I've flown twice since September 11. The first time, I traveled from Beijing to Wenzhou, in the south of China, and the second time I flew back to Beijing. Travel has become sharp around the edges—I notice more, think more. On the first flight I noted that the weather was clear, the China Eastern plane seemed to be in good shape, and the flight attendants were relaxed. I was not so relaxed, but it helped to watch them. On the second flight I found myself next to a man wearing a silver Rolex who sat down and promptly began clipping his fingernails.
He was Chinese, in his late sixties, and dressed in a button-down Izod shirt. He wore glasses. His hair was silver. He appeared to be wealthy, and as comfortable as if he were in his own bathroom. He clipped the nails on his left hand first and then he continued with the right. He pulled down the tray table to make things easier. We were preparing to take off, and a flight attendant asked him twice to put the tray up. The first time he ignored her; the second time he smiled sweetly. After that, she gave up.
I watched without saying anything. In a country where air travel is still relatively new, nothing surprises me. Not long ago Chinese passengers would collect their carry-ons and queue eagerly in the aisle while the plane was still descending. Overhead compartments banged open; bags dropped onto heads; people fell down. Landings were rough. About four years ago, the flight attendants seemed to gain new authority, so that today pre-landing queues are rare. And nowadays I almost never see anybody stash an in-flight meal in a bag, fully wrapped, to give to folks back home. Those days of Chinese air travel are gone, but there's always something new. The flight from Wenzhou was the first time I'd seen a man groom his fingernails on a plane.
Travel is strangely passive. You find yourself with people you do not choose to be with, and you're not always in control of your direction or pace or even your emotions. It's a risk, in many ways, and sometimes the weight of that risk cannot be measured until later. Sometimes it can't be measured at all. In 1993, when I was a graduate student in Europe, I took an overnight ferry from Stockholm to Estonia. It was Easter weekend and the ferry was crowded; I spent a beautiful vacation in the city of Tallinn. Estonia was a new country, and the citizens had proudly raised their national flags along the cobbled streets.
Something about the mood fascinated me, and the next summer, having finished graduate school, I flew to Prague. I wanted to see more post-Communist countries, so I continued on to Slovakia, Poland, Belarus, Russia, and Mongolia. I went to Beijing. In a southern China restaurant, I picked up an English-language newspaper and read that a Tallinn—Stockholm ferry had gone down.
The Baltic had been rough and the ship's bow door defective. When the door eventually fell off, tons of water filled the car deck and seeped onto passenger floors; the boat sank quickly. The water was 55 degrees, and more than 800 people died at sea. Later I learned that the ship was the same one I had taken the year before.
I sat in the Chinese restaurant and tried to remember details of my journey—the crowded boat, the cramped berth—but my memories were vague and distant. The accident itself seemed unreal—too many people, too far away. The only thing I could recall was the mood in Tallinn, the sense of rebirth, and how it had inspired me to continue traveling. Even then, in that Chinese restaurant, I knew that my trip wasn't yet finished. Two years later I returned to China, learned the language, and made a home there. In a way I'm still on the road today.
The passivity of travel allows for the unexpected. You can try to calculate the risks and the costs, but inevitably there is something missing from the equation. It's hard to see where a trip leads, or how a memory touches you, or whom you'll meet. On the flight from Wenzhou, I asked the man next to me what he did in Beijing. "I own a restaurant in Lisbon," he said.
He was a native of Wenzhou, and his Mandarin was inflected with the dialect of that southern city. His formal education had ended by the sixth grade. He said his Portuguese was good and so was business in Lisbon. He'd left China in the seventies. Those had been hard years, and I asked how he'd managed to get out.
"Legally," he said with an enigmatic smile. After the plane landed, he gave me a business card: Restaurante Hua Ta Li, 109 Rua dos Bacalhoeiros.
"Come to Lisbon and we'll talk more," he said.
And then he was gone—departing in a rush. I put the card in my wallet. As I left, I looked down and noticed fingernails strewn across his seat.
Peter Hessler is a reporter based in Beijing. His first book, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, is about his experiences in the Peace Corps.