Aug 172016

You knew this post would be coming at some point. It’s the question I get the most often when I tell people I’m about to finish visiting every country in the world in just two weeks. Inevitably, they ask “what’s next?” It’s actually a pretty easy question to answer. Two things immediately pop to mind: first, I want to spend a little more time at home. There’s things I want to get done that I haven’t with so much traveling, so at least in the short term that will be nice. Plus, I have a few work trips to Zagreb and Bangkok coming up later this year, so that will close out 2016 more or less.

Second thing I want to do is go back to places I really enjoyed and spend more time diving a little more in depth. Some ideas that are already brewing:

Ukraine, Lithuania, and Latvia: I’ve already tacked this on after Iceland since it was the same price on Icelandair to fly to Europe with a stop in Iceland as it was to fly just to Iceland. Lithuania and Latvia I only got very short overnights in my first time, so this time I’ll take a full day in each to walk the old towns and take in the cities. It should be nice weather in September as well! After that, I’m off to Ukraine. You could debate if I really visited Ukraine at all, since when I was there it was 1989 and it was the Ukrainian SSR. So, I’m going back now to remove any doubt…plus I’ve been really curious to take the Chernobyl tour. I remember being a kid when the reactor blew and worried the whole world was going to die from radiation.

Syria, Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia: I’d like to visit all four of these more in-depth once it becomes feasible. Saudi Arabia because of a very difficult to get tourist visa, same with Sudan. Yemen and Syria will have to wait until things quiet down a bit.

Finland: I want to take a full week in the summer and go north of Helsinki and maybe do a road trip. Some camping, hanging out in lake country. Just a quiet laid back trip.

Namibia: I only got to see a tiny fraction of the country, and I really want to see more. From sand dunes to the Skeleton Coast to Swakopmund, I’d like to spend more time there.

Palau: When I went the first time in 2011 I wasn’t certified for SCUBA yet, and what I saw snorkeling was mind-blowing. I want to go back now, go deeper, and see more of the country! I guess you could add Belize and Bonaire to this last as well – three places I really want to go dive!

Russia: Probably more medium term goal, but I want to take 3+ weeks and do the Trans-Siberian. Take the train from Helsinki to St Petersburg, high speed down to Moscow, and then the Trans-Siberian to Mongolia. I’d like to break it up along the way as well, and maybe stop and see some smaller towns and more of rural Russia. A couple of years will give me a chance to strengthen my Russian more so I can really maximize the trip.

Being a bit of a list maker, there are two more goals I’m toying with:

All 50 States: I’ve visited 42 of the 50 states, and I’ve grouped the 8 remaining into either 4 or 5 trips. Suggestions and locals to show me around would be welcome in all of them:

  • First, I want to fly to Atlanta, rent a car, and do a loop covering Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. New Orleans is the only must-do on this list, so I’d love any other recommendations people have. Definitely a 2017 trip.
  • New Mexico is also on this list. I have friends there, so will probably take a 3-4 day weekend and do some hiking and relaxing at some point in 2017
  • Iowa – yes, I grew up in Minnesota for 15 years and never made it to Iowa, despite being a less than two hour drive from home. I’m thinking it might be fun to fly to Minneapolis, visit family, and then drive down for a college football game either this fall or next. Any Iowa readers want to join me?
  • South Dakota – as above, somewhat embarrassed, although it’s a longer drive from Minneapolis. Definitely going to do Mount Rushmore. I’ll likely fly there for a weekend at some point. Any other must-sees while I’m there?
  • Last but not least will be Oklahoma. Haven’t given much thought to this one, so any suggestions welcome! I’d like to finish all the states in 2017.

So, after visiting all 50 states, the only other immediate list is my list of 215 Independent Places. This is 19 places beyond the list of 196 countries that I think are independent enough I really should visit them as well. So far, I’ve visited 11 of the 19 already (Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Guernsey, Jersey, Isle of Man, Transnistria, Turkish Cyprus, Aruba, Curacao, Cayman Islands) leaving 8 to go:

  • Nagorno-Karabach – internationally-recognized as part of Azerbaijan, although the government of Azerbaijan hasn’t exercised any control in the region for over 20 years. Almost entirely filled with ethnic Armenians it’s in western Azerbaijan and accessibly only from Armenia and uses the Armenian Dram as currency. They do issue their own visas/visitors permits though.
  • Abkhazia – an autonomous republic of Georgia according to the international community it lies between Georgia and Russia, and as recognized as independent by Russia and a handful of over smaller states. Russia is also cooperating with the Abkhazia military forces, so obviously the only way in is really from Russia.
  • South Ossetia – almost identical to the situation in Abkhazia, also sitting between Georgia and Russia. Should be able to make one trip from these two.
  • Western Sahara, also known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Annexed by Morocco from Mauritania in 1976, it has been largely administered by Morocco ever since. They want independence, and have been recognized by nearly 30 countries. Should be easy to do flying in from Morocco.
  • Niue – self-governing, but in “free association” with New Zealand. Sort of similar to Puerto Rico and the United States, except there’s no independence movement. Population has dropped in the past couple of decades from about 6,000 to 1,000 with most people fleeing for Australia or New Zealand. The major problem? Only one flight a week, and it often gets canceled.
  • Tokelau – three atolls that are a territory of New Zealand, with only about 1,200 people total. Unfortunately, there’s no airport, so boats are the only way to get there. There are occasional seaplane flights from Samoa too, which is good because you need to get a Tokelau entry permit from Samoa before going!
  • Cook Islands – like Niue, a self-governing democracy in free association with New Zealand. Plenty of flights from New Zealand, and resorts as well. Rarotonga has lots of resorts and a nice lagoon. Will need to combine with Niue and Tokelau to make a very interesting trip.
  • Somalia – so I’ve technically been before, but to the northern part known as Somaliland, which has its own currency and government and is quite safe. Mogadishu is separately administered, so it’s on my list to get to eventually. Definitely doable, but will be tricky…

That should keep me plenty of busy for a while! What does everyone else have planned?

Dec 042014

Fortunately, due to my late arrival the night before, I managed to sleep in a bit the next morning. After a bit of Starbucks to attempt to wake up my brain, I went for a bit of a stroll around Auckland. I was considering a haircut, but decided asking for a “little off the top” might be interpreted the wrong way at this place:


I was just in relaxation mode and wandered around the city just seeing what I might see. Found a delicious lasagna for lunch, and a new beer which Untappd informed me was the 500th unique beer I’ve tried. Hah!


It’s Christmas in Auckland!


After an afternoon of walking, and as the sun was setting, I found a place right by the cruise ship terminal serving craft beer samplers. Major props to them for a super creative holder!


It was getting really cold out at this point, and the wind was kicking up. Temp dropped to maybe 15C with a wind, and it was time to find some food and get in teh warms. I was craving Thai food after being away form home so long, and one of the highest recommended restaurants in Auckland on TripAdvisor was Thai, so I decided to go for it. Plus, it gave me another chance to figure out the busses. The inner loop bus served me well, and soon I was at Blue Elephant Thai, where the footprints on the ground led you down the alley to find it:


Delicious chicken satay starter:


Tasty penang duck curry…ordered mainly because I’ve never seen anyone offer duck before. It was quite tasty, but not really a traditional penang curry. Regardless, it was tasty.


I somehow resisted the mango and sticky rice for desert, because for the past week I’d been thinking of the delicious gelato I’d had previously at Giapo. Headed back there after thai for a little dessert before bed, and once again wasn’t disappointed. One of the flavours was “Hokey Pokey” which they described as the “national flavour of New Zealand.” It was vanilla ice cream with honeycomb toffee in it, and in true Giapo fashion they topped it off with some caramel piping, crumbled chocolate cookies, and some more honeycomb crisps. Absolutely amazing.


It was a reasonable walk from Giapo back to my hotel, and as I approached the hotel there were police everywhere, and swarms of people. Clearly something was up. The closer I got, the thicker the police and people got:


Noting all the Chinese flag, and that most of the people looked Chinese, I asked one of the police what was up. “We have a VIP guest.” Based on the level of security, my DC-radar told me it could only be a head of state, and most likely President Xi was about to show up at my hotel.


The strange thing was, the police could have cared less about my keycard, and anyone could walk into the hotel without showing ID. I’m not sure what the point of hundreds of police was if they weren’t checking people going into the hotel, but there you have it.

When I got up to my room, checked the news online, and confirmed that President Xi was indeed arriving in Auckland that evening and it appeared likely he was staying in my hotel. That would explain the unexpected upgrade…most likely he didn’t want to be in a corner room with so many exposed windows.

Crashed the minute my head hit the pillow…it was going to be an early morning flight to Tokyo!

Dec 042014

I’d arranged a taxi to meet me at Fagali’i Airport, and was back at Aggie Grey’s way before my flight to New Zealand. Since I’d already checked out in the morning before heading to Pago Pago, decided to grab a small appetizer at the hotel restaurant and enjoy one last sunset beer. Hotel provided a free shuttle to the airport about two hours before the flight, and in no time I was there and checking in. Nothing exciting, immigration and security were a piece of cake, and soon I was in the departures lounge. The duty free store was all sorts of festive:


Our plane arrived from Auckland about 30 minutes late, giving us only 30 minutes to turn it around, so it was becoming clear we’d be slightly late. Of course, they waited until the scheduled departure time to tell us it was going to be “a little late.” A little late became a little later. And a little later. An hour after departure time, I was getting worried the turnaround crew would go illegal, so asked the gate agent what the story was. Appears there was only one working lav on the entire plane, and they were doing their best to fix it. 90 minutes past departure time they gave up, and we decided to board:


Air New Zealand flight 997
Apia, Samoa (APW) to Auckland, New Zealand (AKL)
Depart 21:45, Arrive 00:45 next day, Flight Time 4 hours
Airbus A320, Registration ZK-OJC, Manufactured 2003, Seat 11C

As we were boarding, the flight attendants informed us there would be a one beverage limit per passenger “except in case of emergency” due to the fact there was one working washroom for over 150 passengers. It was a completely full flight except for four seats, and coincidentally all 4 seats were in the same row…a row which according to ExpertFlyer became completely empty 10 minutes before departure, and then they placed one passenger in the middle seat of each row. These passengers were very chatty with the gate agent, and it’s a safe bet they were either friends or employees. Rather sad.

Before takeoff, it was time for the most epic safety video ever:


Some thoughts on the flight:

It was only about four hours, which is about the limit of what I can tolerate in economy, even in the exit row. Fortunately my row-mates were polite and not overly large, so it was a pretty good flight. The odd thing is, how the food on the flight works. You only get free food and drinks if you purchase a more expensive fare, which appears to be approximately a Q fare or above. I figured this meant very few people, but it looked like nearly half the passengers were offered a meal. Everyone else had to pay for something from the buy on board. The meal was actually decent, certainly on par with what you’d get in domestic first in the states.

The coolest thing about the plane was that you could order drinks or make requests through the seatback touchscreen. It even knew what fare you were on, and if you needed to be charged for your request or not. After dinner, I decided to try my luck and order a second glass of wine. The very friendly flight attendant appeared with it about 5 minutes later, and reminded me it was only one drink per passenger except in case of emergency. I smiled at her, and said “it’s dark…I won’t tell if you don’t tell…and plus…the wine volume in my blood is getting dangerously low…almost to emergency levels!” She laughed, and just said to use the touchscreen when I needed more. Needless to say, a great crew can make an otherwise average flight great!

Landed quite late, just after 2am local, and fortunately immigration and customs was a short wait. Took the airport bus downtown to my hotel, and was finally in bed just after 3am. Was very glad I’d canceled my kayaking trip the next day due to rain, since it would have been a very very short night otherwise. I was staying at the SkyGrand hotel, and for some reason they’d kindly upgraded me to a nice corner room where I promptly passed out the moment my head hit the pillow.

Nov 282014

The flight wasn’t too early, so I was able to have a nice relaxing start to the morning in Auckland. When I finally did check out and head to the airport bus, I encountered the Aquarium bus on the way. Every city needs a shark bus!


Check-in area was rather packed but Air New Zealand’s premium check-in is rather nice. Of course, it didn’t want to check me in at the kiosks, but with a little help from an agent I was checked in and on my way in five minutes. The nicest part of the premium check-in area is the private elevator up to immigration and security. It feeds into a private immigration line, and then into common security, but appeared to save several minutes.

I’d gotten to the airport several hours before the flight to catch up on a bit of work, so I was quite hungry for lunch by the time I arrived. Another reasonably good Mac’s beer and some tasty stew to start:


Finished off with a MOA IPA which was quite delicious, and some sweets and cheese for dessert:


Wifi in the lounge was quite good and I managed to get a good amount of work done, and about 45 minutes before the flight I headed down to the gate area, which was jam packed and standing room only.

Air New Zealand flight 274
Auckland, New Zealand (AKL) to Nuku’alofa, Tonga (TBU)
Depart 16:15, Arrive 19:10, Flight Time 2:55
Boeing 767-300, Registration ZK-NCK, Manufactured 1997, Seat 2A

Boarding began right on time, and bubbly was offered. The load was incredibly light in business today, since the plane had been switched from an all-economy A320 to a 767 about a week before the flight. More bubbles for me! Coach, however, appeared to be packed.


Today’s dinner menu:


This was my first flight with Air New Zealand, and I had high expectations based on what I’d heard from others. I mean, how can you not like an airline that shows Monty Python:


Dinner started out with more bubbly, and a small bowl of nuts:


Due to the light load, it was suggested I have multiple appetizers, both of which were quite good:


The main was also pretty good as well, especially for a 2.5 hour flight:


Plus, cheese and desert. Amazing service for such a short flight:


Flight went very quickly, and soon we were on approach to Tonga. The crew had been excellent and friendly, although it was hard to tell how much of that was due to the extremely light load in business and how much was the usual excellent service. Either way, it was a fantastic flight despite the rather poor hard product for a 767.



Tonga was taking Ebola extremely seriously, and a group of 10+ nurses in old-school white nurse uniforms met the passengers just inside the terminal and asked questions and distributed information cards:


Immigration moved on island time and took over 30 minutes, but it was no big deal because all the fellow passengers were super chatty and friendly. It was great meeting a few people who’d been on the flight and they were all really excited that someone would come all the way around the world to visit Tonga.


Nov 252014

Immigration was a piece of cake, and headed outside to look for the bus into the city. First impression: it’s COLD in Auckland. Granted, they were going through a bit of a cold snap, but coming from Brisbane where it was 30-33 degrees to Auckland where the high was 10 degrees and windy…I pretty much froze. Bus was really easy to figure out, the agent selling tickets was very helpful explaining the stops, etc, and about 45 minutes later we were at the last stop which was near my hotel.

I’d booked the Hilton Auckland with points for the one night I was there. I wasn’t thrilled with the location all the way down on the harbour, but for nice and free I wasn’t going to complain. When I had to shuffle things around due to the Fiji and Solomon Islands trade war, I ended up with a second night in Auckland. There was a problem, however. 90% of hotels were completely sold out (including the Hilton) and the other 10% were only selling rooms at last-minute prices of $400+. Ouch.

When I checked in, I mentioned my predicament to the agent (I still didn’t have a room for the second night at this point) and she said she’d see what she could do. About 15 minutes after I got to my room. She’d spoken to the GM, and they did have one room free for the second night. Since I was a Hilton Diamond member, the GM was willing to make me an offer. I’d pay full price for a standard room (ouch) but would get a room which had “just become available due to a change in plans from a VIP guest in town for a concert.” It was the largest suite in the hotel, and he assured me I would be thrilled with it. I bit the bullet. It avoided moving my bags, and I couldn’t resist.

Later that day, I found out the VIP in town was none other than Mariah Carey. Hah, I wonder if it was her room I was getting, or someone else’s.

By this point it was early evening, and since the hotel didn’t have an executive lounge, they gave me two vouchers good for drinks at the lobby bar. It was a nice social environment, and I got to try Mac’s Black beer. Rather tasty stuff! After my recent Brisbane public transport successes, I bought a transport card for Auckland and headed out to brave the busses. I was headed to SPQR for dinner, which I’d been to many years prior in my first visit to Auckland. It was tasty as I’d remembered, although also a bit more pretentious than I remembered from the previous visit. My waiter was an Italian, and the table next to me was Italian tourists, and he seemed far more interested in chatting with them than paying any attention to me. When I asked for a wine recommendation he instantly recommended the most expensive by-the-glass on the menu, which was definitely tasty, but always leaves a bad impression that they’re recommending based on price.

Decided to walk the 2.5 km back to my hotel since it was a nice evening:


Great view looking back at the city from in front of the Hilton:



Slept nearly 10 hours which felt absolutely wonderful, and then headed out to find caffeine. Starbucks. Predictable caffeine. Just one small problem…it was drizzling.

Great, so now in addiction to being windy and cold, it’s wet. About 500m into the walk, the skies opened up…and then I was saved. A company was handing out FREE umbrellas as advertisement! Can’t be a cheap promotion, but it was awesome!


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