Dec 282015
 

The airport was absolutely deserted when we arrived, and the immigration people seemed a bit irritated to have to work. No problem signing in, and then off to arrivals. I admit I hadn’t checked the currency situation, but knew it was approximately 1 to 1 with the US dollar, so decided to take out some local currency. Over the next few days I learned that US dollars are accepted absolutely everywhere at 1 to 1, so no need for local currency at all.

I was tired and a bit cranky, so gave into the guy with the town car who accosted me in arrivals and offered me a ride to the hotel at a reasonable price. We had a nice chat, and it was a very comfy ride, and soon I was arriving at my hotel for the next couple of nights, the British Colonial Hilton, Nassau.

First impressions on check-in weren’t good. It took nearly 15 minutes to get to an agent to check in, and when I did she informed me “all rooms are full, this is the only room.” Uhhhh, ok, guess it will do. Up to the room, which looked reasonable:

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That is, until I realized the whole room was vibrating from the bass at a party. Back to the front desk, same agent tells me basically too bad, I know you’re a diamond member, so sorry, but there’s a hurricane benefit party, we’re totally sold out. Too bad.

Um, that’s not going to do. I asked for the manager on duty. She eventually arrived after about 15 minutes, and when we went to the room she saw what I was talking about. There were just a few more rooms from the BA crew that had just checked out (to turn my flight around I’m guessing) so she checked which rooms those were.

Eventually, after nearly an hour, we did find a room that was reasonably quiet. In exchange for the inconvenience of having to find a room that was reasonably quiet, she asked what I was doing for dinner…and I said I was just going to probably order room service because it was late. “Go ahead, and it will be on us.” To her credit, I ordered a sandwich, desert, and a few beers, and they were all comped. Points to them in that department. Unfortunately, I was left with a bitter taste from the surly lady at check in…and the people attending the benefit in the room across the hall who were loud until around 2am. Ugh.

Next morning, woke up, and decided to go for a bit of a walk with my one day. First stop, of course, Starbucks! On the way, I passed this monster having just arrived in port:

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Got my Starbucks (where they decided my name was Jacin) and people watched for about an hour as the cruise ships disgorged their passengers. I felt like I was in Middle America on the seaside, full of people complaining that things “aren’t like home here” and being generally…awkward about being in a foreign port.

Walked back to the hotel for a bit, and was glad to see that after the Bahamian flag the Chinese flag flies proudly at the same level:

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After getting things together, I headed out for a long walk. I decided I was going to walk through the city, and head over to Paradise Island before taking the ferry back towards my hotel. After about an hour of walking with breaks to check out the kitschy little souvenir shops, I was near the bridge to Paradise Island:

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Halfway across the bridge, the first views of Paradise Island:

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I walked around Paradise Island for a couple hours, mainly people watching. I know there are all kinds of resort activities, but since I was only there for a day I just wanted to walk around and see things and people. I don’t know what I expected from Nassau, but I felt like I was in Orlando, or somewhere people go that they think is exotic. It just didn’t feel that “different” from the US at all, and basically just like a place that tries to be as American as possible so as not to upset the cruise ship crowd. I’m sure the more remote islands are much different, but I left disappointed.

That’s not to say the views weren’t amazing:

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After a bit more walking, I was on the ferry back towards the Hilton in the late afternoon:

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On the way back, we passed all the cruise ships docked…

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Sunset view of the Nassau ferry port:

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Overall, Nassau was pretty much exactly what I expected it to be. It was a nice warm day, but literally felt like I could have been anywhere in Florida. Not complaining, but I guess I feel like when I visit a foreign country, I want to feel like something is “different.” Nassau, to me, didn’t feel like that. It felt like it could have been anywhere, very generic, with the Hard Rock Cafe, Senor Frogs, Starbucks, McDonalds, and nothing that felt authentically local. Again, I’m sure there are places that are, but I didn’t find them.

Next morning I slept in a bit, grabbed a bit of Starbucks, and just walked around enjoying the nice weather. Soon, it was time to taxi to the airport and begin my trek home. Taxi prices were fixed and posted at the Hilton, so there was no drama at all.

…until I got to US Immigration. The US does pre-clearance in the Nassau airport, and my big concern was if they would care about Cuba. I know nobody has been hassled over the OFAC regulations in many years, but you still never know. Went to the Global Entry Machine, didn’t get the dreaded X, but when I turned it into the agent she started paging through my passport. The conversation was even more weird:

Her: What were you doing in the Bahamas:
Me: Vacation
Her: How long were you here
Me: Three days
Her (seeing Algeria stamps from a week ago): Why were you in Algeria? Do you know anyone in ISIS?
Me: Uh, no? I was just on holiday. Trying to visit every country eventually.
Her: Ok, how much money do you have on you?
Me: Maybe $100 or so?
Her: Ok then, have a good trip.

Now, why she didn’t ask my how I got from Algeria to the Bahamas I’ll never know, but oh well. Just left me frustrated that our immigration agents are often poorly equipped to really ask the questions that would catch people conducting some serious shade.

Speaking of serious shade, I was surprised to find there was a Priority Pass lounge. They let me in, and told me it came with a $20 credit for snacks and drinks. That’s the first lounge I’ve ever been to where you get a credit, and that’s all you can eat or drink. It was just odd! I got a couple diet cokes, some chips and was happy enough until we boarded.

United flight 1462
Nassau, Bahamas (NAS) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 13:05, Arrive 16:20, Flight Time: 3:15
Boeing 737-800, Registration N37273, Manufactured 2001, Seat 2B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 123,129
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,162,096

Welcome aboard plastic cup of Oscar Cliquot:

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Nice short flight, and there were only two choices of meal. For once, I decided to get the pasta which I never seem to get. It was actually pretty tasty. I don’t remember the cookie, but fortunately I got the exactly same one today on a Mesa/United Express flight. Come on United, you can seriously do a bit better than this!

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Landed in the C terminal…and it was my lucky day. Despite a short connection, my connecting flight was only two gates away. Lots of people have been complaining about how Newark has less walking space now due to the concessions in the middle of the hallways, but it was nice to get a good beer from the iPad restaurant during my wait:

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Now, for the absolute highlight of my trip:

United Express flight 4786 operated by CommutAir
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Baltimore, Maryland (BWI)
Depart 17:55, Arrive 19:16, Flight Time: 1:21
DeHavilland Dash 8-200, Registration N369PH, Manufactured 1998, Seat 2B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 123,298
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,162,265

Just kidding, lol…plane was absolutely full…and I volunteered, asking to be put on the DCA flight an hour later. I originally booked BWI because it was over $200 cheaper for the P fare, but I really wasn’t feeling it tonight. As it was, they had several no-shows, so no volunteers needed unfortunately.

Flight was super quick, and soon we were arriving at BWI…brrrrr after the Bahamas!

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I had decided it was late, I was annoyed, and there was no way I was going to deal with the train/metro/etc combos to get home, so decided to get an UberX. I felt a bit bad someone would have a long drive back to Baltimore after my trip, but got lucky and got a DC-based driver who was on his last trip of the day. Worked out super, was really affordable, so BWI ended up not being so bad after all!

That brings the trip to a close, and just three days at home before I needed to head out again to Thailand for work…no rest for the wicked!

Dec 232015
 

Dropoff by my taxi at Havana Airport was simple, but one word of advice is to check out which terminal you depart from. I had arrived at Terminal 3 with Avianca, which is the main terminal handling international flights. According to wikipedia, Cayman Airways uses Terminal 3 like all the other international airlines, but fortunately my taxi driver thought to ask some people and turns out they use Terminal 2. Other than Cayman Airways, Terminal 2 is used primarily for the charter flights to Miami, New York, and Fort Lauderdale operated under the OFAC license. Fortunately, my driver asked. One note, Condor was also using the terminal for flights to Frankfurt, so definitely don’t trust what wikipedia says.

No security at all to get into the check-in area, and the first counter I saw brought back memories:

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I could have been anywhere in the US, except all the flights were pretty much to Miami:

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Check-in was simple, I changed the last of my convertible pesos back into euros (no receipts needed) and headed to immigration. Had a nice chat with the friendly immigration officer who asked how I enjoyed Cuba, and then asked me if he could stamp my passport. I’d been told they always stamp now no matter what, but I didn’t get a stamp on the way in, and was given the option on the way out.

Security was on the other side of immigration, and a pretty simple affair. Terminal 2 is just one big open waiting hall, with a few hundred chairs and no jetbridges. You either walk to your plane, or are taken on a bus. Shockingly, there was actually a VIP Lounge upstairs, which I had access to with business class. It was a pretty quiet affair, with just me and two self-important people loudly telling everyone in the world on their cell phones that they were off to Miami. The lounge had serve-yourself beer and wine, and lounge staff would (in theory) make you other drinks if asked. There were some bowls of nuts and crackers, but that was it for food. I tried to get some pictures of the lounge, but was scolded, so gave up trying.

Soon, about 30 minutes after scheduled departure time, we were allowed to board our plane:

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There were only two of us in business class for the short hop, so I decided to take the window seat and enjoy the views.

Cayman Airways flight 833
Havana, Cuba (HAV) to George Town, Cayman Islands (GCM)
Depart 15:20, Arrive 16:20, Flight Time: 1:00
Boeing 737-300, Registration VP-CAY, Manufactured 1993, Seat 2F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 121,566
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,160,533

Great bulkhead art…He Hath Founded It Upon the Seas!

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PDB was…a mini bottle of water. At least I was offered a second one?

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Hasta Luego, Havana!

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Taxiing out for takeoff, we passed this beauty. Not sure the old Eastern ever operated 737s, but was still awesome to see!

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The in-flight magazine boasted they were the only airline in the world to offer complimentary rum punch to all passengers, so how could I turn that down? It even came with a mini “just in case it’s not strong enough for you.” Now that’s service! I chatted with the flight attendant a bit, and she was from Jamaica and used her benefits with Cayman Airways to fly all over the world. She’d been all over Asia, Europe, Australia, and really was interesting on top of being really service oriented. For a flight that was maybe 45 minutes in the air, she did an amazing job.

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Amazing views of the setting sun in flight:

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On approach to Grand Cayman:

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Was first off the plane when we taxied in, which meant first to immigration as well. All transfers go through immigration in the Cayman Islands. Not sure if you can transit without a visa if you need one, but when I told them what I was doing they quickly stamped me in and directed me outside to the check-in counters. Fortunately, I was familiar with the airport and had no trouble finding them.

When I got to the BA counter, they even addressed me by name, since I was the one connecting passenger they were waiting for. I guess this isn’t a very common connection? Quickly checked in, and since there’s no lounge, I was given a $10 coupon to use at the bar in the departures area. Can’t complain about that!

Security was super quick, and I was through to the departures hall in just about five minutes. Just like Havana, the departures area in Grand Cayman is just one large room, and there wasn’t too much to do. Fortunately, I only had about 30 minutes before boarding. I really wanted a Diet Coke, but when I walked up to the bar this is where things got a bit interesting. After I ordered the Diet Coke, a, um, “rather nice English lady of the mature variety” chatted me up, and had some rather unflattering things to say about my manhood for ordering a Diet Coke. She insisted I join her in doing rum shots…and ordered four right away. Apparently her “friends” were boring and had left the day before to go back to work so she was flying back to London all alone.

Fortunately, before she could order any more drinks, they paged business class for boarding. I excused myself, thanked her for the rum, and was met with “business class? well aren’t WE fancy?!” Hahaha, one of those great random travel experiences.

Boarding tonight was walking out onto the tarmac, and to the plane. She definitely looked majestic from this angle:

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British Airways flight 252
George Town, Cayman Islands (GCM) to Nassau, Bahamas (NAS)
Depart 19:15, Arrive 20:45, Flight Time: 1:30
Boeing 767-300, Registration G-BNWM, Manufactured 1991, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 122,033
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,161,000

Literally within a minute of boarding, I’d been brought bubbles. This flight was looking pretty good for my first BA flight in 25 years!

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But seriously, this is a business class seat? Not only was it completely open (so I can look right at the dude in the next row), but that’s a footrest? I don’t think I want to try putting this into flat bed mode…

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Empower?! What is this, 2002?

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But hey, the upside was definitely the crew, who insisted I needed a second pre-departure bubbles, no matter what I said:

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Couple of thoughts on the seat. The design of the tiny little flimsy tray below holding my water is really really bad and easy to bump. Like with your knee to the point you knock your champagne glass on the ground and break it. Not that I would do that of course….

So, yes, it’s a 90 minute flight, but snacks of a bag of M&Ms and some candied nuts? I was a bit unimpressed.

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It was great to have a 767 on such a short flight, and really nice having real business class. Combine that with the fact that the crew was awesome, helpful, and friendly, and it went a long way to making this a really good experience. However, if I’d been going to London, I would be super disappointed.

I know everyone thinks United is pretty rotten, and yes, they have middle seats in business class on some planes, but lately OneWorld has really disappointed me. I think we can all agree that in both alliances Cathay, Singapore, ANA, and JAL are in a league of their own, well above most members of their respective alliances.

However, when you move down a tier, you start comparing Lufthansa to BA and United to American. Let’s assume service is roughly equal on all of them, and think about the hard product. BA flies these awful open seats where you look right at someone else on some routes, and AA is still flying 777s that don’t even have lie-flat seats! Even the hard product on United isn’t that good. Plus, from what I’ve seen, BA is nowhere near the quality of Lufthansa’s new international product. (Now that they’ve finally gotten rid of those awful sloping seats). Thoughts? I guess with both alliances it still means in the middle you really have to pay attention to which plane you’re flying.

Landed right on time in the Bahamas, maybe 10% of the plane got off with the rest continuing to London, and it was time to visit my 185th country…the Bahamas!

Dec 222015
 

Fair warning, this is going to get very long with lots of pictures!

The original plan had ben to do two full day tours in order to maximize my short time in Cuba as much as possible. Since I ended up arriving at noon this was cut to 1.5 days of tours. My company was great, however, and picked me up from the airport and instantly started the Havana tour. It was a great way to cut down on the transatlantic jet lag, and get a start on seeing things. Yes, it meant I would have a bit less time in Havana, but I knew I’d also have a half day before my flight out, so I was planning to use it more as an intro to the city.

Guide met me in the arrivals area and, let’s just say I was the envy of all the other western tourists arriving. Between my amazing classic car and my amazing guide there seemed to be a bit of jealousy. Too bad a bit of it was lost on me, and too bad she was uncomfortable posing for a blog picture with me 😉

Our first stop was the Plaza de la Revolución, where large rallies and events are often held with tens of thousands of people for major speeches and events. When Pope John Paul II visited he held mass for over 100,000 in the square, and Pope Francis did the same earlier this year. The iconic picture of Che Guevara was on a building on one side of the square:

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On another side was the Ministry of Information and Communications, and on the side was the portrait of Camilo Cienfuegos and his famous quote “Vas bien, Fidel!” Loosely translated as “You’re doing well, Fidel” it was his reply to Castro in 1959 at a large rally when Castro asked him if he was making the right decisions by nationalizing various things:

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The other side of the square had a large statue of José Martí, but unfortunately due to the angle of the sun I wasn’t able to get a good picture of it. My guide mentioned that the elevator going up the monument was unfortunately closed due to needing some parts, so we weren’t able to see it.

She asked if I was hungry yet, and since I wasn’t we decided to continue the tour in New Havana. Our first stop was the Hotel Nacional, famous for hosting everyone from mobsters to international dignitaries during its lifetime. The bar inside actually has portraits of all its famous guests, and reads like a whos who of 1930s-1950s America. Funny, but after 1960 most of the pictures are people like Mugabe, Soviet leaders, and the like…

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After walking around the hotel a bit (and dodging tourists) our next stop was Parque Lennon, or John Lennon park. Most notable in the park is the statue of Lennon on a bench, wearing his usual glasses. For many years, the glasses would be frequently stolen for the scrap metal they contained, but lately a local woman has been keeping watch over them. She holds onto them, and when she sees tourists coming she puts them back on him for photos, hoping for a few pesos in return for her work:

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By this point it was mid-afternoon and I was getting pretty hungry, so my guide took me to a Paladar, which is a restaurant run by the self-employed as opposed to a government-owned restaurant. The food at these venues is almost universally better quality, and the staff actually care about doing their jobs as they can be fired for not doing it. Paladars came into existence in the 1990s during the first wave of economic reforms, and seem to be where almost all tourists eat these days.

Unfortunately I didn’t get the name of the Paladar she took me to for lunch, but they were having a special – for 20 CUC you got a starter, a main course, a drink, and a desert. What a bargain!

Starter was a “salad” of cheese, ham, and chives…it looked and tasted much better than it sounded:

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Main course of local fish, shrimps, and lobster tail with frijoles negros. YUM! Although I’ll admit eating lobster in Cuba felt slightly…bourgeois 😉

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This is probably a good time to talk about money in Cuba. There are two currencies that circulate side by side: the Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) also referred to as the “kook” based on its abbreviation. The government conducts business in CUP, but everything a tourist will run into is priced in convertible pesos. The convertible peso is pegged to the dollar at 1-to-1, however, there is a 10% tax for exchanging dollars so you really end up paying $1.10 for a convertible peso. In contrast, at current exchange rates, one euro buys you 1.08 convertible pesos, so you get a much better rate if you go dollars to euros to pesos. Confused yet?

It also seemed that all Cubans who were middle class had access to convertible pesos. Often, these come in the forms of tips for tour guides, hotel workers, or anyone else who might have occasion to run into foreigners. Consider that the exchange rate between the peso and convertible peso is 25 to 1, you can see why nobody is anxious to deal in “regular” pesos.

After lunch, we drove along El Malecón, which is the seaside boulevard that runs between new havana and the old city of La Habana Vieja, which is also a World Heritage Site. Along the way, we passed the brand spanking new US Embassy:

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Building in the Old Town:

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Buildings around a square in Old Havana:

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Odd statue in another square in Old Havana:

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View of a square in Old Havana:

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View from the roof of the Hotel where Ernest Hemmingway lived:

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We walked the old town for a couple of hours, before the light rain started in the early evening, eventually turning into a torrential downpour. What better time to retire to my hotel and be cliché and have my first mojito of the trip:

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When the rain finally let up a bit I walked around the corner to get some dinner. I didn’t want to go too far due to the rain and the jet lag, but also wanted to get out of the hotel, so went to a place recommended by some other people in my hotel. Yes, it was cliché, but how can you go wrong with a cuban sandwich and mojito. Hint: the ones in Miami generally are much better….

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I’ll go into details on my hotel later, but suffice to say I crashed hard after a long day and managed a good night of sleep before beginning the super long day of touring we had planned. Our first stop the next morning was across the bay to have a view of the city from a lookout point:

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Panoramic:

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As we drove out of the city, we passed a war museum, which I was advised to snap pictures of from the road, because, “it is not worth the admission:”

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…and because Rio has one, Havana needs a large Jesus status to watch over it as well:

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1950s classic car next to a horse drawn carriage…guess which is older?

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As we got out of the city, we started on the highway to Matanzas and Varadero. Our plan was to stop first in Matanzas and see the old city, but just as we approached the skies opened up and it started pouring. We opted to continue on to Varadero first and hit Matanzas on the way back. Our first stop was at some caves outside Varadero where we waited for 30 minutes with a large group of local tourists to go down and explore the cave. The tour was in Spanish only, but it was pretty much like every other cave/cavern tour in the world. Lots of stalactites and stalagmites, and people taking selfies that would never turn out:

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By this point it was early afternoon, so my guide asked her driver (who was from Varadero) for a good place to get some lunch. He recommended the Pequeño Suarez, which previous clients had told him was really good. Based on the lobster thermidore I won’t disagree, even if the cheese wasn’t completely melted on the lobster. Yes, there were more mojitos:

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Shot of the car I drove around in all weekend after lunch:

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After lunch we walked around Varadero, mainly people watching and watching the throngs of tourists behaving badly. Oh, and I might have jumped in the ocean for a bit. I contemplated a small swim to Key West, but didn’t want to aggravate the shoulder any more:

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After walking around the city for a couple of hours, on the way out of town we drove by the Casa de Al restaurant, which allegedly was an old home owned by Al Capone. It’s now a government-owned restaurant with terrible service, and thus, no tourists:

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The rain had let up a bit, but started as a light rain just as we approached Matanzas again. On the main square we stopped to look around. First site, which was very frequent in Havana as well, lots of people camped out next to buildings that had WiFi using the signal. Internet cards are easy to buy, and the signal is horridly slow, but finding a hotspot is harder. Thus, people congregate wherever they exist to use them. My hotel sold cards for nearly 4 CUC an hour and they could be purchased for just about 1 CUC from a government vendor. My guide helped me buy a few, however, the lady refused to sell me more than three hours. “No! You do not need that much! Save for others!” Ah, socialism…

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Panorama of the main plaza in Matanzas:

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Statue of José Martí again in the centre of the plaza:

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On the way back, we stopped to see a bridge. Classic cars parked outside, next to a large tourist bus:

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In 1960, the Puente de Bacunayagua bridge was completed, and offered great views:

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After a long day of driving, I got back to my hotel to see they had left a creepy towel elephant for me. Talk about working for those convertible pesos in tips…I couldn’t resist a tip after this:

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So this is probably a good place to talk about the hotel. I stayed at the Hotel Mercure Havana, mainly because it was easy to book from abroad. Apparently, this isn’t common, as almost every there is on a package holiday and prepaid. Once they figured out my unusual situation it was fine, but they did request I pay in full in cash upon arrival. Ok, no problem, I had planned on this.

As far as the room goes, it was comfortable enough. There was anemic air conditioning that kept the room just comfortable enough to sleep, it was clean, and fairly large. The only rooms they had had two beds which was less than optimal, and the washroom was in serious need of upgrading, but overall the rooms were pretty good. I didn’t bother to check if the tv worked, so can’t give an update on that. Also, the anemic WiFi was only in the lobby.

I also tried the breakfast restaurant, which was decent and did make omelettes to order. The rest of the selection of breads and fruits was pretty poor, but the coffee was decent and it was more than enough for breakfast. The best part was the price, which was only about 100 euros a night. From what I understand, that’s a pretty good deal in Havana, so I was pleased with it. Also, the lobby lounge made good drinks and had live dancing and music all afternoon and evening so was a good place to hang out. Overall, I’d recommend it. The staff were helpful and friendly as well, which isn’t necessarily easy to find in Cuba.

For dinner, I ventured a bit further from the hotel along the Malecón to what was described as a “traditional Soviet eatery.” I mean come on, how can you not try such a place in Havana:

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The pelmeni dumpling starter was tasty too. You can see I also continued the mojitos:

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Dinner was stroganoff. Now, I would have had the beef stroganoff, but there’s a problem in Cuba. Apparently, cows are in short supply. To the point that if you kill one, you can go to prison for life. When they do eventually die of natural circumstances, you must call a government vet to come certify that the death was natural (so you don’t go to jail) and then the government takes the dead cow to make into beef for hard currency sale to foreigners. Reminded me so much of this:

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Anyways, politics aside, for 1/3 the price I accepted the pork stroganoff, which was just as good:

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I met an American family over dinner, and we had a great chat. They were from South Carolina, and were a couple of lawyers and their college son in Cuba doing “research on the legal system.” I was surprised the government was kosher with that, but hey, made for a great mojito-infused Thanksgiving dinner, and after last year’s dinner with the Israeli military it was hard to top. I’m really going to have to work hard next Thanksgiving to come up with a good story.

Thanks to the mojitos I passed out relatively early again, only to wake up to this view from my room. Life was rough:

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View of the atrium of the Mercure hotel from my room on the sixth floor. Everything was a lovely shade of pink and beige:

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Headed out for a walk after breakfast. More classic cars:

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The Museum of the Revolution:

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The Bodeguita del Medio, Hemmingway’s favourite place to grab a mojito:

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Inside of Havana Cathedral in Old Havana, a short walk from my hotel:

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Back to La Bodeguita del Medio to have mojitos with the tourists, and enjoy a bit of music:

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Making tourist mojitos by the batch:

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The most expensive, and probably the worst, mojito I had the whole trip. But with Comrade Castro and Hemmingway looking down on me, the atmosphere made it worth the 5 euros:

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The full tourist experience…one after another…

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Walking back to the hotel, a produce vendor. Bananas were cheap…and I got three for about 25 cents US.

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Buildings in Old Havana:

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More classic cars:

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At this point, it was time to head back to the hotel. The green car above was the taxi I hired from my hotel, and made a great end to a memorable trip. I would highly recommend anyone interested in Cuba to head there soon. The infrastructure isn’t in place to support massive numbers of tourists any time soon, so the biggest constraint will be capacity. Hotel rooms are already a bit tough to find (mine was sold out more than a month in advance) and that will only get harder as more Americans are allowed to visit.

Off to the airport, and my next stop…the Bahamas!

Dec 192015
 

Unfortunately as you read in the last entry, Cubana was having a bit of a problem with its Ilyushin 96s, so they would not be flying them between Madrid and Havana today. As excited as the offered alternative of 13+ hours in charter economy (read: economy with even less legroom than normal) was, I decided to see who else could get me there. Avianca had a flight on their new 787 that left at the same time as the Cubana flight, and with two stops in Cali and Bogota (and a short overnight in Bogota) would get me there at noon the next day. It meant I would lose a morning of touring in Havana, but in the end be much more comfortable. Plus, I admit I was swayed by the chance to not only fly my first ever Europe to South America flight, but to do it on a slightly unusual route like Madrid to Cali.

The nice thing about the departure time is it allowed me to have a leisurely morning in Madrid, enjoy some coffee and a short walk before taking the bus to the airport to save a bit of money. It was a bright and sunny day in Madrid, but fairly cold…but the sun won out and it was nice for strolling around. At check-in, there was a good deal of confusion…could they issue my boarding passes all the way to Havana, or not? Do I need a visa for Havana, or not. Apparently, this isn’t a very common connection – especially via Cali and not the nonstop to Bogotá. That flight, however, was thousands more due to being nearly sold out in business. In contrast,  my 787 to Cali with continuing flight number to Bogotá only had two people in business. Score!

I had forgotten to ask about the lounge, but after taking the train out to the far gates and checking, Avianca did indeed use the Iberia lounge instead of the contract lounge which looked to be packed with Emirates and Qatar passengers and not nearly as nice. The Iberia lounge, by contrast, was rather nice and offered a substantial pre-flight snack and lots of places for charging the computer:

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After catching up on a few things, it was time to walk over to the gate where my ride to Cali was getting ready to board:

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Boarding was a mad rush to the plane, with no respect for queues or boarding business class first. It was every man, woman, and child for themselves, pushing towards the boarding pass scanner and onto the jetway. Fortunately, in the last several years of travel I’ve learned to put politeness aside in these situations and fend for myself.

Avianca flight 15
Madrid, Spain (MAD) to Cali, Colombia (CLO)
Depart 15:25, Arrive 19:56, Flight Time: 10:31
Boeing 787-8, Registration N781AV, Manufactured 2014, Seat 5K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 119,829
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,158,723

Somehow my flight had gone from two people in business class to eleven in the two hours since I’d checked in. Not a problem, and from a service point of view it probably helped because it prevented the crew from just throwing things at two people and then disappearing. I was told no moving seats until the door was closed because there still might be more passengers. Where does Avianca get all these last minute business class passengers on such a new route? Regardless, after closing I moved back to 5K to “hide” a bit in the back of the cabin, which was much quieter since almost all the other passengers were in the first three rows. Welcome aboard champagne and nuts in my original seat of 3A:

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Tumi amenity kit. Definitely saving this one for use on future trips. Great storage:

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Today’s menu to Cali. One small note, English was pretty much non-existent with this crew, but on a flight from Spain to Colombia I expected that:

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Somewhat strange combo for a starter, but the cheese was super tasty, and…hey…cheese for a starter! Mmmm!

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Meal service was all on one tray, and the chicken was quite juicy, which surprised me:

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Delicious desert:

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After the meal, the crew disappeared and I crashed for about three hours of sleep. The cabin was completely darkened, and the crew used the override on the windows to prevent them from being opened. Not sure if this is a positive or negative of the 787, where you often have no control over daylight because the crew can override the mechanical windows. But, I got a good nap, it just made it really hard to adjust having 9 hours of the flight completely in darkness.

Before arrival, a rather tasty quiche-like snack was served, but the grilled mushrooms served with it were foul. Unfortunately, the fruit was also quite dry and lacked any flavour. Not the best snack.

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Immigration was pretty simple, but it was clear Cali wasn’t designed to handle large numbers of international arrivals. There was a long hallway to immigration, and at the end of the hallway three counters. Despite being in business, there were a good 50 people in line in front of me, from a previous Avianca arrival from Miami. It was pretty quick, however, and a bit entertaining. The immigration guy spoke very rapid Spanish despite being asked to slow down, and finally I relented and asked if we could speak English please. “No! Español Señor!” Ugh, lol. I eventually answered all his questions, which wasn’t easy, because he also couldn’t understand for the life of him why I wasn’t on the nonstop flight to Bogotá once I told him I was in transit. Anyways, that solved, it was out into baggage claim and then…to the curbside.

There were no directions to domestic transfers, so this was going to take a bit of searching. Eventually I found the check-in area, which was several times bigger than the international area. Cali is clearly a domestic airport that just happens to handle a few international flights as well. The bigger problem is the domestic check-in area was all open air, and it was extremely hot and humid in Cali. I was rapidly getting gross after having been on a 10 hour flight and now sweating in the humidity. Eventually, after going to like five counters I confirmed that yes, since I had my boarding pass, I could go straight to the gate.

Problem was, the gates were unmarked, and there was a lot of construction going on. …and nobody had thought to, you know, maybe put some signs pointing to where the gates were. They turned out to be down an unmarked makeshift hallway, where I finally found security and eventually the domestic terminal. I also found…air conditioning! Whew!

The Avianca lounge was upstairs, and had quite a sad looking set of snacks, which the passengers were attacking like hungry vultures. I normally avoid scary looking sandwiches at all costs, but I figured dozens of Colombians couldn’t be wrong so decided to take one for the team and give it a try. Washed down with a glass of wine it was actually reasonable.

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Our flight kept fluctuating from two hours late, to fifteen minutes late, back to an hour late on the monitors. Seems there had been weather in Bogotá all day and flights were backed up. I asked about getting on the flights before mine, but there was no telling when they would leave either, so no, I couldn’t go on an earlier flight…which might actually end up leaving later.

Then, ten minutes before my original flight time…it suddenly became on-time. I rushed to the gate, where everyone was already on board, and was pretty much the last one on before closing the door. My seatmate was nice and slowly explained that the four flights to Bogotá were all in the same area, and when it became clear 10 minutes before that mine would suddenly be the first to leave, everyone from the other flights stormed the gate and switched. Fortunately, my original seat was still in tact.

Avianca flight 15
Cali, Colombia (CLO) to Bogotá, Colombia (BOG)
Depart 22:15, Arrive 23:16, Flight Time: 1:01
Airbus A320, Registration N862AV, Manufactured 2011, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 120,003
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,158,897

Lots of people seem to complain in different online forums about people who put their feet on the bulkhead. You’ll be glad to know Avianca is looking out for you:

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Flight was short, barely 30-40 minutes in the air, and the crew remained seated the entire flight due to turbulence. Arrivals were easy, and there was actually quite a long walk to get to the arrivals area. After asking around a bit, I found where the hotel shuttles were supposed to arrive, so I went there…where I was pretty much the only person standing around, and hoped that the “every 30 minutes” Aloft shuttle would actually show up.

After 20 minutes, if eventually did, and it was a short ride to the Aloft Bogotá airport for my four hour nap. I’ve always avoided Alofts and Four Points, but I have no clue why. Almost universally abroad I have good experiences at them, and this one was no exception. Friendly welcome, clean (if simple) facilities, comfortable, and english-speaking staff. Plus, they’d left a small welcome gift in my room…complete with a handwritten English welcome. It’s the little touches like this that leave a positive impression:

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Great four hour nap/sleep, and then checked out the breakfast, which was apparently included for all guests…and included quite the nice spread along with an eggs-to-order station and fresh squeezed orange juice…impressive! …not to mention 100% Colombian Coffee…Juan Valdez would be impressed!

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Caught the shuttle back to the airport, check-in was easy and it was no problem getting my boarding pass. They were much more familiar with the requirements for Cuba here, and it was then off to immigration and security. Only problem was, the line was super long due to all the departures to the U.S. and looked like it would be 30+ minutes. Managed to sneak my way into the “crew and diplomats” line with a Delta crew, no problem, and even had 15 minutes to spend in the Avianca lounge before heading to my bus gate to board.

Avianca flight 254
Bogotá, Colombia (BOG) to Havana, Cuba (HAV)
Depart 8:42, Arrive 12:20, Flight Time: 3:38
Airbus A319, Registration N741AV, Manufactured 2015, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 121,303
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,160,270

Took quite a while to eventually board, but soon everyone was on board. While we waited for the economy folks to board, orange juice or water were offered, along with the same nuts:

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Today’s route to Havana, 1379 miles to go:

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A rather reasonable omelette and fruit were offered, but the melon and strawberries were again sad and devoid of flavour. I’m not sure what the little orange fruits were, but they were sweet and tart and delicious.

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Flight was quick and uneventful, and immigration was a complete non-event. I didn’t even have to ask, but the agent winked and said he didn’t need to stamp my passport, and that was it. I was in Cuba, and ready to begin my adventure!

Dec 172015
 

My driver from the previous day showed up right on time as promised, and it was quite a short ride to the airport. We had already negotiated the price, so I knew exactly how much cash to save (plus a tip) to ensure I wouldn’t have any (relatively useless) Algerian Dinars left over. The arrivals area a couple days earlier had seemed rather small, so upon arrival I was surprised to see just how big the check-in area was, with over 50 different counters and three halls:

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Immigration was pretty simple, and security was a bit longer, mainly because there were a ton of Chinese construction workers in front of me who spoke neither the French or English to be able to communicate with the screeners. Of course, they also had belts on, phones in their pockets, etc etc, so the whole thing took way longer than it should. Once through, there was also a strange manual check on the other side. This may have been a shake-down for the Chinese (because he was making them empty their pockets) but we had a good chat in French (his brother lives in Montreal it seems) and off I went to the Air Algerie lounge, where I was greeted by:

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The lounge was actually quite spacious, rather empty, with big comfy faux leather chairs:

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The food selection was poor, but at least there was Coke Zero. One bite of each pastry since they were completely dry, but it was good to know that even though I wasn’t flying them, Air Algerie is always caring for me!

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However, while in the lounge, drama ensued. I got an e-mail from Cubana that my “flight had been modified, due to the IL-96 out of repair. You are rebooked on 767 flight instead in economy class.”

Hell. To. The. No.

Checking more details, Cubana had chartered a 767 from some German tour operator, with 29 inch seat pitch, so instead of being comfy in business class, they expected I would be fine sitting not only in economy, but in a super cramped economy for 11+ hours with my knees in my chest. Not happening. I started making some plans, and knew it would be drama. Unfortunately, it was time to bord.

Boarded right on time for what appeared to be (at least in coach) a relatively full flight.

Iberia flight 3305
Algiers, Algeria (ALG) to Madrid, Spain (MAD)
Depart 14:05, Arrive 15:35, Flight Time: 1:30
Airbus A319, Registration EC-HKO, Manufactured 2000, Seat 4D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 114,729
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,153,562

 

Coach looked pretty full, but in the four rows of business there were only three people, so I was able to move over to a window for takeoff. My first time (I’m pretty sure) on Iberia, and like many places in Spain there was no English spoke. Thankfully I understand the words for pasta and wine. Well, pasta wasn’t really necessary, since it was only being used to tell me my only choice was pasta and would I like it. My meal came sealed in saran wrap…for my protection?

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Flight was incredibly…average. Usual EuroBusiness flight, and a piece of cake. Immigration was also simple, and I headed off to find the express bus to Madrid, which supposedly would drop me just a couple of blocks from my hotel. It was easy to find, super cheap at five euros, and after a maybe 30 minute ride I was dropped off for my short walk. No rain, much nicer than Algeria!

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Passing the Monumento a los Caidos por España on the walk, a monument to all those who have given their lives for Spain over more than two centuries:

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So, got to my hotel, and here’s where the drama would start. The check-in person at the Westin Palace was rather cold, but informed me she had oh so generously upgraded me to a “renovated” room and I “should be happy with that, because you pay a discounted rate, no?” Ok, so the room was nice enough when I got to it…except the suitcase in the middle of the room. I called down to have them remove it…but then noticed the bathroom hadn’t been cleaned either.

Went to the front desk, threw a small fit, and told them I’d like a better room, especially one that was clean and didn’t have other peoples’ belongings in it. I’m going for coffee, and when I get back, please have me in a new room and have my bags moved. I went to Starbucks down the street for some coffee to wake up, where the barista decided my name sounded like Juan and wrote that on the cup. Hah.

Back to the hotel, got the keys to my new room just a few doors down, and all seemed good. My bags had been moved and I was at least mildly happy. Did some work for a couple hours, then went to hang up my clothes…only to find out this room also had clothes already hanging in the closet. Ugh. Do these people every check their rooms? It was a complete disaster. This time, the clothes was removed, and the fight was out of me, so I retired to the hotel bar to enjoy the “complimentary 2-for-1 drink” for platinum members. That’s right no free drink, but if you buy one you can get a second one. How…generous?

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While I enjoyed my two glasses of wine, I was frantically looking for alternatives on my laptop. Finally found one that was a reasonable price, Avianca via Cali and Bogota on the 787 to Havana. Unfortunately instead of a 9p arrival it would be a noon arrival the next day, but figured that might not be too bad. Sure, I’d miss 2-3 hours of touring in the morning, but I figured the overnight hotel in Bogota might be nicer than whatever I’d get in Havana, so I booked it…praying Cubana would let me cancel.

Went out for a walk after the drink, and headed to the Mercado San Miguel to get some dinner and drinks…and people watch!

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Wandered around the various market stalls, and finally found one that had some reasonable (and cheap) house wine! Had a couple of glasses, chatted with some interesting Australian tourists, and then hung out with a group of guys from Quebec for a bit before decided it was time to wander the market a bit more and find something to eat.

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Found a stall selling wagyu beef burgers, and they did look pretty good. Again, English wasn’t a strong suit, so when asked how I wanted it cooked, I dragged out my useful Argentinian Spanish and told them “medio – a punto.” He seemed to understand….

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but, apparently in Madrid, that means, kill it, and while it’s still mooing, serve it to me:

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That said, it was delicious, and I didn’t get food poisoning, so life was awesome! While eating I also got the email back from Cubana that they were happy to do a refund and a few seconds later I got the notice from Amex that it posted. Talk about efficient…even United can’t manage that. So say what you will about unreliable aircraft, at least Cubana delivered on the customer recovery front!

More wine with the Quebecers, and we were eventually joined by a group of Swiss women whose husbands had disappeared to “somewhere” and much wine was consumed. I did, however, find my way back to my hotel before midnight, which is practically child’s play in Spain. I also managed to take a non-blurry picture:

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Off to bed for a good night’s sleep, because it was time for Cuba in the morning!

Dec 162015
 

Upon landing in Algiers, immigration was a piece of cake, and not a single question was answered. I was a bit surprised since the visa took quite a bit of bureaucratic paperwork to procure, to the point I actually used a visa expediter to ensure it got done on time. That said, immigration was a piece of cake, and I was out to the taxi queue quickly.

Finding a taxi was easy, but the best price I could get out of the four drivers I talked to was “pay what you wish.” I had an estimate from online, so I decided to just go with it. When we arrived at the hotel I offered 10 euros, which I knew was still slightly generous based on advice I’d read online. Of course, as predicted, the driver became indignant and started a big scene, and demanded 15. I probably should have started at 5 and gone up to 10, but hey – I was tired and just wanted to get to the hotel. At the end of the day it wasn’t worth the argument, so I gave him the 15.

Checked into the hotel, which I’ll describe more later, and then took a quick hour nap to try and fight the jet lag a bit. It was mid afternoon when I woke up, so after a quick snack decided to wander the neighbourhood a bit. Just down the street was the Jardin d’Essai du Hamma. The gardens are a large green urban oasis, subdivided into a french garden and an english garden. I couldn’t tell you what the difference is, but… It’s said to be probably the best botanical gardens in Africa, and from what I saw I’d certainly believe it.

I wandered the garden for a bit, which was absolutely packed with families and couples out for a weekend stroll. The clouds were pretty dark and threatening, but I figured it wasn’t too long of a run to the hotel if the skies opened up, so decided to keep walking. A couple of pics of the french gardens:

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Nice wide lane, with a place on the left that sold delicious banana nutella crepes. I may have stopped for a snack…

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Now onto the english gardens. Family walking along a small pond/stream:

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Couple strolling through the english gardens:

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After about 90 minutes of walking the sun had almost set, so decided to head back to the hotel. Timing was perfect, because the minute I got back the skies absolutely opened up and it started pouring. Which went on for at least the next several hours until I went to bed. Given the combination of jet lag and rain I wasn’t leaving the hotel, which was fine because they made a pretty reasonable attempt at a croque madame sandwich for dinner:

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Passed out for nearly 10 hours, which I didn’t feel too bad about when I woke up and the rain was still coming down in bucketfulls. I decided I might as well enjoy a leisurely breakfast and see if it stopped, which was a good thing because…they did a darn good breakfast. Even made french press coffee and brought an entire basket of breads along with a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. YUM!

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Around 10:30 the rain finally let up to a very light drizzle, so I decided to start my exploring for the day. First stop was the Martyr’s Monument on top of the hill, which required either taking a taxi or the funicular. Since I put the fun in funicular, that was to be the obvious option! Walking from my hotel to the funicular:

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At the funicular I attempted to pay for my ride, but when she saw all I had were large bills (obtained from the ATM at the official exchange rate of 115 to the euro) she just waved me through without paying. Score! Short ride to the top, followed by a short walk, and I was at the monument.

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Police standing guard at the monument, erected to commemorate the martyrs who died fighting for Algeria’s independence:

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After hanging around people watching for a bit, the skies had cleared, so back to the funicular to head back to the hotel. Picture of the funicular (called the Télépherique in Algiers) station at the top of the hill:

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View from the car, descending back down to the city:

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After grabbing some quick lunch at a small place packed with locals near my hotel (where I had some delicious lamb couscous) it was time to plan out the rest of the day. I only had a few hours of daylight to see the remaining sights I wanted to see (rain holding off, inshallah), so it was time to get strategic. I struck up with a taxi driver parked at my hotel, and he agreed to drive me around for 4 hours for a reasonable price which I don’t remember more.

Our first stop was the Notre Dame d’Afrique Cathedral, located on the outskirts of town and high up in the hills. To get there, we drove through the Casbah where we stopped for a short walk. It was just another run down bazaar to me, so we continued onto the cathedral, which felt very out of place in north africa:

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Good views from the cathedral as well down to the water:

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After the cathedral we drove back to the casbah and parked to take a bit of a longer walk through another part. I tried to take pictures several times, but was always asked for money first. I kinda felt like a cross between a working market and a tourist trap, so I got frustrated pretty quickly and said I’d had enough. He also drove me past several of the squares and sights downtown, but it was hard to get a picture from the car. No problem since I planned to come back in the morning.

He insisted I had to see the Martyr’s Monument again by nightlight, and he was right, it was pretty cool:

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This is where the evening got kind of weird. I’d been asking him all afternoon to help me with exchanging some money. Seems up until a month or two ago, it was easy to do on the black market in the casbah or in a place called Port Said Square, but the police have recently cracked down (due to counterfeit bills) so now it’s much harder. But don’t worry, he has a friend, he will find.

After calling several people, and lots of loud talking in Arabic, he assured me he had a friend would could handle the sum I needed to change. I should note at this point the driver spoke no English, so we were getting by in French, and doing a pretty good job of things. Eventually, we got to his friend’s restaurant, which was a small local restaurant that looked a bit like a hole in the wall cafeteria. But, it also had a nice walk-in fridge where business was conducted. He was happy to exchange my euros at 165 to the euro as opposed to the official 115, saving me over 40% on my meals and hotel. Score! He wasn’t even offended when I double-counted and checked the currency. Big win for my driver, and ensured him a good tip.

At this point, the light drizzle had turned into a total downpour again, so decided to go back to the hotel and call it an early night. I got an early printout of the hotel bill, and realized I actually had quite a bit more cash than needed to pay for things after the fantastic exchange, so decided to enjoy a nice leisurely dinner in the hotel’s “fine dining” Algerian restaurant. It was good, but definitely overpriced, so I’m not sure I would give it a high recommendation. That said, I had the extra money to spend, so it was a good experience.

Fortunately, it wasn’t raining the next morning, so I could head out and explore on my own. Algiers’ relatively new subway system wasn’t far from my hotel, so decided to use that for exploring. Heading down into the station:

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Inside the station, looking along the platform at Hamma station:

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Train arriving on the other side:

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Empty station:

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Overall I give the subway high marks. It was quick, clean, efficient, people were polite on it, and very reasonably priced. First stop was the Place de la Grande Poste:

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La Grande Poste itself. Great old post office building:

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I walked around for another 30 minutes or so before I had to head back to the hotel and pack up to leave for the airport. A few thoughts on the hotel. I stayed at the Sofitel, and overall it was a great choice. Fantastic location near the subway and the gardens, also the funicular to the martyrs monument. Also, it had a good lounge and restaurant, so it was easy to stay at the hotel during back weather.

The service was also quite good overall, and staff were friendly and helpful, especially the staff in the lounge and the breakfast/buffet restaurant. As far as the rooms go, they were clean, comfortable, and functional, and a very reasonable temperature. Picture from the elevator area – all rooms were arrange around a large atrium:

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Overall I’d definitely stay here again the next time I visit. The price was a bit on the high side and it wasn’t in the middle of downtown, but it was still in the city and accessible. As far as the high price, after paying in cash with the 40% discount thanks to my friend it felt like a reasonable price and I was quite happy with my choice. Now, time to check out and head to the airport for the next adventure!

Dec 032015
 

After landing in Cairo, it was a rather long walk through the airport to get to the arrivals area. There’s no real clear signage for what you need to do, but I remembered from previous trips that you can go to any of the bank offices in the area and pay for your visa. Once that is done, they issue you with a visa sticker. You take the sticker to the immigration officer who sticks in in your passport, and stamps it. They take all major currencies. However, just as remembered, immigration moved at a snail’s pace. I think Cairo may have one of the slowest immigration areas in the world, and even the business class line wasn’t moving any faster.

Finally stamped into the country, after the odd question of “next stop Russia?” I set off through baggage claim to customs, where the guy looked at my passport, seeming to decide if he wanted to size me up for a bribe, and eventually decided he wouldn’t, and let me through. I had booked in at the Le Meridien Airport, after reading lots of good things about it online. It was pretty easy to find with the signs online, a couple of ramps up through the airport from baggage claim, a walkway/skyway across the road, and I was in the hotel. It was mildly confusing, but pretty easy to figure out with a little patience.

Check in was…not the most efficient, with the check-in agent keen to show me he was paying lots of attention, and wanting to tell me every little detail about the hotel. Eventually I assured him I would come down if I had further questions, but would like to just get up to my room. I was told I had been upgraded to a “Panoramic Suite” but didn’t have super high expectations. I probably should have. Entryway into the dining room:

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With a kitchen:

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Dining room, looking into the living room. The only BIG downside, is the desk had absolutely zero power outlets or places to plug things in. Had I been staying longer I probably would have called down to see if I could get an extension cord, but it was a really awkward oversight:

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Half of the bedroom:

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The other half of the bedroom. As mentioned, this suite was HUGE:

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Half of the large bathroom. Couldn’t get a pic of the other half due to all the mirrors, and well, didn’t want a picture of myself:

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Welcome gift of SPG macarons, almonds, apricots, and dates. Went perfect with my duty free wine from Frankfurt:

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Albeit a bit short, had a great night of sleep, and woke up to explore a tiny bit more. That’s when I realized the room also had a balcony/sunroom:

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View of the airport from the sunroom:

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All in all, I was super impressed with this hotel. Sure, there was the awkward power issue, but I’m pretty sure that would have been solved if I’d stayed longer. I also didn’t check out the bars, restaurants, or other facilities, but the room met my expectations, which at the end of the day is really what a hotel is about especially for an airport hotel!

After checkout, I walked over to the airport. That was when it hit…a bit of food poisoning. Not sure if it was the room service quesadilla or one of the flights from the day before, but things were…less than happy. Check-in with Egypt Air was only mildly awkward (about a 15 minute line for business class check-in) but immigration and security were relatively quick and then I was off to find a lounge. EgyptAir has multiple lounges in Cairo, but they always seem to be super crowded and have a poor selection of food.

I tried one or two of the lounges (they are all close together) before remembering that the one I’d previously decided was the best was all the way to the left when you go through immigration. Walk through duty free, towards the food court, take a left, and keep going to the very last lounge. That was the one with better seating, and it was only half as crowded as the other lounges.

That’s not to say the food selection was a whole lot better for breakfast:

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Since I’d opted to sleep in a bit, soon it was time to board. According to the seatmap, business class was barely half full, but according to ExpertFlyer the flight had been zeroed out for weeks and wasn’t selling tickets.

EgyptAir flight 845
Cairo, Egypt (CAI) to Algiers, Algeria (ALG)
Depart 09:15, Arrive 12:25, Flight Time: 4:10
Airbus A321, Registration SU-GBW, Manufactured 1997, Seat 9A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 114,278
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,153,111

Turned out this was an absolutely ancient A321…over 18 years old! It turned out to be 7/16 in business class, despite the fact you couldn’t buy a ticket and seats weren’t reserved. Who knows what EgyptAir’s logic is!

Cabin pic of the big plushy seats:

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Mystery welcome “fruit” drink…I had a sip and it was way too sweet so passed on the rest:

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Bling bling! The seatbelts were right up there with Emirates for faux gold-plated bling:

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Service was pretty quick after takeoff, and breakfast was served in two courses. The bread was extremely dry and disappointing so I passed on it, but the cheese, as always, was super tasty:

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The omelette was billed as cheese, but I couldn’t taste any cheese in it. The giant mutant mushrooms were pretty amazing, so combined with the eggs it made for a satisfying meal overall. Can’t really complain too much, since it’s pretty hard to screw up an airline breakfast. Maybe some day someone will try something adventurous like crepes or eggs benedict, but until then this was right up there.

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After the meal service…the crew completely disappeared. In fairness, when I went to the washroom and asked they were happy to refill water, but there was nothing proactive about it. Overall, it was a solid flight, but one doesn’t fly EgyptAir expecting luxury, Krug, or caviar. It was a very solid flight that got me from Point A to Point B quickly and comfortably, and overall completely met my expectations. Now, time to explore Algeria!

Dec 022015
 

It felt like it had only been days since my last trip, but in reality it had been nearly two months since I got back from my big Africa and Mongolia trip. I think that’s probably a commentary on how busy things were with work and life in general that it flew by without me even noticing that it had been a while since I’d traveled. That and the fact that I kept myself very busy with planning future trips and how I would finish every country in just under a year.

Fortunately I’d been able to get a good flight of of National Airport for this trip, and being right before a holiday I had the extra time to fly up to Newark to make the international connection. Dulles isn’t a bad airport, and I really appreciate the nonstop options, but when my choice is a 15 minute Uber or 45+ minutes out to Dulles, National wins. Factor in the fact that Dulles security can get pretty ugly in the mid afternoon leading up to international departures…not to mention how crowded the clubs are, well, I still prefer DCA to Newark (even with all its delays) any day.

Speaking of clubs, I’d already checked in online, so was able to sample a bit of the new fare in the United Club. I love the historic club at DCA, even more so now that they opened the back room to make it a bit roomier. I’m a big fan of the new hummus and olives, but a big BOO to the cheese cubes. I really miss the Tilamook pepperjack and wish they would bring it back:

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As soon I’d gotten to the airport I was hit with an hour delay, which made me glad I’d booked a 2.5 hour connection in Newark. I’ve learned that lesson before and won’t make it again. Two hours in Newark in the winter is my absolute minimum when I have an important connection to make. We eventually left just over an hour late, but with winds it was announced we would be only about 45 minutes late into Newark…not bad at all.

United flight 3304 (operated by Republic)
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 14:28, Arrive 15:39, Flight Time: 1:11
Embraer ERJ-170, Registration N651RW, Manufactured 2005, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 106,887
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,144,727

I was so incredibly excited for this flight, more than I probably should be for a DC to Newark flight. See, I remember the good old Continental days, when they used to fly 737s from DCA to Newark. Sure, they had a small first class of only six seats sometimes, but at least it was an option. I know it’s like 45 minutes in the air, but when it’s the start to a big international trip there’s something a bit exciting about having a bit of room, time for a beverage, and just relaxing. Speaking of beverage, pre-departure beverages were offered:

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Once in flight, beverages were again offered, along with a rather feeble snack basked. But hey, not complaining at all, when this route is its usual ERJ-145 nothing is offered at all…even a drink usually. Plus the fig bars was actually kinda tasty…although I’m sure it was loaded with sugar:

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Got to Newark, gate right on time, and still had a bit of time to hit the United Club since my arrival, departure, and the club were all within a three minute walk. Sometimes you luck out! I’m going to complain a bit here, however, because flying first out of Newark really should be branded Global Worst instead of Global First. Firstly, the only lounge experience is the super packed United clubs. On top of that, you still have to pay if you want anything other than the $5 a bottle swill they pour for free. It’s just a rather unpleasant experience.

I understand that first may not be around long so they don’t want to invest too much, but they should take a lesson from Lufthansa. Cordon off a small corner of the lounge for first passengers. Offer the drinks which you normally have to pay for for free (or at least two or so) and give the people who have chosen to pay for first a little something extra on the ground. But, I guess United isn’t trying to win customer experience of the year award yet, despite things having gotten better recently.

That said, I was only too happy to board as soon as announced:

United flight 70
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Amsterdam, Netherlands (AMS)
Depart 18:00, Arrive 07:15 next day, Flight Time: 7:15
Boeing 767-300, Registration N656UA, Manufactured 1992, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 110,551
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,148,384

Crew was rather distracted upon boarding, but did manage to offer up a menu and amenity kit within a few minutes. I like the look of the new amenity kit, although it’s a bit bulky for my tastes, especially to consider re-using it:

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I was excited to see what was on offer on the recently revamped United international menu, but unfortunately it was nearly identical to my last flight in United first. Disappointing:

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Pre-departure bubbles in the ever-classy United plastic flute were offered, no refills:

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Load was two of five tonight…wait I mean five of five once the nonrev party boarded. I mean party because it was three people traveling together who talked loudly the whole time, and the crew spent more time paying attention to than to the two paying passengers. Par for the course unfortunately. Before anyone asks why I continue to pay for it, the extra space more than makes up for it to me at 6’4, and I’ve never had a problem getting sleep due to the nonrevs, so, yeah. The usual Château le Oscar 2015 and warm mixed split cashews:

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After the mixed nuts and a glass of wine, all was forgiven, when I found out they had indeed loaded garlic bread tonight, and the flight attendant gave me a wink and promised “I’ll save you as much as you want sweetie!”

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Strangest appetizer ever…ONE tempura prawn and a bit of roasted corn…with BBQ sauce. Points for originality:

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Mushroom and leek soup. Sort of bland, but at the same time it was somewhat tasty and felt like home cooking:

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The salad, unfortunately, was disappointing. Couple of limp wrinky olives, and flavourless tomatoes. Usually Global First has pretty decent salads, but this one missed the mark:

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I’ve had the pork chop before, and remembered it being pretty good. Unfortunately, tonight, it was pretty dry…as was the stuffing…which is one of my favourite foods on earth. Even the white asparagus was overcooked and limp. United was not having a good food night, unfortunately:

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As disappointing as the meal was, the cheese selection was definitely way above average for United. I asked for, and did receive seconds it was that good. Unfortunately, there was a limited quantity of my preferred sweet biscuits, but minor details:

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Finished it off with a sundae with hot fudge. Tonight’s request of “with cherries” was met with three cherries, which is pretty much the average response based on my extensive research 😉

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After dinner, I passed out for four solid hours, which is pretty good considering the total flight time was just under 6.5 hours total, and the dinner service wasn’t too fast. Had to be woken up by the crew, which to their credit despite not asking if I wanted breakfast or not before takeoff, let me sleep until we were barely five minutes off the ground. My first look at the screen through blurry eyes actually showed that we were already down to 5,000 feet! I don’t wear my glasses too often, but had taken my contacts out on this flight to avoid my eyes drying out too much, so it looked like I’d be going through the airport in glasses today. Oh the horrors.

Immigration was quite a walk today, but was fast once there, and anyone who knows me well doesn’t have to ask where my first stop was. Apparently, with glasses, I look like my name should be Jordan:

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After coffee I had plenty of time to hit the Priority Pass lounge for a bit, which turned out to also conveniently be the Lufthansa lounge. Fortunately wasn’t too crowded, and was able to wash up a bit, put a pair of contacts in, brush teeth, and basically make myself feel presentable enough until I could make it to Frankfurt for a proper shower. Had a few bottles of water, and got to the gate just in time to board the flight to Frankfurt.

Lufthansa flight 987
Amsterdam, Netherlands (AMS) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 09:00, Arrive 10:05, Flight Time: 1:05
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIUE, Manufactured 2014, Seat 6F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 110,779
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,148,612

Fortunately, the flight wasn’t terribly full, and was able to change my seat on the Lufthansa app to have a whole row of glamourous EuroBusiness to myself. Again, short flight so it’s not a big deal, but it’s always nice to have the extra space when possible. Speaking of possible, it always amazes me that Lufthansa is able to serve great snacks on a 45 minute flight. Look, more cheese!

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Once in Frankfurt, we’d come in at the extreme outer A gates, which meant a rather long walk to the tunnel to the B gates, and eventually to immigration. Fortunately, once to immigration the line wasn’t too bad, and I was soon in the lounge enjoying a bottle of water while waiting on a shower. For some reason, the lounge was absolutely packed, which I later found out was because we were right next to the gate for the A380 to Singapore which was about to leave. Once that left the lounge cleared out, I got my shower, and it was time for a very German breakfast:

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But no sooner was I finished with my breakfast snack than they changed the buffet over, so had to have a lunch snack too:

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Soon it was time to board the incredibly full flight to Cairo. Apparently the recent bombing of a Russian aircraft over the Sinai hadn’t detoured most travelers, and the flight was absolutely packed.

Lufthansa flight 580
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Cairo, Egypt (CAI)
Depart 13:30, Arrive 18:35, Flight Time: 4:05
Airbus A321, Registration D-AIDM, Manufactured 2011, Seat 9E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 112,594
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,150,427

I’d managed to grab 9D for this flight, which is my favourite seat on the Lufthansa A321 since there is no 9F, which guarantees you get the whole row of two to yourself. Considering we had 14 rows of business class today (seriously!) I considered this a pretty lucky break. This was going to be my first time in what I’d consider longhaul Eurobusiness with a flight of four hours, and I was curious how the service would be. It started out with packaged nuts, which was fine considering they were cashews…my favourite!

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What’s this…a printed menu on a shorthaul? Impressive!

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The chicken was actually super tasty, and was super impressed with both the burrata cheese starter and the delicious desert. The saran-wrapped salad was a little tacky, but overall a great meal for such a short flight. No comments on the white wine…for some reason it just sounded unsually tasty to me for a change:

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After lunch/dinner, chocolates were passed out, which were also super tasty:

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All in all, considering the long routing I took to get there, the whole journey passed quite quickly. It was nothing spectacular or glamourous, but an overall solid performance that went by quickly. Considering I’d taken a longer routing because I was a bit short on miles quick and painless and comfortable was all I was expecting, and United and Lufthansa definitely lived up to expectations so overall…it was a good set of flights.

Next up, time for Egyptian immigration, a short overnight, and then off to Algeria!