Sunday, July 17, 2011

L.A. International Airport

There is a snatch of a country song that I remember from my youth, that distant past, whose refrain starts with L.A. International Airport. That is all I remember from that song: that one short riff, but it runs through my head as I board the plane, take my seat and head for LAX.

Country music has no place in stately Tienhe airport in Wuhan or in ultramodern Seoul/Incheon airport. Apparently, what also does not have a place in Tienhe airport is restaurants. I had somehow gotten very sick on Sunday, and I had a terrible sinus infection. Fortunately I was able to buy antibiotics over the counter – such things are possible in China. Unfortunately I was sluggish all day Sunday as I finished packing up the house for my impending move and on Monday and I attempted to leap out of bed and finish my packing for my trip.

My intent had been to go around the corner from campus and fill up on meaty steamed buns once my packing was done. But, with all of the students gone for the summer there is no point for the vendors to hang around. No one to buy breakfast from, unless I walk up The Street to my favorite restaurant and have a bowl of noodles. No time for that. Sam will be there at 9:30 with a car and driver to take me to the airport and it is already 9AM. I went back home and finished my packing.

I ended up buying a snack and a bottle of juice at the airport concessions stand. That turned out perfect because, even for the two hour flight to Incheon the airline served a quality meal, on porcelain dishes and with real – not plastic – flatware. I still cannot get over the difference between airline service in China and that of America.

Fully sated from the meal served aboard the plane to Incheon, I felt no desire to eat during my three-hour layover in Korea. So I rambled around the airport, taking in the sights. Again the airport is well appointed and clean, the people move about at a leisurely pace, the shops are spacious and the overall atmosphere is one of excitement and anticipation of happy travels.

At Incheon I did see a more diverse population than in Wuhan. Here, travelers making their connecting flights from Japan, the Philippines and other Oriental destinations congregated. There were many more Westerners, noticeable not just by their coloring and complexion but by their demeanor. They appeared unnecessarily hurried and slightly shocked; perhaps at the ease of travel in the Orient?

One notable incident occurred shortly after I arrived at my departure gate. An older couple was apparently angry about something. The man was shouting at the beleaguered airline clerk while his wife stood by, crying. I could not make out what the issue was but I could tell by the clerk’s body language that she was mortified at being yelled at in Chinese. I anticipated airport security to come and detain this passenger and his wife but what happened instead was an airport official arrived and did his best to smooth over the issue and make things right. Presumably he was successful; the angry couple was accommodated on the very flight I was scheduled for. They were seated just a few rows ahead of me and, to my knowledge were very well treated. They did not get angry and yell again.

Upon boarding the flight from Korea, I got my first reminder of tightened security measures in America. The overhead announcement let us know that, due to extra security regulations in America we would be subject to a more intense scrutiny and bag check before boarding the plane. “Here we go” I thought, remembering this exercise from the last time I had flown out of Incheon. Although no one that I saw was required to remove their shoes or any of their clothing, airline personnel did do a more thorough check on our bags, opening every compartment and asking a multitude of questions.

I have learned in all my travels to request an exit aisle seat on the plane. That guarantees that I will have extra legroom in exchange for the promise of helping people get off the plane in an emergency, a promise I gladly make. So, even though my seat was at the very back of the plane I had an aisle seat, with extra legroom. Not too shabby! Add to that the tasty meals and snacks provided, the onboard entertainment system featuring movies and games, and the good book I brought along to read and I was set for the next seventeen hours.
The only problem was sleep. I do not sleep on moving conveyances of any kind. While that is a plus for long distance drives, it is rather dismaying for long distance travel when I am not in charge of piloting anything. As a result of that I was a bit grumpy come time to deplane and go though customs at LAX.

After the ease and convenience of security checks in China and Korea, I found the enhanced procedures we were obliged to undergo redundant and asinine. First came the customs declaration: I was interrogated for approximately ten minutes about my purpose and life in China, why I was returning to the States and who I would be visiting, as well as what my daughter did for a living, of all things. Once I assured the Customs officer that by business in China is innocent and my daughter is legitimately married to a Marine, the customs clerk promptly wrote a 0 on my declaration form and passed me along to the next clerk. But first I had to collect my baggage.

Baggage collection is an exercise in precision in China. Although Boeing 747s are very big planes and this particular one was full to capacity, in China the bags are handled in such a way that one does not have to be an Olympian athlete in order to retrieve one’s bags from the moving conveyor. Each bag has its place along the edge of the conveyor for easy grabbing and once the conveyor is emptied out, then more bags come along. If the conveyor is full before any passengers make it to the conveyor, a baggage handler removes some of the bags and stacks them neatly nearby.

In L.A. the bags tumbled pell-mell down the arrival chute and crashed into the bags already circling around, awaiting their owners. As we cleared customs and came to the carousel, it was already full, with large suitcases two and three deep, circling around. Many women, most small in stature could not dislodge their bags from under the accrued tonnage and had to wait until they were physically able to pull their bags off the carousel. As I am rather large and fairly strong, I helped those in my immediate vicinity until my bag came along. After that, I left everyone to fend for themselves and stood in line for the final customs check, where our passports were once again scrutinized and our purpose for being in America was once again questioned.

Finally! After an hour and a half I’m done with all of the questions and all the formalities. I race through the corridors, pulling my two wheeled bags and toting my recently recussitated black leather satchel. My dear son, my Darrell is waiting for me at the end of this leg of my journey. I can hardly wait to feel his arms about me and hear his cry of joy. As I emerge from the tunnel that leads into the welcome concourse I scan the faces lining the barrier for him. Somewhat dismayed, I can’t see him anywhere!

That is when he surprises me with a tap on the shoulder. He had watched me turn the corner with my anticipatory smile intact and promptly turned away to wipe his tears before coming up behind me to greet me, dry-eyed. What a jokester!

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