Fresh off plane
Bright lights… big city
Hungry as a hippo
Mr./Madame Chair, fellow TM, most welcome guests
This shot gun splattered series of phrases may seem cryptic but I will interpret them for you to tell a story of one of the most thrilling times of my life.
20 years ago I was that young buck, and a slim chance crying cowboy to boot.. You likely know the type. Dog …. Died. House…burned down. Truck….stolen. Girlfriend … left me.
While only one of the preceding conditions was true, regardless, it was serendipity when on the cork board wall of my university employment centre I saw an advertisement looking for volunteers for a student working holiday exchange. I applied, was accepted and 2 very busy months later, infested with visa applications, passport photos, and international drivers license tests, I found myself on the very first airplane ride of my young fledgling existence from Vancouver to LA.
Once there, I was united with my fellow student cohorts, 9 students from all across Canada, and the 2 administrators of the exchange. After spending a day coupéd up in orientation, a few of us were ready for something completely different and thus we went to the middle aged, average build, slightly balding Hispanic clerk at the front desk of our hotel for a consult.
Senior, we are interesting in unwinding a bit. Where might we find an establishment to, lay down a few, as it were. Do a little dancing, get a little rowdy.
Senior, it is a Monday night. I am sorry to inform you that even in Los Angeles, a Monday is still a Monday.
Got that senior, load and clear. How about if we wanted to take burn off some extra energy with a walk.? Any LA sights to behold in the neighborhood?
Senior, a walking a block in any one direction would put you firmly in ground zero gang territory I would not recommend it.
Very well then, I didn’t want to ask this of you…but where exactly is the hotel hot tub?
The next day, with relaxed, intact, and unfortunately un-inebriated muscles, I went on the 2nd plane trip of my life from LA to the land of the rising sun.
The flight itself was uneventful but I very nearly never left the airport. You see, I don’t know if it was my rugged good looks or the shaggy cloths I was wearing but I was selected for a full meal deal cavity search. And for those cringing too much information right now I am referring to the cavities of my backpack luggage, not my persona.
One thing you need to know about me is that I am a bit of a boy scout. What is the boy scout mantra. (Be prepared)! That’s right be prepared. Therefore I bring what I need when I travel and usually much much more. The customs clerk soon found out when inspecting my luggage that I accomplish this with a liberal use of stuff sacks and compression straps, that when released, can cause a volumetric explosion of said luggage all over an unsuspecting table. This seemed to double the efforts of the persistently stern Japanese Customs officer I was up against. For a wry smile creped across his face when he discovered a teaspoon of dark leafy particles in the neither reaches of my backpack and deposited it in a test tube filled with a chemical liquid. However, that smile quickly dropped when his contraband litmus test proved definitively negative (dirt even in Japan, it seems, is still dirt.). In it’s place was a sullen look of desperation, for in pre 9/11 Japan, when a customs officer inspected a piece of luggage, he was entrusted to put it back the way he found it, compression straps and all.
Free at last I rejoined my worried waiting crew and we then jumped a train to take us from Narita Airport to downtown Toyko, about an hour long journey. It was there that the cultural wave hit me broadside. I first noticed was how crowded the train was, personal space had a much different definition in Japan than in the west. There were even officials assigned to push passengers in the train, presumably so that every cubic meter of train was occupied by its pound of flesh, and then some. The dress of the people, the look of the buildings, the trees, the birds, even the sun, low and large and red in the horizon looked and felt different. Everything screamed out , Greg, you are not in Kansas anymore.
When we got to our hotel room, it too was poles apart. It was a coffin box hotel where each room was the size of a casket, with barely enough room for an average person. I crawled in, head first, dragging and squeezing my luggage in behind me, fermed the port, then surrendered to jet lag.
A few hours later we all emerged from our napping places, to find our guides had left us to own devices for the evening so that they might visit their homes and families.
Undaunted we hit the streets of Tokyo but were assaulted once more. Multi-story lighted billboards right out of a Si-Fi movie. Street venders offering all things alien. Crests upon crests of dark haired, brown eyed, seemingly homogeneous Japanese. We were swallowed up by a pachinko parlor. A cross between pinball , a bingo ball shuffler, a juke box and a gambling slot, a pachinko machine is a spectacle of flashing lights and bouncing metal balls, that clangs and chatters with the capacity to pollute the urban air for blocks around. We were hungry and were awed by the plastic replicas of food dishes in the front windows of restaurants.
However, in 1990, Japanese food was devastatingly exotic for us meek and mild Canadians and we were frightened to choose by too much choice.
When we saw the tell tale bright yellow and red sign, of the friendly neighborhood McDonald’s we all shared a glance at each other, and without saying a word, we gravitated towards it like bugs to a bright, white, light. I know, first meal in the orient, and we choose somewhere so typically western, so familiar. Where was our sense of adventure?
However, as I gobbled up my Big Mak-u sandwich, with a side of Mc Rice and a supersized green tea beverage, I thought about what brought me to those golden arches. I was young, perhaps naive, and newly arrived at one of civilizations largest and grandest cities. And I was looking for a reprieve, an oasis, a place to gather up my courage for the months that I would go without the opportunity for a taste of home. A place where I could appreciate and cherish the moment for what it was, one of the times of my life.