Bali, Indonesia to Washington, D.C. It’s one of those journeys that demand patience, assistance and a damn good sense of humor. An overnight stop or two along the way also helps.
As I’m mindful of the expense that covering such a distance entails, I always remind my travel agent (who arranges my overseas flight itineraries) that cost is a priority. – as in: keep it on the cheaper side, please, whatever it takes. Which ends up translating into the strangest, most unlikely connections, with a smattering of unusual detours – all in the name of saving a chunk of change.
I’m not complaining per se, but it does help for me to enter a near-meditative, cocoon-like, come-what-may state of mind from the very moment I’m dropped off at the airport. Who knows when I’ll ultimately arrive at my final destination – and what surprises I’ll encounter along the way? Best to prepared for the unknown.
A two-night stay in Bangkok on the first leg of my journey made infinite sense; breaking up that trip is easy to do in a city where I can visit with friends and pick up a few goodies. I’d also intended to visit the Indonesian Embassy (for a visa-related inquiry), until it dawned on me that diplomatic offices (even in Thailand) are closed on weekends. Instead, I ate scrumptious food with friends – breakfasting at a trendy European-style bakery/restaurant called Vanilla Bake Shop, and late-lunching at my favorite vegan café in Bangkok, Bonita Café and Social Club, where my friend K holds court with his Thai wife and whips up the perfect meatless teriyaki burger; always offering his customers an appetizing treat to start off, which this time was a star- and moon-shaped green pandan leaf jelly.
It’s practically a crime to leave Bangkok without getting a massage – or two. So, between meals (when else?) my friend P dropped me off at one of her favorite places in the Sukhumvit area, where I indulged in a two-hour treat; a foot and Thai massage. My body was butta. So I rode the train enveloped in a sense of peace and tranquility, ignoring the thro
ngs of tourists and shoppers around me.
If there’s one thing that Bangkok provides, it’s entertainment, even of the most unexpected kind. When I got off the train in Silom (Sala Daeng), where some of the city’s tastiest street food can be found, where hawkers at night stalls sell nearly everything from A to Z, and where nearly every block is fronted by a 7-11, a crowd was starting to gather around this rock-n-roll kid:
But ultimately, the weirdest part of this trip was the experience of staying at a hotel a short drive from Suvarnabhumi Airport (for proximity because of an early-morning departure). They billed themselves as a boutique resort hotel. Yes, I saw a few photos online, but no, I didn’t pay close (enough) attention.
It was a weird place, nothing resort-ish or boutique-y about it in the least. A grey, cinder block eyesore once built at the furthest end of an unpaved, dead-end road; a pair of quirky sculptures posted on either side of the property’s entrance, as if to welcome guests. In the shadow of an elevated highway, abutting a railway track, I spotted the Salt Spa Swimming Pool – a daring name for this outdoor area, as if it were located on a tropical island – but outfitted with tacky windmill decorations, which only added to the air of kitsch.
On the ground in front of the hotel entrance, a large fish-filled aquarium was apparently being touted as a fish spa. My room held a single twin bed tucked up against the near wall. A large empty space lurked between the bed and the far window, indicating that, in a previous incarnation, the room had evidently featured a second twin bed, and probably a few more pieces of furniture that were glaringly missing. It was a surreal experience; like a scene from a Jim Jarmusch film or someone’s manufactured, bastardized vision of an alternate paradise.
Next stop: Finland. Yes, Finland. I know. You’re thinking: How is Helsinki on the way to Washington, DC? Well, it’s not. But that’s where this Finnair flight was headed. And anyway, I’m a big fan of Scandinavian design, so if nothing else I’m anticipating some well-made furniture and lighting.
On that score, even if I only make it as far as the inside of the airport, I’m not disappointed. The place is also swarming with heads of blond hair – and a sea of immigrant workers. But let me just add (if such confirmation were ever necessary) that for all their finely-tuned sense of aesthetics, the Finns, those Nordic, sea-faring, fish-catching, licorice-loving citizens of the northern hemisphere, have oodles to learn about vegetarian cuisine.
Up next, another geographically nonsensical route: Helsinki to Chicago. (I’m heading to D.C.) How’s that for an indirect trajectory? I know another long flight awaits, psychically apologize for increasing rather than minimizing my carbon footprint, and opt to embrace the wild ride over the North Pole. During which my intuition prompts me to peek out the window, whereupon I’m greeted by a Nordic sight: A long and uninterrupted view of a wide swath of Greenland’s (mostly) snow-encrusted territory, still (mostly) frozen despite the glistening sun. With lakes and teal-colored pools of water, broken glaciers and icebergs floating on water, markings cross-cut into white patches of land, possibly created by powerful gusts of wind. The airplane’s data registers an outdoor temperature of -54 celsius.
I’ve been to Chicago’s O’Hare airport once before. In a previous life it seems. Or, at any rate, long before 9/11 and not during mid-summer travel season. I hope to never set foot in that airport again. If you are transferring from an international flight to a domestic flight, please collect all your luggage from baggage claim. Then bring them around the corner to the transfer area, where they will be transferred to your connecting flight. The recording went something like that. The ground crew seconded the message. I was borderline livid. But this is, after all, the USA that is ramping up for its zaniest, most contentious, divisive, repulsive, combative Presidential election in history.
After a one-hour wait at the conveyor belt, together with other passengers, equally eager to board their domestic flights to points all over the nation, the entirety of the plane’s hold was spewed out in one fell swoop; or it appeared so from the sudden swell. Backpacks jostled for space with oversized suitcases. Some irate passengers clambered up the moving belt to untangle their bags out of the massive gridlock.
As I stood there waiting for my luggage, I scanned the crowd and wondered: How did travel, once a pleasurable and relaxing leisure activity, morph into this behemoth of stress, impatience and exhaustion?
I collected my two bags (with help from a Russian dude standing nearby) and, without a single soul looking at/through them, dropped them off on a moving belt around the corner. Ludicrous.
My final flight was scheduled to depart at 9 pm. One delay was followed by another. I texted my sister with the updates. The plane finally took off at 10, skidding precipitously down the runway and decelerating finally to breaking speed less than two hours later. A few technical hiccups – including a bridge that would not connect to the plane, and a sudden shutdown and darkness that enveloped us for a few minutes – meant that we could not deplane for awhile longer. My fellow passengers were on edge. One man mumbled to nobody in particular: As if my travel day until now wasn’t hard enough.
After what seemed like an intensive immersion in a Babel made of security line ups, immigration clerks, Gucci and Burberry stores, souvenirs guaranteed to obsolete, chocolate everythings, families, alcohol, food courts, Duty Free, lovers, baggage handlers, wheelchair users, backpackers, Segways & kick scooters, custom forms, gates, time zones, delays, water bottles, inflatable pillows, moving sidewalks and hours of waiting and flying, I reached DC.
Got my bags. Waited for my sister. The white car appeared. Out came a long overdue hug. We drove home, on a road that hugs the Potomac, with the Washington Monument in full view, a handful of deer in our headlights, flashing stoplights, shuttered malls and office buildings, until we reached a suburban neighbourhood lined with towering trees, spacious lawns, star-studded flags, then a driveway and potted plants and a door plate and mailbox and a quiet home with nobody else inside.