Sunday, July 26, 2009

Stardate 07101445

“It's huge, Dad! It's HUGE!,” Paul told his father by cell phone. Paul and I sat with our noses to the glass at the San Francisco International Airport terminal. We were waiting to board our Air China 747 for our flight to Beijing.

I tried to explain that though we caught our flight at almost three in the afternoon, we would chase the sun at about 600 miles per hour, and the sun would never set for us that day. We would land in Beijing more than 12 hours later and it would still be daylight. In fact, it would only be six in the evening, but on the following day. Not enough that we would never see a night, but we would also lose a day on the calendar as we crossed the International Dateline.

Heady stuff for an eight year old mind to grasp. I still find it hard to figure out almost half a century after my first flight west from San Francisco to Saigon. It works, somehow, but it is confusing.

We landed in Beijing and taxied slowly to the terminal. A disembodied voice advised us to please remain in our seats until the plane had come to a complete stop at the gate, and, “Please wait to be decontaminated.” We wondered what that meant, but because we would be among the last able leave the plane anyway, it caused us no concern.

The plane pulled into its parking spot. The engines wound down to a welcome silence and the front door opened many rows ahead of our seats. Then the Invasion of the Body Snatchers began. A crew of eight or ten men and women dressed in white from head to toe, their faces covered with surgical masks and their eyes covered with plastic goggles, swept around the corner and into the plane. Each person held a small gun in their hand. They would look at each passenger, point the gun at the passenger's forehead, click the trigger and quickly turn away.

I know what it will feel like when alien life finally discovers us on our little planet Earth. This has one of the strangest things I had ever experienced. I watched as the little army made its way down the three aisles of the 747, quickly “shooting” each passenger in the forehead, then turning away to check the result on a small digital readout at the back of the infrared pistol.

They were checking for elevated body temperatures, the first of several screenings for Swine Flu. This was serious business. They spoke to no one, moving back and forth from one side of an aisle to the other, careful not to miss a single passenger.

I took several quick shots with my digital camera because while I was amused at the sight, I still found it just beyond unbelievable. I cautioned Paul under my breath that under no circumstances should he cough or sneeze. This would not be the time to joke about Swine Flu unless we wanted to spend the next seven to ten days locked in a hotel room, courtesy of the Chinese Government.

After the DeCon crew passed us, after the absolute last passenger had been cleared, we were told we could leave our seats. There was the usual struggle of eager beavers ready to climb over seats after twelve hours glued to an increasingly hard piece of plastic covered foam, and the occasional piece of luggage raining down on an unsuspecting victim, and then it was over.

We were out of the plane and into the brand new Beijing International terminal #3, a sweeping building of graceful and Olympic proportions. We pulled our luggage cart along, jumped aboard the first of three long moving sidewalks on the route from Flight 986 parking gate to the baggage claim area. It was almost half a mile before we reached the second infrared screening.

Now the temperature sensors were mounted on poles high above us, like surveillance cameras in a 7-11 store waiting to catch a robber in the act. Another masked Swine Flu bandit waved us on, urging us to hurry along and not to dawdle.

At Immigration we were shepherded into lines of “non-Foreigners” and “International travelers.” Friendly place without a single friendly face, every one hidden by a surgical mask covering the face from below the eyes to below the chin.

Past Immigration we boarded a small electric train to take us from Terminal 3 to the baggage claim area. Every three minutes the train runs in a straight line between Terminal 3 and the Customs area. Passengers enter through wide sliding doors at one end of the rails and leave by equally wide doors on the opposite side after a silent, swift Disney “E” ticket ride.

Then began the wait and the search for our bags among those of almost 400 fellow travelers. No different from any smaller domestic flights, but fraught with greater possibility by a factor of 10 that our bags would somehow disappear during the endless flight across the Pacific.

Paul was calm and collected the entire time. What a great little traveler. His eyes were as big as dinner plates as the DeCon Crew came through, but he said nothing. He found our bags as they shot up and out of the baggage chute onto the revolving stainless steel belt like Willy Wonka and the Great Glass Elevator..

We passed Customs without a second glance from the officials, even though I tried to declare some small items of commercial value. Outside the doors a crowd waited for us, straining against white nylon ropes. Our guide, Lydia, held high a small cardboard sign with my name. She saw the recognition in my face and smiled broadly. We had arrived.

Another hour later we pulled into the driveway of the Marriott Courtyard Beijing. Lydia had not stopped her monologue nor slowed to take a single breath during the entire trip as she described this attraction over here or that one over there. She was like an Encyclopedia Britannica salesman at the door, trying to sell us tours if not books of Beijing.

We were ready for a nap. Our long day's journey into night over, we looked forward to checking in, taking a quick swim in the hotel pool and falling asleep between cool sheets in the Beijing heat.

Not to be. The efficient reservation clerk assured us that there was no room for us, and no room at the inn. Every room was taken and most assuredly there was no room waiting for Mr. Anthony from San Diego, California, USA. “What do you mean there's no room! I not only reserved the room nearly five months before, but I had paid for it in full!''

I was ready for battle as the night manager came out of his office far across the lobby. “When did you make this reservation? Who made it for you? We have no rooms,. There is nothing we can do for you.”

Nothing encouraging about that. He agreed to call “Travelbound,” the company responsible for making the reservation. But it was Saturday night in Beijing and I thought he didn't have a chance, Chinaman or not, of finding anyone in the office.

To my surprise he was able to contact someone from Travelbound. Then, for the next 45 minutes he argued with whoever was on the other end of the line, fast and furious, always in Chinese, and never once looking at me. I was a non-person trying to slide under the trip wire and invade his space. He was as efficient and cold as the DeCon Crew.

Then something broke. He seemed embarrassed as he said that he would try to find us something, not to worry. All rooms were taken, but perhaps he could find something. I thought, “Why not put us in the Penthouse?”

It was better than that. He led us to Room 815, where a maintenance worker slid past as we dragged our luggage to the door. No problem; the drain in the sink was disconnected. The shower didn't work. The phone had no dial tone. And the electronic key would not unlock the door.

Minutes were ticking into hours as I imagined myself under a hot shower getting ready for sleep. The manager offered to escort Paul to the swimming pool for a quick swim before the pool closed at 10 pm, and to bring him back. I agreed. Paul went off happily for his reward for waiting patiently through what seemed to be a Beijing version of Waiting for Godot. I stayed in the room because all my cameras and equipment were too valuable to leave unwatched, and if I left, the electronic key would not work and we would not be able to get back into the room.

Paul was delivered back to me safe and sound. He beamed as he described the pool and the great hot shower. I steamed at the thought of the “C” note I was paying for our room. The manager was abject with his apologies promising us a better room our next night. I wondered, but finally our day was over and we could sleep. Day was done, gone the sun, and we would rest.

Day Two- Interviewing Chen Changfen

Stardate 071209.0441

Night passed far too quickly, yet it was never ending. In our less than glorious surroundings we fell into a deep sleep, hoping to revive soon enough for me to make final preparations for my interview of Chen Changfen. With no familiar visual clues other than a brightening sky to tell us the time, and as yet unsure of the correct number of hours to convert California time to local time, we guessed that when we woke it was time to get up.

It was, in one sense. We were awake, and with adrenalin already pumping over what needed to be done there was no going back to sleep. Almost two days' beard scratched at my throat. As one used to shaving twice a day I felt like a hairy wolf ready to gnaw on on the leg of unsuspecting game.

The sink trap had been disconnected. We had been given a small waste basket with instructions on how to position it under the sink before running water. I pushed it into place, ran a few ounces and watched as my modern day catch basin began to fill.

Shaving always feels good. It feels even better when you know you are mowing down a crop of whiskers as big as a field of winter wheat. It took less than two minutes to finish the job, then to admire my handiwork with a quick run of my fingers along a now smooth-skinned throat. I was good to go for another day.

Paul roused slowly. Used to at least 10 hours of what he calls ''Good Sleep,'' he couldn't figure out whether he should get up or dive back under the covers. We sat on the ledge of the window overlooking the street and looked down into the darkness of a 24 hour short order restaurant across the street. A sign in Chinese characters told us little, except a small sunburst on one side, the numbers ''24'' in the middle and a half moon, its crescent split by a star, told us it was open day and night.

This would be a test. Because of the confusion surrounding our arrival we had not had any dinner. In exchange for our less than palatial surroundings we would receive a free breakfast, American style. We were hungry.

The restaurant is on the second floor. To be expected as visitors to another country, few locals speak English, and fewer still feel comfortable in its twists and turns. At the top of the escalator a sign pointed to the Pakistani group breakfast or the Indian group breakfast. I asked the young man at the reception desk where we should sit down. He rustled through his stack of papers and pointed to any table in the completely empty dining room.

We sat down, expecting an eager waiter to rush to the sides of his first customers. Like Mexico, everyone has a job. Across the room a sous chef cracked eggs into a small skillet for scrambled eggs. Toast lent its browning flavors. We would eat soon.

Not quite. ''What is your room number,'' a second young man asked. ''815,'' I told him, expecting a menu in return. No, we were in the wrong dining room. Ours was down the hall to the left, I slipped my backpack over my shoulders, grabbed the handle of our storeboughten luggage carrier and started down the hall.

It smelled good, really good. We walked past a buffet of trays of hot food covered with stainless steel on one side, plates of fresh fruit on the other. Rounding the corner we found breakfast rolls, toast and fresh bread beside brewing pots of hot coffee.

This room, not yet filled, had customers from England, India, Pakistan and Japan for starters. A table of obvious Americans sat next to us. Paul wanted to know how I knew where they came from so we talked about each group's style of dress, their hair, their accents, and even their way of walking.

The Pakistani women, for example, wore elaborate head gear, covered with scarves of various colors. Their walk was a peculiar swaying motion, not the rapid footsteps of an American teenager.

The table of Americans seemed to me to be from either of the coasts. To impress Paul I asked one the men where they came from, suggesting that we suspected they were from SoCal. Wrong. They were from Georgia. From the coast, yes, but not the west coast. Two of their women were from neither coast, but from Colorado instead. So much for my Sherlock Holmes deductions.

Paul ate heartily. Two boiled eggs, toast, watermelon and orange juice would keep him from starving. I laid out my rules for eating. No rules except that he not go hungry. Eat whatever you want, but don't complain that there is not enough food of the ''right'' kind. It didn't seem to be a problem.

Our meal finished, we wandered into the street to explore our new territory before our ride arrived at 9 o'clock. We walked past stores still closed, trying to find one that would sell batteries for a red laser pointer. I had brought it along for a presentation on July 15. Paul, fascinated by its razor sharp beam, quickly adopted it as ''my laser,'' pointing it here, then there before its ruby colored beam faded with the dying batteries.