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Around the World in 11 Days, Leg 4

December 20, 2015

Route: Hyderabad to Raleigh-Durham
Flights: 3
Stops: London Heathrow, Philadelphia
Airlines: British Airways, American
Air Miles: 8678
Time Zones (inclusive): 11

The only drama of this trip took place before it started. I was eating dinner at my hotel in Hyderabad Friday night, feeling very happy to have completed my 71st teaching day of 2015, when I started getting texts from British Airways regarding flight delays. Each one pushed back our departure time further than the previous one, until I was going to miss my connecting flight to JFK on American. When I returned to my room I hopped on Skype to see how I was getting home.

I mentioned back in Leg 1 that I am an elite flyer on Delta. One of the many perks that comes with my diamond status is access to the “Diamond Desk.” This special service even recognizes my phone number, so I don’t have to type in my SkyMiles number every time I call. Instead, I get a “Welcome, Robert” message, then a live agent, in about 15 seconds. I mention this to you now because while I have been an Executive Platinum flyer on American Airlines in the past, I currently have no status with them, and I was about to discover the difference between having status and just being another passenger calling with a problem.

My situation was compounded by my ticket, which I purchased from American’s web site and included a code-shared British Airways flight from Hyderabad to London. The airlines will tell you how wonderful their “global networks” are, letting you buy from one partner while flying with others. While it is great to fly on, say, Korean Air, as I did last week (see Leg 2) and earn miles on my Delta account, it’s also great for Delta and Korean Air because they don’t have to compete with each other between, say, Seattle and Seoul, allowing them to charge higher fares. These alliances also make it tricky when, say, one partner has a delayed flight that impacts your ability to make a connecting flight on another partner. This was my fate Friday night.

I’ll spare you most of the details, but the core problem was that it took me six calls, three to BA and three to American, before my situation was resolved. Twice I called BA and they said, “Your ticket’s with American. Call them to get rebooked.” Twice I called American and they said, “BA’s flight is delayed, have them rebook you.” The third BA agent actually did try to get me rebooked, but when he found flights for me, he could not gain access to the system. I asked him for flight numbers and times, wrote them down, and called American for the third time. By this time American’s system was automatically rebooking me–hence the BA agent’s inability to help me–and I had new flights shortly.

I am usually a patient person, but I will confess that I got pretty upset with American Agent #1 (call #2). First he told me my BA flight was not delayed, even though I had already received emails and texts to that effect. (I do not understand how I could have more updated information than an airline agent had, but there you go.) Then he put me on hold for about 12 minutes before telling me that I had to call BA to get my ticket rebooked. Then he stopped answering my questions. Each time I asked him to explain why, after trying to help me for 12 minutes, he no longer could, or what my options were for getting home on American if I got to London on BA and missed my connection, or any of my other half-dozen questions, his answer was, “You’ll have to ask BA about that.” Like he was staring at a script and would not engage with my problem. This is what does not happen when you call the elite “desk,” because they know you’re a frequent flyer and you’re not going to settle for scripted answers. But this does not excuse my impatience with him, and I very intentionally was very patient and appreciative with the next four agents.

After my ordeal ended, I figured out two things. First, if I got to Heathrow when my delayed BA flight was scheduled to arrive, then American had no way to get me home Saturday night. This meant they’d have to put me up at a hotel and get me home Sunday–and I believe they wanted BA to bear that cost, because it was their flight that was causing the problem. And that is a reasonable request. But American never told me that, they just kept saying, “Call BA and have them rebook. It’s their fault.” If they’d just said, “Here’s the situation,” or even better, if they had called BA for me, then I would have been a happy guy. But their stonewalling ticked me off. Second, BA kept re-estimating the length of the original delay, and when it improved to the point where I could get home Saturday night, their system triggered the automatic rebooking, which was going on during Calls #5 and 6.

Once I was rebooked, I could focus on the upside: after six days of teaching in three countries on two continents, I was going home. I had my first two flights on Boeing’s newest jet, the 787 Dreamliner (see my Hyderabad to London plane below). En route I finished two books (All the Light We Cannot See, and The Martian, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed) and two NY Times crossword puzzles (it always feels extra satisfying to finish a Saturday puzzle), and watched one meh movie (Ricki and the Flash) and one very funny HBO special (Amy Schumer’s). And because I was flying west, my Saturday lasted almost 30 hours. An extra-long Saturday that ends at home with Vicki is my kind of a long weekend.

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Around the World in 11 Days, Leg 3

December 15, 2015

Route: Singapore to Hyderabad
Flights: 1
Stop: none
Airline: Silk Air
Air Miles: 2057
Time Zones (inclusive): 3

When I started traveling internationally in 2006, my second stop was in Singapore, where I experienced what many claim is the world’s best airport. When I arrived at Changi again last night, I saw a poster celebrating its 500th award as the world’s best. The distinguishing marks I’ve seen include short passport control lines, suffusive lighting, and lots of low ceilings and carpeting. Most airports are harsh and cacophonous, but Changi calms and quiets. It has corners lined with lounge chairs that are perfect for passengers stuck with long layovers. It even has a free movie theater. It has lots and lots of shopping–which some call Singapore’s national sport–but not more than lots of other airports. In many international airports, you survive long lines at passport control, only to go straight into a second queue for security. Changi instead moves the security line to the gate, so you get into the terminal faster, and share a line only with the other passengers on your flight. Schiphol in Amsterdam does this more often, too; it used to take forever to go from gate to gate there, even though you were just connecting, because they had a single point to get passports checked.

I cleared security at my gate and sat down near a TV; though it was not blaring, say, CNN, like plenty of US airports do (because people aren’t tense enough about flying, so they need the adrenaline boost from BREAKING NEWS!), it still drew my eye because it was airing Wheel of Fortune! Not a Singaporean version of the franchise, but “America’s Game Show” (it said so right there on the spinning wheel) with Pat and Vanna. After the show finished came an ad for a huge New Year’s Eve party at one of Singapore’s massive new casino/resort sites. The show would include seven hours of live music, featuring a lot of local acts, then the headliner: “international sensation” Adam Lambert! And as if these two “What the …?” moments weren’t enough, the next show topped them both: “A Minute to Win It,” which I think I had heard of, but have never watched, hosted by … Apolo Anton Ohno! Seeing this terrific athlete now emceeing a weird game show, and seeing him while sitting in the Singapore airport, completed my twilight zone trifecta. Maybe I was just tired from teaching.

I flew to Hyderabad on Silk Air, a no-frills cousin to Singapore Air, which is to international airlines what Changi is to airports. This is my fourth time in India, and there are two primary cautions when you’re an American flying into here: getting secure transportation and not getting sick from the water. Each time I’ve come I’ve had my hotel send someone to pick me up–this is nothing special, as all the big hotels have drivers and labelled cars at the airport.

The best thing about India is the people; I’ve met fantastic people every time I’ve come. Last night I started chatting with my driver as we headed to the Westin. He was pretty reserved, but answered all my questions. We talked about our kids (he has three between the ages of 11 and 15), and then I asked him how long he’d lived in Hyderabad. He’d moved there when he was 11, the year his mother died. He’d already lost his father at 3, so his village, about 200 kilometers from Hyderabad, basically told him they could not afford to raise him themselves, but made arrangements for him to take a steam(!) train–this was the mid-1980s–to Hyderabad and to live in a hotel. The hotel put him to work but told him he was too young to get paid. When he was 14 he started earning 5 rupees a day. Today that is about 7.5 cents, so back then maybe it was 15 cents a day? Years later he took his kids back to the village, so they could see his roots. They were unimpressed. Because he’d left so young, no one recognized him until he mentioned his mother’s name. His daughter works really hard at school, but he worries that his boys don’t care enough. He tells them he wishes he’d been able to go to school (he learned English from watching and rewatching movies). They remain unimpressed. The conversation was a pleasant diversion from the chaos of driving in India.

My flight was much less interesting than either its start or finish. I slept the whole 4.5 hours. It probably was from the teaching.

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Around the World in 11 Days, Leg 2

December 13, 2015

Route: Seattle to Singapore
Flights: 2
Stop: Seoul
Airline: Korean Air
Air miles: 8088
Time Zones (inclusive): 11

I don’t talk much when I fly. Because I travel so often on one airline, Delta, I’m almost always sitting with other very frequent fliers, either in first class or in an exit row. The latter usually provide more leg room and, until 24 hours before departure, are only available to passengers with at least silver medallion status. We just don’t have much to say to each other. Most of the chatter is of the “this one time I was trying to get from Austin to Allentown, and of course there was a delay,” etc etc. I am tired of these war stories because there’s usually an implication that the airline is so much dumber than the person telling the story, and while the airlines are far from perfect, especially when it comes to customer service, they really do know what they’re doing when it comes to scheduling, weather, and other logistical parts of flying. I am quite glad they put safety first, and that crews have rules regarding how long they can fly in a day, because I don’t want them taking chances when the consequences are so high. I also have a hard time hearing about how tough these road warriors have it when they’re sipping on their second free gin and tonic in a cushy first class seat they didn’t pay for. I’m not alone–most of us just enjoy our drinks while looking at email on our phones or making a last call to a client, assistant, or spouse before takeoff.

I never noticed how little I talk while flying until this week, when a cold and a fairly packed teaching schedule (I’ll amass 13 teaching days and 8 travel days between November 8 and December 13) left me with almost no voice on Thursday. I realized I’d need to minimize conversations until Monday’s workshop here in Singapore–and that’s when it dawned on me that I would have almost no reason to talk during that time. I would eat meals by myself, travel by myself, sit on two planes for about 18.5 hours, then spend today in my hotel room here. I would have to talk only to servers, agents at airports and hotels, and flight attendants. None of these conversations would involve more than a few words. Today my throat feels pretty good, and my voice, while still a bit hoarse, is better. I hope it can hold out until Friday–four workshops in the next five days will provide a real test.

All this time saying so little to other people means that internal dialogs take over. I debate whether I should have alcohol and caffeine on these long flights. All the travel web sites say they make it harder to sleep, and they dehydrate, which is a real problem because airplane air is really dry compared to most climates (it’s so humid here in Singapore that even walking slowly outside made me sweat in less than 20 minutes on a cloudy day). On these flights I opted for Korean beer (not great, but the only other choice Korean Air offered was Bud), and a glass of wine, and a coffee and a tea. (This was over two long flights.) I debate meal choices–should I have the Korean option, since I like it and I’m going to spend two weeks there in May? Or should I have the more familiar chicken and noodles? I go for the latter–sitting among so many Koreans on both flights, and still new to the cuisine, I would feel like a real poser if I’d gone for the bibimbap. I debate how to spend my time: read for work, read for fun, watch movies and TV, listen to podcasts, etc etc. I ended up doing most of these–again, lots of time to try lots of things–and even played some Bejeweled while waiting to take off in Seoul. I was happy with myself that I finished One Second Ahead, about cultivating mindfulness at work. I watched three movies (Bridge of Spies, Match (resisting Patrick Stewart is futile) and American Ultra; I liked them in that order) and two Big Bang Theory and two How I Met Your Mother episodes. I switched to podcasts (mainly On Being and Effectively Wild, both of which I strongly recommend) when my eyes tired. Reading and watching so much can give me headaches, and my eyes are where I feel the lack of moisture in the cabin. Of course I slept, too, off and on.

The flights were easy. It was my first time on Korean Air, and they are top-notch. Not as glamorous as Singapore Air or even Cathay Pacific, but the food was great, the cabins clean and comfortable, there were plenty of media choices, and the attendants were friendly and professional. I am starting to learn Korean, and they tolerated my practicing “hello” and “thank you” and “fish, please” with my gravelly voice and rookie pronunciation. With less than an hour’s layover in Seoul, I was nervous that my bag would not make it. The travel sites all say to pack extra clothes, just in case, and I did that this time, moving non-essential stuff out of my computer bag to make room. I thought my odds were pretty good when the gate agent at Sea-Tac put a “short connection” tag on my bag, and sure enough, it was there to meet me in Singapore.

I forget how far south Singapore is; it lies just a single degree above the equator. Here’s one way to describe the distance: the flight from Seoul was over six hours, and yet we crossed just one time zone. But the destination is well worth the journey. From the mints waiting for you as passport control reviews your paperwork, to the warm weather, safe conditions, prevalence of English, and wonderful food options, I regret only that I’m here for such a short time, and that, because my workshop site and hotel are out by the airport, I won’t get to walk the city. I think this is my seventh time coming here, so I expect to have another chance on another trip.

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Around the World in 11 Days, Leg 1

December 9, 2015

Route: Raleigh-Durham to Seattle
Flights: 2
Stop: Minneapolis-St. Paul
Airline: Delta
Air Miles: 2376
Time Zones (inclusive): 4

I fly so often that it’s easy to lose track of specific flights. I often get surveys from Delta, asking me to give my opinion on how well the flight attendants or gate agents performed their jobs. It’s not easy for me to recall particular flights, not only because I fly so often, but also because Delta (and its partner regional airlines) hire really good flight attendants. Over the last few years, I can only think of one flight attendant whose attitude bothered me. He was resentful that I was using “his” space in the rear galley to wait to use the lavatory. All this flying makes it easy to let the my experiences blend into a dull, forgettable “I fly often for my job” blob. When I realized that my last trip of 2015 would take me completely around the world, I decided to take note of my experiences. So off we go.

My tour began easily enough. I’ve been a Delta flyer for nearly a decade. I’ve made Diamond Medallion status (flying at least 125,000 miles/year) every year since they introduced it in 2010. This steady attendance means I frequently get upgraded to first class, and that happened on my RDU-MSP flight this morning. This means I didn’t have to buy a big breakfast at the airport. I did buy a protein bar, because I knew it would be a while before they served us breakfast in the air. We pushed back on time, at 6:25am. But the pushback was all of about ten feet. The plane didn’t move; instead, the jet bridge retracted far enough to qualify the flight as departing “on time,” which helps Delta’s statistics relative to other airlines. See, according to FAA rules, if it’s not “at the gate,” then it has departed. This means we left without moving, as if we were using the Enterprise’s transporters. Due to a lack of manpower on the ground, however, we didn’t head for the runway for nearly an hour. I dozed for almost all of this time. Because I usually fly westward across the country early in the morning, and eastward on red-eyes, I fall asleep on the ground all the time. This only presents a problem on red-eyes when I wake up on takeoff, and can’t get back to sleep.

When I began getting first-class upgrades, I would almost always take advantage of the free alcohol (never before lunch!) and the big complementary meals. But today I asked for decaf coffee (Delta now uses Starbucks Via instant decaf) and chose the lighter cereal rather than the bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich. Over the last year or so I’ve almost completely stopped eating pork.

The extended wait at RDU meant that I had a quick layover. In fact, when we landed at MSP my flight to Seattle had already begun boarding. But I made it easily–one perk Delta provides frequent fliers is a separate boarding lane, which remains open as other passengers use the general boarding lane. I didn’t get upgraded–Delta’s calculus for who receives these golden tickets is based on many factors, including miles flown that year, previous miles flown, and cost of ticket. My one-way fare was $151–possible only in these post-Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas days–so I had to “settle” for a window seat on an exit row. This flight left just a few minutes late, and we made up the time in the air, arriving almost ten minutes early. The only bump was a bunch of bumps, turbulence that was more constant than severe. The plane had an on-board entertainment system, but they update it so rarely that I have watched every John Oliver, Big Bang Theory, and New Girl they’ve got. We did have some satellite TV, and I watched His&Hers, a great ESPN show with a noon ET airtime, which means I only watch it when I’m flying. More than watching TV, though, I use some easy-on-the-ears iTunes albums, listened to with my Bose noise-cancelling earbuds, to let me focus on work. Today I prepped for the coaching gig and half-day workshop I will teach during my two days in Seattle, along with monitoring email.

The length of my trip meant I had to check a bag, so rather than head straight to the rental car center I detoured to the baggage claim. And because I am teaching on the Eastside, rather than in Seattle proper, I had to rent a car rather than use the light rail. I come to Seattle so often that I have an ORCA card, which lets me use the light rail, streetcar, ferries and buses. Much less stressful than having to buy paper tickets every time I come to town. Reducing stress is a crucial part of my life in the air.

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A Departure, an Arrival

October 21, 2015

Yesterday I marked two anniversaries. One was very hard. It was a year since my mother-in-law Barbara died. She’s the first of our kids’ grandparents to die. Although she was being treated for lung cancer, her death was sudden and surprising. It still feels very strange not to see her at family gatherings, to eat her macaroni salad or to pour her a glass of wine. It was much more pleasant to mark the other anniversary. One year ago yesterday I entered the Won-Buddhist temple in Chapel Hill for the first time. At 6:30am I joined two kyomunims (priests) and two other laypersons for one hour of meditation. We bowed, chanted, sat in silence, chanted some more, and even sang a bit. The simple beauty of the temple inspired me, and the deep resonance of the large bell ringing calmed me even as it awoke me to the moment. I knew that morning I wanted to return, but mourning kept me away for a few days. Over the year I have meditated there often, spent a weekend learning 8-form tai chi, studied the Diamond Sutra with a small group, met a Prime Dharma Master Emeritus, and participated with the sangha (community) in other ways. I have spent time in other meditation settings, but this one immediately felt like a spiritual home. I am now preparing to take a dharma name, and in the spring I will travel to Korea with nearly two dozen other members of the temple to mark the centennial of Won-Buddhism. As with Barbara’s dying, my spiritual rebirth in this place has been both sudden, and emerging for some time. I am grateful for knowing Barbara, and I am grateful to know the Won-Buddhist temple. May both continue to shape my life.

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Waking Up

July 7, 2015

My plan was to just go across the street from my Seattle hotel to a Starbucks, grab a quick bite, and sit and read for a bit. But as soon as I hit the sidewalk, the warm air and light breeze pushed me to walk farther. I kept going up Third Avenue until I found another Starbucks. It had a couple of large overstuffed leather chairs, kiddy-corner beneath tall tinted windows—a perfect spot to enjoy the sun and a skinny latte while I read. I could not remember the last time I had sat in a Starbucks without my computer. I relaxed into my book as others came and went in the nearby seats.

Karen sat down in the other leather chair when my mocha was almost gone. Three years ago, before joining Open Table Ministries, I would not have noticed her. She had a faded purple coat hanging off her shoulders. She had a walking boot on her right leg, which was covered with flaky skin. She had a hospital ID on her right arm and wore what looked like a hospital top, but both looked worn, like she’d been out for a few days at least. She set down a double-bagged paper QFC shopping bag. She had ordered what looked like an iced coffee, but didn’t drink from it for a while. She slumped into the chair, eyes closed. When she had summoned the energy, she gulped down two-thirds of her drink without stopping, eyes still closed, face twisted like it hurt to swallow. She then reached into her bag for some whole-wheat bread. No butter, no meat, just bread. She pulled it in chunks, not whole slices.

After a couple of minutes I leaned over and said, “Excuse me. Since you drank that so fast, maybe you’d like another? Is it iced coffee?” She nodded, glancing cautiously toward me for just a moment. When I brought it to her she let it sit on the side table for a while. Every movement—reaching into the bag, chewing and swallowing—looked slow and painful.

Then it was like the caffeine had suddenly done its work. Her eyes opened. She looked over at me, then away. I made eye contact, then kept reading. Then she began to talk of a man who was leaving tomorrow, who had decided to give her a $10 bill to remember him by, but who gave it not directly to her but instead to his brother, who in turn gave it to his girlfriend. This was most unfortunate, because the girlfriend was a witch and had burned the bill. There was also a ring she’d had since she was a child, engraved with her name on it. The ring, too, had also made its way to the witch, so now it was cursed. The witch drew satanic symbols on money that she didn’t burn, and once Karen had come upon one of these bills and walked through a store holding it as far from her as she could. She spent that money fast, before it cursed her. Karen has an apartment, but many people have died in it, so she puts a cushion by the door at night and she huddles in a corner, behind police tape, so she won’t die there too. The man who is leaving has also squandered her inheritance—millions lost, she told me.

Karen spoke in turns with sadness, mild anger, irritation, and resignation. When her energy eventually waned, I gave her a $5 bill with the assurance it bore no symbols or curse. She looked at it and said she waited to hear what “the president” had to say to her. First, “Here we are again.” Then, “Well, Karen, it’s up to you.” I wished her well and returned to the sunny sidewalk.

Karen is the kind of person I would not have noticed before I started sharing meals with homeless people in my community. She is the kind of person whose life is so easy for someone with as much as I have to ignore. She is the kind of person who reminds me, when I make my self available to the moment, how varied and rich life is.

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The Other Side of a Flight Delay

May 24, 2015

I’m sitting in O’Hare. My flight to London is leaving from the end of the K gates in Terminal 3. Our 4:40 pm departure has had two announced delays totaling three hours, and a third is surely imminent, since it’s now 7:20 and we have not yet started to board. You’d expect a fair amount of fist-shaking, threats never to fly American again, and promises to write letters of complaint. I’ll admit I’ve wondered how much of the $700 fare difference I might have paid out of my own pocket to have flown on Delta, my preferred airline.

But as I look around me, affairs remain surprisingly calm. Access to screens helps, of course (the young woman sitting across from me has just shifted from flying her thumbs over her iPhone to her iPad Mini … and back). A couple is watching a movie together. A group of twentysomethings is playing Head’s Up. But there are also kids playing with each other, and plenty of smiling faces sharing conversations. There are two orderly lines of passengers rebooking their connecting flights. Most of us appear to be dealing with this. Maybe the later departure will make it easier for us to sleep on the plane?

My TripIt app just buzzed my phone. We are delayed another hour. The automated American system has called with the same information. No announcement in the gatehouse yet. As long as the flight doesn’t get canceled, I think we’ll be all right. Not the reaction you might expect in the middle of a holiday weekend.

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