The Chinese fight attendant smiled at me and I wanted to fall in love. She was pretty and so kind it almost makes the trouble of this trip worth it. This leg of the trip is almost over and I will be in Shanghai soon.
I woke up early at the Patumwan House at 6AM yesterday, a hotel Bob introduced me to many years ago in Bangkok. Sam spent his first night in Asia there when he was about 19. He fell in love for the second time, I think, with Asia.
I needed to get to a new job in Shanghai from Munich but my China visa had expired. When I get work, it lasts for a week or so, and when I get called, it is for right now. Weeks before, I got a call to meet my partner in Munich. I got a cheap flight, left the next day and planned to stay over one Saturday and go back to Florida, where I was living on my sailboat. I left with just two pairs of jeans and not much more. I forgot my coat, as it was 80F in Florida. The trip to Munich that was to last but a few days, had stretched into more than a few weeks. What little clothing I brought had been washed several times. I got the call for China as I was just finishing in Germany. I was more than ready to go back to Florida, but I was off to China instead.
After waking up at 6AM, I made my way to the Chinese Embassy where, for a small fortune and a bit of patience, you can get a visa in a day. I knew it could get the visa in short order in Bangkok, a long detour from Shanghai, but where you can get just about anything you want if you are willing to pay.
At 8AM os so, I was outside trying to get a taxi. Several had refused to take me as the traffic is gridlocked that time of day near the embassies. One driver wanted 500 baht. I offered 400 and he agreed. By meter it would have been about 150 baht but in Bangkok the taxi meters don’t keep clocking when the car is stuck in traffic.
When I arrived the line already snaked out the door. I regretted not having left even earlier. I should have suspected this would happen, as the embassy had been closed for a 3-day holiday. I knew there would be a bit of a crowd, but not this horde. I needed help and looked for a guy I had paid a couple of years earlier to work the system. He was not around. I thought I would have to wait it out, then saw a woman who looked the part. I approached her. 500 baht, she said, and she would help. She checked my papers, found I was short two forms, and took me to a desk at a travel agency next to the embassy. In the USA, lots of travel agencies are staffed by gay guys. Here, lady boys, far more fun and interesting. I started to chat it up with the best looking one, a good looking bloke!
She needed a copy of my bank statement to make sure I wasn’t at risk of staying in China and becoming a drag on the state. She also needed one more official letter, and gave me the fake letterhead, telling me what to write. She made fake hotel and air reservations for me. I was reluctant to access my bank account on her computer, but my accounts have a password that has to be sent to my phone then entered, a measure I had taken just because of travel to strange places. We finished up in no time, and she escorted me back, and got me to the head of the line and through security at the Chinese embassy. I thought I was home-free. It took four hours to get through the line. An Indian guy tried to cut in front of me. I calmly explained to him that he was not going to be able to pull it off, that I was going to remove him. As I began to inform him of his plight, those behind me let him have it as well. He was intimidated by what was becoming a mob, and left.
I finally got to the head of the line…and was rejected for a mistake on my forms. The woman behind the bullet proof glass said I had 30 minutes to fix it and get back. I went back to the travel agency, where my “agent” edited one form for me. I flirted a bit more with my favorite lady boy, then went back. I had a pass to get to the head of the line, but that didn’t help cool off the people behind me. I turned in the forms, paid a fortune for one-day turn around, and was told to come back at 3PM, two hours off.
I went back to the travel agency and got my favorite ladyboy to book me a ticket to Shanghai, now confident of getting the visa. She was glad to see me. The one guy in the place asked if I liked ladyboys. “You bet I do, if they can get a ticket as fast as she can.” Then I put my arm around her and planted a kiss on her cheek to the delight of the other agents, and the chagrin of a few Westerners.
I still had time to go back to the Patumwan House to retrieve my bags of not enough clothes, and to talk my way out of paying for another night. I was going to China!
I got back to the embassy in time to get into another long queue. I was in line next to a Chinese woman who was teaching Mandarin in Thailand, the new language of the future. I chatted her up. She asked the same questions I always get. Do you like China, what do you think of our new Prime Minister Xi, what do you think of Obama. I gave my same answer. I like the American and Chinese people, I don’t like Obama or Xi, the American government or the Chinese government. She liked her government, and I explained how a good American distrusts government, and why. She seemed to think that was a novel approach.
Our chat passed the time quickly…two more hours, and I picked up my passport, with my new visa. It was 5PM and my flight left at 2AM. I went to a spa, looked inside to see if it had what a wanted; a private room with a huge bathtub. I negotiated a price without the girl, but got one to fill the tub. It was 40C outside, and I was sweaty, smelly and tired from all the hurrying and waiting. I climbed into the tub, jets running, with my Ipad to read, put it aside and fell asleep. In two hours, a pretty woman came to wake me. I showered, dressed and made my way to the airport, with plenty of time to kill.
I ate, had some ice cream, and walked around. There were about a thousand teenage girls hanging about in groups of five or six, all texting and giggling. A group I interrupted from their frenzy, all talking to me at the same time, told me there was a Korean movie star flying in and they were hoping to catch a glimpse. I hope they did.
It was time to head for the gate for the 2AM flight. What an awkward time to leave. It wouldn’t happen in the U.S. The people under the flyway would complain, as would all the overpaid government employees at the airport. I have taken to buying as many tickets outside the U.S. as I can. The tickets break out the government fees and taxes, which in the U.S. are half the ticket price for intrusive security. For some reason, the airlines here are able to capitalize the business and move people for a bit more than the U.S. government can delude people into thinking they are securely on board, having been body checked by morbidly obese TSA agent who could hide a string of hand grenades under their fat folds.
At the gate, I waited…and waited. I fell asleep and woke in a panic. Had I missed the flight? No. It was an announcement that the flight was canceled. Damnit. The gate agents are so polite, so used to people being patient that they failed to make much of an announcement. It started to get rowdy, a few Americans complaining, only to be outdone by a Frenchman who made it known he had a meeting he could not miss. He was loud and animated. As it got exciting, about 50 phone cams appeared, all held up over the crowd, ready to capture any excitement for YouTube. I kept telling myself to set an example as an American, that this would proceed at its own pace regardless of what I did.
The airline had arranged hotel rooms. At 5AM, having been bussed to a hotel I found myself in the lobby, once again in a line. There was a rumor going around that we would leave at 5PM the next day. I think I spent more time in lines than I did in the first few days I was in the Navy.
At 9:50 AM, after 4 hours of sleep, the phone rang. I fumbled for it, not knowing what country I was in or why. The kind woman on the phone essentially told me to get my ass out of bed, that the bus was leaving in 10 minutes. I didn’t believe it, so started to take a leisurely shower. The phone rang again. I got out of the shower, and answered. “We are waiting for you.” I shaved and made a coffee. There was a knock on the door. I opened it wearing a towel. The woman looked down. Maybe she was hoping. She gained her composure then told me to hurry. I dressed, went downstairs. I had a breakfast coupon and gave it away to someone in the lobby. The bus was ready, at the curb. I boarded, then, waited, of course. I could have had breakfast. I got to the airport, and waited some more. They announced we were to leave at 2PM to arrive in Shanghai Pudong at 6PM. A car would meet me, and take me to Suxhou, where I could go to work the next day.
I finally got on the plane, and that’s when I the flight attendant touched my heart with a kind smile.