Aug 112014
 

Now that I’ve been to 158 countries, it’s kinda cool being about to watch CNN/BBC and see all sorts of places in the news that I’ve been. But, for some reason these last two weeks, the news from northern Iraq / Iraqi Kurdistan is really bothering me.  Reflecting on my photo album, it’s really amazing how much we managed to see despite the circumstances, and especially given where things now – I count myself very fortunately to have been there.

When I went there a few years ago, I really enjoyed it. It was my first “you’re going WHERE?!” country, and the people were fantastic and it was really an eye opening trip. So, I’m going to repost here that trip report, with a few edits/thoughts from the last few years. Enjoy!

Immigration was a breeze, and soon we were really there…we were in Iraq.  But wait…where are the taxis?  Now, I guess we hadn’t really planned this part too well, because it’s not like I should have expected for the Erbil International Airport to be really prepared with a modern tourist infrastructure.  A couple years on, I can admit what happened…and just how stupid it was.  After about 15 minutes of standing around and looking lost, we started chatting up a couple of mercenary looking types who’d arrived on our flight.  Yeah, they were “private security contractors” and their company was picking them up.  They sized us up, decided we were worth the risk, and offered to give us a lift to our hotel…no need to pay.  So, into the Humvee it was when their driver arrived, and we were off.  In retrospect, it was pretty insane….but how well it turned out said a lot.  There’s only one other time since I’ve had to rely on strangers at an airport (this past January in Gabon) and that also worked well.  Anyways, back to the story…

Soon we were at the Ankawa Palace Hotel, which we had randomly stumbled upon online, and based on the website and little information we could find about looked like a reasonable and safe place to stay.  The rooms were clean and basic, the staff spoke very basic English, so all in all I would highly recommend it as a place to stay.  Plus, a reasonable breakfast buffet and internet were included in the reasonable rate of $154 per night, and given this was December 30 and 31, it was a pretty good deal.  It was 5pm at this point and we had two things to accomplish:

One, hopefully arrange a driver to drive us into the countryside the next day, and two find some dinner.  Number one, again, we weren’t in the best position to negotiate.  Like I said earlier, there aren’t exactly many tourists here, so if you want to arrange things there aren’t many options.  The guy at the front desk made some calls over the next hour, and managed to arrange us a driver for the day.  There were two waterfalls we wanted to see on the mountain road up to Hadji Omaran at the Iranian border.

Our plan was to drive past the Gali Ali Beg waterfalls and the Bekhal waterfalls, on the way to the mountainous region by the border.  A driver was found for the full day trip, which seemed semi expensive, but how often do you get a chance to be driven around the countryside in Iraq?!  That sorted, we headed off the the Mehdi Mall to hopefully find somewhere to arrange dinner.  We didn’t manage to find anywhere to get anything to eat there, but did find a bowling alley, and lots of very unusual Christmas decorations.  Now, Erbil does have a rather sizable Christian population, but it seems they’ve managed to take the American commercialization of Christmas to a whole new level!

Looking back now, it’s sad to see what’s happening to the Christian populations in northern Iraq.  I didn’t quite understand at the time just how large this population was, just that it existed.

Want a blow-up Santa?  For just 30,000 Dinars you’re covered!

There were also several rather strange costumed animals wandering around the mall, and Matt managed to make a new friend:

I wanted to go make friends with the giant cat wandering the mall, but he seemed incredibly popular with the locals (not to mention the half dozen santa people wandering the mall), so we opted to skip him:

They did, however, have a big grocery store in the mall selling, of all things, turkey!

IMG_0273 IMG_0272

Having failed to find a reasonable looking dinner option, we headed back to the hotel and decided that despite being dark, we were going to wander the suburb of Ainkawa and try and find the “Happy Time” pizza restaurant for dinner.  It was listed on TripAdvisor, so how bad could it be…if it existed.  But first, we had a 10-15 minute walk through the dark streets of Ainkawa to find it. Eventually,  we found it, the food was adequate, and it put some of the nerves to rest having wandered around in the dark and not felt at all unsafe.  A view of the pizza from the Happy Time:

Then it was back to the Ankawa Palace and off to bed early for the big day trip adventure the next day.

Our driver met us early, and soon we were winding out of the city in yet more very heavy rain towards the Gali Ali Beg waterfall.  This is one of the most famous waterfalls in Iraq, and probably one of it’s most famous natural features.  It is even on the back of one of the dinar notes.

Unfortunately, we were pretty disappointed when we got there, because of the amount of litter and rubbish just strewn all over the place.  It was really rather sad.  The other waterfall we stopped by was the Bekhal waterfall.  Again, very similar.  They were really cool to see, but the amount of litter was just really sad.  In both places, we were the only people seeing them, but some of this probably also had to do with the rain.

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Aug 092014
 

Earlier this year, United published, either by mistake or not – it’s not entirely clear – a $1500 all-inclusive business class fare for the summer from a handful of U.S. cities to a handful of European cities.  There were somewhere around 100 possible combinations.  Unfortunately, Washington was not one of them.

This was probably a good thing, because my leave time for 2014 is already all committed, due to my upcoming four weeks in the South Pacific in November, and two plus weeks in East Africa over new years.

But wait…Baltimore is on the list…now that’s tempting…even for a three day weekend.  But it was $1500 for any combination…Baltimore felt lame when perhaps I could do it from the west coast.  Yup, I found San Diego…but that meant getting to San Diego…and if I’m going to go all the way to San Diego, I wonder if….YES once again United seems to want to FORCE me to go to Hawaii.  Honolulu to Paris, business class in August, $1500.  In contrast, the lowest coach fare at the time was about $1650.  This is an absolute bargain.

Alas, I didn’t have the leave.  Didn’t stop me from looking how I could conserve days, and when I could do it.  Wait, I need to be in Las Vegas for a bachelor party late-August.  Las Vegas is on the way back to DC from Hawaii.  That was already planned Wednesday through Friday, so I just needed a way to get Monday-Tuesday off.  I trimmed a couple days off my South Pacific trip…and it was set.

Now…to justify the cost of flying to Hawaii.  Ok, Hawaii-Paris would earn 25,000 more miles than DC-Paris, so that justifies $400 of the fare to Hawaii.  My ticket to Vegas was going to be $1200 for a P fare, so suddenly $1600 is justified.  Buying DC-Honolulu and upgrading with a regional upgrade, done.  One way Honoulu-Vegas on a P fare…done.  Vegas to DC on a P fare…done.  It was all too perfect.

Unfortunately, to guarantee the upgrade, I had to fly DCA-Cleveland-LA-Honolulu.  Ugh.  Leaving at 6am.  Double ugh.  Oh well.  But then, there was a schedule change.  I whined to United I wasn’t comfortable with a 30 minute connection in Cleveland now.  I found upgrade space on DCA-San Francisco-Honolulu leaving at 8:30 – 2.5 hours later – and connecting to the same Honolulu flight.  I begged.  They relented.  It was getting too awesome.  Simply too awesome.

The routing was set:

map

You may have noticed Barcelona in there.  See, I decided that 48 hours in Paris in August might get boring since the city clears out a bit.  Plus, I’ve been to Paris literally dozens of times.  So, I did what any good country collector would…set out to find the last country in Europe I haven’t been to:  Andorra.  Only way really to get there is to drive from Barcelona and Toulouse.  Barcelona had better flight connections…plus, the only automatic transmission rental car I could get was a Smart Car.  The chance to drive, my 6’3 self in a smart car, through the Pyrenees was way too much to pass up.  I booked it.

Then, looking at a map of Andorra, I noticed something super fun.

See this?

Llivia

Thats Llívia, Spain, a little tiny Spanish enclave not connected to Spain, but completely surrounded by France.  To a geography nerd like me this is perhaps the coolest thing ever.  Then, I thought…wait, I’m going to enter Andorra from Spain…I could exit out the other side of Andorra into France, and then drive to Llívia, back into Spain!

llivia2

But of course, this isn’t nerdy enough.  So, I’ll get to Andorra, and spend the night.  Next morning, drive into France, then back into Spain at Llívia, and have coffee…or whatever one does late morning in Spain.  Then, I’ll drive for a very short way BACK into France at Bourg-Madame and have a nice lunch.  Maybe a Croque Madame in Bourg-Madame…then back to Spain and Barcelona Airport, where I will fly to Paris for the night.  Before flying back to Hawaii.

llivia3

So, are you lost yet?  So far we’ve done:

Day 1:  DCA-San Francisco-Hawaii – Overnight Honolulu

Day 2:  Day in Honolulu, and Honolulu-DC redeye

Day 3:  All day in DC where I hope to have brunch with friends, play some hockey, before the redeye DC-Paris

Day 4:  Paris-Barcelona, drive in my little Smart Car to Andorra

Day 5:  Drive Andorra to France to Llívia, Spain for coffee, to Bourg-Madame, France for lunch, to Barcelona, Spain for a flight to Paris, France where I’ll spend the night, get a great meal hopefully and maybe some drinks with friends.

Whew.  Because next up is:

Day 6:  Paris-San Francisco-Honolulu, and dinner in Honolulu

Day 7:  Honolulu-San Francisco-Vegas

Day 8-9-10:  Vegas.  What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Day 11:  Vegas-Houston-DC

I’m already tired, and the trip hasn’t started.  If I pack strategically, I can take a suitcase to Honolulu on Day 1, with everything I’ll need in Vegas, and leave it there to be picked up on Day 6.  Of course, if I forget anything, I have 10 hours (random) in DC on Day 3 to pick up anything I forgot…plus pack a weekend bag for Paris and Andorra, lol

This is crazy.  I’m insane.  But you’re going to read it…admit it…  ;)


Aug 052014
 

This is, without a doubt, the most complicated trip I’ve ever planned.

First, I thought Iran was bad…because it took me two tries to get to Kish Island, and showing up at a local office in Dubai with a wad of cash to buy tickets for the next day.  There was no info on Kish Air anywhere on the internet, and it wasn’t even all that clear if they really operate the flight that often…but once we’d bought the tickets the plane showed up more or less on time, got us there and back, and was relatively drama free.

Then, there was Somalia.  Of course, I made this one harder, entering from Kenya and going out to Djibouti.  Daallo Airlines from Somalia to Djibouti actually took my reservation at a call centre in the US, and made the booking, and after faxing back and forth about 20 times with copies of credit cards, etc, it was all taken care of.  Now, getting there on African Airways Express from Nairobi was more interesting…they assured me via e-mail that they had an office at the airport, and I could just show up with a few hundred US$ in new notes, and they would take me.  Eventually, right after landing in Nairobi, found the office where I sat and had tea with a guy as he hand-wrote the tickets in carbon copy.

This was all a piece of cake compared to the south pacific…and I haven’t even started this trip yet, where I’m sure a million things will go wrong.  Why is it complicated?  Tuvalu, for example, has two flights a week…and they often are canceled, or don’t show up, or have twice as many people booked as they can carry.  So, fitting all the flights between these countries was a giant complex jigsaw puzzle on its own that took months to plan.  Just when I had it planned, one of them would change their flights.  For example, Nauru has one airline, appropriately called “Our Airline.”  Well, it was until yesterday, it’s now called Nauru Airlines.  I’ve been in touch with a very friendly lady in Brisbane, Australia who is their “reservations supervisor” and she’s been answering a million questions.

You see, Nauru has all of 6,000 people.  In the entire country.  The airline has one plane.  So it’s unclear if I’ll really get there when I expect to or not, but at least I finally have tickets.

Last reason this trip has been crazy difficult – it’s expensive.  Extremely expensive.  See, when you only have two flights a week you can get away with charging $1,000 as a discount fare for a 2 hour flight months in advance.  Ugh.  I’m also trying to do nine new countries this trip, to finish up those I have left in the Pacific.  I’ll be using Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji as hubs, since that’s pretty much the only way to get to many of these countries.

If all goes well, I will be visiting the following new countries:

Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Timor Leste, Tonga, and Tuvalu

I’ll also be visiting one new territory:  American Samoa, with the cool city name of Pago Pago.

Speaking of fun names, I’m kind of excited for Tuvalu, because not only does its capital have a cool name of Funafuti (almost as cool as Ouagadougu, Burkina Faso), but it has the great airport code of FUN!

I’ll also be spending nights in Singapore, Bali, Darwin, Brisbane, Auckland, Tokyo, Seoul, and Frankfurt.

Tired yet?  This will all take place in the span of 32 days.  I’m sure things will get moved around.  I’m sure I’ll end up likely paying several hundred dollars in change fees, but this promises to be a grand adventure.

What’s there to do in most of these island countries?  From what I understand, not much.  If all goes well, I plan to Scuba in Timor Leste, Solomon Islands (home of amazing World War II wreck dives), Tonga, and Samoa.  Maybe Brisbane as well, but I’m thinking it might be a bit cold in late October.  We will see.  Other than that, at least off the islands, I’ll have plenty of time to have fun and relax in Brisbane and Auckland, and who really can complain about a forced overnight in Bali?  Not me.

So, other than the new countries, this trip was prompted by the desire to use and maximize United miles before they were devalued.  On the outbound, I managed to get Washington to Tokyo on ANA in first class, followed by Tokyo to Singapore on United in First.  Not bad, and super excited to try ANA first!

Returning, I fly Auckland to Tokyo on Air New Zealand in business class on the 787, overnight in Tokyo, continue to Seoul on an Asiana 747 in business class, overnight, Seoul to Frankfurt on Asiana in first class, overnight in Frankfurt, and finally Frankfurt to DC in United first, which if I’m lucky I might get to change to Lufthansa first closer in.  Quite a great value for the miles, and excited for the overnights in Tokyo, Seoul, and Frankfurt!

All total, this should take 29 flights and over 46,000 miles:

map

It’s finally all booked, about 11 weeks before I leave, so let’s pray there’s not too many schedule changes!  One of the most amazing parts is that I only need one visa for this trip – for Nauru – and it’s visa upon arrival so I’m set there as well!

Oh, and for a final bit of insanity…I return on the Sunday before Thanksgiving to Washington and Wednesday night three days later?  I’m off to Israel and Palestine for five days…assuming the stop firing rockets and such at each other before then.   So in reality, the map should be:

map-1

Yes, over 58,000 miles in just over 5 weeks.  I might be insane.  But by the time this is over, I will have hit country #159 (Andorra) in late August, 9 countries of the South Pacific (#160-#168) in early November, and Israel and Palestine late-November bringing me to 170 countries with 26 to go!


Jul 292014
 

Up way too early to head back to the airport to fly home.  Seaborne only has one flight a day out of St Kitts, so I was left with really no choice on timing.  I was planning to fly United San Juan – Chicago – Washington National, but United retimed the flights changing my layover to nearly 6 hours in San Juan, and getting home at nearly 1 am….no thanks.  United offered to rebook me on the nonstop San Juan – Washington Dulles, and despite the loss in miles I decided to take it as it would get me home nearly 8 hours earlier.

Quick check-out at the Marriott, quick 15 minute cab, and we were at the very quiet St Kitts airport….which wasn’t all that quiet because in addition to our Seaborne flight there was a full American 737 to Miami also checking in.  Not a problem, except American also handles the check-in for Seaborne so ended up waiting about 15 minutes to check-in.  Again, no biggie, and the agent was so rushed and flustered that she forgot to charge me for my bag…hooray for small victories.  Then, we got to immigration, which is where the shitshow began.

There was one immigration officer handing a full 737 plus our flight, and the American flight (which left 30 minutes before ours) was already boarding…and there were still 50 American passengers in the immigration line…not to mention security.  I made small talk with the lady in front of me in the queue and she was from New Orleans, and kept going on and on about how American  was paging her over the intercom but she was stuck in line.  I noticed she had the dreaded SSSS on her boarding pass…so I’m sure they were looking to get her extra search out of the way.  Eventually something happened, and a second very annoyed looking immigration officer came to assist….but was doing no more than “give me your passport, I stamp it, you go.”  No checks or anything.  Hooray for border security?

Anyways, everyone made their flight, and we’ll assume lived happily ever after?

The St Kitts Airport is just one big room with 3 or 4 duty free shops and a bunch of chairs, and a small snack stand.  It actually reminded me of the airport in Podgorica, Montenegro…it was designed exactly the same way…even down to the check-in area, security/immigration setup, waiting hall, and “gates.”  Possible they were designed by the same firm?

Soon, it was time to board our ride to San Juan.  There were only 12 passengers, and I was allowed to keep my seat 1A.

Seaborne Airlines flight 4513
Basseterre, St Kitts and Nevis (SKB) to San Juan, Puerto Rico (SJU)
Depart 7:50, Arrive 9:00, Flight Time 1:10
Saab 340B, Registration N336SA, Manufactured 1993, Seat 1A

Walking out to the plane:

D4-1

Fully boarded, we managed to get airborne about 10 minutes before our scheduled departure time.  Unfortunately, despite my carryon bag being quite small, they crew insisted it wouldn’t fit under the seats (I was in the bulkhead) and insisted on gate checking it.  Ugh.  I don’t know why I didn’t think, but I let them do it…with my passports, laptop, and even wallet in the bag.  It was obviously early and I was uncaffeinated, because I didn’t even think to protest.

The view on takeoff from St Kitts:

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“Meal” service…there was a snack basket with three or four options, I couldn’t resist the cookies.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Diet Coke in tall cans before….usually only see Red Bull in these:

D4-3

Had a nice chat with the flight attendant for a bit, and learned a bit more about how Seaborne works.  Both of my Seaborne flights were quite nice, and I hope they manage to grow and fill the gap left by American Eagle in San Juan.  Landed about 15 minutes ahead of schedule, and taxied to a waiting area where several Seaborne planes were parked.

Retrieved my carryon, and headed inside and down a long series of very warm corridors towards immigration.  Bienvenidos a los Estados Unidos!

D4-4

Now, a word of advice.  As I mentioned…I was tired and not thinking clearly.  Not so much tired, because I’d been getting plenty of sleep, but just caffeine-deprived.  Two things I recommend you do NOT do when entering the US in Puerto Rico.  Even when the Global Entry machine spits out a “ok, you can go” receipt, do not do two things:  1)  juggle your Zero Halliburton briefcase in one hand while fumbling to hand your global entry receipt to the CBP officers and 2)  don’t greet CBP officers with “buenos dias officers!  gracias!”  I got the privilege of playing 10 questions with them for that, while they decided if they were going to pull me into secondary for looking shifty.  Fortunately, I was allowed to go  ;)

Unlike the transit from United to Seaborne, the transit from US Immigration to United in San Juan was all indoors, nice and cool, and a relatively short and air conditioned walk.  Check-in was nice and quick, and there was no line at all at TSA pre-check, so I was through security in no time…and very quickly was at Starbucks.  And all was right with the world again.

Had a couple of calls I had to make for work, so used the American Admirals club thanks to my Citi American card, where the internet was nice and speedy, and it was a comfortable place to wait for a couple of hours and get some work done.  Plus, the staff there as always were super friendly.

I was getting starved by this point, having subsisted on Diet Coke, Espresso, and a bag of cookies to this point, so I gave in and went to the Air Margaritaville for lunch.  Well, liquid lunch….but in fairness, I did have a cuban sandwich as well which was significantly tastier than I expected.

D4-5

The margarita was tasty, but this place was an absolute ripoff.  One margarita and a cuban sandwich set me back nearly $40…I know it’s airport prices…but come on, get real!

Headed over to my gate, where the gate lice were frantically scurrying about, trying to make sure they were first on the plane.  There were also more than 20 wheelchairs on this flight.  Definitely a leisure route, since even the two Silver Elites in front of me were making sure that everyone around them knew they’d been upgraded to first class.  LOL.

As soon as boarded was called headed on with global services and military, and managed to escape the scrum…fortunately…because there was a fierce battle even in first for overhead space.

United  flight 1067
San Juan, Puerto Rico (SJU) to Washington, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 12:45, Arrive 16:40, Flight Time 3:55
Boeing 737-800, Registration N14242, Manufactured 1999, Seat 2E

This was one of the more ancient 737s in the Continental…I mean United….no, I mean Continental…as the pilot reminded us to “sit back and enjoy the fine service provided by this Continental Airlines doing business as United crew.”  Ugh…I thought you guys were past those childish post-merger games.

Pre-departure beverages were offered, and I got greeted with “you must not fly much, we haven’t had the margaritas in years!”  Uh, you had them a few months ago, but not going to argue.  Thanks for the insight  ;)  I went with water, and waited until lunch to have a glass of wine.

Oh, and the cut-price half cashews weren’t warmed…which I actually prefer:

D4-6

Then, it was time for lunch…or what passes for a 4 hour domestic lunch these days on United.

Hola!  Mi nombre es Jeff!  Hay muchos camibos ahora a United que creo que te va a gustar!   ….¿Quieres un burrito?

with sombrero

The burrito…aka the “tan” meal…everything was some shade of unappetizing tan…except the wine, and that was added for colour.  Note, once again, too cheap for a bread plate….but the butter gets its own bowl?!  WTF United catering:

D4-7

Though, I will admit, whatever is in that chipotle-mayo-whatever sauce combo is like crack….I think I ate all of the sauce and maybe half the burrito…and skipped the “freshly baked…just for you” cookie.  Gag.

D4-8

Landed on time, moon buggy to baggage claim…and then we waited.  And waited.  I think I grew several grey hairs.  Still we waited.  I watched a diabetic passenger go into shock and need emergency glucose.  Dinosaurs roamed baggage claim.  The Leafs won the Stanley Cup…no wait, it wasn’t THAT long   ;)  Anyways, finally 77 minutes after landing, our bags started showing up.  Seriously United/Dulles…WTF.

With that, an amazing long weekend was over.  Several weeks of relaxing at home before the next big…and super insane trip.  I’ll give a teaser:

DC ->  Honolulu ->  Paris -> Barcelona -> Andorra -> France/Spain/France/Barcelona/Paris -> Honolulu -> Vegas -> DC.

It’s gonna be crazy.  There will be bachelor parties.  There will be my 159th country visited (also my LAST in Europe).  There will be chocolate croissants…there will be beaches…there will be madness….


Jul 262014
 

Woke up again at 630am after another solid 8+ hours of sleep feeling fantastic and went back to Rituals coffee for breakfast. Another great triple iced espresso, but instead of the bagel sandwich today they had amazing double chocolate chocolate chip muffins….yum!

Met Jeff in the lobby again, and Dive St Kitts picked us up right on time for another morning of diving. When we got to the shop, we learned we were the only two people diving today so we could get going as soon as all the gear was set up. Sweet!

Out first dive site was called “The Rocks” and the coolest feature is that the last couple of months a reef shark had been hanging around the site, and we’d try and find it. Strategy was to try and find a lionfish to spear, and then dump it on the ground and wait for the shark to smell blood. The dive was in a fairly narrow “channel” between two reefs, and dropped from about 50 feet where we entered to about 75 feet further down where we turned around and swam back on top of the reef.

It didn’t take long to find a spear a lionfish, and no sooner was the divemaster chopping it up, than this guy started circling:

D3-1

A couple of slow circles around us and the dead lionfish, and he darted in a snapped it up and swam away.  For maybe the next 5-10 minutes he followed us around as we swam down the reef, probably hoping we’d feed him another easy meal.  Laziest shark ever!

Along the reef:

D3-2

D3-3

D3-4

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Jul 252014
 

Woke up a bit before seven after more than nine hours of glorious sleep, despite the fact the room was slightly on the warm side – it never got much below 71/72 in the room despite the air being on full blast. Just cool enough to be sleepable, but barely. Headed straight out the hotel and down the main road to grab coffee and breakfast at Rituals Coffee Shop right when they opened at 7am. Rituals is a caribbean chain, and sort of like the starbucks of the Caribbean. Nothing fantastic, but a good reliable source of caffeine, which is just what I needed. They had no trouble making a triple shot over ice, and also got a ham, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich on the bagel.

Walked the half mile or so back to the hotel, and packed up the dive gear, since the dive shop was picking me up at 8am sharp for a morning of diving. While waiting in the lobby I spotted another person with diving gear, and we started chatting, and turned out he was there with the family and lived just a few miles away in Virginia. Small world indeed – and lucky for me because he helped me remember I’d forgotten my dive computer in the room so I ran up and grabbed it quickly.

We were picked up just a few minutes late by Dive St Kitts, which operates complimentary transfers for their divers between hotel and the the dive shop. Nice added bonus! They do a two-tank boat dive every morning, and I’d signed up for just one day to start since I figured I might want to use the second day to play tourist. The ride to the shop was maybe 15 minutes, and when we got there we sorted out paperwork while the crew prepared the boat. This was a full service operation, with them doing all the work for you. They hooked up BCDs, regs, and tanks, and all you had to worry about was diving – quite nice!

We did a very thorough dive briefing in the shop before heading out – and it was definitely the most comprehensive briefing I’ve had anywhere. Details about the dive sites we’d be doing, details on the boat including entry and exit to the water, etc. Although the shop is basically a older one-room seaside building, the quality of the crew was definitely amazing to see. Our divemaster for the day was also fantastic, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention their infamous boat captain, known as Captain Crabby. We got him to crack several smiles, however, so I’m pretty sure there’s a softy under that sarcastic exterior!

One more note…Jeff, the guy I’d met earlier in the lobby, turned out to be a fantastic photographer. I’d decided to dive without a camera since it had been nearly 18 months since I’d been diving, and I really just wanted to focus on enjoying it as opposed to fussing about pictures all the time. Turned out to be the right call, because Jeff was an amazing photographer and more than willing to share photos…so thanks to Jeff, I got these great shots from the first day of diving:

Wreck of the MV Corinthian:

D2-1

Turtle just hanging out:

D2-2

Marine life on the wreck:

D2-3

D2-4

Staring contest with the world’s laziest turtle:

D2-5

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Jul 232014
 

The day started early. Very early. So early it might still have counted as the previous night…I’m not entirely certain. What I am certain of is that I’d had lots of caffeine quite late in the afternoon, and getting up in time to not only make a 6am flight…but in time to check luggage for one, was not likely to be a whole lot of fun. Even though I’m only about 2 miles from the airport, by the time I manage to get an Uber, etc etc, it still takes time…and with the 45 minute baggage cutoff, there was no way I wasn’t leaving at least 90 minutes before the flight…and that meant getting up at least two hours before…yes, 4am. NO THANKS.

I’m still not sure why I didn’t just fly American one-stop via Miami instead of United. It was a paid business ticket anyways, so it’s not like I had any particular reason to give Uncle Jeff my money…oh well, lesson learnt. Oh, and did I mention I had managed to leave myself a 70 minute connection in San Juan? Add that to the fact that upon check-in I learnt United doesn’t have an interline agreement with Seaborne…and I was looking to be screwed. No way I would get my checked bags, find out where Seaborne is located (turns out, in a different terminal) and check my luggage…while still making it to the gate on time…in 70 minutes. Yeah. Not one of my brighter travel decisions.

Despite having access to the 1K/elite/whatever line at DCA, it took me more than 20 minutes to get to an agent.  United was woefully understaffed this morning, and something as simple as checking a bag as a top-tier elite should not take 20 minutes.  Ever.  Fortunately, there was no line at TSA PreCheck, and I made it to the gate just as we were about to board.

United Express, Operated by Skywest, flight 5249
Washington, DC, National (DCA) to Chicago O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 6:00, Arrive 7:00, Flight Time 2:00
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N113SY, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2A

Skywest just recently started flying this route for United Express, and their E175s are a dream for elites.  Only about 75 seats total, of which 12 are in F, giving them probably the best upgrade chances in the fleet.  I was on a paid business fare today, and until four days before the flight was the only one in the first cabin.  By takeoff, there were three uniformed pilots, and all the other seats were taken as well.  My usual shot of the Pentagon upon takeoff:

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I’d made the incredibly risky decision not to have any coffee before the flight in the hopes I might catch a little extra sleep.  Anyone who’s seen my pre-caffeinated in the morning will understand the risks we’re talking here.  Fortunately, shortly after that Pentagon pic, I completely passed out and managed another hour of sleep.

Into gate B20 at Chicago, and my departing flight was from the C gates.  We were a little early, so no huge rush and I decided to stop at Starbucks.  Now, Starbucks rarely gets my name right.  I’ve been Justin, Jasmin, Jensen, Jackson, you name it, but rarely Jason.  Today, they were really butchering names, and I have no idea how they pulled this one off.  If it wasn’t for the “grande in a venti cup extra ice” I would have assumed it was someone else’s:

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Happily beginning to caffeinate, made it to the gate with plenty of time to spare:

United flight 1688
Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to San Juan, Puerto Rico (SJU)
Depart 8:10, Arrive 13:55, Flight Time 4:45
Boeing 737-900, Registration N69818, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2E

Pre-departure beverage was a Coke Zero with lime…mainly to test if they had limes…which they did!  I’m not sure what I was thinking on the caffeine front (probably the Starbucks hadn’t quite hit yet so I wasn’t thinking) but I was bouncing off the walls by the end of this.

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Breakfast choices?  “Scrambled eggs” or the “Giant Plate o Carbs.”  Eggs on planes scare me, so I decided to go with the carbs.  Carbs, carbs, and even more carbs.  I think I’m about to go into a diabetic coma just looking at this pic….and yes, there was more Coke Zero.

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There was no way I was getting any more sleep after all that caffeine, so I stayed up and finished off season 2 of House of Cards.  There was a dedication plaque

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Jul 222014
 

I’ll be the first admit – I don’t “do” relaxing well. Why would I spend a whole week visiting the same country, when there are so many other places to go? You mean there’s another country only 50 miles away? We’re not making a daytrip there WHY?!

After 157 countries visited, I’m slowing down in some ways, and speeding up in others. There are some countries I have very little interest in, and I’m content with one or two nights, getting a feel for the place, and moving on so I can meet my goal of every country by September, 2016. However, there are other places I’m now choosing to do more in depth time and finances permitting. 

Which, is how we get to the Federation of Saint Christopher and Nevis aka St Kitts and Nevis…or just plain St Kitts. Somehow, it’s the last of the small islands I have yet to visit in the Caribbean, and it just never quite fit into my other trips. People had told me it was a bit sleepy and boring, so I went into the trip with the attitude that I was going to LEARN to relax, have a good time, and come back rejuvenated. It would also be my 158th country visited, leaving me with just 38 to go.

The relaxing? That didn’t quite happen. I had a few very jam-packed days, but also had an absolute blast!

I plan to break this report down into four parts, complete with tons of pictures:

Day 1: Washington DC to St Kitts on United and Seaborne Airlines
Day 2: SCUBA diving, and daytrip to the island of Nevis
Day 3: More SCUBA diving, relaxing at the pool, and a surprising dinner
Day 4: St Kitts to Washington DC on Seaborne Airlines and United

Grab a tropical drink, pull up a beach chair, and enjoy!

kncolor


Jul 182014
 

December 2004 – over 100 countries ago for me – was the first time I had the honour of experiencing the gracious service of Malaysian Airlines, and it was an experience I’ll never forget.  My first true premium international long-haul first class experience.  I was saddened a few months ago when MH370 disappeared, but today made me sad beyond words.  To see a company filled with such amazing and hospitable crew go through this, especially growing up with a family in the industry, has really saddened me.  Prayers with the families of all those lost today and on MH370.

It’s really been a confusing experience, because in all honesty I’ll always associate Malaysian with my entry into this world of unlimited extreme travel, and now it feels like for them….they’re about to enter a very challenging era.  Best wishes to the Malaysian Airlines family.

oz2005-031-jason new 747 oz2005-034-new mh first oz2005-038-satay oz2005-044-jason bed hippo oz2005-049-breakfast hippo oz2005-339-jason new mh first oz2005-352-satay


Jun 192014
 

Since I’m in an unusual (for me) travel lull right now, I decided to use the opportunity to do some cleaning up and enhancing of the spreadsheet I use to manage and remember all of my travel. I didn’t start getting serious about it until 15 years ago, so data before then is largely from memory and old family photos. I’m pretty sure I have most of the big trips in there, although it’s very possible the dates are a bit off. Anyways, a few interesting statistics:

Countries Visited to Date: 157 (39 to go)

Airports Visited to Date: 265

Lifetime Flight Miles: Over 1.89 million

Unique Airlines: 130

Countries with more than 10 nights spent:

United States – Over 14,000
Canada – 241
United Kingdom – 77
Netherlands – 60
Senegal – 29
France – 24
Thailand – 21
Singapore – 17
South Africa – 16
Soviet Union – 14
Argentina – 13
Germany – 12
Sri Lanka – 11
Australia – 10
Malaysia – 10

Borders crossed more than 5 times:

United States – Over 170
Canada – 67
United Kingdom – 49
Netherlands – 23
Germany – 18
Singapore – 15
Thailand – 12
France – 10
Belgium – 9
South Africa – 8
Malaysia – 7
Sri Lanka – 7
China – 5
Italy – 5

Domestic Flights by Country:

United States – More than 600
Canada – 15
Norway – 5
United Kingdom – 5
Malaysia – 4
Brazil – 3
Greece – 3
Guyana – 3
Soviet Union – 3
Thailand – 3
Australia – 2
Bolivia – 2
France – 2
Germany – 2
Peru – 2
South Africa – 2
Angola – 1
Argentina – 1
Ethiopia – 1
India – 1
Marshall Islands – 1
Micronesia – 1
Netherlands Antilles – 1