The Rental Sister by Jeff Backhaus
Osaka’s skyline rests across the bay from where I currently sit, laid out on a lounge chair in KIX, an international airport with the feel of small, regional airport. Out the window, on the left side of the panoramic view, runs a long bridge, connecting the airport to the city, looking as though it will collide with a huge building that towers over all everything else on the horizon. As I scan to the right, my eye is caught by a large Ferris wheel that sits right on the water, making me think this city might have more personality than first meets the eye through the haze. (Fog? Smog? I’m not sure what is causing the gray out there today, but gloom is definitely the overriding feel.)
I’ve been in this airport since 7AM, which means I’ve roamed its compact hall for six hours now, with at least three more to go. While the sign may say international airport and the planes come and go from international destinations, the concourse speaks a different tale. There are two cafes in the terminal, both small and both serving very little other than coffee and tea. Luckily, I had packed Pop Tarts in my backpack to tide me over, knowing I wouldn’t want much from my plane meals (and not having my favorite travel companion to swap out my entrée for his roll and brownie), so those became breakfast at KIX. Hours later when lunchtime rolled around, I revisited my two café options, finding the afternoon choices limited to hotdog-like meat wrapped in bread or shrimp ramen. Neither of these options was going to hit the spot, so I stepped into the one convenience-type store in the concourse. Stepped in is a bit of a stretch, as the shop was small enough that as my body was inside, my backpack remained outside. Not a lot of room to browse or turn. I quickly grabbed a few things I could recognize, (Pringles, a Coke and a weird little waffle thing), opting not to try the freeze dried tentacles, even though they were quite easily recognizable!
Between these two meals, both of which would make any nutritionist cringe, I did discover a hidden row of lounge chairs, making the perfect place to take a nap. Not far off the beaten path, these plush chairs had little cubbies around the top half, giving the sitter the feel of being in his/her own little pod. I knew I had found my home for a few hours! Pulling my ever-handy travel blanket and pillow out of my backpack, I kicked off my shoes, stashing them under the chair and tucked my bag in the space between the chair and the surrounding cubby and curled up for a mid-morning siesta. When I laid my head down, the closest gate was still occupied by the Malaysian Airlines plane I had come in on. When I finally pried my eyes open two hours later, those red and blue markings had been replaced by the green and red of Eva Airlines. Time passed. Planes moved. I slept.
Now, well-rested and kind of fed, I should be working on my thematic paper for my one of my literature classes. The ideas are all there, bouncing around my head: Tom Bissell, Uzbekistan, Peace Corps, the Aral Sea, the inner journey of a travel writer–bounce, rattle, rumble. The problem is, those ideas are competing for my attention with the planes that keep rolling up and down the runway, the boats trailing through the harbor (Is that a harbor? The ocean? A river? I have no idea what the body of water that lies between the Osaka airport and the city is.) and the strangely hilarious FaceTime conversation of the pre-teen in the next lounge cubby over. (Things I know about my cubby neighbor: She has an American accent. She is on my flight to SFO in a few hours. She is eating a sucker, loudly. I am pretty sure she memorized some list of current slang, using all of it much more liberally than any self-respecting tween should. Occasionally you have to use a full word in a sentence, even if you are talking to your bae and are totes excited to see her.)
If only the cubby around my head provided focus in the same way it shielded me during my earlier siesta…
Head to any children’s section of a bookstore and you will find a whole series of books about what happens when you give fictional animals their sincerest desires. If you give a pig a pancake, there is a whole series of events that unfold because of that one generous gesture. Pig loves his pancake, but needs syrup and then gets messy and eventually needs a bath, with bubbles, of course. As the story goes along, a thread connects everything back to the initial request of pancakes. Ever wonder what would happen if that thread were suddenly cut and the Rube Goldberg machine that is Pig’s life wasn’t able to continue?
While I am not normally a superstitious person, I do have a newfound respect for a travel ritual that I seem to have taken for granted- early morning pancakes. Little did I know, just like Pig, those pancakes are the start to a series of events, which in my case lead to auspicious air travel. You see, as I was getting ready to depart Idaho this last weekend, I made the horrible mistake of eating Lucky Charms (the real thing- not even generic Marshmallow Maties!) at my parents’ house before heading out to the airport. With my belly full of fun-shaped bits of sugar and cat-food-like wheat crunchies, I had no desire to drop by the BOI McDonald’s for some flapjacks. Poor choice! I’ve stopped at that McDonald’s before every early morning flight for years, but the gods of the sky didn’t like being bypassed this time.
All went well for the first leg of my trip, lulling me into a false sense of security. My plane from Boise made the flight to San Francisco with nary a bump. On the ground at SFO, I faced the nerve-wracking to-upgrade-or-not-to-upgrade (see here for that story!), but otherwise had what I thought was an uneventful layover.
But I was wrong. It was in SFO that my problems began.
You see, after skipping the McDonald’s pancakes in Boise, I decided that I really did need to indulge in my preflight ritual, one that I can’t pander to in China since Chinese McDonald’s don’t serve pancakes. (What is that about?! They have hamburgers with mashed potatoes on them and serve cups of corn as an alternative to fries, but they can’t whip out some carb goodness first thing in the morning?) I didn’t see Ronald on the international terminal map anywhere, but the King was present, so about ten minutes before ten, I got in line to have it my way. The line was long. Too long. As I chatted with the woman in front of me, I tried to mask the horrified look on my face as I watched the worker slide the lunch menu overtop of the breakfast one, signaling the official end to breakfast at Burger King. I was just one spot away from ordering! Hoping the clerk would have pity on my poor self, I stayed in line and when it was my turn to order, tried to sneak in a breakfast platter, but was rejected faster than a Ginobili-shot in game seven of the NBA championships. Not wanting anything lunch-y at ten in the morning, I despondently wandered away from the counter, mumbling about how having it my way means pancakes at 10:02AM.
A giant M&M cookie later, I sat on the floor of SFO, blogging about my epic window-seat decision, not really thinking about the long-term repercussions of my flapjack-less travel. Things didn’t start to go bad until after I boarded the flight, when we inexplicably sat on the tarmac for an hour. (Maybe they got the message about needing to stock toilet paper on the ten-hour flight, unlike the United flight from London the day before, where cocktail napkins became TP out of necessity.) Knowing I had a mere hour layover in Narita, my mental wheels starting turning as I leaned against the wall next to my economy class window seat. I may not be a math-person (words are SO much cooler than numbers!) but it didn’t take a lot of calculation to know that an hour layover minus an hour delay meant I would probably not be seeing my bed Sunday night.
Oh, how right I was!
Even with a United representative waiting at the gate for me and the four other passengers connecting to Chengdu, we didn’t get through security in time to make the China flight.
But alas, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Much like when the adorable Corduroy was stuck in the department store overnight, my evening became an adventure of its own. (I’m full of picture book references today! Usually my age-genre for literary allusions leans a bit more middle school. If I could find an online degree program that focused on YA literature, I’d be signed up and taking classes in a heartbeat!) After getting a hotel room voucher from United, through a series of trial and error (translation: pointing and gesturing) I found my way to the shuttle that would deliver me to my evening abode.
With nearly a negative amount of Japanese and no experience in the culture, I stumbled my way through checking into my hotel room, which turned out to be the perfect fit for a travel-weary, connection-missing solo flyer. (The math on the negative Japanese works out like this- all of my long-term Asia experience is in China which is, in many ways, polar opposite of Japan. That makes my starting point below neutral.) Since my luggage was stuck at the airport overnight, I was delighted to see that my tiny (not capsule-room tiny, but petite nonetheless) was equipped with an array of soap, shampoo and conditioner, as well as a toothbrush and toothpaste. Plus, it came with jammies! That’s right. I had anticipated a night of sleeping in my jeans and tank top, but was thrilled to find a men’s dress-shirt style button-down night shirt folded up on the double bed. It was like something out of a storybook! . (Maybe this is what precipitated today’s picture book heavy post.) Add on to that amazingly high-speed internet that was perfect for a Skype call home and vouchers for the Japanese buffet on the first floor and my unexpected layover turned out to be a tiny travel adventure in and of itself.
I am going to market a new book in the If You Give A _______ A ________ series called If You Don’t Give Michelle a Pancake. It will be non-fiction and tell the tale of a weary traveler who disregarded her own travel rituals and ended up stuck in Narita overnight because she didn’t stop for some imitation maple syrup covered pancakes grilled up by cranky teenagers working at the world’s most ubiquitous fast food chain. But, it will also include her grand (if short) adventures in a new land.
Lessons will be taught.
Lessons were learned.
Sometimes in life we are all forced to make some big choices, knowing that the path we choose will dictate our futures, for better or for worse. At nineteen, I decided to get married, which may not seem to be the most prudent decision, but one that fifteen years later I can attest worked out just fine. Or a couple of years after that we decided to sell our home and cars and give away our adorable pot-bellied pig for a two-year stint at Peace Corps Volunteers in western China. Then there was that little choice a few years ago to walk away from my teaching career to become the terribly monikered “trailing spouse” of a US Foreign Service Officer. None of these choices was made lightly or without a good deal of research, but we don’t always have the luxury of time to think through the big ones; sometimes they are thrown at us and we are given mere moments to determine our future.
This is exactly what happened to me today. My back, bum and possibly sanity depended on a single spur of the moment decision. Standing at the United counter at SFO I had to make an on-the-spot determination that would have long-lasting (at least ten hours!) consequences: window seat in economy class or upgrade (for $140) to a middle seat in “economy plus.” Oh the pressure! There’s no time for pro/con charts, no time for color-coding and organizing information about each option, no time to assess the possible consequences of each choice on an individual basis.
Standing 5’10”, those extra six inches of legroom are tempting. But, with an extra suitcase returning with me from America, (filled with nacho cheese, hot sauce, a couple pairs of shoes and a book or two) spending more money wasn’t wasn’t inviting at all.
What’s a girl to do?
Quickly, I mentally rushed through my options as the gate attendant looked at me expectantly. Window to lean my head on for ten hours but with my knees crushed against the seat in front of me that will be unceremoniously kicked back at the first opportunity or half a foot of extra space, but stuck in an uncomfortable middle-man situation that may or may not result in actual access to the arm rests? (My personal rule is that the middle-man always gets the “shared” armrest as a tiny consolation prize for taking one for the team. Sadly, not everyone recognizes this simple karmatic alignment of air travel.)
“Ma’am, which seat would you like?”
Window! I’ll go window!
As I now sit on the floor of SFO charging my laptop before the trans-Pacific flight to Narita, I am left to question my decision. Will my back and bum make me regret not having extra space to curl my legs up in front of me mid-flight? Will I actually be able to sleep for an hour or two, propped against the wall of the plane? These are the consequences that can only be determined with time, when I unfold myself from that crammed economy seat ten hours hence.
She may not have proposed marriage or posited the possibility of moving to the other side of the world, but the United gate attendant did force a major decision with no time to really consider the good and bad of each possible option. Okay, I’ll admit that in the big scheme of things this doesn’t even qualify as a minor decision, but with nothing else to occupy my mind during my four-hour layover, I’ve had a lot of time to ponder the possible repercussions of the choice.
Window it is. Now, only time will tell…
Celebrating Christmas as Peace Corps Volunteers was definitely a DIY project that included the back-breaking work of carrying a requisitioned (borrowed, loaned without permission, temporarily freed…take your pick of verbs), potted tree up six flights of stairs to our apartment for one member of the family and the not-so-painful, but equally important work of creating ornaments for said tree. A towel filled in for the missing tree skirt and the part of the star on top was played by a pictured printed off the internet and colored in with yellow highlighter by yours truly. In reality, hauling that tree around campus in the middle of the night may not have been worth the back spasms that it created, but it did give our little Gansu apartment a bit of holiday spirit.
Now that we are big-city China dwellers, Christmas abounds, some good and some cheesy, but it is everywhere. The newest mall in town is decked out with pandas wearing Santa hats driving a two-reindeer sleigh and constantly recycling Christmas tunes over their sound system. On the other end of the spectrum, smaller stores are filled with gaudily glittered signs reading “Happy Christmas” and, at times, featuring Santa with a beer in hand. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the random, five-foot tall red and white elf hat that is inexplicably sitting in front of a light bulb store just outside our subway entrance. I don’t know where it came from or for what purpose it is intended, but it currently ranks high on my list of random Chengdu sightings. (The list has heavy turnover, as daily things are jumping up to take the top spot on the roster.)
As part of his job with the State Department, Thad was sent to Chongqing this weekend to represent the US Consulate at an event hosted by the Japanese Consulate to commemorate the emperor’s birthday. I tagged along with him so we’d have a greater presence at the party, and because it sounded great to get out of town for an evening. The event itself was pretty un-noteworthy. It was only an hour and a half long, consisted of a few speeches in Chinese (mine is terrible) and Japanese (mine is non-existent) that I easily tuned out while I checked out the outfits of my fellow attendees, buffets of seafood and sushi (I’ll pass) and a lot of mingling and business card exchanging. I stood out like a sore thumb at this event, filled with Japanese diplomats and Chinese officials. I was like the one black sheep in a herd of white ones, except I was the one blonde head in a crowd of black ones. The highlight of the event (party is a bit grandiose for the evening) was that we got to meet and chat with the CG of the Japanese Consulate. (Thad may point to the sushi as being right up there for evening occurrences as well.)
But, while the official reason for going to Chongqing was a little underwhelming, the trip was still a great, if short, one. (We missed almost exactly twenty-four hours of Chengdu’s terrible air.)
We stayed at the Marriott in Chongqing, which had fully decked its halls in holiday festivity. When we walked into the lobby, we were greeted with what may be one of the best Christmas trees I have ever seen and by far the most marvelous one in China. The tree was huge and fully decorated in silver and pink. It was a tree straight out of my dreams! Their grand staircases were lined with garland, also accented in the same shades of silver and pink. (Just a disclaimer, I’m not talking Barbie pink here, but rather a very pretty jewel-toned raspberry color that was amazing.)
On top of a tree to make any Grinch smile, the hotel provided me with a first- room service! I’ve never ordered food to be delivered to my room by the hotel before (takeout from a nearby restaurant doesn’t count!), but after the Japanese event, I didn’t feel like changing back into street clothes and venturing out into the chilly and humid Chongqing night in search of food, so out came the menu and its dizzying array of choices (and prices!). I settled on pizza (a true Chinese classic, no?) and then went and enjoyed a steaming hot bath made silky with bath salts (thank you Marriott!) while I awaited the arrival of our late-night dinner. Pizza while snuggled up in king-sized bed with an American-ly soft mattress? It might not get any better than that on a cold December night in China.
It may have been a quick round-trip to Chongqing and back, but I between a bit of market shopping on our arrival and what I’m officially dubbing China’s best holiday display, I’m more than glad we went. With just a little under three weeks until the big day, I can’t wait for Christmas to be here!