Oh the places you’ll go…

Child's drawing of an airplane
We all live in a green aeroplane, a green aeroplane, a green aeroplane…

I found myself once again jammed elbow to elbow with strangers several thousand feet in the air as our airplane rocked like a cork upon the water. So began yet another glamorous business trip, this time to America’s heartland. I guess that when I told my boss earlier this year that “I’m not the biggest fan of business travel,” he heard “I haven’t traveled enough.” Clearly, frequent flyers are exposed over time to something mixed in the recirculated air.

Upon arrival, I took one step out of the sliding doors and was nearly knocked down. I can deal with humidity. To call the air that met me outside the airport “humid” is like saying a tsunami is wet. Accurate yes, but the word just doesn’t do it justice. (According to Google translate, in Zulu, wall of water is translated as Udonga amanzi which for some reason feels more appropriate.)

A van, probably white when factory new but was now more ecru, pulled up. I assumed it was the hotel shuttle, however, wasn’t entirely sure as the logo was beginning to peel from the vehicle’s side. The driver came around to help stow my bags. “You’re the only one today, so feel free to sit up front if you’d like,” he said. Eager to get my lungs out of the oppressive air, I jumped in.

As we turned down unfamiliar streets it occurred to me that I had willingly hopped into the kind of van one might see in a movie’s kidnapping scene. I glanced at my driver. The cuff of his long sleeved shirt was rolled down, exposing a large tattoo. The look didn’t exactly boost my confidence.

Oh, I can hear my mom now as she reads this…

A couple of stop lights later I arrived at the hotel safe and in one piece (see mom – no need to worry about me at all!) There were only a couple of cars in the parking lot. Either I was arriving well ahead of check-in, or most people were staying at home after the holiday weekend. It reminded me of the empty hotel from The Shining (if I saw a pair of creepy twins, I was out of there).

I was told my room was ready. My room was ready. The room across from me? Not so much. Large fans whirled in the hallways while a radio blasted classic rock from the other room. The door was wide open and I could see that it was in the process of being refurbished from top to bottom. I decided I’d rather not know what kind of hi-jinks must have taken place on that side of the hall.

Between the fumes and the easy jams, I decided to vacate my room while the workers finished for the day. I decided to try out the gym (see mom – I do occasionally make healthy choices). One of the footplates on the elliptical machine had given out, the backrest on the stationary bike was set to permanent recline and the treadmill sounded like a chainsaw (the ‘art’ in this ‘state of the art’ facility was still in the surrealist period). Perhaps I should run outside. Rain began to pelt the windows. Perhaps not. I was motivated to work off some holiday excess, but not that motivated.

Image from my actual expense report

I ventured downstairs to see what this fine establishment might have in the way of dining only to find a small mini-mart stocked with frozen meals instead of a restaurant. Sigh. I grabbed a dinner and returned to my room. Sometimes you just need to call it a night.

And unlike my last trip, I slept like I did back in the time before kids. It is amazing how a little extra rest helps your mood. The food might have been less than ideal, and the accommodations worthy of the term economy, but, I’m not really complaining. I’ve been on worse trips.

It comes down to the people I meet along the way, and all people this time were friendly. Especially my tattooed driver, who, in addition to being exceedingly polite was living in this city/fishbowl to be closer to aging relatives (and wasn’t scary at all). It was a good reminder not to judge based on appearance. I would have preferred to stay at home, but it was an experience. I may not get to travel like the rich and famous, but as I’ve said before, at least I get to keep my miles.

It is hard to keep a closed mind on the open road

I spent the majority of my recent business trip in Hong Kong, but not all of it. I ventured into mainland China towards the end of my stay into a city I’d never visited before. Though Hong Kong is considered one of China’s assets, it is its own country and there are quite a number of differences between the two. One of the most noticeable, for the casual traveler, is how traffic is handled. Hong Kong has one of the best public transportation systems I have ever experienced. I rarely needed a car to get from one point to another, and that is a good thing for me considering they drive on the right hand side of the road. Mass transit wasn’t an option for me on the other side of the border.

Chinese traffic is similar to American traffic only in that you drive on the left. I was more than a little glad that arrangements had been made to keep me away from the steering wheel during my travel as there are significantly less traffic lights than I am used to, in fact there were several miles that lacked any lights at all. Upon closer inspection I noticed a distinct lack of stop signs as well. These missing elements combined with anything goes type attitude looked terrifying to my inexperienced eye. I thought that in this chaos it was only a matter of time before an accident occurred, but somehow cars were able to maneuver around each other as well as bicyclists, and pedestrians, albeit with excessive (in my opinion) horn honking.

Chinese Traffic Crossing
The Chinese open road

Ahead of my trip I had loaded up on reading material. By pure coincidence, two of the novels I selected were set in dystopian futures. One was Take Me Tomorrow by Shannon Thompson. Set in a world with extreme immigration control and anti-drug laws, the novel asks what is more important, security or personal freedom? The other was Matched by Ally Condie in which our future is made happy by limiting everyone to the mere minimum of personal choice.

In both books, there is an official who is fully aware of the bad qualities of their society, but supports the system anyway. These aren’t evil villains. In their minds order equals group happiness and is valued over individual wants. I have a soft spot for dystopian novels, ever since I first read 1984 by George Orwell. I had always related to the protagonists in these stories, rebelling against their totalitarian regimes. I thought there must be something deeply wrong with the antagonist’s mindset for them to think that what they were embracing was truly in the best interest of society, not just in their best interest.

But then I looked at the street corners where the traffic signs should stand, afraid that at any time a car might come barreling into my side, and realized that I was thinking like the officials, the bad guys/gals. Although I had been there only a day, I thought I knew what they needed better than they did. However, we were on the road several hours and the accident that I was so convinced was imminent never occurred. It might not make sense to me, but I had to admit that, somehow, the system worked for them. Who was I to think that the traffic rules I utilized at home, such as the concept of right of way, were in some way better than that what these people had devised for themselves?

I was reminded that the best leaders do not dictate the rules, but instead provide a tangible goal, and then allow their teams the flexibility to develop their own best method of reaching it. A method based on their own strengths, weakness, and most importantly, their own culture. Who else is better qualified to evaluate those traits than the people themselves? It can be hard to step back sometimes, but just because their method might be different from what you’d do, doesn’t make them wrong. Who knows? They might just surprise you too.