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Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Crowded Lonely Place

In about 32 hours, I will wake in my rented bed at the airport Hilton. I'll sleepily pull my pants on, climb aboard the 24 hour shuttle while the pre-dawn cold burns my face.

I'll groggily turn my bags over to the Delta rep, point out that my digital ticket once again does not have my Global Entry stamp, take my new printed ticket.

I'm now on auto-pilot as I navigate through TSA, gawking at everyone that didn't pay $100 for Global Entry pulling out their laptops and taking off their belts. I wander up and down terminal one, trying to get steps until I board my plane at 5:35 AM.

I will listen to a podcast for the 1 hour and 47 minute flight to Minnesota. The family of five in front of me will annoy me as they unload dozens of carry-on bags, holding up the back 2/3rds of the plane from departing.

I will then spend the next 5 hours trying to stay awake, wandering the massive Minnesota airport. I'll pass by the massage stand a half dozen times thinking, "that could be nice." I'll pass by the 24 hour bar, looking at the taps thinking, "that could be nice." But ultimately, I won't stop. Comfort means sleep, I have to torture myself until a very specific time.

Messages start going off on my phone. The plane from Madison must have arrived with my three teammates. They are starting their 3 hour layover. I ignore the messages coming from them, wondering if I want to meet up before the flight. I don't. I will be spending a week huddled next to you on subways, in small rooms, in taxis, in alleyway tempura joints. This is my time and I need it.

About 3 hours in, I'm sitting in the Chipotle in Minneapolis airport, taking in my last moments of solitude. I've ordered the largest burrito I can, with a side of chips. My plan is to eat as large of a meal now and attempt to make it through the 13 hour flight without eating the airline food. The salted and dairy filled microwave food wrecks my body more than a night of binge drinking. I've turned my podcasts off, instead ease-dropping on the last English conversations I will hear that do not involve work somehow. This burrito is my food, these conversations are my nutrition.

I get an alert from the Delta app saying my plane is boarding. It'll take nearly an hour to load all 291 passengers into the Boeing 777-200. I gather my jacket and my backpack and meet up with my comrades.

We make small talk. Everyone looks miserable. Everyone is tired and pissed they are losing a weekend with their families. But next time we're asked to come, we'll do it again, because this is professional America for my generation and we're stuck in perpetual hell.

I board the plane. We wait for the announcements in English first, then Japanese. There are constant interruptions. People wanting to get into the middle seat. People hovering over you while stacking bags in the overhead bin. I read.

An hour into the flight, we're brought drinks. I take a Sprite just in case air sickness hits me. It's doesn't usually on planes this size. I wash down a Melatonin, turn on my noise machine to Calming Creek, drift into a light and uncomfortable sleep for a few hours, wake up, go to the rest room, wash down a second Melatonin and sleep for another 90 minutes. I've burned 4-5 hours of the flight at best.

I watch several billion dollar Hollywood blockbusters on the five inch screen in the back of the seat in front of me. I get up and stretch every hour or so and look over the people unlucky enough to fly economy class, crammed into their seats like cattle because some number cruncher found if you eliminated another 2.3 inches of leg room from each each, you can fit one more row into the insanely crowded plane. It's seems so much desperately worse when a third of the passengers are wearing masks for health reasons. This is the apocalypse and I want out. 

I swallow a panic attack wanting to leave the plane about 11 hours in. We're flying over the very eastern part of Russia according to the map.

We land. I left on a Saturday morning and I'm on the ground Sunday afternoon. It's not fair is it? Time, that is.

I have travel grim on me. And again, I'm blocked by people that somehow seem calm and slow getting off the plane.

I stand in a tight line until finally it's my turn to get a stamp on my passport. I answer a few questions, give my thumb prints, and take a picture. I meet up with my teammates while waiting for our luggage. We then stand in another line where when asked who I'm working with, I mimic a zipper to represent the thing my Japanese peers are known for.

It's then a 45 minute taxi ride to our hotel. I check in, and set my suitcase down in the only spot barely large enough to fit it. For the next few weeks, I live in a fish tank.

I shower, I iron my clothes, I stay awake, I meet up with my co-workers, we debate where to eat, I try to stay awake. We eat ramen. It's very good ramen. The best I've had. I try to stay awake. We walk the neighborhood, stop for a beer, I try to stay awake.

We're handed a hand written receipt filled with kanji. I'm the only one that doesn't read the language. Someone will hand over a credit card, it will be denied as we are told this is cash only, and then we'll all reach into our pockets until we can combine enough yen to pay for the meal.

Tokyo is the only place where I've been surrounded by millions of people and have felt so alone at the same time. I'm already tired of feeling inadequate. Pointing at pictures, spouting off one of three Japanese phrases I know, unable to read street signs, unable to sit comfortably in any furniture. I'm a toddler here. I'm already homesick, and I've only been here four hours.

I've made it, it's 8:30 PM. I go to the hotel room, already desperate to hear something comfortable. I put on the Office on Netflix and slide into a coma somewhere into the first episode.

I have somewhere between 7 and 12 days left in this country. It's up to the Japanese if they will have mercy on me and allow me to return on my wedding anniversary. I will likely miss it and stay the full 12 days. 

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