Oct 242014
 

So, finally the big day was here. Rainy day in Washington, and grabbed the new-ish Silver Line metro out to Dulles. Check-in was smooth, with 14 agents (I counted) and no lines yet. Agents had a bit of trouble figuring out how to tag my bag all the way to Bali (since it was different tickets) but soon had it sorted and I was on my way to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge.

I decided to do a few laps of the A and B terminal first to get a little bit of walking in, but was soon seated with a glass of bubbly and a little breakfast:

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Oct 162014
 

Insanity. I can’t believe it’s almost finally here. I started booking this trip well over six months ago – and I never plan that far in advance. I didn’t expect it would actually come to happen, but figured that I should spend the United miles before they were devalued…so I booked it. So far…everything is still on track.

Then, I realized I return home the Sunday before Thanksgiving. I sort of forgot that and booked a trip to Israel…over Thanksgiving. Yes, I’m going on a 33 day South Pacific trip, and then after 3 days home going to Israel for 5 days…plus an overnight in Zurich on the way back. I get home Tuesday night.

Then, I realized I was a bit short requalifying on United next year…over 12,000 miles short. Europe wouldn’t cut it. It was already going to be early December…I’m out of time. I have a Friday off…so yes, I arrive home from Israel on Tuesday night..and Wednesday night fly right back out to Lebanon.

6 weeks of traveling with a total of 4 nights at home. 73,100 miles. 24 countries, of which 12 will be new for me.  5 flights across the Atlantic Ocean. One across the Pacific. Numerous shorter flights in between. Then, it’s a whole two weeks at home before going to Africa for two weeks as part of my annual new years trip…and 8 more new countries.

I’m already exhausted. I should probably pack.

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Oct 072014
 

So…as you may recall, I have a big trip coming up to the South Pacific. 4.5 weeks and 9 new countries…it’s huge, and I fully expect something to go wrong.

In order to accommodate diving plans, I called Expedia today to change a Fiji Airways flight. No problem, but they couldn’t get it to ticket. I should mention that hold time was 2 minutes. That is, until they hung up on me.

So, I called Fiji Airways to see what’s up. Turns out two of the other flights on the itinerary are no longer existing due to a trade war between Fiji and the Solomon Islands, necessitating completely replanning the last half of my trip.

I call back. Hold time is 2 hours 30 minutes. I wait on speakerphone while I do work…45 minutes into the call (3 hours 15 total on the phone)…they hang up on me. This goes on again and again.

I’ve now called Expedia 5 times today, spent over 9 hours on the phone, and been hung up on…5 times. They claim they can’t call you back because “we do not have outgoing lines.” To add insult to injury…the last guy I got in India told me “oh my name is Jason too.” Seriously dude?!

Anyone have tips for dealing with these scam artists? I just want a full refund so I can book ELSEWHERE.

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Oct 042014
 

Tame last night in Vegas, and after dinner ended up sitting around having a few drinks. Was watching some tv and texting on my phone and…

…and next thing I knew it was 5 minutes before I’d planned to leave the hotel in the morning. Ugh, I’d fallen asleep texting/watching tv…and my phone was completely dead so the alarm never went off. I’d never done that before. Quick shower, packing, and was out the door about 15 minutes later than planned. No big emergency, but incredibly lucky I woke up when I did. I guess all the time zone changing and tiredness finally caught up to me and the body just crashed.

Made it to the airport in plenty of time, there was no line at security, and soon I found the AmEx Centurion lounge. The agent asked me how I’d liked the LaGuardia Lounge (impressive CRM – and good database) and offered to show us around if we needed anything. I just wanted breakfast at this point.

Some tasty pancakes and fruit, along with a poached egg in tomato basil sauce which was delicious. Oh, and a glass of Veuve. Won’t want to go cold turkey and risk getting the shakes or something! One nice thing the Centurion lounges do for Centurion card holders is offer a special drink at each lounge. At both LaGuardia and Vegas it’s Veuve or a glass of Johnny Walker Blue. I figured 8a was ok for champagne, but later in the day it would be a hard choice….

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Originally, I had ticketed Vegas-Houston-Chicago-DCA because I was afraid I might be short on qualifying miles this year. But at this point, I was exhausted…and there was one seat on the Houston-DC nonstop in P class so I called United to try and make a same day confirmed change. After being on hold 15 minutes, the agent had no clue how to do it, and pulled the “it’s under airport control” excuse. Ugh.

United Airlines flight 1236
Las Vegas, Nevada (LAS) to Houston, Jorge Bush Intercontinental (IAH)
Depart 9:32, Arrive 14:34, Flight Time 3:02
Boeing 737-900, Registration N47414, Manufactured 2008, Seat 2E

Not terribly much to say on this flight. I wasn’t very hungry after the lounge, but took the breakfast for photo purposes. Ok, I actually ate the fruit and greek yogurt and a couple bites of the egg, but that was all. I’d had way way too much United food on this trip, and was rather over it. The other option was the usual cereal and banana, which today was raisin bran.

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Landed in Houston a few minutes ahead of schedule, checked ExpertFlyer, and there was still one P seat on the nonstop to DC, so I tried to use the app to change it…and it worked! Yes, United technology succeeded where an actual agent couldn’t…go figure!  I’d get home nearly four hours sooner, which was sounding absolutely fantastic at this point!

I stopped at Le Grand Comptoir to wait for my flight, and had a couple of glasses of prosecco while waiting:

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Not only had I gotten on the earlier flight, but I had an aisle seat in row 2 – my preferred seat. Clearly it was my lucky day!

United Airlines flight 292
Houston, Jorge Bush Intercontinental (IAH) to Washington, DC, National (DCA)
Depart 16:37, Arrive 20:18, Flight Time 2:41
Airbus A319, Registration N846UA, Manufactured 2001, Seat 2E

One last class of Domaine Ste Jeff and one last bowl of discount warm nuts:

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Today’s lunch was some sort of sandwich on pretzel bread, bread on no plate, and scary halloween colored soup:

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Chatted with my seatmate a bit, who was a flyertalker coming back from Singapore (or was it Bangkok?) and was a fan of my trip reports. Made the flight fly by, and soon landed at DCA ahead of schedule. A very busy, very packed, very successful trip down in the books.

So, was it worth it? Absolutely! Although I would have liked to have more time in Paris, Barcelona, Andorra, and Hawaii, it was a great trip. I had lots of really cool experiences, saw lots of new things, managed to visit a new country, and had a great time driving through the mountains. The trip made for some fantastic stories, and I’d love to do something similar again…but not any time too soon!


Sep 292014
 

Soooo this will be kinda brief – what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, yada yada.

Headed off to our hotel, the Aria Las Vegas. On the way, I got confused for a second and thought I was still in Paris:

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First night was early to bed, because we were getting up early to drive out to the Hoover Dam. We took the dam tour. We took lots of dam pics. We made lots of dam memories ;)

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Sep 272014
 

I woke up early. Way too early. I somehow managed a shower and managed to cram things into my bag. I found the elevator. I tried to speak French to the check out people. “Aloha, j’voudrais faire le chcekout.” Um, non. Coffee. Stat. Medical need.

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Hawaii Coffee Company was closed. I mean, yeah, it is 4:30am, but does the Geneva Convention on torture not apply here? They are denying treatment to someone with a serious medical condition. I’m calling Obama!

Quick…and chatty…taxi to the airport. Great thing about 4am is it’s 10am in DC, and friends back home were pinging me to make sure I was still alive and functional, and about to appear in Vegas for a bachelor party. Oh that. Yes, because I hadn’t put my body through enough in the last 5-6 days. There’s a bachelor party to do.

Got to HNL, Pre Check was closed, but went through the elite line with a special pass that meant I didn’t have to take shoes off or take laptop out, so colour me a happy camper. Less than 5 minutes from taxi through security – can’t beat the aloha. DO YOU HEAR THAT DULLES?  HUH?!

Went to Starbucks in search of emergency supplies…and there was a line. A very long line. Filled with what appeared to be half of America’s armed forces. I’ve never minded a line so little.. I bought coffee. I supported the troops.  Yeah…moving on…

Got to the gate, and it was time to board!

United Airlines flight 72
Honolulu, Hawaii (HNL) to San Francisco, California (SFO)
Depart 6:28, Arrive 14:32, Flight Time 5:04
Boeing 767-400ER, Registration N76054, Manufactured 2000, Seat 1D

Nothing like a glass of bubbly Jeff…I mean, it’s grape juice…to wake you up!

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So what was for breakfast?  Well, there was fruit, which was decent and semi-fresh. There was grape juice with bubbles, which was also pretty good. The carb roll was good for 2 bites as usual until I felt the need for an emergency dental appointment. Then, the main. The seasoned hockey puck, I mean sausage, was a total no-go as usual. The potatoes…well I’m not sure what’s in them…it could be crack or heroin, but I inhaled them. The eggs? Flavourless as usual, but I kept telling myself they might contain large amounts of protein, so forced them down. The tomato…well, I ate it because it was colour. The mean was far too tan and yellow without it.

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Sep 262014
 

Running on only about an hour of sleep, huffed it to Châtelet station to catch the RER to Roissy. Didn’t have long to wait, and soon the train arrived and I shared it with a group of sleepy French commuters. I was wearing the “Ch’ten Vacances” t-shirt I’d been wandering in Paris in all night, which led to a fascinating conversation with the gentleman seated next to me. I didn’t think anyone in France worked in August, so was surprised to see so many people in business dress on the train.

I’d managed to check-in on the United app, so had plenty of time to grab a tasty breakfast and some much-needed caffeine:

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After fueling, passed the boarding pass control, and took the silly little escalators up into the terminal to try and find the Star Alliance lounge.  Up some elevators, down a random corridor, and greeted with this sign:

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…because even at 8am, well over half the lounge was drinking.  Who knew there was actually a drinking age in France?  Don’t tell all the French parents who serve their kids wine with dinner that.

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There was a small but decent selection of snacks and light breakfast, and it was a perfectly respectable lounge.  Internet was a reasonable speed, there was enough room to fit a seat, plenty of outlets, etc.  Overall, not too bad, except for the fact it was brimming with loud Americans talking about their trip of a lifetime to Paris.  Trust me, we don’t all need to hear about your shopping spree in Paris, or how much money you let your wife spend to make up for all those late nights you worked.  Ugh!

Security is in the individual satellite, but took less than 10 minutes to clear.  Made it to the gate just as boarding was starting, however, the boarding pass scanner was unable to scan mobile boarding passes.  Go figure.  After nearly half the plane had boarded, they agreed to just manually type in my seat number to board me.  I’d been suggesting this for 15 minutes already… the United staff at CDG were not among the friendliest nor most competent I’ve encountered…

United Airlines flight 991
Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to San Francisco, California (SFO)
Depart 10:05, Arrive 13:00 , Flight Time 11:55
Boeing 767-300, Registration N676UA, Manufactured 2001, Seat 1D

Figuring I was operating on Hawaii time now, where it was 10 pm, I chose a glass of bubbly upon boarding. Door closed on time, takeoff was quick, and soon it was time for a glass of Château le Jeff and some cashew pieces.  Overcooked and soggy/chewy nuts…mmmmm mmm good!

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However, there was an upside. Garlic bread, and lots of it! This was the first of at least four or five helpings. Today’s appetizer? We present for your dining pleasure two shrimps and a lemon wedge!

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Sep 252014
 

After dropping off Pépé I headed straight for security, since this time I’d managed to get Vueling to deliver my boarding pass to my phone. Security was a piece of cake, and soon I’d made it through and eventually found my way to the Priority Pass lounge. Signs were very poor, and I couldn’t seem to figure out I needed to take the escalator upstairs.

At this point, I was starving. I hadn’t eaten any real food since breakfast, and it was now late afternoon. I probably should have grabbed something in Llívia, but wasn’t really thinking. I was praying for some food in the lounge. Um, no.  here were a couple of stale looking sandwiches, cheese and crackers, and peanuts. But there was beer. Local beer. Which kinda made up for it. Beer on an empty stomach is good, right?

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About 30 minutes before boarding I headed to the gate, and there was already a line 100 deep forming to board. Ugh, the indignity of flying low cost carriers. Eventually an announcement was made…in spanish only…to split into two lines…one for the first 15 or so rows, and the other for the last 15. Everyone looked confused…because most of them were french. Translated for a few nice old ladies, and managed to skip ahead in line a bit. It was a mess.

Vueling flight 8244
Barcelona, Spain (BCN) to Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
Depart 17:00, Arrive 18:50, Flight Time 1:50
Airbus A320, Registration EC-MBF, Manufactured 2008, Seat 14D

Flight was about 95% full, but fortunately the E and F seats in my row were empty…or were they. Two 20-something french guys moved into them from the row behind…but I wasn’t going to argue about it.

The flight attendant came around to do her safety briefing…asking first if we spoke Catalan or Spanish. Si. The two french guys gave her a blank look. She asks again “do you speak english?” Another blank stare. She tries to tell them in English that they must move, because you must speak Catalan, Spanish, or English to sit in the exit row. They looked at her like she was an alien.

At this point, the door was closed, and it was delaying the flight. None of the crew, it appeared, spoke french. So, in order to get the flight moving…and maaaaaybe because I wanted the whole row to myself. I translated…explaining to them. They wanted me to tell the flight attendants a long story about how they knew what to do, they could handle it, etc. I started telling them….and the flight attendant raises her voice. YOU. GO. TO. YOUR. OTHER. SEAT. NOW. OR. WE. WILL. TAKE. YOU. OFF. THE. FLIGHT.

Reluctantly, they finally moved, and we were under way.

About 15 minutes into the flight, as the crew was starting the drink service, I went to the washroom.  I came back to find them in the E and F seats again.  I told them the flight attendant was not going to be happy…and they just gave me a shhhhh!

Well, they came around with buy on board, and the fireworks started.

The flight attendant tried once again to tell them they couldn’t sit there. It ended with the two of them up in her face, and two other flight attendants’ faces, in the aisle, just shy of yelling at them. “Why can’t we sit there? Is it because we’re french? Why don’t you speak french when you fly to france” No translating needed, they weren’t even listening at all. Finally the flight attendant threatened to “have the pilot land the plane” and one of the french guys called her a “racist spanish pig” and took a swing at her.

Out came the zip ties. In a first after 2,000,000 miles of flying, I had to help a flight attendant hold down a passenger while his hands were zip-tied behind his back.

Oh, and he still didn’t get to sit in the exit row…and I got my pringles and beer comped ;)

Upon landing, we taxied past Concorde:

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The Gendarmes met the flight, and I had to walk with them to an office and give a statement. Only took about 10 minutes, and I was pretty pleased with myself that my french was adequate for giving an official statement. Let’s just hope they don’t call me back for a court appearance or something. That would absolutely suck ;)

Took CDGVal to the RER station, and ended up waiting nearly 15 minutes for a train.  Straight shot to Châtelet, and then roughly a 10 minute walk to my hotel.  I was pretty tired by this point after driving nearly 8 hours through Spain and France, but was determined to enjoy my night.  Headed to Les Philosophes for dinner, where I had no problem scoring a table for one. It was nearly 9pm by this point so they were out of lots of things, but the restaurant was packed. Ended up having a nice chat with a couple from Québec on their honeymoon at the next table over.

But first, red wine and bread. I still don’t understand why red wine in France is always colder than anywhere else in the world.

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…and an amazing onion soup, with onions from their own garden.

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…and perhaps the simplest, yet most amazing, steak tartare I’ve ever had.

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Unfortunately they were out of the apple tart dessert I wanted, but this chocolate mousse was absolutely terrible and went terribly with my wine ;)

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Now, it was nearly 11pm, and the smart thing to do with a 10am flight would have been to go to bed.  I wasn’t smart.

Went back to the hotel, made a few phone calls, and a little bit after midnight, I was thinking “it’s only noon in Hawaii…if I go to bed now, I’ll never sleep in Hawaii. Let’s go for a walk.” So, I started walking.

Past the Pompidou, the Jardins de Luxembourg, up the Champs Elysée to the Arc de Triomphe.  Back down Ave. Kléber to Trocadéro, over the Pont D’Iéna, and to the Eiffel Tower.  It was an amazing stroll, Paris by moonlight, and absolutely magical. I’ve been to Paris probably 50 times, but this was a whole new side of Paris, and I loved it! Walked back along the left bank, and finally got back to my hotel around 5am…this was not going to end well…but it was 5pm…an appropriate nap time in Hawaii.

So, I aid down in my hotel for a 1 hour nap:

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Alarm woke me up fortunately, quick shower, and I was out the door…the long trip to Hawaii was about to begin…again!


Sep 222014
 

Plan was to wake up early in order to have a nice casual drive to Barcelona. However, jetlag was starting to catch up to me, and I just couldn’t do it. Finally made it up around 9am, and headed down to the hotel restaurant for a quick breakfast. Hard boiled eggs, baguettes with Nutella, and some good strong coffee. What’s not to love? The very nice dining room of the Casa Canut:

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After breakfast, I wanted to mail a few postcards, so wandered the town trying to find the local post office to mail them. I’d purchased postcards and stamps the night before and wrote the out over breakfast. The walk was a nice wake-up, and I got another good view of the ferris wheel in daylight:

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Then, it was time to drive. Checked out of the hotel around 10:30, and the doorman brought Pépé the Smart Car around for me.  First stop was Llívia, a small Spanish enclave completely surrounded by France. The route highlighted on the map below is the route I took into Andorra from Spain. I was planning to go out the east side on the yellow road you see, and head down the E9 highway to Llívia. This border of Andorra was supposed to be much, much more mountainous, and a very scenic drive.

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Total travel time was forecast at one hour and 13 minutes, so I was expecting 1:30 to 2 hours with stops along the way for photos:

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Leaving Andorra la Vella, some amazing views:

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Sep 182014
 

After fueling up at Starbucks…

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…it was time to find terminal 3 at CDG. I made my way to the CDGVal train, which was pretty self explanatory, and then there was the maybe 200 meter walk to T3. It seemed kind of silly, but I’m used to the C-terminal train at Dulles which also involves a long walk to the terminal, so I’m used to strangely planned train systems.

What I’m not used to is airport terminals that feel like a warehouse. Or bus terminal. Some place that not only doesn’t have first class facilities, but no lounges whatsoever. It was a terrifying place. I started to break out in a cold sweat. What’s this…a line…and there’s no way to cut to the front of it. What’s worse, after 20 minutes standing in it, I was still stuck in the line!  Dear God, I take back every thing I’ve said about how being elite on United no longer is what it used to be…it was traumatizing.  30 minutes later, I was at the front of the line…and based how slowly the line moved I expected the Spanish Inquisition (see what I did there?) before I could check in.

J’ai déja enregistré et j’ai besoin seulement de mon carte d’embarquement….” (looks at passport, tap tap tap, clunk clunk clunk) and out comes my boarding pass. That’s it.  15 seconds. I waited in line for 30 minutes for a 15 second transaction. Dear Vueling: YOU NEED KIOSKS. KTHXBYE LOVE YOU.

I still had about an hour until my flight, so find a little store selling bottled water…it was reasonably priced and I decided to head for security. Took all of 5 minutes to get through, and the waiting area on the other side was just a large collection of seats for 5 or 6 “gates” which were really just doors to busses since T3 has no jetbridges.

Bus to the plane at departure time, and we finally left about 20 minutes late. I’d paid an extra 10 euro to sit in the exit row, which at 6’3 is more than worth it. I shared the row with two very lovely ladies from Kansas who were going on a Mediterranean cruise.  They spent the next 90 minutes telling me all the fascinating things they’d discovered in their few days in Paris. I did lots of smiling and nodding and pretending to be fascinated ;)

Vueling flight 8243
Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to Barcelona, Spain (BCN)
Depart 9:50, Arrive 11:35, Flight Time 1:45
Airbus A320, Registration EC-JSY, Manufactured 2006, Seat 14D

So, what was it like to fly a low cost carrier?  Well, not that bad.

I had legroom.  Chatty, but nice row-mates.  I got a Coke Light…it cost me like 3 euro, but I got one.  We were only 30 minutes late, so all in all, I can’t really complain too much.  The best part was the exit row briefing…you had to speak and understand either Catalan or English to be allowed to sit there.  I got briefed in Spanish, which I was super proud of being able to pass well enough in, and the nice ladies from Kansas got briefed in English.  All went well.

Then…it was off through Barcelona to find my car.  I have a confession here.  I can’t drive a manual transmission.  About 100 countries ago I said I’d learn.  I still haven’t.

My options?  A Mercedes E Class at 199 Euro a day (for two days…ouch!) or a Smart Car for about 50 Euro a day.  You can guess what I chose.  The rental agent spoke basic english, and combined with my basic Spanish we got the song and dance done…including the “are you SURE you don’t want extra insurance?”  Yes.  “Oh, and one last thing…se llama Pépé.”  Yes, my car had a name according to the rental agent.

Introducing…Pépé:

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Now, it’s important to remember.  I’m not a small guy.  I’m 6’3 and north of 200 pounds.  There was enough room in this car for me and my one tiny bag, but that’s about all.  I was welcomed with this hangtag in the car:

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She’s winking at me…there’s something she knows I don’t.  Oh, wait, it’s how to drive this thing!  Wait, I have to shift even though it’s an automatic?  Yes, there’s no clutch, but still the shift from 1st to 2nd up to 5th etc was a manual shift.  Once I kinda got the hang of that…I was off.  Fortunately it took a long time to get out of the car park, which gave me lots of practice.  Programmed Google Maps on my iPhone to read me directions to Andorra…and I was off to brave the highways of Spain!

The first hour was a bit of a hot mess.  I made several wrong turns, forgot to shift, got stuck doing 80 kph on the highway, it was a wreck.  But eventually after 90 minutes or so I was getting the hang of it.  Just in time to pull into a rest stop and refuel.  I needed caffeine and calories.  See, isn’t Pépé gorgeous in the sunlight?  It was about 85F and a gorgeous day.

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