MacauTripping Chapter 15 - You Know I'll Be Free
Music is my subconscious. When awake, I dream it. When dreaming, I dream it. When playing, I think about anything but - like emptying the vacuum cleaner or strategies for eliminating junk mail paper waste. Right now, I'm occupied with a descending F minor pentatonic riff, with stops at a bent sharp E flat, an unapologetic B natural that wiggles into a microtonal turn somewhere between A flat and A natural. It all cascades down the guitar neck where it lands on a fully resonant Cm7 chord - with B and E strings ringing - y'know to keep things spicy and unsettled... just the way I like it. The problem here is that the G string is way out of wack... I torque my wrist to give my pinky some leverage to bend it back into non-resonant resonance. I see a white ceiling, with some natural wood, and a light, and an iPhone poking out the top of a pile of blankets. What the hell is...
"Good morning!" Hunter says.
I open my eyes to find that I've woken up into a nightmare. My blissfully awesome, yet slightly out-of-tune dream jam, has been put on blast. The optimism of a new morning instantaneously gives way to yesterday's dread. I'm not sure if I can find any more optimism here... we're at the Shanghai Airport Ramada goddamnit.
No point putting this off. I get up. Check my phones for messages - none - and hit the bathroom to freshen up and take care of business. There was a reason why I packed my Aeroflot Soviet Airlines t-shirt, and that reason is today.
Hunter tells me excitedly that there is a buffet downstairs. We go. The food is much more varied than the Holiday Inn's buffet - they've managed to create a pretty good selection of food here for an amazing selection of international patrons. There is Chinese buns & dumplings, Western breakfast items, traditional breakfast items, Japanese dishes, Indian dishes plus pastries cereals and chef stations. Impressive.
The selection is varied but the food is meh. It is also possible that I'm just over this whole thing. I barely touched the pizza Hunter ordered last night. We head back up to the room and started packing our stuff. We headed downstairs, checked out of the hotel and hopped the airport shuttle to the airport.
The lady at the desk last night told us to be here at 8am. We're here an hour early.
There are three flights out of Shanghai Pudong airport today - 1pm and 9pm via China Eastern Airlines and 7:30pm via Delta. We arrive at the Stand By desk to find we're the fourth group in line, but the first for Los Angeles. Two other gentlemen and another couple are flying to Vancouver and Chicago, they're on their 4th day being shanghaied. At 8pm, the desk opens and the agent goes through all of the passengers waiting and puts them on lists for various flights. Hunter and I belly up to the desk when called, hand over our passports and bubble jets. Tap tap tap tap. Tap tap tap. Click. Tap tap. Tap.
The Los Angeles flight scheduled for 1pm is overbooked, we're the first two people on the standby list. The agent tells us to come back at 10:40.
Are you fucking serious? Yes, they are fucking serious. Here we go again... throwing the dice on the possibility that we'll get home. At some point, this has to be classified as kidnapping, right? Not to mention that we've overstayed the 24 hour temporary visa that customs gave us... like... three days ago.
We agree that it is in our best interest to stay close to the gate. We've seen enough times how bum rushing the ticket counters renders all lines and lists moot. We scope out a bench nearby and hunker down for another long day in the airport. We take turns running errands. I head to Starbucks for coffee (me) and orange juice (him). He runs out to find another SIM card. We trade trips to the bathroom. During one trip Hunter spots the Chinese Justin Bieber who darts through the airport and right through security as a hundred teenage girls took photos of him.
Massive crowds of people heave forth through the rope rodeo swelling lines into a river of humanity. Whereas I once had a 15 yard clearance between me and the rope rodeo, now I've got people standing with their asses inches away from my face. Between this, the kid riding his Dad's luggage like he's Tony Hawk and the dude coming by ever 30 minutes trying to sell me a "brand new iPhone 6S plus" I'm just about ready to go berserk.
At that point, Hunter says "Charles!" I turn to see what is up and he's sitting there with a goofy grin on his face pointing his podcasting mic at my face.
"Oh god," I responded. "What's happening?" "Oh no... are we really gonna do this now?" And off we went, regaling the tales of being shanghaied in Shanghai for Episode 12 of the 88 Days To Macau podcast.
We talked for 23 minutes and five seconds. It was cathartic and lifted both of our spirits. You know what else is lifting my spirits? The way the departures board spells Bangkok... Bangcoque.
I head out on another quick walk, looking for some peace and relief. I grab my phone and earbuds and fire up "Lazarus" by David Bowie. The spacey wandering groove transports me to somewhere that isn't here.
When the song's lush, echo-filled soundscape is pierced by Bowie's whispery, yet gorgeously resonant tenor, I feel electrified, as if I'm being sung a life lesson by god.
Look up here, I'm in heaven, I've got scars that can't be seen.
I wander further away... and the lesson continues.
Look up here man, I'm in danger. I've got nothing left to lose.
I circle and return... attention rapt with every atmospheric twist and turn of "Lazarus."
This way or no way, you know I'll be free.
Just like that bluebird, now ain't that just like me.
I'll be free.
In the biblical story, Lazarus, a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, became gravely ill. His sisters sent message to Jesus urging him to come quickly and heal Lazarus. Jesus waited two days before setting out to visit Lazarus. Upon arrival, he found out that Lazarus had died four days prior, and was already entombed. Jesus entered the tomb, and with prayer, rose Lazarus from the dead.
Maybe my dumb joke yesterday was a 25 cent peep show of reality. Maybe Hunter and I really are dead. Maybe this daily attempt to escape Shanghai Pudong Airport is our living hell. Maybe we're Lazarus. Maybe David Bowie is Lazarus, singing about resurrection from beyond his own grave.
The song ends and I wake up from this wandering daydream to find that I'm in a bathroom stall. I hear the "toing, toing, toing" of a nail clipper echoing off the tiles. Someone just shellacked their body with cologne.
Just like that bluebird, I'll be free, ain't that just like me.
I leave the bathroom and head back to the couch where Hunter announces that he's gotten the WiFi and VPN to work. I knew he could do it. Victory is ours.
We decided to forego our couch space and jump back on line at the Stand By desk. We share horror stories with the other stranded passengers. One by one, their flights are called up to the desk, they get tickets and boarding passes, check their luggage, wave goodbye to their new friends and run to catch their flights.
"Goodbye!" "Good luck!" "Hope you get on the flight!"
One gentleman returning from the Philippines who is waiting stand by for a flight to Vancouver tells us that we will need to get a "flight aberration document" from the China Eastern manager's desk. The Flight Aberration document is essentially a 'get out of China free card' in case airline troubles caused you to overstay your visa. He tells us that if we don't get one of these, customs will charge us a 500RMB fee. Nobody told us about this.
As 10:00 nears, Hunter and I play the game and park ourselves at the Stand By desk. We're not moving until we get boarding passes.
In a flash, the entire check in area is mobbed with people trying to get last minute boarding passes for a flight to Toronto - pushing, shoving, climbing over each other and boxing each other out. The chaos is ugly.
"Are you waiting on standby for the flight to L.A.?" a woman asks me. She's traveling with two of her friends, they're all tan, giggly Californians, wearing Thai print clothes and jewelry. "Yes, we're on the stand by line, we're hanging right here until they give us tickets." "Oh good, we'll stick with you." She relays the information to her friends. Their flight from Bangcoque yesterday was delayed and they missed the flight to Los Angeles as well. "China Eastern Airlines is the worst" she says "I'm never ever ever flying with them again."
After the Toronto hubub subsides, we wait...10:40 comes and goes. Ten minutes later, the desk agent calls us to the front of the line. She takes our passports and bubble jets and looks in the computer. Tap tap tap. Tap tap. Tap tap tap tap tap. She instructs us to put our baggage on the scale, prints out tags, sticks them to boarding passes and tucks them and the bubble jets into our passports hands them back to us. They give us a special sticker that alerts security that we're "in a rush."
We're outta here.
I quickly get out my phone and text my wife.
We say goodbye and good luck to our fellow strandedeers and run to get the flight aberration document to find the manager is assisting another customer who has endless questions. Eventually, Hunter busts in and nicely says "Our flight is leaving and we need this form." The manager ends the conversation with the other customer and fills out our forms. We run towards security and hop in the "special line" that is shorter than the obscenely long line. We see the Thailand gals ahead of us.... they urge us to come up and join them in line. After about 5 minutes waiting, I call over a security guard and make the case to be escorted to the front of all of the lines. She opens up the stanchion and puts us in a new, super special line. The only problem here is that the desk agent on the super special line is super duper slow.
You have bad luck.
Hunter goes through security first, gets stamped, races through the kiosks, turns right and takes off sprinting. I get stamped and follow suit. Good god this customs agent is slooooooow. I arrive the rope rodeo outside of the security check. Hunter is nowhere to be found. Here, the security area is like a game of Let's Make A Deal, a wall with a series of doors... pick one! I chose door number 8, walked in put my laptop and bag in separate trays on the X-ray machine and walked through the metal detector. I didn't bother to take off my belt or shoes. I grabbed my bag and laptop, exited the security room and took off running through the terminal, onto a down escalator that led to the gate.
Within the sea of people, I spot Hunter and the Thailand gals waving to me by the gate entrance and push through the crowd to get to them as the airline calls the flight and starts taking boarding passes. When I finally get there, I reached into my bag and pulled out three miniature American flags that I had planned to give to John and Hunter on our last night in Macau and handed them one by one to the Thailand gals. They all start screaming and waving the flags around in the air. We're going home.
The five of us head through the gate and hop on the bus. We're going home.
Thoughtfully, the airline reserved seats for us in the emergency exit row, with full leg extension and easy access to flight attendants. It really is a shame that China Eastern's ground game is so horrible... their in-flight service, comfort and quality is spectacular.
After three days in Shanghai Purgatory Airport, we're finally in the air, enroute to Los Angeles. On the flight home, I followed MacauTripping superfriend @Vajohna's advice and watched four movies and took two pee/stretch breaks. I watched "Danny Collins" starring Al Pacino as an aging pop star, "Ricki and The Flash" starring Meryl Streep as an aging bar singer, "Brooklyn" starring Saorise Ronin as a Irish woman who moves to New York in the 1940's and "Creed" starring Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed Johnson. I probably liked "Brooklyn" best out of all of them. I dozed off for maybe an hour, and when the food came, I chose the pork noodles.
Fifteen hours later, we landed in Los Angeles, California, United States of America, Land of the free and home of the brave.
Hunter signed up for Global Entry via Homeland Security. This enabled him to skip a lot of the security checks and go ahead. I went through the checks. He beat me to the baggage carousel by about 1 minute.
We were met in the terminal by Hunter's wife Megan. It was pretty surreal to be back in the U.S. and seeing a familiar face again. A lot has happened. We head to her car, hop on the freeway and they drop me off at my house before taking off. Hunter and I had a nice hug before they took off. Words can hardly express the love and admiration I have for the Admiral. This trip has been incredible, enriching experience and has made the two of us (and John too) much closer than ever before. They drive off.
I walked up to the front door peeked in the window to see my puppies asleep on the ledge by the window in my office. I tap on the window, and they wake up and start jumping up and down. My wife pulls in the driveway a few minutes later... girl loves me.
Just like that bluebird... I'm home.