Sunday, January 15, 2006

1 Seven days in Fiji - Getting there

Seven days in Fiji

Getting There

I have a seven-hour jet lag or is it 17 hours. I just got back from Fiji and I’m not a happy person right now. Traveling used to be a grand experience. It’s not anymore. When my dad went to China in the 1920’s he didn’t go for a week or so he went for a year or so. The journey would begin with the family gathered at Grand Central Station in New York City to see my father off. He would have a private compartment in a Pullman car on the 20th Century Limited bound for Chicago. Half a dozen steamer trunks would be loaded into the baggage car with a large valise serving as a traveling wardrobe. In another bygone era my Grandfather would travel the world with a manservant but my Dad was a thoroughly modern 20th Century man, he traveled alone.

The trip to Chicago would take the entire night. Leaving at 6 in the evening, the 20th Century Limited wound its way up the Hudson River, crossing near Albany. From there the tracks paralleled the old Erie Canal through upstate New York, never stopping until it reached the suburbs of Chicago. With luck the trip would take a short 12 hours but bad weather or problems on the line could delay arrival by many hours. The last run of the 20th Century Limited was on December 2nd 1967, she was nine hours late. Layovers were not measured in hours but in days. A day or two layover was not a problem since it is likely that my Dad knew some business men he wanted to connect with on his way to the Orient. If there was a residential Harvard Club in Chicago in 1920 I’m sure he would have had his secretary book a room. If not there were other clubs and grand hotels available to accommodate him.

My Dad traveled with a portfolio of “letters of introduction” from various businessmen and bankers designed to gain access to and cash from various potentates along the way. One letter of introduction from the President of the Chemical, Corn Exchange Bank in New York City, dated 1927, and reads, “This letter is to introduce you to E. Stanley Glines. His credit is good in seven figures.” In 1927 my Dad could borrow a million dollars from anyone recognizing the signature of the bank president.

Trips like this were not the light business junkets we take today or the heavy progress of a wealthy prince across the interior. A business trip was a combination pitch to investors, a search for backers and the accumulation of the goods and services needed at the end of the line. One did not go across the country to shake hands as we do today. A business trip was a self-contained business that wheeled and dealed from one end of the world to the other and might involve dozens or hundreds of side deals on the way to the one BIG DEAL. My Dads first trip to China was a textbook example of an early 20th Century (or one might say late 19th Century) business trip. He was on his way to China for Stone and Webster Engineering in Boston to survey for a railroad to be built from Peking to Ulin Bator in Outer Mongolia. Along the way he agreed to export from China Chinese tea, and import into China a series of coin and money presses for the newly formed Imperial bank of China which my Dad was credited as a founding partner. I think the Bank of China was itself a side deal that allowed the financing of the railroad with local Chinese and British money.

After a night’s rest and a day of shaking hands and explaining his mission my Dad would head back to the railroad for the long trip on the Overland Limited which left Chicago at 10:30 a.m. and arrived in San Francisco at 8:30 a.m. three days later.

Figure 1 Paintings by Howard Fogg - In 1917, the famous train is shown heading west past the spectacular cliffs of the Green River in Wyoming.

Once in San Francisco my Dad would again have looked up business acquaintances and exercised his letters of introduction. I do know from reading his journal of that first trip, that he spent considerable time in San Francisco before embarking for Shanghai. The manufacturing company that made the machinery for the San Francisco mint had been contracted as a part of a side deal to manufacture the machinery and presses for the Imperial Bank of China. My dad had to see that the equipment was packed and booked for shipment with him. This trip had begun to resemble an expedition. I remember reading about Winston Churchill heading off to the Boar War with 12 trunks that included several hundred bottles of wine and spirits.

Somewhere in my dads journals he describes the journey aboard the passenger steamer leaving San Francisco for Shanghai. Along the way they stopped for a day in Honolulu Hawaii, Tokyo Japan and finally Shanghai, a journey of over 6,000 miles at an average of 12 knots. The math yields 20 days at sea but in reality this was a month long trip with days spent loading and unloading cargo, re-provisioning and coaling at every stop. There was some 1920’s Hollywood starlet that was also traveling to China aboard the same ship and my dad spent considerable time in her company but my mother could never get my dad to admit they had an affair. Perhaps they didn’t.

My dads business wasn’t in Shanghai but rather in Peking and north to Ulan Bator in Outer Mongolia. It took him more than a month to get to Peking and another three to survey the tract between there and Ulan Bator for a railroad spur. Along the way he met and exchanged gun fire with bandits, discovered that he was smuggling guns in the crates he thought were printing presses, had a partner die in a sleeping bag next to him, had camel dung smeared all over his face as a cure for acute sunburn and met “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell in a bar that sounded like the intergalactic bar in the first Star Wars movie. My dad and “Vinegar Joe” both tried to pay for their meals with cigar coupons. Both “Vinegar Joe” and my dad fled for their lives on camel back the next day when a marauding army of White Russian Cossacks sacked the city. This make me think that the Harry Flashman stories could very well have been a retelling of the life of some real non-fiction character.

Even though China in 1920 was as wild as any place on earth my dad made a good fortune on that business trip and made three more before 1940. Along the way he managed to meet everyone that was anyone in China from Sun Yat Sen, the founder of modern China, to Chiang Kai-shek and even Mao and Chou En-lai. He liked Sun, thought Chiang pompous and despised Mao as an uneducated buffoon but thought Chou En-lai was brilliant but unprincipled.

By these standards I did not make a business trip to Suva Fiji. My trip was not a business expedition; I flew in, taught a class for 40 hours then flew out. It was like a WWII bombing mission more than a business expedition. Like my fathers yearlong trips the minutia of the trip is what is interesting.

I don’t think travel by itself is conducive to being creative. As far as I can remember Lord Byron is the only one I can remember who actually wrote anything of interest while traveling. I think he wrote a volume of poetry on his way out of England. That could have been Shelly. I can’t remember. The point is that the act of traveling while inspirational is not conducive to actual production, at least not for me. Whenever I travel I bring my laptop and occasionally think about pulling it out. There are lots of opportunities to write or read. I have seen people reading or using their laptops while queued up to deposit their luggage at the check-in counter. I have seen people reading and using their laptops (mostly for watching DVD’s) while waiting mindlessly in uncomfortable seats for airplanes to show up and, of course, I’ve seen people reading and using laptops while on long flights from here to their. I can’t do either.

For me there is something acutely painful and, at the same time, compelling, about travel that will not allow me to read or write or watch a movie. On trips at night or when there is nothing interesting to see, like on long airplane rides, I go into hibernation. My pulse slows, my creative thought process is turned off and I drift in and out of sleep, a light torpor resembling sleep actually, and all except that portion of my brain that serves as my memory recording center is turned off.

The stupidity of shoe bomber induced shoe X-Rays and the stealing of micro-penknives by brain dead security people don’t phase me. I duly, or dully, comply and record the fact that I should be outraged in my memory. At best I shake my head and probably look a bit disgusted but I cannot recall uttering any actual verbal abuse. My actions are minimalistic. I know I have to take my laptop out of my bag so that it can be X-Rayed separately. If I were going to blow up an airplane it would be very easy but I have no inclination to do so and no access to Plastique. I take my laptop out, dump my keys, wallet, change, watch and jacket in the little bins provided, take my ticket (and boarding pass) in hand and walk through the metal detector without talking off my shoes. Taking shoes off is a major annoyance and putting them back on takes time. That only raises the anger level of those who have not yet learned to fall back into a stupor.

I don’t look like a shoe bomber and the unconscious mind of the security guards thank me for not slowing down the line. I walk through without protest. I carefully, deliberately and without rushing put my kit back together. My laptop goes back into the plastic bag I use for travel. That goes into my briefcase. My watch goes back on my wrist, keys, change and wallet go back into their appropriate pockets and my ticket and boarding pass back into the jacket pocket from whence it came. I put my jacket back on. I dust my self off, perform an accounting, then, if all is well, step away from the counter. My actions must incite a form of mental torture on the security guards watching me for while I am performing this slow ballet the line must come to a complete stop. I am deeply conscious of many eyes watching as I perform this deliberate but perfectly correct dance. They cannot say anything they are mesmerized.

I walk away from the X-Ray machine with all consciousness turned off save one small mental trigger: where is gate 32b? I find it, check my watch and set my mental timer for the required interval between now and when I expect the boarding announcement. That set I can go back into “the zone.” My timing is almost always perfect. During the period of languor I observe that most people are in the same state I am in, asleep or trying to amuse themselves. Into this latter category fall people chatting on cell phones, attempting to read and using laptops. Most people are used to multi-tasking with cell phones and the ones chatting with ephemeral friends are the only people fully engaged and animated. I notice that those trying to read never quite achieve the level of concentration I see in other public places. When people at the beach or in the library read there is almost a universal total absorption. This doesn’t happen at the airport. I noticed that people using laptops at the airport fall into two categories. Those in the first category are people simply using their laptops as DVD players. These people are watching TV and, just as they would be at home, passively absorbing the contents of their tiny screen. I am at least moving my eyeball but am just as passively absorbing the contents of my field of vision. I am not sure who is being entertained the most.

The second class of laptop users are those trying to do something useful. Like those attempting to read they are fighting the inexorable boredom that sucks any and all creativity out of those waiting for a flight. I can tell who they are by the scowls and quiet curses they utter unconsciously and, usually, silently, just mouthing the invective. Try as they might to remain engaged in whatever is present on their screen they cannot as boredom sucks the light out of otherwise brilliant people. My eyes fixed on a woman who stared without the slightest hint of comprehension at the same page of the same text document for almost an hour. She was interrupted just when my mental timer went off and the “pre-boarding” announcement scratched over the barely comprehensible public address system.

The “pre-boarding” announcement is actually a boarding announcement, where they start boarding the young, the infirm and those taking care of the young and infirm. It’s a boarding announcement, nothing “pre” about it. I’m not sure why it annoys me so much except that it is a gross misuse of the English language. For the next 20 minutes I actually have to be alert. I take inventory again, extract my boarding pass, reconfirm my seat number, 48d, and tune into the real boarding announcement. I’ve always loved the fact that they board 1st class passengers first. They get in their cushy leather seats that cost as much as 10 times what I pay, strap themselves in then have to sit and suffer the gawks and stares while the great unwashed masses in the back of the plane get on board and check them out. Some may enjoy this but if I were rich or famous I’d want to be the last one on board rather than be subjected to the scrutiny of hundreds of people I didn’t know. I’ll admit, every time I board an airplane I’ll slow down and scan the faces of the first class passengers for someone famous. I’ve never seen anyone famous in first class but I am also sure I have stared blankly right into the face of someone I should know but didn’t recognize. I’ll bet the best paparazzi have walked right past someone famous in an airport without aiming a camera at them. Airports by design or accident are that numbing.

I find my seat, stow my carry on luggage in the overhead bins, lock my seatbelt and disengage. There is nothing, absolutely nothing I can do to affect the progress of this flight, my own life or career or the progress of civilization in general for the next six hours. My torpor is deeper now. I hear, without comprehension, the announcement about seatbelts and escape hatches (has anyone ever successfully evacuated an airplane by way of these hatches and slides?). I feel the plane being pushed away from the gate. I feel, more than hear, the engines being wound up. I feel the bumpy ride as we taxi to the end of the runway. I feel the acceleration as the plane forces its way down the runway. I semi-consciously estimate the speed, 70, 80, … 130, 140, 150, 160, 170 knots.

I can usually guess within a small fraction of a second the point where the pilot rotates the nose up and the front landing wheels rise from the pavement. With my eyes closed I can hear the difference more than feel it. When the plane rotates the lift on the wings suddenly increases dramatically and the instant this upwards thrust equals the weight of the plane we have liftoff. For most jets this rotation takes 2 – 3 seconds with the main wheels rising from the runway about ½ second into this rotation. For those who have never flown in a jet this moment must be terrifying. Five or six seconds after the wheels leave the pavement, a couple of seconds after the pilot has finished rotating the nose up, the main landing gear are retracted into the body of the plane with a “ta-thump, thump” sound loud enough bring me to full consciousness for a second or so. Then, depending on the jet, airline and pilot, the flaps and slots have to be retracted. The sound of flaps being retracted is a series of “whirr” sounds followed by another “ka-thump” when the flaps are fully stowed. Each retraction of the flaps is accompanied by a slight change in flight angle. My inner ear is more attuned to this change than my eye or ear. By the time the flaps are retracted the plane has gained enough altitude that my ears pop. Until your ears pop you become progressively deafer and deafer as the pressure on the inside of the eardrum presses out and the vibrations that power hearing become muted. The moment the pressure differential between inner and outer eat is equalized your hearing improves which is to say the sound inside the cabin suddenly becomes very loud.

This is the last time I am awake before landing six hours later. This time the sequence is in reverse. About half an hour before landing the plane begins its decent from about 30+ thousand feet. The decent is gradual and the pilot usually just pulls way back on the power. You can hear and feel the change in thrust and within a minute or so feel the change in cabin pressure. Most modern jets, specially older ones, leak air like a sieve so its hard to maintain a cabin pressure equal to 8,000 feet at 40,000 but that gets easier as the plane descends so your ears begin to pop as the plane passes 25,000. If you keep your eyes closed you can feel the air getting bumpier and thicker as the plane drops into the “teens.”

The landing gear comes down first with a big thump. I’m still in my torpor so I am just recording of events. I reason that the pilot needs an efficient air brake and the landing gear serve that purpose adequately, after all we have been descending at a relatively steep angle and must be going quite fast. When I’ve been able to observe the actual altitudes of jetliners they seem to be ordered down in 2,000-foot decrements starting at 9,000 feet. Each decrement in altitude is accompanied by an extension of the trailing edge flaps and that “whirring” sound. At 5,000 feet we are cleared for landing. That’s when the pilot tells the flight attendants (I grew up calling them stewards and stewardesses) to have a seat. About this time the pilot realizes that he’s going to slow or is to low to make the runway and gooses the engine one last time. I am fully awake with my seat belt fastened (it never came unfastened), my tray table stowed and my seat back in the fully upright position. If we are going to crash this is when it will occur. I’ve crash-landed twice in my life and if I need to try to try to get out of this airplane via the hatches and shoots it will be in the next 10 minutes.

We hit harder than I expect, a crash, slam onto the runway at 200 knots. We shimmy in the 20 knot cross wind as the pilot, heart no doubt pumping hard, struggled to gain control in the 10 or so seconds he had to land this bird or go around again. We are on the ground and committed. The spoilers, which also serve as air brakes, are up killing lift and insuring that we stay on the ground and the engines are thrown in reverse. There are times when this breaking sequence has happened well before the pilot had full control of the plane on the ground. Those landings are scary and I always give the pilot, if he shows his face after that, a “way to go” thumbs up. I always get a sheepish grin.

All my crash landings were in the old Viscount and Vanguard turboprops that Air Canada used to fly. One of the crash landings occurred when we blew a tire as the pilot was trying to get control of the plane on the runway and after he had committed to landing. We spun out of control and right off the end of the runway and onto some grass. Nothing happened to us except some frayed nerves. After an inspection we were towed to the gate. I had a window seat for the second crash landing. We were at altitude when I noticed that the engine nearest to me was pouring oil out of the nacelle. I mentioned that to the “cabin attendant” who went running up to the pilot. The pilot or co-pilot came back to have a look then ran back forward and feathered the engine. By then the dripping oil was on fire and black smoke as well as oil was pouring out of the engine. I guess there was a fire extinguisher in the engine because the black smoke turned to white then ceased altogether. Still the pilot made a serious dive for the nearest airport. We landed with a fanfare of fire engines prepared to do battle with a major airplane crash. After inspection by the pilot and crew we were towed to the gate again.

Other than a landing hard enough to congratulate the pilot on this leg of my trip was uneventful. I dragged my baggage from the overhead compartment, exited the plane, and passed through the one-way doors of security. I was in LA. In six hours I would be on another plane bound for Fiji. Landings are always exhilarating and I am awake and searching for the Air Pacific counter, which turns out to be in another building.

While still awake I wander through the maze of shops and restaurants. If you are stuck in LAX the international terminal is the only place with food and or coffee or a place to sit. There are no homeless people at airports? Airports are too uncomfortable even for homeless people although I wonder if I’d even notice them. The designers of modern airports must have made a study of what people don’t like. The chairs are very uncomfortable and impossible to sleep in. The décor resembles that of a modern industrial warehouse. The wall-to-wall carpeting used in all airports use must be made of Kevlar. Thousands of people walk on it every day yet ten years later it looks the same. I’ve seen people so tired or in deep enough hibernation to actually sleep on this stuff. I wonder how people actually work here?

Two hours till boarding time, I pass through the security check point again and again I don’t take my shoes off and again the I can feel an unconscious thank you and again I fall into a trance. Four hundred of us all bound for Fiji board a giant 747; my seat is 87h, an aisle seat. Most of the people around me are not white Americans. I am asleep before we are pushed away from the gate. It has been years since I’ve flown in a 747. It is a very heavy aircraft. I am forced awake when my ears pop and the roar of the aircraft is suddenly apparent. I hear the pilot explain that we will be cruising at 30,000 feet and will drift up to 37 or perhaps even 39,000 feet as we consume jet fuel. I drift back into my torpor.

Six or seven hundred miles into the Pacific Ocean it begins as a small bump, big enough to register an “oh!” Quiet … then another sharp thud. The pilot turns the “fasten seat belt” sign on and our six-hour rollercoaster ride begins. At 250 knots the bumps are relatively soft, like driving on a road in need of repaving. You can get airsick, carsick and seasick from this kind of motion. At 585 knots the same turbulence produces bumps that are sharp, hard and abrupt, like hitting a pothole at 45 miles per hour. It’s harder to get airsick from this white-knuckle kind of motion, it’s too abrupt, but is also hard for most people to sleep through it. I have learned to. I’ve been in enough bumpy flights to know that it’s unlikely that the airplane will fall apart even if it feels like it should. I’ve also learned that if I keep my eyes closed I can actually enjoy the ride. When you keep your eyes closed you have to rely on your other senses to make up the difference in sensory intake. In the case of turbulence you must rely entirely on the motion detection of your inner ear. One difference between driving fast in a car and driving fast in an airplane is that the bumps are in 3D. Not only do you go up and down as you would in a car but you can be jolted from side to side just as hard. The hardest to take and the hardest to identify is that the airplane also pitches and yaws just as dramatically. One channel on the TV screen on the seat back in front of me continuously showed speed, altitude and a crude projection of position on a map of the world. The altitude and speed were updated every 5 seconds or so. The altitude of our aircraft changed as much as 50 feet and the speed as much as 80 knots during these 5-second updates. After watching about ten cycles I turned it off and fell back into the zone.

For me, in my lethargic state, the bumps, bangs and sways slowly blend in with the static noise of engines combined with air rushing past the fuselage at nearly 600 knots and human voices speaking quietly. I fall deeper into my torpor. One thought hits me. Whenever I’ve encountered this kind of turbulence over the continental US the pilots usually drop to a more comfortable altitude, which forces the plane to slow down. This makes the plane late, often hours late. You can’t do that over the Pacific Ocean where the nearest landing strip might be several thousand miles away. Over the Pacific in a 747 you have to grin and bear it because to do otherwise would mean having to ditch the plane in the ocean a long way from wherever I want to be. Not being able to affect my situation, often a source of anxiety for others is a source of tranquility for me. I inherited that from my Dad who, it was said, could sleep anywhere under any circumstances.

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