Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Zen of Jet Lag

The Girl and the CityThe Girl and the City, Hong Kong, 2010

Home again, 36 hours late, and with a couple of airlines and airports I didn't intend to visit on my itinerary.

This blog has been a bit quiet lately. That's because I've been traveling. My wife was invited to a couple of conferences in Brisbane and Sydney, and I went along as prince consort. I also happen to have a friend and colleague who telecommutes from Sydney, so I fit in a week of work there too, which made the costs a bit more bearable. I think my boss got a pretty good deal out of it too; we got a fair bit of stuff done that would've been hard to do over the phone or chat.

We also fit in a couple of days in Hong Kong on the way.

I didn't do much sitting Zen practice while on the road. I did do a quite a bit of other kinds of practice, though, and I find that Zen has pretty radically transformed my experience of intercontinental travel—especially the occasional unexpected annoyances that come with it.

This time, the cabin crew on our airline went on strike. That means that when we hopped on the Qantas jet from Sydney to Hong Kong, we had no idea how we were going to get home from there.

I don't know enough about that labor dispute to be able to pick a side. Finnair hasn't exactly been swimming in profits lately, and when that happens, things are going to get unpleasant at the factory floor, no matter how it's handled. On the other hand, given the social and economic developments of the past thirty years, I'm inclined to give default support to anyone who has the gonads—ovaries, in this case, mostly—to stand up to an employer unilaterally changing the conditions of labor for the worse.

Be as it may, the strike has gone on a lot longer and gotten a lot uglier than anyone expected—similar actions relatively recently by cockpit and ground crews were resolved in a couple of days, whereas this one has been going on for over a week now. We've got the whole shebang from scabs and Chinese temps to support strikes. The truckers' union is refusing to deliver fuel to Finnair planes, the baggage handlers' union is refusing to handle their baggage, the mechanics' union is refusing to service the planes, and the caterers' union is refusing to provide those delicious and nutritious airline dinners we all know and love.

When we got to Hong Kong after a nine-and-a-half hour flight, the tremendously helpful and kind people there had already put us on a Cathay Pacific flight to Frankfurt, and booked a connection from there to Helsinki. Someone even stood in line with us to make sure our luggage was also rerouted; we had only checked them to Hong Kong when leaving Sydney, since we knew our connecting flight wouldn't be there.

A five-hour layover and thirteen-hour flight later, in Frankfurt, we discovered that our connection was also canceled.

A couple of hours and a German breakfast later, we found ourselves queuing at the Finnair ticketing desk, where a lone employee with superhuman patience was rerouting people one by one. At roughly ten minutes a pop, it took us two hours of standing in line to get to him. By then, all the flights to Helsinki for the day were fully booked, so he booked us into a nearby hotel instead, with a rather convenient connection to Helsinki the next day. On Scandinavian, too, so we didn't even have to cross the picket line.

The hotel was bland, anonymous, and antiseptic, and could have been anywhere in the world. It had a sauna, pool, and little gym, which we put to use, as well as the lunch, dinner, and breakfast buffets. My goddess of a wife had been determined to do a laundry in Sydney before leaving, which meant we even had fresh clothes.

The final leg of the trip—Frankfurt to Copenhagen and from there to Helsinki—went uneventfully. Even our luggage arrived with us. SAS uses a different baggage handling firm, which wasn't striking, so we got them out, too.

Air travel is disempowering.

You go into a system. Until you pop out the other end, the system owns you. You meekly unpack your luggage at security checks, answer questionnaires about whether you have tuberculosis or criminal convictions or have visited a farm recently, and basically are a good child and show up on time and do what you're told. On the face of it, there's not much you can do to change what happens to you, except for the worse, of course. Just ask the guy who tweeted about blowing up the airport when something he didn't like happened.

Yet with every breath, it's possible to choose how to relate to whatever it is that happens to you. And, of course, you bought the ticket. At that level, you have a tremendous amount of power.

Even jet lag is a choice. I chose to have it on the way back, but not on the way there.1

My normal reaction to the confusion and inconvenience we encountered on the way back (not to mention economy-class intercontinental travel as it is, even if it goes smoothly) would have been to rail at it.

This time, we didn't. We figured that the system will take care of us. We were deeply thankful to the people who did do everything they could to do just that. When standing in line for two hours at the desk in Frankfurt, we thought of how the poor guy at the counter had to feel, having to deal with a mass of angry, tired, and frustrated passengers that were far too many for him to process. We thought of the guy at the end of the line, and how he must feel, when he does the mental arithmetic that says that it'll be roughly eight hours before his turn. We thought of the people putting their jobs on the line to defend their dignity and their refusal to be treated as nothing more than expenses on a spreadsheet.

And we thought about how incredibly privileged we are to be able to travel to Hong Kong and Australia in the first place. Joanna got to cuddle a koala. I got to have a conversation with a cockatoo, with neither of us in a cage. We ate wonderful and exciting food. We got to take a dip in the Tasman sea. We made new friends. We were amazed at fruitbats and ibises and Eastern water dragons, and got used to left-hand traffic.

Next to all this, the unexpected changes in our travel plans suddenly looked pretty trivial. First-world problems. Seriously: how many people are ever even able to travel halfway around the world?

Travel is educational. I learned a lot on my first trip to Hong Kong and Australia. I may even have to say something about it here.

Two things I learned from traveling itself.

I have more control over stuff than I thought, even when role-playing a TCP/IP packet being routed around damage in the network. Or jet lag.

Getting frustrated and angry is a choice. Thinking about what other people are going through, and what they're doing to help you, helps.

No big news, these, I'm sure. True, though. And what's Zen got to do with it? Everything, and nothing.

1Jet lag is caused by your circadian rhythm going out of sync with the clock. It's possible to reset it in one day, regardless of the time difference. This demands a certain amount of effort. We followed it as closely as we were able, and it worked; no jet lag at all on the way out, despite the six-hour time difference and the fact that traveling east is worse than traveling west. See for details. And no, you don't need to pay them to calculate it for you; all the information is there.

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