Aug 162016
 

With 195 of the 196 countries in the world visited now, I’d like to think I’ve learned at least a little bit about different places. Sure, some of these trips have been less than 24 hours and I’ve only scratched the surface of the country, but even in a short time it’s easy to discover that lots of the misconceptions you might have had about a country before visiting just don’t stand up. So, in no particular order, 14 common misconceptions I’ve recently discovered in my quest to visit every country:

10. Iranians hate Americans. The media in the United States repeats it constantly, and Iran’s government certainly doesn’t do much to dispel this notion. However, it’s hard to wander the streets of Iran for five minutes without someone coming up to you, asking where you’re from, and often inviting you back to their home for tea. I found Iranians to be some of the warmest and most hospitable people I met anywhere in the world, and they’re genuinely curious about how things really are in the United States. Sure, our governments and politicians can be pretty easy to hate on both sides…but on an individual level the vast majority of Iranian people will welcome you with open arms.

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9. Africa is full of disease and hunger. Usually when I tell people who haven’t visited Africa about an upcoming trip, their first questions revolve around what shots/medications I had to get, and how will I find enough safe food to eat. Sure, there are tropical and other diseases that are much more common in Africa (malaria, dengue, even HIV), but that doesn’t mean that walking down the street you’re going to drop dead. Regarding food, yes, there’s not a McDonalds on every corner, but you would be surprised how many places you see KFC! There are, of course, lots of hungry people in Africa, but there are lots of hungry people in the United States as well. …and like Iran, the number of times people insisted I come back to their home and join them for a meal was amazing. People may not always have much, but you’re a guest and they’re happy to share it with you.

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8. People in China are pushy and rude. While it’s true that overall Chinese culture isn’t the same as the west when it comes to queueing this is changing to some degree in larger cities. When people start pushing (such as boarding a plane) it’s not an attempt to be rude, but simply doing what one needs to to not get trampled in a society that views that as a norm. There’s no rudeness intended at all, and firmly holding your ground will be respected.

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7. The Australian Diet Consists of Blooming Onions, Fosters, and Vegemite. In several trips to Australia I’ve never once seen a blooming onion, and all the Australians I know confirm it’s an American invention. As for Fosters, it’s incredibly uncommon and nobody drinks the stuff. Victoria Bitter (VB) is much more the stereotypical beverage and a higher quality beer costs up to $30 for a six pack thanks to taxes. Unfortunately, the vegemite part is true…and is definitely an acquired taste no matter how thinly you spread it and how much butter you use.

…but you can also get kangaroo and crocodile pizza:

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6. Argentina is Nothing but Cowboys, Steaks, and Evita. While it’s true all three play a huge part making up the Argentine identity, there’s so much more to the country. You can’t deny that modern Argentine politics was largely shaped by Peron and Evita, and you’ll find some of the most mouth-watering steaks in the world, but you’ll also find a vibrant international city in Buenos Aires and amazing skiing in the south and west. Oh, and don’t forget the amazing waterfalls at Iguazu and the Casa Rosada at night:

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5. You Can Get By Everywhere in English. While this is more true than it’s ever been, it’s still not universal. In most major world cities you will have no trouble in English (and in most European capitals the quality of English will be astounding) but there are still places where English is extremely limited. In Europe, Spain and Portugal are exceptions, and especially in Brazil you will find almost no english spoken outside the most touristic of places. Similar in China – get off the few major sites and international hotels, and limited to no English. Plus, if you want to see smaller towns you’ll find English much less common. This also goes for Russia and Central Asia outside capital cities. That’s not to say don’t go – most people will be happy to help, and do their best to communicate with you despite the language gap.

4. South Africa is rife with crime. Yes, South Africa is no stranger to both petty and violent crime. Yes, the stories of carjackings and people being robbed at gunpoint on the street are true. However, the same things happen in major American urban centres if you venture into the wrong neighbourhoods at the wrong time of time. Keep to well-trafficked areas, and use the “women, children, and old people rule” and you’ll be fine. The rule means simply if women, old people, and children are out strolling in the area, chances are things are just fine.

Cape Town sunset:

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3. Nigeria is nothing but Investment Scams, Corruption, and Oil Money. Is there corruption in Nigeria? Absolutely, but there’s also amazing beaches and some of the most amazingly warm people in Africa. One day I was sitting on a deserted beach just outside central Lagos, and the next partying at the craziest wedding I’ve ever been to. I found Nigerians to be some of the most fun-loving and happiest people I met in Africa…and they want you to join in the fun! I highly recommend to anyone who has a Nigerian friend they know in the US – try and get yourself an invite and see the real country. It’s an amazing place!

Very festive Nigerian wedding…the theme was obviously pink:

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2. Japan is all Pokemon, Anime, and Cat Cafes. Sure, all three of those things are very modern Japan, and all originated there and have become global phenomenons. At the same time, however, Japan is still a deeply traditional society with traditions and a history that goes back thousands of years. While Western society is certainly very at home in downtown Tokyo (as attested to by Starbucks everywhere), just turn the corner and you’ll find a temple that goes back hundreds of years that young and old alike still visit and respect. I found nowhere in the world where modern and traditional manage to exist side by side quite like in Japan.

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1. The Gulf States are Largely a Vast Desert Full of Camels and People that Despise Western Culture. So, first off, yes, there’s a lot of desert in the Arabian peninsula. It gets extremely hot and dry, and yes, there’s a lot of camels – outside the cities at least. Speaking of the cities, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and especially Qatar and the UAE and littered with enourmous shopping malls full of western brands. Dubai has dozens of Starbucks, Caribou, Tim Hortons, Costa and every other coffee shop known to western man. …and all of them are packed with local men sitting for hours and talking over coffee. Like with Japan, Western culture and convenience have been imported and customized for local tastes. Infrastructure and convenience wise the gulf states are some of the most modern places on earth which in some part is owed to the fact that in many of them (especially Qatar and the UAE) over 75% of the population is expatriates!

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So that’s my list of 10 of my bigger surprises – what has surprised you about places you went? What did you discover that you didn’t expect?

Apr 252016
 

Before heading home, only fitting to add a few shots from Cape Town. Like the sunrise view from the Westin Executive Lounge:

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View of Table Mountain from the waterfront:

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Another view, this time from the water:

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Fantastic sunset on the water:

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Looking back towards Cape Town, and a full moon:

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The Cape Wheel lit up at night on the V&A Waterfront:

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One last sunset from Camps Bay:

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Another daytime view from the Westin Exec Lounge. This hotel was absolutely fantastic in every way. Great rooms, fabulous Platinum treatment, great restaurants, and the brightest star was the staff. They went out of their way over the course of a week to accommodate every request I had and went above and beyond the fall of duty. It’s hard to fail, though, with a view like this:

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Soon enough, over a week had passed, and it was time to get back home. My hockey team had made the championship game in the meantime, and I was anxious to get back in time to play!

Check-in was easy, although they were only able to check me in as far as Johannesburg. Long line for security, and took nearly 30 minutes to clear. Once through, the walk to the South African lounge wasn’t too bad, and there was great plane spotting today. TAAG 777:

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Kulula 737 with a very awkward “this way up” paintjob. Just in case, idk, the plane gets turned upside down?

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…and my ride for today for the short hop to Joburg, a South African A340-600:

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South African flight 346
Cape Town, South Africa (CPT) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 15:20, Arrive 17:15, Flight Time: 1:55
Airbus A340-600, Registration ZS-SNG, Manufactured 2003, Seat 4D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 41,950
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,231,475

Once airborne, a small snack was served. The couscous, cheese, tomato, and olives were ok, but the mystery meal was…pretty nasty:

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Other than that, not too much to say about this short flight. Same wine selections as the flight down to Cape Town, friendly crew, and about 80% full in business, but the seat next to me remained empty which was a super nice surprise. The crew didn’t even say anything when I used the seatbelt to buckle in my laptop bag for landing! Nice!

Bus gate in Josie, and unfortunately we had to wait to fill up the bus – no special treatment for business class! Rather long walk to the international gates, and another 30 minute wait for passport control. Ugh! But once through, the South African lounge was absolutely packed for evening departures. Since the onboard meal wasn’t really edible, I grabbed a small snack in the lounge – I jokingly told friends back home this was crocodile stew, and most believed it. Goes to show how even South Africa is considered exotic!

…that said, it wasn’t labeled. Tasted like lamb, but there’s no guarantees…

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Long walk to the gate for the Lufthansa flight, and waited forever to board as the crew was stuck in traffic. This was to be the first time I transfered 747-8i to 747-8i and I was looking forward to a very comfortable trip!

Lufthansa flight 573
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 19:40, Arrive 05:25 next day, Flight Time: 10:45
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYF, Manufactured 2012, Seat 8D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 47,330
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,236,855

So…what’s for dinner tonight?

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…after a couple glasses of wine in the lounge, I decided to try out my very limited German, and ordered my wine and starter. The super friendly FA continued in German, so I decided to see how long I could keep this going. I always joke that I don’t speak German – I speak Lufthansa, and the extent of my German is to tell you that Zu jedem Sitz gehört eine Schwimmweste. In der First und Business Class finden Sie die Shwimmweste unter der Armiehne!

I must have been reasonably understandable, because I got my wine and mixed nuts. I’m so glad Lufthansa has finally upgraded from the pre-packaged nuts:

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I went with the sweet chili beef for the starter, and it was reasonably tasty:

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I’m not sure why I decided on the pasta as a main, but it was pretty bland, as expected. I won’t do shrimp on a plane, and I’ve been burned by bad beef so many times that I guess the pasta was a default. Maybe I should have risked the beef after all…

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Tasty, but incredibly stingy cheese portion:

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After eating, I passed out for over seven hours of sleep, and slept right through the pre-arrival breakfast service. No matter, I wasn’t really hungry anyways.

Passport control agents were waiting at the top of the jetway as they often are in Frankfurt for Africa flights, and after a quick flash of the passport (without even opening it) they waived me on. Several others weren’t as lucky…

Through formal passport control, again managing the whole very brief exchange in German, and I was in the airport at 5:30, only 5 minutes after scheduled arrival. Very short walk to the airport Sheraton, quick check-in, and by 6am I was in bed and sleeping soundly. Clearly seven hours wasn’t nearly enough, and I managed another 4 hours of solid sleep.

Grabbed a quick shower, followed by coffee and pastry in the Sheraton exec lounge, and then headed back to the airport. Stop for the obligatory Starbucks to finish waking up, where once again my name was strangely misspelled:

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Through immigration and security. It was the day before Easter, and this group of Chinese tourists was absolutely fascinated with this random duty free person posing as the Easter Bunny:

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Quick stop in the Senator lounge for a pretzel and easter eggs, along with a glass of riesling:

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Then, very short walk to the gate and it was time to board.

Lufthansa flight 418
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 16:55, Flight Time: 9:05
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYR, Manufactured 2014, Seat 7D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 51,411
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,240,936

Having slept 11+ hours I was pretty sure I was going to stay awake this whole flight. The flight to DC was completely full in all classes, and they were offering a 200 euro voucher to go the next day. Um, no thanks. So now, let’s eat!

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Mixed nuts and red wine again, are you sensing a pattern?

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The medium-rare roast beef as advertised. Tasty, especially with the pretzel roll:

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A rather anemic salad:

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The tandoori chicken breast was ok, but nothing special.

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Much better serving of cheese…and a dessert! Bonus!

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Plus, mark this as the flight where I learned Lufthansa has an on-board espresso machine. This was the first of four double espressos consumed in the next eight hours…

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After lunch, I spent several hours doing work and watching tv, before it was time for the pre-arrival meal. The salad was pretty sad, and the curry soup was even worse. The whole meal was pretty poor…the riesling was the star…

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So what to do? Another glass of riesling and dessert. Best part of the meal!

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Landed at Dulles right on time, immigration was a zoo but was through in two minutes thanks to Global Entry. The line for immigration stretched down the hallway and looked at least 30-60 minutes long. Fortunately, the Global Entry line was much shorter and I was through in five minutes.

Taxi ride home, quick shower and pick up the hockey gear, eat a pack of fig newtons, and it was off to the hockey rink, where I arrived just in time 30 minutes before the championship game. The picture below tells all the story…it was well worth rushing home for!

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Stay tuned…next up is my next attempt to check off country #192 visited – Tuvalu!

Apr 232016
 

Had to head to Cape Town for work, and debated taking Qatar for the service (and crediting to American) but in the end decided the chance to earn some Star credit was too good to pass up. After that, if came down to who to fly: South African? Lufthansa? Maybe try something new and take SWISS? Decided to go with SWISS because, if I was going to spend the day in Europe I wanted to do it in Zürich, plus, United had upgrade space available on the flight to London, so it was a no-brainer!

Quick check-in at the first class counter at Dulles airport, no wait at TSA PreCheck, and was quickly off to the United First lounge, despite my flight leaving from the D gates. My usual glass of bubbles along with some shrimp cocktail and salmon:

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Caught up on work emails, and then the long trek down to the D gates. I don’t think I’ve ever departed Dulles transatlantic from the D gates before in dozens of flights, so I guess I should count myself lucky!

United Airlines flight 918
Washington, DC Dulles (IAD) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 19:35, Arrive 06:50 next day, Flight Time: 7:15
Boeing 777-200, Registration N798UA, Manufactured 1998, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 34,668
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,224,193

What’s this…not just welcome aboard bubbles offered, but anything you want to drink? Wow, United, careful, someone might start to think you’re a real international carrier…wait, the plastic glasses dispel that notion!

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Fun new historical postcard amenity kits. This is my fave of the kits lately, because the case actually makes a fantastic toiletries bag. I have a few of them now, so hopefully they last a while!

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Sunset departure from Dulles:

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So what’s to eat tonight?

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Takeoff was on time, and now it’s time to eat…excellent!

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Château le Jeff 2016 and warmed split cashews…groovy!

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Garlic bread…this flight is off to a good start!

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Shrimp tempura and corn…that sort of thing ain’t my bag, baby!

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I love mushrooms. I love leeks. I did NOT love this mushroom and leek soup. Two bites and gave up. Fortunately, the Château le Jeff was in plentiful supply tonight, as was the garlic bread!

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The salad was…unmemorable.

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BRING ME ZEE PORK CHOP! As usual, it was solid…the stuffing thing is pretty tasty, and broccoli pretty much is my favourite veg, sooo…

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Pre-plated cheese, but it was delicious with some sweet biscuits. For once I was stuffed, and didn’t ask for seconds.

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Ice cream “with hot fudge and cherries” only yielded two cherries tonight. Below average.

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I passed on the offer of more drinks as a nightcap…

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Slept four solid hours, which for a six hour flight is excellent for me. Was super happy with it, plus, if I needed it, I would have all day to nap. The usual super long walk to immigration at Heathrow, followed by the equally long walk back to the remote terminal for the United First lounge. Skipped the shower, and opted for breakfast since I’d slept through it on the plane. If I was going to be in London, at least I was going to order some bacon rolls and a buck’s fizz, even if it wasn’t on the menu. Not a problem at all, and the lounge was happy to prepare:

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Super long back to the other pier for my SWISS flight on to Zurich, but it felt good walking after being on the plane.

SWISS flight 317
London, Heathrow (LHR) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 08:50, Arrive 11:40, Flight Time: 1:50
Airbus A320, Registration HB-JLR, Manufactured 2012, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 35,159
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,224,684

Flight was only about half full in “business” so I switched to the window seat and had a whole row to myself. Very solid breakfast for a short flight, complete with Coke Light. Wasn’t terribly hungry after lounge breakfast, so pretty much just nibbled at it:

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Got to Zurich, and was definitely ready to crash. Quick train ride, and I was at my favourite hotel, the Sheraton Zurich. Checked in, crawled in bed, and was out for a good 4+ hours of sleep. Felt much better after that, so went out for a good hour-long walk to the city centre before heading back to the hotel to do a bit of work. Headed to the hotel bar for happy hour, since a drink and snack was included for platinum members. Decided to get a little fuel for the trip back to the airport:

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I was already checked in, so headed straight to immigration, where I had a little bit of drama with the immigration officer, who refused to accept my documents despite the fact I’ve entered Switzerland on the same passport multiple times. Finally, he agreed to let me through, but the whole experience was odd…anyways, headed to the brand new SWISS pier lounge, and had a nice cooked to order light dinner of rosti, pork, and gummi bears!

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Only had a little time in the lounge to catch up on emails and such, before boarding my onward flight.

SWISS flight 288
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 22:45, Arrive 10:25 next day, Flight Time: 10:40
Airbus A340-300, Registration HB-JMO, Manufactured 1997, Seat 10A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 40,370
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,229,895

Tonight’s menu features cuisine from the Canton of Baselland:

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The smoked trout and char starter was interesting…first time I’ve ever had a lavender-honey sauce:

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Grilled John Dory for a main, which was excellent…and the pretzel roll made it even better. I’m warming to this whole fish on planes thing!

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Basic, but tasty dessert…I’d already had the cheese, so was pleased:

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One final glass of wine and a chocolate before bed:

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Slept nearly seven wonderful hours, and woke up just as the flight attendant was bringing breakfast. Meats, cheeses, and muesli with rhubarb? I was in heaven…I love rhubarb!

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Immigration was a hot mess in Johannesburg, as we had landed behind several other flights – at least an hour wait if not more. Fortunately was able to jump to the head of the queue, where I got a very strange agent who decided to look carefully at every stamp in my passport before asking where my visa was. Ugh, dude, I don’t need a visa…calls over his equally clueless supervisor. Finally, they agree, ok, you don’t need a visa, stamp stamp, welcome. The whole experience, again, was very odd.

Off to the domestic side of the terminal, quick stop in the South African lounge for a Coke Light, and just as quickly it was time to board. Unfortunately we were at a bus gate this morning, but it was on time and efficient, so really can’t complain!

South African flight 333
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Cape Town, South Africa (CPT)
Depart 12:10, Arrive 14:15, Flight Time: 2:05
Airbus A340-600, Registration ZS-SNG, Manufactured 2003, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 41,160
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,230,685

It was a treat being on a widebody for a short domestic flight, and we had a super friendly crew today. They were pretty much forcing drinks on people, and I decided to go with the vegetarian snack…which came “sealed in freshness” hahah:

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It didn’t look any more appetizing once the plastic came off. I refuse to touch anything with mayonnaise on a plane, so gave everything but the water and wine a miss. I tried the fruit, but as usual dry and flavourless, sooooo…..

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After a quick flight we landed in Cape Town right on time, where we actually had a jetbridge, quick domestic arrival, and it was time to get to work! My driver that I had pre-arranged from the Westin was waiting for me, so it was a nice quick and comfortable transfer to my home for the next week.

Feb 072015
 

Woke up way too early, had a nice light breakfast in the exec lounge and headed down to the Gautrain to head back to OR Tambo Airport. The airport line of the Gautrain doesn’t go to Rosebank, so had to take the train one stop to Sandton, go down the escalators, and change to an airport train. Nice and easy, and only a two minute wait for the train, so it was very smooth. I’d budgeted an hour to get from the hotel to the airport, but ended up taking barely 30 minutes.

Check-in for Airline is way over in Terminal B, practically halfway to Mozambique. The irony is, once checked in, you have to walk all the way back over to Terminal A for departures. Logical? No. But somehow, I wasn’t the least bit surprised. I guess I was already getting in the Africa mindset a bit and accepting that sometimes (often) things just don’t make any sense.

Security had only one line open, so was about a 15 minute wait to get through. Off to the SAA Business Lounge, for a light pre-departure chocolate muffin and espresso:

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Walking to the gate past some of the shops…oh, good, I’d forgotten my zebra pelt at home so it’s a good thing the airport had them for sale!

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View out onto the tarmac:

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Down the escalator to the bus gates. My gate was swarming with Mormon missionaries. One started chatting me up and asked “what does YOUR church believe in?” Um, no thanks, not interested in a chat. I was tempted to explain the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to her, but didn’t feel like it was worth the effort 😉

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Boarded our bus, and when there were 29 people on board (which exactly matched the seatmap on Expertflyer – it appears for SAA/affiliates at least Expertflyer is completely accurate up until departure) we were off to the plane.

Airlink flight 8252
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Antananarivo, Madagascar (TNR)
Depart 10:00, Arrive 14:10, Flight Time 3:10
Avro ARJ-85 Regional Jet, Registration ZS-ASY, Manufactured 1997, Seat 3F

Business and economy seats on the ARJ-85 were exactly the same, just with a small moveable divider between them. The plane was a 2-3 config with four rows/20 seats in business. Only five were occupied today. I was beginning to wonder if anyone flies on SAA regional flights, as there were only 24 people for about 50 economy seats too. View after takeoff:

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There’s not too many ways you can do towel service – hot or cold, with or without tongs, maybe some lemon squeezed on them, but this was definitely a new way of handing people cold towels:

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Post-takeoff beverages – water and red wine:

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Meal choices were beef strips and chili sauce, or chicken strips and sweet chili sauce. Both were cold. I went with the chicken and it was actually pretty tasty. The pasta salad was good too, and I actually ate all of it. I’m pretty sure that’s a first for something containing mayonnaise on a plane, which usually scares me. Oh, and the berry mousse dessert was fantastic as well. Overall, a rather impressive meal for a short regional flight.

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Landing cards were passed out, which were actually small booklets containing a bit of information on the country as well:

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View out my window on approach:

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Immigration was a mess. There were a few lines, but none of them were marked, so it was completely unclear who was supposed to go where. There was a visa on arrival window, but it listed 0-30 days as free, so I went to the other window, where I was directed to a third window. There were about 20 agents at this third window, and it was unclear who was doing one. First one asked for my onward ticket, ok….then passport…then what was I going to do. She handed my passport to another person, who looked at it, looked at me, and then handed it to a third person. He looked at it, paged through it, and handed it to a fourth person…who didn’t even look at it and handed it to a fifth person. Number Five put it in a stack, so Number Six could stamp it. When he’d stamped it, Number Seven added another stamp….and I was off. Well, that was entertaining…

My driver and guide from Jean Be Tours were waiting for me in the arrivals area and we went to the car to do paperwork. Lots of paperwork. Sign this, read that, stamp stamp stamp, more things to sign, explained the detailed itinerary to me. It was definitely the most legalistic tour I’d ever been on, with everything documented, stamped, and signed. Not sure if this is a government requirement, or just how this company operates.

Then, we were off on the very long drive to my hotel. I’d originally booked the Hotel Carlton but when I found out that it has rather poor internet I looked at other options. Turned out a friend from DC happened to be in town at the same time (what are the odds!) and was staying at the IBIS, so I decided to give that a try for my first night. I could always switch to the Carlton for my second night if I chose to. Some scenes from the drive to the hotel….selling meat and sausages on the side of the road:

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Vegetables for sale:

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There had been very heavy rains most of the day, and the streets were pretty flooded:

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Finally got to the hotel, where I hadn’t made a reservation, but I had confirmed online that there were rooms. No problem, they found my corporate rate, and rooms were a full 50 Euros cheaper than the Carlton as well. Got to the room and was pleasantly surprised at it, so looked like I’d made the right choice!

Met my friend for a drink and caught up for a bit before heading out for dinner. I generally try and avoid hotel restaurants as much as possible so looked online (and on google maps) for what might be near. There was an “Italian” place called Au Stade about 900 meters away which got good reviews, so off I went. Then it started raining. Then there were no sidewalks. Then there were no streetlights. Either I would eventually get there, or I would be abducted by lemurs in the process. Fortunately, after about a 15 minute walk I found the restaurant, where I was one of three tables.

Reviews online raved about the lasagna, but decided I was a bit hungrier so went with a pizza which was actually pretty good. Along with two large bottles of THB – “Three Horses Beer.” Pretty grim beer, but went well with the pizza.

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For dessert, the Crêpe Surprise….what was the surprise? Turned out to be bananas and honey. With a bit of vanilla ice cream it was rather tasty!

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Large pizza, dessert, and two beers was 40,000 francs including a small tip, or about $15. It was quickly becoming pretty obvious that Madagascar isn’t exactly a very expensive destination. Fueled by beer the walk to the hotel wasn’t as bad, plus the streets had completely emptied out so there weren’t nearly as many people (or traffic) to content with plus the rain had stopped. Quick walk back and passed out tired from a very long day, plus…I had to be up early to head to the National Park in the morning to go nature walking!

Feb 062015
 

Check-in at the South African counter was a breeze, and based on the seatmaps on ExpertFlyer we looked to have a pretty empty load going down to Johannesburg today. Up to immigration where I made some nice chat with the agent, she asked if I went to the lake, and then looking at my passport picture quizzically, I said “yep, it’s still me!” Her sassy response? “Yes, and you are wearing same shirt as two days ago.” I was NOT about to let that stand…same type of shirt, yes, but slightly different colour. The agent sitting next to her looked over and told her “you need to examine your eyes! This is orange that is red!” Hahahah…

Off to the lounge…which was closed. Instead, the airport cafe had been converted to the business class lounge. Hmmmm….and the air conditioning was broken. So was the internet. Fortunately, it was cool and I only had a bit over 30 minutes to wait for my flight. The lounge was pretty spartan, but had one of the most delicious flavours of chips I’ve ever tried…good thing I can’t find these in America!

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Caught up on e-mails for a bit and enjoyed the chips (but resisted a second bag) and enjoyed the view of the tarmac:

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Soon, it was time to head down to the gate and board. There was security before the gate, and then there was another bag check where you had to open up your bags and have them hand-searched. By hand-searched I mean open them up, have a hand stuck in them for 2 seconds, and let you go. Security theatre at its finest.

Boarding was via a bus gate, which of course meant the pushiest got to board first with no concern for priority. Flight looked pretty empty today, so it really didn’t matter.

From my seat, looking back to the airport:

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Door closed…and OMG, I’m the only person in business class. 32 seats, and it’s only me. Not having to worry about other passengers totally changes the calculus of where you want to sit.

South African Airways flight 171
Lilongwe, Malawi (LLW) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 13:05, Arrive 15:35, Flight Time 2:30
Boeing 737-800, Registration ZS-SJV, Manufactured 2003, Seat – EVERYTHING! (but sat in 04A)

Earlier, the purser had asked me if I had fun in Malawi. I said “yes, but I didn’t get to see Madonna, so I’m disappointed.” When the door closed and it was confirmed I was all alone, he comes over and says “now you can pretend you ARE Madonna and this is your private jet.” Hahahah! I asked him to take pics to document, and he went nuts, taking 20+ pictures.

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Lunch was underwhelming, but at least the beef was a nice medium and edible. The purser told me there was “plenty more if I want more of anything”:

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That clearly includes garlic bread! 😉 Look at all that garlic bread! A full business class of catering all to myself!

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Landed right on time, immigration was a piece of cake, and headed off to the Gautrain to head into Sandton. I was struggling a bit, so stopped for a triple iced espresso in the airport, and then headed on my way. Quick ride to Sandton station, and then time to find my hotel…the Hilton. For some reason I seem to stay in different hotels every time I go to Jozi, and this trip was no different. I don’t know why I’ve never settled on one hotel, but it is what it is. This time, the Hilton had a pretty good rate which combined with Hilton Diamond status made me go for it.

Walk was a bit longer from the station than I expected at 900m, and that combined with the sun and hills made it a bit of a trek with bags. No worries, checked in, and was given a nice studio suite. One thing about Hilton I’m not overly pleased with is their push to sell “guaranteed” upgrades…which aren’t really guaranteed. You agree to pay for an upgrade if it’s available at check-in, in an attempt to give them to people willing to pay over people with status. It’s annoying, but it is what it is. Anyways, the room was nice, blah blah.

Made some phone calls, including to United, to change my flight out to Madagascar the next day. Recovering from a sinus infection a couple of weeks prior, combined with jetlag, and I was just feeling exhausted…and not ready to spend nights in a forest lodge without modcons. So, I decided to stay in Jozi an extra night. Tickets were easily changed with a few Skype calls, and then I set off to get a hotel.

Unfortunately, the Hilton was sold out, so I wouldn’t be able to stay another night. Everything else I usually stayed at was full as well, or extremely expensive. I decided to go back to the first hotel I every stayed at in South Africa over 15 years prior, the Hyatt. I first stayed at this hotel back in 1998 when I went to Johannesburg with friends to see U2 when they first played South Africa. The hotel had great memories, but I hadn’t stayed there since. Managed to book an executive floor king room with some orphaned Hyatt points, and was all set. Now, to enjoy Johannesburg a tiny bit!

It was already quite late, so I headed up to the executive lounge for snacks and wine. The lounge attendant was attentive…probably a bit too attentive. Every time I turned my back my wine glass was full, and within an hour I think I put down three rather large glasses. So much for my motivation to head out to dinner! Managed to drag myself out the door, walk back to Nelson Mandela Square, and find dinner regardless. Quick dinner of Thai (the only place with outside seating immediately available) and headed back to the hotel and absolutely passed out.

Slept in a bit the next morning, and headed up to the lounge for a light breakfast. After that I grabbed an Uber down to Melville to check out another neighbourhood I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years, and walked around for a bit, grabbed a coffee, and just relaxed. Got back to the hotel after a while, and then grabbed my bags and took the Gautrain to Rosebank to check into the Hyatt.

Got there, up to the Exec Lounge to check-in (which was just as I remembered) and then met up with another blog reader for lunch. He picked me up, and we went to Wolf Pack in Parkhurst for burgers and craft beer. Clearly he reads my blog and knows that craft beer and burgers are a quick ticket to getting me talking! One of the nicest things about this blog has been how readers have generously invited me out to show me their city or for meals and give me a bit of an insider’s look into the city.

Relaxed a bit after lunch, headed back to Nelson Mandela Square for coffee and to people watch a bit, before heading back to the Hyatt to grab a couple of glasses of wine during Happy Hour. This lounge shot is from breakfast the next morning:

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After a couple of glasses of wine, met a friend for dinner at Doppio Zero in The Firs for dinner. It had been years since I spent any real time at the Hyatt, and I had no idea this little courtyard area was located basically just behind the hotel. We had a great dinner and chat, kept it going with after-dinner drinks and catching up, and stayed up a bit later than planned…but it was so worth it. One of the greatest things about travel are the things you can’t plan like tours and such but just happen. Even with staying up a little bit late I managed to meet my goal of resting up a bit and was ready to head off to Madagascar in the morning!

Apr 232013
 

I’m going to be a bit briefer on this entry than the trip down, mostly because many of the flights were relatively similar…just in reverse.  That said, there were quite a few differences so I’ll go into a bit more detail about them.

Check-in at Johannesburg was a piece of cake despite the fully loaded A380, and we had our boarding passes within 10 minutes of getting off the Gautrain.  Past the ticketing counters, on the way to security, we saw this interesting gem:

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I’m going to guess that enough people flying out of JNB have weapons to check that not only do they need a special place for it, but they need a giant sign to let you know where to do it.  I guess this makes you feel a little safer?  Maybe?

No wait for security, but the wait for immigration was close to 20 minutes.  With A380s of Lufthansa and Air France departing, as well as a couple long-haul South African and BA flights it was no big surprise, and can’t really complain about it too much.  We did a bit of duty free shopping, and maybe a couple things worth mentioning:  if you want Africa-themed souvenirs, you can find just about anything you want at JNB.  There are several shops selling just about every sort of mask, statue, necklace, and trinket you could imagine.  If you want to buy South African wine…not so much.  There’s one shop, with a small selection, and they do NOT package or ship.  Sort of disappointing, but saved me a good deal of money I guess.

Shopping done, it was time to spend a bit of time in the South African business lounge.  Plentiful drinks served by bartenders, a bit of pre-packaged food that was so unappetizing I didn’t touch any of it, and internet that was about as fast as Oscar Pistorius…no wait, too soon.  It was slow.  Almost unusable slow.  So slow I used data roaming on my iPhone slow.  Oh, and if you want to plug in your device….you best forget it.  I think the whole lounge had about 10-15 outlets all of which were in use.  Womp womp.

Boarding for the A380 was total chaos due to it being a completely full flight.

Lufthansa flight 573
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 19:05, Arrive 5:45 next day, Flight Time 10:40
Airbus A380, Registration D-AIMC, Manufactured 2010, Seat 27K

This flight was nearly identical to the way down there.  I’m not going to post too much, because honestly…not much is different.  Pre-departure juice, water, or champagne (one glass, and one glass only), quick and efficient meal service from a very friendly crew, and I managed to sleep a solid 8 hours on the way to Frankfurt.  I can’t ask for too much more.  The menu:IMG_5968

I had the chicken thai coconut stew, and it was pretty tasty, but a pretty small portion.  I did get a second helping of cheese after the desert course (hey, I’m a growing boy) and with a few glasses of wine got an incredibly solid sleep as mentioned above.

When we deplaned in Frankfurt, there were German immigration officers just outside the jetbridge checking passports.  I’m not certain how this works, but I guess they want to catch people who ditched their passports in flight (hoping for asylum?) coming off the plane before they mix in with other flights so they can at least tell where they came from?   Anyone know more about why they do this?  I flashed mine, and we were off.  Quick re-do of security, and we were in the A/Schengen-gates senator lounge where a nice shower awaited:

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Showered and happy, grabbed a lite breakfast including lots of coffee, and some of the brightest and most festive easter eggs I’d ever seen.  But come on Lufthansa, you’re a couple days late…easter was a couple days ago!

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Apr 192013
 

We landed at 10am, and immigration was quick without bags, and we were spared the odd questions about why we’d come to Johannesburg for just 33 hours. Fortunate.

I’ve been to South Africa dozens of times, but haven’t actually visited Johannesburg in over 15 years. I flew into JNB two years ago during my round the world 40th birthday trip, but immediately got in a rental car and headed to Lesotho, so I hadn’t properly visited the city in a long time. I was excited to get a small preview of how things had changed.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. I did do a similar milage run about 5 years ago, when Lufthansa published a DC to Helsinki fare that allowed Johannesburg in the routing rules. So, yes, I did go DC – Frankfurt – Johannesburg – Frankfurt – Helsinki. It was legal, and only like an extra $10 in taxes, but as it was a connection I only had about 8 hours in Johannesburg. I did manage to get down to Sandton for lunch, but had to take a giant share taxi which was a bit of a pain in the butt.

Why am I going on about this? Because everyone I knew from there had told me how nice the Gautrain was. JNB to Sandton and Rosebank in about 15 minutes. Clean, fast, efficient, and relatively affordable. I was sold! We only had to wait about 10 minutes for a train, and it was actually rather nice!

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Short train ride later, we were at the Sandton station, which was located conveniently across the street from our hotel, the Radisson Blu Sandton Gautrain.  Check-in was quick and pleasant, and we were “upgraded” to a business floor room.  Nothing special about the room, except that Radisson Blu’s business class rooms seem to all have Nespresso machines in them.  I was a happy caffeine addict.  Perhaps the strangest part was the picture on the wall outside our room:

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Yes, that’s the Farragut West metro station in Washington, DC, the same station I get out at most every day to go to the office.  Halfway around the world.  Go figure.  It was if the hotel was taunting us!  We took advantage of the Nespresso machine in the room to refuel, and since it was almost noon at this point we headed across the street to Nelson Mandela Square to get some lunch.

We settled on Baglios, mainly because they had a table on the lanai where I could sit and enjoy the 23C sun since it was still cold back in DC.  But first, to start lunch off on the right note, I introduced Phil to Savanna Dry cider!

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Apr 182013
 

A couple months ago, people were posting about a fare from DC to Johannesburg, mentioning that while it was a great fare in business class, it wasn’t really cheap enough to be considered a “milage run.”  Well, I like to be comfortable, and with business fares earning 1.5 times the elite miles it was a no brainer for me.  I tend to think if I can buy a business fare for less than 10 cents per elite mile I’m doing well, and with the limited time off I have it made this a no-brainer.  The kicker was that my friend Dewon was already headed back to South Africa to renew a visa, and I could fly the outbound with him.  A few days after booking, my friend Phil wanted to join me for the crazy milage run from DC, and we had the makings of an adventure!

Of course, since this was largely for the miles I devised the most insane routing I could to maximize the miles, and it went off without a hitch!  All told, it would be around 33,000 elite miles earned, at the cost of only one day of leave…can’t complain too much!  Soon, the day of the trip was here and it was time to go.  I’m going to break this into three parts….  (1) the trip to South Africa aka this post, (2) our 1.5 days in South Africa, and (3) the trip back from South Africa.  Warning, this part of the post will be extremely picture heavy!

Got to National Airport, check-in was fairly efficient, TSA was a non-event due to TSA Pre-Check, and soon we were in the United Club.  I love the historic club at National Airport, not to mention the awesome bartender who makes the most amazing spicy bloody mary…perfect start to a big adventure!

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United (operated by Shuttle America) flight 3523
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Chicago O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 10:35, Arrive 11:44, Flight Time 2:09
Embraer E-170, Registration N638RW, Manufactured 2004, Seat 2F

Not too much to say about this flight…it was a pretty generic express flight.  One more drink, some “gourmet snack mix,” some crossword puzzles, and soon we were in Chicago.

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Whenever I have time, it’s become an O’Hare ritual for me to swing by Chilis for some Tex Mex Eggrolls and a Platinum Presidente Margarita…couldn’t resist this time either.  We had plenty of time, and the other option was to sit in a crowded United Club, so the choice was obvious!

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Nov 102011
 

First off apologies that this will be mainly a text post. I don’t know why I didn’t take more pictures on this leg…but just didn’t.

Got up pretty early to catch an early breakfast at the hotel in Swaziland, which was fascinating on its own. The buffet area was small – a dozen tables or so at the Mountain Inn – and most will filled with large South African tour groups. Regardless, we got a good breakfast, and got ready to head on our way. We’d planned to head out of Swaziland on the northern side via Pigg’s Peak, but there was very very thick fog, and the front desk advised us this route would not only be dangerous, but we were unlikely to see anything at all. Oh well – can’t control the weather!

Headed out via the west, and it was still very foggy. We had to get to Nelspruit, South Africa where we were due to catch a Greyhound bus to Mozambique. The drive was slow and quite foggy, but we still made it in plenty of time. Dropped off the car at the airport, and caught a way overpriced taxi back to the bus terminal. No problems at all – which in and of itself was quite surprising. Bus was even on time!

The bus was half full at most (and a double decker) and in less than two hours we were at the Mozambique border. We had purchased our visas in advance, so the border was a complete nonevent. We even had time for a couple pictures:

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Nov 082011
 

Up early to explore Ladysmith before the long drive to Swaziland. Breakfast at the hotel was pretty uninspired, but given the location and what we’d seen of the hotel the night before that was perfectly fine. It was clean, sufficient, and we were on our way. First stop was the Ladysmith Town Hall to see the museum. Ladysmith was a key focal point in the Anglo-Boer wars in the early 20th century, and had an interesting museum to show for it. Unfortunately, it felt like the town never quite recovered all the way. A couple shots of the Town Hall / Museum:

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