Sunday, Nov. 16, 1997, 7:19 a.m. Coffee cup in hand, I'm sitting up in bed, browsing, as always on Sunday morning, through the Travel Section, having these nice little travel fantasies.
On Page 5, a full-page dark red and green ad leaps out: "SUPER OFFER--LOS ANGELES TO HONG KONG--$999." The letters are 3 inches high.
"Hmmm . . . pretty good deal," I say to my quasi-conscious self, and absent-mindedly turn to Page 6.
Whoa! I do a double-take, spitting coffee onto another ad.
"Did that say $999 for two?" I flip back to Page 5.
Yes, and not only that, but Cathay Pacific Airways says it's throwing in five hotel nights. "Sure, uh huh." I narrow my eyes cynically. "At this price, probably two cots in the Great Hall of Re-Education."
But a small voice from deep inside whispers, "So what?"
At the bottom of the ad there are a gazillion--well, at least 50--lines of very, very fine print, a.k.a. "restrictions."
" . . . All fares 100% nonrefundable in all circumstances including illness . . . Offer available only through Dec. 3. . . ." Full cash payment right now, this very second. Got a problem with that? Plus warnings such as how I'd better not even think about trying to go any dates except between Jan. 1 and Feb 15. They'll assign the travel date, thank you very much. A hotel will be assigned; and if you go, you will stay there and no place else.
Too bad my husband has already left for a morning bicycle ride. However, in my Home Shopping Network frame of mind, I do something heretofore untried in our marriage: I decide to dial the number, make (nonrefundable!) reservations first, then ask him questions later. Such as, is he by any chance dying to go to Hong Kong?
7:58 a.m. Dial 1 (800) 233-ASIA for first time. Busy. . . . 9:49 a.m. Dial for 23rd time. Busy.
Husband returns from bike ride, breathing hard. Marriage possibly saved. I can now ask him before I hand my Visa number over to Cathay Pacific.
He falls for the ad too. "Are you kidding? Call them right away," he says.
4:50 p.m. Dial 1 (800) 233-ASIA for 78th time. Busy. Index finger twitching from over-stress.
Monday, Nov. 17, 7:09 a.m. Dial 1 (800) 233-ASIA for first of 45 times that morning--get 45 busy signals. On 46th effort, I dial our travel agent's number. "We'll give it a try," she says. "I tried them once today and the line was busy."
"Oh," I say.
Tuesday, Nov. 18, 8:50 a.m. Travel agent calls. "Can you leave for Hong Kong on Jan. 21?" she asks, dispensing with salutations.
"Absolutely," I say.
"You're going. Give me your card number."
Sunday, Nov. 23, 10:30 a.m. One week later. Husband returns from Sunday bike ride with his buddies.
"All anyone talked about this morning was that ad. I strung them along, then I told them, 'Were going. We got tickets. We're going to Hong Kong.' "
Wednesday, Dec. 17, 6:30 p.m. Evening news on every network carries a story on the mysterious, deadly Hong Kong bird flu virus. The word "epidemic" is tossed around. A lot.
We turn to each other. Is the "Super Offer" a Communist plot? We make feeble jokes about slow, painful deaths from chicken virus. We decide we'll go to Hong Kong anyway, even if it means subsisting on McDonald's fries and Cadbury bars.
Thursday, Jan. 15, 1998, 6:30 p.m. National Public Radio announces that Hong Kong chicken flu fears are over with the slaughter of every chicken hatched in or near Hong Kong. No new cases have been reported in 1998. We sigh in relief.
Tuesday, Jan. 20, 6:30 p.m. The Los Angeles Times, NPR, NBC, CNN and the Home Shopping Network report two new cases of the mysterious chicken virus in Hong Kong.
Wednesday, Jan. 21, 9 p.m., Los Angeles International Airport. Jim exchanges $500 for something like $3,500 in Hong Kong dollars at a currency exchange booth, for no fee. During the remainder of the trip, he will always have to pay a fee to change money.
11:30 p.m. On a packed Cathy Pacific plane, we lift off from LAX, headed nonstop for Hong Kong and certain death from chicken flu. It's 5:30 tomorrow afternoon there. Too much time difference to reckon with. Most of our fellow coach passengers appear to be Asian families.
Jim had asked for, and we'd received, bulkhead seats, which have more room for his long legs. Then we discover we're seated by a couple with a 6-month-old baby. Jim and I exchange those looks you exchange when you realize you're going to spend all night sitting by a fretful infant.
Turns out this baby is quieter and better behaved than I am. Its parents, Hong Kong natives who now live in California, had tried to get in on the Cathay Super Offer deal but were too late. They were going home to visit relatives anyway.
We turn down the offer of a midnight meal from an attendant and instead swallow tasty Ambian sleeping pills.
We awaken six hours later. Flight attendants are quietly circulating around the dark cabin. When they find someone awake, they offer water, juice or warm Italian calzones. We devour two of the latter. Like I always say, you can't beat Italian food on a Chinese airline.