The Longest Day

September 13, 2012 in Asia, North America, Thailand, Travelogue, United States

The sky over the midwestern United States is sapphire blue dotted with whip cream white clouds. The view from seat 26E is stunning. I never get tired of looking at the world from 30,000 feet; high enough that things look pastoral and simple, clean and peaceful, even when the realities on the ground are much more complicated.

It’s safe to say that this has been the longest day of my life. 36 hours in transit, from door to door, roughly. I left home Wednesday, I’m arriving on what is Friday to my body clock. This is the last flight of my day.

We raced the monsoon to the airport on the motorbike, bags and basket perched precariously between us and hugged goodbye under a steel grey sky. It’s odd to travel alone when I’m so used to my tribe. For one, I have to carry my own bags, something I haven’t done in years with three sons. The perk, of course, is the quiet, the time to think my own thoughts and the simplicity of a party of one. Most of the time I can’t remember what that’s like.

It was shortly before midnight, standing in the middle of Kuala Lumpur’s international airport that I saw the news on the big screens of the attacks on the American embassies in Libya and Egypt. I stood, surrounded by veiled women and men in white Muslim caps and watched CNN’s endless footage of the fires and the men standing in the streets with guns, burning cars and crowds chanting in frightening masses. My first thoughts were for our traveling friends in Beirut & outlying areas in Egypt. My second thought was not so noble, “Great, excellent timing. This is going to make getting into the USA a rodeo, with stamps from Muslim countries in my passport.”

Two days ago I nearly bought a Muslim veil at the market. It occurred to me that it might be a useful social experiment to wear one home from the Eastern side of the world and walk a day in the shoes of another sort of person, in the vein of the fellow who wrote Black Like Me. Did you ever read that book? It’s the true story of a guy who, during the civil rights movement in the USA, gave himself melanin shots until his skin darkened enough to pass for black and then rode busses across the south. It’s a good read. My third thought in front of the blaring news screen was that it was probably just as well that I’d taken a pass on that social experiment on this particular day.

Whoever said that the world is shrinking, lied. I can tell you first hand that it’s very big and even in the modern era, looping it is a big project. My day can be reduced to the following: Phuket to Kuala Lumpur… mad dash cab ride between airports… if I had done my research I’d have known that the airport Air Asia uses is not the international airport, that one is a good 20 minutes away, and that’s with a cabbie who drives like a bat out of hell, but of course I didn’t do that homework. Kuala Lumpur to Tokyo… 7.5 hours and a nice 3 hour layover in which to work a little, have some rice crackers, and a private chat with security.

Here’s a little tip: When they call your name at the boarding gate, it’s rarely to tell you they’ve magically upgraded you to first class, or to let you know you’ve won the travel lottery and their diverting your flight to Hawaii for a week at the four seasons. In my case, I was met by the men with the infamous blue gloves and serious looking security uniforms. “Two by two, hands of blue,” I played the Firefly tapes in my head and tried hard to be cool. “Please step into the security office, we need to discuss your bag,” are not the words I was hoping to hear.

“We’ve noticed that you’re carrying “suspicious canisters” in your checked luggage. Unpack it please,” said the gentleman without a smile.

I laughed, not nervously, I hoped. “Suspicious canisters? You must mean my tea!”

I set about unpacking the bag, unwrapping the first can of Thai tea (number one brand!) and handing it to the officer. “Do you need to see them all?” I asked, hoping for a negative.

“Yes, all please,” he nodded.

Now came the tricky part: unpacking the bag and delivering the requisite tea for inspection without unpacking the other things that were of questionable nature for import: namely, a year’s worth of meds for a friend and four bunches of lemongrass, galangal and kefir lime leaves with which I intend to treat special people to meals of Thai Tom Yum Ka in the coming days. I chatted to him about the wedding I was attending and the gifts jammed into every nook and cranny of my backpack and hoped it would distract him from wanting to search every compartment. It worked.

He scrutinized the tea containers, struggling to decipher the Thai script and then settling on the tiny English subtext. “Ahh yes, tea,” he confirmed, checking the paper seals on the top of each can. He smiled. I smiled. I repacked the bag. The questionable items undiscovered.

Tokyo to Chicago… 11 hours. The only thing worse than an 11 hour flight is having it end in Chicago. Some of you might have long term memory enough to know that we once lived in the Windy City. We loved Chicago. We hated the airport. In the 1.5 years we lived there and Tony traveled at least once a week with Apple he got home on time exactly twice. There were several times when he didn’t get home at all for an extra day or two. Flying through ORD is enough to make a person take up the Catholic faith because it’s real evidence for the existence of purgatory.

Hoping that 28 hours into the longest day of your life you’ll somehow dodge a bullet, get lucky, and just breeze through ORD is folly.  

Customs was, as expected, a rodeo, but thankfully not for me. Dogs patrolled the line ups, bags were torn apart by agents on the floor of the customs hall in the middle of the line ups with dogs hovering. People of brown tone had passports snatched roughly from their hands and were marched off to “security rooms” around the margins. The agent I got was literally shouting at the woman in front of me. Terrorist attacks seem not to bring out the best in people. I put on my most winning smile and opened with my Dad’s best line, “Good morning Sir, thank you so much for getting up early to be here today.” It worked. His eye twinkled a little. I flirted, poured it on thick, and it worked. He didn’t shout at me. He made small talk. He stamped me in. He didn’t ask about the lemon grass. I winked at him and we both left happy. My favourite line from The Brother’s Bloom: “The perfect con is the one in which everyone gets what he wants.” Indeed. Sometimes, you’ve gotta use what you’ve got.

The upside to an interminably long wait for a perpetually delayed flight is a greek salad with olives and real feta cheese. After five months in the Asian desert of all things deli I savoured that, in spite of the annoyance of a jet way conspicuously lacking a plane at the end of it.

You know how it ends, because I’m in seat 26 E. It arrived late, but the plane from Tulsa arrived. The maintenance checks must have been successful, even if they did add to the delay, because we’re cruising along over middle America now and the little yellow hats haven’t dropped from the ceiling yet.

I saw Thursday, September 13th arrive in Malaysia 26 hours ago… and it’s now 2 p.m. on the same day… does that seem right to you?