Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Fantasy Island to Personal Paradise - The Long Road Home

From the time we stepped off the boat, it was a blur of activity. We made our Phuket flight on time but didn’t get to spend a few hours street eating in Bangkok as we had planned to do during our layover[1]. The length of our layover in Bangkok consisted of a tasty soba bowl and the best dark chocolate gelato of my life. As most people in BKK are just passing through, there is a lot of diversity. The airport is a stopover for many flights that continue on to India or the Middle East. As such, the people watching was very interesting. The parade of saris was a tribute to jewel tones while the U.S. citizens could be identified by their sensible shoes. The stressed out look on backpacker’s faces made us thankful of our ability to travel the way we do.

A movie was being shot at the airport while we were there. Although it was interesting, it wasn’t nearly as interesting as the 30 or so Saudi Arabian men, women, and children that were getting on the escalators in front of us. The men split up into a pack of two, with one pack going down the escalator first. When they got to the bottom, they formed a circle around exit of the escalator. The men at the top then ushered all the burka-clad women down, their eyes briefly catching mine through the small slit of their burkas. After the women went down, the rest of the men followed. When all the women were herded at the bottom, the group left. Unfortunately, they left their seven children at the top of the escalator, still awaiting instruction from their fathers.

We stood there looking at the children, they stood there not saying a word but looking frightened. I had no idea what to do…Should I stay with the children while David tracked down the group? We opted for a second option…stay at the top of the escalator with the children until someone came back for them.

About five minutes later, a few men came back, clucking away at the kids. I wonder if they recognized that the same people that had stopped to let their group pass them on the escalator was the same couple that was keeping watch over their children when they finally realized they had forgotten them. Did it make no difference? Could they see past my exposed hair and skin?

With hours still remaining until our departure, we found an available bench. Actually, we found three. It seemed that no one wanted to sit near the elderly woman. With missing teeth, shoes with the soles barely hanging on, holes in her socks visible where her shoes had worn through, and all of her life possessions on her back, she stared at the passing world while they ignored her. For hours, not a single person would look at her although everyone seemed to look at us. When it came time to catch our flight, I pulled out a wad of baht. Walking over to the homeless woman, I greeted her in my limited Thai, respected her as an elder, and then handed her 5000 baht, about $150 US dollars. Her eyes welled up with tears. Reaching out, she grasped my hands between hers and spoke to me in a language that I couldn’t understand but with more gratitude than I have ever heard. I just wanted her to know that someone took the time to actually see her.

When we departed for Taiwan, we flew Hello Kitty Airlines (actually, it was Eva Airlines, the official airline of Hello Kitty. I’m not joking). In flight, we bought wonderful Eva Air Hello Kitty figurines from our stewardesses decked out in Hello Kitty aprons. All this while flying in a plane that was painted with Hello Kitty characters. I don’t think that I could provide you any better example of Asia.

I had been feeling better and better as I got further and further from my tropical illness. Both of us were worried about how good I really felt, though, when we departed the airplane in Taiwan. We were almost immediately greeted by government health officials decked out in masks and gloves. Due to Avian Bird Flu concerns, every passenger went through an infrared sensor. If you had a temperature above a certain point, the sensor would identify you and your next stop would be the quarantine office. David took one look at the officials and told me to hold all sneezes and coughs until we passed through the infrared. We were pretty certain my temperature was closer to the normal range now but didn’t want to draw any attention to ourselves otherwise. It was with great relief that we got through the health check without a second glance.

Free to explore the vast Taiwan airport, we immediately headed to the food shops. The food area was interesting…It was like all the street vendors came from outside, set up a big corral of skillets and left one person to man them all. When we came over, we were ushered to the only open cart. As we ordered things from the menu, we kept being told that they didn’t have it. She finally gave us two choices of what they did have, I picked one and David picked the other. Then she shouted to some woman who appeared from nowhere, looked back at us and said, “Only pork soup!”

Starving, we took two bowls of the only obtainable food, pork and bitter fuzzy melon soup. I don’t think that pork was actually in it, just bones that you could suck marrow from. My reflections of that meal are not fond…David tells me that I can’t judge a country by its airport food[2].

By this time, we had been traveling for over 13 hours. Desperate for any food during our long layover that didn’t involve questionable ingredients, we headed to duty free. Our eyes being much greedier than our stomachs, we ended up with $72 of chocolate. In our defense, David notes that it was at least British chocolate.

Cracked out on candy, we walked it off in an airport filled with government propaganda. Books are on display about how mighty Taiwan, Republic of China, is. Posters declare the superiority of Taiwan’s people, culture, food, and innovations. It was an odd airport all around, complete with reading glasses to borrow in case you didn’t have your pair handy.

By the time we got back to Los Angeles, we still had another 15 hours to go until we got home. With no flight until the next morning, we didn’t want to sleep in LAX like we had to when coming back from Guatemala. We picked up our luggage and caught the Hilton shuttle.

After checking into our room, we found that it was too late to grab a bite to eat in any of their restaurants. Instead, we ordered room service. The last thing we had eaten was candy 15 hours prior. Ordering nachos, two sandwiches, French onion soup, and two liters of Perrier, we were like two prisoners who had just gotten out of jail minus the cigarettes and cheap hookers.

We managed a measly four hours of sleep, managing to sleep less than seven hours over a 49 hour period. We staggered back into our home to find it looking like the day after our pre-wedding shindig. All the barbeque supplies were in the fridge and freezer, beer brimmed top to bottom from several shelves, and the leftover sides and salads had unfortunately broken away, formed their own unions, and declared voting rights. Sixteen fabulous days were over. It was time to get back to the real world and it started with cleaning the fridge.

[1] We actually got laughed at when we asked the airline reps if we could make it 20 miles in six hours in a cab.
[2] Really? Because those oysters we had at Sea-Tac were to die for. I’d fly there just to eat oysters.

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