Australia: Days 1, 2, and 3 (Getting There)
I used to think that Alaska was far away. Then I thought that South Africa was distant. But Australia, wow! Melbourne is so remote that there are no direct flights from New York. You have to transfer somewhere.
This is how I came to hold a ticket on China Eastern Airlines for Shanghai, from where I could catch a continuing flight to Melbourne. Mercifully, I was able to upgrade to business class on both legs.
My journey began with the usual drive to JFK airport — always an adventure in itself — this time to Terminal 1. I arrived early, and sped through check-in, security, and customs. Then I spent a bit of time in the Air France lounge, which, while not as nice as Delta’s flagship lounge in Terminal 4, got the job done.
Boarding was delayed, for reasons no one made clear, but not by much.
So we took off roughly on time, and I settled in to my reasonably comfortable lie-flat seat to sleep as much as possible, even though it was only 5:00pm in New York, too early for sleep, and it was already 7:00am the next morning in Australia, time to wake up.
I live a place called the West, and I was heading for the Far East. So once we’d left the congested New York airspace the pilot pointed the plane due north and flew straight for fifteen hours. It turns out the earth really is round.
The language barrier on the flight made things a bit uncomfortable for me. I’m used to being able to communicate, at least a little, in whatever environment I find myself. But I don’t speak Chinese, and while most of the flight attendants knew a few words of English, actual conversation was all but impossible. This might explain why, toward the end of the flight, I ended up with garlic bread for breakfast. Or it might not. I don’t know.
The only major problem with the flight was the plane itself, a modern Boeing 777 which, astonishingly, did not offer personal air vents. So I spent fifteen hours wishing it were cooler.
Even when we landed in Shanghai after fifteen hours, though, I was still ten hours from my destination of Melbourne, or roughly the distance from New York to Tel Aviv. Apparently the earth is not just round, but huge.
Fortunately, I had a few hours in the Shanghai airport. Unfortunately, the place is underwhelming. Now, if people judged New York City on the basis of Kennedy Airport (which I and others after me have called an island of the third world conveniently located in the heart of the first), tourism in the Big Apple would die overnight. So I’m not judging. But air conditioning would have been nice. At least in the frequent-flyer lounges. (On paper, one of the perks of the lounges, along with beverages and food, is air conditioning. In practice, the “air conditioning” is one small unit in one corner of one room of a club that isn’t walled off from the main airport.)
I actually had my choice of a few clubs, thanks to various frequent-flyer and credit-card perks, but they were all about the same: a bit of food, some drinks, a few seats, and not much more. They did offer WiFi, which was nice. Some of the clubs blocked Western sites likes Facebook and Google more completely than others. Some offered departure signs in both English and Chinese. One of the clubs sported a shower, which I took advantage of.
None of the food was good. Again, to be fair, there was also a major language barrier: Most people spoke no English or only a few words, and while both Chinese and English writing labeled the food, the English words ranged from odd to incoherent. Additionally, I’m both a vegetarian and a picky eater, so I don’t just sample whatever happens to be before me. For all I know, for instance, the snack marked “for the edible” would have been tasty. But I had no idea what it was.
I did wonder if the other food was perhaps not for the edible.
When I left the club at one point to explore, I spotted someone carrying a Starbucks coffee cup. Encouraged, I kept walking until I found food and drink that I could positively identify. And as befits a company like Starbucks, the salespeople spoke at least broken English.
Boarding my next flight — a mere ten-hour hop to Melbourne — was chaotic, and the heat and humidity at the departure gate were oppressive. But once on board I lucked out. Sitting next to me was a delightful traveling companion who, though Chinese, spoke wonderful English. So when we weren’t sleeping, we chatted about China, her life there, my life in America, and our common destination of Australia. She also served as my translator during the flight.
We landed in Melbourne shortly after noon on Thursday. (I had left on Tuesday afternoon. I didn’t get a Wednesday that week.) My new companion and I navigated the arrival process together and agreed to stay in touch as we explored this new country.
I don’t remember feeling unduly tired when we landed, and I had actually slept for the better part of both flights, but, equally, I don’t remember much from the airport in Melbourne. I know I was met by someone, and I remember something about wind. But that’s it.
I also know that over 700 words into this essay I still haven’t written anything about Melbourne. That’s what Australia is like for New Yorkers. It takes a long time just to get started.