Friday, November 24, 1995

On a Wing and a Prayer

The seat is reclined, the movie has just started, the lights are dimmed... but I'm steamed.  I'm steamed because I don't have fresh ice for my soda.  Never mind that I'm sitting at 31,000 feet in the upper deck of a 747 bound for Hong Kong.  I'm annoyed because, at least for the moment, I've forgotten where I am, and am less interested with the technology that allows me to travel 10,000 miles in 20 hours, than I am with a cold Coke. 

Something about airline travel does that to people.  One of the best ways to pass the time during the boring monotony of modern day business travel is to swap horror stories.  Now, by horror, I don't mean harrowing, hair raising, or even mildly nerve racking experiences.  Travelers who have had the terrible misfortune to be involved in a major air mishap are mercifully few.  What I'm talking about the 10 hour delays, the lost luggage, the rude stewardess, the baby in the next seat... let's be honest:  in the scheme of things, the really big stuff. 

We all seem to take for granted that fact that man was never meant to fly.  Ever since Icarus, we have tried to understand and harness the principles of lift and drag.  It took until Wilbur and Orville skimmed along the sands of Nag's Head for that lofty goal to be achieved.  And if you've ever seen their craft, you can begin to realize just what an achievement it was. 

But even more so, especially to us non-aviators, is how those same principles have been applied today.  I mean, there's something almost bird-like in the Wright's heavier-than-air craft.  But the connection from that gangly construction of wood and canvas to a modern widebody seems tenuous at best.  What keeps this 100 ton monster above the clouds?  I don't know... and I think that if I did, I'd probably worry more. 

No, it's simpler to grouse about the indignities forced upon us in the form of long lines, cold food, and cramped seats, and to try and one-up each other on the misery index.  We even have a name for the best of this motley bunch:  Frequent Flyers.  They have secret handshakes and membership cards, and are rewarded with... what else?  More chances to complain. 

There's no doubt that times have changed.  We have come to view airplanes as buses in the sky.  Its a far cry from the dawn of this era, when society columns included airports as places to see and be seen.  People traveled in their Sunday best.  Today, you wear the most comfortable thing you have, and just hope to get a glass of juice and a bag of chips.

Of course, you can't blame the airlines entirely.   It's a business, and we are the consumers.  Freddie Laker proved that.  The world will beat a path to your door... if you can offer a $99 fare to London, no Saturday night stay required.  We have created and fed this monster, and are now forced to lie... er, fly with it. 

But every now and again, your perception changes, like it did of the space program after the Challenger disaster.  It forces us to forget about the damaged luggage and the overheated cabin, and focus on the fact that these leviathan creations actually fly:  a talent God never saw fit to give to man. 

And that's what happened to me.  While I'm trying to get some ice, the seatbelt sign pops on.  The stewardess requests us all to sit down and buckle up.  With much complaining, we all comply:  one more indignity being forced upon us.  And then we hit the air pocket. 

It make look smooth out the window, but the sky is filled with thermals that make it as bumpy as a country road in August.  Most times, an expert pilot can pick his way through this minefield.  But occasionally, the tender balance of flight gets violently disrupted. 

With a stomach wrenching jolt, we drop a few hundred feet.  Mind you, we were not really in danger.  But it feels like the bottom dropped out the elevator, only to be jerked back up.  We sail along smoothly, and then it happens again.  And now, the ice is the furthest thing from my mind.  I look around at the other passengers.  Some are sleeping, while others are agitated.  But most seem like me:  we've been there before, nothing to get tense about, but...  So we close our eyes and concentrate on throwing our best karma to the cockpit.   

The turbulence goes on for a few minutes:  probably less than 5, but it feels a lot longer.  And then it slowly dawns on us that its smooth sailing.  We go back to our books, movies and crossword puzzles.  And that fight I was spoiling for with the stewardess doesn't seem so important.  

In an hour, we make a picture perfect landing.  We gather up our belongings, and join the throngs heading to claim our luggage and get a cab.  We've added one more small story to our repertoire.  But more importantly, perhaps we've learned while you might be able to harness a piece of nature, you can never really control it.

- END -

Marc Wollin holds 11 frequent flier cards.  He's just shy of a free trip on every one of them.  His column appears weekly in the Record Review.

Saturday, November 18, 1995

Where First Meets Third

It hits you as you walk down any street in Hong Kong.  There are more buildings, more people, more traffic, more construction - more energy - than almost anyplace else on earth. From the bamboo scaffolding soaring high above the city, to the stores and stalls standing 3 deep on the sidewalk, to the impossibly thin double-decker trams packed with twice their normal capacity, this city is bursting at the seams. According to many analysts, just as the 20th century was the golden era of American influence, the 21st century could well be the Pacific century. And it certainly looks like they're getting ready for it today.

Not that there aren't problems. Most of Southeast Asia is classified as third world rather than first. And you see the inevitable collision of these two forces everywhere you look. Computer stores stacked to the ceiling with equipment are cheek and jowl with grocery stores selling live chickens. Ultramodern skyscrapers, with their skins turned inside out, cast their late day shadows over grimy, decrepit shanty towns. True, it's the same growing pains we have had (and in many cases, still have) in this country. The difference is that, by and large, we're working on those people and concerns that progress has missed; they're in the process of still reaching for the peak for the first time.

Friends who have traveled elsewhere in the region tell me its the same all over. It's no accident that the metaphors used to describe this economic area are things like "dragons" and "tigers." Nothing benevolent about it: sometimes, they kill each other, and sometimes, they eat their young. It's a different culture than the politically correct one we've grown accustomed to: one that places success above all other considerations. As an example, there's a new airport there being build on land reclaimed from the sea. Together with the roads, tunnels and bridges involved, it is currently the second largest construction project in the world (the first is a dam in China). It's under budget and ahead of schedule, unheard of in the west. But it has those distinctions because they don't even pay lip service to labor concerns (there's a huge, cheap pool of manual workers), environmental concerns (there's no organized interest in that area) or neighborhood opposition (it's being built on manufactured land, and includes an entire town with housing and shopping). Not that I'm suggesting we do business that way, but it does give one food for thought.

But that's the big picture, the institutional view. On a personal level, you encounter the same type of yin and yang of old and new, with a get-it-done, damn-the-torpedoes attitude. Let's start with the old:  I'm walking down the street in Yau Ma Tei on the mainland part of Hong Kong. It's a food market where the locals shop, and since it's a festival day, the place is packed with people. In the middle of the street - and I do mean middle - a guy selling fish from a straw mat. With no refrigeration around, seeing it on hoof, or in this case, fin, is the only way to guarantee freshness. As I walk farther, I see the next vendor has live crabs. A few more steps, and the next has a net bag in front of her, with lots of women gathered around, all jabbering in Chinese. At first I thought the bag had more crabs, as it was moving. But as I looked closer, I realized it was filled with frogs. A customer pointed at two, and the saleswoman hauled them out. After admiring glances from the crowd, she put them on some cardboard on the street, picked up a cleaver, and whack, whack, fresh frog's legs for dinner. Probably hasn't changed much in a thousand years.

But that's old world. A short ride on the MTR, a shining subway system, brings you face to face with the new Hong Kong, Through a busy street market selling clothes, watches, stereos and such, I head to the Golden Arcade computer store. Down a staircase, to where throngs of people are looking at merchandise in small stalls. I see a CD-ROM that interests me.  The saleslady motions for me to go with a guy:  I assume we'll head to the stockroom. He leads 4 or 5 of us up the stairs, out the door, down the street, around the corner, into another building, and up the stairs. There, around the corner on the landing, are two card tables with 20 people clustered around. I push my way into the crowd, and see hundred of discs. I pick up one. It has Windows95, Works95, Office95, etc. I guesstimate $1000  worth of software packed onto one piece of plastic. The price?  Forty dollars Hong Kong, about $6.40 US. And the table is filled with similar products. Yes, I bought some, and yes, it all seems to work.

Certainly, its not right, anymore than exploiting the labor force or building with no concern for the environment. And yes, the rest of the world will eventually force changes. But for the moment, on almost any scale, almost anywhere you look, Asia is riding at full gallop into the 21st century with a take-no-prisoners swagger. If we're going to keep pace, we better get our act together.

- END -

Marc Wollin loves to travel.  He was measured for four suits while walking down the street in Hong Kong, but didn't buy any.  His column appears weekly in the Record Review.