Saturday, July 29, 2017

Old Notebook Bits: The Last Trip To America

I go through these ring-notebooks at a pretty good clip, and not all of the contents make it any further. This entry had potential, I thought so anyway. We’ll see how it goes. A lot of new writing was added along the way, and at the end.

I took a trip to America in the Spring of 2016, and it was life’s customary mix of interesting, boring, and horrible, with more emphasis on the horrible than usual.

I am a creature of habit, almost ridiculously so. For over ten years, I had the identical breakfast: Kellogg’s Corn Flakes (from the factory in Malaysia), with half “zero percent” milk and half orange Dutch Mill yogurt drink; two cups of coffee; and a few cigarettes. I recently instituted a program of lifestyle modifications, and I substituted one cup of tea for the coffee and cigarettes. (That was a pathetically inadequate substitution, by the way, but it is, I am advised, more lebensgemuetlich.) As a rule, I don’t like change. I like the accustomed ways. I like to keep my life ritualized.

I had been going back to America for a visit once every year, and for the previous six or seven years I had flown with EVA Air, a good outfit out of Taiwan. I flew with the same flight numbers every year that I was with them. I liked the arrival and departure times. This year I needed an emergency ticket, on short notice, and I ended up on Korean Air Lines. I have to say that they do a good job.

From Bangkok to Seoul I had an aisle seat. This was a surprise, actually, because the website displayed the seating plan of a Boeing 777, with its “3-3-3” seating in Economy, with the “F” seat being exactly in the middle. In the event, the plane was an Airbus A330 with a “2-4-2” configuration, putting “F” on the aisle. That flight is five hours and change, so I was very happy about the equipment discrepancy. The plane was very comfortable; my meal was “the Traditional Korean Rice Bowl,” called Bee Bim Bom, which is very complicated but delicious; I watched the new Star Wars movie.

The connection in Seoul was unremarkable.

The Airbus A380

From Seoul to Los Angeles we flew in an Airbus A380, which was much less exciting that you may have been led to believe. I’ve seen photographs and video of the plane, and it is very impressive on the outside, very big. The videos and advertisements for airlines only show the First Class and Business Class cabins, which do look nice, as would be expected at those prices. When you take one of these flights, though, you cannot see the plane at all, and I entered the Economy cabin through the Economy entrance, so that’s all that I saw. Seeing only the Economy aspect of the aircraft, it all looks surprisingly typical. In comparison to the A330, there are identical seats, with identical legroom, identical overhead compartments and lighting, and windows, and the entertainment system is exactly the same. The seating is “3-4-3,” for a total of ten across instead of the A330s eight, but this bit of information is not immediately noticeable in any meaningful way. There is no impression of greater space. It is rather a disappointment, after all of the hype.

As one explores the environment, many great differences become apparent. The huge A380 has the smallest bathrooms that I have ever seen on a commercial aircraft. And that’s “ever,” smaller not only than on todays “regional jets,” but also smaller than the Lockheed Electra or the Douglas DC-6. On the A380, in an Economy Class bathroom, you cannot put one hand in a pocket without banging your elbow on a wall. The bathrooms on the A330, not to mention the much nicer Boeing 777, are roomier and more accommodating.

All of the Economy Class common spaces, and all of the crew spaces too, are seriously cramped and claustrophobic on the A380. I walked past a galley while four stewardesses were preparing a meal service, and they could not move without bumping into each other.

But the round trip cost the same as the EVA, about $1,300 for the round trip (Bangkok to L.A.), even though I flew two days after buying the tickets. And the comfort level was about the same an EVA Boeing 777, too. Same seats; same space allotment; lavish and fully functional entertainment systems; very good food and plenty of it; beautiful and cheerful staff; and on-time performance.

Los Angeles

I’ve been living and working in Bangkok for ten years now, and it is a shock to go back to America at this point.

The first shock is the weather. This was in April, and the temperature at about 7:00 p.m. was seventy degrees. Even though I was wearing a substantial sports jacket, I was freezing. I was shivering. Becoming accustomed to the weather in Thailand will do that to a person.

Many foreigners complain about Bangkok taxi drivers, but I find most of them to be friendly and efficient. Driving in Bangkok is a difficult and exhausting job, and they do it with a minimum of complaining. Driving a cab in Los Angeles is difficult for several very different reasons, and there is a lot more complaining from the drivers.

My taxi driver was a recently arrived immigrant, of course, and he was chatty. I was only his second ride of the day, both were airport pickups after longish waits in the taxi line. His first ride was a shorty, a ride to a hotel in the immediate area for the minimum charge of $25. That’s for a six or seven minute ride, so the price is kind of a shock in itself. Upon arrival, the passenger, an attractive woman, simply informed the driver that she had no money. She just got out and entered the hotel. I don’t think that she even apologized. The driver shrugged it off and returned to the taxi line at the airport.

After another wait in line, he got me. Another short ride to an airport area hotel. This was after a total of three hours of waiting time, so he’d been working at least four hours at that point with zero money so far, and having burned up some good gas money, which comes out of his pocket. The fellow, God bless him, never made me feel like any of this was my fault. He just told me the tale of woe in a rather friendly, conversational tone. I know that he was hoping for a ride to Newport Beach or something, to put him back in the money, but no, another shorty for the minimum fare. I wildly overtipped him and he was good enough to appreciate the gesture. I drove taxis myself, in the distant past, in New York and Los Angeles, so I understand.

American Prices

I am, at this point, quite the little Rip Van Winkle when I visit America. The last time that I was fully adjusted to American prices was 2003. The acceleration of prices for everything has been swift since then.

Renting a baggage cart at LAX cost $5.00! Preferably on a credit card, thank you. A weekday L.A. Times is $2.00, and that’s while the content has been whittled down to almost nothing.

It’s all very neo-liberal, you know, a multiplicity of contracts with short durations for contracts. So the hotels have out-sourced room service, that will be a new customer relationship with, thank you. “Order Inn is highly recommended by, but not affiliated with this property.” You know, for liability purposes. The prices were pretty high, $8.00 sandwiches, a $16.00 12 inch pizza, plus tax, with a minimum order of $15.00 and a fee of $3.50 for “packaging.”

How about watching a movie in your hotel room? Want to watch Deadpool, maybe? That will be $17.95. Doesn’t that seem punitive?

All paperback books now cost at least $10.00. Am I the only one who notices that that is thirty times the cost of a paperback in the early 1960s?

And get off my lawn, you kids! I’ll stop complaining now. It’s a bit shocking, though. Maybe one needs a bit of perspective to really notice. I don’t know how people do it. I know that I would be mightily hard-pressed to afford living anywhere in America at this point. Thank all of the Gods that there are alternatives all over the world, and there are many very nice places where you give up almost no comforts while saving a fortune. More Americans are trying this solution, according to my reading on the subject.

The Take-Away

That trip in 2016 was my second worst trip to America, ever. My trip in 2015 takes the prize for worst. This has all ill-disposed me to return to the country of my birth ever again.

Why bother? It’s not like I get a warm welcome from my children. There are a few people that I’d like to see, but America is a huge place and travel is expensive. It’s not like it’s easy to arrange a trip where you could spend time in California, Arizona, Philadelphia, New York, and Oregon. I’d like my wife to see some of America, meet a few of my friends and relatives, see my favorite places and maybe where I grew up, but America is presenting big problems for such a trip these days. My wife is an English learner, with limited skills, especially in hearing-comprehension. She’s also handicapped; she has mild cerebral palsy. She’s not used to being pushed around by the TSA gestapo, like we Americans are by now. Am I the only one that feels like I’ve woken up in the old Soviet Union when my government wants to put hands on me and require information of me? We read the stories, the TSA crowd is happy to slam handicapped people on the floor if they don’t “comply” fast enough.

Not to mention that average, everyday American citizens these days are liable to object strenuously to an interracial couple that is not speaking English, in a 7-11 or a restaurant or something. “This is America!” they shout, “We speak English here!” I don’t know about you, but usually I listen to these folks and think, oh honey, you’re hardly speaking English at all yourself. But in the meantime, they’re out there terrorizing “foreign” looking people, citizens included.

Not to mention that having to watch family and friends find it generally amusing to even consider trying to communicate with a marginal English speaker is extremely distasteful to me, and has been for a long time now. If the unfortunate guest speaks slowly in broken English, a group of Americans will zone out after a few words and begin to joke among themselves about the experience. I have witnessed this behavior in many Americans whom I know to be otherwise considerate, reasonable people. It is disgusting.

And really not to mention, I really hate to even mention, the creeping horror that is in the act of destroying the entire American government, American culture, and the very American way of life. Most Americans do not seem to be concerned about this process at all, and most of those who do seem concerned to some degree are only involved to the same extent that a bystander is involved while watching a good sized apartment house fire. That is a bad attitude to take, and there will be a price to pay for it.

Why throw good money at those prices, the creeping horror, and that bad attitude? Who needs it? My wife is better off in her home country, and frankly, I’m better off here as well. There are other places to visit.

So, where are we?
1.   Do seriously consider flying on either EVA or Korean Air;
2.   Do not go out of your way to fly on an Airbus A380, but don’t avoid doing so either;
3.   Remember to tip your taxi drivers. They work hard to help us;
4.   Don’t feel trapped in miserable, overpriced America! There are plenty of nice places that you could move to without placing yourself in any danger; and

5.   Do not let this creeping horror completely overtake the United States without at least noticing. Doing something about it would be great. At the very least don’t just start WORKING FOR THE CLAMPDOWN, like so many Americans are doing. 

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