Saturday, January 25, 2020

Chinese Pandemic Peek-a-Boo

Ah yes, gather round and I'll tell you about the time that a scary virus emerged in China. I swiftly... flew straight to China. The beginnings of this trip were straightforward enough. I saw some really cheap flights and I went for it. Having already been to Hong Kong and Macau, which are Chinese territories, I'd marked China off of my todo list and so it would just serve as a gateway to Asia. I got round trip flights from St. Louis to Beijing on Delta for $568 after taxes which was just too good to pass up.

It's hard to remember what this whole Covid-19 pandemic was like back in January while sitting here now in September(man I write slow) so I had to look it up.

So in my mind the virus was a newsworthy threat but on the day of my flight there were only 1,400 cases in China and 38 cases total in the rest of the world. The US had 2(!!!) cases. So while it was a bit scary it felt like a very manageable risk. There are 1.4 billion people in China, so I estimated that I could've licked every doorknob in sight and not come into contact with a cootie carrier.

Having lived in Japan for 2.5 years I was already familiar with the concept of wearing masks both when you're sick or when you don't want to be sick so I figured I would buy a box to take with me on the trip in case things got worse while I was there. I remember a shy girl student of mine in particular who would wear a Disney themed mask all the time, sort of as a fashion accessory or maybe even like a security blanket. I remember they were often Stitch or Winnie the Pooh styled. Anyway so I think I first tried at Walgreens and had trouble explaining to them what I was looking for in the Pharmacy department. "Do you guys sell masks?" "What kind of masks?" "You know like when you have a cold." Puzzled look. At Walmart I described them as the kind of masks that surgeons wear. They also seemed puzzled by my request but I was able to find a box of 50. I bought a few packages of wipes to clean things on the plane but realized later after purchasing that they didn't have alcohol and were pretty much useless. Oh well, no big deal. I believe I brought a little bottle of hand sanitizer to fill out my arsenal.

The TSA agent checking ID in St. Louis was giving me a hard time about my passport.

TSA lady: “I’ve never seen a passport this worn before.”
Me: “I’ve been busy.”
TSA lady: “Doing what?!”

I thought it was notable that airline miles/deals blogs had gotten so big that their logos were now on the sides of the damn plane.

Things got off to an auspicious start when the seat next to me was empty on the first leg to Detroit.

I have one night actually in China at the end of my trip on the way home, and that day was being steadily dismantled. I had a tour of the Forbidden City in Beijing booked that was canceled. The Forbidden City was now even more forbidden than usual. My current plan was to just go straight to the hotel and hide.

I made myself at home at the Lufthansa lounge. This might have been my first time to one of their lounges as they are a pretty serious airline, so I had fun with it.

I had some expectations that the Germans were not going to play around when it came to beer selection and they did not disappoint. I started off with a Kostritzer. If they tell me they are Germany's number one black lager beer who am I to argue? Also what the hell is a black lager beer?

They had some real trash mixed in with the good German stuff. Who the hell is trying to have a nice rest in pretend Germany and reaches for the Labatt Blue Light? A person that hates themself.

I took a little peek at the wine and spirits as well. It's always noon somewhere, right? I wasn't trying to get lit up or anything but I did owe to it science to try anything that I hadn't had before.

I had my first taste of Frangelico, an Italian hazelnut liqueur. This bottle always reminded me of Mrs. Butterworth pancake syrup. 

I put my first mask on in the airport just as a novelty, took a few selfies, then took it off. I had 50 masks and I wasn't really sure what the hell I was supposed to do with them. Wear them on the plane? Wear them when I sleep? I also remember reading a lot of conflicting reports on the efficacy of wearing one at all. 

Just before boarding the plane to China, Homeland Security officers were stopping everyone on the air bridge and asking about their immigration status and what they studied and where they lived. First time I’ve ever seen that. Kind of scary. The girl in front of me was a student at Harvard which the officers were impressed with.

This flight was real empty. I don't remember how long or if I wore a mask at all on this flight. I recall that my logic was that we were headed from a place with no virus to a place with virus, so I didn't really need to wear one until I arrived in Beijing. I squirted some hand sanitizer on the armrests and the tray table and was satisfied that I had exorcised the demons.

I have to say I was impressed with Delta sucker class. Getting a paper menu at all in economy is a nice touch, and this one was classy.

They even had a welcome cocktail which is just unheard of in the back of the plane: "Enjoy a Peach Bellini cocktail curated with Delta Master Cuvee by Mionetto sparkling wine with a splash of Hella Cocktail Co. Peach Bellini Premium Mixer. I was headed to a Muslim country so I figured I had to take my sips as they presented themselves.

Well one of the nice things about disgustingly long flights is that you don't really have to choose a movie. You can pretty much watch them all. I started off a bit artsy with "Honeyland: the last female wild beekeeper in Europe must save the bees and restore natural balance." This lady must have gotten stung so many freaking times.

I went with the "Harissa Shrimp with shaved apple, celery, and arugula" as my appetizer and "braised beef and eggplant with Chinese cabbage and steamed rice" as my main. I'm just not the guy that gets on a plane to China and orders the ravioli. It's got to be the same guy slurping Labatt Blue in the damn Lufthansa lounge. Have some dignity people.

I moved on to a little bit of Zombieland: Double Tap. It was quality entertainment.

A good social experiment is to put crappy touch screens on the back of your chair, sit a child in front of it, and wait to see how much finger pecking on the back of your head would be necessary to strangle said child. The answer may surprise you.

Meeting Gorbachev

Without day or time or light to orient myself I quickly went feral. A sort of rat king occupying 6 seats, ensconced in a pile of blankets and pillows, and nibbling on packets of cookies and crackers. When they awoke his highness for breakfast he was very displeased. Once the hissing had stopped and I’d turned back into a normal person I realized why they only give you plastic silverware in economy.

Upon landing in China, things got unpleasant. For one thing, when you're wearing a mask, your iPhone facial recognition won't work. iPhone, it's me, John! Secondly, you have to constantly smell your own breath. I'd like to take this opportunity to apologize to anyone I've ever spoken with.

My first trial was a really long line for "health checks".

No matter how loudly or aggressively I spoke Jesus' American English, the little sashed teenage helpers working this operation insisted on only being able to speak Chinese. It made me so angry I loudly hummed the Star Spangled Banner while filling out my form.

As you can see from the form, in this time period pretty much the only no-go area was Wuhan. As long as you hadn't been there you were golden. There would be a lot of this health theatre in my future. Check a box declaring that you didn't have symptoms and you hadn't been to Wuhan and then put the paper in a box. Instant health.

It was around this point that my best laid plans went awry. I had a long layover ahead of me in Beijing's airport. I wanted to spend this time recuperating in a lounge. The guys at the security desk, however, wouldn't accept my printed out boarding pass. You know, because it's super important and secure to have a smaller piece of paper with a barcode on it. Poseidon forbid they accept a digital boarding pass. Well because it was... the middle of the night? here, my airline wasn't operating a desk anywhere for hours. So I had nothing to do for a very very long time.

Some of this time I spent wandering around the airport.

Masks make every transaction like it's between bank robbers. Can I trust this airport desk worker?What is she *really* hiding?

Well with my copious free time I did make an interesting friend. She was walking around dragging a large ski bag, and now that I was also a ski champ I had lots of knowledgeable things to say about the unique crunchiness of snow on a Missouri morning. She was a bit better at skiing that me, and was on the Australian Paralympic ski team. She was trying to get on the same flight as me and was similarly trapped so we had a lot of chatting time. I was telling her that I wasn’t really worried about the flu and she said it’s just as bad to get it and pass it to somebody susceptible. Her partner got pneumonia and lost his legs due to it. She seemed to have the typical number of legs and must have sensed my "why are you in the paralympics tho???" questions and told me she didn’t have feeling on her left side. I think she might have had a slightly unique walk but I was impressed how unnoticeable it was considering. 

When the Air Asia ticket counter finally opened she had some bad times. Her ski gear was heavy and oversized plus she had some medical junk as well. They wanted her to pay $500 for her baggage. Oh man. That was way more than the price of her whole ticket. She cried and called home to ask her parents for money. I had been sitting in an airport alone for like 8 hours so this soap opera was highly entertaining.

The drama was quickly turning into a mini-series. Airport security didn't like that she had a bag full of batteries for her medical stuff. There was more tearful arguing. I can still hear her saying "but it's medical" in her Australian accent over and over. You know I was going through some trials of my own that I'm not sure she appreciated. Somehow a spoon from that Lufthansa lounge fell into my backpack and security wanted me to dig it out and show it to them. Hard times all around.

I think it’s cool that the more tired I get the more uncomfortable places I’m able to sleep. My body is usually a real dick about sleeping on airport benches, head propped up with nothing but my own paws but give it a good couple days of wakefulness over 12 time zones and it really starts to get with the program. I can publicly sleep with the peacefulness of a drunken hobo now.

Who you gonna call? Permed white man!

Right before we boarded the plane to Kuala Lumpur I saw a woman order a drink from a vending machine and pay with facial recognition! The future is now!

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