4:30am- The line to check baggage at RDU winds through the fabric strap lines, around the desk and out to the door. People in pajamas chat with others in three-piece suits, everyone remarking on how time disappears in this place. One woman wipes away tears as the teller tells her that she has missed a connecting flight, for the third time, and they have no idea where her belongings are. A man with matching hat, t-shirt and actual neck tattoo that all say “TATTOO” bounces on his heels and pulls his hair in frustration.
The family BLOX trundles through this with our five baggage trolleys loaded high with boxes. Despite sleep deprivation and hunger, we’re all in pretty good spirits. I make friends with the couple behind us in line. They are headed to a resort golf tournament for young professionals in Puerto Vallarta.
Once checked in, I say goodbye to my yuppie friends and we make our way to security. We say good bye to Kristen and pose for this photo:
Security stops Brian and checks his carry-on. He has brought a bicycle wheel truing stand with him. The woman laughs as she pulls it out, muttering “and here, I thought I’d seen it all.” Brian tells her she doesn’t know the half of it. We are cleared and shooed through. BLOX takes up a lot of space, and the other travelers are struggling to get by.
The flight from RDU to JFK is quick and uneventful. It seems like a good start to our adventure.
But then we get to our connecting gate. Though there are maybe seven China Southern Airlines employees there at the gate, only one young man is sitting at the desk. He is simultaneously checking in people (like us) who are moving over from Delta to CSA, taking calls on two telephones, texting with his manager, and trying to manage a crowd that is increasing in both numbers and annoyance levels.
He calls us up, scans our passports, looks perplexed. Scans again. And again. Finally, he looks at one of the documents and points at X. “He isn’t in here. We cannot board him without clearance. Are the rest of you still going anyway?”
Um, no… we are not just ditching one of our kids at the airport in New York.
I start pulling paperwork out of my pockets. Here is his Visa approval email (hot off the presses), our custody paperwork, supporting documents…
Xabien hears his name and starts asking questions to my right. An agitated woman approaches on my left and is yelling in rapid-fire Cantonese at the attendant. He responds to her quietly and, with a flick of his hand, she melts back into the crowd. Clearly, he is a magician. I send a silent plea, hoping his mind-reading powers catch it.
He scans X’s passport one last time and smiles. “There you are!” He hands our papers back to us, “You are all set. I found him.”
We thank him profusely, and follow the motions of another attendant to join the other travelers in “line.” We quickly realize that lines are a subjective subject with this airline. It’s more a jostling, shoving mob of bodies that sort of squishes through vaguely defined parameters.
Sample 1: “Line”
Our seats are not all together. We put the boys in the two that are adjacent. I take a window seat next to a very elderly couple. Brian moves toward his seat after getting the boys settled. Someone has put a toddler in his seat, and no one wants to move her. The plane is full to capacity, so he stands in the aisle for a while while the flight attendants tap shoulders, asking everyone (except the toddler and her mother) to give up a seat for him. Three people shift around to make room for him. He will be moved again, twice, during our long flight. The toddler who stole his seat begins her 16-hour screaming session.
The reading light in our row is broken and, despite the efforts of my seat mate to fix it, will stay dark for the duration of our flight. However, this plane is equipped with a screen in every seat back. The couple next to me starts watching America’s Next Top Model. The husband will watch the same episode three more times in a row, after his wife falls asleep. I discover a circus channel and settle in for long haul.
A few hours in, I check our flight path and realize that we are flying over the Arctic Circle. Luckily, there is enough light outside for me to snap off a few quick photos out the window.
I think I fall asleep after this. Or, at least I fall into that fugue state that excessive weariness, dehydration and lack of time/space context creates. My memories of the next ten hours are a bit scrambled.
Sometime o’clock in the morning: Guangzhou, China.
We touch down and nearly all of our fellow passengers spring up and start yanking luggage down as we taxi toward the gate. The flight attendants pretend to make attempts to have them reseat until we are still, but they quickly give up and smile sweetly as the crowd crushes into the aisles.
We are led through a gauntlet of interior and exterior spaces, from freezing cold hallways to a place on the tarmac that is slightly warmer, but pouring down rain. We are pointed to a shuttle bus, packed in tight, and start off. B turnes to me and mouthes “Where are they taking us?” I shrug. It’s really too late to question that, isn’t it? We are going wherever they take us.
Where they take us is a phenomenally cold terminal. We have a three hour layover here. It was supposed to be five hours, but the “line” situation at JFK put us back quite a bit. I realize this as a blessing, as it is colder inside here than out.
We head off in search of food and warmth. The other parts of the airport are just as cold. We exchange some money and find a noodle place that offers a free glass of wine with every bowl. I destroy a helping of squid and prawns in curry sauce and a strangely strong sweetish red. B has oxtail soup, and the boys opt for plain noodles (X) and vegetable fried rice (O).
Afterward, we head back down to the crowded gate area. A team of four men continually move ten-foot long racks of seats around the space- for what purpose I am not sure. As flights are called, people shove their way around the space, completely ignoring the calls of the airline staff, and pack onto various awaiting shuttle busses. There is next to no room available to wait.
B lays out on the marble edge of a long planter under the stairs and falls asleep. The boys and I smash into two available seats next to a group of laughing women in traditional Ghanian brocade skirt sets, ornate sandals, and puffy NY Mets baseball jackets. Two of them are clutching blond-haired American Girl dolls. They are taking photos of each other one at a time, posing against a concrete column.
I fall asleep with both kids’ heads on my shoulders.
At some point, we are nudged and pointed to another “line.” We board a shuttle bus and are carried by the human current across another tarmac, through another rickety stilt hallway, and onto a plane. We are seated all together this time, in the middle row- four across.
This is a 9 1/2 hour flight. Everyone falls asleep immediately. The attendants wake us every so often to place water or vegetarian plates in front of us. Xabien misses his last meal because I am unable to wake him. I wipe the drool off his face with my wet nap and let him snooze.
And then, after forty hours of travel- through excitement and fear, exhaustion and hunger, cold and discomfort, screaming babies and circus clown shows …
We arrive in Brisbane.