Image from Wikipedia
This is the first in a series of stories about a trip to Asia my husband and I took for my fiftieth birthday last October.
Part 1: A Cycle of Cathay
Ten hours in, the absurdity of lying flat on my back 35,000 feet over Kamchatka was overwhelming. While the air behind me boiled into contrails at 600 miles per hour, my flight attendant “Cora” gently replaced the copy of the South China Morning Post I had accidentally dropped and asked if I needed anything. But nothing, not Cora’s graciousness, nor the three large meals, significant quantities of alcohol and two chopsockey movies I had consumed over the last half-day in the air could put my anxious mind at ease. What, in the name of Rick Steves, was I doing here?
The brief answer: A Great Circle Route. A flight “across” the Pacific from North America to Asia is actually never far from land. The shortest distance from one point to another around the Earth may pass near the poles, a journey that looks curved on a flat map but perfectly straight on a globe. From the marshes of the Fraser Delta, arcing north long the spine of Vancouver Island, over the maze of Southeast Alaska’s inlets, across to Kodiak, east along the Aleutians and finally south down the Russian coast, cutting across Japan and the East China Sea, down the China coast past Shanghai and finally to the Pearl River Delta, our flight circled the northern half of the Pacific to close the 6,386 miles between Vancouver, B.C. and Hong Kong.
The long answer: Foolhardiness.
I had decided years earlier that I was going to have a “big” trip for my fiftieth birthday. Finances and a personal low-key inclination had always dictated “steerage” class airline tickets and accommodations skewing toward the smelly and noisy end of “quaint.” But for decades I had harbored a secret and perverse fascination with the glossier end of the travel spectrum. Leafing through heavy, expensive magazines full of pictures of Balinese hotels with rooms biggers than my law-school apartment and fashion-model-fringed infinity pools, I nutured a hidden but undying curiousity totally at odds with my outward travel persona. Over time, this strange bubble-world of luxury travel grew in my mind into a destination in and of itself, a world as exotic and mysterious as any village in New Guinea. Now, as fifty loomed, I was determined to see this terra incognita for myself. After many budget trips to Europe to visit family, I was going to turn left in every sense of the word: Left in the sky across the Pacific, and left when boarding the plane.
So I saved up. Several years' worth of tedious meetings, late nights, working weekends and harrowing “learning experiences” were at last distilled into two precious Business Class airline tickets to Hong Kong and Indonesia, as well as reservations at suitably glossy resorts in the latter.
On cold rainy nights I studied Cathay Pacific’s website like my Irish ancestors reading and re-reading crumpled letters home from relatives who had already sailed to America. A golden experience awaited. There was an animated video demonstration of the Business Class “capsules” from the perspective of a gorgeous woman (you indicate your gender on the website before the video starts) settling in, doing a little work on a laptop, ordering a soft drink from the flight attendant who calls her by name (I wondered, “What if her name really isn’t "Miss Lee?”), then reclines the seat into “bed” configuration, the video winking out just as the tops of her delicate little Chanel ballet flats come into view.
For six months I laid out different outfits on the bed,aiming for a look of casual insouciance that said “I’m not a rube, I do this all the time, but I’m nice and approachable.” Mostly my outfits screamed “Idiot who’s trying to pretend she does this all time, but is nice and approachable.” The cats watched with disdain from the opposite side of the bed, occasionally flicking their ears and launching stray hair on to my outfits lest the clothes appear too pristine and professional.
Finally the fateful day arrived. I gulped a huge cup of coffee, steeled myself and hit “send” on Cathay Pacific’s website. Instantly the money from the trip account dissolved into a cloud of electrons and shot from my bank account to the airline’s.
Seemingly at that very moment, the world economy began to collapse like the buildings in the movie “Inception.” Day after day I watched with mounting horror as jobs vanished, savings evaporated and house values plummeted. Every day I trudged onto the ferry to work shrinking inside from a growing burden of survivor’s guilt and the knowledge that I had just spent a huge amount of money on something as emphemeral and frivolous as a vacation.
“What’s done is done,” said Steve as I sobbed in bed. “It’s already paid for, we have the time off and we’ve booked the cat sitter. Where’s that big spirit of adventure? Wasn’t this going to be your life-changing moment? The trip where you’re finally going to see Asia so you can really call yourself a world traveler? It’s never a perfect time,” he said, giving me a hug. “Let’s do this.”
So we did.
The flight really had been everything I had hoped for. Years earlier at Boeing I had been one of a staff of writers working on a 75-anniversary corporate history project. One of my assignments was an article about the famous Boeing 314 Clipper, the flying boat of romantic 1930s transpacific routes frequented by movie stars, diplomats and business tycoons. While Cathay Pacific’s Airbus A-340 didn’t have dressing rooms or a bridal suite, it occurred to me that my trip was the closest modern-day analogue. We had choices of fine French wines, a dinner of slow-cooked duck or roast salmon, a cheese course, tropical fruit, chocolate mousse with raspberry sauce, and snacks like tomato-basil soup, fresh berries and steamed chicken with red dates, all served whenever the passenger wanted rather than at set times. And of course the lie-flat seats.
As I nibbled on my duck while “Ip Man” used his Kung Fu skills to defeat six attackers flashing across my video screen, I stole surreptitious glances at my fellow passengers. With visions of the China Clipper in my head, I made up stories about who they might be. That young man with the spiky haircut and angular glasses has to be an architect. That older couple snoozing two rows down must be business owners heading home to visit family. And those two preteen girls with stuffed-animal backpacks and ipod earbuds tucked under their long glossy black ponytails are surely a diplomat’s daughters.
The hours and the night droned by. The plane crept around the circumference of the earth. The flight attendants moved quietly among the passengers, who one by one they fell asleep.
So now I was lying awake on the plane. Finally, as readout showed us crossing over into the Sea of Japan, I decided I needed to quit worrying, embrace the experience and for once in my nearly-half-century of life try to live in the moment. I pulled up my down comforter around my ears, wiggled my toes in the complimentary Agnes b. socks, and watched Hong Kong slide closer on the monitor.