Dec 142017
 

Bonus points if you get the reference in the post title…

So, it all started innocently enough. I wanted to fly the newish Delta A350, and an opportunity arose that made sense to take a long weekend and go to Seoul.

Then, due to an early 2018 work trip being moved, a one-way ticket to Europe I’ve been holding for around 10 months already will have to be used just one or two weeks later since I can’t get away in February as planned.



So the problem is, I have a one-way to Seoul, and a one-way to Europe. Unfortunately, these are both trips AWAY from home. I started by looking at two one-way tickets to complete them. Long weekend in Seoul, full week in Europe. but that’s boring. I kept thinking about them as separate trips. That just wasn’t doing it for me.

The first trip was limited on time, since I’ll have six days max to pull it off. The second trip I can span two weekends, so I should be able to get 10-11 days out of it.

Then…I found it…the ticket that pulls it all together. A great Seoul-Europe-Seoul fare that will get me almost all the way home on “Trip One” and then get me from Europe back to Seoul on “Trip Two.” Oh, wait, I still would need to one way tickets to complete this. Plus…not sure where the adventure is.

Without pulling the trigger yet, it’s currently looking like the trip may be:

First Trip would essentially be:

  • DeltaOne A350 to Seoul
  • Two nights in Korea
  • Finnair A350 to Helsinki
  • Overnight in Helsinki
  • Finnair to Berlin
  • ICE first class train Berlin to Frankfurt
  • Overnight in Frankfurt
  • DeltaOne from Frankfurt to DC

Second Trip gets much more complicated since I have longer:

  • Lufthansa First to Frankfurt/Munich
  • ICE first class train to Leipzig for a night
  • Train to Dresden for a night
  • Train to Berlin for two nights
  • Finnair A350 to Seoul
  • Aeroflot to Vladivostok for two nights
  • Aeroflot business class to Petorpavlovsk-Kamchatky for two nights
  • S7 business class to Seoul
  • China Eastern business class to Shanghai for a night
  • DeltaOne from Shanghai to DC

Is it insane? Absolutely! I haven’t had insane New Years trips in several years. I somewhat miss the days when it always meant ticking off a new country:

2003: started small – Czech Republic (17 countries visited)
2004: little more adventurous: Poland and Hungary (26 countries visited – 9 new)
2005: Taipei, Australia, New Zealand via Malaysian Airlines First Class – now we’re talking! (32 countries – 6 new)
2006: Australia again in Malaysian Airlines First Class – plus New Caledonia and Vanuatu (35 countries – 3 new)
2007: Rio, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, Iguazu – I’m addicted. (45 countries – 10 new)
2008: Belarus, Baltics (60 countries – 15 new)
2009: Turkey and Jordan (66 countries – 6 new)
2010: Iraq – full on crazy now! (73 countries – 7 new)
2011: UAE, Iran, Afghanistan (82 countries – 9 new)
2012: Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti… (108 countries – 26 new)
2013: Libya…then to Myanmar and Hong Kong on a whim! (131 countries – 23 new)
2014: Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Gabon, Congo, DR Congo, Angola…yup, crazy! (154 countries – 23 new)
2015: Madagascar, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Zanzibar (177 countries – 23 new)
2016: Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone…and no Ebola! (190 countries – 13 new)
2017: Nothing! Every Country Complete and I want a rest.
2018: Back to the Crazy…Maybe!

So, time to jump back on the wagon! Your encouragement welcome!

One great thing about this post – people ask me all the time when I “decided” I would visit every country. It was definitely before 2005 because I remember when the DPRK opened up to Americans for the first time, I knew I “had” to go in case it might be my only chance since I wanted to visit every country. However, 2011 looks to be the year I decided to “go for it – adding 23-26 new countries a year over the next four years.

So, looks like I have over 39,000 miles to fly in the next month. Fasten those seatbelts, this will be a long one!




Nov 272017
 

I had been pondering for a few weeks what to do with the Thanksgiving holiday week. Due to some comp time built up, it made sense to go somewhere for the week since I could get a nine day vacation for the price of two days. Due to some fluctuations with flights and availability my plans changed a few times, but as a long-time Zimbabwe watcher, when the coup (sorry, “protection of democracy”) happened it made my choice pretty easily.

Unfortunately due to some other commitments, I ended up having less time than originally planned and unfortunately it became a shortened trip, which unfortunately meant I arrived in the country the day after Mugabe’s resignation. You can’t exactly plan and time these things well, and at least I would be there the next day and see the very first day of post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. Enough background, let’s get into the trip!

Delta flight 151
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Atlanta, Georgia (ATL)
Depart 15:04, Arrive 17:00, Flight Time: 1:56
Airbus A321, Registration N324DX, Manufactured 2017, Seat 14B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 136,002
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,500,403

Overall, a pretty average domestic hop to start the trip. Yes, I ended up in a middle seat, but at least it was Comfort Plus so I had plenty of legroom. Unfortunately, I had a “passenger of significant size” on BOTH sides of me. The gentleman in the window was as polite as possible and “leaned” toward the window as much as he could, but the guy on the aisle was far less pleasant. He insisted on keeping the armrest up, and made no effort at all to avoid spilling all over me. Ugh. Even in an uncomfortable position you can still make an effort to be as helpful as possible to your fellow passengers. I think the flight attendant took pity on me, however, because she she made the drink run and I asked for red wine…well, she was generous!

Delta flight 200
Atlanta, Georgia (ATL) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 18:17, Arrive 16:30 next day, Flight Time: 15:13
Boeing 777-200LR, Registration N707DN, Manufactured 2009, Seat 11A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 144,441
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,508,842

This was my first time on Delta’s 777 product, and although the seats were a little old-fashioned and worn, first impressions overall were pretty good. I’m a huge fan of all-aisle access, and this product does that will still being roomy and relatively private given the high walls.

“Tray service” in business class doesn’t bother me as much as it does some others, and I liked having the appetizer, soup, and salad at the same time so I could alternate bites as I felt like it. The ceasar salad was meh, although the dressing was pretty good. Loved the butternut squash soup, and the “butternut squash, date, and meyer lemon compote” was a little odd – but taste. Seems United’s asparagus fetish has company in Delta’s butternut squash fetish. Plus….pretzel roll! Yum!

Four choices of mains, and I went with the butter chicken. It was good, but nothing outstanding.

Cheese and sundae. Sundae was tasty, and I love the biscuit with it. Good selection of cheeses as well, cypress grove midnight moon, kaltbach gruyère, and buttermilk blue affinée. Overall pretty good for a business class selection, plus it came with fig compote so extra points! (yes, I’m still on my figs with cheese kick)

Dinner was over, and I managed seven straight hours of sleep before getting up and watching a bunch of tv. Shortly before landing was the second meal, which was either a lentil salad with grilled chicken or a hot roast beef and cheddar sandwich. The sandwich was really tasty, but the potato salad super bland. The blueberry tart, however, was quite good.

Not too much exciting to say about my overnight in Johannesburg. Had I planned better I probably would have connected straight to Harare that evening, but it was night to have one night in a familiar surrounding to relax. I was back at my favourite hotel by far in Joburg, the Hyatt Regency, where I had stayed just three weeks prior.

In fact, I had come back so quickly that the jacaranda trees still had some flowers on them:

Slept in, had some covfefe, and then it was time to head back to OR Tambo for my flight to Zimbabwe. Mugabe had finally resigned the previous evening, so I was very curious to see the energy on the streets when I landed.

South African Airways flight 28
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE)
Depart 14:50, Arrive 16:25, Flight Time: 1:35
Boeing 737-800, Registration ZS-SJV, Manufactured 2003, Seat 5F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 145,035
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,509,436

Despite being a mid-afternoon flight, a snack plate was offered. Nothing extraordinary, but a solid offering for such a short flight. You’d never see this in the US on such a short flight.

While waiting in line at immigration to pay for my visa, I noticed all the immigration officers seemed to be in great moods. I chatted a bit as mine wrote up my receipt, and cracked a joke about “what, did something exciting happen here recently?” It was like the entire nation was in the middle of one great big party, and I had just arrived!

I had arranged for a hotel driver to pick me up, since at $25 it was the same price the airport taxis were rumoured to extort you for. I was staying at Meikles Hotel, which had recently celebrated it’s 100th birthday in 2015 and bills itself as the oldest hotel in Zimbabwe. I’d read many reviews online that it doesn’t live up to its five star reputation and is old and tired, but my experience was exactly the opposite. No, it’s not a brand new sparkling hotel in Dubai, and I’m not usually one to go for “old school charm” but I found it a very nice place to stay – especially given its location in a country that’s been experiencing economic malaise for nearly two decades.

I had splashed out for a club floor room with a park view, figuring if the demonstrations were still going on against the government at the Parliament across the park I would have a great view. Unfortunately, I was a day late on that as the park was empty by the time I arrived, but I did have a great view! Parliament is just across the square past the trees:

Sun was setting, but I was determined to at least get out a bit before the sun went down. According to the map there was a Pick n Pay Supermarket just two blocks away, so I headed there to pick up a few supplies since I’d actually be spending multiple nights in the same hotel.

The supermarket was packed, and people were staring at me. I wasn’t entirely sure if that was due to me being the only white person in sight, or if it was the tattoos, but it was definitely noticeable. Not in an uncomfortable way, just once of those – I’m standing out here ways.

One of the things that had made me hesitant on the trip was the currency situation. Zim uses the US$ now, and travel sites warn you to bring lots of small notes, because nobody has change. I didn’t have a chance to get to a bank before going, so had to rely on yuppie food stamps for the trip ($20 bills) which turned out to be no problem. If they don’t have US$ change (which, in every transaction I made in the country nobody did) they give you Zim “Bond Notes” in return which everyone took for me at par. Supposedly you can exchange bond notes for US$ on the black market at a 30-40% discount, so I’d have to imagine that for any large purchase if you pay US$ cash you can probably negotiate a discount. Just saying…



That over, I really did want to get out of the hotel for dinner, so I grabbed a hotel car to Pariah State bar/grill in Barrowdale. I hadn’t had enough time to read up on the taxi situation, and while the hotel car price seemed a bit high at $25, it was a 20 minute ride and I figured for safety it was worth it. Dinner was rather tasty, and the people watching was fantastic. Plus…got to sit outside and have dinner which was a treat given winter is coming back in Washington.

Near the end of dinner, two low-level soldiers walked into the bar, and several white Zimbabweans went up and thanked them for what they’d done (ousting Mugabe) and took selfies with them. Amazing…this is why I chose to come now, and it was awesome to see people showing their appreciation to the military.

Decent night of sleep, even though I woke up a bit after 4am (I don’t know why – but the last year I’ve had a tough time with jetlag going to Europe/Africa, something I never had before) so I actually did a short workout in the hotel gym and then off to breakfast. One major negative for the hotel, the person who walked me to my room pointed out the club lounge and told me “you can have your breakfast there.” I asked if it was included, and he said yes…so I went. I was presented with a bill at the end of breakfast, but assumed it would be an internal charge back like many hotels do. Unfortunately, when I checked out, it was on my bill and I was told that whoever told me it was included was wrong…and they wouldn’t budge on the charge. Left a poor taste in my mouth.

Full menu to order from (the lounge has its own kitchen) as well as a mini buffet of fruits and pastries. I went with the eggs benedict, which was on the small side, but given its richness that was just fine. Very tasty, and excellent hollandaise sauce. I can forgive the lack of proper English muffins in Zim:

I had arranged a 9am walking tour with Lynnette from Free Walking Tours Harare, and let me just start by saying she was absolutely amazing! Great communication before the tour via Facebook messenger and WhatsApp, and since I was going to be the only client for the day, we could start whenever I wanted. Awesome!

We started at the Museum of Human Science, and I decided I didn’t want to spend my time in a museum – I wanted to be out walking and feeling the energy of the city. We walked for about 10 minutes, and the first place we came upon was the ZANU PF political party headquarters. The previous evening there had been a huge rally here to greet the return of (now) President Emerson Mnangagwa, and in the process, Mugabe’s face had been ripped out of a billboard:

The HQ building was an impressive structure, but has clearly seen better days. Looked like missing windows, and the exterior was a mess. I would have loved to go inside, but unfortunately that probably wasn’t a good idea given the political situation this week…

From there we walked another 15 minutes to the Harare Gardens. Lyn shared stories about spending weekends there in her childhood, and how the gardens aren’t in great shape now. She hoped with the new government, they could recapture some of their glory. A WW1/WW2 memorial in the gardens:

As we exited the garden, on the far side was the National Art Gallery. Sculpture outside:

Mask on a tree:

After another bit of a walk it was looking like rain, and just in time we reached the Roman Catholic Cathedral:

Very nice on the inside…and I loved how the pink/tan/dark hues played off each other. Lyn shared stories of Zim in the 70s and 80s when it was pretty much compulsory to be Catholic to have access to a good education. Stories of her family and their education, and it was very interesting to hear how things have changed over the last few decades.

Military vehicle in the street. First one I’d seen, so I asked the soldier if I could take a picture. Of course! I should have asked if I could climb up and take one with him…I’m sure he would have said yes. I really need to get better at asking what I perceive are “uncomfortable” questions so I can get better photos! Skill I have yet to master in all my travels!

In front of the Reserve Bank of Zim, with another military vehicle:

At this point we were back by my hotel, in front of Parliament. There were still a few signs out from the celebration of Mugabe’s resignation a couple days prior:

Loved seeing how participatory the whole thing was:

Parliament. Rare flag “flying straight out” shot. I try and get flags like this all the time, and rarely success:

The coup was so low-key, that the guy sitting out in front of Parliament was alseep:

Right next to Parliament was the Protestant Cathedral of St Mary. Very pink inside, and equally nice:

Quiet gardens behind the cathedral – you forget you’re in the middle of a bustling capital city:

Near the Parliament the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission had set up voter registration, and they were doing a brisk trade in people signing up to vote in the 2018 elections. Now that there is a chance of “free and fair” democratic elections next year, people were excited to register and make their voices heard. One thing every person I talked to said is “it can only get better. If the next guy is bad, we will not stand for it any more.” People were very excited for change, and virtually everyone felt it was going to be a major turning point for the country.

The Eastgate Mall – one of the first in the world to use architecture to provide for natural cooling via airflow. It was noticeably cooler inside, despite no artificial AC and 30 Celsius temps outside.

Took this pic on the walk back to my hotel, not knowing just how famous it would become. Several times over the next day I would see BBC, CNN, etc on tv, and all walking by and talking to these same three fruit vendors and interviewing them for their opinions. I’m guessing it was because they were one block from the one nice hotel in town, so that’s where the news crews ventured.

For example, BBC – I took this pic while having a bottle of water in the Club Lounge. Background look familiar? Yup, she’s in my hotel with the park in the background…exact same view as from my room. Most likely she was broadcasting from her own room less than three doors down from me.

It was early afternoon at this point, and despite a semi-heavy breakfast I was super hungry thanks to the long walk. I googled for a bit, and found there was an app called GTaxi with an online portal where you could supposedly book a driver – just like Uber. Price was given to you in advance, and they quoted me half the price of the hotel car to go back to Borrowdale, so I figured I would try it. Car showed up in under 10 minutes, was nice and clean, driver was chatty and professional, and was a great way to move around the city. Highly recommended!

I had lunch at the Pistachio Cafe in the Borrowdale Mall, and had a delicious “100% Zimbo Beef Burger” and a passionfruit/mango/etc smoothie which was all delicious.

After lunch walked around for a bit before calling GTaxi again to take me to the Zimbabwe National Heroes’ Acre. Unfortunately, given the “current situation” it was closed, as it is a bit of a politically sensitive site. Especially since the “war veterans” (of the liberation war) had come out against Mugabe when he failed to resign in his TV address, this was probably seen as a bit of a sensitive site. Oh well…at least when I called another GTaxi to come get me they were there in about 10 minutes.

Walked around the downtown a bit after I got back, but it was soon sunset so I retreated to the club lounge where I had chats with several very interesting characters. A few diplomats in town for the inauguration of the new president the next day, foreign news crews, a couple of ambassadors who were based in Pretoria but also tasked with covering Zim….it was a veritable who’s who of Southern Africa. This was my first time being in a “small” country at the top of international headline news, and I couldn’t have been more glad that I chose this hotel….and paid the premium to be on the club floor.

I had read on TripAdvisor, and some folks in the lounge confirmed to me, that one of the best restaurants in Harare was Sabai Thai. So yeah, Thai in Zimbabwe was such a strange concept, I had to go and check it out.

The restaurant was in a residential neighbourhood in a small house/garden, so another chance to eat outside. Even better, when I sat down, the resident cat hopped up on lap demanding to be pet. When I ordered the penang curry with chicken I was asked how spicy I wanted it. Potentially a good sign, as long as “spicy” didn’t mean “ok, has a little flavour to humour the westerner.”

I can confirm it was authentically thai spicy, to the point I scarfed three ciders total and had to pace myself as I ate. I’m going to attribute this to the owner’s wife who is from Thailand. DC has more Thai restaurants per capita than anywhere outside Asia so we’ve got lots of great Thai here, and Sabai Thai ranked right up there with the best of them. Very glad I made it for dinner, since it also was a very authentic local atmosphere and allowed me to get a bit of a feel for how those in Harare with money celebrate out on special occasions.

My flight was relatively early the next day so I made sure to get to bed early so I could enjoy a couple hours in the morning before heading to the inauguration. Good thing I was up early, because the club lounge was packed with dignitaries rushing off the the ceremony at the national stadium. Diplomatic staff from several southern African nation were having breakfast, and there was me…in shorts and a t-shirt, hanging out with them just observing.

Headed down to the lobby to go for a short walk before going to the airport, and had to pause…because there was a red carpet set up coming into the hotel, and people were lined up along it. I figured why not, so got in line…and no more than a couple minutes later a series of town cars pulled up with Zambian flags waving from them. That’s how I got a handshake from former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda! Pic I took while waiting my turn (I believe the other guy in the lei is one of the other recent Zambian presidents):

Flags and red carpet outside the hotel entrance:

Took the hotel car back to the airport, which is one of the few things named after Mugabe still standing. His picture has already been removed from the immigration hall, but the welcome sign to the airport was still there:

Bit of time in the lounge which was nothing to write home about, but loved that the news was calling it “Mugexit” LOL. Trying too hard there guys:

South African Airways flight 23
Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 14:30, Flight Time: 1:40
Airbus A320, Registration ZS-SZH, Manufactured 2014, Seat 4F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 145,629
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,510,030

Now, remember, this is an 80 minute flight tops. Lunch was offered, with THREE hot meal choices. I went with the lamb. While it might not look super appetizing, it was really tasty…and the potatoes were really good too. Just creamy enough, and the red sauce on the side (which I couldn’t quite figure out) made sure I finished my plate.

Headed to the South African lounge after clearing immigration and security. I was still undecided if I was going to stay another night in Johannesburg, or head straight home, and I was still holding reservations for both. I decided there was no point to another night in South Africa, given I had just been there for a week and didn’t know what I would do with what would literally amount to a dinner and coffee in the morning. Decided to skip it, and catch the next flight hope, saving a few hundred dollars in hotel/meals/etc.

South African Airways flight 209
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Accra, Ghana (ACC)
Depart 18:50, Arrive 22:45, Flight Time: 5:55
Airbus A330-300, Registration ZS-SXJ, Manufactured 2016, Seat 11K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 148,526
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,512,927

The South African flight from Joburg to DC stops three days a week in Dakar on the way, and the other four days in Accra. When I was working in Senegal I took it back and forth to DC several times, but I’d never had the opportunity to take it the whole way from Johannesburg. That might have been part of my motivation for going straight back too. Fortunately, the day I was going was a Dakar stop day. Why is that important? Well, on the days it stops in Accra the stop is from 10:30 to 11:30pm and the days in Dakar it is roughly 1-2am. Much easier on the body clock to stop earlier and have more time to rest on the redeye westbound to DC. Pre-departure champagne was offered in a nice glass flute (are you listening United?) and then we were off.

I was in the “mini cabin” of business with only three rows, and only 5 seats out of the 12 were occupied so it was nice and private and quiet.

Canapés and wine. While I applaud the effort to do more than mixed nuts, the canapés were soggy and relatively flavourless. Two days later, I can report I risked the cockroach of the sea (aka shrimp) and it’s tiny speck of caviar, and avoided food poisoning from it, hah.

Salmon and trout mousse starter. It was soup…or salad…OR starter. No, you can’t have more than one. Seriously South African, way to look cheap. The only reason I went with this option was for a bit more protein, but after one bite that was enough. Fishy tasting and overall yuck.

…at least there was garlic bread? Except it was soggy and had almost no garlic or butter taste. Oh, and you get half a loaf because it’s not cut well enough to pull apart.

Pan fried beef fillet…the beef was two tiny slices, like seriously maybe 3oz at most, and cooked beyond well done. Yuck. The highlight was the butternut squash (seriously…are you guys and Delta in cahoots?!) and the maelie pap and corn cake because it was novel. While I appreciated the reasonable portion sizes a la Finnair, it just didn’t work.

I posted a trip report a few months ago on South African’s new Airbus A330-300 with the 1-2-1 layout, and that was another reason I chose this flight. Glad to see the config was as comfortable as I remembered.

After dinner I fell asleep for nearly three hours, a good nap on the way to Accra. While I’d hoped to stay awake to Accra then sleep 8+ hours to DC, the body clock had other ideas.

According to TripIt, the Accra to DC flight is only 12% on time, and we were to be no exception. We arrived in Accra with only 30 minutes until scheduled departure, and ended up leaving nearly an hour late. By the time they had done what they called a “TSA security sweep,” cleaned the plane, catered, and boarded the new passengers, it took nearly 90 minutes. Not sure if our flight was typical, but 75% of passengers got off in Accra, and at least 100-150 new passengers boarded. You have to schedule more than an hour for all of that!

South African Airways flight 209
Accra, Ghana (ACC) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 23:45, Arrive 6:15 next day, Flight Time: 11:30
Airbus A330-300, Registration ZS-SXJ, Manufactured 2016, Seat 11K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 153,822
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,518,223

No pre-departure beverages offered, and actually no interaction with the crew at all. There was a crew change in Dakar, and while the first crew had seemed disinterested, this new crew was literally nowhere to be seen.

So bad that once we were in the air, the first interaction was a “we have dinner, you don’t want it do you?” Well, because of that, I had to see if it would be any better.

Nope, the canapés were similarly ugh looking. I ate one just to see….anyone who’s read my blog can probably guess which of the three I went for:

In complete fairness, the “soup of the day” was delicious – it was carrot ginger – and one of the best soups I’ve ever had on a plane. I didn’t ask if I could have the salad or appetizer this time because I wasn’t that hungry, but very glad I went for the soup.

I’m not sure what made me risk the beef again (just like the previous flight, there were four meal choices – beef, chicken, fish, and veg just like the previous flight) but the description of “grilled beef fillet with potato and pumpkin gratin” got me…partly because of the gratin part.

That said, this beef was light years better than the previous one, and the sauce and the gratin really added. A very solid meal. I don’t know if this is catered out of Accra or Joburg, but the two meals appeared to be night and day in quality. Sorry for the low-light pics, but this crew insisted on serving meals with the cabin lights completely turned down.

Despite the three hour nap, I managed to pass out after dinner for a solid six hours. I guess the previous days of less sleep than I’m used to had gotten to me so that was good at least. Why did I wake up? Well the crew insisted on turning on all the lights two full hours before landing, and the resulting noise resulted in me waking up since I was already halfway there. No big deal, I got enough sleep, but seriously, why do you need two hours for a small one-tray meal service? On this rant…they also insist you power down (yes, no airplane mode allowed) all electronic devices at the TOP of descent…a full 45 minutes before landing. Ugh.

Anyways, I went with the hot breakfast option. The eggs were meh as expected from eggs on a plane, but something about the mushrooms and red sauce were actually delicious.

Plus, given the hour delay, we were treated to a gorgeous sunset over the wing as we were on approach:

So, final thoughts on the trip. I literally decided the day that I left that I was going to do this, so absolutely zero planning went into the trip. That said, it was amazing. Sure, I wish I ‘d gone a day earlier and captured Harare the day Mugabe resigned, but you can’t exactly plan those things. Being there the first day in Zimbabwean history without him as President was equally amazing…especially when you saw how quickly people moved on and were ready to build a new nation.

It was also kinda cool to be so spontaneous and head 9,000 miles away on a whim. Great time, great experiences, and despite the exhausting I’m super glad I went. I’ve been struggling a little with “what next” after going to every country, and maybe I need some more spontaneous trips like this!

That said, no plans yet for New Years or 2018, so stay tuned!




Nov 132017
 

Since this was a work trip, there wasn’t too much time to enjoy Johannesburg, which is actually one of my favourite cities in the world. Fortunately, it had only been eight weeks since the last time I was there on holiday in August. It’s funny how life works some times. Eight weeks prior, when I was there for fun, I had no idea that I would be returning to DC, taking a new job, and immediately being sent right back to Joburg. Guess this is an argument for not overplanning things!

Landed a bit before 9am, immigration was easy, and headed straight to the Gautrain to head into the city. Getting to Rosebank where my hotel was did require one change but I was still there well before 10am. Unfortunately ,they didn’t have any rooms free for check in at this hour, but after a bit of prodding and reminding them I’ve been staying at the Hyatt Rosebank for nearly 25 years I managed to convince them to give me an executive club room which was ready for less than $20 extra per day. Much cheaper than it would have been to book the extra night to guarantee the room was ready upon arrival! I’ve tried a few other hotels in Joburg over the years, but honestly the service at the Hyatt blows them all away – plus, its location right next to a Gautrain station as well as a large shopping mall is hard to beat!



Got to my room around 10am, and after a shower promptly passed out for a four hour nap. Given I woke up around 8am DC time this probably wrecked my sleep for the first two nights I was there, but I was exhausted enough that I didn’t care. After waking up I grabbed a coffee at the brand new Starbucks around the corner before getting back on the Gautrain and heading to Sandton to grab a late lunch.

Wasn’t really sure what I was in the mood for, but it was a sunny day and I decided to sit out on the patio at Wang Thai and enjoy the great weather. I was feeling like green curry, which they had, but then I noticed they also had an ostrich steak which looked great. I asked if instead of chicken or beef they might be able to do the green curry with ostrich, and absolutely – they were happy to try.

Meet the first ever South African Thai fusion ostrich green curry (which was delicious!):

So, from here, it was five days of work. It was a great intro to the new job which I was starting, and each morning before we got going I went around the corner to enjoy some Starbucks. The jacaranda trees were also in bloom, something I’ve never seen in all of my trips to Gauteng. They made for great scenery while I sat outside each morning enjoying my covfefe:

The last day of the conference, we finished a little early, so I headed over to Starbucks to get some coffee before I went out exploring. We’d been doing so well until this point, but….the curse of people not being able to spell Jason came back:

After a long late afternoon walk, I was low on energy so decided I wanted a nice dinner…but also to stay near the hotel. I went with the Grillhouse restaurant in the mall attached to the Hyatt, which I’d never been to before. A nice springbok carpaccio to start:

Main course of boerewors and ostrich medallions, with creamed spinach and mushrooms…and a nice pinotage.

The next day, I had a full day to myself. Due to the way airfares worked out, it was significantly cheaper to go home a day later (even considering hotel/etc) so I agreed to stay for a day and play tourist. Can’t complain about that! Since I’d never been before, I decided to take the Gautrain up to Pretoria for the day and wander around. First stop was the Union Buildings with the large Mandela statue:

Old cannon in front of the Union Buildings:

Pretoria is known for its jacaranda trees, and they definitely didn’t disappoint. The only bad thing about them how badly I’m apparently allergic to them!

The Union Buildings:

Next I grabbed an Uber to Church Square, which unfortunately turned out to be under construction. The statue of Paul Kruger is still in the middle of the square:

After wandering, caught the train back to Joburg and did a bit of wandering and shopping. I kinda felt like I needed to buy this for my next flight:

Ended the trip in the wonderful Hyatt Exec Lounge which does happy hour every evening. Finished up a bit of work while enjoying some wine and appetizers. This is one property where, between the breakfast and the happy hour, it’s definitely worth getting on the executive floor if you can:

Called it an early night on my last night because I wanted to get up early and go for one more long walk before heading to the airport for my flights home…


Nov 102017
 

I wasn’t going to originally put up this post, because I’ve done so many Lufthansa posts that people are probably sick of them. But, I decided things do change from time to time, and an up-to-date impression might be worth while. Given that, I’ll probably be a bit sparse on the commentary, but feel free to comment if you have any questions at all!

Recently started a new job, and first task before even starting was to head to Johannesburg to participate in a conference I would be responsible for organizing going forward. Only problem was, I needed to leave on the same day I was ending my previous job…meaning I couldn’t really sneak out at 2p to catch a transatlantic since I was busy with an all day program going until 6pm.

That left really only two options: United to London or Frankfurt at 10pm or Lufthansa to Munich at 10pm. For some reason, the United options were nearly double the Lufthansa option, so Lufthansa to Munich it was. This would mean I had to connect Munich to Frankfurt the next day, which would eat up a good chunk of the day and allow me to be go go go until the flight to Johannesburg that night. Inshallah.

Last day at the previous job was packed, and I finally managed to sneak out at 530p. I had only gotten about four hours of sleep the night before, so against my better judgement when I got home…I crashed on the couch for a nap. Oops. Woke up with enough time, however, and still caught an cab to Dulles in time for my flight.

Since the recent lost of my Global Entry, I’d also lost TSA PreCheck, but fortunately that was restored by paying $85 which AmEx reimbursed as part of my membership benefits. However, TSA’s PreCheck website is abysmal, and led me to believe I was denied, so I got CLEAR as well. Given the Munich flight leaves so late, it wasn’t really needed, but it still allowed me to skip ahead of 10 people in the PreCheck line, which was cool until a lady at the front of the line SHOVED ME and said “I pay a lot of money for this! You can’t just butt in line!”

The CLEAR rep was great, however, and clearly had seen similar things before. He politely said to her “CLEAR membership gives you extra priority over the regular line, if you’d like more information on joining, please let me know.” Points to him!

Got there early enough I finally had a chance to check out the Turkish Airlines lounge which everyone seems to rave about. I’m not a huge fan of the lounge in Istanbul, which I know others love. For me, it’s always super crowded, and I can never find a power outlet when I want one. Plus, I feel like it’s always a furnace.

Took over 15 minutes to get into the lounge, because there was an elderly couple in front of me in line trying to argue with the agent if they got guests on their Priority Pass membership or not. The agent was great, however, and patient with them and apologized to me when it was my turn.

Bartender was great, and a glass of wine quickly materialized to go with my mezze:

How could I resist some sweets…especially when there was baklava:

Overall impression: it beats the United Club any day, and was even less crowded than the Lufthansa lounge at this time of day – so definitely wins. I don’t know why Turkish keeps their lounges warmer than a Turkish sauna, but this one was also extremely warm. That said, I think it’s probably the best lounge option by far at Dulles, and a very solid option.

Headed to the Lufthansa lounge an hour before the flight, just in time for one more glass of wine and boarding from the lounge. I’ve never seen this lounge so packed at this hour, but given our flight tonight was overbooked it wasn’t too surprising.

Lufthansa flight 415
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 22:30, Arrive 12:45, Flight Time: 8:15
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKF, Manufactured 2004, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 107,851
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,484,828

Settled in, and our crew tonight was quick to provide a glass of bubbly:

Soon after takeoff, the warm nuts arrived, which tonight were oddly all pecans:

Given the late hour of the flight, dinner was served all at once, and I went with the “seared baby filet, chili pepper and ham gabure, roasted Marble Baby Yukon Potatoes.” No mention of the ubiquitous Lufthansa asparagus, but there it was in all its glory. As expected, the filet was rather overcooked, but the pretzel roll and amazing salad made up for it. This might have been the best business class salad I’ve ever received: radish, basil mozzarella, red and yellow peppers…yum!

Opted for the cheese AND dessert tonight. The cheese was rather sad…and featured the completely unnecessary mini shrubbery, and as silly as I think pre-packaged ice cream is….chocolate hit the spot with red wine.

Managed about four solid hours of sleep, and woke up just 30 minutes from landing. Plenty of time to brush my teeth, have a Diet Coke, and get presentable to leave the plane. Fortunately, when we left the plane, right across from our gate was the Lufthansa First Class Lounge.

With about 10 hours between arrival and my departure from Frankfurt, and the flight from Munich to Frankfurt only taking an hour, I decided to split my stay six hours in Munich and three in Frankfurt. Why? Because I had seen online that the Satellite Terminal in Munich was now allowing access to the First Class Lounge for AmEx Centurion Card holders. Seemed too good to be true, but I had to try it.

As the picture below shows, it was indeed a perk, and I enjoyed an espresso before grabbing a shower:

Post-shower, since it was already after 1pm. I decided to settle into the dining area for lunch. Wiener Schnitzel mit Kartoffel Salat und Champagne! YUM! The cranberry relish was an especially delicious touch.

…also, I admit, I couldn’t resist some black forest cake and creme brulé from the buffet…

After I finished eating, I received a message from a friend who coincidentally was transiting Munich as well! I asked the lounge attendants if I could bring a guest in, but unfortunately it would only be allowed if they were traveling on the same itinerary. So, off to the Senator Lounge we went for an hour to catch up. I’m still not sure if I was even allowed to bring him in there, but I think I puzzled (or maybe amused) the lounge attendant enough with my poor German that she let us in and we had a nice time catching up.

After he had to run to catch his connection, it was around 3:30 and I was back to the First Class Lounge for a bit more merriment. This time, some gummi bears and a FCL duck to keep watch over my champagne.

I had gotten a bit sweaty running through the terminal a bit, so I decided on one more quick shower before leaving the terminal. So, here’s where it gets a bit funny. Entering the lounge from the non-Schengen side, there was a passport agent at the entrance who checked my passport and approved my entrance to the Schengen area. He then gave me my passport back. However, upon leaving, I realized he hadn’t given me a stamp (which I need for tax reasons) so I had to go back and ask for a stamp. No problem! I was then able to walk out the other side of the lounge into the Schengen part of the terminal with no problems. One of the best features of this lounge: priority immigration clearance!

Once on the other side, my flight to Frankfurt was delayed 30 minutes, so I ducked into the Schengen Area Senator lounge for a quick snack: #sterotypes

Soon it was boarding time, and when I boarded, I got the dreaded “beep beep beep” when my boarding pass was scanned. Unfortunately, they had moved the business class divider forward, and my 9D seat was now in economy class…so I’d been reseated in 8F in business….which was now completely full. Odd.

Lufthansa flight 117
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 18:00, Arrive 19:00, Flight Time: 1:00
Airbus A321, Registration D-AISJ, Manufactured 2008, Seat 8F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 108,037
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,485,014

Very uneventful 41 minutes in the air, but they were still able to serve a full snack, which was actually delicious!

Fortunately, the Johannesburg flight now leaves from the Z gates in Frankfurt (instead of the C gates where it used to depart from) so it was a quick exit of the Schengen Area through immigration, and into a rather empty Senator Lounge. I hadn’t had my fill of being a stereotype yet, so more pretzels, potato salat, and sausages…und of course a Bier!

Of course, the flight was boarding from Z69, the furthest gate from the lounge and practically halfway to Austria. Oh well. At the gate, the were offering 400 euro compensation to downgrade from business class to premium economy due to an oversell situation. Uh, no thanks.

Lufthansa flight 572
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 22:05, Arrive 8:30 next day, Flight Time: 10:25
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYP, Manufactured 2014, Seat 6D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 113,417
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,490,394

Decided I was going to practice my German (which I’ve been working on the last year) on this flight, and see how long I could keep it up with the crew. Well, I got wine, and even managed to indicate my choice of wines, so that’s a start!

For a starter, I want with the “Brotzeit Specialties: Veal Meatball, hearty Cheese, Chicken Liver Terrine, Obazda a Cream Cheese Bavarian Style” – mainly because it intrigued me. I actually found it really tasty…and a nice change from the same old airline dishes. I generally really like when an airline is able to integrate regional cuisine into business class.

The salad this flight was…less impressive…but decent.

“Braised Beef Roulade” which was better than I expected…and I admit I ordered it for the bread dumplings and stewed leeks, which were super tasty with a little gravy.

Mildly better cheese plate…because it featured honey chutney. Everyone who reads this blog by now knows I love my cheese plates, and honey/fig spreads take them to the next level for me!

Managed to pass out for about six hours after dinner, and woke up about 90 minutes out of Joburg. Fantastic crew hadn’t turned on lights or opened shades yet, but within five minutes she appeared and offered me breakfast. I must have been in a daze, because I managed to not only order breakfast, but tell her that I would like it in ten minutes after I go to brush my teeth. I never thought that lesson about brushing teeth in German would come in handy, but there you have it!

I never do eggs on a plane, but the scrambled egg with cheddar cheese was pretty good. I really liked the yogurt with chia seeds as well!

With that it was time to land! Next post will be about my week in Johannesburg and then I’ll do one more post detailing the flights home.


Oct 172017
 

So, figured I’d do something different since I’m all caught up on my last trip and have…oh, 48 hours until my next trip. I haven’t decided if y’all need to see yet another Lufthansa and South Africa report, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it (and run short of material).

For now, I figured I’d do a throwback to a trip that I did before this blog started – maybe give me a few ideas for future trips. This was a January, 2009 to Gibraltar, Morocco, and Ceuta. I’m not going to go too into detail lest I get something wrong eight years later, but happy to answer questions best I remember.

I was splitting time between DC and London back then, usually two weekends a month in each minimum, and decided this would be a great one to head down to Gibraltar and environs, since I had a four or five day weekend. (See, don’t remember everything.) It was my first, and so far last, experience with EasyJet and honestly…for a 2.5 hour flight…it wasn’t awful. I think I paid extra for the first/bulkhead row and early boarding, and despite Gatwick being a nightmare, it really could have been worse…they could have strapped me to the wing.

Oh yeah…I forgot…back in 2009 I was already logging flights, so have at it:

EasyJet flight 8905 
London, Gatwick (LGW) to Gibraltar (GIB)
Depart 14:55, Arrive 18:45, Flight Time: 2:50
Airbus A320, Registration G-TTOI, Manufactured 2003, Seat 1C

Oh…and according to my spreadsheet looks like it was a four night trip. Right, on to what I remember without help.

I remember Gibraltar feeling old. Lots of blue hair retiree mainland tourists from England off to see the sights.

Sights? Yeah, like that big rock Gibraltar is famous for:

There were monkeys everywhere:

Trying to decide who’s funnier looking:

One of the coolest parts of Gibraltar, for me, was the airport. You can walk right across the runway. Note, walk quickly, or else…

Nope, no planes coming…as opposed to Tuvalu which only has two flights a week, Gibraltar is a bit more active, so definitely more scope for accidents.

Walked across the border (a novelty for anyone into country counting) into Spain and took the ferry to Tangiers, Morocco. Passport control (at least then) was done on the boat. You had to stop by a desk staffed with Moroccan immigration officers, and get your passport stamped. Then, when getting off the boat, you had to show the stamp to another officer to prove you were legal.

Stayed at a riad in Tangier, and I have to say my memories include a few amazing meals, more touts than I’ve ever encountered anywhere in the world, and a relatively cool old town. At least this cool cat thought it was cool:

In the old town…vegetable shopping….

After a night in Tangier, the owner of the riad had a brother who was happy to drive us to Ceuta for a reasonable price since he had a visa for Spain. Right up to the border, and we walked into Spain. Fourth border crossing of the trip so far, if you count Gibraltar separate from England:

Cueta! Bienvenidos!

After a great lunch in Cueta, caught the ferry back to Spain…and then walked back into Gibraltar. First, however, an amazing sunset approaching the mainland Spanish coast:

One more shot of the rock, with the airport below:

Time to go home…but there was a problem. After waiting at the airport for nearly two hours, they announced our flight had been diverted…to Malaga, Spain. No worry, they would take us on a two hour bus ride there.

But first…everyone had to leave the airport…and walk to Spanish immigration and get the bus on the other side of the border! That’s how close the airport is to the Spanish border. Couple hours later, we were at the Malaga Airport, and finally ready to fly home. Kudos to EasyJet, they really handled this well. Apparently this isn’t an uncommon issue for Gibraltar, as crosswinds cause relatively frequent diversions. Years later, with the St. Helena experience, you’d think the Brits would figure out how to deal with crosswinds…anyways.

Hope this was still interesting. If you’d like to see some more throwbacks, be sure to leave a comment.


Oct 122017
 

Alarm went off around 7am, and as usual the first thing I did was turn off Airplane Mode. The flood of notifications started: email, facebook, instagram, twitter…and United. Hmmm, that’s unusual. Must be that it was time to check in for my flight tonight from Washington Dulles to Detroit for my NEXUS renewal interview.

Nope. Almost 22 hours before the flight was scheduled to depart, United canceled it for “weather.” Um, there’s no weather in or predicted for either Washington DC or Detroit – what gives? I can only guess that the hurricane was stranding planes all over the place, and of course because it was weather…tough luck.

Called and got an agent who told me she could get me out the next morning…at 6am…via Chicago…with a 40 minute connection. Um, that’s not going to work, and I have to get to the airport here in Helsinki. I’ll touch base when I have more time – but please protect me on that 6am and note that I still have the right to cancel. Great agent, and she was happy to do that.

Quick breakfast at the Radisson Blu as it was included with my rate, and I was super impressed. Huge buffet spread with lots of tasty options, and the only downside is that the breakfast room was absolutely packed. The checkin agent the day before did say they were booked to capacity, and it was a Monday, so that probably explains a lot of it. That said, I’m definitely staying here again my next stop in Helsinki.



It had been about a year since I was last in Helsinki, and since then trains from the main station had started running to the airport. Quick walk across the square, easy to buy a ticket from a vending machine, and only had to wait about five minutes for the train to depart. This makes this hotel combo absolutely priceless going forward. Plus…a great beer restaurant right around the corner!

Arrived at the airport in plenty of time, and the station was quite a hike from the terminal. Given I’d be spending the whole day on planes that was just fine with me, and quickly found the SAS check-in area and got my boarding pass. Of course, the most important place in the terminal was in the other terminal: Starbucks. Got my venti americano, and all was right in the world. Now, off to the gate.

Back to the other terminal (about a five minute walk) up the escalator, and surprised to find absolutely no security queue at all. I was through in 2-3 minutes, and even had 15 minutes for the lounge. The SAS Lounge was right by the security area, and since I had just had breakfast and coffee, I just wanted somewhere to charge my devices for a short bit and sit down. Headed to the gate about 40 minutes before boarding – which was a waste – because the plane only arrived about 30 minutes before departure, and we started boarding maybe 15 minutes before departure.

SAS flight 707
Helsinki, Finland (HEL) to Stockholm, Sweden (ARN)
Depart 11:15, Arrive 11:15, Flight Time: 1:00
Boeing 737-600, Registration LN-RCW, Manufactured 1999, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 98,640
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,475,617

Does that mean we’ll depart late? No. Despite an absolutely packed flight, departure was still right on time. No matter how much you like airlines in the United States, one thing that is horrible is the refugee exodus that happens during boarding. People bringing on everything they own. Maybe I’m being a snob because I get to board first and bring slightly more than I “should” but if you’re in group 8 or 9….be realistic! You know you’re going to have to check that giant Sampsonite!

Rant over, time to fly. Only 45 minutes in the air, but they still served a small snack…which was much tastier than expected! I never figured out if Seat 2A was technically “business class” or “economy plus” but didn’t matter to me in the end. I got a drink, the middle seat was empty, and I was happy.

Off the plane right on time, and first job was to try and find a transfer desk and get my Icelandair boarding passes since it was a separate ticket. I had considered a flight in Finnair which would have left me 1:45 to connect (aka more sleep) but decided not to risk it. Looks like I could have, but end of the day, risks like that aren’t usually worth it. Finally found an SAS transfer counter, where the sole agent was busy dealing with a very unhappy passenger who had missed the only flight of the day to her destination for some reason.

Eventually, she got around to helping me, and apparently Icelandair is a bit of a pain because she looked like I was seriously annoying her. I probably shouldn’t have asked her (after getting boarding passes) if there was still a Starbucks in the terminal, because I got an annoyed “no, it closed. The only one is outside.” Ok fine…could you maybe point me to the lounge? “Well i *guess* you can use that one” – pointing to the elevators right across from the desk.



Up to the SAS lounge which had cool barcode scanners for admission. Also, where my Icelandair boarding pass didn’t seem to work. The agent in charge seemed puzzled if I should get in or not, and asked for a frequent flier card. I gave her my United Star Gold card (despite them having nothing to do with Icelandair), and she scanned that and it didn’t work either. She was sure I should be let in, but couldn’t figure out how to do it, so eventually decided research was more work than it was worth and just manually let me in.

Not much to say about the lounge…good spread of food and drink, huge and plenty of seating, and ample places to plug in and charge the laptop. Other than that, it was a pretty average lounge, although it did have pretty good tarmac views.

Headed to the gate about 40 minutes before departure, and it was a relatively short five minute walk from the lounge. I knew the flight was very full, but the gate area was packed, and there were at least 20 wheelchairs waiting to board. Lots of American passports showing, and this was clearly the Sweden to America geriatric express.

Icelandair flight 307
Stockholm, Sweden (ARN) to Reykjavik, Iceland (KEF)
Depart 14:20, Arrive 15:30, Flight Time: 3:10
Boeing 767-300, Registration TF-ISP, Manufactured 1997, Seat 4A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 99,977
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,476,594

Fortunately, business “Saga” class was only about half full today, which let me move to a window seat and keep the seat next to me empty in the 2-1-2 config. I’ve posted quite a lot how I hate climbing over people or having them climb over me, so it’s always nice when I can get a window seat and still avoid this. Of course, the internet wasn’t working on this plane, so that was a big negative to the flight.

Menus were passed out as we waited for everyone to board:

Wine list was included:

Service on this relatively short flight started out with a beverage and nut service. The nuts came in a chinese takeout container, and were sugar coated almonds. Strange, but points for originality.

I had preordered my meal online, but it wasn’t catered. In addition to the internet not working, my already low impression of Icelandair was even going lower. First the internet wasn’t working, and now my meal wasn’t loaded. Two strikes. That said, the fishy entree was pretty tasty.

Short connection of about 50 minutes in Reykjavik, and when I tried to stop in the lounge (which is on the Schengen side before immigration) I was told there was no time, I had to go straight through immigration to the gate…so I did.



You can guess what this meant. 30 minutes of waiting in the gate area to board my connecting flight. My memory of this wait is of an extremely obnoxious guy and his mother waiting to board. He was bitching up a storm that nobody in Iceland could manage to charter him a plane to fly him home, and they had to pay $2,500 for one first class ticket and the other person had to sit in coach. Making him even more of a jerk in my mind, was that he made his mother sit in coach while he sat in business class. After three weeks away, ugh, welcome back to the ugly side of America.

Icelandair flight 645
Reykjavik, Iceland (KEF) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 16:50, Arrive 19:10, Flight Time: 6:20
Boeing 767-300, Registration TF-ISW, Manufactured 1997, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 102,776
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,479,753

This flight was already looking up…and like a flight to the US…with plastic glasses of sparkling wine offered pre-departure…different aircraft, but this one also didn’t have working internet. I was beginning to wonder if Icelandair was paying their bills:

Once again, they hadn’t loaded my pre-ordered meal, but the menu looked relatively tasty:

No almonds in a takeout container this time, but the “famous” Icelandair carmelcorn:

I went with the veal main, which was very United-esque in taste and poor plating. The herring starter with deviled egg was tasty….but stay tuned…

Landed on time, exhausted, and since my United flight to Detroit was canceled I figured I might as well spend the night at home and save money. My hotel in Detroit was kind enough to waive the late cancelation fee, so it was off to Uber and a fantastic night in my own bed. Since my NEXUS interview wasn’t until 12:30 the next day, that still left me plenty of time in the morning to make my way to Detroit.

When I got home, I had a look at Delta, and noticed the morning flight to Detroit had a bunch of empty seats, so opted to ask United for a refund and decided to risk going to Detroit standby. Fortunately, when I woke up, the flight was still very open and I had no trouble at all getting on it.



Unfortunately, the minute I stepped into the Delta Skyclub, I knew I’d made a very, very poor decision eating fish and deviled eggs on a plane the previous day. Nausea and all the other food-borne illness side effects rapidly just set in, and I just prayed I would make it through the flight…

Delta flight 2359
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Detroit, Michigan (DTW)
Depart 7:30, Arrive 9:03, Flight Time: 1:33
Airbus A319, Registration N316NB, Manufactured 2000, Seat 24C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 103,182
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,480,159

Hey, at least I got an aisle seat so that’s a positive! I can’t say no to a Diet Coke and Biscoff, even if I was seriously nauseous.

By the time we landed I was full on majorly nauseous. Head was spinning when walking, and overall just felt sick. If it wasn’t for the fact my NEXUS (and thus Global Entry and PreCheck) was expiring in three days, I would have turned around and gone home and tried to reschedule. Lesson learned: don’t leave things to the last minute.

Was originally planning to Uber to my appointment and ask the Uber to wait, but for some reason that felt logistically difficult so I decided to see if I could get a rental from Hertz. No problem, great rate, much cheaper than a roundtrip Uber, and I was set. Off to the shuttle to the Hertz lot, fantastic agent brought me into her office as a Platinum member, and asked if a Volvo would be ok today. Sweet upgrade, although I was feeling too nauseous to even care.

By this point, I should have heeded all the warning signs from the universe: canceled United flight, food-borne illness, but no, I didn’t and proceeded with the interview, which started off perfectly fine. The Canadian agents processed me in under a minute, then it was on to the American agent, who seemed not in the best of moods. First comment to his colleague: “hey…Martha…look at this! You ever seen someone who’s been to so many countries…ut oh, Cuba? We have a problem”

Without going into details, the agent seemed completely unaware of the changes a couple years prior towards US policy to Cuba and refused to approve my renewal. I was told “if you find any documents that support your case, please fax them.” Ugh. Yet, he still took my fingerprints and biometrics. Odd.

Back to the airport, drop off the car, and off to the Delta Skyclub where I sat as a nauseous mess for a couple hours until it was time to board my flight.

Delta flight 1144
Detroit, Michigan (DTW) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 15:35, Arrive 17:10, Flight Time: 1:35
Airbus A319, Registration N316NB, Manufactured 2000, Seat 15D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 103,588
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,480,565

Fortunately, I got an aisle seat again, and the flight passed without any major excitement. Quite an overly-eventful end to what had been a fantastic 3+ week trip.

Just to finish the story, about two weeks later, after faxing my explanation of how my Cuba trip was “legal” under the new US policy, along with a citation of the policy….someone approved my NEXUS renewal in the system and two minutes later…revoked my status. I read this as “I didn’t have grounds to deny the renewal, but in my authority as a border agent I revoked it later.”

The case is currently with my US Senator who is following up, along with the CBP Trusted Traveler Ombudsman. Per the letter of the regulations I followed them exactly, and backed that up in writing when requested. We’ll see where this goes, but in the meantime (and $85 later) at least I have TSA PreCheck for the time being….

We’ll see how my first non-Global Entry immigration experience goes in two weeks on my next work trip…


Oct 092017
 

Since I would be sitting on the train for a good part of the day, and my train wasn’t scheduled to leave until nearly 4pm, I decided to go for another walk around St. Petersburg in the morning. It was also an excuse to stop by Starbucks and get some decent coffee to wake up. Ended up walking nearly 3 miles down Nevsky Prospekt before heading back to the W to pack up and head to the train station.

I think the thing that surprised me the most was just how small the international departures area of Finlandsky Station was. It was basically one large medium sized room with a couple small kiosks. Compared to the station in Moscow which I had departed from it felt positively tiny. When it was time to board, both Finnish and Russian train personnel were on hand to check IDs and tickets.



If there was any question I’d already done enough walking, the business class car was located at the very far end of the platform. The nice thing was, this allowed time to get a great picture of the Allegro train:

Inside seating was in a comfortable 2-1 configuration, but compared to the SAPSAN trains between Moscow and St. Petersburg it felt quite cramped. Granted, this is business class instead of first class, but still…

2-1 seating was nice, as it meant nobody to climb over or have climb over you.

Well, that would be the case if anyone was actually on the train. There were a grand total of three people in business class today!

Almost as soon as we left the station, the “menu tray” came out.

Despite the menu tray promising five options, today there would be onto two choices…both sandwiches. To drink? Two little cups of water. Very strange “meal” for a “business class.”

Oh wait…the cabin attendant came back a few minutes later. Apparently, he’d forgotten to give us the cheese course as well…

Perhaps the “coolest” part of the journey was crossing the Schengen border by train – something quite difficult to do these days. First the Russians stamped you out of the country, and then the Finns came by and stamped you into Finland and the Schengen. Many fewer points these days where you can get Schengen train stamps, but I remember the days when you would get them on the train even going between Germany and France.

Near the end of the ride, I was getting a little hungry, so headed to the dining car to see about a snack. Gotta love that the beer comes with a custom glass…

Welcome to Helsinki station!

I had booked the Radisson Blu Plaza right across the plaza from the train station which was a quick five minute walk from the train at most. The corridors certainly had some very funky lighting, and the room numbers were projected on the floor:

My train had arrived over an hour late, meaning it was already late when I got in so I went straight to grab a bite to eat. Sori Brewing right around the corner from the hotel was recommended to me, so I started out with their five beer taster. Sori is actually brewed in Estonia, and from what I understand it’s still cheaper to import than it is to get the licensing to brew craft beers in Finland. I know this is changing, but…

They also had a fantastic burger, and it hit the spot. Tomorrow would be a very long travel day, and I wanted to make sure to get lots of rest with four flight segments coming up! I really need to make time to get back to Helsinki and Finland in general soon for a proper visit – perhaps in the summer for the white nights.


Oct 072017
 

Another great night of sleep, and despite being go go go on this vacation, one thing I was managing to do pretty well was catch up on sleep. Now, that might be due to the tremendous amount of walking I was doing in general, but either way, it was actually feeling like a vacation!

My rate at the W included breakfast, so made a point to partake in that before heading out. I would rate it pretty middle of the road as far as hotel breakfast go, but there were plenty of choices including eggs and porridge cooked to order, so it was more than enough to get a start on the day.



After fueling up, it was time for a walk! I had highlighted some of the sights I wanted to try and see, so the plan was to head out and see how much I could do before I got absolutely exhausted from walking. First stop near the hotel was the Fountain of the Admiralty:

Plan was to head over to Nevsky Prospekt and head east-southeast before heading back north and eventually crossing the Neva River. First major site was the Stroganov Palace, and yes, that’s the family that beef stroganoff was named for. Since I only had one full day I opted to walk around and see as many sites as I could from the outside, without spending the time in line for tickets and exploring the inside. Stroganov Palace:

a little further down Nevsky Prospekt was the Kazan Cathedral:

Statue of Field Marshall Prince Kutuzov of Smolensk:

At this point, the grey weather and walking was catching up with me, so I stopped at Starbucks for a large iced coffee and a sandwich. After resting up a bit, I continued the walk. Crossed Nevsky Prospekt, and passed the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood:

Very impressive up close, and swarming with tourists:

Best part about tourists? All sorts of souvenir stands. I was pretty disappointed they only had this shirt left in a small size, because I totally wanted to buy it:

I did, however, managed to find a whole bunch of awesome magnets:

From this point, back to Nevsky Prospekt to catch the metro up to Finlandsky Station and continue my walk on the north side of the Neva River.

Finlandsky Vokzal, you can see how dark and heavy the clouds got, but it never did rain.

Two reasons for coming to Finlandsky Vokzal. First was to see where it was so I knew where to go for my train the next day, and second reason was the giant statue of Lenin. Looks especially ominous against the clouds:

The fountains in front of the train station made a nice contrast. I love this shot with the bright reddish-orange brick, the dark greyish-blue sky, and the contrast of the bright coats the pedestrians are wearing.

Finally figured out where/how to cross the tributary of the river, and a great view of the Nakhimov Naval Academy with the cruiser Aurora docked in front:

Another shot downriver with the Aurora:

The Aurora was closed to tours today, but that didn’t stop the large groups of Asian tourists from milling about and taking pictures:

Close-up of the Aurora:

Bit more of a walk, and the Peter and Paul Fortress:

Kept walking…and walking…and eventually passed the Yubilyeni Sports Palace. Wait, is that an ad for a pre-season hockey game…tonight? Even better, a bit of googling, and it appeared absolutely free. Registeted on the website, and very quickly my free tickets were e-mailed to me! Score. I had planned on a relaxing evening after over 10 miles of walking during the day, but how could I pass that up!

Given the game was less than two hours away, I cut my walk a little short and took the metro back to the hotel to change clothes and rest up a little bit. Only had about 30 minutes to rest before I had to catch the metro right back to the arena for the game. It was open seating, and appeared 25% full at most:

Let’s get a little closer to the ice…now these are great seats!

Cheerleaders and dragon mascots:

Old Soviet National team memorabilia on display:

It was nearly 9pm at this point, so I opted to skip the third period and head out to get some food and drink before it got too late. On a recommendation from a friend, I headed to Craft Pub to have a bite. Keeping in the theme of the day, a delicious beef stroganoff and a few great beers to wash it down:

Unusual decor in the restaurant…what would the Singapore First Class lounge think of this?!

One final local imperial stout to close out the evening:

With that, more than 10 miles walked and a hockey game, I think I made a pretty amazing dent in seeing St. Petersburg given the extremely limited time I had there. Now, it was time to get to bed so I could enjoy my train ride the next day…and my final stop: Helsinki.


Oct 052017
 

Nice relaxing morning before I had to head to the train station to catch the train. I had left myself plenty of time, so was able to have some breakfast, grab some coffee, and go for a bit of a walk before heading to the train station.

It was a gorgeous sunny morning, so decided to walk the 10 minutes or so to Byelorusskaya Station to catch the metro to the train station where the trains to St. Petersburg leave from. Caught the metro to Komsomolskaya and when I came out of the station I was on what is known in Moscow as “three stations square” because there are three long-distance train stations here: Leningradsky, Kazansky, and Yaroslavsky. Not surprisingly, the train to St. Petersburg goes from Leningradsky Vokzal, and I had no trouble locating it.



I had more trouble resisting shopping at the Red Army Hockey store in the station, but somehow managed…

I had read there was a lounge in the train station, but had a bit of trouble locating it. When I did, it was confusing because it looked like it was also a coffeeshop. I asked the agent sitting in the front and she confirmed yes, half is a coffeeshop and the other half is the lounge….and can I bring you some coffee or tea?

Right on time, my train was ready to board. It was one of THREE trains to St. Petersburg in an hour, and they were all the SAPSAN high speed train. Forget priority boarding here, though, after getting your bags scanned by security it was a mad dash to the train:

First class was all the way in the front, which gave me a great excuse to grab a picture of the front of the train:

Extremely spacious seating in a 1-2 configuration:

The pair of seats on the other side would be great for people traveling together – and the RZD Russian Railways website is great about letting you pick your seats in advance, and the diagrams are completely accurate.

There were also a couple of sets of four seats facing each other:

Pre-departure champagne was offered, and I didn’t have to be asked twice!

Wow, not only was there a choice of meals, but a printed menu! Sorry for the slightly blurry pics.

I went with option two, and got the “roastbeef rolls” to start followed by the rolled porn with bacon and potato croquettes. Overall, it was reasonably tasty, and much better than I would have expected on a train! Only wanted one glass of wine, so unfortunately can’t report back if it was all you can drink or not.

First stop for the train was in Tver, where we were treated to the golden domes of an Orthodox Church while we waited less than 10 minutes for joining passengers.

Double cappuccino cake and black tea for dessert. The crew spoke extremely basic english, which was barely enough to keep the several Chinese tourists in first class happy. Unfortunately, the tourists spoke even less English so it was a bit of a struggle for them the whole trip.

Overall, the trip was super comfortable and I would definitely book the SAPSAN again versus flying between the cities. Internet access the entire time, power outlets, a ton of space, and maybe (at most) an hour longer once you take into account the need to arrive to the airport early for security, etc. Definitely a very positive experience!

Upon leaving the station I decided to see if my good luck with Uber would continue, and yup, absolutely no problems whatsoever. Soon, I was checking into my hotel – the W St. Petersburg. Not too much to say about the hotel. The staff all spoke excellent English and were warm and friendly, although the hotel was not able to offer any room upgrade at all despite status. When I arrived my room was initially a bit warm, but it cooled down pretty quickly after the sun set.

Quick shower, and out to enjoy the last 90 minutes or so of daylight. Statue of Peter the Great along the Neva River:

St. Isaac’s Cathedral, as seen through Alexandrovsky Park:

The Hermitage Museum and the Alexander Column…looks a little different than when I saw it in 1988 in the dead of winter during the Soviet days. The first time I left North America really was in 1988, and after a few days in London it was straight on to Leningrad. I guess my love for traveling to out of the way/unusual (at the time) places was born way back then. Returning felt like coming full circle a bit.

The Arkha Glavnova Gate:

Panoramic of the square, with the Winter Palace on the left:

The Winter Palace was gorgeous in its shades of blueish green and gold. I’ll have to see if I can find my old hard copy photos to compare it to – I can’t imagine it was always this majestic.

By this point, the sun was setting, so I headed to the W’s rooftop bar to watch the sunset…and freeze. It was only 8 degrees at this point (yes, in August)_ but the view was worth it:

St. Isaac’s Cathedral again. Did I mention the W is in an absolutely fantastic location?

After the sunset, I googled some ideas for dinner, and ended up finding a great brewpub just down the street. The Craft Brew Cafe was certainly nothing fancy, but it had a great selection of local craft beers on tap, and actually made a reasonably good burger for dinner as well.

Short walk back, something about the streetlights in Russia feels distinct to me….so a selfie was warranted.

Early to bed, because I had planned a very, very long day of walking for the next day!


Oct 032017
 

Landed at Domodedovo, immigration was a snap: “you are visiting a lot this year, what is the reason?” me: “our countries are great friends now.” him: “why do you speak such good russian” me: “I”m sure you speak even better english my friend.” …and that was that. Foreshadowing, but amusing…..

Was originally going to grab an Uber into the city given it was already late, but just in case there was traffic, and because I think the Moscow Metro is one of the best tourist sites in the world, I decided to hop the AeroExpress train. Arrived in the station with two minutes until the next train, quickly got my ticket, and settled into a completely empty business class car. Put in the earbuds, and hit shuffle, and my iPhone spits out “Back in the U.S.S.R.” The irony was absolutely delicious. I had the feeling this was going to be a great end to the trip.



Train, metro, and a 10 minute walk, and soon I was at my hotel. About five years ago, I stayed at the Sheraton on my first visit back to Moscow since the late 1980s, and had a fantastic experience. Since then, I’ve been staying at the St. Regis which is much better located, has an amazing breakfast, but is a but stuffy for my taste overall. This time, the Sheraton was an absolute bargain at barely 7,000 rubles, so I couldn’t say no.

Upgraded to a very nice one bedroom suite with way more room than I needed, and promptly proceeded to pass out given it was like 4am in Australia, where my body clock was still set to. Woke up in the morning, grabbed a quick bite in the executive lounge (where I was the only person there – guess there’s not much business travel in August) and headed out for a walk. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but decided to just head out and wander. Rain was in the forecast, so we’ll see how far I get.

Down Tverskaya Ul. towards Red Square, statue of Mayakovsky in front of the Tchakovsky Concert Hall:

It was cool out for mid-August (barely 10 degrees) but still lots of people out enjoying the swings in front of the concert hall:

Kept walking and walking, and soon I was at Red Square. I think. I’ve never seen Red Square like this before. Set up for a giant military tattoo, the whole square was full of booths selling things, and parade stands for the night’s show. I debated getting tickets, and it would have probably been a fascinating show, but I just wasn’t in the mood for what was being billed as a four hour extravaganza.

So, amid the thousands of tourists (mainly Chinese) I went into GUM. I’ve seriously never seen so many tourists in Moscow before. Is this an August thing, or a 2017 thing?

Clearly, someone in GUM was smoking some good stuff, because they had filled one of the fountains with melons as an art display. Uhhhh….sure? I like to think I have a pretty good window into the Russian national psyche, but this was beyond even my understanding…as is most modern art, to be fair.

Best part of GUM: the obligatory 50 ruble pistachio ice cream cone! Enjoyed outside, where it had gotten quite a bit warmer, in front of the Kazan Cathedral.

Walking off the jetlag was feeling great, so I kept going, until I got to Lubyanka. Lots of people were taking pics of this car, so I had to too. Felix would be rolling over in his grave at this ostentatious display of capitalism.

Felix is watching…

Meanwhile, the local Mexican restaurant across the street was trying to win over customers…this isn’t your grandfather’s Lubyanka anymore!

Right about this point I was tired…so I grabbed a Starbucks. As I exited, the skies began to get super dark and it was only about 2:30, so I decided to google “what to do in Moscow on a rainy day.” Remember how I mentioned above that I love the metro? Well, one of the first things that came up was a self-guided walking tour of the metro. Sold!



I’m going to do this up front and plug Moscow360’s self-guided metro tour. Go to their site. Click on the ads. I’ve been to Moscow dozens of times now, and this is seriously some of the best tourist advice I’ve gotten. Lots of history about the stations and the country, and a great introduction to the city. You must see it! No, I’m not affiliated with them at all, but they put out a damn fine tour!

So, since you can read all about it on their site, just the highlights.

Ploschad Revolutsii Station. Note the hammer and sickle, the years 1917 and 1947. This was the starting station of the tour…yes, this is the ticket hall. Imagine that in DC or New York!

What makes this station notable is the 76 bronze statues, in four sets of 19, of various professions of the “new Soviet Man.” If you know anything about Russians, they are super superstitious. All sorts of things, like having to touch certain objects they pass every day for good luck. We’ll come back to that in a second.

An athlete:

A student of some sort:

This guy? Well you might notice the bronze on his leg is a big rubbed off. It’s obviously been polished more evenly lately, but in the past supposedly his…well-endowed statue used to be noticeably touched over and over in the same place. I’ll let you guys why people were touching him, but given superstition, chances are it had something to do with either fertility or….bringing the magic back.

Moving onto Kurskaya Station, which was one of the first place there were designated capitalist busking stations set up. This band “C-Jam” was’s pretty unusual, but not bad!

Leaving Kurskaya station, the words to the Soviet National Anthem were inscribed in the rotunda. However, a while back under Comrade Kruschev, there was a verse erased from the anthem because…it mentioned Stalin. That meant it got erased from this rotunda as well…until Mr. Putin put it back a couple years ago. Basically translates to Stalin raising up the great deeds of the motherland.

Large sword on the wall of Kurskaya Station:

Wow, this hall in Kurskaya Station looks like it needs a statue…

Oh, look what used to be there. Another example of de-Stalinization.

Next up: Komsomolskaya Station. Look at the ornate ceilings – this could be a museum!

Comrade Lenin and the Hammer and Sickle and the end of the station:

Lenin mosaic on the ceiling….however, this didn’t used to be Lenin…it featured Stalin 50 years ago as well.

Super Soviet athletic…”woman.” Look at those biceps! Notice anyone missing from the reviewing stands of the Kremlin? Yup, Stalin used to be looking down on her…

Trampling out Nazis…

One more shot of Komsomolskaya, seriously, it felt more like a museum than a metro station.

Next station: Novoslobodskaya. I remember back on my first visit to Moscow in high school in the late 1980s, my classmates and I used to love riding the metro and imitating the announcer’s voice. “Be careful! Doors closing! Next station….” it used to always draw grins from Muscovites, one of those rare moments of sunshine in Soviet times.

Novoslobodskaya was one of the last stations finished under Stalin, and oddly enough, looks the most like a church with all the stained glass. Ironic as Stalin destroyed 2/3 of the churches in Russia at the time….

Mother, son, and the…..holy doves?

…oh, wait, this was the original stained glass. Stalin-approved. Supposedly, the lady was supposed to originally have three kids as well, but they were running behind schedule. Fearing Stalin would show up any minute and it would be unfinished, they rushed it to completion with one kid. Plus, what ideal hard-working Soviet woman would have all that time to be making three babies?

Next up is Byelorusskaya Station (Belarus Station.) Look at those hard-working soviet belarussian women!

Monument to Byelorussian partisans who fended of the Nazis in World War II:

Final station on the tour was Mayakovskaya. This station was somewhat lighter and a bit airy feeling, with great artwork on the ceiling:

Paratrooper:

Despite being light and airy, it again felt like a museum:

Exit elevators in Mayakovskaya Station. This is one of the deepest stations in the system, Stalin used to deliver New Years addresses to the people from here in World War Two. Also, note the huge steel blast doors designed to seal off the station in case of bombardment. The metro stations often served as bomb shelters during the war, and can still serve that function:

After heading back to the hotel, grabbing a light dinner, I headed off to my favourite craft beer bar in Moscow for some great drinks. I’ve posted about it here before so won’t go into too much detail, but Rule Taproom is a great place…as long as you don’t mind feeling slightly old. The selection of tap handles alone is fantastic:

With that, it was time to get some sleep before getting up and catching the train onwards to Leningrad…I mean St. Petersburg! Does it count as a new city if you haven’t been there since it changed names?