Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Singapore, 20 years later...

No one else was in line. I sauntered up, pulled my wallet out of my pocket, and for a moment, was relaxed. I had managed to make it to the airport on time, have my luggage checked without incident, and had managed to clean my apartment, office, arranged to have keys dropped off for the housesitter, and even taught 2 students that morning. As I pulled out my driver’s license, it hit me. I had forgotten my passport. I was flying from Kansas City to Orange County, California, but the reason I needed the passport was because the next morning I was on a flight to Singapore, via Tokyo. This journey, 20 years in the making, was going to be held up by a small booklet.

“I can’t get on this flight,” I said to the TSA agent and walked out of the queue. Okay, think.

Jessie just dropped you off – she’s going to be leaving the keys at the office for your assistant Lin. Have her go into your house and get the passport and come back up. Go do damage control at the ticket counter.

I made the call. Jessie was surprised to hear from me, as I had just said goodbye, but even more surprised when she realized what was going on. I gave her general directions as to what to do and went to the ticket counter. “I need another way to get to Orange County.” Now, at 3:30 on a Sunday, in a major metropolitan airport, this might not seem like a large task – but the reality is that it is a 3 hour half-transcontinental flight, and we were running out of flights. I was at the Southwest ticket counter. I had rediscovered this airline this year, and had flown with them nearly a dozen times in as many months. I knew they were going to perform. The supervisor did not let me down. “We can get you into Orange County at 9:15.” “But, I have dinner plans at 8:30. What’s happening out of Dallas?” More clicking and tapping. “I could also go to San Diego, LA, or Ontario, or Long Beach,” I said, spitting out the four other choices that people in the LA metroplex have within a 2-hour radius. “I could get you into San Diego at 6:40.” I did the math – land, 20 minutes for baggage claim and rental car, at best, followed by 75 mph on a California freeway, no infrequent occurrence – I could be in Orange County by 8:45 – 15 minutes late for dinner. “I’ll do it.” “When’s your passport getting back?” I looked back at my watch. I had called Jessie 20 minutes ago – she was probably almost at my house – I told her to call me when she got there and I would guide her through my house to where my passport was – top drawer of the desk in my bedroom.

“Thanks very much, ma’am. I’m going to sit here for a moment and book a rental car.” The kiosks I was standing by were out of order, so no one would mind. She nodded. I flipped open my HP netbook and got onto the one website that wouldn’t let me down on a same-day reservation – Priceline.com.

The virtues of Priceline need to be extolled at some point, and I need to give away some handy tips, but the reader’s digest version is that the premise behind name-your-own-price is that an airline, hotel, or car rental company would rather take the nonrefundable cash money you are offering right now and possibly give you the rental at cost rather than have seats go empty, or have beds be unused, or cars sit idle. You have to make sure that you toe the line between absurd and cheap in order to get the best deals. Among my many Priceline triumphs was a booking at the Hyatt Regency in Montreal for the days up to and after New Year’s 2004. When I asked what “best available” was when I checked in that night, I could barely restrain my smile when I heard her say in a Quebecois accent, “$200 Monsieur, but, nothing is available, you know.” I had bid and paid $50USD a night months prior.

Conjuring that triumph, I set about to fix the mess that the passport omission had caused. I selected a pickup at San Diego and a drop at LAX. Often times a “drop fee” might be accessed – like when I drove a car from Tampa to Fort Myers earlier in the year – but I knew it would probably be waived in this market. I started bravely – a full size car for $30. Priceline’s computers tried to warn me – “We suggest you bid $27 or $29 – your chances would then be great.” Nope. I was going to get out of this, and cheaply too. My first submit was a turn-down.
Priceline allows you to rebid on the condition that you change something about your last bid – the pickup or departure dates, the locations, or the class of car you were willing to accept. I kept hitting and missing, working my way down from “full-size” (a Chrysler 300 or equivalent) to my final bid – an economy car (a Ford Focus). I relented and bid $30. The computers took it and reported my savings: I had paid, after taxes, $103.42 below the lowest published price of $142.50.

I got on the plane and managed to sit next to two of the most interesting guys on the plane. Buddies from KU from before even I went to college, they struck up a conversation with me and we started our nearly nonstop 3-hour conversation by finding out from Chris (the guy who worked in advertising) that he had won a trip to Hawaii from the Marriott from Twitter. “Ah, an actual use for Twitter,” I said smilingly, with just the slightest hint of a “I really mean it” tone. I had just, several weeks earlier, given a talk to my Rotary Club during which I shared my disgust of Twitter, and had to get an account in order to legitimate my talk. Since then I had used it as a multi-platform updater – to update LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter at the same time. In fact, I had managed to twitter, shortly after my Priceline rental car triumph, that I was a “travel ninja.”

We landed at San Diego to a balmy 58 degrees. We had just had our first major snowstorm of the year some days before in Kansas City, and 58 degrees felt nearly like summer. We watched the massive carousel turn, and as hundreds of people from four different Southwest flights stared at the moving metal slats I couldn’t help but think of the opening scene from Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001. Here we were, all these years later, not staring at an obelisk, but at a conveyor belt, completely incapacitated and detained until it gave, out of its metal maws, our precious belongings that our loving government, via the TSA, had rifled through just a few hours ago. It was comic, for those who were observing and not just vacantly waiting, numbed by a long flight.

My new friends left, vowing to meet up in KC when I got back from Singapore. I looked at the empty carousel and feared the worst. I walked to the Southwest baggage office. “Where are my bags?” I asked quietly, desperately. “What do they look like?” she asked. I laughed. “They are two black 22s,” I replied. “22” is the term in baggage that refers to the rolling, soft-exteriored, extending-handle style of luggage used by 90% of travelers. It’s sort of like saying “I’m looking for a silver needle” when looking at a haystack. But I trusted in Southwest’s efficiencies. “I don’t think it got moved over from your Orange County flight.” “So it’s going to SNA?” “Yeah, I would look there first.” “But, I have a flight out of LA tomorrow morning.” “Well, we don’t fly to LA from here, so it would have to go through Phoenix or Vegas.” My stomach dropped. I reached into my pocket, pulled out the small blue booklet of paper that said “The United States of America” on it and cursed my forgetfulness. But I had no time to linger; I was late for dinner.

I went to the browser on my phone and hit “reply all” to the previous Facebook message that had only earlier in the day confirmed the dinner time. “It might be longer, guys. Let’s shoot for 9:00pm.”

I then sped-walked to the shuttle buses for Avis. Even though I had paid for the economy car, agents are always looking to upgrade you, and I told her that I wouldn’t mind paying a few dollars more not to be in an emasculating ride. “I could do a standard for $25 a day.” “No, I only have the car for 14 hours, never mind.” She was already trying to reoffer. “How about a 2-door Altima for $8?” “I’ll take it.” She called out to her guys on the lot. I heard the walkie say back, “All we got are the four-door Altimas right now.” I tried not to smile when she said, “I’ll give you the four-door at the same rate.” Lemons into lemonade, right?

I burst onto the freeway with a vengeance. California freeways look like giant seas of concrete. They are often six lanes across on either side and the presence of other drivers/maniacs driving 80 mph and faster allow you to hide at a steady 72-75. I don’t know what I was thinking, and I don’t know how fast I was going when I saw the CHP flashing lights behind me.

I let out a long sigh, punctuated by the still-lingering cough which my sinus infection gifted me with. I pulled over, and managed to facebook my friends before the officer came up to my window: “Dinner cancelled, I got pulled over. If you still want to hang, text.”

“Do you know why I pulled you over?” came the very familiar question. Now, some years ago, I had written an article on “How to get out of a speeding ticket 101” (which I think is in my “revising” bin for some reason or another – I suppose I’ll reprint it now in light of this latest occurrence). In broad strokes, I made the point in that piece that getting out a ticket starts at the very moment of interaction with the officer. Have your driver’s license and registration and insurance ready in your hand and hand it to him before he asks for it. Put your arms into the 10-2 position and answer “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” to his questions. Be brutally honest – they don’t often get that. But this officer didn’t know about that article, and I had to re-prove my techniques with him.

One of the benefits of the youthful features my half-Chinese ancestry affords me is that I can switch, in a heartbeat, between the worldly, driven entrepreneur, who wouldn’t really be that nonplussed in the presence of a Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, and the youngish, probably in-college student, who is just trying to get a break, please (insert Oliver Twist voice here).

“May I ask why you are in such a hurry?” Be brutally honest. “Well officer, I forgot my passport and missed my flight to Orange County, so I had to fly to San Diego instead, and I had to rent a car because I had dinner plans with some friends before I fly out to Singapore tomorrow. I was born there and this is going to be my first time back in 20 years.” Not what he expected – either the story or the honesty. He switched into friend mode. “You know, mathematically, going 85 instead of 65 isn’t going to get you back into OC that much sooner, and you constantly run the risk of getting pulled over, like right now, which then slows you down more, and then you have to drive 130 mph to try to make up that time…” He trailed off, smiling, hoping I got his meaning. I nodded sheepishly, trying to look as dumb as possible. “I’m really sorry, Officer.” It wasn’t a pathetic voice – it wasn’t even defeated, but it was resigned, and that was all I needed. ‘I’m going to give you a warning, but I want you to slow down out there. I want you to make that flight tomorrow to Sing. It’s a beautiful place, I’ve been there.” “I appreciate that, Officer, thank you very much,” I said as I took back my Kansas license, which had probably been an even greater advocate in my favor (“This kid isn’t even from here, he’s from frickin’ Kansas, and he’s about to go back to his birthplace. Yeah, I’m a nice guy.”).

I began to drive off, and he shouted, “Beware the merlion!” “I shouted an, “I will,” and laughed myself. He was alluding to the mythical lion-fish creature that ceremoniously guarded Singapore’s waterfront. Despite all appearances, maybe it was my night after all. It was the 14th speeding ticket I had gotten out of in my life, either through exchanges like that, protesting or appealing by mail, or showing up in court.

I was good for a while too. I thanked my guardian angel for the these-aren’t-the-droids-you’re-looking-for Jedi tricks he played on the officer, aided by my performance, and set the cruise control at 65 on the dot. I settled into the far-right lane, which in California is known as the “granny lane,” for it features those odd creatures who actually want to drive the posted speed limit – a feat I have no problem performing in Kansas, as enforcement is so much more serious there than in California, Kansas cops – especially those from Johnson County – not having any substantive crime to worry about.

I turned to an independent San Diego radio station that had sprung up since I had last been there, and laid my head back on the headrest. Eventually the quiet drive gave way to turning down the radio and chatting with a friend on the phone. I sped up. It was 70, but I was still within 5 miles – perfectly acceptable for my new CHP friend. His memory faded as I hit North County SD and the Encinitas area. By the time I crossed the border into Orange County and into the mostly-Marines-and-their-dependents town of San Clemente, I was back to my old California driving habits – careful weaving, speeds varying between 70 and 85.

I made it to dinner at 10:30 – two hours late. But before I did that, I had to stop at John Wayne and see about my luggage. I was at the luggage office. I was pretty tired at that point, and walked all the way back to the car to get the bag tags, only to realize they were in my KU warmup jacket I was wearing. I shook my head and walked back.

Two smiling faces looked at me, and offered me peanuts, pretzels, and water when they heard my story. “Okay, they are either in Phoenix, ready to come in first thing tomorrow, or they continued on to Vegas, which is where the Orange County flight went.” “So…?” “So, that flight just got in, so check the carousel and see if they are there.” The bags started dropping fifteen minutes later. No dice.

My guy – Bill I think – was already working the phones. “Look, we are going to get them to LA tomorrow – that way you can just pick them up and go to your flight.” “I can pay for that.” Their glances told me that I wasn’t going to.

“Okay, just call me when you know.” Not even ten minutes later he called and told me that I could get them after 8:30am – at LAX – tomorrow. I thanked him and went to my first meal of the day, about 14 hours after I had gotten up. You can get a goodly distance on Bloody Mary Mix and pretzels, I had found out, but I was running on fumes.

Two of my closest friends in Orange County were at the restaurant. I ordered an Old-Fashioned, three appetizers, and devoured just about everything. I lamented their recent spike in cynicism about the opposite sex, and I shared some of my travails of the past year in that field, and that I had reason to be optimistic about the New Year, for any number of reasons. They guffawed and said, “We’ll see.”

I was only slightly disheartened. They had reason to be cynical. They were dating California girls, after all, and as the fictional Frank Moody has opined on at least one occasion – California seems hellbent on destroying its female population – by making women feel inadequate, not pretty enough, not curvy enough, not young enough, or not tan enough. Even the most grounded girls get their heads infected with this garbage, and as someone who has dated girls from Laguna Beach and girls from Kansas City, there is a culture in the Midwest that sees marriage – with one person, of the opposite sex, for life – and kids, as a goal to aspire to, not something to avoid as long as possible while wild oats are sown all over the place. Whatever bad experiences I had had in Kansas City, the vast majority of the women I dated wanted to get married, and didn’t judge themselves by the girls on “The Hills,” despite the fact that they may still watch such shows avidly.

“You’ll see in February, when you visit.” “Sure, man.”

We retired to Mike’s house and listened to a song he had recorded back in 2004 about an unruly roommate of Jeff’s and mine. The song was set to the tune of my favorite Pearl Jam song, “Yellow Ledbetter,” and we howled with laughter.

A couple hours later, I set the most obnoxious alarm possible on my phone, knowing that my total sleep in the last 48 tick-tocks was no more than a total of 10 hours and that I would need an irritating noise to wake me from my reverie. Humans are the only creatures who go to bed when they are not tired and wake up when they are. I awoke four hours later, pretty deep in REM sleep, right at 6am. I had promised to meet my Dad for 6:30am breakfast.

Now, you have to know a couple things about my father. One, he’s probably the kindest, gentlest person I know. Every single friend I know is always stunned to find that we are related – not because I am any less outgoing than my father – we are both “people people” – but because he’s so much more sanguine than me – my overly driven, choleric personality had deep roots with my mother’s genes – but I have even surpassed her indefatigable drive and, at the end of the last year of this decade, found myself ready to dial it back several notches after years in overdrive.

The other thing about my father is that he loves us very much, and he had happily taken the morning off work from his part-time job at Disneyland just to have an hour-long breakfast with me. My father had spent 18 years abroad before he met and wooed my mother, so he has no shortage of travel stories and tips. Something I occasionally ask my dad is a sort of time-capsule question. The last time I did this was last year, as I was walking towards Kauffman Stadium, ready to meet some friends for yet another Royals disappointment: “Dad, what were you doing at my age?” “Well, son, when I was 29, I was living in Iran. It was during the time of the Shah, you know. I had a chance to take some classes at Tehran University and was working for Atlantic Richfield at the time. The Russians and the Americans were always looking for information and I was approached – not in any formal way, you know – about providing tips.” I smiled. At my age, my Dad was in a tolerant, cultured Iran, one free of the Muslim thugs that currently run that disaster-waiting-to-happen-with-Israel “republic.” It put things in perspective then and did now too.

He handed me the Frommer’s I had asked him to pick up the night before, along with an “ung-pao” - a little red envelope that usually contains money. One was empty, one was full of money. It was addressed to my “Popo” (Grandmother in Mandarin). There was also a just-penned note from my mother, and a tiny book of “traveler’s prayers.” “Read it on the plane, okay, Son?” I nodded.

I dropped him at home and embraced him. I was 30 and a business owner, but he still was my Dad, and was reminding me of all the things a traveler should keep in mind. I had flown nearly 50,000 miles in 2009, and I learned travel by having to move 20 times in my life – ten times with my parents – but my maturity allowed me to accept his advice with grace and smiles instead of the impertinent impatience my not-so-distant youth might have expressed.

I drove off, vaguely remembering that I could get to LAX via the 5 Freeway – somehow. It’s odd – as much as I could have, years ago, drawn you a probably to-scale, highly accurate map of the freeways of the greater LA, OC, and San Diego regions, non-use of the knowledge had made it non-existent, and some minutes later I called my father. “What do I do from the 5?” “Well, you should have taken the 91 to the 605 to the 105.” Of course, I had forgotten that the 105, which had taken 20 years to build because of the unbelievable amount of property that had to be bought and bulldozed, stopped just short of connecting to the 5, and I would have to take the 605 connector south for a few exits so that I could pick up the 105.

Traffic was so slow I was able to take pictures and upload them to my facebook, captioning them, “Yet another reason I don’t miss Southern California: traffic, anytime.”

I pulled into the Avis lot, after – for the first time that I can remember in ages – filling up the car with gas. I always made the mistake of paying for the tank and not using it, or only using it a bit and forgetting to refuel, both not horribly costly mistakes, but rookie mistakes, still. I wasn’t going to forget this time. I haven’t, for years, noticed the price of gas. It’s a resource that you have to use, and it’s as common and necessary as water and air to any humans living in most modern American metropoli (please note that the following cities are excepted: Seattle, Portland, OR, San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Philly). I just pay and only know there is an issue with prices because I hear people complaining. But, here I was in California, so I peered at the display. $2.48. Was that a lot, I wondered.

Twenty dollars later, I pulled into the Avis parking lot and told my shuttle bus driver that I was going to Terminal 1, the Southwest terminal. As I walked to the Southwest baggage office, my step quickened as I saw what I thought were my two suitcases. They were, thankfully, and I bought a smarte-carte, a free one being nowhere in sight, and walked ten minutes down to American’s International terminal at LAX. Checking in was fairly hassle-free, and I even used a kiosk. I made my way to security. But first, I had to pass the carry-on luggage policy.

This woman’s unfortunate Sisyphusian task involved making passengers put their obviously too-big carry-ons in the metal slats that masquerade as fair measures of what fits in an overhead bid. I don’t envy this lady’s job, and even in my frustration at being told my bag was “too tall” (an epithet a man or woman might hurl at a very attractive member of the opposite sex who was not height-compatible, but totally out of place here, I thought) I didn’t think she enjoyed doing this to people. I was going to fix this.

I explained to the nice Asian girl behind the counter that the last two time I had flown American internationally (it had been to London and Buenos Aires) that I carried bags at least as big, if not bigger, than the garment bag that was currently being rejected by the gatekeeper. “Is it like $20, $40?” I asked, reaching for my wallet, ready to pay. She smiled painfully and shook her head and said, “This is international, so…” I interrupted with, “No, not $100…” Her nod interrupted my response. Brutal honesty, so proven in the past 24 hours, again ruled the day. “Look, I don’t have $100 with me.” I didn’t. The utter pointlessness of carrying American currency when you were going to be in Asia for three weeks had not been lost on me and I had no cash. Now, I could have said I had credit cards, but why volunteer information? “Let me see what I can do,” she smiled.

I stood behind some good-looking golden retrievers, who were going to accompany their loving owner to his final destination. I think I need to get a dog this year, I thought to myself as I waited patiently. I saw her point me out, speak to him. I let my faded Banana Republic jeans and gray Skechers speak for me: “Yes, I’m a college student carrying no cash, and (implied) I don’t have that kind of money.” He motioned me forward. “Sir, I travel with this garment bag all the time, I know it fits in the overhead compartment.” “Look, I’m sure you’re right, but we’re really strict here at LAX.” “Well, sir, I don’t have $100 with me.” Politesse almost always works, not only because people, not just Americans, want to be heroes in some small way, but also because being polite makes it hard for someone to say no.

“Okay, I’m going to check it for free. They probably aren’t going to give you any trouble in Singapore coming back.” I expressed my gratitude and went back to the gatekeeper, one bag lighter. She waved me through without a stop, and now I was going through TSA.

My father had suggested, along with my mother, that I bring some American chocolates back for my grandmother, as she would treasure anything from America. I smiled, especially because from my youth, my mother has cultured a palate in her children that leans towards European chocolate, which doesn’t use the inordinate amounts of sugar found in American chocolate. But I nodded when I was given my instruction, and dutifully picked up some Godiva and Ghiradelli boxes in the duty-free shop.

I called my assistant, went through some final phone calls and correspondence from parents for Get Smarter, the company I would be leaving for 3 weeks in person, but not electronically (owners don’t ever really get to “leave” their business, but then again, employees don’t often, as I did this year, get 13 weeks of vacation. It’s give and take.) I wished her a Merry Christmas, and made her promise to email at the end of every business day with the tasks – email, phone call, or correspondence, that I needed to attend to while on the other side of the planet.

I sat down in my chair, back among the mooing cattle we have to be in coach. It was 11:40am. I had started my travels at 3pm in Kansas City the day before, and I wasn’t even 1/10th of the way to my destination. But I was ready. I closed my eyes, leaned back, and started listening to David Gray’s “Flame Turns Blue” as the Boeing 777’s wheels left our lovely planet’s surface.

I was going to know the place again, for the first time.

Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, December 14th, in the Year of Our Lord MMIX.

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