MacauTripping Chapter 13 - Take Your Passport And Your Shoes
Good morning Macau.
The still is broken by a steady stream of text messages from John and Hunter. Our dear friend John has boarded the ferry that will take him to the airport in Hong Kong where he will catch a flight back to the United States (via Seattle.) Goodbye John, travel safe.
I'm up and motivated... I've made a cup of coffee and am engaged in final preparations for travel - packing, repacking and packing again. At the last minute - egged on by Hunter and John the night before - I've decided to steal the gigantic Sands Macao ashtray from my room. This ashtray is an exact replica of an ashtray I poached from my room at Venetian Macao in 2007 (peep the coffee table) - only twenty times larger.
It doesn't matter that I no longer smoke, when it comes to hotel room stuff, I'm a borderline kleptomaniac. I will forever regret not taking the hotel tower shaped lazy susan card thingy from Grand Lisboa on the first day of this adventure. When Hunter saw that thing, he said "you've GOT to take that." So, if any of you end up at Grand Lisboa...
My stomach is grumbling. I've got a hankering for pork dumplings - last licks! - and an American Breakfast from room service. The food arrived 30 minutes later.
There is absolutely nothing appetizing about what was delivered. Rubbery poached eggs? toast with the crust cut off? Asparagus tips? Cold tomatoes? Tater tots? Two cold, sweaty hot dogs? Adding insult, the carafe of coffee barely contained a whole cup of joe! Room service at Sands Macao was disgusting to eat and a waste of money. I have absolutely zero regrets about stealing that ashtray now.
I unpacked my coffee kit, cooked up another cup, then settled onto the commode for some pre-flight toilet bombing. There's nothing worse than being trapped on a long flight and having to shi-. Then shi... and shi... again. You just can't predict when events like that happen. I try to make time during the day of a flight to stamp my poopsport in advance.
After the shi-, I get in the shower and give myself an extra scrub-a-dub. Hunter is going to have to sit next to me on a plane for the next 24 hours and I'd like to get a headstart on not murdering him with my B.O.. The byproduct of the extra soaping is that I'm having an incredible hair day.
After getting dressed, I packed the dirties and did a last minute security check and room inspection. Once out in the hallway, one of the housekeepers walks by me and screams down the corridor to one of the other housekeepers. Interesting. Seconds later, a guy in the room the other way down the hall starts singing big melody love songs at the top of his lungs. He's got a huge voice and sings in tune. Makes me wonder if the guy from Air Supply with the giant hair helmet stays here when they play here.
I'm normally not one for posting selfies and all that... but I'm normally not one to have good hair days.
When I get out to the busway, I ask the attendants where the shuttle to the airport is. They confer and confirm that they don't understand my question. I repeat the question, simply. "Shuttle to the airport?" They shake their heads and one says "there is no shuttle to the airport." There are shuttles to both ferry terminals, both border gates, Venetian and Sands Cotai Central... but no shuttle to the airport from Sands Macao. Interesting. I'll cab it.
The cab heads towards the Friendship Bridge, passing a new hotel project in Fisherman's Wharf.
Great view of the Sands Macao. I stayed in the tower, just above the S.
The Wynn bus has been following me everywhere. I'm ignoring them until they get their bagel game together.
Macau International Airport (MFM) departure level is quiet. After hopping out of the cab, I do the security check chant, tapping each item - wallet, passport, glasses, phone, phone (I've got two). Wallet, passport, glasses, phone, phone. Wallet, passport, glasses, phone, phone. Check, check, check, check, check. I've been repeating this mantra for ten days and will continue to do it for a week after returning home.
Inside the airport, I spot Hunter instantly. He seems a little cranky, and says that doesn't feel well. He procures a spot on a bench near the Circle K and I set out to see what this airport is all about, finishing in about 132 seconds. Two floors, a half dozen check in desks, a McDonalds and the convenience store. Hunter has his nose in his iPad, watching software development tutorials from the recent Apple event. I'm feeling chatty, but I can sort of tell he isn't. Silence is the key to good relationships.
After a little bit, our flight opens for check in. We go through "security" - a very minimal check wherein our bags go through an X-ray machine. We head to the counter and then pile onto the line.
One thing I've learned in Macau this trip is that the "elevator rule" - let the people on the elevator off before entering - doesn't apply here. The "line rule" and the "wait your turn rule" are suggestions, frameworks for space, not a social principle accepted by all as the norm. When folks here want something, order is the first obstacle removed.
We're the third group in line. Each passenger ahead of us engages in endless discussions with the agent. Since we don't speak Chinese, we have no idea what the discussions ahead of us are about. When we finally make it to the front of the line, the agent checks us in and gives us dot matrix printout of our travel itinerary with various spots hi-lighted. She tells us that the plane that we are to get on is going to be late... really late, like two hours late. The agent then asks us for a local phone number (Hunter gives her his SIM cell #) and tells us that we are free to leave the terminal, they will call when it is time for us to return.
Hunter and I look at each other. This type of "sure, go, we'll call you when you should come back to the airport" thing doesn't jibe with either of our understanding of air travel, at least in post-2001 United States. We opt against barnstorming the baccarat tables and head through Macau's border checkpoint and hang out by the gates. A guard waves me over to the "Residents of Macau" line, this makes me proud. The guard grimaces at me, scans my documents, grimaces again and sends me on my way. Sadly, Macau doesn't stamp passports anymore. :(
About three weeks before we left, the retailer we bought our tickets through - Hopper - emailed to tell us that our carrier China Eastern Airlines (one of the largest airlines in China) had cancelled our return flight from Macau to Shanghai's Pudong airport, where our connecting flight to Los Angeles was to depart from. They offered us a few possibilities, one of them being a flight to Shanghai's other airport Hongqiao. Hongqiao airport is smaller and deals primarily with domestic flights. Hongqiao airport is roughly an hours drive from Pudong airport, meaning we'd have to add getting baggage, going through immigration and border control, hailing a cab, traffic, checking in, security checks, immigration and boarding into the time allotted for our layover - 6 hours. We knew at the outset that the airport transfer had the potential to be a close shave, but we were stuck with no other doable options.
Now, two hours before our planned departure, our flight has been delayed at least two hours... closing our window of transfer by 1/3. Still doable... but we'd have to hustle.
We parked it by the window and watched the planes arrive... hoping beyond hope that our China Eastern aircraft would arrive. We waited. And waited. And waited. Passing the time by doing the play-by-play of an airport employee who spent 45 minutes trying to remove plastic wrap from a wooden crate the size of a washing machine.
We became restless and headed upstairs and found a for-hire lounge on the second level. For ~$50USD the Plaza Premium Lounge provides access to buffets, coffee, desserts, a small bar, a fridge full of soft drinks, juices and beer, wifi access, charge ports and comfortable chairs for two hours. We took the deal and headed inside.
I made four runs at the buffet, three runs at the dessert cart, had three cups of coffee, two beers and a shot of tequila, plus I topped up device batteries and did a little internetting. If that wasn't enough, I pooped in Plaza Premium Lounge's super clean, freshly renovated, hidden toilets. I tweeted from the turlet.
The whole premium lounge upgrade was worth it. Being forced to hang around in an airport while waiting for a flight is the level of hell reserved for only the most dastardly and disgusting of god's blunders. Add shitty wi-fi into the mix and you become a peon that the peons' peons pee on.
Tsingtao and tequila.
Contrary to our expectation, the airline did indeed call Hunter to tell him we should return to the airport. We make our way downstairs and wander towards the gate. I set up shop directly at the head of the line. To keep things interesting, I bet Hunter $20HKD that we would not miss the connection to Los Angeles. I handed him the $20. They open the gates, Hunter and I are at the front of the line where the dude is taking boarding passes. This teeny tiny guy with an asymmetrical buzz and the vibe of a UFC fighter tries to bust between the two of us on line. Dude, man, like... we're from California bro. Chill the fudge out.
Good news... we're at lucky Gate 8 at 4:22pm. That means something right? We head down the ramp and onto a bus that will taxi us to the plane. They do that a lot here... there are more planes than gates.
The bus arrives at the plane and dumps us out onto the tarmac.
The plane itself says "Shanghai Airlines" - which is owned/operated by China Eastern. I hope. It's hot as fuck out here.
We're on the plane! After sitting on the tarmac forever, the plane eventually takes off. I looked out the window and said goodbye to Macau. I'm a little sad. This trip has been truly incredible. I get the feeling that I will be back pretty soon.
You may think by these last few photos that Hunter always has a scowl on his face. That isn't a scowl... that is his "engrossed in technology face." He's actually quite happy and content right now... although definitely concerned about whether or not we catch the flight to Los Angeles. We both are. I'm smiling because I like airline food.
Food arrives... pork noodles.
I dozed off listening to music. When I woke up, I looked at my phone to see what time it was... 7:16pm and we're just starting our descent into Shanghai.
My heart sunk. There is absolutely no way that we are going to make it to our connecting flight. I looked at Hunter... he murmured "I bet this maniac at the airport $20 HongKong that we'd make our connecting flight."
The plane circled Shanghai Hongqiao airport, landed and taxied to the bus connection. "Welcome to the P.R.C.," I said to Hunter as we stepped from the stairway to the tarmac. He snickered and groaned.
We boarded the bus from the tarmac to the terminal and headed inside. We've got 90 minutes to make the connection. Immediately upon entering the airport, we are stopped at immigration border checkpoint. Everybody else on the plane - residents of China - goes streaming through the gates, through customs check and out into the airport. Side by side, we step up to individual agents of border control, hand over our travel documents and passports, holding onto every shred of hope that they'll make this quick so we can get on our way to Pudong.
The agent takes my documents and studies them. I hand him the dot matrix print out that the desk agent at MFM gave us. He looks at boarding passes, looks at the print out, looks at me, looks at my passport. Hunter's agent does the same with him. We engage in the same conversation with both of our agents - "we have to get to Pudong for our connecting flight to Los Angeles that leaves at 9pm."
One of the biggest weapons border control has at their disposal, isn't a gun, it is time. They look at my papers, look at Hunter's papers and compare the two. "Are you together?" "Forever" I muttered. Eventually a boss gets involved. Meanwhile, the rest of the border control agents step back from their kiosks and stand in a line, each of them holding a mini-briefcase that contains their individually numbered customs stamp. They all stand in loose formation, then turn to our right and walk along an orange line through a door and out of sight. Shift change.
At this point, Hunter and I are combined into one kiosk agent, and his goes on break with the rest of the crew. The three of us stand there, waiting for word from above about what our status is. The boss comes by with a woman dressed like a flight attendant. Conversations are had with the boss and the kiosk agent. She takes our bubble jet printouts and click-clacks her way back to the room whence she came. I get the impression she is generally irritated.
Despite the fact that there is absolutely no way Hunter and I are going to catch our flight, we're not irritated in the least. If anything, we're jovial. We're singing songs. Jazz songs. At the risk of tipping our hand, we're working on a jazz musical that takes place at Sands Cotai Central. The certifiable hit song of our jazz musical is called "Hey Stevie!" There is a whole part all about flowers and horses and Wynn Palace and then Sheldon Adelson shows up with Donald Trump who gets punched out by James Packer and... it's great, really great. You're gonna love it. Really swinging. Good stuff.
The boss comes by again, not to give us clearance, but to tell us to get back into the rope rodeo line. Out from a room on the side of the border control comes asymmetrical buzz, UFC bum rush guy... he bellies up to the kiosk. I'm only guessing, but I get the feeling that they've just given him the once over in the back room. He gets in line in front of us and is subjected to questioning by our agent and the boss. He's holding a passport from Iran. Do they have UFC in Iran? I hear him say he's trying to catch a flight to Tehran. The Peoples Republic of China stamps his passport and asymmetrical buzz vanishes into forevermore.
We step back up to the kiosk. After five minutes of pregnant pause, our agent cracks a smirk, turns his eyes up from behind his glasses and says "you have bad luck." Best joke I've heard all day. In front of the kiosk is a sign that has the agent's badge number lit up on an LED with a sign that says "How would you rate your service?" Options were listed in smiley faces. ): 0: |: :B :) .
The boss arrives again, not to give us clearance, but to invite us to have a seat next to a big tall security guard. Plop. Our flight leaves in about 45 minutes. I posted this photo to our friends and family shared photo stream saying that we've missed our connection and are going to spend the night in Shanghai.
I lean over to Hunter and start singing "Hey Stevie"... we end up working through another few stanzas and the second chorus. We're coming up with some really great material here. Just great.
Click clack click clack clack clack clack clack. *pause* Click clack clack clack clack click clack clack clack.
The boss comes by and motions for us to come up to the kiosk. The guard takes our passports, inspects boarding passes and bubble jets... and stamps our passports one by one. We've got 24 hours safe passage... welcome to the Peoples Republic of China. We head through the line of kiosks, through a rope rodeo, through an unmanned X-ray machine to a desk about 40 feet from where we were standing. Click clack comes out, 11% more irritated than before, takes our bubble jets and vanishes into the back room.
There are no chairs here, but the change of scenery is welcome. There is a guy behind the desk who is constantly checking the beeps and blings on his cellphone. He periodically gets on his desk phone and grumbles. To our left is the entrance to this area. It is being monitored by four security guards and a metal detector. One guy studies an old x-ray of a brief case, occasionally yawning. One of the guards is a teeny tiny woman, she has a billy club behind her back. They're all vacillating between command presence and "get me outta here". I'd hate to have stand here every day for 8 hours a day for 40 years.
"Hey Stevie!" sets off another round of productivity. I asked Hunter what the chances are that we can get Steve Wynn to fund this musical... he says "pretty high." "At the Saaaaands Cotai Central! Stevie!"
We wait. And wait. And wait. A flood of passengers from another plane come streaming through the X-ray machine, then slowly trickle out into the terminal where we can see their families happily waiting their arrival. Security guards shift their weight uncomfortably, click clack walks out from the back room, shows the world that her irritation level has risen another 7% and goes back in, desk dude's phone bleeps like a teenagers, our flight to Los Angeles has taken off without us.
We're part way through Act II of "Sands Cotai Central : The Jazz Musical" when click clack comes out with the canary of a triplicate in hand and confers with Hunter. Hunter turns to me and says "The paper says 'VIP' on it." She points at some Chinese writing carbon copied in the top corner and tells us to go outside and bring this to a taxi driver. What? Huh?
Hunter goes back a few spaces and starts asking questions. As it turns out, Click Clack - a representative of China Eastern Airlines - has made arrangements for us to spend the night in a hotel near the airport. This news makes me sad, angry, excited and scared. The writing in the top corner is the address of the hotel. Hunter asks her "so what about the flight? When is our flight?" With each inquiry, I can see that Clickclack's aggravation level is approaching capacity. Clack tells us that we are on the same flight at the same time tomorrow out of Shanghai Pudong. Hunter asks her for paperwork or a receipt acknowledging this to be true. She says there is no receipt and that we should just come to the airport, check in with the airline and they'll take care of everything. It's in the computer.
Smells fishy, but things are different in China. I turned to Hunter and said "this is an adventure." He grumbled.
We head outside of customs control and straight into the arms of a Chinese family that has adopted us. Oh wait, no... we go to a SIM card stand where we buy new cellular coverage for usage in the PRC. Our Hong Kong and Macau SIMs don't work here. The two teeny tiny girls at the counter take our phones, pop the cards out, pop new ones in, type in a bunch of settings, send text messages to authorize and tape our old SIMs and a paper clip to the punch card the new SIM came out of. I'm glad I changed the last of my HKD$ into RMB at the Macau airport as a precaution.
Exiting the airport, we hail a cab, toss our bags in the trunk and back seat, Hunter shows the driver the canary with the instructions and away we go into the Shanghai night.
Ten minutes later, we arrived at the hotel - a Holiday Inn. "You know where else they have a Holiday Inn? At the Saaaands Cotaaaai Central - Stevie! Yeah!" We check in. Dual queens. I love Hunter dearly but am not yet ready to cuggle with him.
I get out my camera and start taking photos of the hotel room. Hunter giggles and groans.
Immediately upon entry to the left is a bathroom...
It finally has sunk in - we're spending the night in Shanghai. I post the photo of the border gate to my Instagram account. It uploads and I can see it. Miracle! I thought Instagram was blocked here! I try and load Twitter... bzzzt. Gmail? bzzzt. Google? bzzzt. Snapch... ah fuck it. As it turns out, my Instagram upload was somehow a fluke. I can't connect anymore... to anything, including Instagram. Welcome to The Great Firewall of China.
We head to the bar, obviously. It is hot and humid inside the hotel. I cranked up the AC in the room before we left. Beer is needed to remedy many aspects of our current situation. We sit, we talk, we make jokes as best we can.
Hunter is nose deep in his device working the VPN hard, trying to trace a route from China to the services we rely on. As much as it sucks being stranded in a foreign country, doing it with someone you really like makes all the difference. Doing it with Hunter is awesome - he's MacGyver with a solid set of tools and the knowledge of how to make them do anything. I know he's going to crack the firewall. It might take a few hours, but he'll do it. After a few rounds, we pay the bill and go back to the room.
This sucks, but it could be worse. The worst part about being stranded in Shanghai is my wife is going to have to deal with the issues at home for another day. She has multitasking both of our household duties, her job and the drama of Gunther's health issues by herself for 10 days. She's been living under enormous pressure at home while I've been running around taking photos, sniffing bath products and eating room service. Ugh.
Right now, there is nothing to do other than look on the bright side. Tomorrow we'll get to do a little sightseeing in Shanghai then mosey over to the airport, get on a plane and go home.
Good night... Shanghai.