharmaceutical assault on my awakefullness just didn’t seem to dull the messages being sent to the body and brain that all was not well with my situation. So I ultimately capitulated and tuned into a particularly incomprehensible Chinese inflight movie whose inscrutable plot soon achieved what massive doses of drugs had failed me: I finally zoned out.
I awoke to pork and drool. Not necessarily in that order. The kindly hostess person was valiantly preventing me from messily slumping into my neighbours lap while simultaneously offering me one of those early morning congealed pig-product near-foods that Chinese Airlines seem to believe is necessary to fully awaken and assault the olfactory senses. Without much wits about me, i accepted her culinary offering. Having removed half a cabins worth of plastic wrapping in which it was unnecessarily entombed, I was at a loss to see what was actually the edible portion: wrapping and some greasy agglomeration was inseparable from something that might have been food that kind of oozed menacingly through the whole mess. I consigned the whole works to beneath my feet, being the only square foot left not filled with me and other travel paraphernalia. Ironically I witnessed the cabin crew jumping on top of the waste container, so full it was of similar unwanted detritus. My inner environmentalist blanched at the mountains of this stuff dumped daily into various landfills – or more likely rivers and oceans in Asia. They now contribute over 60% of ocean- bound plastic waste. But heck – I was headed for Delhi whose airport proudly boast “Zero Water Waste”…whatever the hell that means. Probably just a euphemism for no monsoons this year: No Water=No Waste.
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