Sunday, January 29, 2012

Not Your Usual TGIF

Sitting in Sojourner's in Atlanta airport's Terminal D, dragging, harder than usual, on a much needed cigarette, I am still shaken and stirred like a James Bond Martini after a horrendous flight from Monterrey, Mexico. It’s only 9:00 am in the morning and I felt like a brandy on the rocks, but ordered coffee instead.

The first half of the early morning flight went well. I drifted off to sleep nicely and was, as usual woken by the tinkling of activity when the cabin crew reached me with drinks. Shortly after I was handed my coffee and ginger biscuits, they do not serve breakfast on these 3 hour flights anymore, (which reminds me of what South African Transport Minister Hendrik Schoeman once said when someone in parliament complained about the food quality on South African Airways overseas flights: "Wil jy vlieg of wil jy vreet"/Do you want to fly or do you want to eat), we started hitting air "potholes".

[Haven't I had enough this week of Monterrey's roads where is seems the asphalt is just there to keep the potholes in place?]

The air pockets soon gave way to a "sinkplaatpad" before things went from rocky to downright scary. The tiny plane, a narrow body CRJ900 instead of the usual wide body Airbus A320 on the Monterrey flights, (Delta may have got bigger by merging with Northwest Airlines, but their planes and seats got smaller since the merger) started to shake violently, swaying sideways and up and down as if it is a trawler drifting on a stormy sea and trying to ride out the waves. Maybe the pilot was dodging falling meteorites. Not likely. However, it felt like we only ever hit troughs, never cresting any waves. My coffee experienced its own bad weather in its cup, spilling little by little and I grabbed more napkins from the beverage cart still standing next to me (not a good thing because these carts can quickly become missiles during turbulence, in the aisle where the two stewardesses or cabin assistants, flight attendants, which ever, stood frozen in place, holding on to the overhead bins to keep themselves upright, just staring at each, talking with their eyes, looking cool, calm and collected, waiting for the turbulence to subside. Just another day at work! Or is it? 70% of injuries due to air turbulence are sustained by flight attendants. And that cart was smack between them. Uhmm…I guess they knew that and was serious thinking…

[TGIF, but not this way.]

In my unknown wisdom I took a blanket when we boarded the flight and it now came in handy. It was spread over my legs and torso catching some of the spilled coffee instead of on my pants. The next moment we were in free fall or so it felt. The coffee cup stayed in place on the tray table but the contents did an escapist dance, lift itself out of the cup and came crashing down on the tray table next to me, splashing all over the guy in the next seat, as did his own orange juice. Synchronized water fountains but without the music.  The blanket protected me from any flying liquids, but the fellow traveller next to me was not so lucky.

A strange thought occurred to me: Why was I more worried about the coffee spilling and not about what's happening with the plane. I hate bouncing planes. I am not scared of flying, but turbulence usually scares the shit out of me. Have I subconsciously started to trust flying and pilots so much that I don't believe the plane will fall or do I just don’t care anymore? What’s the use? I am a backseat driver and have no control over the situation.

The plane stopped it free falling with a thud. Something outside the window caught my eye. It was a wing that was flapping up and down far more than usual like when a startled bird frantically trying to get airborne when a cat chases it.  Now I was getting worried. They call this thing a bird, but it is a fixed wing plane. They don’t usually flap. And it’s an old plane. What about metal fatigue? Is this it? Is this how life will end for me? Going down in a fiery blaze of "glory"? At lease it will be quick. My life will have to flash by faster than the falling plane otherwise I won't see the movie's end. But then I already know the end. I was experiencing it right there and then.

[I wonder, do these so call flashbacks go back in time from the present moment or do they start at the beginning of one’s life until the present moment?] 

The wings were still flapping violently as we hit more turbulence and losing more altitude. The captain came on the PA and nonchalantly apologizes for the rough ride and reported that we are descending from 36,000 feet to 20,000 feet in an effort to see if we can find a path with less unstable air.

[What the hell was he doing at 36,000 feet? Trying to take us to the International Space Station?]

Lowering altitude did help, but there would still be sporadic turbulence for the next hour until we landed at Atlanta, especially as we got closer to the ground. The landing was less perfect and hard but at that stage I couldn't give a shit anymore. I just wanted to be on solid ground. Never before was mother earth so welcomed.

I was even looking forward to the usual meat processing process of passport checking, customs clearing and security screening. Maybe I was just looking forward to a cigarette? And Atlanta now has one of those 'THING' detectors. Those screening devices that sees everyTHING and submit you to a thorough pat down if it even finds a boarding pass in your pocket, never mind something actually serious and dangerous like a pen that can be used as a lethal weapon. I guess it will then go totally berserk. Those rotating arms will start spinning like a washing machine in spin cycle, all doors will automatically be locked and it will activate Rambo-mode in the microchips planted in TSA agents’ brains. Actually, when I left Lexington last Sunday I was subjected to one of those near-invasive body searches without the machine even giving an alarm when I went through the scanning device. I was “randomly selected” for a thorough pat down the agent told me.

[WTF? Randomly selected? Those are words used by sweepstakes marketing material in the mail. Did I win a cruise on the Costa Concordia?]

I wanted to tell him I prefer to go through the scanning again instead of a near-invasive search, but then I remembered what happened to Kentucky's senator Rand Paul the previous week at Nashville, Tennessee airport so I SHUT UP. The same thing happened to him. The device selected to sound its alarm after he went through the scanner and a TSA agent wanted to do a pat down on him. Random selection! He asked to go through the scanner again. But they refuse. He asked why not, but they didn’t take a liking to his questioning. Eventually he was detained for an hour and submitted to a pat down search in any case.

Hey, if they were that hard lined with a US Senator imagine what they would have done to me. Probably send me to the Newport Aquarium in Cincinnati as shark feed. I played sheep and let them lead me away. I was on the last flight out to Atlanta en route to Monterrey and in no mood to miss my flight, turn around, go home, and get up at 3 am in the morning to return to the airport. Search away and get your kicks.

Makes you wonder why they have these million dollar machines and still have to get physical with the taxpayers that paid for them.

[Certainly not your usual TGIF.]

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Skyscraper’s Delight

Skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

I’m tired. It pressed down on me like a wet cloak after walking in a rainstorm. Nearly too tired to be tired. Tired because I am not getting enough long stretches of sleep. Tired of dry eyes and a bad cough due to breathing stale air-conditioned air in decompressed cabins at 32,000 feet. Tired of too hot hotel rooms in Japan and icy cold (but nevertheless thankful) hotel rooms in Malaysia. But I am not too tired to be excited about the upcoming free evening and tomorrow’s exploration of Kuala Lumpur.

The Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah Mosque (The Blue Mosque) in Shah Alam, Malaysia

My taxi winds its way eastward along Persekutuan Higway from Shah Alam to Kuala Lumpur’s city center, through a jungle of highway-side billboards, high rise suburbia apartments, and industrial parks, intersperse with small tropical palm tree forests (Kuala Lumpur must be the only world city that still have stretches of “real jungle” within its city limits) here and there.

As my taxi descends more to the floor of Malaysia’s Klang valley and Kuala Lumpur’s skyscrapers are etched against a backdrop of the Titiwangsa Mountains I contemplate my itinerary for tonight and tomorrow. The taxi or teksi as it’s called in Malaysia turned onto the SMART highway and into the 6 mile long SMART tunnel (Stormwater Management and Road Tunnel) to emerge onto Jalan Tun Rezak and then left onto Jalan Ampang that runs in front of the Petronas Towers to my hotel just across from the towers. (Jalan is Malay for road.)  

In Shah Alam at the Restoran Crocodile Farm Seafood Village. No, there are no crocodiles there. Only a seafood restaurant under palm trees with an excellent lake view. 

It was late afternoon when I arrived at the Maya Hotel and after dropping my luggage in the room, savoring an apple and a small bottle of orange juice from the room’s fruit bar I head to the Petronas Towers to see if I can go up to the sky bridge to catch the late afternoon view of Kuala Lumpur from 40 odd stories up. But disappointment was my lot because it was closed until January 2012 for renovations. So instead I went underground to the huge Suria shopping mall underneath the towers complex to see if I can buy any souvenirs, but it was a dream world of Louis Vuitton, Prada, Dior, Gucci and Tiffany's that compete with each other to see who can have the highest prices..

The Petronas Towers: In daytime and at night.

Suddenly Kuala Lumpur's skyscraper architecture looked far more interesting than a shopping mall to me. I’m not a big fan of shopping mall exploration in any case, but I nevertheless did for fun and travel experience-sake. I eventually emerged from my underground sojourn onto Jalan P Ramlee to take a casual walk, to snap some photographs and to just take in the city’s architecture, sounds, aromas and character. I walked along Jalan Sultan Ismail in the shadow of the KL Communications Tower and beneath the monorail tracks. Kuala Lumpur is a skyscraper surprise and jewel alike. Its excellent location in Asia makes it a haven for international banking. And banks worldwide love to build upwards, to build status symbols.   

When dark clouds gathered and another tropical storm threatened, it’s monsoon season in Malaysia, I ducked into the Hard Rock CafĂ© for a beer and to escape the oppressive 95 degrees heat and humidity. My feet felt like cedar logs and my throat like the Karoo on a hot dusty day. It was happy hour, buy one and get one free. So I stay for two, talking up some British expats regulars that were hanging out and eating bar side dinners and listen to some good rock and roll that was blaring from the video screens. I eventually dragged myself, reluctantly, out from the coolness of the Hard Rock into the mugginess of the early evening, but was soon drenched as I walked in a deluge of rain on my way to the hotel.

Monsoon storms don’t last long. At the hotel I dried out some and cooled off while watching the BBC World News. More riots in Egypt. Nothing new!  Night has fallen so off I went into the city again looking for a place to eat. The hotel has two restaurants, a Japanese one, but I had that all last week in Japan, the other a traditional Malayan, but no spicy food for me so close to a long flight home. I got to stick to my travel rules, have learned my lesson many times on trips to Mexico.

Kuala Lumpur at night.

I ended up at the Rum Jungle under a canopy of tall trees and flashy lights where the music was nostalgic (Sundown by Gordon Lightfoot, America's Ventura Highway, Lying in the arms of Mary from a seventies band whose name I can't remember anymore and China Groove from the Doobie Brothers among other), the food Western and average, and the service lazy and they didn't served any dessert. I didn't mind. I was heading back to the hotel. The initial spurge of energy from arriving in Kuala Lumpur and the visual entertainment of its magnificent skyscraper architecture was wearing off and my earlier tiredness has returned.  I was looking forward to a long, hopefully undisturbed sleep.

Left: A Chinese "Steamboat" dinner at the Restoran Crocodile Farm Seafood Village. A most interesting and delicious meal in a bowl. Starting with a lightly flavored broth, add vegetables, then seafood, eat and lastly add noodles, and eat again. Lekker kuier kos.
Right: Dessert at the Maya Hotel's Sky Lounge

But not before I stopped at the Maya’s open-aired, but under-roof Sky Lounge for deep fried bananas and vanilla ice cream with a caramel sauce and a cafe royale to send me to bed while another rain storm moved in over Kuala Lumpur covering the famous towers in misty clouds. At least the rain also brought a cool breeze as I savored my dessert and appreciated the view and enjoyed the thunder and lightning show that surrounded the open-aired lounge.

Tomorrow was going to be long day of sightseeing, airport loitering and flying back to Tokyo.  

A misty Kuala Lumpur sunrise with the Titiwangsa Mountains in the background.
Photo courtesy of Jamieo53 at Flickr.