MacauTripping Chapter 14 - This Way Or No Way
Good morning Shanghai. I roll over check my phone for email, tweets, pings... anything. Nothing. Hunter is in the bed next to me doing the exact same thing, but with better apps and command line scripts that are beyond my comprehension. I get up, open my suitcase and dig through the stuff I didn't expect to unpack until I got home and rustled up some clean clothes, head to the bathroom and get going.
After cleaning up and getting dressed, I head back into the room and turn on the TV - CNN. I don't normally watch 24 hour news channels, but I'm ready to go home and this is helps. I stare at the TV, oblivious to what they're saying, trying to telekinetically open up a wormhole that will fast forward to being home, sitting by the pool with my wife and our dogs. No dice. Apparently, my superpowers don't work here.
Tales from Topographic Hotel Carpeting
Hunter and I hatch a plan for the day.
The first step is to head downstairs to the hotel buffet. We enter, peruse the offerings, then start filling plates. Hunter selects a table in the VIP section. The paper Click Clack gave us did say VIP on it. The food at this buffet is strange. There are tons of oddball local dishes I'm not interested in exploring and a bunch of Western foods whose labels were copied directly from the cardboard box they arrived in - "Pressed Pork Product In Water", "Cheese Food" etc.. We went back a coupla times.
I got some buns, dumplings, eggs and brat sausages. The food was unremarkable but free. We left the buffet then headed outside to explore the surrounding area. The weather is slightly less humid than Macau but it is already pretty warm for 8am. We head out onto a quaint tree-lined street walking the sidewalk and looking at buildings. Passing a dormitory, playground, athletic field of a school. After about 20 minutes we come to a bridge and decide to cross the street and head back. A short ways down the road we come across this neat building with great carved woodwork outside. Is that a swastika?
Hunter is very excited to be here in Shanghai for an extra day.
We cut in through an outdoor shopping district where everything was closed. Even the coffee shops were closed - at 9am! The buildings were in various states of disrepair. Pedestrian plazas had been turned into parking lots and as a result tiles and pavers were shattered, buckled or vanished into deep potholes. On the other side of the street was a string of two story apartment buildings overflowing with yesterdays laundry billowing in the wind. Walls were full of holes and covered in splattered paint, dirt and decades of neglect.
Traffic patterns follow the same rules as elevators. Hunter describes it accurately as a "fluid situation." At intersections, automobiles, trucks, scooters, bicyclists and pedestrians constantly do battle to get where they are going. We walk a little ways, stop at a barely opened coffee shop called @SOMECOFFEE WAFFLE & WINE.
We proceed through another dilapidated mall-under-reconstruction and start to circle back towards the hotel. As much as I want to explore, the heat and humidity are starting to make me feel a little woozy. On the way to the hotel, we pass a funky, apartment complex that looks like a Soviet-era relic. It is surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. Outside of it are two giant billboards containing pictograms defining "Socialist Core Values."
Dude! Propaganda! I love propaganda!
Awesome. We continue walking for a bit then make our way back to the hotel... the heat has become unbearable. Fuck it is hot here. Inside, we pack our shit, do a security check then check out of the hotel. Hunter calls an Uber... not a "Peoples Uber" (any old guy with a Buick) but an Uber XL - a station wagon/van. After waiting to locate a car, one finally arrives. We hop in and go.
Speaking of cars, the most popular cars here in China are Volkswagen and Buick. The VWs look like dorky Passat, the Buicks look like a Buick. Also, familiar models of cars have different names here, other than the Camry.
On the way to the highway we pass the Shanghai Tesla dealership. I saw a bunch of Teslas in Shanghai and Macau. If I had known we were so close to the Tesla dealership, I would've popped in and signed for a Model X.
We pulled onto the highway... once again we're reminded that China isn't like everywhere else - even the intense Los Angeles freeway free-for-all or the mid-town Manhattan mosh pit. Here, the zipper merge doesn't exist... cars push, nose, honk and force their way in and out of traffic. This is high speed elevator door chaos, on wheels, wrapped in a half ton of steel. What is mine is mine and what is yours will be mine too as soon as I decide that I want it. Socialist core values. Freaky, man.
We slowly make our way towards downtown Shanghai and the architecture becomes more and more varied, creative and adventurous with every block. Wow.
We arrive at IFC Center (a high end shopping mall) and head off in search of the Apple Store.
This entire shopping center is filled with high end retailers - the Gucci, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, and Ermenegildo Zegnas of the world. There is even a Ritz-Carlton hotel, which makes our luggage look a little less out of place. Another thing I notice is that everybody - everybody - in this mall is really, really, really well dressed. They're all wearing brand new, well pressed, well put together outfits that are sparkling from head to toe. No sweatpants with an adjective stuck on the rear end masquerading as high fashion, no smelly jeans and football t-shirts, no track suits, no shorts with the ass hanging out. These folks have money, they buy expensive clothes and wear them beautifully. Wow. I feel like a slob.
We arrive at the iconic glass cylinder that crowns the staircase into the Apple Store. We stop and take photos. Since the stairs are the only way in (nothing in China is ADA or similar compliant... if you've got a cane or wheelchair - tough turds.) I hang back in the mall with the stuff as Hunter goes inside and explores. He comes out a short while later exclaiming that the store is huge. I popped in quickly and looked around... it is huge. I considered buying an iPod Nano for my wife.
Lunchtime. We looked at the restaurant directory and decided to go to Morton's Steakhouse for lunch. Our buddy Lino in Macau raved about their hamburger the other night and.... what the hell. We sat at the bar. Hunter MacGyver'd their wifi password via Four Square or whatever it is they're calling it these days. The TV over the bar is broadcasting a very intense card game - not bridge, not poker... maybe cribbage.
We ordered food. I got the hamburger (medium rare) and some miniature fish tacos as a starter. Plus a beer. The burger arrived and was definitely rare... it disintegrated in my hands. The fish tacos were great. Beer was awesome.
We set out for the Shanghai skywalk and planned to walk as far as we could downtown then take a cab to the maglev station that would take us downtown. The Shanghai skywalk is where a lot of the movie "Her" with Joaquin Phoenix was shot. Jump to 2:00 point in the linked video to see the skywalk.
The skyline is breathtaking. As far as being shanghaied goes, this is turning out to be a great day.
We wandered to the World Financial Center and the lobby of the Park Hyatt where we decided to catch a cab that would take us to the Shanghai Maglev Station - a 6 mile/15 minute drive. The driver - after some translation assistance from others at the taxi stand - couldn't understand why we would want to be driven to the maglev when he can just drive us to the airport for cheaper. Hunter made "zoooooom zooooooooooom" noises in the hope that his onomotopoeticism would communicate to the driver that we wanted to ride a super fast train. The cabbie got on the phone with is supervisor, who spoke English, and handed the phone to Hunter, who explained the situation. The supervisor relayed the message back to the driver - "these idiots want to take the train". The driver laughed, hung up and went back to multitasking six multi-app text messaging conversations on his phone while driving in Shanghai traffic.
We arrived at the station and headed up the stairs to the ticket window and again up to the platform where we walked right onto a waiting train. Perfect timing! Unfortunately, I didn't have time to photograph the station or platform. The train's doors closed a few minutes later and away we went.
The maglev train is fast, really fast... as a result any bump, turn or dip makes the train cars rock back and forth. The ride was a helluva lot rougher than I expected it to be. The maglev speed peaked at about 431 km/hr which is about 267 mph. We made it to the station really really quickly.
Once we arrived at the airport, I started to feel very weak, tired and perhaps dehydrated. The heat and humidity coupled with the long walk outdoors schlepping my giant bags around is pretty taxing. Despite my attempts to ignore the obvious, I'm not as young as I once was. Who is. My body can only handle punishment of daily travel for so long. As we walk into Shanghai Pudong Airport's terminal, I'm relieved that we are in the final home stretch of this crazy trip.
We make our way to the departure level and locate the China Eastern Airlines check in desk for our destination. Upon entering the line, an airline representative takes our passports and bubble jet printouts, types some numbers into the self check-in kiosk. He can't find our records in the database. He also defeats the purpose of a self check-in kiosk. We're told to go to a desk agent who will assist us.
After wheeling our shit through the rope rodeo, we end up at the registration desk. The agent takes our passports and bubble jets. Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap tap tap tap. Tap. Tap tap tap tap. The ticket agent says that she can't find our reservations in the computer. We explain the circumstances to her. More tapping. After a few minutes the agent hands our documents back and sends us to an agent at the second to last window.
We arrived at agent #3 to find her patiently applying lipstick to her bottom lip. She smeared it on unevenly, puckered her lips in a bottom-to-top lipstick transference maneuver, then applied a little bit more lipstick to the bottom lip. She seemed to have zero interest in helping us. "Is this Click Clack's sister?" I thought. She continued her botched make-up application job until she had achieved disorder of her liking, then looked up and acknowledged us. We handed her our papers. She read the bubble jets, keyed some stuff into the computer, read the passports. Keyed more things into the computer. Looked at the bubble jets. Then she got out a pen and wrote some numbers on the bubble jet, handed our documents back to us and referred us to the next kiosk, which had a line of two people at it already.
I'm starting to feel like we're not in Shanghai Pudong airport, but instead Terry Gilliam's Brazil.
Agent #4 is manning desk 13. I get the impression that he's "the man" - everybody brings their questions to him. He has a pained look on his face. Stressed out. Concerned. Focused. Every so often, he gets up from his desk unannounced and walks out into the terminal, heads 50 yards down the hallway then turns back and goes to his desk. He looks at our bubble jet, the numbers on the bubble jet, peeps our passports and sticks his nose in the computer. Tap tap tap. Tap tap. Tap tap tap tap. He rubs the disgust from his eyes and face, adjusts his glasses and refocuses on the computer screen. Tap tap. Tap tap tap tap tap. He grabs a scrap piece of paper, writes the flight number down and our names and numbers. He handed our documents back and said "come back at 7:40pm."
No boarding passes, no seats reserved, no tickets issued.
Hrm. Well... this is weird. Click Clack the night before said we would be in the computer. Now we've been to four agents and nobody has found us in the computer and we've been told to show up at the ticketing desk an hour and twenty minutes before the flight is scheduled to depart. What the hell is going on here?
Then, it dawns on us. We don't have a ticket to get on this plane and they've put us on standby. I step back from the desk and look at the sign above.
Last night, Click Clack at the Customs Desk fucked us.
We headed over to a coffee shop to decompress and regroup. We ordered two beers and a can of coke. The woman behind the counter relentlessly tried pressuring us to order lattes and potato chips. My usually endless patience is being tested to its limit.
We grabbed the beers and plopped down into some incredibly uncomfortable chairs. I was seething. The beer helped chill me out. Hunter started looking online for any flights out of Shanghai and started pricing tickets. There was an Air France flight leaving in a few hours that would only cost us $20,000 per ticket.
After scheming any and every possible scenario to get us out of Shanghai, we headed to the China Eastern tickets counter and asked them to explain the situation to us. After looking through the computer, they told us that this evening's flight to Los Angeles was not only sold out, it was overbooked and we were on the standby. We pressured her to look for alternate routes to Los Angeles. There was an outside possibility that we could get standby on a flight to JFK airport in New York City but that flight was sold out. There was nothing they could (or would) do for us.
My frustration started to boil over and I came pretty close to losing my cool with the very helpful desk agent (I'm sorry.)
We headed over to the China Eastern supervisor's desk and inquired with them. Our goal here was to get cross-graded onto the Delta flight that was leaving for Los Angeles in a few hours. China Eastern and Delta are Sky Alliance partners. The manager spoke perfect English and understood everything we said. We understood her too... getting onto the Delta flight was not going to happen unless we couldn't get on the China Eastern flight... which essentially means that we might be spending another night in Shanghai.
We resigned ourselves to fate. I texted my wife and told her was the situation was. She was very upset, but seemed more concerned about us. This trip has turned into a nightmare. I guess it was bound to happen at some point, the zenith of Macau had to crash at some point. I'm just glad that I'm not alone.
We wandered around the terminal for an hour before I set up shop in a relatively less noisy area of the concourse, sitting on the floor under a giant G for Gunther. Love is the best voodoo... I'm sending it home in the hopes that it will bounce off and get us on the plane home.
I turned to Hunter and asked "What if we're dead?" He looked up from his device, where he's been hard at work hacking together a usable VPN route, and his eyes swelled with far-away imagination. "As in, the plane from Macau went into the ocean" I continued, "...and our eternal Sysyphean task is coming to the airport every day to try to get on a flight home and failing." Hunter let out an long uneasy laugh.
A few minutes later, Hunter asks, "what happens if there is only one seat left on the plane?" "You go," I said, continuing "you've got a life and a job and all that to get back to." "Yeah, but you do too" Hunter interjected. "I'll be ok by myself here. I'd rather one of us get out of here than none of us" I said. Hunter looked at me and said "All or nothing. That's what I think." We agreed, it was all or nothing... at the Saaaands Cotai Central, Stevie!.
Two hours of staggered bathroom trips and a bag of swiss cheese flavored crackers later... 6:30 arrives and we head back to desk #13, figuring we'd be early. We arrive to find six people in line ahead of us and at least a dozen people at the desk. The people in line are all waiting for Los Angeles standby and acting as place holders for family members sitting on couches 20 yards away.
The area around the Stand By Desk has devolved into chaos. A woman at the desk wearing a super long visor, big Jackie O sunglasses and a floral dress is screaming at Agent #4, the guy who helped us before. She's laying into him something awful and making a real scene. Her abusive behavior appears to be working, she gets taken aside and her baggage is checked. Seeing this, another traveler starts screaming at Agent #4's assistant, she appears to be on the verge of tears explaining the situation to the customer who wants to hear none of it. There are a bunch of other people around the desk, jockeying for position and boxing people out - a mosh pit over boarding passes. There is no concept of personal space, order or decorum... mayhem rules in the Shanghai Stand By Line. What a nightmare.
Meanwhile in the Los Angeles line everybody is calm and friendly. We strike up conversations with a number of our fellow travelers, all Americans. One woman (who is traveling with her 8 year old daughter, mother and father) have been stranded in this airport for four days. Another woman (traveling with her teenage son and daughter and elderly mother) has been here for three days. They all tried and failed to get on the flight we missed last night. The airline put them up in a hotel near the airport which was described horrifically. Hunter said something about a goat being skinned outside their hotel window and started looking at alternate hotel options just in case. Behind us in line is an older gentleman who is traveling by himself.
As 7:15 comes, and all of the L.A. bound standby passengers slowly start descending on the gate. We've learned the lessons of the previous flight... unless you exhibit pressure on the gate agents, you won't get a ticket. Hunter takes my passport and bubble jet and acts as advocate as I stay back with our bags.
At 7:40 they've all compressed around the counter, with Agent #4 taking piles of passports from groups ahead of us in line. Compared to the previous flight, this is a stuffy black tie affair. One woman ahead of us in line turns to her 8 year old daughter and says "we're going home baby... barely containing the tears in her eyes." After some rigamarole, she gets boarding passes, checks luggage and heads off... wishing the rest of us good luck in getting on the plane. We all wave goodbye as she and her family run towards the security, customs and their waiting plane.
Agent #4 looks in the computer and says... "I've got two left." Hunter steps forward and hands over our two passports. The other woman ahead of us traveling with her teenage kids and mother looks absolutely dejected. Agent #4's assistant, who has been on the phone with the gate this whole time, says out loud - "Four." Hunter takes back the passports and lets the group of four go. They get their boarding passes, check their bags and run around the corner. "Good luck! Hope you get on the flight!"
Agent #4's assistant says, "we've got one more." The man behind us who was traveling alone steps up to the gate, checks his bags, grabs his boarding pass and runs off.
The plane is full. I think I'm going to throw up.
Agent #4's assistant takes our passports and vanishes.
Hunter looks at me, his eyes full of fire and face full of frustration. We're spending another night in Shanghai. He walks over and tosses out Mandarin Oriental, Peninsula and a few other options for hotels. I'm so sick and upset that I can't even begin to think about hotels right now. I tell him that I just want the experience to be as easy and friction free as possible.
The assistant returns with our passport and some paperwork. She flags down a guy in a polo shirt with a name tag. He's going to drive us to the hotel they booked for us. We decline.
By now, I've depleted the last of my yuan and need to head to an ATM to pay for taxis and whatever else happens tonight. Hunter hangs back upstairs with the bags as I head down to the arrival level to find an ATM, sad, angry and on the verge of tears. The arrival level is packed with people, pushing and shoving and cutting in front of me and being rude and obnoxious. It takes everything in me to keep from kicking and pushing people. Every 10 feet a cab driver solicits me for a ride. I walk to the end of the terminal before finding an ATM. I put my card, punch in my PIN, select my denomination and wait.... the transaction fails. I go down the hallway and try another ATM, again it fails. A woman comes up to me and says... "the ATM doesn't work, do you need money?" I wave her off.
I hate everyone, I hate this airport and China Eastern Airlines can fuck off.
I head back upstairs and find Hunter. He booked the Ramada right next to the airport. We head outside and get in a taxi. The taxi driver doesn't know where the Ramada hotel is. You can see it from the airport. He proceeds to drive in circles, missing the exit, probably long-hauling. Asshole. I'm on the verge of violence, I'm an American.
Hunter checks us into the hotel while I hit the lobby ATM and grab some beers at the bar - to go. A cover band is playing 'Barracuda' in the lounge. As it turns out, the hotel only has a single king bed room available. Tonight, Hunter & I will, finally, snuddle. We arrive in the room to find that it has a "sexy time shower" with bathroom window. It also comes with a pair of gas masks (not joking).
I get in the shower. Hunter orders a pizza then cracks the Great Firewall of China. I knew he would do it! He manages to connect his laptop to Twitter and reads a bunch of messages of support people have been posting about our ordeal. This makes both of us really happy. I climbed into bed and sent a text to my wife telling her that we couldn't get on the flight. She's sad, but is more concerned about how we're holding up. The pizza is boring.
I flipped around the TV and found "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" with Chinese subtitles. I watched for a little while then fell asleep. Fifteen minutes later there was a knock at the door... the pizza guy brought the cash Hunter paid for the pizza back. They used the credit card associated to the room instead. Weird.
Goodnight Shanghai... again.