Wednesday, February 25, 2015

How to Become a Pariah at 38,000 Feet

I would rather report in chronological order. However, that order was upset the day I broke my leg. So much has happened since then! Therefore, rather than try to report things in the order they happened, I'll highlight tidbits in no particular order.

I am now back in China, hoping to access my online medical records from my surgery in the States to give to the doctor over here so that he can remove the staples from my leg and otherwise see to my post-break care. I'm not having much luck.

I've had a few visitors – wonderful! Except that I have to hobble down the stairs to let them into the stairwell because our intercom/security system is not working. That's a bit inconvenient, but then: I don't live on the 5th floor. There are only 4 steps to ground level. I can manage 4 steps.

One should always look for the bright side.  

Like the peace of being in my  little home again. When I sent Sam a message about  breaking my leg while still stateside, he thought I would have stayed in the States longer. I'm  sure I would have been welcome at anyone's house but there is such a thing as overstaying one's welcome. Even those who love me most might get tired of having me around. Besides, I just really wanted to be home.

So now I tell of my homecoming.

Going without food is not good for me. Some can fast for a day or 2 but I need to eat, at least a little, every few hours, every day. I missed my flight to China (more on that later), and with nothing between breakfast and evening but a few pretzels and pain medication, my stomach was feeling queasy. Once everything was taken care of and I had another plane ticket for the next day, I thought about food but my stomach did a flip and I quickly abandoned the idea.

I was not ready to get moving the next morning but after all the drama of the day before, I certainly did not want to take a chance on missing another plane. A quick shot at breakfast – a bagel with cream cheese and a horrible coffee, provided by the hotel I spent the night at and brought to me by a lovely woman name Madison did nothing to settle my cranky stomach down.

Now at the airport,  with everything taken care of, the airline called for wheelchair services to take me to the gate. By now realizing I am supposed to tip the people who push me around and being unwilling to hand over gratuity for people doing their job, I didn't feel right in asking to be pushed to a food vendor for breakfast. Besides, I still had that bagel.

Besides, I still had that queasy stomach.

And, most likely we would be fed within an hour of takeoff. Surely that little bagel can tide me over till the flight attendants serve food.

Beef and rice: good. I ate slowly, allowing each small bite to settle before I ate any more. I sipped a cola to help my stomach accept each bite. And bread. It came with the meal and I ate it as well. I was still feeling sick but no longer hungry. Now to lay back and take a nap.

You know, it was the darndest thing! Every flight I've ever been on – and I've been on quite a few, there have always been air sickness bags in the seat pocket. Now, when I really needed one, there wasn't one to be found!

I jerked awake with that urgent sensation indicating my lunch would soon revisit. With one hand clamped over my mouth – as though that would hold anything back, desperately I pawed through the seatback pocket for a bag to void my stomach into. There was none. Quickly I jabbed the flight attendant call button, and then I grabbed the newspaper discarded by my seatmate, fashioned it into a cone... not a moment too soon. I was erupting! Spewing! Now the paper cone was leaking all over me and I had no room to bend over. Still I disgorge! Would there be no end to this regurgitation???

Vaguely I was aware that 3 flight attendants appeared in order to minister to me. One had brought an entire packet of tissues, and she let me keep it. Another reached across me to throw a blanket over the puddle on the floor. A third brought wet napkins. After cleaning myself and the seat off as best as I could I asked for some sort of air freshener. I was painfully aware of how uncomfortable the air had become for those in my immediate vicinity. Later, I found I was the focus of some very uncharitable stares. The man whose newspaper I ruined moved to another seat – the flight was not crowded.

Let's find the bright side in all of this, now.

Sorry: I could find no bright side in throwing up all over the place in an airplane at cruising altitude at the start of the journey.

But there was kindness.

After the immediate drama of the event, a flight attendant came back and offered me a 'fu' – a good luck charm. He intimated it was for New Year but I know what he really meant: poor, broken legged passenger, now throwing up all over the place. Surely she needs some luck!

What I needed was ginger. Ginger is good for settling upset stomachs and it just so happened that my friend George had given me an entire bag of ginger candy. Moreover, I had that bag of candy in my carry-on! Now, if I could just get into the overhead bin...

Now, if I could just get out of my seat! Broken legs do not make getting out of airplane seats easy. And the flight attendant had put my crutches away for safekeeping. While they were still milling around me I asked them to help me get some of that ginger candy. While eating one I sipped a glass of Sprite, also very good for settling upset tummies. Within 15 minutes, another violent eruption – I had a bag for it this time, and miraculously, my stomach was fine again! The rest of the flight I was able to keep food down but I didn't push my luck. I only ate small bites, chewing each one thoroughly before assaying another.

The fu I was gifted now rests where I can see it every day. When I think of how bummy it is to have a broken leg, to not be able to go about as normal, to have to struggle just to cook a meal and get it to the table, to be woken up every few hours because of pain... instead of thinking of how hard all of this is and how stupid I am to take chances that result in broken legs, I think of that flight attendant giving me a token of good luck.

My friends, lucky I am. Things could have been so much worse. That is what there is to hold on to. That, and the hand railing to get off the plane in Wuhan.   


Warning! Danger! Watch Out!

Sitting around LAX (Los Angeles airport) for a substantial amount of time, I kept hearing warnings, repeated in several languages.

Do not leave your bags unattended! The Transportation Security Administration urges you to keep  your bags in your sight at all times.

You should not accept bags from strangers. Please inform the Transportation Security Administration if anyone asks you to take a bag.

This airport does not support solicitors (beggars). You do not have to give money to solicitors. This airport does not support their activities. I repeat...

You should not loiter in airport areas. Please go directly to your airline counter to establish your validity as a passenger.

This zone is for loading and unloading passengers only. Do not leave your car unattended or it will be towed. (this announcement was made outside)

These announcements played repeatedly in Chinese, English, French, Japanese and Spanish.

Upon my arrival and through navigating Beijing and later, Tianhe airports in China, I heard gentle music playing. Not a single dire warning. 

Upon boarding planes in America, invariably a pleasant voice will intone notifications, among them: “The captain has turned on the seatbelt sign.” Contrast that with “The seatbelt sign is on, please remain in your seat with your belt fastened”, heard on Chinese flights.

Why do Americans feel the need for constant authority? Why emphasize that THE CAPTAIN has turned on the seatbelt sign? Would that sign be any less important if a lesser person had turned it on?

What about leaving bags unattended? What kind of traveler would be so negligent as to leave their bags behind? And if they should decide on that need, why be constantly admonished against it?

Who needs warnings against giving money to beggars?

How to contrast the parking issue, when in China people pretty much take every liberty possible regarding parking and driving? Still: why constantly berate against stopping and parking?

Interesting note about parking: along a stretch of 'no parking' – as indicated by the red painted curb and the constant warnings, I saw a government vehicle parked: nobody sitting inside or anywhere around it. How is it that the government can violate the rules ordinary citizens are warned against?

While it is true the average traveler probably does not pay much attention to those recordings, being as they are going about the business of traveling, I have to wonder what the point is to generate all of these warnings?

To make one feel safe?

To make on feel stupid?

I felt like I was in a police state  the whole time I waiting in LAX. That impression was further borne out by police riding their bikes through the terminal, by groups of Transportation Security Administration agents and even bomb sniffing dogs roaming around.

I'm so glad to be back in China where I don't have to be afraid of some random bag or a beggar. Well... maybe I can fear the beggar a little bit, but I have enough sense to know not to give them any money. I don't need a recording in 5 languages to tell me not to do so.

Got Tips?

Tipping – the practice of palming money to a service person – fuwuyuan 服务员 grates on me. In America, one tips door men, taxi drivers, waiters, porters, nail technicians... anyone who renders a non-essential service. In China, no tipping is expected, required or accepted. I'm on board with that.

Especially around the holidays, tips are expected in America. There are magazines and websites that publish guides to fair tipping. Of course, the bigger the tip, the better the service.

And they say China has a problem with guanxi!

I contend that: if you are a service person, why would the quality of your service depend on how much money I slip into your hand? Should there not be pride in service?

Of course, a lot of that has to do with the fact that the service sector is one of the lowest paid. A waiter generally earns less than $3 because of the anticipated tips. NOTE: federal law says minimum wage should be at least $7.25 per hour. Some states pay more but still: wait staff are the lowest paid of the service sector. Thus, waiters go out of their way to be ingratiating in order to earn a higher tip.

Here is a typical waiter interaction example:

“Good evening, my name is ____ and I'll be your server tonight. What can I bring you to drink?” (as he passes out menus). And then: “I'll be right back with your drinks.”

He then returns with the drinks, serves them and asks: “Do you know what you want, or should I give you a few more minutes to decide?” Diners place their orders and off the little server goes, posthaste. Once the food is brought, you can count on your waiter to appear every few minutes, asking if everything is all right, if the food tastes good, if you need more drink, more bread, more... anything.

It doesn't matter that your mouth is full, that you are engrossed in conversation, that you might be weeping or rending or even undressing or kissing. That waiter is devoted to you and wants to make sure you know it, so that you will give him a big tip.

After living in China for 11 months I am intellectually prepared for such assaults on my privacy and pocketbook, although the act still irks me. Why should these service people have to debase themselves, ingratiate themselves and become craven, all for the possiblity of a bit of cash?

Airports offer 'handicapped services' – called mobility services, in Los Angeles. A traveler can request such a service from the airline s/he patronizes. Airlines make the actual request for mobility services, not the person who needs the service. As such I did not reckon that tipping would be necessary. I was wrong.

My first experience with handicapped services, a kind fellow in Dallas airport, pushed me everywhere, even to a food vendor to buy some breakfast. He parked me and my chair by my flight gate, where I could enjoy my breakfast in peace. When the flight was called, he then pushed me down the gangway. We parted company at the plane itself. It was all very nice. I did not tip him, and he seemed to expect no tip.

I expected the same treatment in Los Angeles. That's what I get for expecting.

For one, getting off the plane there was no wheelchair waiting for me. I had to wait 20 minutes, standing on my good leg and balancing with my crutches, until a chair arrived. And then, we waited outside for the van to drive me from one terminal to the other. Once at the international terminal at LAX, I was pushed to the counter...

where I was told I was in the wrong terminal. I should have been at Terminal 2. Again, another agonizing wait for a van to hoist me and chair up, and then drive all around the airport to get back to the terminal I should have been at.

Here's the problem: I only had 1 hour and 40 minutes between my flight from Dallas and my flight to China. Had I been mobile it would have been a snap to catch my connecting flight. As a 'mobility challenged' customer, I was at the mercy of those pushing my wheelchair.

Might things have turned out differently had I tipped? It certainly seemed so.

I missed my flight to China. By the time we got to the right terminal, the Air China counter was empty. My wheelchair pusher told me to just sit and wait till they come back to staff that desk. And then: “You cannot stay in that chair. I have to take it. Please sit down on this bench.” An uncomfortable wooden bench with no back to lean against.

And there I sat, from noon till 9PM. Hungry, thirsty, needing a bathroom and with all my luggage and only one good leg. I asked Airport Police, Transportation Security Administration and Mobility Services for help. They all said I should just wait until the Air China desk is staffed again. When will it be staffed again? Some said 7:30, some said 8:00 and the latest time: 9PM. Come to find out, all were wrong: that desk was not due to be staffed again until the next morning.

Another strange quirk in America: everything is for profit. Those airport carts, provided for the convenience of travelers the world over, cost $5 in America. Had I been fully mobile I wouldn't have needed any help with my luggage. Being crippled, there was no way to manage a full-sized suitcase and 2 carry-ons. Fortunately, at some point in the afternoon, someone abandoned one of those carts close to me. I hobbled over and claimed it, then managed to get my bags onto it. Now I had wheels! I could get to the bathroom and the water fountain!

I couldn't get to any food outlets because there weren't any. Tipping would not have helped.

Where Did I Go?

At first I did really well about reporting on my doings over here in the U.S. And then, nothing.

Believe me: you did not fall off my radar. I see my responsibilities as a member of this community seriously. I would not suddenly quit writing and/or communicating without a good reason. And I have a good reason.

I should have known better. My sister and I had already hiked more than 3 miles - on even terrain, but still: I could feel my legs getting tired. When my niece called, talking about an exciting hiking trail to a waterfall I could hardly wait to go! My initial plan was to check out the trail and return another day. I was already tired, after all.

But then, my niece bounded down the incline and I followed her. Overeagerness or plain idiocy? Who knows?

The end result was that I broke my leg in 2 places and had to have emergency surgery. I just got out of the hospital yesterday. I've been in no shape or mood to address my dear relatives, to say nothing of an entire community of no doubt caring bloggers.

Also: I've been trying to figure out how I'm going to take care of myself once back in China, where all of the luxuries that make life so convenient - cars, motorized shopping baskets, and relatives who will do anything I ask will not be available.

However, there is a silver lining among all the pain and trouble.
1. X-rays showed strong bones - no sign of osteoporosis
2. Bloodwork showed no illness or deficiency.
3. Blood pressure is normal - no heart disease.
4. I will get preferential treatment at the airport and a comfy seat on the plane! - That might just be the very best news of all.

So, dear friends: I'm about 4 days from being back at my computer and able to report regularly (and read/comment on your stories). There are so many stories to share! Please bear with me. Until then, I wish everyone a joyous Lunar New Year.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Pirates, Shopping and Cheese

Unfortunately, Marjorie and Chuck had to work during the week I was there. Staying at their gracious home while they were gone gave me a deep understanding of how a dog feels when its master leaves. When my hosts returned that first evening, I leaped up, waving my arms about and shouting: “You're home! You're home! Oh, thank god! You're home!” - much as I imagine a dog would say. They laughed at me. It set the tone for our convivial evening.

Pennsylvania is dotted with small towns, one of them – about an hour's drive from Carlisle, hosts Bube's Brewery. Ironically, that town is called Mount Joy. I wonder if the townsfolk were joyous from all the beer available to them at the brewery. 

The building has been home to the brewery since the 1800's – yes, history again. But I'll not get historical in this entry. I want to tell you about the Pirates' Feast that we attended.

Held in the catacombs – an underground place where people are generally buried, two long tables were set up for 20 guests. The appetizer, bread with garlic butter, was already on the table. We were  famished, so we attacked it.

As we ate one course after the other, the entertainers, in pirate costumes, wove their tale of 3 ships, one of which had been sunk for its treasure. We, on the Castigator protested our innocence as loudly as the other table (whose ship name I can't remember). It was then understood that we too were pirates, and that one of the two ships had sunk the third. The cast was what was left of the crew of the sunken ship and their womenfolk, who had stayed on land. The dinner was a meeting of rival pirate gangs, trying to determine who had sunk the unfortunate ship and killed Bonnie's (a cast member) baby brother.

Throughout the show, there were offerings: palm reading, how to play magic tricks and 'rubbin'. That latter means 'massage'. At first, a young woman showing lots of cleavage 'rubbed' all over Chuck. He got very red-faced and demanded she stop. She moved on to Cory, Marjorie's nephew. He too got embarassed when she put her hand under his shirt. She then stopped 'rubbin' the men at our table and moved across the hall and started 'rubbin' all over the men at that table.

Marjorie paid a pirate to 'rub' me and her sister, Yvonne. I have to tell ya': that was some good rubbin! Apparently the pirate is a licensed masseur. He did a fantastic job on my neck and back. He also discovered I'm very ticklish and encouraged me to howl and laugh ever louder. I had no problem with that, and soon the entire dining hall is laughing with (at?) me.

With the meal came a choice of beer, wine or juice. We ordered a pitcher of each. Marjorie, the designated driver, drank the juice. We thought that Yvonne would help me drink the pitcher of wine but she, Chuck and Cory downed the beer. I didn't want to waste the wine, a fruity-tart drink, but I'm not much of a drinker to begin with. After that massage I had no desire at all for wine. Fortunately, water was also available. I downed probably 6 glasses.    

The food was only OK but the fun and entertainment more than made up for it. It was found that the lead pirate, all decked out in black, had sunk his own ship so he could have all the treasure for himself. He was dragged off in chains and 'shot'. As we were leaving we found him in the lobby, on the floor, begging for help for his wounds. He was not so badly wounded that he couldn't get up and pose for this picture with us, though.

If you'd like more pictures of this event or the brewery, I encourage you to check out:

Marjorie has lived in Pennsylvania for eighteen years and I've visited there quite a lot. Much of the usual tourist hotspots, we'd already taken in: Amish villages – and their delicious food!; wine tastings; home tours – when people who live in historic mansions open their homes to visitors. Often, they provide snacks as well.

The cashier at the store we were at was shocked when we told her our intended tour was the QVC television studio. Why go there when there is so much else to see and do? Her outrage did not permit us to explain that we'd already done most everything else.

For those not in the know, QVC is a television shopping channel. Founded in 1986, it offers shoppers the opportunity to view/buy merchandise as presented by hosts and sometimes the creator of the product, be it: clothing, shoes, make up, home accessories or kitchen gadgets. It is the second such television shopping channel. Its rival, HSN – Home Shopping Network was founded 3 years before. QVC – Quality, Value, Convenience has gone global, and has a joint venture with a shopping channel in China.

The tour itself was interesting. I'm not much of a shopper – that title belongs to Marjorie, but I bombarded our guide with technical questions. I was spellbound just viewing the studios and equipment! Along the tour route were displays of (I'm beginning to hate using this word!) historic moments for the operation: a million sales, partnering with other countries, and the original set, where the operator took calls while the host narrated. In the background of this picture is my favorite singer of all time, Barry Manilow.

The last day there, Marjorie had taken off from work. Poor thing, run down from constant visiting, the holidays and the cold, had been suffering a cough and chest congestion the whole time I was there and, as though that weren't enough, a terrrible toothache! So, we took our time on our last day together. Our only goal was The Farm Show, before taking me to the bus station.

We were not interested in animals, seeds, farming techniques or equipment. Our target was the food court. Specifically: fried cheese and milk shakes – ice cream you can drink through a straw. YUM!!!

Our time running out, we headed to the (historic) train/bus station in downtown Harrisburg. Marjorie waited with me, until the long-distance bus to Fayetteville, North Carolina loaded up. I left my best, oldest, dearest friend in the Pennsylvania cold to embark on an overnight journey to my next stop: my  daughter's home in North Carolina.

Stay tuned!