Saturday, January 16, 2010

Home for the Holidays... Courtesy of China Southern Airlines

Note: The Christmas tree pictured here is from my house three years ago. I was hosting Christmas Day dinner that year, and, as I truly hate wrapping gifts, had naturally put it off until the last possible minute. I had set up the tree, but hadn’t put any decorations or lights on it as of Christmas Eve. Nothing like procrastination to spice up the holiday season! So one of my friends came over with his gifts and we proceeded to do our gift-wrapping together. We also drank. You know, wrap a gift, take a shot, something like that. So by the time we finished wrapping, we were pretty liquored up and it was nearing midnight. I couldn’t be bothered with actually decorating the tree at that point, so I just stuck unopened boxes of ornaments and lights, rolls of wrapping paper, and other holiday paraphernalia into the boughs of the tree (click to enlarge). Everyone loved it the next day and it became an instant classic. We still talk about it and likely will for years to come.

Happy 2010! I’m writing this while on a 777 flying back to KL now, currently early into the longest leg of the trip. This is actually officially the longest nonstop flight I’ve taken: 15 hours aloft. I looked it up, thinking this was surely one of the longest commercial flights, only to find out it’s not even in the top thirty. Whatever, though… 15 hours is plenty long enough for me. To compound the misery, I flew out from what has to be the worst major airport in America, LAX. They’re doing a years-long (and decades-overdue) renovation on the terminal, but I’ve flown in and out of LAX many times, and it’s not just an embarrassment to Los Angeles, it’s a stain on American aviation. Security was a complete nightmare, naturally, and a four-hour layover was only barely sufficient to go through the ordeal. But it gets worse… I’m flying the largest airline you’ve never heard of (China Southern) to the largest city you’ve also never heard of (Guangzhou, China). Neither of these bodes well for me. Our dinner was a complete travesty. I’m not even that picky when it comes to airline food, and this was easily one of the crappiest meals I’ve ever had in the sky. I, like both of my seatmates, couldn’t even bother finishing it. But hey, on the good side, only 13.5 hours left to go (sigh). But I can’t even get excited about that because I have a 12.5-hour layover in Guangzhou, and if it’s anything like the 8-hour festival of despair on the outbound flight, I may have to self-medicate during my time in the airport. I can’t update my blog while there because, like YouTube, the website is banned in China. After that, it’s a relatively short four-hour flight back to KL, where I’ll arrive late in the evening, almost certainly not returning to my condo until 1 a.m. I can’t say that I’ll never fly China Southern again, but for myriad reasons, they will never sit atop my list of preferred airlines, and I’ll almost certainly not fly them across the Pacific again.

One incredibly retarded thing that they do is fail to issue boarding passes for both legs of the journey, even though they’re on the same airline. For example, when I checked in for the flight in LA, I was given a boarding pass for the LA-Guangzhou leg, but not for the Guangzhou to KL part. “You can get that in Guangzhou,” they said. It was the same on the outbound flight. Moreover, you actually have to clear immigration as a transit-only passenger on flights through mainland China. Nobody else does this – I’ve transited through five or six other countries; you don’t deal with immigration at all since you never leave the transit area of the airport. So when I arrived at the podium with my passport, it went something like this:

“Where is your visa to enter China?”

“I don’t have a visa. I’m not entering China. I’m just a transit passenger.”

“Where is your ticket?”

“I don’t have one. It’s an e-ticket.”

“Boarding pass, please.”

“Don’t have that, either. The airline said to get it here.”

“Wait.” Another officer is then summoned and an exchange in Cantonese ensues.

“Where is your boarding pass?” the second officer asks me.

“I still don’t have one.”

So they then took my passport (along with those of the other transit passengers) and disappeared for about half an hour, then a China Southern representative appeared and auctioned off the passports to their respective owners, along with boarding passes. (I already had a confirmed seat on the second leg of the trip, which makes China Southern’s inability to issue a boarding pass in Los Angeles all the more vexing.) Then the representative escorted me through a back-alley way to the boarding gate wing, which has virtually nothing on it save two sad, sad little noodle caf├ęs and a couple of trinket shops. And there I was dumped to wait for twelve hours.

So, after sitting in Guangzhou’s crappy airport for the longest layover I’ve ever had, I’m on the plane now waiting to fly down to KL. I’m surprisingly not very fussed about the odyssey that getting from Denver to even this point has been (to say nothing of the potential hassle once I arrive in KL), but that’s largely because I just mentally shut down at the beginning. It’s really the only way you can maintain your sanity on such a long journey with all the myriad security theatrics, long queues for everything, talkative seatmates, uncomfortable seats, etc. For me, the past 30-something hours are all just a blur. We’re supposedly going to be taking off here in about 15 minutes, and it’s a bit over three hours to KL, so I’ll sign off here and pick this up with a recap of my time in Colorado once I recover from the voyage. But here’s a picture of what I’ve basically been looking at for hours on end. It’s a nice enough airport as far as design and construction, but there are no amenities at all. Just anguish.

* * * * *

Later… So this trip home was much more enjoyable overall than the last one, which included a lot of stress and business dealings. The only real drawback for the whole visit was the cold! Over a year in the tropics has made me even more cold-natured than I already was. When I arrived at the airport, it was -12°C (10°F) and snowing and the temperature never exceeded 3-4°C (37-39°F) for the duration of my visit. This picture here is from my house looking up the snow-covered street in my neighborhood. Though driving on the snow is not fun, it really was kind of nice to have snow for Christmas. One of my friends back in KL remarked that he envisioned me sitting around the Christmas tree with friends and family, with a fire in the fireplace and snow outside… then he said, “Or maybe I’ve just watched too many TV shows.” But actually, that’s pretty much how it was this year! We had Christmas at my mom’s place, and had a really nice fire going while we opened gifts around the tree. We were also treated by my mom to a sumptuous Christmas Day Champagne brunch at the Brown Palace Hotel in downtown Denver. We’ve been there many times before for their excellent Sunday brunch, but this was a first for Christmas, and it didn’t disappoint. Interestingly, the only person I’m actually related to in this picture is my mother, standing next to me. The rest are our good friends of many years and I’ve come to realize that enduring friendships such as these are the very best kind... they are family that you actually get to choose.

The rest of the trip was mostly just eating, shopping, and visiting with my friends. I also got to go to my mother’s new workplace and meet her colleagues. It’s called the Consortium for Older Adult Wellness, a non-profit advocacy organization that helps older people take control of their health care management and their lives in general. They do really good work, and my mom had just been raving about the quality of the people with whom she worked, so it was fun to meet them. At my mother's request, I cooked an appropriately Asian meal for them (Indonesian, however, not Malaysian), and we had a nice post-Christmas lunch at their office.

For really the first time since moving to KL sixteen months ago, I actually miss some things about my home country. My like and dislike of living in Malaysia is subject to predictable ebbs and flows… when I’m sitting in a hellish traffic jam, for instance, living in KL loses almost all of its luster. Driving around Denver in the late evening (on snow, mind you), I was struck at how relatively empty the streets were. Even on fairly major thoroughfares, late at night, there were very few cars keeping me company. In KL, you are almost never alone when you drive. Anywhere, anytime, your car will be only one of many on the road. One thing I don’t miss about Colorado is the long, cold winters. Now, in fairness, winters in Denver are not what any northern-latitudes dweller would characterize as “bad” — indeed, there are plenty of sunny, mild days, and Denver doesn’t actually get a lot of snow. But this December was cold… and although snow that falls in March melts very quickly, snow that falls in mid-December tends to stick around for awhile, particularly when it’s accompanied by a lengthy cold spell. It was nice to get back to the tropical warmth of KL. As I put the finishing touches on this entry, it’s midafternoon and absolutely pouring rain outside. My friends here in KL can’t quite grasp why I like the rain so much; I’ve always been fond of inclement weather in general, but having lived in a very dry climate for so long (Denver gets very little rain during the warm months), I am as enthralled by tropical downpours as Malaysians would be by a snowstorm!

I didn’t take many photos on my trip, sorry for that, but here’s one of just some of the stuff I brought back with me… I filled my two checked bags to the absolute weight limit (23 kg/50 lbs. each), had a carry-on bag that was way, way overweight (about 18 kg./40 lbs.) – glad no one asked me to put it on a scale. And even a backpack that was about 9 kg./20 lbs. So this picture doesn’t include all the contents of my luggage, but it’s a lot of it. Of course, lots of food and food-related things… six or seven new dress shirts, things for my friends here, new shoes, all kinds of stuff.

That's all for now! Coming soon… my recaps and reviews of my trips to Pangkor Laut Resort and Cameron Highlands Resort! Stay tuned…