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

Continue reading »


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

Continue reading »


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:

D1-01

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:

D1-02

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.

D1-03

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.

D1-04

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

D1-05

Continue reading »


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


Jun 102014
 

I’d ordered a car from the hotel the night before, and it was maybe $10 more than the going taxi rate if I remember right, but could be charged to the room and would be ready…so was more than worth it.  Checkout was nice and easy, and soon we were on the way to the airport.  Contrary to the trip to the hotel, the roads were absolutely empty, and my driver decided he was auditioning for a formula one race.  Ran one right light and FLASH…he started cursing up a storm.  Who knew that Quito had red light cameras?!  Did this stop him though…no, about 15 minutes later, he decided to run another red light…and FLASH…another red light camera ticket.  Some people just don’t learn their lesson.

Got to the airport in plenty of time, but unfortunately the agent was only able to print out my boarding passes as far as Cancun.  Since US Airways had left Star Alliance, they said they were unable to check me in for their flights, and with only 1:42 to connect, change terminals, clear immigration and security, and check-in in Cancun, I knew my chances weren’t very good of making the connection.

Immigration and security in Quito were a breeze, and I had about 30 minutes to kill in the business lounge.  Nothing special, but had a decent coffee machine and lots of bottled beverages as well as adequate outlets, so it more than met my needs.  Soon, it was time to head to the gate to board.

This is where I saw my very first…what I can only assume was local, complete with headdress and military surplus jacket complaining about his seat assignment.  Note in the background of the (sorry blurry) pic a few African guys also waiting for the flight.  They were from DR Congo, didn’t speak a word of Spanish or English, and were a group of 9 who were “in Ecuador looking for houses to buy” based on the translation I tried to help the gate agent with.  She was holding their passports as well so I’m not sure of the full story, but by the looks of them when they boarded they’d never been on a plane before.  They couldn’t understand, for example, that 22F meant 22 rows back…no matter how many times it was explained to them.  The concept of numbered places was completely foreign.  How they got to Ecuador in the first place was beyond me….

IMG_6604

Boarding was pretty quick, and we pulled back from the gate right on time.

COPA Airlines flight 210
Quito, Ecuador (UIO) to Panama City, Panama (PTY)
Depart 6:08, Arrive 8:04, Flight Time 1:56
Boeing 737-800, Registration HP-1539CMP, Manufactured 2010, Seat 2B

Although the flight was only booked to 8 of 16 in business class when I checked in, we ended up leaving completely full.  The breakfast choices were “eggs” or french toast, so decided to go with the eggs, which came scrambled in some sort of a pastry shell that was completely unnecessary.  Definitely one of the less amusing and tasty meals I’d had on COPA.

IMG_6606

Not too much else to say about this short flight, as I slept most of the rest of it.  We arrived in Panama right on time, and I had a little time to spend in the absolutely packed COPA club.  I tried again to check in for my US Airways flights here, but there was once again nothing the agent could do.  I also Skyped US Airways Chairmans Preferred line, but try as they might, the best they could do was note my record that I was on a tight connection.  Something to do with the COPA flight not leaving yet was preventing them from checking me in either.  I would just be trying my luck once I got to Cancun.

The lounge was packed, so I used the rest of my short connection to walk around the airport a bit and just people watch, until it was time to board. At least we boarded on time, and pushed back from the gate 10 minutes early.

COPA Airlines flight 324
Panama City, Panama (PTY) to Cancun, Mexico (CUN)
Depart 9:45, Arrive 12:28, Flight Time 2:43
Boeing 737-800, Registration HP-1536CMP, Manufactured 2009, Seat 4A

Luckily, there were only 8 of 16 seats taken on this flight, so I was able to move back to row 4 and have the entire row to myself.  Made for a nice, quiet flight up to Cancun.  So, why Cancun, Panama, etc?  When I booked with miles, this was the only routing available.  After booking it, I actually sort of was amused at the strange, but not all-that-out-of-the-way routing that would take me back.  Then, US Airways upgraded Cancun-Philly to an A330 and I was actually excited for it.  That is, until I saw that changing planes in Cancun is not straightforward.  Oh well, at least it would be an adventure.

View on takeoff from Panama:

IMG_6608

IMG_6612

Continue reading »


Jun 092014
 

Not that I’m seriously considering it any time soon (or am I) but one of the biggest gaps and challenges to my plan to finish all countries in a little over two years is Lebanon (easy) and Syria (very not easy.)

Ideally, of course, I’d prefer to do them together since Beirut and Damascus are relatively close, but this opens up lots of questions:

1) What’s the visa situation? Are Syrian embassies still open, and if they are, are they even issuing visas?

2) According to this map, the road from Beirut to Damascus appears to be solidly in government hands (assuming your driver knows which roads to take) and would be feasible. But, are taxis still running this route? Could I even find one willing in Beirut?

3) Once in Damascus, are their still safe areas? Possible to spend a night, or would this be a daytrip type of thing from Beirut?

4) What direction are the winds blowing? From media reports, Assad appears to be gaining the upper hand again, so it would appear things might get safer, at least in Damascus, over coming months?

5) Is there a “safe and easy” option? A relatively safe area that would be easy to daytrip over from Lebanon or Turkey? A border I could cross with a town on the other side, spend a couple of hours, and go back? The Jordanian border seems to border rebel-held areas, so that looks out of the question. Maybe west from Mosul (which I think is safe from Erbil these days?) into what appear to be “safe” Kurdish held areas like Al-Yarubiyah? Who controls the border here? Visa situation?

6) Latakia sounds to be completely (a relative term) safe these days, but is there any way to get there? From Turkey? The border at Kesab (based on the map above) appears in rebel hands?

Any thoughts?


Jun 062014
 

It was nearly 7:30pm already by the time I reached my hotel, the Sheraton Quito. Nice touch number one: was met carside by the valet/doorman with an umbrella, so I didn’t get too terribly wet in the downpour. Now that’s service…and from a Sheraton! Check-in was pretty slow, taking nearly 20 minutes, but after asking if there might be any suites available for upgrade, they did find a nice junior suite for me.

It was happy hour, and I had lounge access, so decided to go check it out since it was still pouring rain.  I was the only person in the lounge, and had a few small munchies and a couple of glasses of wine while I waited for the rain to let up.  The hour I was there, I was the only person in the lounge…which kind of made me wonder why they had it open.  After an hour of browsing the local area for places to eat, and the rain letting up to a steady drizzle, I decided to first go for a walk around the block.  Couldn’t find either of the places I was looking for, but did manage to find a local ripoff of the Pinkberry frozen yogurt chain in DC.  Or maybe this came first…not sure.

IMG_6542

Didn’t find anything in my wander, so headed to the huge shopping mall near my hotel.  Nothing that looked special there, and so far a TGI Fridays was looking like the best bet.  It was almost 9pm at this point and I was getting seriously hungry.  One more loop around the block, and I found a Chilis, lol.  I was hungry, and it sounded good…plus the rain was getting heavier again, so I went in.  Are you serious….a 2 hour wait for a table…maybe 90 minutes at the bar?  I’ll pass.

Kept walking back towards the hotel and came across a little steak place right across from the Sheraton whose name I can’t remember.  But hey, they had sangria, so all was not lost:

IMG_6543

Unfortunately, my steak was terrible.  It was way overcooked, and way too gristly.  I guess my expectations were just too high after having great steaks all over south america.  Oh well!  At least it was filling.  Decided to skip on desert, call it a night, and get up early to explore.

IMG_6546

Still managed to sleep in until nearly 9am, just in time to go up and grab breakfast in the lounge.  A decent selection of hot and cold items, and plenty to fuel me for the day.  Once again, I was the only person in the lounge.  I was beginning to wonder what was going on.  There were wedding decorations all over the hotel, so clearly it was pretty full, but for whatever reason nobody was using the lounge.  Oh well!

Went downstairs and asked the bellman to get me a taxi to go explore, and he highly recommended using a hotel car and negotiating a rate for all the stops I wanted to make.  I had three stops planned, and the driver was more than happy to negotiate a flat rate for 6 hours.  Sold…I wouldn’t have to worry about finding cars, leaving things in the car, etc.  Maybe cost $20 or so more in the end, but well worth it to not have to think about safety/etc.

First stop was the TelefériQo (get it?  Teleférico and Quito combined?  Clever) which is a cable car that starts at about 10,000 feet and rises to nearly 13,000 feet and was supposed to have great views over the city.  Paid my $8.50, and got a Sacagawea in change…I never even see those in the US, but apparently they’re alive and well in Ecuador.  This was one of many times I got one.

IMG_6549

There was absolutely no line, got my own gondola, and up I go.  But first…let me take a #selfie

IMG_6554

Great views of the city from the Gondola…I was getting a bit of fear of heights at this point….

IMG_6556

At the top, I paused briefly to catch my breath…and start a hike further up the mountain.  First stop was a small church:

IMG_6557 Continue reading »


Jun 032014
 

After Judd and his wife dropped me at the airport, they were also kind enough to wait while I checked in to made sure there was no drama…which of course there was. A “VIP” decided they wanted my pre-selected seat, so it had been given away. I was having absolutely none of this, and made it known…and did get my seats back. Said our goodbyes, I changed a little bit of leftover security, and headed for the gate area.

I had been warned there was no lounge in the international terminal, so made a point not to arrive too early to the airport. By the time I’d cleared immigration and the painfully slow security checkpoint it was only about 30 minutes until boarding. There was a fairly nice waiting area filled with outlets for charging phones/etc so that was nice. There was also a small, but decent variety of places to eat and shop. Overall not bad for a smaller airport. We boarded about 20 minutes late, and only about 15 minutes before scheduled departure which was worrisome, since I had barely 40 minutes to connect in Panama.

COPA Airlines flight 646 operated by COPA Airlines Colombia aka Aero Republica
Medellin, Colombia (MDE) to Panama City, Panama (PTY)
Depart 13:22, Arrive 14:38, Flight Time 1:16
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration HP-1562CMP, Manufactured 2007, Seat 2A

Even more shocking for a short flight once we were airborn, there was not just a meal on this flight with a flight time of 52 minutes, there was a choice of meals! I went with the chicken.  It was decently tasty.  One thing I remembered on this flight, COPA always makes a point to turn the glasses to face you when they serve, so you can read the writing.  Small touch, but adds a tiny bit of class!

IMG_6535

IMG_6536

I asked for a second glass of wine after the meal, but it was too close to landing…but that wasn’t a problem.  They just served it United-style!

IMG_6537

Landed in Panama right on time, and of course with a short-ish connection the flight was clear across the airport, about a 15 minute walk away.  Wouldn’t have been too much of a problem, except even with the air conditioning it was hot.  And with the humidex it felt downright nasty:

IMG_6538

We boarded right at scheduled departure time, so there was really no reason I had to rush. I was only slightly concerned, because in my experience COPA is incredibly punctual, and even though it’s a small airport I figured they would almost certainly be on time.

COPA Airlines flight 159
Panama City, Panama (PTY) to Quito, Ecuador (UIO)
Depart 15:24, Arrive 17:20, Flight Time 1:56
Boeing 737-800, Registration HP-1531CMP, Manufactured 2006, Seat 2B

Boarding took…forever. Business was supposed to be full, but it appeared there were only 4 seats taken in total. How odd. Boarding was delayed because there was a group of 50+ American teenagers and their chaperones going to do some sort of missionary work in Ecuador. Packing away their giant backpacks, guitars, combined with the typical inefficiency of boarding planes for Americans, meant we finally left the gate about 30 minutes late. Would have only been 20, except we waited another 10 for the remaining six business class passengers who were all connecting from the same delayed flight. Turned out I really didn’t need to worry!

First things, up in the air, immigration forms were handed out.  Straightforward, but I wasn’t sure what the “date of bird” was?  Is this like a Chinese Zodiac thing?  ;)

IMG_6539

Once again, there were two choices. I don’t remember the other one, but it sounded unappetizing, so I went with the generic “salmon” which turned out to be a salmon bagel. It was quite mediocre:

IMG_6540

Once again, however, the glasses were turned properly!

IMG_6541

Landed in Quito just over 30 minutes late, and had a relatively short walk to immigration.  The line was nearly an hour long, and I ended up chatting up a mid-50s Canadian couple from Regina (who made sure to inform me how to pronounce the city…yes, yes, I’m not an ignorant American) who were on their second trip to Ecuador.  They’d gotten bad altitude sickness the first time, and had to abandon the trip and head home rather than go to the Galapagos.  Up until this point, I hadn’t realized that Quito is still at approximately 10,000 feet above sea level.  Coming from Bolivia it felt absolutely wonderful to be able to breathe easily again!

Rather chatting immigration agent, but soon I was through and in a taxi to the hotel in a torrential downpour….which took nearly two hours since it was rush hour.  Oh well, that’s one way to get a brief preview of the city I suppose!