Part 3: A Less than Awesome Intermission: Turbulent Traveling to Tokyo.

Before leaving you (the endless masses of my adoring fans) on the precipice of a food coma after reading the last chapter of my professional Magic: The Gathering globetrotting adventures, I mentioned that I had returned back to my homeland: the San Francisco Bay Area. No location has ever come close to matching the perfection that the Bay Area offers in terms of its micro-climate diversity, picture perfect weather (three hundred days per annum), and representation of nearly every cuisine imaginable. My return home was a brief twelve-hour stint in which I could only afford time for important travel business stuff and things like sleeping, transferring travel gear from one bag to another, packing additional cards, and making sure that everything was in order with my flight to Singapore. After a quick ride home at midnight with only a few words about my trip, I was fast asleep, desperately trying to catch the rest that had evaded me during the weekend in Providence.

I had set my alarm for 7 AM which was the time that I normally got up at, although usually I’m awake slightly before which is especially true in the summer months when the Sun gets to work early. The night had been kind to me, and even though I had slept for a considerable amount of time on the flight home, I managed to sleep throughout the night without waking up once. My flight to Singapore (via Tokyo) was scheduled to depart at 1 PM which meant that I technically should have planned to arrive at the airport three hours in advance, it being an international flight and all. However, I’d become less fearful regarding delays and planned to arrive with a half-hour less than recommended which didn’t leave much time to get everything set.

I’d like to pretend that my breakfast had been a grand affair, but sadly I must let you down, and only say that it was a two-egg omelet. Granted, “grand” can be interpreted differently, and what I had may seem to some like fare fit for a king: sautéed spinach, capers, and sun-dried tomatoes along with a side of kidney beans tossed with a balsamic reduction (maybe I’ve become too much of a foodie or just let my inflated ego rear its head in public, but my breakfast seems rather basic. Although when you use words like “sun-dried” and “reduction”, you’re on a slippery slope and a rather delicious one at that). Protein-rich foods had been a source of power for me in the recent months because they apparently keep you full longer, and the aforementioned meal is just one of the simple offerings that you could prepare in about ten minutes (if you’re slow like I am). After breakfast I brewed my usual cup of coffee (currently Major Dickenson blend; I hadn’t made my way into the Kona yet) and made my way to the internet to see what had been happening in the rest of the world while I was away.

The first order of business was to check my flight to make sure everything was in order. I wouldn’t want to get to the airport only to find that it had been delayed or something of that nature. After getting lost on United’s website for a few minutes while attempting to find my itinerary and check in to the flight, I checked out SFO’s website and found that my flight had been delayed for unknown reasons. Normally I wouldn’t have cared much that minor factoid because it only meant that I’d have more time to durdle around at home tying up random odds and ends before leaving. However, this time was very different. The expected arrival time of the flight had changed to a mere five minutes before my flight from Tokyo was to depart for Singapore, and as much confidence that I had in the Japanese about pretty much anything (which is an incredible amount honestly because they are more diligent than any other people that I know), I knew that I my flight would be minus one awesome person (okay fine, one extremely awesome person).

I had to make some phone calls and let people know that they’d need to alter their plans a bit, and after getting a call back from Luis, I was informed that Matt Nass had changed his flight to a later one that departed Tokyo thirty minutes later than the current one we were scheduled for. I called up United to change my flight, and after navigating my way through the labyrinth that is their automated phone directory, found my way to the prize and a human agent who I was hoping wasn’t going to be “John from New Delhi Nebraska”. I managed to get a person whom I could understand, and immediately got down to business which was just after 9 AM. Talking with Sandra or whatever her name was took a while, but she managed to find the flight that I wanted to take.

Sandra: “Okay Mr. Ochoa, would you please hold so that I can talk with billing?”
The Ocho: “Uh… sure.”


Sandra: “I’m sorry for the long delay, but I’m having problems putting you on the flight you requested.”
The Ocho: “… what’s wrong?”

NOTE: This is where my memory fails me. Perhaps it’s because of Alzheimer’s, radiation poisoning from Japan, or something else, but I can’t for the life of me remember the rest of the call with the exception that I couldn’t get the flight that I wanted.

I politely said goodbye and thought about what needed to be done. Well, that had been a giant waste of time.

I looked at the clock and realized that I was way behind schedule and that I had to leave immediately. I’d figure everything out at the airport and try to reschedule something there if possible or just take my original flight to Tokyo and do my best to negotiate over there. I still hadn’t packed all the cards that I needed to bring for block testing and had to skip out on that. I knew that ChannelFireball would have a booth at the PT and that I’d be able to get most cards there, but for testing purposes I’d be reliant on other people having real cards (playing with proxies is terrible; don’t do it).

I was late. Thankfully rush hour traffic had died down because I got from the threshold of my house to walking inside of the airport in thirty minutes, but with only slightly less than two hours to spare. I sprinted across the international terminal with my bag in hand, adrenaline coursing through my veins. You could take my pulse just from the sight of my temples, and let’s just say that it was a bit higher than its normal resting 48. I found the United check-in area and saw to my dismay that it was obviously the most crowded in the terminal! Riiiiiiiiight, yesterday was Memorial Day. I looked at the line for Economy check-in and knew that it would take too long to get through it via conventional means, so I flagged down an airline employee and told her of my situation. After a brief recap of my story, she told me to follow her and took me aside to a different line that was much shorter; about fifteen minutes later I was being helped at the check-in counter.

The check-in process for international flights had always taken a long time for whatever reason (I’ve never bothered to learn about the requirements as far as information required, but it seems like a lot because the people at the counter are always typing non-stop and take much longer than their counterparts for domestic flights), and today was no different with the added “bonus” that I also had to haggle about getting an itinerary that would actually let me connect the dots from San Francisco to Singapore in a timely manner without me being stuck overnight in some exotic Pacific-rim location. The person helping me went away for what seemed like forever into some back-room office, although it was more like fifteen minutes, and came back with the ticket that I had tried to book with the agent over the phone. Things were beginning to look promising.

I began making my way to the security checkpoint when I heard someone shouting my name from behind me. Luis was there and after I told him that I had managed to get on the same flight that Nasty had booked, he told me that things weren’t going to work out. Apparently someone had told him that there wouldn’t be enough time to make the connection even though it was scheduled to depart 35 minutes after we arrived. Needless to say I was not happy. I got in line with Luis so we could get helped together and expedite the process. Eventually Matt Nass and Wrapter showed up (at which point we were at the front of the same line that I had been in when I got there over forty-five minutes ago), and I flagged them over to join us. Soon we were being “helped” (again…).

As it turned out there was another flight going to Singapore (via Hong Kong) that was leaving in just under an hour which I mentioned, and so we tried to get on that one to some success. Luis got helped first and got on the flight without trouble, but I couldn’t because I had already been into my other flight. Wrapter and Nass got on fine also, and when I asked if the lady could un-check me from my current flight and put me onto the Hong Kong flight, she said it was “full”. Yea, okay lady. I asked one last time and she said no. Frowntown. Time was running short as the Hong Kong flight was leaving in thirty minutes, which meant that the rest of the group had to be taken by escort to the gate. We all looked at each other, and after a bit of reassuring, I told them that I’d make something work and watched as they were quickly led away. I made my way through security and to the gate.

As much confidence as I had in myself for dealing with tough situations (i.e. L-I-F-E), I knew that there were a lot of uncontrollable variables revolving around what was happening today. I had heard stories about people having to flat-out buy new airline tickets if they missed their connection in non-US countries, and so on. However, there were also potentially good factors also like an early arrival/departure, favorable weather, and so on. I talked to the agent at my gate and she said that I’d be able to make my connection, which was comforting, but didn’t offer up any additional information. I watched our departure time and used that to estimate when I’d arrive. The flight departed a bit later than I had expected (Monday, June 1, 2:50 PM), but it would still give me a 25-minute window to make my connection.

The flight crew was actually quite helpful with providing more information. As it turned out, there had apparently been a jet that had been taken out of service due to a “biohazard”, and that made the number of operational aircraft insufficient. Another exacerbating factor was the overcast weather at SFO which made parallel landing too dangerous, and thus reduced the frequency of landings/takeoffs. A promising piece of information was that a passenger manifest had been sent to the airport in Tokyo (Haneda) with the names of people who were planning on making connections. Whether that would influence the likeliness of my travel plans succeeding, I had no idea, but it sounded like it might. “Yes, I’d like more placebo please, and this time with extra optimism.”

We got served the first of our two in-flight meals of which were given the choice of chicken or fish. As a general rule of thumb, I’d always chosen fish over chicken over pasta over beef. For whatever reason, beef had never worked out for me because it’d always been overcooked and I’d never gotten enough of it compared to other choices (and that observation had been over the course of dozens of flights and the entire spectrum of airlines). After unwrapping the gold foil tattooed with the United logo and reminiscent of Chipotle burritos, I found I’d actually struck the Mother Lode and was staring back at two pieces of unagi. I was quite content and managed to forget about my current troubles for a few minutes while I devoured my meal. The flight to Tokyo was just over ten hours long which meant there was a lot of time to pass, and after watching several movies, sleeping, and reading, it was time to roll the dice.

We landed and I discovered that the gate for my connection was a mere four gates away and that I had about 25 minutes until it was scheduled to take off. I hadn’t checked a bag which would have made the transition difficult for the airport staff and all that was separating me from the finish line were eighteen rows of deplaning passengers and about four hundred yards of airport maze. I could see people grabbing for their stowed carry-ons but couldn’t see anyone moving forward; I was getting anxious. There was nothing still, and I knew that first/business class cabin was taking their time to de-plane. And there it was: movement. I could see my escape route forming, and suddenly I too was moving. “Goodbye now” said one of the stewardesses; I just smiled. I cleared the jetway and saw the direction that I needed to go: gate 84 was to the left and I was at 80. Two-week bag in hand, I bolted; 81. I couldn’t see anyone else in the terminal except airline attendants with signs in English and Japanese with flight numbers written on them; 82. I saw a sign with my flight and the lady just pointed when I began to speak. I continued running, thankful that I’d been so diligent with my stationary bike at home; 83. And then I saw it in front of me, Gate 84, a sight so incredible yet so ordinary at the same time. There were no passengers left at the gate, but the attendants were there, waiting, and I managed to slow down enough to prevent barreling into them.

The Ocho: *SIGH* *GASP* “Hi, I’d like to…” *WHEEZ* “board my flight please.” *COUGH*
Flight Attendant #24851: “May I see you’re boarding pass and passport?”

The Ocho hands his boarding pass and passport to Flight Attendant #24851.

After a brief conversation with another attendant, of which I understood roughly nothing, I got handed back my passport and ticket stub and was on my way down the jetway to my connection; I’d made it.

The plane was nearly deserted with only about one-in-four seats filled which meant that I was able to stretch out and lie down for the seven hours that I was captive for. I hadn’t realized that the flight would be so long which was mainly due to not understanding the exact geography of south-east Asia. As it turned out, we’d be landing smack dab on the equator with a crowd of humidity there to greet us. I don’t remember much about the flight, but that was due to the fact that I had slept during most of it and not due to my aging self.

Part 4: Singapore: The Grandest of Prix and Missed Opportunity.

I arrived on time (Wednesday, June 3, 11:40 PM) and found my way through the airport to baggage claim where I saw the rest of my “companions” waiting for their luggage. They didn’t seem surprised to see me which was “comforting”, but then again, if I knew someone as resourceful as myself, I wouldn’t be surprised about anything (they don’t call me “the Swiss army knife” without reason). After rejoining the flock, I quickly retold them how the day had unfolded while we made our way through customs to meet up with the rest of our rag-tag team. PV, Martin, Kibler, BenS, Lucas, and Owen had arrived a bit earlier, and we all met up before arranging for some taxis to take us to our hotel. We had chosen the Ibis Hotel over a few others, and while it wasn’t the most expensive place to stay at, it still had a lot of amenities along with the environment needed to foster productive testing.

Our taxis shuttled us to the hotel without delay, and although the air was clear of rain and smog during our Witching Hour travel, there was little to see of the countryside around us. Trees lined the road on either side and along the median which hindered the view around us while the heat and humidity made us fully aware of their presence. As we moved closer towards civilization, we began to see the skyline of the city, its skyscrapers accented with glowing neon outlines. There were a lot of hotels about, and one that stood out was the luxurious option that we had, in the end, thankfully declined. It had a gigantic pool at the very top along with other incredible features, but wasn’t worth the $500 per-night price.

We finally got to the hotel and everyone was able to check in except for Conley who had accidently booked the other Ibis hotel in town; he ended up cancelling his reservation there and staying for a night in some roach-infested dive down the street before moving in with us. The rooms were for two people and we had already paired up before the trip; Wrapter was bunking with me. On the elevator ride up I saw that there was a breakfast buffet from 6-10 AM for 18 SGD (about $15), and I decided to check it out in the morning. I had only one thing on my mind which I guessed was also the same with my companions: sleep.

Something marvelous happened that night which had evaded me over the course of all my travels to Asia and Europe: I slept soundly. I wanted to chalk my undisturbed night up to exhaustion, but I had slept for a fair amount of time during the two plane flights earlier “in the day”. Perhaps it was just luck, but regardless of whether it was that or something else, I was definitely looking forward to more of it. It was still early (6 AM) and I didn’t want to go down to breakfast yet, so I decided to get some exploring done while everyone else was still slumbering. Who knew what I was bound to discover on the streets of downtown Singapore?

I strolled casually out of the hotel and was immediately greeted by the humidity which was apparently omnipresent regardless of time. In any case, I had packed accordingly and had brought only shorts along with silk/polyester shirts. I walked in expanding circles around the hotel and discovered a street market that caught my interest; there was bound to be some awesome local cuisine hiding about between the booths of flowers and dried fish. About a hundred yards into the market I began to see strings of bamboo leaves folded into triangles; I knew what those were! Nearly all the vendors had them: dumplings. Locally they were called ‘zongzi’ (in Chinese), and they were packets of glutinous rice filled with a variety of deliciousness including water chestnuts, salted egg, pork, mushrooms, or red beans. I held out on sampling some and continued my search of the area in case I found something even better, knowing that I could always backtrack.

Another hundred yards on the left I saw a few buildings that had what appeared to be food courts. After making my way over there, passing by the shops filled with dried shrimps, seaweed, tiger balm, and everything else imaginable, I arrived and found it to be a giant block of miniature restaurants. Most of the shops were practically clones of each other but with slight variations, and all-in-all, there were a few types of places to eat. Most shops sold noodles, glutinous rice, or rice porridge with a variety of topping options ranging from proteins like chicken, pork, beef, seafood, or tofu along with an even broader range of vegetables, some of which I hadn’t seen before. Other shops sold sweetbreads and other deserts while a few Indian shops also dotted the area with various curries and naan. Everything was cheap; and I mean dirt cheap (4 SGD for a plate). I suddenly decided to wait on trying the food and come back with others for lunch as they would likely be hungry for “breakfast” by the time it was time for my second meal in which case everything would work out. I made my way back to the hotel and decided to take a look at the buffet.

The buffet was at the Ibis’s restaurant “Taste”, which also offered tapas-style dining throughout the day, and had a large seating area, including booths for large parties and tables for smaller groups. I asked to do a bit of reconnaissance before I made a decision and saw an ample spread before me. There was a mix of American-style food and Asian food:

A deluxe coffee machine with settings for espresso, black coffee, hot chocolate, and cappuccino along with a milk steamer
Various teas (black, green, chamomile, and Darjeeling)
Half & half
Whole/low-fat/skim milk
Orange/apple/pineapple juice
Ice water

American food:
Three different types of cereal including granola
Various fruits (apples, oranges, bananas, cantaloupe, pineapple, strawberries)
Yogurt with different fruit syrups on the side (cassis, raspberry, and passion fruit)
White/wheat bread
Pancakes and waffles
Breakfast cakes such as miniature bear claws, streusel-topped crumb cakes, chocolate muffins, etc.
Honey, peanut butter, jams, butter, and cream cheese
Eggs (scrambled, fried, hard boiled)
Chicken sausage
Hash browns
Mixed greens salad with olive oil and various vinegars (red/white wine, balsamic, and raspberry) and dressings (thousand island)

Asian food:
Dim sum (the selection rotated daily: pork buns, shu mai, and so on)
Fried rice (vegetable, pork, or chicken)
Rice porridge with fish, thousand-year-egg, chicken, or sea weed
Condiments including braised peanuts, fried shallots, scallions, and pickled vegetables

There was a lot of food to choose from which made my experiences there like those of a kid in a candy store. After telling the host that I’d be eating, I made my way back to the spread and staked my claim at a table before grabbing a food tray, plate, and utensils, my weapons of choice for the upcoming massacre. I was still trying to avoid a lot of carbohydrates and simple sugars which cut out a fair amount of the selection (breads, fruit, and dairy), but that didn’t stop me from trying everything else. Unfortunately the chicken sausage was a bit underwhelming but the bacon made up for it and more because it was, well, bacon. And that is! After twenty minutes and my first plate of food, I went back to re-buy on what I had enjoyed the first time. Over the course of the morning I was able to hone in on the perfect technique, the optimal strategy: Mono-Bacon-Control. I supplemented large piles of bacon (on top of yet even larger piles of bacon) with mixed greens (topped with red wine vinegar, fried shallots, and braised peanuts) while washing everything down with an overdose of espresso.

Approximately two hours later…

I was just beyond pleasantly full and sighed slightly as I got out of my seat to walk out of Taste. My lack of self-control had reared its head as I found out later on that I had “maybe” eaten too much because I still wasn’t hungry (roughly 10 PM).

Eventually people started to get up and I told them of the breakfast which was open for only another thirty minutes at that point. We were all staying on the sixteenth floor and were adjacent to each other which made testing in our rooms somewhat convenient, however there wasn’t much room inside to actually play (except on the pair of single beds), and so we looked for other areas to play in. Taste was suggested and Conley and Owen-I-never-lose-a-match-in-the-Swiss went down to see if they would accommodate us; I came down later on and found the two of them in the back of playing. They had said that the hotel staff was fine with us annexing the back of the restaurant, and so we stayed there jamming different matchups for the PT.

Other people eventually got hungry in the afternoon, and I told them of what I had seen during my morning walk, but not many of them seemed to take interest in my information; it really was their loss (people apparently hadn’t realized how much of a connoisseur I was). I didn’t want to be near anything edible because I was still full from breakfast and didn’t go exploring with the rest of them. The group tried different places like Taste itself (which had tapas-style dishes including broiled stingray, chili crab, and other exotic tidbits) and other restaurants in the nearby vicinity. However, I wasn’t very impressed with any of their reports and decided to rely on what I had already seen for my options. After coming back from their mid-afternoon meals, everyone would begin testing again (we would mix up drafts and constructed) until it was time to sleep.

The nights after the first were filled with restlessness for me, and I was unable to sleep between the hours of 2-6 AM; apparently that first night had been a false boon of sweet dreams as I had been condemned to insomnia ever after. Perhaps it had just been punishment for the war crimes I had committed at the buffet; it was truly a beautiful massacre. In any case, the time zone change had caught up with me, and it took nearly a week to adjust.

The next five days basically were [card]gruesome encore[/card]s of the first. I’d “get up” (rather, I’d get out of the bed that I’d been lying in sleeplessly for the last three hours) to play in the breakfast buffet tournament (making sure that my Mono Bacon Control decklist was indeed the optimal 168 cards), play for five-six rounds over the course of two hours, and then start testing block with other people. We’d test all day while taking some breaks every now and then to get food, and that was it. The Ibis was our bubble, our Bio-dome, our sanctuary. We didn’t go sight-seeing or anything else interesting like that, and there was only one exception where we deviated from our routine:

Grand Prix Singapore:
Round 1-3: Byes
Round 4-15: [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card]
I really wanted to write ‘Caw Blade’ instead of ‘[card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card]’, and all was going according to plan until round 14 when I got paired up against Chikara Nakajima and his Boros deck. I managed to dust myself off after that loss and hop back onto the Caw Blade train in the final round to make it eleven of twelve rounds playing the mirror. Sadly I lost that one also, but still managed to casually acquire yet another trademark top-16 finish (I can’t complain about the end result because a top-16 is good going into an event, and I can say with certainty that this tournament featured my worst technical play ever). For reference, this is what I played:

[deck]Main Deck:
4 Squadron Hawk
4 Stoneforge Mystic
1 Sun Titan
1 Batterskull
1 Sword of Feast and Famine
1 Sword of War and Peace
4 Preordain
4 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
2 Jace Beleren
3 Mana Leak
3 Spell Pierce
3 Into the Roil
2 Dismember
1 Divine Offering
4 Celestial Colonnade
3 Glacial Fortress
2 Inkmoth Nexus
5 Island
4 Plains
4 Seachrome Coast
4 Tectonic Edge
1 Batterskull
1 Celestial Purge
2 Condemn
2 Dismember
2 Divine Offering
2 Flashfreeze
3 Oust
2 Souls Attendant

I honestly wish I could tell people that I’d been to Singapore, but that’s simply something that I can’t do; it would be like someone saying that they’d visited the Netherlands because they had a 45-minute layover in Schiphol airport. Sure, I had been living in Singapore for a week, but I never went out to breathe in the culture with satisfaction, and that was something that I regretted skimping on. Next time would be different.

Wednesday was another travel day for the group, and we were headed to Nagoya via Shanghai which took the entire day thanks to a three-hour layover. We were all on the same flight, and that made it possible to still get some value out of our time because we were still able to test block. I don’t remember what the in-flight meal was with the exception that it was obviously unmemorable. I had tried to read for a while, but I just couldn’t get into my book; I had been re-reading Lords of the Rings. I’d read a chapter or two on each plane flight I took. I had enjoyed reading it the first time and wanted to bring something that I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed with; my slow progress wasn’t something that bothered me. Most of the remaining time was spent staring out the plane window like some dog with its head out of the window of a moving truck, eyes glazed over blissfully with its tongue lazily hanging out; I was lost in the abyss of clouds and endless island-dotted seas below.

POP! I could feel the pressure change in my ears and I knew that we were descending from 37,000 feet to land in Shanghai. I’d never been to China before and wanted to get a glimpse of the countryside, but we were still above the clouds that were hindering it. I looked out again after what seemed like a long while, but there had still been no change in my view, and then I realized that we had in fact lowered below the clouds into what I can only describe as a blanket of smog that turned the Los Angeles basin in August into a picture perfect postcard by comparison.

After we got off the plane, we were all led away from the rest of the passengers by an airport official and sent through what seemed like a different customs line and the time; I think it was a line for international connecting passengers because we stayed in the same terminal. At one point I turned around and saw Daarken and his girlfriend who had been signing at the Grand Prix in Singapore; after saying hello I went back to talk with my friends. The air was eerily stagnant and the mood seemed to match perfectly. For whatever reason, I got the feeling that people just didn’t enjoy themselves here. For whatever reason, I felt like I was walking around in Mordor. After we cleared customs, we were sent back into the waiting area of the terminal. The view outside was desolate. Smog blurred objects more than four-hundred yards away, and everything seemed to be a light-orange hue. I had my camera with me, and wanted to take some pictures, but for some reason I had what seemed like an irrational fear of punishment if I went through with it.

Some people were hungry (like always; obviously) and so they went to find a place to eat. Like in Japan, the restaurants had glass cases filled with colored plastic models of their food dishes and how much they were, although none of us had any idea what the conversion rate was. As it turned out sandwiches were $12 (there had apparently been a huge sale that day). Martin, Lucas, and I went searching for other options, and after walking for the first hundred yards of the terminal’s one thousand, we realized that the shops were repeating. There were actually only three places to eat and they were all terrible. We headed back to the rest of the group after making our gruesome discovery.

The three-hour layover went by much more quickly than I had imagined it would, and as we departed from Shanghai, I breathed a sigh of relief. The flight to Nagoya was only three hours long, and I knew that I’d be much happier in the Land of the Rising Sun than anywhere else I’d been beforehand. I’d been to Japan before on multiple occasions and had always had a good time. There were so many attractions to visit and sights to see like Nagoya Castle and the Atsuta-Jingu Shrine as well as amazing foods to experience like fatty tuna and Kobe beef. I wanted everything and wasn’t going to let what happened in Singapore happen again.

To be concluded…