Homecoming dream

After a tiring but drama-free 26-hour odyssey from Bangkok via Kuwait City and London, my Kuwait Airlines flight arced over Long Island on its approach to JFK. From my aisle seat I struggled to peer out the window, struck by the familiar and orderly rows of houses lit pink by the pastel and silver sunset. “That’s it,” I thought to myself.

Unlike my previous reentries after long absences, there was no wave of delight or fear or comforting familiarity to greet me on arrival. I simply noted the details that indicate a different country from the one I had just left. There are more skin colors, for instance. The directional signs no longer indicate the way to “Immigration” – they have been edited to indicate the way to “US Customs and Border Control.” Welcome, no more. Now it’s law & order.

As I stood in line to be border controlled, Wolf Blitzer interviewed Bill Clinton on CNN. “Has Obama lost his mojo?” he asked the perpetually smirking former president. I didn’t bother listening for the answer.

“Business or pleasure?” asked my border control agent. This flustered me. “Uh…both?” I answered. He looked up from my bevisa’d passport. “How long have you been away?” I looked sheepish. “Seventeen months.” He smiled, unfazed. “Welcome back!”

I bounced down the stairs to baggage claim, praying that the cheap zip-up bag I had bought to carry my enormous fins had made it in one piece. As it turns out, it hadn’t. The thing had been torn apart and was now held together by plastic straps attached by some airline baggage handler. Miraculously, nothing was missing, but the bag was now rather difficult to carry. Baggage carts at JFK cost $5. Five dollars! Ridiculous. On principle I ignored the carts, threw one pack on my back, the other on my front, and carried the remains of my cheap plastic bag through customs like a giant, unwieldy baby.

I have to admit, I was 80 percent sure – or maybe just hoping – that some of my friends would be waiting for me in the arrivals hall, with balloons and babies and hugs. It was, after all, Saturday evening – not a school night. I had been away for so long, and had dreamed of the tears that would flood my face when, for the first time in a year and a half, I would see someone who knows me. I stepped through the customs doors, where a throng of New Yorkers were laden with balloons and babies and hugs…though none for me.

Since my bag was in pieces, I quickly abandoned my plan to take the subway to Andrea’s apartment and decided to spring for a cab. As we sped through Brooklyn, Queens, and over the bridge into Manhattan, I kept waiting for that homecoming wave of delight and nostalgia. I’m still waiting. Any such delight in being home has instead come in spurts.

Of course, there was a mini wave of exaltation the morning after my return, when the ever-gracious and thoughtful Andrea threw me a New York style brunch, complete with bagels, cream cheese, lox and bloody marys. Many of my closest friends were there, and while I didn’t burst into tears it was wonderful to see them.

Indeed, now that I’m no longer imagining my homecoming but participating in it, it feels like I never left at all. Yes, the children (and Sammy dog!) are all 18 months bigger and more mature, but neither the adults nor the places seem to have changed much. Just ask Andrea – when I first struggled into her building, dragging the unwieldy child of my worldly possessions, my first reaction was not to give her a giant hug but to express shock at what a giant, muscular dog her puppy had become.

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It’s been nearly a month since that first bagel, and the biggest surprise has been the question I’ve been asked most often. It’s not “How was your trip?” or even the dreaded “What’s your plan?”, but “How does it feel to be back?” There is no simple answer to any of these questions, but for some reason the last one freaks me out the most. Maybe that’s because its answer must include the answer to the other two: how I feel now depends on how I felt in the recent past and how I feel about the future.

Less philosophically, the past month has been a bit of a blur. I’ve met friends for coffee, lunch, drinks and dinners that cost the same as a three days in Laos. I’ve discovered that I have completely forgotten how to calculate a tip. I’ve been to the last Red Sox game of the season (thanks Sue & Chris!) and the first NY Rangers game of the season (thanks Drea & M2!). I’ve watched Monday Night Football over Buffalo wings and booze, and spent one glorious day on the couch watching football and baseball from noon to midnight. I’ve played catch, Wii, “name that flag” and “tickle worm” with my two oldest nephews. I’ve been farted on numerous times by both my youngest nephew and my friends’ Boston terrier. I’ve even been puked on while riding the NYC subway on a Saturday night. I have not eaten any noodle soup, instead binging on a near-pornographic stream of cheese, red wine, whole wheat bread, gin martinis, olives, burgers, steaks, cheese, hummus, steamed veggies, giant salads with crispy lettuce, nectarines, whiskey, cheese, salami, roast beef sandwiches, Greek yogurt, strawberries, and cheese. I’ve gained like 3 kilos, mostly in (you guessed it) cheese.

Oh yeah – and I’ve had two job interviews.

!!???!!???

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G’night. S’tight.

Bedbugs.

Bite.

It seems that most of SE Asia is infested with bedbugs. Here in Melaka I suffered my third attack (Xian, Yangshuo, then here). I changed beds and washed all my stuff. Everything was OK for two nights.

And then, two nights ago, I woke up to the now-unmistakable itch of bedbugs. Gah! It was around 3 or 4 am, so I just grabbed my computer and headed downstairs to the hostel’s common area to write. That’s where I found Winston, from the bed diagonally across from me, watching TV and itching his arm. Bedbugs attack! I smiled, sat down and we compared war stories for hours.

Around 8 am I came back in to the TV room after a bathroom visit and…BASEBALL! Yes, ESPN Asia was showing game 1 of the NLCS. As it turns out, Winston’s a Dodgers fan. So we settled in to watch the game, which lasted until noon local time.

After the game Winston went up to try to nap and I went for a wander in Melaka. In the evening we took a bus to Medan Portugis, a nearby settlement where descendents of Portuguese settlers and their Malay wives still live. We ate a dinner of spicy fresh crab and “devil” chicken curry washed down with cold Jaz beer. The chicken was a bit dry, the beer a bit tasteless, but the crab was excellent – just spicy enough to make you sweat a bit, and just tangy enough to cut the spice.

Winston is a really great guy – a Korean-America TV editor and aspiring writer from LA. When I first saw him I dubbed him Hot Asian Guy II. (Grrlz who attended Lissette/Andy’s wedding will get the reference!) He’s about 3 months into a 5-month motorbiking trip through SE Asia. He started in Vietnam, bought a cheap bike, and has come down through Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and now Malaysia. We clearly have a lot in common (travel, baseball, writing) so the conversation was easy and interesting. Dinner felt like a really great (and chaste) first date.

After dinner we taxi’d back to Melaka, which fills up with KL tourists on weekends. Looking for some wine, we instead ran into a few Americans & Canadians from our hostel at the local expat bar. We joined them and they drank beer & I drank Jack-rocks until the place shut down. Back at the hostel, all of a sudden it was 2 am. Game 2 of the NLCS started at 4 am, followed by Game 1 of the ALCS at 7:30. “No point in going to sleep!” I decided. Our friends shook their respective heads and went to bed. Winston and I headed to the local 7-11 for game-watching supplies: caffeine (Diet Coke, chocolate) and food (pretend Doritoes, prawn chips, etc).

So yeah, no sleep for 36 hours. Winston left today – he’s meeting friends in Singapore. I tried writing for about 5 minutes, then gave up and took a 3-hour nap. Sleep is good.

OK, I’m off to find some dinner. More on Melaka tomorrow (I promise!).

Ill communication

I’d love to write a thoughtful note about China, Take II. But I’m too distracted – the cats, yes, but also there are other people about, and we’re going into town in a few minutes for lunch. In the afternoon we’re catching a bus to Liuluang (sp?), then tomorrow morning a train to Turpan, near Urumqi in Xinjiang province.

After the demonstrations by Uigurs in Urumqi this July, and recent demonstrations by ethnic Han, and the fact that on October 1 it’s the 60th anniversary of communism in China…well, we’re assuming that there will be no internet access or international telephone connectivity in Xinjiang province. Reports travel message boards are sketchy, so we’ll just have to go and see the situation ourselves.

This means you won’t hear from me for a while. To assuage any anxieties, here is our *very rough* itinerary:

9/14: train to Turpan
stay 3ish days

9/18 ish: Urumqi

maybe go north to the lakes near Altay, or else head to Kashgar

9/24 ish: Kashgar

stay a few days

Then buses along southern edge of Taklamakan Desert (Yarkland, Hotan, Niya, Charklik), and finally across to Golmud in Quinghai province. From there we’ll catch a train to Xi’an – probably by the first week in October.

This means I will probably lack internet for three weeks. I’ll ping (via a post or mass email) as soon as I can.

Not that I don’t love you all, but the thing I’m most distressed about in RE lack of internet is that I won’t know who makes the baseball postseason until the playoffs have started. GO SOX.,

A beautiful day

Tonight I’m suffering my first insomnia for a few weeks. Perhaps it’s the leftover glow of excitement from my first – and only – game at The New Yankee Stadium. Sure, it was an exhibition game (against the Cubs; the Yanks won 7-4) but it was the first game played by the Yankees in their new ballpark.

I have to say, I kinda hate The New Stadium. It felt like a cross between a midwestern shopping mall (too airy! too friendly!) and a slick, modern museum. At Gate 6, the walls of the cavernous, bright foyer were festooned with larger-than-life flags depicting Yankee greats (Goose, Reggie). Along the double-wide concourse, sparkly new food counters inexplicably sold the same old sausage, hot dogs and fried chicken fingers. Above the counters hung enormous black-and-white photos of more Yankee greats (The Babe, Mickey, Lou). From the perspective of this Red Sox fan, it felt like the team is trying to remind itself how great it is (once was?), given the high-priced failures of the past decade. But maybe I’m projecting?

Overall, the stainless steel and grey, brightened only occasionally by splashes of Yankee blue, felt like a food court. Even the women’s rooms – once cramped, smelly and painted a remarkable Pepto Bismol, were cool and sophisticated. My first reaction was, Thank GAWD that awful pink is gone! After about a second, though, I realized I could be in the ladies’ room at the Cherry Tree Mall in Winetka, or at the MoMA, or anywhere at all. Viscerally, none of it rose to the special occasion that is a baseball game – especially given the ticket prices. The stadium lacks any sort of charm.

The one saving grace is the field. The dimensions of the playing field are exactly the same, though there’s less foul territory. The signature picket fence, carried over from the old stadium, saves the advertisement-laden center field”score board” from stock sports-Jumbotron flashiness. And don’t even get me started about the lack of useful info in the new scoreboard/signage. (What time is it? What’s this dude’s batting average? What did Jeter do in his last at-bat?) Oh – and the fonts they use! A usability nightmare. But I digress…

I hate the new stadium because I’m a Fenway-lovin’ Sox fan, you say? Well, you’re wrong. My Yankee-lovin’ friends shared my negative assessment. We recognize, of course, that part of our reaction is sentimental; it’s different and therefore bad. And since I’m given to sentimentality – even more so now, during my last two weeks in New York – I’m glad it’s not just me.

But despite all this…I have to say: It was a BEAUT-iful day for baseball. I’m glad I got to go to a game. Baseball, I’ll miss thee whilst I’m away.