Wednesday, April 26, 2006

All The Whining In The World

I promised some blogging on China, and I am a man of my word. When it suits me. And I feel like it. And my allergies aren't too bad. And I don't have something better to do. And I don't feel like doing something I'm supposed to be doing. You know, all that. So here we are.

Quick review: Trip to China. Large international conference attended by people from all over the world--seriously, something like 85 countries were represented. I was there as the finance officer, handing out money to people from poor countries--this made me fairly popular. I was also doing some evaluation work on the conference itself, trying to answer questions like, "Why am I here?" and "Couldn't I have figured out a better way to do this?" and "Whose idea was this, anyway?"

I spent months wriggling to avoid the Beijing trip. It's a long, long trip, and I knew that sightseeing opportunities would be limited and the work grueling. It just wasn't worth the tradeoff. I had a fair degree of success at avoidance; I adopted the "I'd be happy to go but you don't need me" strategy, which worked brilliantly; at only two points did the chance that I would have to make the trip escalate alarmingly, and it quickly subsided both times. The second of those points was about a week before I found out I'd have to go, and I made the problem go away by finding someone else to pass out money.

Then, nine days before the conference was to begin, disaster struck; my sacrificial disbursing victim had to back out of the trip. I woke up to a good life, one where I'd soon face a week of an absolute dearth of supervision; at eleven, she and I were sharing a taxi and she was giving me the mournful news; by noon, I was figuring out the visa process and planning my workload, and by four, I had a nonrefundable e-ticket on Air Canada. It was stunning how quickly a day could go all the way south.

My main work task in the next few work days was ensuring that I'd have enough money to pass out in China. The client sponsoring my trip purchased $54,000 in travellers' cheques so that I'd be able to make payments with those. This totalled 630 cheques, each of which I had to sit there in the bank and sign. And record the serial numbers.

We were worried about how to get all this money into a commie country with strict border controls. Nobody wanted to see me in a Chinese prison (not even the inmates--I'm just not that pretty). After I had a little discussion with a mysterious official at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, we decided to try shipping the travellers' cheques in by DHL. Everything was open and aboveboard.

So we shipped in about 25 boxes of conference materials--folders, exhibits, displays, office supplies, conference supples, conference tchotchkes, pamphlets, all kinds of crap with no export value and no possibility of being resold or illegally distributed in China. It got detained in Customs and we had to pay a bribe duty of about $500 to get it out. Once I got there, of course.

My $54K? Two envelopes, clearly marked as to contents, breezed through, waiting for me at the hotel desk when I arrived, no theft, no duties, no bribery, no nothing.

China is not an easy country to enter. A Chinese visa is fairly expensive, as these things go, and there's an interesting price structure. It's something like $35 for citizens of every country in the world, save one. U.S. citizens pay more like $50. Of course, if you need the thing quickly, start handing over additional fees. We were, of course, in a great bloody hurry, so I made a number of trips to the consular section of the Chinese Embassy, doing the application process and getting the whole thing sorted. The day came for me to pick up the visa, and it's a lovely and officious-looking little sticker in one's passport. Very shiny.

However, they fucked up my passport number on the visa. More visions of Chinese prison danced in my head as they reconfiscated my passport and redid the visa. They were kind enough to do so while I waited. I still shudder, thinking about what would've happened at Chinese Frontier Security had I not accidentally discovered their error.

Just so you know, so you have a little index of where you are in life: we're still a few thousand words from me actually discussing China as a country or as an experience, per se. I'm still busy telling you about me. Pretend to like it.

I was flying out of National, DC's close-in airport. We have three, each with its own set of peculiarities and disadvantages. At National, parking is inconvenient, expensive, and not particularly safe. It also suffers from the phenonmenon of idiots who don't live here (and some who do) calling it "Reagan." This unspeakable appellation was forced onto Washington National Airport by a crazed fascist-controlled Congress during the Clinton administration, as a way of reminding the President who was boss. I will never call National Airport by any other name, not even after the self-same fascist twits start calling BWI "Marshall," its recently acquired nom de guerre, after my very own uncle Thurgood.

BWI is a great airport, with one serious and near-fatal flaw; it's in Baltimore. No, not in Baltimore, actually, but it's as close to Baltimore as National is to Washington, time-wise. For denizens of the Peoples' Republic of Montgomery County, Maryland--or, just as important in my case, for denizens of the Independent Cult of Fairfax, Virginia--Baltimore is about 12 hours away, 16 hours during rush hour. Okay, I exaggerate, but it's way the hell out there, well over an hour from the Cardboard Box Fortress of Landrutude, nearly two hours from the Domain of Ilse over in Fairfax (no, we're still not living together). Cheap parking, and it's a Southwest hub, but absolutely abysmal location.

Dulles--which we really call Dulles, making the local airport naming scheme a clear victory for Cold War-style imperialist oppression--has a similar problem, compounded by its location just outside of the ICF. Unless one is travelling from Dulles to West Virginia, there is no way to avoid entering Fairfax en route to one's final destination. Which, seriously, ought to be somewhere other than Fairfax. This problem is further compounded by a simple fact: flights only leave or arrive at Dulles during rush hour. I don't think I've ever flown to or from Dulles, or picked someone up or dropped them off at Dulles, at a time of day that didn't involve 237,000 cars per second traversing the Beltway at the Dulles Airport Road exit.

Dulles is also hampered by its physical layout, which requires one to take a bus from the gate to the terminal. These snorting, lumbering monuments to diesel pollution were all the technorage when the airport first opened. In 1962. They tell us that the airport subway at Dulles, linking the main terminal to the concourses, will be done about fifteen minutes after I die of Dulles-induced apoplexy in 2012.

Let's not even discuss public transit to My Local Airports. There is no public transit to Dulles; BWI is theoretically within spitting distance of a train line, but don't try taking it if you have a flight to catch; and while National is, in theory, convenient to Washington's subway system, I can assure you that this is only for a given value of "convenient," that value meaning "a lot of walking while you're carrying luggage."

Parking being what it is at National, and knowing that I was to return to a different airport entirely, I got my brother, 32-Ounce, to drive me and my copious baggage to a hotel near the airport the night before my 6 AM flight. It was a Wednesday night, there was a new South Park scheduled, and Ilse was to drop by the hotel for one last roll before my long trip off to incarceration in a Chinese prison. I had only to watch a little TV, do the wife, roll over and sleep, and get up at 4 AM to clean up and catch an airport shuttle.

The hotel didn't have Comedy Central on its cable, and the airport shuttle didn't leave until 20 minutes before my flight, so I had to call a cab, which didn't arrive for 35 minutes.

The wife worked out fine, though.

This is getting long. I think we'll get to China in the next post.

1 comment:

Dweeze said...

Will there be more details on doing the wife?

Not that I'm curious, mind you.