June 23, 2009
Less than two weeks before my flight to Japan, WHO declared the swine flu, or A(H1N1) flu, outbreak, a pandemic. By then, the virus had circled the Pacific Rim, having started in Mexico on that side of the ocean and now spreading like a viral Susan Boyle video in the Asia-Pacific region.
People were dissuading me from travelling. But that swine bug proved no match to the travel bug. So it came to pass that on June 23rd I found myself on a Cebu Pacific flight to Osaka with my travel companion, Cindy.
Cebu Pacific Air is a budget airline whose fares are ridiculously affordable. The airline makes foreign travel possible for backpackers like me who couldn’t afford it otherwise. So far, I have not experienced its draconian delays and over-the-top bad service it is infamous for. Ok, so the service may not be up to par. Back at Terminal 3 in Manila, a check-in staff forgot to give us immigration forms, which had us running back for them. But I don’t sweat the small stuff. The cabin crew, at least, were cheery and helpful. And the airline gets you to your destination in one piece, as with your luggage. That’s the important point.
Their fleet is mostly Airbus A320, the preferred aircraft of budget airlines. It has a narrow single-aisle fuselage with only one pair of emergency exits in the middle. Now you know why the fare is cheap. The flight was rather bumpy. Japanese airspace is notorious for aircraft-jerking turbulence. Our little Airbus staggered mid-air like a bus on a dirt road, which I had expected. But the strange engine noises were disconcerting. It sounded like a sputtering car that refuses to run even after repeated flicks of the ignition. Definitely not a sound you’d like to hear 30,000 feet up.
And there were other disturbing sounds. Constant coughing of some passengers made us don surgical masks. Media reports of tourists dropping like flies certainly fueled our paranoia, although I had serious doubts about the virus-deflecting effectiveness of a flimsy mask.
Thankfully, it was a short flight: three and a half hours. At KIX, Kansai International Airport, we had our first taste of Japanese modern technology, efficiency and civility, as well as Japan-style superlatives. KIX has the longest terminal in the world. But you’d hardly notice its gargantuan size. After deplaning, we hopped into the Wing Shuttle (a train-like people mover hanging at the side of the terminal) that whisked us in no time to the immigration area.
We were greeted by smiling assistants, mostly middle-aged men (not nubile young things you might expect for this kind of job), who checked our forms and gave directions. No running back to collect a form forgotten by a spaced-out nubile young thing. And more importantly, these father figures acquainted us to the habit of bowing, which you would see and do quite often in Japan.
And so, despite the swine flu scare and my perennially limited budget, I made it to Japan.