Sep 182014
 

After fueling up at Starbucks…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing…Pépé:

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

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

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

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Sep 162014
 

Having landed right on time, I grabbed a triple iced espresso for fuel at the D-gates Starbucks, and headed straight to the Washington Flyer bus, where I learned that the bus doesn’t start until 7:45 on weekends. It was only 7:10. Grrrr. In an attempt to (a) be fiscally responsible and (b) curious about the new bus to metro service on the silver line, I waited. This meant a $5 bus plus about $5 metro ride vs a $55 taxi….

Shortly, the bus arrived, and the Washington Flyer bus is no longer a nice coach bus, but a glorified public bus with luggage racks. Actually was glad to see this, because the bus now runs every 15 minutes instead of every 30, and is $5 instead of $10, so it’s definitely a win. Soon we were at metrorail, and I was enjoying a quick ~25 minute ride to my place. Can’t really complain about 40 minutes door to door on public transit from Dulles!

Emerging from metro, looking a bit scruffy, bags already forming under the eyes, but none the worse for wear:

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So, I had exactly 10 hours in DC, one of which was eaten up getting home.  So, first order of business was a load of laundry.  Then packing a weekend bag for Andorra.  See, I’d left my luggage in Honolulu, to be picked up on the way to Vegas, so I had only my laptop bag with me.  Packed a weekend bag, and by 10am I met some friends at a local restaurant for a quick brunch and catching up on this crazy trip.  One of the friends did a 48 hour Johannesburg mileage run with me about a year ago, so the insanity was easily related to.

Now 11:30 and still 6 hours before my flight….so I unwisely went and played an hour of hockey.  Why not, right?  It’ll make me tired for the flight!  Had a great time, more than a little amused at my own insanity, and by 2p was home, showered, and right back on Metrorail to take me to Dulles.

I’d checked in online, so it was straight to security where there was almost no wait at pre-check, and less than 15 minutes after arriving at Dulles I was already in the D-gates Red Carpet Club, which I don’t think I’d been to in years.  It was time for some delicious Tilamook cheese and a few glasses of Château le Jeff.  Despite a huge brunch of french toast and two sides of bacon, I was starving from hockey, so I went to town:

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The Dubai flight was also leaving from the D gates shortly, and the people watching was nothing short of fascinating.  Several younger military looking types getting absolutely tanked on Bud Light (their lack of tolerance made me ashamed to be American) and perhaps the scariest part…a middle aged portly Texan guy who ordered “6 shots of Jack Daniels on the rocks.”  Yes, he paid like $70 for it and didn’t seem phased.  I’m gonna guess he has a fear of flying…more surprisingly the bartender didn’t seem surprised at all.

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Sep 152014
 

Thanks to an early night, managed to wake up early…around 530, and headed out for a “short” run to fight off jet lag.  Headed down Kalakaua towards Diamond Head, before realizing it was too early and it wouldn’t be open yet.  Slight detour to Starbucks.  Had coffee, read the paper for an hour, and then started the run.  Got to Diamond Head, hiked up to the peak, and ran back.  Around six miles total, and the perfect antidote to jetlag!

Got back to the hotel, and had a huge container of pineapple and some aloe juice from the ABC store before giving up on being productive at all.  Grabbed a towel, headed down to Waikiki, and just sat in the sun for a few hours.

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I may have only had 24 hours in Honolulu, but between a walk, dinner at Duke’s, the run up Diamond Head, and beach time, I’m pretty sure I maxed it out!

Around 1:30 I called for the car, put down the sun roof, and headed back to the airport on a gorgeous day.  No problem dropping the car off, and soon I was at the extremely empty United check-in area:

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Thanks to the United mobile app and TSA pre check, I was already checked in…which was sort of a pity because it would have been entertaining to see the look on the agent’s face when I checked in all the way to Paris!

Less time in security means more time for liquid Aloha!  Went to the Kona Brewing Company in the terminal to grab a lite lunch…and of course a few Big Swell IPAs:

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I told the waittress to bring me the tastiest app on the menu whatever it was…the kalua pork quesadillas didn’t disappoint!

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After a quick lunch, I decided to do some plane spotting.  HNL is great for it, since it’s an open air terminal and you can get up close and personal with the planes.

Delta and a Korean Air A330:

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Sep 102014
 

Ok, this took far, far longer than I planned to get around to.  I figured “I’ll be spending 30,000 miles on planes over the course of 12 days, lots of time for writing.”  What I didn’t take into account is that my sleep schedule would get so out of whack that I’d find myself wandering streets at 3am enjoying cities in a whole new way, and sleeping when I could.  Plus, the trip ended in Vegas.  I don’t really need to explain much more.  I got home after this mother of all mileage runs absolutely wrecked in more ways than one.  Then there was life, and work, to catch up on…but finally…here we go!

In case you missed the post about how this trip came up, I’ve linked it here for reference.

Soon, the big day was here, and it was time to head out!  Decided to be a bit frugal and take the Metro to the airport, which in rare form was running with no delays and everything went smoothly.  So smoothly in fact, that I was from home and through TSA in under 30 minutes.  Ended up with almost an hour before my flight, so popped into the Delta SkyClub for a quick breakfast.  I wanted to check out their new offerings…and was seriously happy to find greek yogurt and hard boiled eggs.  No salt anywhere though.  Grrr.  At least I had a chance to stock up on protein knowing Señor Jeff would soon try and put me in a carb-induced coma.

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Boarding was right on time, and we were on one of United’s oldest 737-800s today…but at least there was WiFi!

United Airlines flight 1662
Washington DC, National (DCA) to San Francisco, California (SFO)
Depart 8:15, Arrive 11:19, Flight Time 6:04
Boeing 737-800, Registration N18220, Manufactured 1998, Seat 2E

Today’s route of flight was rather strange, I assume due to the storms covering the flyover states.  Although we were blocked 6:04 gate to gate, flight time was announced at just 5 hours and 5 minutes…rather quick for this route.  I was rather excited to be on this route, instead of having to trek out to Dulles and it was my third ever transcon out of DCA, and the first on United.  So happy to have this route as an option now!

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Not only were full pre-departure drinks offered, but they came with refills if you were a quick enough drinker.  This was going to be an excellent crew!  There was almost no wait for takeoff, and we were airborne less than five minutes after leaving the gate.

Today’s breakfast choice was either scrambled eggs and sausage (powdered scrambled eggs on planes scare me…Jeff’s sausage pucks scare me even more), or the big tray of carbs.  I decided to go with the carbs and a bloody mary, figuring at least it might put me to sleep.

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Aug 112014
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aug 092014
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The routing was set:

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

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

See this?

Llivia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whew.  Because next up is:

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

Day 7:  Honolulu-San Francisco-Vegas

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

Day 11:  Vegas-Houston-DC

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

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


Aug 052014
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jul 292014
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking out to the plane:

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

The view on takeoff from St Kitts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

with sombrero

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jul 262014
 

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

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

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

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

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

Along the reef:

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Jul 252014
 

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

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

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

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

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

Wreck of the MV Corinthian:

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Turtle just hanging out:

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Marine life on the wreck:

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Staring contest with the world’s laziest turtle:

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