Saturday, February 01, 2020

The Four Continent, 53 Hour Panic Trip from Singapore

Today was a day that started off really well, on like the summit of Mt. Comfort, and ended up at the bottom of the ocean's Uncomfortable Trench by the time my journey was over. 

So it was time to begin my pretty simple journey home: Singapore to Beijing, spend the night there, fly to Detroit then STL. Boom. I’d been pretty chill about the virus up until the moment of truth this morning. I googled flights direct to STL from Singapore and I think the best one was $1300 and there were some real nasty Canada layovers.

I thought that this was serious but I was still not super impressed. My understanding was that the normal flu was much more widespread and kills many more people in the US, let alone China. 

I usually live to revel in these first class experiences and they are becoming more rare for me as I burn through the naïveté of the world’s credit card programs. This whole virus thing is definitely putting a damper on the experience. Am I being irresponsible by continuing according to plan? 

As on the US flight to China I decided that I was going to go maskless until I entered virus land itself.

Singapore Changi Airport was looking pretty nice.

Singapore Airlines had a separate check in area so that I didn't get any poor air on me.

So I walked over to the Singapore Airlines check-in desk with this first class ticket that was printed yesterday in Brunei.

The wise airport desk worker crumbled up the ticket, threw it on the ground, and spit in disgust. She then cradled my face with both hands and looked into my eyes and said "John, we both know you're so much better than first class and you deserve so much more. Here's a new ticket that says Suites Class on it."

I also received a golden ticket to the Willy Wonka factory of expensive booze called the Private Room.

I never thought that I would be
Slap in the lap of luxury

I got my own special people security line that was zero people long.

I walked past the first class patrons in disdain with a little bit of pity mixed in. Isn't there some sort of job retraining program they could enroll in?

There was a single orchid on my table.

There was a buffet and a menu.

These other people didn't seem to realize that they were in my private room.

Even the tea was fancy.

I simply cannot read menu words without a little champagne to grease the ol' wheels. On yesterday's flight I tried the 2008 Dom Perignon so today I mixed it up with some 2009 Dom Perignon. I'm happy to report a similar level of perignon-iness in both vintages. A bottle of Dom will set you back about a buck fifty-five at Sam's Club, which I assume is where people who pay for wine go. I just don't know.

I was working with the breakfast menu, so first I went for the Dim Sum Delights. That's all the description I got but they did say the mix contained pork and prawns.

I think that my other order was Bak Chor Mee, "egg noodles served with minced pork, shredded mushroom, meat balls and chye sim, served dry or soup."

A freak gust of wind blew these chopsticks with little Singapore Airlines insignia right into my open backpack. Very unexpected.

Man, someone would really have to try to ruin the nice day that I'm having at this point.

I think I can gauge my mood in hindsight by how many selfies I take.

This would be the first of about 42 health forms that I would be filling out today.

The lifetime amount of infrared cameras I've seen spiked dramatically on this trip. Asia is already accustomed to hunting down feverish types and keeping them off their planes.

Luckily there was a separate entrance to the plane for Suites patrons. I was getting hot just thinking about these peoples' subprime loan interest rates.

Was about to order an apple juice when out came the Dom! Ok ok I'll drink it. Jeez.

I was the only person up here in Suites Class. They asked if I wanted to sit in a different seat and I told them I would just divide my time evenly between all of them.

The flight crew was interested that I was flying into Beijing. They said that on flights into China they are now flying with two crews that switch places immediately on the return so that no one has to spend the night in the country. Maybe I was an idiot but I was still not super worried about this. There was an announcement that there would be no hot towel service because of coronavirus.

It was about to get Singapore-to-Beijing-Brunchy in here.

Would I like a selection of world newspapers about humanity's impending doom? Yes please!

"A champagne that showcases DP's legendary elegance and finesse. Delicious!"

It may be the champagne I’ve been insistently chugging but the safety video gave me a little chill and made me a little emotional. It featured a woman telling you to buckle your seatbelt and so forth while traipsing through famous Singapore landmarks, a couple of which I saw last night and some that I’ve seen during my prior visit. The world is a magical place that I am in love with. Going to each country means leaving the last one. Going to a place and interacting with the people there is like a miniature life. I smile and laugh with them and share their existence for a brief little moment then I leave. For all practical purposes they die. And then I start again in the next place. I read that travel memories are a spice of life that enrich my experiences at home, which is true. But I think it’s also true that I carry the ghosts of friendships and unrepeatable good times with me wherever I go. I don’t usually bring up this travel obsession thing with people unless they ask. Part of that is humility because I understand most people don’t share my privileges but partially it’s because I think it’s a little painful. Sometimes I think that it would be wonderful to live forever but I don’t know how many of these barnacles a ship can take on before it sinks under its own weight. Or maybe airlines are just really good at emotional manipulation.

Anyway. I met someone in a hotel in Rwanda once that said that the reason alcoholics (like Ernest Hemingway) are such good writers is that booze makes you nostalgic and people like to read nostalgia. To anyone considering using me as their role model it is now about nine in the morning.

Thank you this giant picture of coronavirus in a Chinese newspaper is exactly what I need in my life right now.

One of the suite staff asked me if I wanted a mask to wear and I told him I had a lot of masks in my bag... then I asked if he thought I needed one. He said probably not on the plane but definitely once I reached Beijing. He began explaining how it’s laborious to breath while wearing a mask and I wholeheartedly agreed. While he was explaining this he began taking his off. I think I may have just accidentally peer pressured him. I’m a pretty bad person.

One of the other flight attendants said that I’m one of only a couple western people on the whole plane and that he hoped I knew what I was doing. Of course the answer was a wholehearted "no!" The article above said that the infection count in China was now at 8 thousand. My thought process was that 8 thousand sounds like a lot until you consider that 1.4 billion people live in China. I didn't really see a problem with going to stay the night there and then continuing on my way in the morning.

So in conclusion, nothing at all to worry about.

So as you can see the "suite" was pretty spacious, had doors and windows and a lot of counter space to rest my doomsday reading materials on top of. It was no Etihad First Apartment, mind you, with a bed, mini fridge, and vanity. But it made do in a pinch.

After I'd sated my Dom thirst I perused the menu a bit more. The other champagne on board was this 

"2007 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs, Champagne, France

Family-owned for almost a century, Taittinger is one of the greatest independent Houses and Comtes de Champagne is their highly respected and revered prestige cuvee. Comtes de Champagne is made from 100% Chardonnay from Grand Cru villages in the Cote des Blancs - Avize, Cramant, Chouilly, Mesnil-sur-Oger and Oger. This is a brilliant champagne and a textbook example of Blanc de Blancs at its best, displaying great intensity and acid line, with complex and classic toasty notes from over 10 years of aging in bottle. Spectacular!"

I told them that green kiwis displease me.

At some point while I was trying to enjoy my opulence I started getting texts from a hysterical Lydia.  Charming stuff like "don't get on the plane". I think that she must have sensed I was having a good time and decided that I must be stopped. Her dad Evan, whom De Telegraaf called "een beroemde Amerikaanse advocaat", read something about how flights other than mine were being canceled, something something my problem. Long story short Lydia was no longer satisfied with my $284 trip from Beijing-Detroit-STL. Ohhhh no. She cobbled together some waking nightmare itinerary that spanned four friggin' continents. I was still headed to Beijing anyway, mind you, but now I was going to taste doorknobs in: Beijing-Hong Kong-Paris-Casablanca-JFK-cab to Newark-STL. All-in from boarding in Singapore to the plane touching down in Saint friggin' Louis was now going cost to me about $1700 and over 53 hours of praying for a plane crash.

If I had known booking a night at the Four Seasons Beijing was going to provoke such hate from my jelly bellies back home.. well I guess I would have done it anyway. 

I think the return crew was sleeping upstairs.

"Singapore Bak Kut Teh

Pork spareribs in white peppercorn and garlic infused light broth served with steamed rice and Chinese crueller".

I think that these were boiled peanuts.

Dessert was "Chocolate and banana tart with fresh berries and vanilla ice cream".

These were some wild socks.

A little reading was what I needed to get my mind off of this situation.

Ok, maybe that's enough reading for today.

Decided to order a whiskey before Lydia canceled that too. 

"The Macallan Lumina Single Malt Whisky

An exquisite marriage of three select types of oak casks, The Macallan Lumina continues the timeless journey into the heart of European and American sherry seasoned oak. Characterized by its old flavours with notes of creamy vanilla, ginger, and wood spice, this is the single malt whisky that renews the quest for excellence. Best enjoyed during the goddamn end of the world."

Watched Midway. It was a pretty terrible movie but it reminded me of an aviation-related attack that I had recently suffered.

Well it was time to suit up and grit my teeth for the fun.

Beijing airport was a sour homecoming. It’s funny how the newspapers made the airport sound like a zombie deathmatch but it seemed an awful lot like a normal airport but with everyone wearing masks. In Japan some of my students would wear masks every day as a fashion statement so the shock of it isn’t much for me. They often had cool Lilo and Stitch or Winnie the Pooh masks too so I guess I don’t blame them. I look like a dental hygienist down on his luck in this thing.

I could go for a whimsical lion dance right about now.

I felt healthier the more health related paperwork I filled out.

I used to be somebody in a suite. Now I was supposed to eat this egg in a bag.

In Paris they weren't even checking temperatures or anything at the gate, just handing out these cheerful "you gonna die monsieur" pamphlets.

Figured that while I was in Paris I should sample some of the famous French cuisine I kept hearing about.

Salon make me sound so much fancier, like a person who hasn't had the same clothes on for three days.

A fun fact about Morocco is that Lydia has never been here.

Where am I?! When am I?! WHY AM I?!

On the flight out of Casablanca, Morocco what could have been a... Mennonite lady sitting in the seat in front of me tried to figure out how to recline her seat. She complained to her husband that her bun hairdo was annoying because when she sat down it pushed her head forward from the seat. And I thought that I was uncomfortable. The husband read the synopsis of The Sound of Music out loud to the other. Might be what counts as a new release where they come from.

I had a cough before I started this trip, and I had a cough during it. It was a bad time in history to have a cold. I experienced a coughing bout before takeoff and I think people were looking at me.

One nice thing about being on and off planes for an entire weekend was I had plenty of time to watch movies. Crazy Rich Asians was really good, actually.

I may be crazy but I can actually feel the power dynamic change when I land in America. Who is the foreigner and who is the local instantly changes and I can taste red, white, and blue.

When I did my Global Entry routine at the JFK self serve kiosk it printed out a big X on my paper which meant I would not be receiving a friendly wave through immigration. Instead my passport was confiscated and I was escorted to the naughty room. And I would have gotten away with it too if it weren't for you meddling Homeland Security!

I've been in the naughty room before once or twice, back when I was on "a list" because I went to Egypt and Turkey in one trip and was gone so long I came back with a beard. This time I was in such big trouble that they took me past the naughty room to a different circle of hell. The border patrol guy left me in a room with wire spindles and old printers. 

There were deeper circles of hell behind a door nearby, and so random officers kept walking through and asking why I was there. One asked “who brought you back here?” Like stormtrooper 6148 I didn’t catch his name bro. "Did they take your passport?" Yes dude. They acted like people accidentally wander into friggin' ICE custody by accident. "Sorry sir I thought this was Auntie Anne's pretzels." I used my whitest non-terrorist diction when addressing the maybe 7 of them I talked to. At one point I may have started addressing them all as “old sport” and referred to my driver waiting for me.

Finally a guy walked back and got to business. He said something he probably thought was dramatic like "do you know who I am" or something. Like, well, you have a CDC badge on your lanyard so... my first guess is gonna have to be.... a guy that works for the CDC but is being punished so his office is in a broom closet? He left for a bit to "get his clipboard".

When CDC came back carrying his clipboard he had a mask on. He gestured at the mask and apologized that was just following the rules. I'm not a scientist but I bet the rules don't say to find a suspected plague carrier, have a conversation with them, and then put your mask on. Ok, though.

The questions, the first and only line of defence between the homeland and the virus were as follows:
When did you go to China?
Did you come into contact with anyone known to have the virus?
Did you go to Wuhan?
You don't match any of the criteria for further screening.

There was a lot of small talk after that while my new Homeland Homies fiddled with my passport over at a workstation. CDC said he was from Kansas City and would rather be watching the superbowl. I wondered if that’s what took him so long to get over here in the first place. Probably was waiting for a commercial break.

Homeland was curious what the level of hysteria was at Beijing airport. Besides the masks and the occasional temperature taking I didn’t notice any difference at all. But of course I also don't speak Chinese so people could have just been calmly discussing trading their children for medicine. Homeland said that he was sorry for the trouble and that they were just trying to keep everyone safe. Was actually a pretty nice experience.

I must have made a good impression because a couple days later my pending Global Entry renewal was approved. Lydia's was not, and she had to appear at an immigration office later on. That'll teach her not to cross me.

I walked back through immigration control gen pop where I overheard a bit of an officer grilling an Asian dude about why he’d been in college for 7 years.

"Right now we’re battling 150 mile an hour wind so we aren’t going very fast. Air traffic control just let me know that Kansas City won the super bowl."

And that is the story of how my player haters tried to break me with the worst return journey ever and failed.

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