At the time, I worked for a Toronto company that manufactured equipment for the food and pharmaceutical industries. My job was to assemble the equipment mechanically and sometimes travel to the customer's site to repair machinery or inspect it before the customer started production.
In September 2002, I travelled to Guangzhou, China, to inspect some machinery for a major chewing gum company. I felt both excited and worried about the trip as, up to that point, all of my travels had been in North America. But I jumped in with both feet as there was a lot to do before the trip. I had to acquire a visa to enter China plus see my doctor for whatever shots I needed to travel to that part of the world. I bought a couple of books on China to prepare myself for the cultural differences and learn enough basic Chinese to get by. Both books assured me that I would be thoroughly equipped for my stay in China by studying the content.
They were wrong!!
I wasn't even fully prepared for the flight. Up to that point, my longest travelling time had been about 5 or 6 hours. This time I was flying from Toronto to Vancouver, then to Hong Kong and then to Guangzhou, China, A 29 hour trip from my home to the hotel in China. By the time we landed in Guangzhou, I had decided that I would never do this again.
The one good thing about the flight was that I was travelling with a workmate who had vast experience in international travel but, I must add, had never been to China. The first part of our trip was relatively uneventful as we flew from Toronto to Vancouver and then waited a few hours to board our flight to Hong Kong. When we finally boarded, I noticed the beginnings of my feelings of culture change as the vast majority of passengers were Chinese. Everybody around me spoke in a language that had no resemblance to English, and the majority of flight attendants were Chinese. About halfway through the flight, I started to have a warm feeling of comfort, thinking that by the time we landed in Guangzhou, I would be already accustomed to the Chinese culture and be prepared for my two-week stay on the Chinese mainland.
Needless to say, I was wrong!!
About two hours before landing in Hong Kong, I was gently awakened from my five-minute nap by a beautiful Chinese flight attendant, who informed me that they would be serving breakfast soon. I had a choice between a traditional western breakfast and a traditional Chinese breakfast. Feeling brave and smitten by her beauty, I choose the Chinese breakfast. She handed me a bowl of what looked like rice soup with little pieces of perfectly symmetrical steamed meat floating in it. I hesitantly asked her what this was and what was floating in it. She smiled with the most perfect teeth I had ever seen and told me it was a dish called "congee," which was made from rice, and what was floating in it was steamed sausage. She said it was the same sausage used in the western breakfast, and to go ahead and try it, she thought I would like it.
So I did, with my uneducated western palate, needless to say, she was wrong.
After flying for about 13 hours in what felt to me like an over-crowded small Chinese restaurant, we finally started our descent into Hong Kong. I was lucky to have a window seat for this part of the journey as the sights that unveiled themselves to me on that day, through that small window, will stay with me all the days of my life. We arrived about mid-morning on a beautiful, clear blue sky day. We had to circle the city before landing, which I was thankful for. The view I had of this modern metropolis surrounded by lush green mountains and centred by a sparkling blue harbour alive with all manner of watercraft from cruise ships to private yachts to Chinese fishing "junks" was truly spectacular.
When we debarked and entered the airport, the thing that impressed me the most was the building's unbelievable cleanliness; it practically gleamed.
If you have never been to Hong Kong airport, let me tell you it is like a city unto itself. For starters, it is enormous, filled with high-end shopping and restaurants. If you wish, you could have a shower, massage, haircut, or even a nap; they thought of everything when designing this airport. But I wasn't interested in doing any of these things, being a smoker at the time of this trip, and after flying over the pacific for 13 hours, I had one thing on my mind.
As we had a few hours until our flight to Guangzhou and my travel mate did not smoke, we separated at this point, he would go shopping, and I would go in quest of a smoking area and meet later at our assigned gate.
I decided to start my quest by walking towards our gate and had walked less than two minutes when I noticed a door open less than a hundred feet ahead, and out from that door wafted the unmistakable scent and sounds of my fellow addicts. I entered the room with a sense of glee; I was going to get my fix!
The room was relatively small and there were no unoccupied seats, plus the ventilation was non-existent, but I did not care, for I was amongst my people, where I would not be judged or frowned upon for my addiction.
When I was a smoker, I had one quirk, I needed to have some form of drink in my other hand while smoking; I preferred it to be beer, but anything would do, pop, juice or water, it didn't matter as long as it was liquid. So my thinking was that I would slip into the smoking-room for a quick fix, then leave to find a drink and then return.
But to my surprise, there was a vending machine in the room that sold liquid refreshment, so I made my way through my fellow nicotine comrades to the machine. I approached it thinking I would have a juice, but when I arrived at the machine, to my absolute delight, I could see that it not only offered juice, pop, and water but also two selections of beer. I was planning maybe 4 or 5 cigarettes before our next flight, but that was before I knew there would be beer involved. I was thinking 4 hours at two beer per hour and two cigarettes per beer, which works out to 8 beer and 16 cigarettes, so that is precisely what I did. I was very proud of myself as I finished my calculated smoking and drinking party ahead of schedule and made my way to our gate a half-hour early. I felt quite buzzed but thought that this was good, as I would have no problem sleeping on the flight into China.
Up to this point in the trip, my travel mate thought that I was well prepared, maybe even a little over diligent with the Chinese travel books I’d been reading since we left Toronto. But when I arrived at the gate, and he saw the shape I was in, he asked what I was thinking, to which I replied, "Yes, I am a little drunk, but at least now I'll be able to get some sleep on the flight and feel refreshed and ready for our arrival at customs in Guangzhou."
This was when he started to laugh, actually the first time I had seen him laugh so far on our journey. He said if I’d taken a closer look at my ticket for this flight, I would have noticed that the trip into Guangzhou was less than one hour.
Because of the shape I was in when given this information, I still believed that I would be fine, I would just power nap, and by the time we arrived, my buzz would be gone, and I would handle customs with no problem.
Needless to say, I was wrong.
We boarded our flight with what felt like several thousand Chinese people, all pushing to get to their seats first; there seemed to be a lot of yelling and gesturing going on, which made me feel quite uneasy as I had no idea what they were saying. I watched this chaos unfold with fear until I noticed the crew members talking and laughing without seeing the uprising happening around them. This had a calming effect on my nerves. When the last passenger was on board, the crew closed the door, and it was like they turned a switch. As soon as the door closed, the chaos stopped, and everybody was sitting quietly. As we were waiting on the runway to take off, I realized that I had made a colossal mistake. To my bladder, eight beers would equal at least eight trips to the washroom, and up to this point, I’d made only two trips.
Luckily we were seated next to the washroom on the plane, so I could get two quick visits done before we took off for Guangzhou.
As my workmate had said, it was a very short flight; it seemed that as soon as we reached our flying altitude, we started to descend into our destination.
As the flight attendants started preparing to land, I felt exceptionally uncomfortable, as my Hong Kong buzz was still strong, and I was not feeling good about going through customs. I started chewing gum and eating candy in the false hope that when I arrived at customs, at least, I wouldn't smell like I just crawled out from under a beer keg.
As I was lucky enough to have a window seat again, I decided to get my camera ready, to snap some shots of what I expected to be similar sites to what I’d seen when landing in Hong Kong.
My expectations couldn’t have been more wrong.
The sites that unfolded before me as we descended into Guangzhou couldn't have been more different from what I had seen descending into Hong Kong; it looked like they were total opposites.
There was next to no greenery in sight. It looked like a sea of concrete as far as I could see.
We seemed to be flying very low with no airport that I could see anywhere near us.
So low, I could see people waving at the plane from their balconies.
We seemed to be getting lower and lower, practically skimming the tops of the apartment blocks.
With no airport in sight, I was getting more and more nervous, and with my beer-laden bladder, I feared that if I were ever going to piss myself, it would be now.
But, just as I thought we were going to try and land on top of the next set of apartment blocks.
There it was! The Airport!
It appeared out of nowhere in what seemed to be the middle of the city, in the middle of several apartment blocks. We touched down with a thud and barreled down the runway with the brakes on full, trying to stop before reaching the next set of buildings.
From my window, less than a few hundred feet away, I could see people on their balconies hanging clothes, cooking, and playing with kids as if nothing was happening right next to them.
We finally slowed enough to turn around and head back to the gate to disembark.
I couldn't wait to get off the plane; for two reasons. The landing had scared the religion out of me, and more importantly, I was about to piss myself as my bladder had held just about enough of my abuse.
Two very important things happened during my stay in Guangzhou that changed my life.
#1--I quit smoking and have never looked back.
#2-- I met my wife, which changed the course of my life.
Moral of the story; If you smoke quit it will save your life. I smoked for over twenty-five years before finally taking my life back. It is the most difficult thing I have ever done but if you take it one day at a time, you can do it. Several times I came close to losing the battle but I would always tell myself that, "I WAS SICK AND TIRED OF FEELING SICK AND TIRED."