A Day of Travel. A Day of Travel.

Trip Start Jul 03, 2009
Trip End Aug 16, 2009

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Flag of Japan  , Kanto,
Friday, August 14, 2009

As we left our idyllic paradise, the prospect of 36 hours of travel loomed. We would need to clear 5 airports in 4 countries before finally touching down in Milwaukee's General Mitchell International.

Phuket’s airport was mostly unremarkable, except that it provided one last opportunity for fun with foreign languages. Maribeth picked up a box of cylindrical cookies with chocolate filling called, unfortunately, Collon Biscuits. Potty humor.

Airplane time exists apart from other time. Between the body-contorting seats, the itchy blankets, the pillows that are somehow both too small to provide padding and too large for my neck, the alternating hot and cold, the knee-bashing carts, and the crazy excuses for food, neither of us managed much sleep. My memories are hazy and fragmentary:

Here we are landing in Kuala Lumpur, where the airport is a modern, clean, high-end mall. Harrods, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Coach all have shops, but we can find only one book store with a meager selection of English magazines. We think it’s weird that passengers are re-screened before entering the boarding gate.

Then we’re en route to Tokyo on a lovely Malasian Airways flight with surprisingly good (and spicy) food, as well as a personal in-flight entertainment console. I’m envious of the passengers continuing on to Russia. We will have to transfer to Northwest.

Then we’re in Tokyo’s Narita Airport for a 9 hour layover, a period of time just short enough to make a quick siteseeing trip infeasible (given the distance to the city). Instead, over coffee at Starbucks, we formulate a plan of attack for the day to avoid, on the one hand, going crazy from boredom and, on the other, killing each other from sleepy crankiness.

As with the rest of Japan (we were here for 2 weeks exactly one year ago), the airport is run smoothly and efficiently, with a kind of exactness that took a moment to get used to (as when we were told an inter-terminal shuttle bus would be arriving in 2 minutes and 30 seconds, and it did!). We made our home base a large lower-level lounge that was sparsely populated the entire day. The amenities—a children’s play area with brightly colored molded-plastic toys, 2 large screen TVs, and a section of extremely comfortable lounge chairs—gave the space the feel of a strange version of a suburban basement rec room. Our area also had several computer desks, so we set Maribeth up on the computer and I explored our terminal.

I can’t say that I’ve ever walked the entire length of an airport before this one. I also can’t say that I had any great expectations, which was a good thing. On my trip, the most exciting elements were (in order of discovery): a Japanese caramel candy called Nordic Farms (Made in Japan. Free samples available.); the Japanese Origami museum, featuring pieces constructed by children in that very space; Hagen Daz vending machines; and a store selling Suntory’s CC Lemon drink (Maribeth’s favorite beverage from last year’s trip, and sold on the promise of 70 lemon’s worth of vitamin c per container. There will be no scurvy for us!). One last discovery was that of the airport’s "English is spoken here" mascot, a chubby cartoon child sporting aviator glasses and a distinctly dull-witted look. I guess this is how we come across.

Lunch was upon us surprisingly fast, and we decided to go to an unassuming sushi place for what turned out to be a spectacular meal. This airport fish was fresher, tastier, and better prepared than almost any sushi meal I’ve had in the states. The fatty tuna in particular was a delight: it almost melted in my mouth and left a slightly sweet aftertaste. We both were reminded how much we enjoyed the Japanese practice of putting the wasabi directly into the rolls and sashimi. The restaurant bills itself as “one last good meal before you go,” and it was the best food we’d had in 36 hours (and the best for another 24).

At this point, we noticed that we smelled a bit ripe, so we stepped into the airport’s shower and sleep center, where one can reserve a bedroom for napping (we didn’t do this) or a bathroom for showering. The showers were tiny (no more than 6 by 3, including the shower, miniature sink, and small cubby-hole shelves) but they were spotlessly clean and refreshing. $5 well spent (I’m sure our fellow passengers would agree).

At the check-in, we had our one travel glitch, which was fortunately resolved quickly. Maribeth’s passport reads Maribeth Fox, but her tickets were booked (by me) as Fox-Chmielewski. Not one person—no one—in San Francisco, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Phuket, or Kuala Lumpur had even noticed this discrepancy. Now someone did. This airline employee kindly informed us that as long as we could show our marriage certificate—which was sitting in a locked cabinet in Brooklyn—there’d be no problem. Crap. A few calls later, and after frantically showing several other ID’s, they let Maribeth through.

The day really had flown by. It was odd to see the cycle of an airport day, as I normally think of these places as existing in a timeless realm, basically the same at 7am as at 10pm. Yet there is a rhythm to the days here. We watched crews cleaning in the morning, then stores opening. We saw crowds swell and thin as jets came and went, we heard pockets of language fill spaces and then empty as flights left for Bangkok, Beijing, Paris, and Moscow. McDonalds had a line all day. Coach never did. The origami store was busiest around 1pm.

Then we were on our flight to Minneapolis. On Northwest, where the flight attendants all seemed stressed and pinched. They bristled when serving, and when we asked for water. We were in the middle aisle, back of the plane (row 62!). No in-flight entertainment console here, just ancient-looking cathode-ray tube TVs, and one large projection screen with a distracting green bar crossing the midsection. 10 hours later we landed.

Bleary eyed, here we are in Minneapolis, waiting in an endless line for immigration. We notice that for the first time in three weeks, the signage everywhere was only in English. Fend for yourself, guests! The luggage arrived at 2 carousels simultaneously, which works when you have two sets of eyes, but sucks for the lone traveler.

In Minneapolis’s airport, we were amazed at the variety of food options available. Granted, not much of it is good, but there are approximations of food from around the globe. We ate pizza and tortilla soup at a Wolfgang Puck’s. Our stomachs became melting pots. We both turned on our cell phones for the first time in 3 weeks.

Finally, we are on one last flight, this time to Milwaukee. We barely make cruising altitude before preparing for landing. Our flight crew only served drinks to 30 percent of the plane, but I didn’t care. I am a zombie, running on 5 hours of sleep, but because it’s airplane sleep—coming in 20 minute increments between being rammed by carts and bouts of turbulence—it feels like 15 minutes.

Milwaukee’s airport feels different, and the halls speak of happy homecomings: eager footsteps through the terminal gate to family and home. It’s an easy place, with wide, carpeted hallways and muted tones, not a sleek modern marvel. The infrastructure is sized so that you feel like you have plenty of room to stretch out, and there are rarely lines

Waiting in the terminal is my dad, and he’s a sight for sore eyes. We’ve come to Milwaukee to celebrate my parents’ 30th wedding anniversary, and we will be in a full house for the weekend, joined by my brother David and his girlfriend Jamie; my sister Becky and her girlfriend Theresa; and my sister Rachel. We’ve now gone for 40 days where we’ve been within an arm’s length of each other probably 95% of the time. We’ve travelled three weeks where our only meaningful conversations—save an evening with Bev—has been exclusively between us two. It’s simultaneously exciting but also slightly awkward to be back amidst so many other people we know.

Soon we are at my parent’s home in Muskego as the sun is just beginning to set. The air is humid, and smells of cut grass and pine trees. We hear birds. Mom meets us on the path to the front door and gives us one of her famous hugs. Inside, my siblings are talking. It feels good to be here.  It feels good to be home.

Tomorrow: More puke than you can shake a fist at.
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