My wife, Lori and I decided to go see our daughter Tricia for Thanksgiving. So we snuck out during the first service at church on Sunday and drove two hours to the San Francisco airport. We parked in the long-term lot, took the shuttle to the international terminal and checked in for a flight to Shanghai, China. The twelve-and-a-half-hour flight left us with a long layover before our next stop in China, so we checked into an airport hotel for a nap. Then it was off to the next stop. When we arrived, we tried to transfer for still another flight, but after standing in line, we were told we had to go outside beyond security and re-enter in another terminal. As I stopped to get my jacket out of my bag, a group of twenty-something Chinese men rushed past us. One of them said, “We have to go outside, we made the same mistake, follow us.”
So we followed. It turned out we were headed to the same destination. “What are you doing here?” Chi, the best English-speaker asked. “We are going to visit our daughter,” we answered. “Your daughter lives in the middle of nowhere?” Chi responded. All I could say was, “Tell me about it.”
When we got to the next terminal there were still several hours before our flight, so Chi invited us to join his crew for lunch. Chi and Solo spoke English, the rest of the group—blue jacket, green jacket, brown jacket, the Taiwanese fellow who was freezing in the cold and a half dozen others got a kick out of watching me try to eat noodles with chopsticks. (Lori is a pro at them.) The young men work for CCTV, a Chinese government owned network, and they said they were headed to a remote part of the country to shoot some commercials. The collection of camera equipment they were lugging around seemed to confirm that.
I couldn’t help but wonder why God allowed us to run into this ensemble of perhaps, “angels unawares.” I figured we could have maneuvered our way to our next stop on our own, so maybe we were there to help them on their spiritual journey. “Are you a Christian,” I inquired, and Chi gave me perhaps the most honest answer ever, “Sometimes,” he admitted.
Chi told us how he’d spent six months in the states riding a bicycle from New York to San Diego. Friendly Americans gave him money, food and places to stay throughout his journey, so he wanted to return the favor with someone visiting his country. He insisted that they buy lunch.
We finished the meal, then Chi escorted us to our check-in counter and through security. I suspect we could have managed without them, but Lori felt much more comfortable to have some new friends looking out for us. Once through the security check, Chi announced, “We’re going for a smoke, would you like one?” We politely declined, told them we would see them at the gate, and parted ways.
As Lori and I sat apart from our new comrades at the gate, we smiled and waved, but that seemed to be the end of our partnership. Until Chi came over to report that our plane was delayed. A snowstorm in the city where our flight was originating had grounded it for a while. The Chi came back a few minutes later with a huge smile on his face. “The flight has been canceled without reason or excuse, but don’t worry, we will look for Plan B.”
Chi discovered that a high-speed train could make the trip in just three hours, but we would have to rush to have any hopes of making it. So we jogged to the oversized baggage booth to pick up their bags—and ours. I’m not sure we would have ever retrieved them without Chi and his men.
We then hustled to the airport train station, all of us carrying as many bags and camera gear as we could handle—we had to get tickets to ride to the high-speed depot. When we got to the counter it was cash only. Surprisingly, I was the only one with enough Chinese currency, so I bought tickets for the entire party. We scurried to make it through train security, but two of the camera poles were too large, and after quite a bit of arguing with the lady in charge of not letting large poles on the train, green jacket took them elsewhere. We managed to get on the train headed to the other train--green jacket made it back in time as well--but it was clear we would miss the last high-speed ride of the night. “Not to worry,” Chi explained. “There is a low-speed train we can catch. It will only take six-hours.” “Only six hours?” I sighed.
When we arrived at the depot, Chi stated that we needed to split into two groups. Chi, blue jacket (their money man) and I would go purchase tickets, the rest of the assembly would order some food and find a place to sit.
After a long wait, the three of us made it to the front of the line, only to have the computer at the ticket counter suddenly fail. They called their best tech person over. She unplugged and then re-plugged-in the computer several times before it came back on. We got tickets, were informed that our train was an hour late, “more or less,” then we headed back to the group.
They were sitting in a fast-food joint called Dico’s—kind of the Chinese equivalent of McDonalds. Lori had ordered me a chicken sandwich, which didn’t appear to actually contain anything resembling chicken. But it was a warm place on a frigid night, and we were all able to relax a bit. As Chi, blue jacket and I settled the bill for the train rides, I sensed that we might actually be relaxing a bit too long. Suddenly Chi stood up and declared we needed to go, so we hurried with all of the gear to the gate. At security my briefcase fell and spilled all over—twice.
We rushed upstairs to train platform only to find that we missed it. Would we make it to our daughter’s place for Thanksgiving? Suddenly I had this eerie feeling that we were actually living out the plot from “Trains, Planes and Automobiles.” What’s worse is as I looked around, all I saw were thin people, and I realized that I was not only living out the movie, I was the John Candy character!
“Welcome to my country,” Chi chuckled. “Let’s see if we can exchange tickets for the next train.” So, again, Chi, blue jacket and I left the rest to get in the long line for tickets. When we finally reached the front, the computer system amazingly went down again. They called the same tech person over, and again she started unplugging the computer and plugging it back in. “Welcome to China!” Chi joked. I wasn’t sure if we would make it, but I was starting to feel pretty good about my own technical skills. They must’ve unplugged the deal twenty times before it came back on. We got tickets, then hustled upstairs again.
We had to run with all the bags and camera stuff, seemingly dropping every piece at least once before retrieving them again. When we finally got to the train, the conductor wouldn’t let us on—Lori and I had tickets for another car. That didn’t stop us, we stepped on the plane, and staked out our seats—rather, our sleeping compartment.
It was fairly comfortable, although smoking was allowed, maybe even encouraged. It actually seemed mandatory!
We got a few hours of sleep before the conductor woke us up because our stop was approaching. Brown jacket took me aside, told me that he had been here two weeks before and it was bitterly cold. Then he grabbed my arm and warned, “Be careful these days.” What was that supposed to mean?
When we arrived at the train stop on Wednesday morning, somewhere south of Inner Mongolia (but you could see it from there!) Tricia, a student friend and an older gentleman were there to meet us. It was worth the trip to hug my daughter. I hugged her friend, then the older gentleman shouted, “Papa, and cried as he gave me a huge belly hug.” “Who is he?’ I asked Tricia. “He’s just the driver,” she said.
I tried to give Chi some money to take his entourage out for a drink on me, but he loudly refused. “This is my country,” he shouted. “We take care of our guests.” It was a bittersweet good-by.
We jumped in the car, took a twenty minute ride and the driver dropped us off. “Just a fifteen minute walk from here,” Tricia explained. It was freezing out as we dragged our bags to her place, then we discovered Tricia lives on the top floor of a six-story walkup. We dragged ourselves and our stuff up the steps. When we finally got to her place, out of breath, over fifty hours after we’d left, all I could think to say was, “Do not tell me you can’t get here from there!”
I’d had a lot of time to think how easy it is to give up, to stop, to go back, to think we will never get there. But giving up, stopping and going back are not really options. We need to keep going.
And we need people to help us keep going. I wouldn’t say the trip was fun, but it was fun going through it with Lori. It was fun going through it with a dozen new friends, who had taken us under their wings and took responsibility to get us to where we were going.
I thought of the need for partners. I thought of the need for a network. I thought of the need for a coach or coaches, people who we think we might not need, but then we realize we would be lost without luggage if it wasn’t for them. We need people to help us make sure our destination is correct, our attitude is in check, and our burdens are shared. We need people to remind us when we miss the mark, “Not to worry, we will look for Plan B.” We need people to help us make sure we are getting some rest and some relaxation and something to eat. We need people to remind us that it’s not a big deal if the trip costs twice as much money and takes three times as long as we expected. And we need people whose hug is worth all the effort of a fifty hour excursion.
Wherever you are going, whatever your goal, guess what? You can get there from here.