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 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!

Mar 072012
 

So far, I’ve been to 109 of the 194 UN members, which leaves me 85 countries yet to go.  I have plans for at least 7 more of them, leaving me a list of 78 to go.  So, I was thinking today – what are going to be some of the most difficult ones left for me?

A few thoughts on the matter: Continue reading »