03 August 2015

Existential Absurdity and the Flying Experience

I have returned--though not too much wiser for all the brouhaha that I have experienced lo these past few weeks! 

Against my better judgement, I accepted an invitation to teach a summer course at a university in Beijing, China. The course went well enough (more on that in a later blog), but the day to day living was rather taxing, especially given the heat and humidity of my environs. And then there were the food options (Yes, you can have too much Chinese food.).

First of all, let me thank you for your patience during this stressful summer season. For those of you who never knew I was gone, then I thank you for your indulgence this time.

Let me begin with the end and proceed in reverse. 

I last took an overseas flight three years ago and since then, a lot has changed, it seems. While going was quite a delight, returning was a harrowing gauntlet of redundant security operations and existential absurdity

The Beijing Capital Airport's new Terminal 3, which opened in time for the 2008 Olympics, is the largest terminal building in the world. They boast about that but a large building is not an easy place to get around in. Even though I moved from my hotel in the city, provided by my employer, so as to make the morning flight hassles a little less worrisome, the 5 minute hotel shuttle was only the beginning of my ordeal.

Little did I know that I knew so little about this terminal. Dropped off on the ground level, I knew I had to go up to the departure level and yet all the elevators stated boldly in English that they did not stop on levels 3 and 4. So I walked to my right for about 3 km until I found an escalator. Up I went, then I walked about 3 km back to where I had been only on the new level. Checked the map of the terminal to find where to check in at my airline, then walked about 4 km to get into the end of the line. Only about a dozen got in line behind me.

The check-in line took about an hour. (No, a 3 hour lead is not enough, even when you start from next door to the terminal!) Then I followed my fellow passengers to the gate. To get to the boarding gate, one must of course go through a security checkpoint. The first one (Yes, I did type 'first.') was simply to scan the bar code on my boarding pass and the gate opens. That was easy, I thought, never having been one to wish harm to fellow passengers. Then I proceeded about 2 km further to the train platform. 

A lot of airports have some kind of tram to move from terminal to terminal, but here the train ride was something more like the airport express subway line that takes about 20 minutes to deliver you to Terminal 3 part 2. Fine, I thought. Now to find the gate.... Oh, here is the real security checkpoint--and the lines for it. Take everything out, empty pockets, walk through, get personally scanned, answer questions about the stuff I have, smirk, attempt to hide smirk, then pack up and go. About 45 minutes from entering line to exiting checkpoint.

I had showered and dressed in fresh clothes that morning but at this point in the process, I wished I could start my hygiene regimen over again, get a new shower and put on new clothes--especially if I would be wearing them for the next 20 hours. But that was not an option, although I did bring a spare set of clothes in my carry-on bag. I hoped not to change to fresh clothes until I arrived in San Francisco and transferred to my domestic flight. 

So on to the boarding gate! To the boarding gate and beyond! And...keep going.... And it should be right...ahead...and the farthest possible point in the terminal. I calculated about 7 km. It seems that the national airline gets pride of place while foreign airlines are clustered as far as possible from convenience. And yet, I was not quite done. With all of the obstacle course ran, I did not have long to wait to board. About 5 minutes for my boarding group.

Through the little gate, smile from the attendant, and down the gangway--

More security checkpoints. Remember we went through one earlier with the full x-ray of carry-on items and our beloved persons. A cute young Chinese TSA girl directed me to one of several tables set up along the path to the cabin door manned by Kung-Fu behemoths. Both of my bags were inspected by hand. More questions asked. Then I was passed on down the line. I got on the plane, found my seat, and met my seatmates: a former fashion model turned fashion entrepreneur and an actor ("bodyguard"/"bouncer"/"fighter #2" etc.) who just finished shooting a Chinese movie in Mongolia (exteriors) and Beijing (studio).

Arriving in San Francisco, I was welcomed by an even more daunting gauntlet to run. This time, I had only 1 hour and 40 minutes to make my connecting flight. And the international flight landed 20 minutes late. The rush to the immigration checkpoint! Yes, citizens go to the short lines. Still took about 20 minutes. First we go to the self-check where we self-scan our passports and self-click a photo and some kind of receipt prints out. I thought this was a new, streamlined system, but NO. I had to then get into another line to present the printed receipt to an actual immigration person and answer the same questions I already clicked 'yes' and 'no' on the selfie machine!

At this point, the citizen lines and the foreign passenger lines merged. That would make sense from an organizational point of view. Having experienced the reverse upon my arrival in Beijing, it seems the only fair way is to get the short line one direction and the long line the other direction. Then comes the customs checkpoint--but first, get your bag--wait for your bag--then get your bag. Nothing to declare, just let me get to my connecting flight! Recheck bag and dash through the terminal to...wait for it (literally, you have to wait for it!)...another security checkpoint. Three years ago when I passed through SFO, there was no security checkpoint between the international gates and the domestic gates.

One more line, I thought, trying to remain calm. My line--the one I was assigned to by a supervisor--was guarded by the oldest woman the TSA ever hired. And she was meticulous. Along the same x-ray scan line were dozens of crates of "perishable fruit" but by the time I got my turn they were all out. And employees coming for their shift work at the airport (not flight crews) kept cutting in line, because they didn't want to be late for work.

Got through, finally! Checked the board for the gate again. Looked up at the gate where I am: not bad. I could make it. I did a quickwalk through the terminal... to... the... farthest... possible gate again! Boarding started 2 minutes after I arrived. I had planned to change into fresh clothes during the layover but there was no spare time. No restroom time, either. No buy a water bottle time! Right on to the claustrophobic mini-jet for the next 3 hour flight home.

I was not too fresh at that point. My polite fellow passengers did not let on. But the thing to remember is that I did arrive home safely, in the sense of physically yet I would question my state of angst. Now I'm jet-lagged. I also seem to have carried with me some Chinese germs that are laying me low just when I want to do something fun--like unpack my bags. 

Me at the Lama Temple. They had no alpacas.

Details of the job next time. That sounds exciting, doesn't it?

[PS- No flight crews were hurt in the making of this blog.]

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1 comment:

  1. Welcome home sir. No doubt you existential angst will be resolved when you wake up and go to Denny's for that pancake breakfast.