Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Travels by Epiphany - China

There is an unspoken rule that no holiday is perfect.

The journey between researching, planning and departure is a seamless affair. Thanks to technology, we’re able to book tickets online, choose hotels and order winter clothing without having to leave the comfort of our homes.  Visas can be acquired through the internet and international driver’s licenses can applied for without stepping into the NRMA.  Organising a trip in the 21st century through the information superhighway lulls you into the belief it’s all going well.

Until it’s not.

As you can tell from this opening statement, my trip to Europe didn’t begin as smoothly as my praise of modern technology might imply.

When I arrived at Sydney Airport, I discovered the flight was overbooked and so I was faced with two alternatives; wait until another flight was available on the same airline – which could result in being delayed by days, or rebook with another airline. As I had tours and theatre tickets booked for specific dates, I chose the second option. Switching airlines I flew out instead on China Southern airlines.  All this was done on the fly, with electronic tickets existing only on my smartphone (this will be important later) and so I was finally able to depart Sydney fifteen minutes of my original departure.
Inconvenient I thought but not catastrophic.

I have never travelled on China Southern airlines before.  While certainly not on par with contemporaries like Emirates or Qantas, I found their service to be good and their staff pleasant and friendly.  However after take-off, I was puzzled by the absence of smartphones.  The mad rush for our devices as soon as the plane levels off, is as traditional as the crying child and bad airline food. Yet on China Southern, no one was producing their phones when the seat-belt light went off.  

I learned to my horror, the use of mobile phones, even on flight mode, is illegal on Chinese flights. As most of my music, e-books and videos were on my Galaxy S6, this was akin to someone shooting my cat. I was forced to resort to inflight entertainment for the next 11 hours. Despite stabbing repeatedly at the provided touch screen pad with my finger, it would only work when sworn at.

Suffice to say, it was a very long flight.

I arrived at Guangzhou’s Baiyun Airport in the People’s Republic of China at 5 am in the morning.
As we travelled from the plane to the terminal by bus, I suddenly understood why politicians at home have been demanding a second airport in Sydney. Compared to the size of Baiyun, Kingsford-Smith is tiny. While the facilities were not state of the art, one can’t help but be impressed by how large it is. Therefore you would imagine the size of the facility would be equal to the staff manning it.

It is not.

It took us three hours to clear customs and be taken to the hotel China Southern had so graciously provided for my 17 hour layover. During those three hours, I was never more aware of the country I was in. They process travellers with the mentality of prison guards frisking inmates for shivs. No one in the queue dared to utter a word of complaint, convinced any verbal detraction would land us in jail and becoming the subject of a Today Tonight expose. I am not sure which is worse.

But all was not lost. I actually made conversation with the official stamping my passport and this led to a short but nice conversation about the weather, how busy the airport was and to my shock, she gave me a smile! There was life after all!

Once through customs, I was once again reminded of how small Kingsford-Smith is because the transfer bus took twenty minutes just to leave the airport premises. What I saw of Guangzhou was very much what I expected of China, functional but expansive. There is a great deal of construction going on and I get the impression the city is attempting to leave behind years of stagnancy for a more dynamic future.  Still, most people were on bicycles and they travel through the wide streets like herds of wildebeests moving across the savanna.

To improve Sino-Aussie relations, I suggest we send them Clover Moore.

The Country Garden Airport Phoenix Hotel was luxurious with equally impressive rooms. I had a great view of the city and the complimentary breakfast was great after airline food. The range was surprisingly diverse and some of the dishes reminded me of the breakfasts I use to have when still living in Singapore.

The only problem I found with the place, was the instrumental music playing in the background. It sounded like the bastard child of Burt Bacharach and Kenny G, written for a James Bond film in the sixties. Imagine a bad copy of the ‘The Look of Love’ and you’ll get where I’m coming from.

It must have been the only English record they had since it was played on a continuous loop throughout the entire time I was staying there. I can’t tell if it was some form of subtle torture or the hotel staff had no idea that it was the same song. Either way, it was more effective at keeping guests in their rooms than armed guards. It would take the nine hours to Amsterdam for me to get that song out of my head.

At least I won't miss my smart phone.

Travels by Epiphany

So what do you do after a life-changing event?

Like most middle-aged career-orientated women, I expected my next life-changing event to be either menopause, retirement or worse yet, my favourite television series 'Supernatural' coming to an end. Being out of a job ranked somewhere between being hit by a car or discovering I had a shot dating Jason Statham. Never...going...to happen. 

Which of course it did, leaving me with this discombobulated expression.
Rick Baker couldn't create a face with such horror. 

Having no children, an ex-husband and two unruly cats, I'd forgotten how much of my life my job took up. The friends I considered my closest were my colleagues at work. The team I'd led had become my extended family. My resentment at being made obsolete by my company had little to do with the job itself and almost everything to do with the people I was losing from my life.

I'd miss Grace's giggle each time the name Hugh Jackman was mentioned or having to throw office products at Tim because his headphones meant he could never hear me when I asked him a question. I'd miss watching Dominique’s continuous war against the public transport system or listen to Peter and Richard dismantle the idiocy of Liberal Party politics.  No longer would I be able to rearrange the Lego men on George’s desk when he wasn’t looking or agree with Anthea we’d all work better if we had access to alcohol during work hours. I’d miss the water cooler chats with Nora and Janice, talking books with Vanessa and watching Michele’s confused expression each time she logged into our EMS system. 

The void was enormous, driving me into the arms of Netflix and its Australian cousin Stan. For days, I subsisted on a diet of Cherry Ripes and KFC, emerging long enough to replenish my Coca Cola supply. In the midst of binging on West Wing (Bradley Whitford is cool!), I  reached an epiphany moment. I decided to look at this voluntary redundancy (don't you just love how they call it voluntary) as an opportunity as opposed to end of life as I knew it.

Three things helped me reach this watershed moment. 

First, the online publisher I contacted about one of my books some time back, returned with a positive answer. Yes, they believed in the book which I will shamelessly plug here (Hunter’s Haven by Linda Thackeray) and would take up the challenge of marketing it. 

Secondly, I decided to rethink my career. I never really liked being a manager and it was my team keeping me in the job. I never thought I could make writing a career but if I was doing it as my passion pasttime, why not try to make it a career professionally? So I signed up for a nifty Writing and Editing course through OTEN that when completed, would allow me to pursue work as a copy writer or technical writer.

And thirdly, I decided I was going on a trip.

Not just a trip to the scenic town of Wagga Wagga or Young (where I swear Dracula runs an adult and comic book plus aquarium supplies store) but a real trip, to a different hemisphere.  

As a history buff, I always loved museums and historical monuments but let’s face it, Australia with its 200-year old past, is somewhat lacking in this department and Aboriginal history is too diverse and oral to be ever given justice in a museum.

No I wanted to see the places I’d read about growing up and this meant my trip was going to take me to Europe. I was going to see all the places I'd read about, the British Museum, Canterbury Cathedral, Bath and Glastonbury Tor (Mists of Avalon is my favourite book) and of course, no trip to Europe would be complete without stopping in Paris, right? 

So I shall be boring you dear reader, with a photographic journey through London, Edinburg and Paris from an Antipodean whose never seen snow.

Yeah, I know I have a shock coming.