Thursday, June 2, 2016

There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home

2016 May 31

     While I felt slightly more relaxed than I have in days, I am still not completely at ease. Robert has brought us this far, but he informs me his plane home is at 5:30am. This means he will not be escorting us to the airport, walking us through the check in, and patting us on the butt as we head to the USA. He has arranged with the front desk for the shuttle to ready at 9am. Everyone has a breakfast coupon for the hotel buffet.  Theoretically, I got this. I have traveled with teams many times, but the whole foreign language thing is troublesome. All my hours of listening to Learn Chinese While You Drive, has made me very good at counting and initial greetings. I can hear the pattern of speech, but it carries no meaning. I am disappointed with myself and determined to find an actual class I can audit and at least improve to being conversational.

     The Black Market was a hit. The guys who went had a good time and were impressed with the selection and prices. Turns out the market closed at 9, not 6. When they finally got back to the hotel around 10, I was glad they didn’t have a tale of missed trains, wayward taxis, or other shenanigans. They were so excited about it they tried to recruit me to go in the morning before the shuttle. I was completely against the idea of adding any anxiety, so I declined. Calvin also declined as I watched the guys go the lobby for their last night of camaraderie. I went to bed.

     Was that a knock? I opened my eyes, the room was lit from the outside and I reached for my glasses, then my phone. 5:23am. Was it a knock? Reluctantly, I got out of bed and looked through the peep hole. I saw a tall figure lurking in the hall. Damn, it was a knock. I open the door and there is Kyle, smiling. Apparently, Cal had been convinced to go shopping. We wake him up, and off they go. I am not sure how many players go, but I know I am no longer sweating the details. If they make the shuttle, if they make the plane, it is on them. Grown men, making decisions. Learning.

     I shower and dress, trying to decide what I can wear to look nice for Joan when I get home after a month away, but also be comfortable for what will be a long day. If you remember, I pretty much lost May 9th. Today, I will have an extended stay in May 31st. With all the decisions made, I go down to the lobby for breakfast. The last real meal I ate was breakfast the day before. On the plane from Tianjin to Shanghai, we were given a snack and an entree, but neither could be described as a meal. It simply filled a void and kept the tummy grumbles away. “Dinner” was a larger than average bottle of beer with a packet of salted peanuts sitting on the hotel veranda with Cal and Marshall talking about our ABC and immediate plans when we got home.

     I was fresh and fluffy when I walked into the buffet. I grabbed a large plate with intentions of making a pile to get me through the long flight ahead. I cruised slowly around the buffet. Reading the translations is hysterical; items like “beked” beans and “breakfast intestines” called out. But, I was not answering. After completing a full lap, I put the plate back into the pile and looked for the coffee. Another disappointment. All that was left for me was to wait for the shuttle and worry about the players I told myself I wasn’t going to worry about. Tick. Tick. Tick.

     I walk the hotel hallway knocking on the players doors at 8:30. I don’t know if anyone is in there, but I want them to have at least 30 minutes of lead time to be downstairs. I get a few groggy responses. The funniest was Marshall. His door was propped open by the deadbolt, and his grunt led me to believe that he was dead asleep. I walk in and he is face-planted on the bed. I identify myself and tell him his timeline. He is looking right at me and I am not sure he sees me. I head back down to the lobby and still don’t see anyone. Then, Aly walks into the buffet and reemerges quickly. Then, Darren enters the buffet and reemerges quickly. Clearly, my impression of the culinary offerings was not unique. Aly sits with me, Darren heads upstairs. At 8:55, I am ready, really ready. I see the little shuttle arrive and think it is time to go. I stand and move to the revolving door, and who do I see? A bunch of players. Thank you Jesus. The driver of the little shuttle switches into a full size bus and soon all 9 players are there with luggage and smiling faces.

     The bus starts to leave and I figure this is the last time I will have all these guys trapped in the same place. I stand at my seat and thank them for a great month. I thank them for making the trip a wonderful experience for me, and I hope they too had gained from it. I told them if I could do anything for them I would and that I look forward to hearing from them in the coming months about how their ABC came true. They were receptive to the message and thank me back, but when I looked at Tyler he looked very concerned. I looked out the window. In an effort to make good time, the driver was speeding down the road. Particularly, on the wrong side of the road. The bus was zooming toward opposing traffic looking for a spot to dive back onto the correct side of the yellow line. I was so caught up in my farewell comments I had not noticed our lives were in peril, again. (I am writing this update so clearly things worked out.)

     We arrive at Shanghai-Pudong. Things move quickly for the most part. With Robert, we go to the ticketing agent, give them all the passports and check in as a group. I try the same stunt and I am told we need to get into the line and check in separately. When we snake through the line, the agent motions for us to come up as a group. Thanks. We are checked in, through customs and security and sitting at the gate by 9:35. With a cup of Starbucks coffee in hand, I begin the journey home.
The ticketing agent took that team concept to heart. We are booked into two rows. Imagine the humanity sitting side by side in four seats across. I am mercifully across the aisle, on the aisle. My preference is the window, so I don’t have to get up. Ever. I will gladly stay in that seat all 12 hours, I just don’t want to get up for someone else. I am sitting with a couple, I offer my seat for the window. They are Chinese and maybe they don’t do the whole English thing, but I waved my arms and spoke slowly. I felt like I conveyed my idea. Worse than getting up, they got up three times. Two of those times they actually woke me up to get out. My intention was to turn around my time zones on this flight. Sleep at least 8 hours, arrive in LA and stay awake to Philadelphia, via Houston. My flight would arrive at midnight in Philly and it would be time for bed. Perfect.

     Mr. and Mrs. Tinybladder killed me. TV monitors, reading lights. Chit chatting. Wake up calls. It was what I thought to be the worst. Silly me. I had been involved with May 31 for about 19 hours now and it was just 11:30am. Back through Customs and security and onto my flight from LA to Houston. I was right about my timing for the goodbye speech. When we got to LAX everyone had separate connections to their points of interest. As we walked away from the baggage claim, there was hugging and dabbing and thanks and promises to keep in touch. The group had been through so much, the bond was strong. Every gate we passed, someone dropped out of the group until it was just Kyle and I going to Houston. Both had connections to the East Coast, me to Philly and Kyle to Charlotte.

     The plane was full and we were anxious to go. The thing was the weather. Not in LA, it is always nice in LA. Houston was experiencing something. The pilot had been advised to fly around it, and doing so would add an hour to the trip. That hour meant we didn’t have enough fuel. Loading the extra fuel took at least 30 minutes. My easy to make connection was now caput. We were told we would arrive at 7:45, the same time the flight was leaving for Philly. Well-seasoned travelers were already on the phone making arrangements to redirect and reconnect. I was not.

     Mr. and Mrs. Tinybladder we nothing compared to my ride to Houston. The late arriving seat partner ate smelly food, coughed and sneezed without covering his mouth, cursed without actually speaking to anyone, and kept overextending his elbows and feet into the 16 inch seating area I was assigned. I could feel the disease attaching itself to my skin and heard it giggling as entered my system. Add to that a baby that cried for 4 hours and parents who appeared to have no plan to soothe: no bottle, no pacifier, no nothing. Cruel.

     When we landed, the pilot asks politely that passengers who are at the end of their line please remain seated and allow passengers with connections to hustle out first. Just one problem. There was no jetway available. Image how I was feeling when the pilot announced we had taken the airport by surprise with our delayed arrival and they could not find a jetway driver. The polite order of operations was abandoned the moment the door opened. It was 8 before I got inside the airport itself. I went immediately to United Customer Service. The line was maybe 20 people long, but only two agents were working. The line quickly snaked backward down the long hallway. At least 100 people. Probably more. Two agents. It took about two hours to get to the front of the line. The line looked like it would take until sunrise to eliminate, but four other agents arrived when I was third in line.

No flights tonight. No hotel allowance because it wasn’t mechanical problems, United does not compensate for weather. Most of the customers are simply getting flights to other cities to wait there to get flights to their destination. I told the lady I was not going to Chicago to wait 6 hours to fly to Philly. I sweet talked her into a meal coupon ($10), an exit row seat on the second direct flight in the morning, and a standby for the first. She was pleasant enough in an unpleasant situation. Her last advice was to go to another terminal to eat. I trudged over there on the monorail and walked a long way to the eating area only to find it all closed except a coffee and snack stand. Back I go. I decide to just find a quiet bench and call it a night. It was 11:30pm. May 31st was a very long day.

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