This is the first part in a multi-part series of my travel to China last year, exactly a year ago to this day, January 2nd 2018.
This is a true story. Not simply based on one.
While parts of this story may have been disclosed in various ways over time, to various people, through various means, this is the whole thing, unabridged for you to use as you see fit.
As a lesson? A warning? Perhaps even a long-winded yarn to be disregarded until you too find yourself on a flight across the world, the searing pain of mental self-flagellation stinging as you think to yourself, I should have heeded the Wordonist.
It’s taken me this long to process the events of that period of my life. To build up the internal fortitude to come face to face again with the intense feelings and emotions that reviewing my initial notes and journal entries to put these words down, was sure to evoke.
The memories. Harsh. Jagged. Sharp.
Here they are, dear reader.
It’s a couple days in to 2018 and things have started off on a different foot than usual.
As I write this, I’m tens of thousands of feet above the ground, safely encapsulated within a soaring metal carriage hurtling through the atmosphere at hundreds and hundreds of kilometres per hour. That alone is an incredible, awe inspiring thought.
What a time to be alive, no?
Today marks the beginning of my roughly 5 week adventure in China – an opportunity that developed rather quickly over the past 3 weeks. In that time, I’ve probably felt a gamut of emotions and feelings that I haven’t felt for what seems like an eternity – stress, anxiety, loss of control – not that I’m perfect, but as you’ve undoubtedly gathered, I’m pretty damn close.
Over the past few years, I’ve lead a relatively structured life. I was in control of everything. I was the one responsible for making my daily decisions and making my choices. It was I, who was responsible for getting everything that needed to get done, done. I own and run my own business. I am in charge. It was just the way I like it.
My Napoleon syndrome was at ease. Because I was the Boss.
I’ve departed to meet up with the team, most of whom would have arrived prior to me; my flight itinerary robust, with stops in Montreal, followed by Beijing then finally arriving at my final destination of Changchung, in the Jilin province of China.
As I sit here in the sky, I don’t know exactly where I’ll be staying but I do know that I’ll find out in roughly 20 hours.
I stand corrected.
19 hours and 35 minutes, to be precise – if all goes according to the e-ticket I have “tucked” safely into my ancient, nearly 5 year old Samsung Note 3 smartphone. It had the fancy stylus. Though rarely used, I liked that.
The last time I flew trans-oceanic was an eternity passed, so long ago that I don’t know whether I crossed the Atlantic or the Pacific ocean – hence the use of trans-oceanic. It was over 34 or 35 years ago. An adulthood ago, you might say. Enough time that I’ve grown quite a bit since then, though my friends may argue not much in height, only in paunch.
Being a novice flyer with that constant, nagging fear of missing flights or other such disaster, and also conveniently hitching a ride to the airport with a buddy on his way to work, I arrived with plenty of time to spare. Three and a half hours, in fact.
In my mind I kept considering my flight an international one with a suggested 3 hour pre-flight check in, but I soon realized that the first leg would still be considered domestic, as it was Toronto to Montreal, but that thought had slipped my overworked, anxious brain. I digress…
As one does when faced with excess time at the airport, and being but a mere economy class rider with no fancy lounge access, I bought stuff. Well, I bought one stuff – a Coke Zero.
If you know me, you may be wondering what got in to me at this point. I never imbibe in diet or calorie reduced beverages. That’s not my style. It’s never been my thing because, hell, I love the taste of sugar. And I’m perpetually on a “bulk”. So more calories is always something I strive for, sneaking them in when I can.
However, this was one of those rare times that I used my brain and did that logic thing.
In this case, I knew I’d be on a plane, ideally snake free. I knew I’d be slowly dehydrating, much in the same way that raisins are made –take something beautiful like a grape, and turn it into something vile and disgusting, a shrunken, shriveled sack of it’s former glorious self.
I couldn’t let this happen to me.
So my mind knew I had to stay hydrated while at the same time minimizing my simple sugar intake. And as an added bonus, not rot my teeth (which, in reality, I could have just brushed as I made sure to pack my toothbrush and toothpaste for easy access in my carry on baggage, not to be confused with my personal baggage, which is heavier and also travels everywhere I go – knowing the difference here was the first step in upgrading my novice traveler status card to sophomore).
As I was walking up to the counter of the Relay station, those airport ubiquities that offer all the things you’d crave, want, desire, or need on any form of airplane travel, to pay the requisite King’s Ransom for the bottle of frosty Black Gold I held so gingerly, I saw them.
They called. They beckoned. They whispered my name in that siren call I’ve often fought so hard against in the treat aisle at the local grocery store.
“We are here”
“Look at us”
“Feel us, so soft, so tender, so juicy”
“We’re fresh, we’re colourful, we are just like you imagine us”
“Just like at the movies.”
Those fucking little sour patch kids.
I could feel their eyes fixed on me. Those beady indentations with their little sugared irises. Their expressions of joy and delight, entreating me.
Don’t fear, dear reader, I held strong.
Even after picking up the package. Even after feeling their comforting heft in my calloused, yet silky hands. Pressing into the package flesh, feeling the give of freshness, that telltale sign that their words held true, they were indeed fresh. Soft. Pliable.
In that instant, I could actually feel one of them in my mouth. Manipulated by my tongue, every taste bud experiencing sensory ecstasy. The mouthfeel a marvel of modern science, knowing that millions of dollars of research had been invested in that one delectable moment. Just like a Dorito’s crunch. An experience. The distinct flavour of green, washing over my taste buds as explosions of flavour cascaded, first around the border of my Homunculus’ exaggerated tongue, then in my psyche.
Sweet and sour.
It was electric. That connection.
This was a dangerous game I played. But I resisted, and let me tell you, I don’t know where I was able to summon that inner strength and discipline from. That incredible ability to just walk away.
I carefully hung the package back up on it’s metal hook. And walked away.
Fine. Since it’s just us, I’ll tell you my secret.
I had left my Amex Black card at home, and there was no way the limit on my regular Visa would have allowed me to put down that level of credit for such a small package. Airport candy is not cheap. And it’s worse when I know how much I could have bought that exact same package for at the grocery store. Or even the corner convenience store.
So in the end, after my large Brazilian-Canadian Icon Tim Horton’s hot chocolate and two, toasted everything bagels with generous dollops of herb and garlic cream cheese, I settled into a surprisingly comfortable chair at my departure gate, with just my Coke Zero and broken dreams of sour patch kids that never were – I remained childless.
Within no time, or just under 2 hrs, boarding was called and my journey was set to begin.
The first leg of travel was uneventful. Exactly the way one would hope a flight would be. With minimal delay due to frigid conditions and a minor pit stop for some casual de-icing, we were on our way to Montreal, just a hop, skip and zoom away.
Touchdown. The first one.
After what seemed like a blink of an eye (barely over an hour in flight speak), we touched down in even more arctic conditions in Montreal’s Pierre Eliott Trudeau International Airport (YUL). The layover in Montreal was going to be about twice as long as the flight to get there.
Upon deplaning and then reviewing my boarding passes, I realized that my next departure gate wasn’t printed on them. Having never been to YUL, I wandered my arrivals areas for a few moments before I found what I was looking for. Obviously it was the bathroom. Clean and well appointed, it was conducive to facilitating the call of nature.
As you’ll come to realize shortly, my biggest challenge with long duration air travel is not the air travel itself (I’m not a nervous flyer, and have no travel anxiety), but my aversion for airplane bathrooms.
In reality, it’s not just an aversion to airplane loos, I have an aversion to virtually every stranger bathroom I’ve come across. It’s my version of stranger danger. It’s been like this since I was a kid. I know I’m not the only one. Many of you likely suffer from the same affliction, calling events short to head home to the comfort of the known.
I can count on one hand the number of times I was able to take respite in the loos of high school. It was zero times. So I don’t even need a hand.
But lucky for me, I just had to pee, and in virtually every case, I can make that happen with just a little bit of focus and effort. Remember, I was a large hot chocolate and a bottle of Coke Zero in at this point. The goal of hydration achieved.
As I saw my reflection in the speckled bathroom mirror while washing my hands, I gave myself a little nod. An affirmation. Acknowledgement for a job well done thus far both as it pertains to flying and as it pertains to the use of the public washroom.
Apparently the guy washing his hands next to me thought I was nodding to him because in that instant, our eyes met and he gave me a nod, too.
It’s also possible I was mistaken. Though rare, it does happen on occasion. Perhaps he had heard me whispering words of encouragement to myself just a few moments earlier at the urinals.
“You got this buddy!”
“You can do it”
He left and there I remained alone again with my reflection, contemplating what was to come ahead. I pulled out my now disheveled ponytail and re-tied it. It took me 3 attempts and it ended up looking identical to the starting point, stray hairs escaping, flyaways knowing I too was about to flyaway.
With that thought in mind, I pulled the elastic loose and tried one more time.
Success. This one had at least 86.8% of my hair neatly packaged. It was good enough. Sometimes that’s all that we need: to be good enough.
I returned to the boarding area to bide my time. Lucky I went back as early as I did as they soon called on those passengers with Air Canada boarding passes to come up to the help desk and have those passes reissued with Air China, the airline operating the international portion of the flight.
This did, however, cause a slight blip in my plan. Initially I was just going to sit and wait patiently in the boarding area until the second flight was boarded. But because I was already up and moving, I noticed another Relay station just barely in the distance.
It called. And I answered.
Another Coke Zero. For fighting the raisining. And a package of Original flavour Jack Links beef jerky. Because we all know how important protein is for gains. I was still bulking.
After about another half hour or so, they called our flight and off we went to board.
Not a bad first leg for a novice flyer on a big adventure to China, I thought.
Therein lay my error. The mistake of ages. This was to be an epic adventure…