Friday, January 6, 2006

Kuya's Philippine Journals: There and Back Again

Before any great adventure can start, one must first get there and so I would like to start my Kuya’s Philippine Journals series with the story of the trip there. Because we don’t have the luxury of taking a couple months off for a roundtrip boat ride and it is impossible to get there by any other means, we are left with flying. Now flying and I have never really agreed with each other. For one, I have never enjoyed being stuffed into a tin can with hundreds of other people for long hours on end and with no escape. For another, I inherited the ability to get motion sickness from my mother and though I never get as sick as her, I can and do get a little green behind the gills on long haul airplane flights, especially with turbulence. Fortunately, modern medicine has come up with Dramamine. Before our trip while stocking up on some medicines to take along for “just in case,” I found the Dramamine selection at the local store and saw that I had the choice between regular and non-drowsy. Seeing I had thirty hours of airplanes and terminals ahead, I quickly bought the regular stuff. Non-drowsy is for amateurs.

Our first leg of the trip was just a short hop from the local Iowa airport to the large airline hub in Minneapolis aboard a small thirty-seater turboprop. There were only two seats on our side of the aisle and my wife and I occupied both of them so no problem. On the second leg from Minneapolis to Japan, I was anxious as to who was going to be sitting on the other side of me in the four center seats where we were located on the 747-400. I always seem to have bad luck when it comes to drawing seat neighbors on long haul flights and this one would be no exception.

I spotted him as soon as he passed through the intermediate bulkhead and started heading for his seat… right beside me. He was a sweaty looking redneck with a baseball cap at a jaunty angle and I knew by the way he acted that we were not going to be friends. He stowed his bag in the overhead and sat down with a meaty plop into the seat next to me and immediately started elbowing my side and arms as he jockeyed for position on the shared arm rest and issued a loud, “Gawd damn, we are going to have to figure something out.” In fact, almost every sentence he said over the next fourteen hours would start with a “Gawd damn” and more often than not end with a drawn out “shit.” Nothing suited him. When I ordered a Sierra Mist when drinks were served and received an entire can while he ordered a diet Coke and received just one of those little plastic glasses full, mostly with ice, he turned to me and said, “Gawd damn, how did you get a whole can. Flag down the attendant when she comes back on your side and ask for another can of it. The one on this side is trying to dehydrate me… shit.” I ignored him. But he just never seemed to get the hint. When dinner is was served it was, “Gawd damn, I’m going to be eating rice for the next 16 days, I sure don’t want to eat it now… shit.” On it went the entire flight. Nothing but negatives.

It was extremely windy when we arrived some thirty thousand feet up from Narita, Japan and it took awhile for the plane to gradually lower itself down to the tarmac shaking all the occupants around like a paint mixer. We taxied around and waited for a gate to open which never did and eventually they decided to unload us right there on the tarmac and bus us into the terminal which displeased the redneck to no end. “Gawd damn, I only have a half hour to catch my flight to Shanghai and if I don’t make that flight, there is going to be communication problems… shit.” I suddenly was hoping for more delays. When the plane finally stopped, the man grabbed his bag and tried forcing his way up the aisle but only got a few rows up before being blocked by a glut of other passengers trying to stand in the aisle and also get their bags. When it came our turn to make our way out of the plane, down the stairs while hanging off for dear life in the hurricane force winds, and make our way to the waiting bus, I was happy to see the man, looking very frustrated, wedged into a seat in the middle of the bus. The bus wound slowly around the terminal and finally stopped and the man tried to get out but was in the middle and my wife and I ended being the first off the bus since we were the last on. I couldn’t resist making a comment like “So we meet again,” which didn’t improve his move and he just abbreviated his comment to another drawn out, “shit.” As we made our way to the security checkpoint, the man hurriedly brushed by us in his haste to get to the security only to get in a line slower than ours. As we exited the checkpoint making our way to our next gate, I saw him one last time still putting on his belt and shoes with a very hurried look.

Nothing sucks worse than having to rush through a strange airport, going through lots of security checkpoints when your flights are late and you are crunched for time. Coming back home, our flight out of Manila was delayed for three hours for maintenance issues while every fifteen minutes the captain would come on the intercom and say that they only needed fifteen minutes more before they could leave. Three hours later when we finally took off for Narita, I knew there was no way we were going to make our international flight back home since we only had a two-hour layover. Much to our relief however, our connecting flight was held since so many of its passengers were on the Manila to Narita flight but we still had to hustle through the Narita airport to the gate while they constantly paged final calls. For some reason, all incoming passengers with connecting flights in Narita are routed through security again where bags are checked and passengers are run through the metal detectors. That certainly doesn’t speed things up. I thought of redneck man, "Gawd damn."

We had made up a half hour of time in flight but were still running two and a half hours late when we flew out of the still extremely windy Narita airport for the good old U. S. of A and I figured catching our last flight from Minneapolis to rural Iowa was virtually impossible since we had only an hour a half layover and had to go through customs which is always a zoo. But the plane picked them up and put them down and we ended up getting into Minneapolis only fifteen minutes late. (Why don't they do this all the time?) However, going through customs ate up lots of time and by the time we made it to our final gate, we had just five minutes to spare before they gave the boarding call. I wanted to wait until everyone had boarded so that I could enjoy the fresh terminal air for a while versus the canned airplane air but my wife insisted on getting to her seat. So we joined the line to board only to have the ticket taker pause when she got to our tickets and frown down on the computer screen. Great, here I am on the final leg after flying half way around the world and there is a problem that is going to be solved by me spending a night sleeping in the airport or taking a high priced taxi to some high priced hotel. Much to my shock and relief, the attendant announced that she was going to have to cut off boarding after us leaving eight people still standing or sitting behind us in the waiting area. The woman carrying a small child behind us broke down into hysterics yelling and screaming at the attendant saying she had a seat number (the child evidently would sit in her lap) and had verified it earlier and yet she was going to be denied. The attendant tried to tell her that there was a seat available on the 7:00 and 9:00 o’clock flight but the lady hysterically begged us to give up one of our seats. I had been in airports for almost thirty hours at this point and was in no mood to spend another five hours waiting for the next flight that had a seat and be split up from my wife. Besides, my wife had a doctor's appointment the next morning to have a baby checkup and I certainly didn’t want to miss that. We grabbed our ticket stubs and boarded the plane without looking back and trying to mute out the anguished cries of the woman. After doing weight checks, the lady and small child were allowed aboard but at least six others were left stranded behind.

Finally, six flights and fourteen days after we started, we touched down at the local airport and hauled our bags heavy with souvenirs and other booty out to our car, which started, always a sweet sound, and drove the hour and a half back home. Local is still a long way in rural Iowa. My throat ached from breathing all that canned airplane air for so long but it was great to be back on terra firma. It was good to be back home.

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