Thursday, June 28, 2018


One of the fundamental differences between my husband and I is how we approach travel.  He looks for the simplest plan and is willing to pay more for it.  Ever my father’s daughter, though, I loolk for the cheapest plan.   So when I was booking tickets for our trip to California this summer, it was very clear that the cheapest way to get there was flying China Eastern through Shanghai.

“It’s only like $200 more to fly direct from Seoul!” Matt said.  

“Per ticket! Times five tickets, that’s $1000!” I argued.  “Plus, it would be at the end of a long day, and I’d have to take the train to get there.  Spending the night in Shanghai would actually be more restful because we have a night in a hotel first.” 

In the end, I went with my plan. I’d spent about half the night in the airport hotel last year when I did the exact same route with United.  While it was okay, there were better-rated hotels not far away.  I went with The Qube Shanghai Pudong, noting that it had a free shuttle to and from the airport and breakfast was included.  

As the departure day approached, I started to get nervous, especially when Matt kept repeating, “I wish you were just going through Seoul.” Maybe I did too.  I know my way around Seoul.  It’s a fantastic city.  I tried to line up everything, letting the shuttle service know when I was arriving, reserving my preferred seats for the long-haul flight across the Pacific.  

Everything went smoothly till I got to Shanghai Pudong Airport.  It’s like the Bermuda Triangle.  Something always goes wrong, and you almost can’t get out — they actually block off most exits for some unfathomable reason that I’m sure they call “security”.  So of course I didn’t make it to the designated meet-up point in time for the shuttle, and another wouldn’t come for an hour. By this time, it was 9 pm in Busan, and Annalee was exhausted,  I didn’t want to wait, and I remembered reading that taxis were easy to get and only about $10, so I went to flag one down.

As taxi after taxi passed, I began to worry.  I turned to a nearby policeman and tried to get some help.  He was very kind and even managed to call the shuttle driver using the number in the email I’d received.  We were communicating through a translation app on his phone, and as he showed me his message translated, my eyes widened and I almost burst out laughing, “The driver try to sex you,” the translation read, followed by something about the terminal and needing to get a taxi.  I was sure he didn’t mean to make it weird; it was just another case of translation apps getting things wrong and dirty.  But I had to turn away and laugh silently for a few seconds before I could regain my composure.

At long last, I managed to get a taxi to stop.  The driver wore a stained white t-shirt tight over his pot belly and had a cigarette hanging between his lips as he spoke.  But he seemed to know where the hotel was and agreed to take us, so I ignored how the cab reeked of smoke and was just about to climb in when the policeman once again showed me his phone. I was a little nervous to read this message, but it said, “The fare is 50 [about ten US dollars]. If he asks for more, don’t pay it.”  I nodded and thanked him profusely, and we were off.

Well, sort of.  The taxi was moving in what I prayed was the right direction.  I sat in the front with two of the kids’ suitcases and my purse on my lap, while all four kids sat in the back — three with Lilly stretched across them. It looked hilarious, but Annie was exhausted and beside herself.  She was sobbing, and the taxi driver began mocking her. 

Okay, for those who don’t know, on my list of Things You Don’t Do Unless You Want Me to Hurt You: Number 2 is, make fun of my kids (Number 1 being, try to hurt them or take them).  I sat there feeling my blood boil, taking deep calming breaths as I focused on the goal of getting to the hotel alive.  Then the driver turned to me and said, “So much!” indicating the contents of his cab, “Price 200.”  I felt my blood pressure soaring ever higher, but took a deep breath and firmly said, “No.” I didn’t say anything else because I had no idea where we were, but within a minute, to my utter relief, I saw our hotel in the distance.  

We pulled up to the front and piled out.  Unfortunately, when I changed money, I only had about $50 on me. Thus I had two 100 renminbi bills, plus small change, so I handed the driver one 100, knowing despite the policeman’s warning at the airport hat I wasn’t going to get 50 back. I figured this was just one of those things that happens when you travel.  He looked at it and to my indescribable surprise, he started yelling at me!  His face darkened with rage and he moved close to me, as if threatening to hurt me.  It was not all in English, but he clearly thought I was going to actually pay him 200. A crowd of guests was standing there staring at me, and I’m sure he thought that by creating a scene and presenting a physical threat, I would be pressured into paying him more.

He thought wrong.  Public humiliation has never been a particularly calming tactic for me. And ever my mother’s daughter, I know how to stand up for myself.

As he waved the bill in my face, bellowing at me, I snatched it out of his hand.  I’m actually surprised by myself, too, except that given his proximity to me and moving the way he was acting like he’d hurt me, he’s lucky I didn’t kick him in the treasures.  My cheeks burning from anger and embarrassment, I said that the policeman told me the fare was 50 and had instructed me not to pay more, and so if he didn’t want what I’d given him, he could just not have any.  

Noticing the commotion, the concierge hurried out and when I explained to him what had happened, he said he thought 100 was fair.  I told him how the policeman — the law itself! — had said 50, but gave the bill back to the driver.  He spat at me and shouted words that Lilly, who had a Chinese classmate last year who used to cuss in Chinese to keep from getting in trouble, said, “were really, really bad words, Mom.” 

Fuming and actually shaking with fury, I went inside.  Fortunately, the man at the front desk was very helpful.  He tried to contact the taxi company to file a complaint, but that turned out to be a dead end.  At least we were in our room before long — a very comfortable family room with two pristine king-size beds and a giant picture of Doraemon on the window that looked into the bathroom.  

I got the kids to bed as soon as I could, hoping we’d all get a good night’s sleep before our travels the next day.  As he drifted off to sleep, Wyatt said, “You know, I think I like strangers in Korea better than strangers here.”  I laughed but lay awake for quite a while, frustrated by what a terrible experience I’d had so far.  Traveling through China wasn’t just about getting the cheapest airfare; I’d specifically chosen an itinerary that gave us a bit of time in Shanghai so that we could experience a bit of the country on our way.  It bothered me not just that my husband’s MO was looking much better than mine, but that my plans seemed to be failing so spectacularly.  Finally, I sat up and said a quick prayer that somehow I would be able to show the kids something good that would give them happier view of China, no matter how short our time was.  After a while, I drifted off to sleep.

The next morning, we hurried to get ready for our marathon journey and headed downstairs to the sumptuous breakfast buffet. There were both Chinese and Western options — Canadian bacon and noodles, dragonfruit and canned peaches, tea eggs and bok choy, and fried eggs and croissants.  We ate to our content and had just about an hour left before the shuttle headed back to the airport, so we took a moment in the beautiful lobby to consider our next move.

One of my goals was to wear the kids out before the long flight, so I announced we were going to take a walk.  The hotel appeared to be a suburban neighborhood, but I’d seen the roof of a temple from our room.  I decided we’d walk in that direction and see what we could find.

As it turned out, we passed vibrant and intriguing shops and businesses, as well as brightly painted murals along the walls,

then came to a street shaded with lush trees and beside it was just what I’d hoped for — a small park.  We walked along its perimeter for a few hundred meters, peeking where we could through the wall to see dozens of older people practicing tai chi.  We entered the park when we could, and though we were the only foreigners we’d seen, everyone was incredibly friendly.  

The women smiled generously at the kids and the men waved and smiled too.  We passed a pavilion where couples were practicing ballroom dance.

  One of the younger men started speaking to Wyatt.  At first we were a little hesitant because he sounded harsh; then we realized he was joking with Wyatt and asking if he knew Kung fu.  He showed him a few moves and posed for a picture, and we all had huge smiles on our faces as we left.

And then, it was already time to head to the airport.  

(Annie’s face is the true expression of how I felt!)

We loaded up in a van provided by the hotel and soon found ourselves in the check-in process, where to my chagrin, I learned that the extra money I’d paid to the online booking company to “guaranteed reserve” our chosen seats would not be honored by China Eastern.  Fortunately, we were at least seated more or less together, though at the very back of the plane and without window seats.  We got through all the lines and found an empty place for the kids to run and dance off their energy until boarding was called. 

Do you get what you paid for?  On the one hand, I got lousy seats on a plane and a brawl with a taxi driver — but I also found beauty and smiles and warmth that I wasn’t expecting.  I was reminded through this experience that in both travel and life, you can have the best laid plans and checklists and guarantees, and they still fall through leaving you to just hold on tight and pray.  But also, while there are always jerks in the world, and plenty of yuck and evil, there’s goodness and kindness in unexpected places.  You just always have to keep your eyes and heart open.

And also, I have another night in Shanghai on the way home...

1 comment:

  1. Taxi drivers are both a blessing and the bane of my travel existence. I wish I could have left a more positive model for dealing with extortion artists. I have simply determined that I will no longer allow them to ruin even a day for me, and am chalking it up to one of the hidden costs of travel!


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