Feb 112016
 

Bangkok has hundreds of hotels, many of them in the luxury or super luxury category. On top of that, many of them have extremely affordable rates by US standards, so it’s pretty hard to go wrong when choosing a good hotel. In the past, my choices have usually been the Sheraton Grand Sukhumvit or the Conrad. The Sheraton is unlike any Sheraton in the US, and is a true 4 to 5 star hotel. Amazing staff, great facilities, and superb location. It’s hard to beat.

This time, mainly to be close to my work event and to try something new, I decided to try a couple of new hotels. I’ll try and give a few thoughts on each, though I’ll admit I would need a couple more days at the W in order to get the whole picture.

After a very early morning arrival, I’d booked the prior night at the W to ensure my room was ready upon arrival. It was, the check-in staff was super friendly and efficient, and when I asked to just get the key so I could go sleep (telling them I’d come down later for the details on restaurants, etc) they were super quick and efficient. Since my flight left Delhi at about midnight (which was only around 3pm in DC) I wasn’t tired, but when I finally got to the hotel in Bangkok around 730p, the lack of sleep was catching up to me. Plan was to take a three hour nap…just enough to make it until evening.

Large pair of giant pink sequined muay thai boxing gloves on my bed that said “lights out” – it’s like they knew I was coming!

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Slept four solid hours, getting up just before noon. There’s a small office building next to the W which has a Starbucks in it, and for anyone who knows me that was a huge plus. 11a coffee, reset the body clock a bit, and I was ready to go! I worked a few hours, then wandered the neighbourhood near the hotel until sunset, and then it was time to see what I could find to eat and drink. First, a few comments on the “worked a few hours.” The W room was great for working, with a large desk, lots of power outlets, and fast internet. Plus, the room had a bit of a view of the city when sitting at the desk so you didn’t feel quite so isolated. Definitely a good room for being productive on top of W’s usual attempts to be cool and hip.

First stop was the W Terrace, a small bar located outside on the balcony overlooking the street and courtyard. It was still quite warm and humid out, but it felt nice to be outside and enjoy my first Singha of the trip. Again, with the coffee table book, it’s like they knew I was coming…

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Jetlag was starting to catch up to me around 8pm, so I decided to just eat in the hotel. Headed to the Kitchen Table restaurant, which was supposed to have a really tasty make your own burger. I hadn’t had a burger in several weeks and it was sounding great, but Thailand probably wasn’t the best place to indulge. The squid ink bun was a bit on the chewy and almost stale side, the beef had a bit of a strange taste to it, but at least the fried egg, bacon, and havarti cheese were amazing…as was the little jar of asparagus bites.

…I almost felt like I was at Starbucks…yet another place that finds Jason incredibly hard to spell:

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Got back to my room, and it was a nice ice cold 18.2 degrees. The AC, lights, and pretty much everything were controlled by an iPad-like tablet, which was kind of a cool feature. More importantly, the AC got plenty cold for me to sleep:

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Woke up, and back to the Kitchen restaurant, where breakfast was included. Not sure if it was my corporate rate, or if it was because I was an SPG Platinum member, but it doesn’t matter. Even if you have to pay for this breakfast…DO IT. In my opinion, it’s pretty much the single best hotel breakfast I’ve had anywhere in the world. Large selection of fresh sliced fruit, eggs made to order, selection of cheeses, huge selection of pastries, multiple chinese options, multiple Thai options, Indian options, several different fresh squeezed juices, yogurts, etc, you get the idea.

For started, plate full of fresh fruit, salmon, cheese, a pastry, and an omelette…along with great coffee and a New York Times:

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Followed by some Dim Sum, a pain au chocolate, and some passionfruit yogurt:

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After breakfast, a little more work catching up on the day’s work back in DC, and then off to the Siam Paragon mall. I was feeling the need to walk around and get moving, but in the heat and humidity of Bangkok there’s only so much you can do outdoors.  The W is connected to the SkyTrain by a series of elevated walkways, and it’s very easy to get to. Less than a five minute walk. Once at the Siam Paragon, there was an elephant exhibit, being auctioned for elephant conservation. Punk Rock elephant:

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Then there was discoball elephant:

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After walking, grabbing some Starbucks to continue fighting jetlag, it was back to the W to collect my bags and head over to the next hotel. First, a wall of lights near the elevators taken from Bangkok’s famous TukTuks:

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The W had given me a 5p checkout, meaning I spent about 32 hours in total there. Overall, this is definitely somewhere I would consider on my next trip to Bangkok. I think the rooms were nicer than the Sheraton where I normally stay, but the location and common areas were a small step down. I think I would probably consider it a wash, and it would depend what I was looking for. Either way, I think I would be happy.

Called an Uber to take me over to the Peninsula (mainly to try out Uber and see how it worked in Bangkok) and it was a piece of cake and entirely reasonable. Check in was a little on the slow side, but when you’re coordinating a conference with 400+ rooms it’s understandable there’s a bit of procedural stuff that has to happen. That aside, however, the staff was fantastic, and there was definitely an air of refinement and luxury at the Peninsula that wasn’t present at the W. For starters, look at this view of the river from my room:

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Went for an evening walk around the local area, and the hotel had a large illuminated poster out front celebrating the King’s birthday:

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Headed to the hotel’s Thai restaurant – Thiptara – for dinner. Someone had canceled at the very last minute, so was given this table right next to the river with an amazing view:

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The restaurant had a highly recommended set menu, with what looked like several options for each course. Turned out, actually that you got a small helping of ALL the options. For example, the amazing appetizers…the shredded grapefruit salad was amazing:

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The whole meal was fantastic, but probably enough for two people. After waddling back to my room and collapsing, it was time to get up and compare the Peninsula’s breakfast to the W’s. Similarly impressed, and almost as large, it might be the second best hotel breakfast I’ve ever had. Seriously, nobody can do hotel breakfasts like the Thai. Another huge plate of fruits, pain au chocolate, and cheese:

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Back to my room to work, while looking out on the river:

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The one downside, in my opinion, to the Peninsula is it’s location. On the other side of the river, there’s not nearly as much within walking distance. It feels like a slightly quieter neighbourhood which is nice, but you need to take the Peninsula’s boat to the other side to get to the SkyTrain and main parts of the city. Again, not a problem, just less accessible for walking around and being casual. Because of this, I decided to give room service a try for lunch. The Pad Thai was to die for, probably the best I’ve ever had, and I finished every little bit. Similarly, the mango and sticky rice was fantastic…the orchid was a great touch too. All in all, a superb lunch:

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After lunch, I check out the Paribatra Lounge. I was hosting a cocktail event later in the week, and the decor in this lounge (according to what I’d seen online) really appealed to the aviation geek in me. First thing I saw, an old Thai Airways model on the ceiling:

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…and another:

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Look at those views from the 37th floor:

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Old Thai logos on the wall:

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View of one section of the lounge:

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Complete with old Breguet 14 control panel:

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Old air routes map on the wall:

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Engine mock-up in the entryway:

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Entryway:

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Little history of Thai’s Boeing 747-400:

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Can you tell that lounge impressed me? I had to hold my event there, and it was right at sunset. Fantastic event, and the staff of the Peninsula were super gracious hosts. Couldn’t have asked for a more special venue with amazing views and decor.

After a long week of work events, decided to cap it off by repeating the amazing room service meal I’d had earlier in the week. Wasn’t at all disappointed with the second go-around of Pad Thai:

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Close-up of mango and sticky rice with super sweet condensed coconut milk:

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Final thoughts – the Peninsula was in a league of its own as far as class and professionalism go. If you’re looking to impress people, and host an amazing event, I don’t think anyone could do a better job. Everything about the hotel was perfect, things ran like clockwork, and they anticipated everything I needed all week without ever having to ask. I’m not sure it would be my first choice, as a tourist, however, mainly because of the location. If I wanted a spa and relax vacation, however, I might consider it. But for an active city and siteseeing vacation there are better options in Bangkok – unless having the pampering of an old-school slightly formal hotel is something that’s important to you.

I was happy to have discovered two more hotel options in Bangkok that were excellent and that I would return to without a second thought. This makes probably 10+ hotels I’ve stayed at in Bangkok now, and never once have I had even a remotely bad experience. It’s really hard to go wrong in this town!


Feb 092016
 

After a very productive week of meetings, it was time to head back to the airport for the long trek back to DC. Of all the trips I’ve made to Thailand this was the first time I’d ever gone transatlantic, and this trip I was going transatlantic in both directions. Unexpected bonus of this was an early morning arrival in Bangkok (as opposed to the usual midnight) and a late afternoon departure, as opposed to the oh-dark-thirty.

Check-in was nice and easy at Thai’s Royal Silk area, and even the toilets were friendly:

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Since I had a long way to go until sleep – still another 8+ hours, I grabbed a Starbucks at the airport before exploring Thai’s rather sad excuse for a lounge. The main lounge was extremely crowded, very few power outlets, and the snacks were also pretty dire. Overall, it was way below the quality I remembered, and I hope this isn’t a sign of things to come. I actually left the lounge early to wander the airport I was so bored in there – even the internet was pretty slow.

At least there was a wat near my gate?

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Boarding was a few minutes late, and then like all flights to India it was a mad rush to the door. I’ve gotten pretty good at holding my own, definitely a trait I’ve learned from my travels in India, China, and Africa. If you don’t look out for yourself in a crowd, nobody else is going to! Once safely aboard, it was a nice empty (maybe 50% full) business class cabin tonight, unlike the flight over. Not only was I spared sitting next to Typhoid Mary again, but I had a whole row of three seats to myself in business!

Thai Airways flight 315
Bangkok, Thailand (BKK) to Delhi, India (DEL)
Depart 20:00, Arrive 23:00, Flight Time: 4:30
Boeing 777-200, Registration HS-TKF, Manufactured 2000, Seat 14D

All three seats…just for me and my bags!

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Side view of the two window seats…unfortunately all the window pairs were full, but for a night flight it didn’t really matter.

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Unlike the flight over, pre-departure bubbles were offer. Leads me to believe it was a customs issue that they wouldn’t open them in Delhi.

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Tonight’s dinner menu:

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a few almons and spring rolls to start – not on the menu – guess it was a change:

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Salmon and crab salad to start, along with a regular green salad and garlic bread…not bad, but not impressive either:

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The chicken penang curry…pretty good, but again nothing to write home about:

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Mini desserts and fruit…I’m not sure what’s with Thai’s fascination of serving everything (curry, desserts, fruits) in little cupcake tins:

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Stayed up this flight and caught up on a bit of work and tv, and arrival into Delhi was right on time. Immigration and transit security were a piece of cake this time, and the Austrian staff were expecting me. Austrian uses the same lounge United does, which was absolutely packed. There are something like 10+ lounges at Delhi for like 20 gates, yet they always all manage to be packed. I haven’t been able to figure out the logic behind it. I tried to go to the Lufthansa lounge, but it was too full ,and they weren’t letting Star Golds in. Finally found a seat in the United/Austrian one, and at least I found a magical snack:

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Boarding was right on time for my first longhaul flight on Austrian.

Austrian flight 34
Delhi, India (DEL) to Vienna, Austria (VIE)
Depart 02:15, Arrive 05:55, Flight Time: 8:10
Boeing 767-300ER, Registration OE-LAX, Manufactured 1992, Seat 3K

Tonight’s dinner menu. I didn’t get a picture of the breakfast menu, which was a card you filled out, along with if you wanted to be woken up for it. I decided to get as much sleep as possible, knowing there were plenty of options for food in the airport upon arrival.

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Tonight’s route of fight. I love westbound redeyes – by the time you depart you’re usually rather tired from the late hour, but when you arrive at 5-8a local time it’s usually around noon where you came from so your body feels rested and ready to go..

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Mixed nuts for a starter. I was pleased that despite being a 2am flight, a reasonably full meal was being served.

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“Potpourri of Salmon” starter…rather tasty:

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Chicken breast starter main. Extremely bland and unimaginative, but at the same time not bad. It just sort of…was. I’m more wondering how I got this picture at such an extreme angle!

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Passionfruit cheesecake and cheese. The cheese was delicious, but there wasn’t nearly enough of it. You can guess what happened when I asked for a second helping…yep…of course there was no more. Seriously, why is cheese the one thing they seem to never have extra of?

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On the positive side, after this relatively small dinner I passed out for a solid six hours, waking up only on final approach to Vienna. The crew had done a great job of serving breakfast to those who wanted it without waking those of us who wanted to sleep. Generally, for me, seat comfort and ability to sleep is the most important thing on longhaul flights, and in this regard Austrian did a great job. I was worried they would keep the cabin super hot as Lufthansa and Swiss tend to do, but no such problems this flight.

Landed right on time, though there was a bit of a line at immigration and at security, which didn’t leave much if any time for the lounge. No big deal – the next flight was a short one and I figured I would doze on it anyways.

Austrian flight 561
Vienna, Austria (VIE) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 07:10, Arrive 08:40, Flight Time: 1:30
Airbus A320, Registration OE-LBQ, Manufactured 1999, Seat 4A

Fantastic view of sunrise after takeoff. Although they were crummy EuroBusiness seats, at least I had the whole row again.

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Rather strange breakfast panini, yogurt, and fruit. I pecked at it, but wasn’t worth more than a few bites.

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Landed in Zurich right on time, stayed in the Schengen Area of the airport to enjoy the Swiss lounge, and had a nice shower as well as a pretzel roll and a bit of cheese. The showers were actually a bit difficult to find, as they are in the business class part of the lounge and not the Senator side. Not a problem, however, and once found they were basic but solid. One note is that while the Senator side of the lounge was very crowded, the business class side was relatively empty.

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Walking to the gate, the airport was already ready for Christmas:

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Stopped to get one last Starbucks before boarding, at what is one of the most expensive Starbucks in the world. At seven francs for a venti Americano the only countries I recall being more expensive is Denmark. Hong Kong runs a close third, however. If anyone wants to help contribute to my Starbucks Index, feel free to send me the price of a Grande Drip/Filter Coffee in your city including tax.

Despite telling them my name was François to try and make things easier, they still managed to stuff it up. Should have gone with something German, but that would have just confused them since I didn’t speak German.

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Boarding for United was the usual cattle call, and every seat in business was taken today.

United flight 53
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Washington DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 11:35, Arrive 15:15, Flight Time: 9:40
Boeing 767-400, Registration N77066, Manufactured 2002, Seat 1D

Oscar Cliquot, 2014, verre plastique:

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Today’s menu:

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Cashews from Oscar’s Split Cashew Farm:

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…but hey, garlic bread, with plentiful replenishments. Yay!

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Yes, this is an appetizer. One shrimp and small piece of salmon, hidden amongst greenery:

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What WAS I thinking ordering the beef…

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I’ve seen shoe leather that was less tough. Lesson learned today: never again with the beef on United. Never again.

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Cheese was an improvement, mainly because they had plenty of the sweet biscuits I like with it:

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Sundae, with caramel and cherries. The usual three when asked for “cherries.”

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Napped a little bit, watched lots of tv, and all in all generic United transatlantic daytime flight. The arrival snack was a very nice change, with a decent serving of fruit that was still juicy, meat, and cheeses. Probably one of the better pre-arrival United snacks I’ve had. Much better than those super sad tea sandwiches they serve out of London. I really wish they’d do something about the rather sad and cheap chocolates for a sweet, however.

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Another trip in the books, next up, I’ll write a bit about the hotels in Bangkok.


Feb 082016
 

When I found out I was headed to Bangkok for work, I had a bit of a dilemma. Ever since United stopped serving Bangkok, there are very few good options to get there with a United ticket. You can fly to Hong Kong and connect to from there, but that means the 747s or 777s, with their awful seating. I mean, seriously, who doesn’t have all-aisle access seating. Plus, this option was significantly more expensive than fares we were getting on Korean and Air China…which were non-starters since I still had lots of elite qualifying dollars to earn with just a month left in 2015.

Eventually, I remembered there were super cheap business fares to India, and found an Air Canada option via Toronto with United flight numbers, meaning United would ticket it. Combine this with a cheapish Delhi to Bangkok ticket, and I was in business. On the way back, the flights that worked best timewise out of India ended up being on Austrian to Vienna and on to Zurich, with a connection to United there. Tickets sorted, premier qualifying dollars in the bag, it was time for a few new experiences – Air Canada longhaul, on a 787 nonetheless, and Austrian longhaul.

Slept in a bit the day of the flight, then headed to DCA. The Air Canada agents at DCA are pretty terrible. I think they might be outsourced, but they really have no clue about Star Alliance benefits, there’s no lounge at all – nor is there a restaurant voucher/credit – and it’s overall a pretty miserable operation. Since I was on two separate tickets, she didn’t want to check me in without a visa for India. I showed her one on an expired passport, and she refused to accept that as valid, even though it’s just fine with India. Then, I showed her an expired visa in a current passport, and not seeing the date she was good with that. Seriously WTF.

Fortunately, the A Gates at DCA have a couple new restaurant options with iPad ordering, which is pretty slick. Had a small lunch, and soon it was time for the short flight up to Toronto.

Air Canada flight 7615, Operated by Sky Regional
Washington, National (DCA) to Toronto, Ontario (YYZ)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 14:15, Flight Time: 1:25
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration C-FEJL, Manufactured 2005, Seat 1A

I had been incredibly busy leading up to this trip, and hadn’t had any time to give thoughts to seats. By the time I did, the only seat left in business was 1A. Decent because you don’t have anyone reclining into you, but pretty poor from a legroom perspective. Whatever, it’s a short flight, so wasn’t a big deal. No pre-departure beverages offered, but a great view of the Pentagon on a clear day right after takeoff:

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Small cheese plate and nuts were offered as a snack with wine…and refills. Not bad service for a flight that was just over an hour!

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Toronto is a bit strange when making a US to International connection. In order to get to international departures, you still need to visit an immigration agent, but a different agent than if you were intending to enter Canada. Not sure what the point of this check is, since you’re merely in transit, but they do it. Satisfied I wasn’t up to no good, they let me into the international area, and the Salon Feuille d’érable – or Maple Leaf Lounge. Quite a good spread of food was out, so I had some tasty ravioli and the obligatory ceasar. I love the little maple leaf swizzle sticks:

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A few weeks after I had booked, my friend John in Ottawa (who has guest blogged here before) found out he had to go to Tokyo for work. Being a complete dork and majorly short on miles to requalify with Air Canada, he opted to join me all the way to Bangkok, continuing on from there to Tokyo the long way. Talk about a super out of the way routing! While I enjoyed my ceasar, he indulged his obsession with the Maple Leaf Lounge cookies, and we got a bit of work done. There were several other options on the buffet, and I was pretty impressed with the amount of food that was set out. You’d never see hot options like this in a United or American club, not to mention all the fresh side dishes. You’re lucky to get hummus and some cheese cubes.

What a great coincidence, however, that we even had to leave on the same days and could end up on the same flights. Fortunately, his upgrade even cleared at the gate and on top of that, the last open seat was the one across the aisle from us. The travel gods were definitely smiling on us!

Air Canada flight 70
Toronto, Ontario (YYZ) to Delhi, India (DEL)
Depart 20:35, Arrive 20:55 next day, Flight Time: 13:50
Boeing 787-9, Registration C-FNOH, Manufactured 2015, Seat 4A

Brand spanking new 787-9, delivered barely a month prior, which still had that new plane smell. Welcome aboard screen:

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Water AND sparkling water, along with a basic but nice amenity kit:

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The crew was super friendly, while at the same time being very professional and addressing people by name. What’s for dinner tonight? Sorry for the slightly blurry pics…must have been one too many ceasars:

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Goofy “we’re finally flying together” selfie:

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Air Canada’s super-progressive safety video. I think the translation is: “Hey honey, let’s see if that guy in Row 8 is on Grindr!” It looks like their only préoccupation is with each other… 😉

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Some horrible movie I watched. Looks like Air Canada has joined United and American in the cut-price split cashew camp:

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Mixed greens, bread on a plate, and super tasty tuna starter. Quite possibly the best starter I’ve ever had from a North American airline.

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I generally avoid fish on planes, but John had the sablefish. Based on the presentation, I’m pretty glad I skipped it:

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My chicken murgh was even less appetizing looking, but fortunately tasted much better than it looked. Note the sad, empty wine glass:

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Mini cheese and fruit plate…needed more cheese:

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Pre-packaged ice cream for dessert? Sad panda…definitely a let-down from the United sundae.

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John went with the chocolate fondant, which was definitely the better option:

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At this point, I passed out for nearly nine glorious hours. With all the work leading up to this trip I was running super short on sleep, so was great to just be able to pass out. This also marked my third 787 redeye, and third one where I slept more than nine hours. There must be something to the lower cabin altitude and higher humidity on the 787, because I sleep as well on them as I do at home, and better than on any other plane. Plus, Air Canada did a great job keeping the cabin temperature reasonable, which made sleeping much easier.

Normally transatlantics aren’t long enough that I’m hungry for breakfast, but in this case decided to give it a  go. The muffin was dry and I skipped it after one bite, as was the fruit unfortunately. However, the cottage cheese with the omelette was super tasty, especially with the red pepper relish. Not normally a big fan of eggs on planes, but it was a tasty combo!

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Landed in Delhi late evening, and transit was pretty simple. We had to wait maybe 30 minutes for the Air Canada representative to come to the transit counter, and they were confused and not expecting us because we were on different tickets into and out of Delhi. Eventually, they figured it out, and transfer security was a breeze. This was like the fifth time I had done it this year, so I’m sure knowing what to expect made the whole process a bit easier as well.

Off to the ITC Green lounge, with some tasty Indian nibbles, Diet Pepsi, and WiFi to catch up on email. A couple hours later, we headed down to the boarding gate. I had forgotten there was a Starbucks there, or I would have gone much earlier. Normally I’m the one whose name gets messed up, but when John said his name the very eager barrista said “OH! Like John Cena!” I guess he’s a wrestling fan…

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Our flight was about 30 minutes late for the ever dubious “operational reasons” but soon it was time to board. Bid John Cena a temporary farewell, as he was off to fend for himself amidst the cattle in back. Fortunately, I expected to be a bit more comfortable…

Thai Airways flight 316
Delhi, India (DEL) to Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)
Depart 00:15, Arrive 5:40, Flight Time: 3:55
Boeing 777-200, Registration HS-TKA, Manufactured 1998, Seat 12E

Nice welcome-aboard glass of tea:

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Unfortunately, it was not to be as comfortable as planned, since I was stuck in a middle seat. Thai 777s not only do not go flat in the seats, but they have middle seats as well. Gross. I was seated next to a guy with a Chinese passport who kept hacking up phlegm the entire flight, and didn’t speak enough English to understand when I asked him to cover his mouth. Even acting it out didn’t seem to help. Fortunately, he knew the expression JOHNNY WALKER DOUBLE and after 5 or 6 of those he passed out. Doesn’t change the fact that about 36 hours after landing in Bangkok I came down with a cold. Want to guess who’s responsible?

At least there was Veuve to make things a bit better:

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Menu was simple, but looked tasty:

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The salad and shrimp were pretty meh, but hey, can’t complain when you’re flying India to Thailand and get multiple servings of garlic bread, and Veuve refills!

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The chicken red curry was ok, but nothing special:

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The raspberry marscapone cake was also pretty underwhelming, but again, the Veuve helped:

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Landed in Bangkok about 30 minutes behind schedule. I wished John good luck with his connecting flight to Tokyo. I couldn’t imagine having another flight after this as it had already been nearly 24 hours in transit and I was absolutely wiped out. Not in the mood to deal with taxis or the Skytrain today, I opted for an AOT car to take me to my hotel. Up next was a super busy week of work events before heading home. I’ll do another review of the flights back home in another post, as well as one on the hotels I stayed at.


Jan 302016
 

Holiday Inn shuttle dropped me back at the airport, and there was a rather long queue to check in, but fortunately nobody at all in the business class line. Quickly printed my boarding pass, gave me directions to the lounge, and it was off to immigration. Again, super long queue, but none in the priority line and was through to security in a couple of minutes. Immigration queue seemed to have relieved the security queue, and there was no wait. Walked through duty free, and had no trouble finding the lounge.

This is where things got weird.

Gave her my boarding pass, and was met with “Oh good evening Mr M, we have been expecting you. Right this way.” She walked me to the back corner of the lounge, there was a table already set up, and she made sure to mention “this is the coolest corner in the lounge, we have a nice table and beverages for you, and there is a power outlet right there.” Either someone in this lounge secretly reads my blog (and somehow knew I was traveling?) or some friend or colleague tipped them off. I have yet to find out who…

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Stayed right up until flight time, and the cookies were, btw, delicious.

British Airways flight 78
Accra, Ghana (ACC) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 22:40, Arrive 5:05 next day, Flight Time: 6:25
Boeing 747-400, Registration G-BNLF, Manufactured 1990, Seat 5K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 13,491
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,180,529

British Airways is funny, in that they don’t yet you choose your seat more than 24 hours in advance, even if you’re in business class, without paying for it. When I checked in at 24 hours, I noticed they were letting business class passengers choose the first class seats. A bit of research yielded that BA has just one old 747-400 left, and people get pissed if they pay for first and get these seats. So, instead, for the rest of its life BA condemned it to fly London-Accra (changed to Vancouver-Accra in February) and give away the first seats with business service.

I had to spend an hour with BA phone support to select the seat (something to do with being ticketed on an Iberia ticket), but soon was able to confirm in “first” seat 5K:

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Shot across the cabin…this actually kind of reminds me of the old 747 United first seats:

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Pre-departure champagne and really strange amenity kit:

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Power by emPower?! What is this 1998?!

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Shortly after takeoff, wine was offered with some nuts, and a very generous pour:

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Despite the late departure, a very nice dinner menu was on offer:

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To start the meal, another extremely generous pour…and who says the British aren’t drinkers…

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The salmon and salad were…acceptable. Roughly United standard in my book…but Archer made it much better…

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The chicken, unfortunately, was dry and flavourless. The jollof rice was a bit better, but…

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The pineapple tiramisu was nice, but more of a mousse with some pineapple sauce than really tiramisu.

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The cheese plate was…once again United quality…which doesn’t say much…

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Managed about four hours of sleep due to a comfortable seat. I should mention when I asked the flight attendant if she could please keep the cabin as cool as it was overnight and try and find me a second pillow, she was more than happy to do so. Also asked if she could wake me at the last possible second before landing, which she also did. The crew was really great on this flight, and really left me with a positive experience.

About 7-8 minutes before touchdown I was woken up, put on my glasses…and eventually stumbled extremely bleary-eyed out of the plane for my first T3 experience. Yes, fortunately, we hadn’t come into T5 today, and were in T3, so it made connecting to American easy. American actually has a nice transfers area when you arrive, and when I went up to the business class desk, she asked if I might like to take the earlier connection to Chicago. Originally, I had a nearly six hour connection (since that’s all that was bookable on the low fare) but this was great! She managed to get me an aisle seat, and I was off to the Admirals Club for a shower.

After a shower, I enjoyed a nice bacon sandwich for breakfast…along with a Diet Coke:

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Soon, it was time to board, a short walk from the gate. I vaguely remember T3 from the days United occupied it as well, but nothing looked at all familiar. Have things been remodeled?

American Airlines flight 87
London, Heathrow (LHR) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 8:40, Arrive 11:35, Flight Time: 8:55
Boeing 777-200, Registration N792AN, Manufactured 2000, Seat 12J
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 17,444
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,184,482

Ewwww old slanty lie-flat seats, a 2-3-2 config? Even United doesn’t have slanty seats any more. Between BA and AA, so far I’m not impressed with transatlantic OneWorld business class. What I am impressed with, however, was the eight people occupying like 35 seats. Score!

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Lots of room:

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Sorry it’s blurry, but you get the idea. Transatlantic breakfast flights are always disappointing, and this one was no exception:

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Bubbles…just to see if American pulled the same plastic glass crap that United does. Answer is: yes.

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Taxi was past…Concorde!

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This was just a hot mess of a meal. I wanted something more than water, but not a cocktail, so settled on an old childhood standby: ginger ale and OJ. The flight attendant had never heard of it before, and honestly, it was the best part of this meal. The fruit was dry and flavourless, the biscuit was just plane dry, and the eggs? Yuck. The worst part, however, was the yogurt parfait slathered in whipped cream and artificial berry jam. I think I took four or five bits of the whole meal and gave it right back. Awful.

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At least the cheese plate was decent? I tried to get seconds, but were told there were “no more, that’s the last one.” Um, with only eight passengers, seriously?

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Slept another three solid hours since I hadn’t gotten much on the prior flight, watched some tv, and soon it was snack time. Diet coke and Jeff, I mean Oscar, I mean Hector’s famous split cashews:

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Nice little deli plate. Nothing outstanding, but solid. Much better than the breakfast, and a decent white wine to go with it:

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Soooo, then we land. Overall impressions: the flight was pretty good. I think had it been a full cabin I would have come away extremely unhappy. Seat wasn’t great, food was well below average, the crew was pretty average, it was just…meh for a transatlantic. That said, one flight doesn’t tell you much and I’ll certainly give American more chances to prove themselves going forward since I have Executive Platinum status for the year now.

Short walk to immigration in Chicago, and this is where the fun began. I hoped that having global entry might automate things, but one of the first questions to pop up was “Have you traveled to Guinea in the last 28 days?” Yes/No question, lying on Global Entry can get privileges revoked along with whatever other crimes they could charge you with, so I was honest and answered yes. This immediately spat out of the machine with no further questioning:

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There was a dedicated immigration agent helping Global Entry passengers, so I gave it to him and told him “I’m sure the X is because I was honest that I visited Guinea.” He said “wait, that Ebola thing? Isn’t that done? Let me check.” Tapped on his computer a bit. Called a supervisor over. Supervisor called someone on the phone, the made lots of notes, asked me how long I’d been there, what I was doing, where I’d gone, etc. I was honest that I was working on going to every country, and stayed in Guinea as short as possible to minimize risk, etc etc. He said ok, everything was documented, you’re good to go.

Walked through baggage claim, to the customs guy, gave him the receipt, and he said “oh, you’re the Ebola guy, I need you to go with these officers and speak to the CDC.” Uhhhh, ok? Got escorted to a desk near baggage claim with a bunch of CDC posters by it, and learned the Chicago was a designated Ebola quarantine station, one of a few airports in the US that had been designated to accept passengers from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone at the height of the epidemic. My flights were on a different ticket so I likely would have arrived in the US undetected, but if you were coming direct from one of those countries a few months prior, you were only allowed to enter at certain points of entry, one of which (fortunately for me) was Chicago.

I was walked into a back office by CBP, who were extremely friendly and professional through the whole thing. They called the CDC agents on the phone to tell them to come in, and meanwhile, started filling out an online questionnaire. Typical things about fever, rural areas, funerals, unusual bleeding, playing with dead bodies, etc. At that point, I was given a gift from the government:

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Fortunately, my temp came in at 99.1, which was way higher than normal – probably due to the dehydration of a long flight. Fortunately, it wasn’t over their caution thresholds, and I was given the thermometer to keep “courtesy of your government.” Gee, thanks! Who says the government never gives you anything for free?!

I thought I was done at this point, but nope. Now, it was time to have a chat with the CDC people. Same exact questions about where I’d been, unusual fevers or bleeding, dead bodies, etc, and I think I got off a bit easily because they could tell I was clearly Ebola-aware as well as medically-aware, and ensured them I would immediately call county health officials and self-quarantine if I experienced any symptoms.

They seemed satisfied with that, and let me go, but not before giving me this card and insisting I carry it with me for the next 28 days. Great…now let’s just hope I don’t get knocked unconscious and start bleeding playing hockey, mkay?

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Since the great fare I’d gotten was Accra to Chicago, I had to buy a separate ticket from Chicago to DC. Decided on United, and fortunately was able to confirm an earlier flight online as well. But, this meant heading over to the B-Terminal, where there was as very joyous lady on the inter-terminal shuttle proclaiming her love for America:

Had to wait nearly 20 minutes for TSA PreCheck line, but other than that I still had plenty of time to hit Chilis for an El Presidente Platinum margarita and some Tex Mex eggrolls. Priorities, you know.

United Express flight 6469 operated by SkyWest
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 15:00, Arrive 17:55, Flight Time: 1:55
Embraer E-175, Registration N105SY, Manufactured 2014, Seat 4A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 18,056
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,185,094

United domestic first on an ERJ – nothing to write home about, but we were more or less on time, beverages were served (no snack basket today), and that was that. Another fantastic trip in the books. Thanks again to Daniel and Jordan for joining, trips like this are much more fun when you have others along to share the crazy with. I was supposed to have no more international travel until May after this trip, and really thought I didn’t when I landed in Chicago.

However, in the approximately two weeks since then, trips to Quito, Belize, and two weeks in Cape Town for work have all come on the books. Add to that a two week trip to check off Tuvalu (and burn American miles thanks to now being Exec Platinum and not having change fees), with stops along the way in Hong Kong, Fiji, Paris, London, and Abu Dhabi to try the Etihad Apartments, and this spring is suddenly quite packed!


Jan 292016
 

Soooo yeah. I woke up much earlier than I had planned on, due to not just getting a good night of sleep. Or, maybe I was psychic. Decided to check my e-mails and such in bed while I waited to see if I might fall asleep again. It was like 7a, and I had hoped to sleep until maybe 830a or so. While checking my emails, I saw a whole slew of emails from Kenya Airways, TripIt, and FlyingBlue. Apparently, my Kenya Airways flight from Monrovia to Accra had been “re-timed” from about 3:30pm to 9pm…making me miss my connection out of Accra out of Accra at 11p.

Um, this is not a good thing. My ticket from Accra was a crazy low Accra-Chicago-Accra ticket, and missing it would mean I’d have to find another way back from Accra or Monrovia, and also likely eat the discount business fare out of Accra. Ugh.

Hopped out of bed much more quickly than I thought possible, got to the computer, and started searching. Monrovia airport only has like five or six flights a day, and miraculously there was another one to Accra…leaving in just under three hours. Now, keep in mind, the airport is about a one hour drive away, and rush hour was rapidly approaching. The flight was with Arik Air, and of course when I tried to book online it wouldn’t work.

Skyped my travel agent, and she couldn’t get Arik Air to book either. Apparently, Arik Air is almost impossible to book except in person due to the fact that…well…it’s a Nigerian airline. I was down to about 2:30 until the flight, and time to make a decision was rapidly running out. I knew if I didn’t go to the airport, chance of anything happening was pretty much zero, so after telling Daniel and Jordan I was out, it was time to get out of dodge.

Went to the front desk, and of course they had no clue what to charge me for the room, since with all the room changes who knew. They tried at first to charge me for the VIP Suite Jordan had booked, but I informed they guy that “they” told me last night it would be the same as normal rooms. I told him what I was paying, he debated it, and finally wrote me a receipt. Of course the hotel driver wasn’t available, but he did call me a taxi to get me on my way to the airport.

Got to the airport without too much traffic, and then the drama started. I hadn’t negotiated the price with the taxi, but I was pretty sure it would be less than the $20 per person that the hotel charged the three of us to pick us up. Nope, the guy wanted $60 and wasn’t going to budge. I was rapidly running out of town, so paid up and went to the terminal.

I told the lady manning the very long security line to get into the building that I needed to buy a ticket. Yes, for Arik Air. Yes, for the flight in 90 minutes. She acted like this wasn’t strange at all, waved me past the security line, and straight to the check-in counters. The line for economy check-in was nearly 100 people long, so I walked up to the business class counter and told her I wanted to buy a ticket. Right now. Just to Accra. Again she didn’t think this was strange at all, and said, “ok, let me find out the price.”

She called someone, talked on the phone for a few minutes, and then came back with a price. I suggested maybe it was a little high, so she got on the phone and said some more things. She came back with a price $200 lower. I told her to check one more time. Nope, that’s the final price. That’s what you pay. She already had my passport, and handed me a boarding pass. Then, she wanted many hundreds of dollars…so I started to get out my credit card. That’s when she started laughing. This was going to be a cash-only transaction. I was basically screwed.

Then, I remembered the ATM in the parking lot. I told her I’d be right back, took the boarding pass and my passport and baggage (?!) and headed outside. Pretty sure even though I had a boarding pass I wasn’t getting on the plane without paying, so, I had to pray. Unfortunately, the ATM wasn’t working. Nothing I could do would make it take my card. The security guard said “for a tip” he would tell me where there was another machine. Ugh, cost me $10, but he showed me another bank/ATM on the other side of the parking lot.

This one worked…but there was a catch! It would only spit out $100 at a time…at a surcharge of $5! I was going to need this to work several times if I had any hope…and that my bank didn’t find multiple $100 transactions in Liberia suspicious. Fortunately, they didn’t and soon I had the cash! Went back inside, paid at the ticket counter, and was wished a nice flight. Wait, this was going to work out?

Passport control was easy, then it was time for…security. Except, the one x-ray machine wasn’t working, so everyone and their bags got completely hand-searched. It was a pretty low-quality search, and could have pretty easily gotten away with anything. That said, I made it to the lounge about 50 minutes before the flight. The AC was ice cold:

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I was offered “a drink and peanuts or pringles” – and went with water and pringles. Salt and vinegar, mmm….breakfast of champions! I’d been in such a rush to try and get out of dodge that I hadn’t had breakfast. This was also when I realized I would miss my chance to do a day of touring in Monrovia, sigh. Guess I will just have to come back now!

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Boarding was right on time, and despite it being a very short distance to the plane, we got bussed.

Arik Air flight 303
Monrovia, Liberia (ROB) to Accra, Ghana (ACC)
Depart 10:50, Arrive 12:50, Flight Time: 2:00
Boeing 737-800, Registration 5N-MJQ, Manufactured 2009, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 10,331
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,177,369

My first time on Arik Air, and the condition of the seats left a little bit to be desired:

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Very large 20 person business class cabin with good room between seats…and only three seats taken:

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For a short flight, was impressed we even got a meal, and there was a choice of chicken, beef, or fish. She recommended the beef “if you like spicy Nigerian food” so of course, I went with it.

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All-in-one wine bottle and glass. Clever! First the South Africans come up with wine juice boxes and now this!

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Meal was actually decent, and the spicy beef and rice was right up there!

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Landed in Accra on time, and one last look at Arik, who saved the end of my trip! I came away with a very positive impression of them!

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At this point, I had nearly 11 hours until my connecting flight to London now, and there was no way I was going to spend 11 hours in an airport lounge. Previous trips to Accra I’d stayed at the Holiday Inn airport hotel, so decided that would be a good place to go and see if I could get a day rate and some rest.

The Holiday Inn actually has a nice cool air-conditioned arrivals lounge and shuttle, and yes, they had no reservation for me (no kidding) but were happy to take me to the hotel and try and earn my business. The van arrived about 15 minutes later, and when I got to the hotel they gave me a very reasonable day rate for 8 hours. Was happy to pay, went up to the nicely air-conditioned room, and got a nice 90 minute nap in.

Needed some caffeine after that so walked down the road to the local grocery store to pick up some Red Bull. Walked by the La Tante DC 10 Restaurant on the way. I so can’t wait to eat here when I come back through Accra again in May!

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View from my hotel room:

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Pool-view room. I decided it was a nice warm day, so spent about 90 minutes relaxing by the pool before doing a bit of work.

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Panoramic shot of the pool:

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Was a little hungry at this point, so headed to the hotel cafe to see if I could find something light to eat. What could be lighter than “Goat Light Soup?”

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Ordered the soup, and one last large African beer while I waited:

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Soon, it was time to head off to the airport having survived a very drama-filled escape from Liberia, and begin the trek home.


Jan 272016
 

After wandering around, I met my driver to head back to the airport. I decided to use the Radisson’s transfer service again since it made things much easier – no worrying about cabs, boat tickets, or anything. I was starting to feel a little Africa-d-out so easy and convenient made it worth the little extra money. Dan and Jordan hitched a ride along in my van to the pier, and Jason’s visa service, over the course of the trip, expanded its lines of businesses to become Jason’s Visa, Translation, Transportation and Foreign Exchange Services. Soon, it will be like a South Korean Chaebol controlling all sections of the competitive traveler economy!

When we got to the pier, the first thing I noticed in daylight (since the ferry ride from hell the night before had been in total darkness) was the inappropriately named boat…Blessing:

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My ship of horrors from the night before, the Sea Coach Express. Yes, those are windows, but there’s no way to open. Apparently there was a door at the front too, but that must only be fore the captain, because you couldn’t get to it from the inside.

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Apparently we were too few passengers to use that ship again (shucks), so we would be using what they called the “small boat.” He called the first group of ticket numbers right at the time advertised for boarding, and at first I thought this was our boat. One never likes to see “Good Luck” as the name of their boat after the terrifying experience from the night before. (Yes, I know Goodluck Jonathan is the President of Nigeria, but still!)

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Our boat was the same style as that one, and they didn’t pack it full this time. We all had a seat, it was open to the air (to the point I felt confident jumping and swimming for it if things went wrong) plus they made each of us put on a life preserver before leaving. Night and day from the previous ferry. (Yes, pun intended.)

Jordan and Dan, having bought their tickets at the pier, were in the second boarding group, and apparently would not be getting on this boat since we left without them. No idea if they were going to make it or not…tried texting them, but no response.

With that, we pulled away from the Aberdeen Bay ferry port:

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Plenty of lifejackets to go around today…and the ferry wasn’t crowded. I was beginning to wonder if the night before had just been some really, really bad nightmare:

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Soon, we were pulling into the Lungi Pier:

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Lungi appeared to have a very nice beach at least:

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Jordan and Dan made it in a boat maybe 10 minutes behind, and we all piled into a couple of vans to the airport. The van stopped about 200 meters from the airport, and we had to go in a tent and wash our hands. Then, we were allowed to drive up to the terminal. In front of the terminal, there was another mandatory handwashing station.

Then, you entered the terminal and had to fill out two forms. After filling them out, you got your temperature taken, and you were certified as low-risk for Ebola and allowed to check in for your flight. This form was stapled to your boarding pass, and then at the gate they took your temperature AGAIN, and wrote it on the form before allowing you to board:

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Check-in, immigration, and security were a piece of cake. Security tools asked me for a “gift” – I told them I was a tourist and that was a gift to their economy. They laughed.

I went off to find the business class facilities, which were mercifully (and frigidly) air conditioned since we still had nearly 90 minutes before boarding. No free food or beverages, but there were employees from the airport restaurant there who would fetch anything you wanted to order and bring it to you. I shared a few beers with a South African “contractor” who has “been doing some work in West and Central Africa for about 20 years now.” I didn’t ask further questions…

Soon, it was time to board our ride to Liberia:

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Air Côte d’Ivoire flight 759
Freetown, Sierra Leone (FNA) to Monrovia, Liberia (ROB)
Depart 15:05, Arrive 15:50, Flight Time: 0:45
Airbus A319, Registration TU-TSA, Manufactured 2004, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,628
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,176,666

Interestingly, this would be my second flight on Air Côte d’Ivoire, and more interestingly neither time did the flights actually involve flying to or from Abidjan. They apparently run lots of tag-on routes. First one was from Togo to Ghana, and now this one would be from Sierra Leone to Liberia. I remembered being pretty impressed with them the last time in coach, so was looking forward to a good flight. First noticeable changes, a locally-registered plane (last time the plane was registered in France), and this time a local crew, whereas last time the crew was French. Looks like they were growing local talent, so another good sign.

No pre-departure drink, and after takeoff, I was asked if I wanted water. I asked for champagne. She scowled, and said “no, only water.” Um, ok, I think I will have the water then!

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Very short flight with non-existent service, and soon we were on approach to Monrovia:

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We had arranged for our hotel to pick us up, and they were waiting in the carpark when we got through immigration. Immigration was super quick, and since Liberia uses US dollars in parallel with local currency I decided not to get any. Soon, we were heading out of the airport and on the hour long drive into town to our hotel.

On the way, we passed rubber plantations and lots of very, very green scenery. We also passed the Liberia Revenue Authority, which apparently only collects lawful revenues. Whew, I’d hate to think there was corruption!

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After checking in at the Bella Casa Hotel, I got to play musical rooms with the hotel. I hadn’t paid much attention, and knowing my princess needs, Jordan had kindly booked me in the for $220 a night VIP suite. One big problem, however, the air conditioning seemed to be non-functional, and there was nothing VIP about it. So, we tried another room. Then another room. Then a fourth room which they convinced me would be cooler when I got back from dinner. I wasn’t convinced.

Meanwhile, a friend had told me there was a great beach just a couple blocks for our hotel, so we retired there for a sunset beer and Dan and Jordan grabbed dinner. A proper Africa-sized beer:

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Last night together on the beach:

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Great sunset from the beach bar/restaurant, which was aptly named Sunset Beach:

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I left them to enjoy dinner, and met a friend from DC who had recently moved to Monrovia to work for USAID. He was picking me up in his car, so I stopped by the room on my way and found the AC still not really working, so told the front desk to find me a better room while I was gone. ugh! He had a restaurant he’d been wanting to try called Anglers Bar and Grill, so we headed there. Lovely outdoor deck right on the ocean.

We ordered a couple of Savannah Dry ciders to start along with some grilled Halloumi cheese (the proprietors were Lebanese) followed by the tuna steak with balsamic which was absolutely huge…and delicious! A great meal:

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We caught up for a couple hours over dinner, and when I got back to the hotel they notified me they had found me a room that might work better. Fortunately, it was indeed a bit better, and adequate for the night. I had no idea what they intended to charge me, or what “level” of room it actually was, but it had functioning air conditioning and internet and that was the important thing!

Headed off to bed, and tossed and turned all night, having a rather poor night of sleep. Woke up much earlier than planned at 7am due to sleeping badly, which turned out to be a good thing, because…


Jan 262016
 

Fortunately, my adventures on the RER were much less of a problem today – and not only that – I managed to catch and express train and was at the airport barely 45 minutes after leaving my hotel…which gave me 3.5 hours to spare. I was going to need it, however, to figure out my way through this maze of an airport.

Leaving the RER station, there were a bunch of Air France kiosks, which made checking in and getting my boarding pass easy. So far so good. Rather long walk, but eventually navigated my way through the sea of checkin counters and found the area for departures. Exit immigration was a breeze with no line at the business class counter, and priority security was also rather empty…save the woman with about 200 metal bracelets and trinkets all over her body. Seriously, do people not thing ahead when they are flying?

Regardless, found my way to the lifts underground, and to the Air France lounge with plenty of time to spare. To top it off, my flight would be leaving from the main terminal 2E building, meaning a short walk from the lounge. Looked like everything was going well today!

Since I’d only grabbed a quick coffee at Starbucks, I decided to find out what my food options were in the lounge.

A lounge with real cheese and not Tilamook? Score!

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Main course of a chicken and mushroom stew of some sort, and cheese wrapped in ham…with an apple tart for dessert. Not at all bad for lounge food Air France. Not bad at all!

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Since I had plenty of extra time thanks to the RER running well today, it left me a few extra hours to get some work done in the lounge before it was time to take the short walk to the boarding gate.

Air France flight 770
Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to Freetown, Sierra Leone (FNA)
Depart 13:35, Arrive 19:10, Flight Time: 6:35
Airbus A330-200, Registration F-GLCB, Manufactured 2001, Seat 5E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,374
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,176,412

As soon as I was seated, pre-departure champagne was offered along with amenity kits. I decided to fit in this time, and when I wasn’t offered a blue one on the tray, asked if they might have any blue ones. The flight attendant apologized, and immediately went off to fetch one. Hah!

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Today’s menu…rather tasty looking once again!

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Today’s flight was the same number as my flight from Conakry two days prior, and apparently it does a circle Paris-Freetown-Conakry-Paris every couple of days. Worked out perfectly for me, and obviously lots of others because today’s flight appeared to be completely sold out in all classes. Everyone I could see in business had either American passports of Chinese, leading me to believe it was largely a mix of development workers and the usual Chinese “infrastructure” people. Tasty snack of cashews and cranberries along with a creamed pea mousse:

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Shrimp starter, along with more fois gras. Looking around – I found almost everyone poking at…and then refusing to touch the fois gras. Next time I’m on Air France I’m going to ask for them to take double helpings for me from all those who can’t or won’t appreciate it!

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Extremely tasty risotto, and cheese! I’m branching out from my usual beef offerings this trip with vegetarian risottos, scallops, monkfish…what is this world coming to?!

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Trio of desserts. It’s no Jeff Sundae, but it’s way tastier!

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My impression after two medium-haul flights on Air France: nobody can beat them for business class food. Sure, Emirates and Singapore can try and be “fancy” but they save the truly impressive stuff like lobster and caviar for first class anyways. Air France serves good, solid, high quality food in business class that doesn’t taste and look like it came out of the dollar bin at your local WalMart. Normally I’m the first to find airplane food boring and meh, but I can honestly say the Air France meals were things I would order in a restaurant. Well done Air France!

…and as a nod to Air France, my seatmate was displaying extremely Haute Couture – a bedazzled New York Yankees sweatshirt:

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This is where stuff got interesting. After a great flight, we landed at Lungi International Airport where the passport queues were extremely slow and sweaty. Country #189 visited! Now, Lungi Airport is rather interesting. It’s about 10 miles or so from the capital of Freetown, but those 10 miles are if you can walk on water. If you can’t you take the long way around the bay by car, which usually takes 3-4 hours. Yes, that’s right, hours. So, what most people do is take the ferry.

I had read nightmares about the ferry, and the process of procuring tickets, which were approximately $35-40. For $60, the Radisson would send someone to meet you at arrivals, transfer you to the ferry, give you your ticket, and pick you up on the other end. Sounded like a bargain to me…and I went with it.

My driver was waiting for me in the arrivals area, and handed me my ticket. He took me to the bus area, where I would wait for the bus to the ferry. Yes, that’s right, first you need a ferry ticket. Then the ferry company drives you to the pier. Then you take a ferry. Then you need transport on the other side. Well worth the premium I paid.

Fortunately, the ferry company’s van had awesome air conditioning, and soon we were off. About a 10 minute drive to the pier in complete darkness, but it didn’t matter, because once we got to the pier we waited nearly an hour to board the ferry. No answer why, other than soon soon. Eventually we boarded, and it was clear they were going to cram an entire A330 of passengers on a ferry which was marked “Capacity: 55”

I personally counted at least 80-90 people, and there was lots of yelling and complaining about the boat being overloaded. But, see, there’s a problem. It had one deck. With one door. In my foolish rush to board I had moved away from the door, and if this thing sank, there was absolutely no way I was getting off on time. I was hoping reason would win it, but no, they just slammed the door. A staff member gave some half-hearted safety demonstration that included comments about life jackets and the easter bunny…not sure if either really existed..and the motors sputtered to life.

Fortunately, it was pitch black outside, and we couldn’t feel the terror we were about to embark on…the first five minutes weren’t too bad, but then the waves started, and the boat started pitching pretty hard side to side as the waves would hit the boat which was loaded down worse than a pregnant woman well past her third trimester. I tried to strike up a conversation with the local couple seated next to me (we were some of the lucky ones with seats) but that didn’t work when they told me they’d taken this ferry dozens of times…and it had never been loaded down this badly. They were clearly worried.

I started looking for small and weak people between me and the door, deciding who I would trample when we capsized. I also started practicing holding my breath, trying to figure out how long I would have to get to the door once the water came rushing in.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, that’s when it started. Now, Sierra Leone had recently been declared free of Ebola, and to do so they constantly reminded people of the way it spread: avoid bodily fluids of sick and dead people. Well, that’s when the first woman lost her cookies…all over a couple of people also standing in the middle of the boat.

A couple of minutes later, it happened again with another person. All told four people threw up all over other passengers. While it made the time pass by quickly, if a sinking boat didn’t kill us there was a reasonable chance Ebola would. Eventually, we made it to the other side…the air heavy with the smell of vomit and fear.

True to their world, the Radisson shuttle driver was waiting for me, and soon we were off to the hotel. Quickly messaged Jordan and Dan that I’d arrived, and that they were free to meet me in the hotel bar/restaurant as after checking in I would need something to make me forget my near death experience.

This item on the menu didn’t reassure me:

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Yes, you may have a beer, but only after you sanitize your hands:

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After a couple of beers and some food, it was time to head to bed so I could get up at a reasonable hour and maximize my time in Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, the room air conditioning in no way met my standards, nor did the internet which only reached about a foot into my room. I was too tired to care, and had good data service on my cell phone, and eventually passed out for eight solid hours of well-needed sleep.

Got up to have a bit of breakfast before heading out, and was surprised to run into Dan and Jordan there. They had some sort of buy one get one free rate that didn’t include breakfast, and given the hotel wanted over $25 for it I hadn’t expected to see them. The buffet was rather basic, but enough to do the trick, and certainly better than several we had had on this trip.

They had arrived the prior day, and agreed to show me around the area near the hotel so I could maximize my time before leaving. We headed down to Lumley Beach, which thanks to “National Exercise Day” on Sunday, was packed:

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I was doing my best to “STOP the EBOLA Virus” but given all the vomiting on the ferry the night before, I wasn’t overly confident.

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The beach was packed with people playing football, lots of people just walking, and vendors selling water and other drinks in the incredibly hot sun:

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I spotted one football team getting ready to take a picture, and rushed over to ask if I could take their picture as well. This got them to do their championship pose, and I found out they had just won the beach league tournament of some sort. Given the dozens of games going on at the beach, there seemed to be tons of different leagues and casual games going on, and most of them even had referees. It was a rather large affair and apparently THE thing to do in Freetown on a Sunday.

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After a while of walking around we eventually headed back to the Radisson to try in vain to cool down ever so slightly with some cold drinks before heading to the airport for our onward flight to the final new country of this trip: Liberia!


Jan 242016
 

The guesthouse was nice enough to give me a ride back to the airport, but unlike the approximately 20-25 minute drive to get to the guesthouse in the morning, it took us more than 90 minutes to get to the airport. I had left plenty of time so it wasn’t a problem, but was still mildly annoying. Plus, I got a free long French lesson out of it, since it was just me and one of the owners in the car, so we covered everything from US politics to the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, African dictators, you name it. Quite a good conversation for a couple of folks speaking their non-native languages who had just met less than 12 hours prior.

Air France check-in was no problem at all, and immigration and security were a breeze as well. I was soon camped out in the common-use lounge Air France uses to wait for my flight. It was still festively decorated for Christmas as well:

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Decent selection of beverages, and some pastries that were a bit past their freshness:

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The downside on the beverages…I ended up having three beers, and as I got up to leave and board my flight she came running over asking me to pay for the third one. I don’t have a problem with that itself, but she should have informed me when I ordered it that there would be a charge. Oh well, there were plenty of electrical outlets, comfortable seating, fast internet, and good AC, so if that’s the biggest problem with a lounge in Guinea I’m pretty ok with it!

As we were boarding, nurses were waiting in the jetway, and writing temperatures on the boarding pass to “prove” you weren’t sick at the time of boarding:

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Air France flight 770
Conakry, Guinea (CKY) to Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
Depart 23:10, Arrive 06:25, Flight Time: 6:15
Airbus A340-300, Registration F-GLZK, Manufactured 1997, Seat 6E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 6,445
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,173,483

I had changed my seat right before boarding to 5E, since according to ExpertFlyer there were two seats left to sell, and 5E and 5F were both open on the seatmap. It turned out to be the right call, because even though I was in the last row, I had nobody sitting next to me. Amenity kits came in a choice of colours, and I noticed several of the passengers around me being very particular about which one they got…and the crew seemed to think this was completely normal. Seriously, the contents were the same (I asked) so people were being fussy on the colour?

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Welcome aboard champagne. Yes, champagne. Real champagne. In a glass. Take that United!

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I do love monkfish, and figured if anyone can do it right on a plane it’s the French, so I broke (for the second time this trip) my no seafood on a plane rule and ordered it:

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Not a bad menu for an 11pm departure!

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Dessert and starter served all at once. Mmm, cheese, profiteroles, and fois gras. This has the makings of the best business class meal ever!

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The monkfish was absolutely amazing, and the mashed pumpkin was a tasty addition:

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Managed to get almost four hours of decent sleep, and woke up just before landing in Paris. It was my first time dealing with the situation at Charles de Gaulle outside the United area, and what a mess! So many parts to the terminal, connected by a maze of passageways and trains, but eventually I did make it to immigration where the wait was over an hour in the business class line! They were questioning every passenger very hard – probably due to a combination of the refugee situation and the recent terror attacks. My turn? When I finally got to the front it was a look at my passport “where do you live?” “Washington DC” stamp and go. No questions beyond that, but in my hour of waiting saw at least 20 different people pulled into the office for secondary.

Long hike to the train station to catch the RER, which was a nightmare. There were track problems going on, and four trains in a row got canceled. It took over an hour to get a train into the city, and once we finally moved it took probably 15 minutes between stations. Finally, I arrived at Les Halles just over three hours after leaving the airport. Yes, three HOURS. There were also problems on two metro lines, and the station was more than a little congested:

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To the point people were getting majorly impatient:

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Eventually I made it to my hotel just after 11am, despite landing before 7am. Absolutely crazy. First order of the day was to take a short nap, and then head out on a long walk:

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I usually stay at a small family-run hotel in the Marais, and decided to head out on my usual walk starting first past Notre Dame:

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From there, I continued up past the Pompidou, Louvre, and eventually down the Champs Elyssees to the Arc de Trimophe. Unfortunately, no pictures of that part of the walk since with coffee and pastry stops along the way it was super dark by the time I arrived. I had hoped to have a bit more of the day, but the train/metro disaster kind of squashed that, so I had to settle for just a long walk, which was pretty awesome.

Since it was after dark, and headed into the weekend I headed out to grab drinks with a couple of friends who live in Paris before calling it a relatively early night. I still had to get up in the morning and head back to the airport for Air France adventure part two, and a few more days in Africa. Given how the trains had been operating I decided not to risk missing my flight, so headed to the airport with plenty of time to spare.


Jan 242016
 

I had to get up early. Way too early. It was a struggle to decide…the Radisson ran airport shuttles at either 4am or 5am, and I was really debating risking the 5am. It would still get me there about an hour before my flight, which would be more than enough time if there was no wait at security or immigration. But, I’ve seen well over an hour wait for immigration at Dakar, so eventually common sense won out and I decided to take the 4am shuttle…which meant getting up at something like 315am. Ugh. Even with a 930 bedtime that wasn’t six hours of sleep. Fortunately, I’d stocked up on Red Bull, cheese, and chocolate croissants so I got to have the breakfast of champions before heading off.

Of course, there was absolutely no traffic, and absolutely no security line, so I was at the gate by 5am with just shy of two hours to kill before the flight. Of course, then 640 came, and we still hadn’t boarded. Somewhere, around ten minutes after we were to have boarded the bus pulled up and we finally got to board. Didn’t get a whole row to myself, but the flight was empty enough that all the middle seats were free so couldn’t really complain at all!

ASKY flight 55
Dakar, Senegal (DKR) to Conakry, Guinea (CKY)
Depart 06:40, Arrive 08:05, Flight Time: 1:25
Boeing 737-700, Registration ET-AOK, Manufactured 2003, Seat 15C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 3,572
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,170,610

Uneventful flight, the crew made one pass for beverages – only water offered – and that was it. As recently as three months ago ASKY was at least handing out crummy sandwiches on short flights, so must be budget cuts!

We landed maybe 30 minutes behind schedule, and caught a bus to the terminal where everyone got their temperature checked (thanks Ebola!) before being allowed to enter the terminal. There was also a mandatory handwashing station set up before you could enter the terminal:

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Immigration was a piece of cake, but they were rather shocked to see tourists. Guinea was only declared Ebola-free a few weeks prior, and has suffered a major drop in tourism. He was even more surprised when I told him I was just in transit for 15 hours, and would be flying out to Paris the same evening. A tourist and in transit? He was pretty excited and welcomed me to Guinea. I’d heard lots of not so great things about Guinea. Several folks in the “visited every country club” have said Guinea was their least favourite country in the world due to crime, rude people, things being run-down, etc, so I’d decided one full day would be plenty.

Honestly, the second reason for the short stop was that I had two options for going onwards to Sierra Leone. One was 24 hours or so in Guinea, followed by 12+ hours overland from Guinea to Freetown, Sierra Leone by shared taxi. I’d heard stories the roads were quite grim and the trip rather unpleasant. However, there were also no direct flights. On one engine, when I typed it in it tried to give me an Air France connection via Paris with 36 hours in transit! Wait…

On the off chance, I decided to check Delta’s website. I’ve had just over 100,000 miles sitting around, and decided to see if Delta would let me book this routing. Sure enough, it was happy to sell it to me with miles, and I was going to have my first Air France experience. Not only was I going to get to give Air France a try, I’d avoid a long unpleasant overland trek as well as getting a full day in Paris. Sounds like a win to me!

But, I digress. Our driver was waiting for us right outside customs. Dan had found the Pension les Palmiers online, a small guesthouse located about 10km outside of downtown Conakry. That might not seem like much, but traffic in Conakry is horrendous. However, the owner’s son picked us up and drove us to the hotel for 10 euro each, so it looked like a good base for the day.

While he was finishing getting our rooms ready, I watched a group of local schoolkids doing athletics on the beach:

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Running hurdles:

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Post-hurdles recovery…

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Soon our rooms were ready. Mine was small, rather hot, and had cracks in the screen so bugs/warm air could get in. However, the air conditioning was rather powerful and managed to offset that. It was a good thing I wasn’t spending the night, however, since I imagined being on the water without great screens on the windows lots of flying and biting bugs would get in. I passed out for a solid 90 minute nap, and woke up feeling much better.

I had arranged with the owner to find us a taxi driver to take us on a city tour for five hours, and by the time we woke up and were ready to go he was there. Our first stop along the way was at a local moneychanger, who seemed to hang out on a certain street corner, and when we arrived he ran up to the car window with large wads of cash ready to trade. We got a fair rate, and then continued on towards the city. Streetside view on the drive:

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After driving through the city a bit, we passed the Michelin 3-Star Obama Restaurant:

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For some reason, we decided not to have lunch there, and continued on our way, soon passing the Conakry Port:

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Group of school kids we passed on our drive:

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Political graffiti, of course when I took this picture, the artist who did it ran up and asked to be paid. Ugh.

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We decided to do lunch at Chez Luigi, which was really two different restaurants. Unfortunately, we went in the wrong one first, and when asking for a menu they got really confused and said they only had breakfast food. I was starving so ok with that, but then eventually she asked “do you want something else like pizza maybe?” Um, yes? She then walked us a couple doors down to their sister restaurant which was absolutely packed. Much better!

As soon as we sat down and looked at the tv, I saw this:

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Well now, that didn’t bode well for my flight to Paris! Fortunately, as we were eating lunch the plane did indeed take off from Paris, so it looked like we would be leaving more or less on time. Whew. Hopefully it was a one-off attack and wouldn’t have too much impact on my time there. The restaurant was run by a Lebanese family (there seemed to be tons of Lebanese in Guinea), and had an interesting mix of Lebanese food and Italian. I went with a pizza which was pretty good…and they had Diet Coke, which made me super excited!

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After lunch, we went back to their sister restaurant next door to enjoy some gelato and espresso. Perfectly nice little Italian lunch in the middle of Africa. Who knew!  As we waited for our taxi to find us again, lots of local boys were happy to try and sell us everything under the sun:

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Driving on, even the police were doing their best to stop Ebola:

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Our next stop was the Palais du Peuple, or People’s Palace. There was a float from the recent election parade parked outside:

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Independence monument, which proclaimed that “Imperialism shall find it’s death in Guinea!” Indeed…

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Driving along, anti-Ebola poster on the road.  “I’m reassured….because my family washes its hands with water and soap.”

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Eventually, after a nice hot drive we made it back to the guesthouse where the owner was happy to bring us ice-cold local Guiluxe beers. She was a very charming older lady from France who had moved to Guinea years ago and decided never to leave. Her and her son were great hosts, and the guesthouse was the perfect place to relax for the day. From airport transfers to a nice place to crash, to finding us a great taxi driver to take us around, it was a really lucky find.

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Plus, from the guesthouse there was a fantastic sunset:

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Overall, my impression of Conakry was actually quite good. It was far from the worst place I’d visited, and I wouldn’t even mind going back for a few days some time. Sure, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot to do or see, but that alone doesn’t make a place awful. Everyone I met was perfectly helpful and nice, and while the country obviously has poverty it wasn’t nearly as in your face as many other places. I was glad to get a really good experience in Conakry, but all too soon it was time to head back to the airport and continue my wanderings….


Jan 232016
 

Despite the rather significant communication gap, the Coimbra Hotel did indeed have a driver ready and waiting (and they even have their own hotel van) to take us to the airport. Unfortunately, traffic in Bissau this afternoon was bumper to bumper and it took a good hour in heavy traffic to get there.

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We arrived a bit later than we had planned, approximately 2.5 hours before our flight. We figured getting there early would be a good idea, since the airport only has three or four flights per day, and if anything went wrong it would be good to be at the head of the queue. Judging by the parking lot 2.5 hours before the flight, we didn’t have much to worry about. Finally found a security guard to let us wait inside the somewhat cooler terminal instead of in the extremely hot parking area:

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In fact, the check-in hall was so empty we were actually wondering if the flight existed. Until about two hours before the flight, we were the only ones around, and over the next 30 minutes a few other passengers and cleaning staff trickled in:

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No problem, however, about 90 minutes before the flight they did finally open up check-in, and it was no problem at all getting our boarding passes for Dakar. Was forced to check my rolling bag, which really wasn’t a big deal, and then was allowed to proceed through security and immigration to the waiting hall, which had a nice little bar/cafe waiting area:

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Boarding was right on time about 30 minutes before the plane, and obviously there was no jetway. Our plane was ET-ANH today, and it was the same 737 that Ian and I flew from Lome-Douala-N’Djamena, Chad back in September:

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Being one of the first on board was able to get a great exit row seat with no seat in front of it. Despite maybe 40 minutes of flight time, it’s always good to be comfortable!

ASKY flight 42
Bissau, Guinea-Bissau (OXB) to Dakar, Senegal (DKR)
Depart 18:15, Arrive 19:10, Flight Time: 0:55
Boeing 737-700, Registration ET-ANH, Manufactured 2007, Seat 16A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 3,131
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,170,169

Only a 40 minute flight up up to Dakar, but a full beverage service was offered. You can see the missing seat in front of me here:

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Overally, another solid flight with ASKY. I’ve taken about 10 flights with them now all over west Africa, and they’ve been super about being on time, friendly, and generally comfortable. Overall, aviation west Africa is so much better than it was even ten years ago. Sun was setting as we approached Dakar, and after deplaning got a nice shot of our plane at dusk:

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Collected my bags, and headed off to get a taxi to my hotel. I was staying at the Radisson Blu (which I had decided on previous long work trips to Dakar was by far the best choice in town), while Jordan and Dan were staying at the Hotel Baraka (Obama). Just kidding on the Obama part. We decided after checking in to meet up for dinner, and grabbed cabs to the La Piazza Restaurant. Unfortunately, they were running a bit late due to traffic being blocked by what was apparently a corpse in the road. Eek!

La Piazza had remodeled since my last trip two years ago, and was actually nicer now. We were the only customers, but that changed by the time we left to a full house. I forgot that people in Dakar tend to eat rather late. Several of the waitstaff remembered me from a couple years back, and when I commented that they had changed my favourite dessert they said they absolutely could make it the old way. We ended up splitting a pain perdu, which is basically a caramelized french toast with ice cream…it was delicious!

Unfortunately, I couldn’t join Jordan and Dan for a day of touring the next day, since I had to go into our office to do a bunch of work. Fortunately, the Radisson is just a few blocks from my office so I was able to take a nice long two hour lunch break by the Radisson pool. The struggle is real I tell you…

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Ended up doing dinner with coworkers I hadn’t seen in a couple years, so wasn’t able to join Dan and Jordan, but it was an early night anyways, as we had to be up at oh-dark-thirty for our flight on to country #188 – Guinea!