Near Yellow Mountain

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Story of a Trip

On April 15th my wife drove me to the airport so I could begin another 12 day around the world trip. No sooner had I passed through security when the Skype app on my phone beeped. One of my clients that was supposed to meet me in a few days discovered that, although his visa to travel from China to Japan was valid, his passport did not have the required 6 months validity to allow him to enter the country and it would require ten business days to get his China passport reissued. Two days of meetings scheduled with a potential Japanese partner were suddenly off. I had too many other meetings planned to cancel the trip but I had to hope that hour two of my trip went better than hour one.

After a short flight to Washington where I was catching my international flight, I found a seat in the lounge and worked on a presentation I wanted to finish before spending the next 20 hours in transit. A text message came in – did you hear about Boston? My response was a simple “no, what happened”? The unbelievable news came back so I immediately checked the internet for details. I have relatives in Boston and was fairly sure I knew at least a dozen people who were running the marathon. As I searched for stories on internet I thought about the day, many years before, that I ran the Boston Marathon and how crowded it was at the start and finish. My thought was that there could be hundreds dead or injured. Reports were still jumbled as I went to the gate to catch my flight but it was clear there had been both death and critical injuries. I found out that flights from Boston and New York were stopped due to the fear of a terrorist attack. Washington flights were still allowed to proceed. I wondered if this was an isolated event or the first stage of broader plot. I needed to wait another 8 hours when I landed in Zurich before I had more details. Tragedy often brings perspective. How could I worry about the minor issues with my trip in light of what was happening in Boston?

I walked off the plane in Switzerland and checked my phone for news – several emails from all over the world expressing concern about the events in Boston. Anytime there is a terrorist act or major weather event (hurricane, etc) in the US, I get email expressing concern from friends in Asia. They know I come from a big family that is spread around the country. I have always found these emails a comforting verification that people actually do care. I read several reports from Boston on-line but the story was still unfolding. There were no additional bombs and number of fatalities and injuries was less than I expected. I went to my gate for another long flight and watched the unbelievably tough security at an El Al gate for a flight to Tel Aviv. Each bombing in America seems an anomaly in the generally safe environment we have. The Israelis have a much different situation which added more perspective to the complicated feelings I was experiencing. El Al probably has the best airport security in the world. As I took a picture of the Swiss mountains, a man in a dark suit approached me and asked if I was on the flight to Tel Aviv. I was happy to respond, “no, I am on the flight at the next gate”. His look said “clear the area”. I didn’t comment as I moved toward my gate.

I left the efficient and very secure Swiss airport for the more “interesting” environment of Bangkok. Customs was quick and the traffic light on the cross town trip to my hotel. After a visit to the gym, I had a short meeting and a dinner of local food with an Australian buddy and his Thai colleague. My Aussie friend speaks Russian and Spanish in addition to English but his efforts to speak Thai brought quizzical looks from the waiter and bursts of high energy laughter from his colleague. I guess that’s why I leave my attempts at speaking Thai to “sewa dee” (hello) and “kop kun krap” (thank you).

I got a few hours’ sleep and left the hotel at 4am for a 6am departure for Tokyo. I am not sure why any flight needs to leave for anywhere at 6am but at least I was upgraded to first class and slept for five hours of the six hour flight. After another gym visit and dinner by myself, I focused on getting some sleep but stayed awake longer than I intended listening to CNN  reports on the Boston story.

Before the trip I made a conscious decision to try to do few new things (or normal things at new places) on this trip. I was fortunate to play golf at a course I had never played on my first full day in the country. On Saturday, friends took me to a part of the city I had never seen to watch a flamenco dancing show one of their colleagues was in. Afterward, I went for an early dinner with the group – the lone outsider with a close knit office group. I always enjoy interacting with groups of people that work together in Japan. This bunch was extremely close and it was fun getting to know them. I have done business with their company for longer than any of them have been employed. The younger people who had limited experience with foreigners were surprised to listen to me tell stories about the history of their company and stories about their boss. Good fun.

CNN and BBC kept me updated on what was happening in Boston. One of the bombers was already dead and pictures of his accomplice (and younger brother) appeared constantly on the TV screen in my room. It seemed there was no broader threat related to this incident. I focused on the coming week. My life went on while several dozens in Boston were left to deal with injuries that will change their lives forever.
In the hotel lobby, I checked my watch. I knew it wasn’t 4am so it seemed I needed a watch battery. After morning meetings and lunch, I had some time in the afternoon so I asked the concierge at the hotel where I could get my battery replaced. She gave me a map and I headed off for a nearby 8 story electronics store.  In the US, getting a new watch battery is a 10 minute exercise at a local shop. In Japan it was more of an adventure. A few steps before I entered the main entrance of the “BIC Camera” Electronics store, I was bombarded with greeting shouts of “Irrashaimase” – the typical greeting when you enter a shop in
Japan - just a little more “over the top” at BIC Camera than in most places. I had been told I could get a watch battery on the 5th floor which turned out to be incorrect. I wandered around looking for a clerk willing to make eye contact with a foreigner. Despite being the land of great service, store clerks who don’t speak English often do their best not to interact with foreigners -  fearing that they might not be able to communicate. Using a combination of my gaijin nature and Japanese, I finally invaded the personal space of a clerk so he couldn’t look away and asked in Japanese where I could get a watch battery. Relieved that this was not an English test, the clerk could not have been more helpful explaining that I could "bring my watch back to life" in the far corner of the sixth floor near the service counter. A minute later I presented myself at the watch battery area only to be asked to talk to the same person after moving several feet to my right where a sign said the equivalent of “enter here”. In my hometown, getting a watch battery is accomplished by saying, “could you replace the battery?”  No additional questions are usually asked. Things are a little more complicated at BIC Camera. After looking over my watch the clerk began 30 seconds of rapid fire Japanese that went beyond my limited vocabulary of things related to watches. I picked up “breaking the seal” and “not sure” and “depth of 100 meters”. Rather than engage in a conversation about the fact that I wasn’t planning on testing the watch guarantee by swimming to a depth of 100 meters anytime soon, I did what I often have to do when speaking Japanese. I guessed and I faked it. Rather than admit I was not exactly sure what he said, I took the part I understood and ran with it. “So desu ne, zen zen mondai nai, daijobu desu”. “Is that so, no problem, it’s ok. I followed with, "how much? and how long”? "How much" was the key. Since he replied 930 Yen ($10) and "san ju pun" (30 minutes), I was pretty sure he was not planning an expensive major tune up. Reminding myself to brush up on my watch related Japanese vocabulary; I took my claim number and told the clerk I would return in 30 minutes. My mission in those 30 minutes was to find the high end but small restaurant where I had been invited for dinner that evening. The friend I was meeting always picks interesting places but they are often hard for him to find let alone a foreigner from out of town. Fortunately, he had sent enough info for me to look the restaurant up in Google Maps and get a street level picture of the front door. I found it in less than 15 minutes and went back to pick up my watch. I paid my 930 Yen and watched the clerk carefully inspect my watch before handing it over to me. Nobody does attention to detail like the Japanese. I solemnly promised not to take the watch on a diving trip, bowed and headed back to the hotel.
That evening with Google Maps leading the way I confidently made my way to the appointed restaurant and spied my host standing in the street scanning the various signs in search of the restaurant he had selected. Doing my best ninja imitation I snuck up behind him and tapped on his shoulder. “Don’t worry, I know where it is”, I said. His face turned quizzical and I held up my iPhone showing the map.

I moved on to Osaka for a few days and stopped in LA on the way home to see my younger daughter. By the time I arrived in North Carolina, the Boston bombing was no longer leading the news cycle but was still being discussed. Life goes on. As I write this a few weeks later, the story is mostly a memory to the general public. I guess that is natural but the fact remains that those directly affected by the bombing have senselessly had their lives changed forever. Of the more than 120 around the world trips I have taken over the years, this one will stay in my memory because of what happened in a place that was not on my itinerary.