May 102016
 

I had decided the night before to prioritize sleep over possible time in the lounge/etc, and learned that the check-in cutoff for Fiji Airways was 45 minutes, so I was comfortable cutting it closer than I usually would. I arrived at the airport about 80 minutes before the flight due to no traffic at all, and check-in took under a minute, then it was time for security, then immigration.

The security line was maybe five minutes, and no wait at all for immigration, so maybe 10 minutes after setting foot in the airport I was already in the departures hall. Guess there would be a little lounge time after all! Nadi International terminal is under heavy construction, which is expected to finish in a couple more months. The lounge, however, seemed finished. It was rather teeming this morning with all the international departures, but finding a seat wasn’t hard. Decent selection of drinks and snacks – all self serve. I grabbed a can of Diet Coke and a chocolate muffin since I hadn’t had breakfast, and soon our flight was called.

Short walk upstairs from the lounge, and boarding was already underway.

Fiji Airways flight 911
Nadi, Fiji (NAN) to Sydney, Australia (SYD)
Depart 9:00, Arrive 11:45, Flight Time: 4:45
Airbus A330-200, Registration DQ-FJT, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 63,625
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,253,150

If these seats look familiar, it’s because it’s the exact same aircraft I took from LA to Fiji just a few days prior…now that there’s daylight I can get a few decent pictures!

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Breakfast flights usually don’t interest me too much, but since all I had was a muffin let’s see what’s to eat:

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Breakfast flight with a wine list…now we’re talking!

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Fruit, cereal, and make-your-own mimosas:

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Bread…on it’s own…as a second course. This is right before tragedy struck…some of the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced. We were shaking all over the place, repeated sudden drops in altitude. But more seriously…right after this my entire mimosa ended up on the floor. Flight attendants had to be seated for nearly an hour at this point…

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Eventually I did get an omelette…but it was boring and flavourless, so after two bites I was done.

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Watched a couple of hours of terrible movies, and since noon was approaching (well, in fairness it was after noon without the time change) I decided to try their “signature Fijian rum cocktail.” It was basically smashed up cherries, soda water, and rum. Um, pass. Later, I found out he forgot the orange juice.

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Landed in Fiji a full 35 minutes ahead of schedule, and had a couple of days to just veg and enjoy. Took the airport train, which was a rather poor value at nearly 19 Australian dollars, and still required a walk to my hotel – the Four Points by Sheraton Darling Harbour. They offered me an upgraded “premium deluxe” room, and I asked if perhaps they had any suites available. The rather nice young gentleman working check-in was eager to please…and found me a “corner harbourview maritime penthouse suite” on the top floor! Yowzers!

How’s that for a view:

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Not a half bad room at all:

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A few more words on the hotel. It’s undergoing an extensive remodel in the lobby area, so things were closed off everywhere. The bar and restaurant were clearly in a makeshift space, so I didn’t spend any time in them. Beyond that, the staff were fantastic and the room was super nice and comfortable, so I would definitely return again!

So, not much to report on my two days in Sydney. Hung out with some friends I hadn’t seen in a while, walked a ton since the weather was absolutely perfect. Around 22C/72F the entire time, strong sun, and gorgeous days to be outside. Although I’d been to Sydney before, had to take the obligatory tourist photos. Opera House:

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Harbour Bridge:

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Sunset from the Penthouse Suite:

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On my final day, woke up and went out to get coffee, and started coughing immediately. Seems the government was doing controlled burns outside the city, and the wind suddenly changed direction and surprised them…blowing all the smoke into the city. You could tell it was bad from this picture:

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More walking all day, more hanging out with friends, and a pizza…with crocodile, emu, and kangaroo. I  mean, when in Australia…I highly recommend checking out the Australian Heritage Hotel for lunch or dinner…plus they have a great craft beer menu too!

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With that my two days in Sydney were done, and it was time to begin the truly luxury part of this trip…off to Thailand next!

May 092016
 

So, this was it. The whole reason for this trip – my second attempt at making it to Tuvalu. If it didn’t work out this time, I was faced with trying to make an immediate out and back on Thursday since the flight only goes twice a week. I’m not sure why I had such fear of this flight, but given how Fiji Airways behaved last time I tried to get there, I feel like the worry is justified.

I had arranged a cab with the Sheraton the night before, and of course when I got to the front desk to check out at 6am it was nowhere to be found. They did manage to scare one up around 615, however, and I was still at the airport nearly an hour before the flight. The Fiji Airways domestic terminal in Nadi is extremely small, so arriving 45 minutes before the flight is absolutely no problem at all – as long as nothing goes wrong! You can only get seat assignments at check-in, but let’s be honest on these little regional planes seats are the same anyways.

I saw we had the ATR72 this morning, which supposedly has two rows of “business class.” It’s the exact same seats as economy, and on domestic flights they’re the last to be given away. I had to ask really nicely and point out that I had booked business class on the onwards flight, and they reluctantly ended up giving me 1A.

Fiji Airways flight 7 – Operated by FijiLink
Nadi, Fiji (NAN) to Suva, Fiji (SUV)
Depart 7:30, Arrive 8:00, Flight Time: 30 minutes
ATR 72-600, Registration DQ-FJZ, Manufactured 2014, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 60,267
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,249,792

Small bottle of water handed out to all passengers right before takeoff, and not much else to say for the 25 minute flight. I was the only one in the eight seats up front, and got to chat with the flight attendant a bit. Seems a typical day for this plane (and crew) on Tuesday and Thursday is go to Suva-Nadi-Suva-Funafuti-Suva. That was good news, since if you get on the plane out of Nadi apparently you know your plane has arrived to leave for Tuvalu too!

Upon arrival went back to the check-in counter, as they can’t do check-in for the Tuvalu flight from Nadi. Met the same agent that had worked there last time I tried this, and sure assured me the flight was just fine, and would be on time today. I was less optimistic given past performance, but hey, at least the plane and crew were there…

Fiji Airways flight 281 – Operated by FijiLink
Suva, Fiji (SUV) to Funafuti, Tuvalu (FUN)
Depart 9:00, Arrive 11:35, Flight Time: 2:35
ATR 72-600, Registration DQ-FJZ, Manufactured 2014, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 60,923
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,250,488

Small bit of drama, however. It seemed that there was “quite some weather en route” so they were going to have to offload 18 passengers. Priority was given to business class and Tuvaluans returning home, so I have no idea how they chose which 18 would not be able to go. Despite that, boarding was on time, the door closed 10 minutes before departure time, and soon we were taxiing for takeoff! About 20 seats empty in coach and we were only four of eight in business, meaning I had an empty seat next to me.

Breakfast was offered – french toast or omelette. Nothing super fancy, but definite the fanciest I’ve ever had on a prop plane:

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Flight time was nearly 2.5 hour, and soon we had our first views of Funafuti Atoll and we were descending into my 192nd country visited! Of course deplaning was via the plane stairs (seriously, jetways in a country that only gets two flights a week?) and I was there! One room airport building, where agents were stamping passports on a card table:

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The plane that finally got me to Tuvalu:

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There was a van waiting from my hotel, the Hotel Vaiaku Lagi, said to really be the only hotel of any standards at all in Tuvalu – with a whole 16 rooms. I don’t know why we needed to take a van as the hotel is literally a 90 second walk from the terminal, but it is what it is! More on that when I leave…checked in, was assured I was (as requested when I booked) given the room with the absolute best air conditioning out of the 16. Super fancy 1.5 star room, complete with a vase of flowers:

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It was clean, moderately comfortable, and the AC was arctic. Overall, I was pleased. It wasn’t cheap at nearly $100 a night, but for being clean, cool, and safe I wasn’t about to complain. I checked out a couple of the guesthouses in town, and they were pretty grim. No way they even qualify as 0.5 stars….

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By the time I checked in, it was just after noon, and when I asked the desk agent for suggestions on places to see she laughed at me. Seems from about 12-4 is time for what they call “Pacific Exercise” in Tuvalu, where basically people lay around and hide from the fierce afternoon heat and humidity. I joined the other 15 guests in the hotel restaurant, where there were three lunch options: chicken chow mein, stir fried prawns, or ham and cheese sandwich. I decided the sandwich was safest, but ham apparently means Spam! Mmmm grilled spam and cheese:

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As it started to get reasonably cooler, I headed out to Tuvalu Telecom to buy a wifi access card. It took four trips back to get it to work, because even when you scratch off the code the number/password are pretty much illegible. Hooray for high-quality Chinese manufacturing. Eventually it worked, and it was just fast enough to read some emails and check facebook…kinda.

I decided then to head for a walk. Down the main road in Funafuti, which other than a three “block” stretch is all residential like this:

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Then, I headed over to the airport runway, which is the hub of social activity for about an hour before sunset. It’s the one time of day it’s not too hot to be outside, and since the runway is the biggest stretch of open land in the whole country it’s used for hanging out and recreation, and some families even SLEEP on the runway at night because there’s a reasonable breeze!

Kids playing football behind me on the runway:

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Back to the hotel, and again for dinner there were three choices. I went for the grilled tuna steak, and it was actually phenomenal…and hey, frozen veggies are better than none at all!

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Slept in a little bit, and headed out for a morning walk before it got too hot again. A block from my hotel, and next to the airport, was the central government building. I’d heard it was possible to just walk in, so I did. Security wasn’t a concept, and of all people I ended up meeting the Prime Minister! I was so surprised by actually meeting him I didn’t think to ask if I could take a picture, but I told him why I was in Tuvalu and he seemed super pleased and impressed with the story!

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Continued my walk down a residential road, and politics, Tuvalu-style:

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Tuvalu House, which I believe might be the residence of the Prime Minister?

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Next stop was the post office to buy stamps. Yes, they were able to sell them, but seemed completely uninterested in doing any work. I guess there’s not much call for stamps in Tuvalu. They had lots of commemorative ones, as well as post cards, so I bought some to send to family and friends. There’s not too much to do in Tuvalu, so writing postcards would be a nice diversion. Hundreds of commemorative stamps on sale all at face value. Some of the more interesting ones:

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The super-fancy Tuvalu Post office:

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Just down the street was the Tuvalu National Library and Archives. Please take off your flip flops when entering:

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Went back to my hotel and wrote postcards, then a walk back to the post office to mail them. They promised the would go on tomorrow’s flight…or maybe next week if the plane is full. We will see if they ever arrive!

Back to the hotel for lunch and Pacific Exercise. “Chili Chicken” was the lunch of the day, and it was reasonable. All the meals were between six and eight US dollars plus drinks, so extremely cheap, and reasonably large portions. Pacific Exercise takes lots of energy!

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After exercising (aka reading in a hammock and napping) I went for another walk. Tuvalu Telecom, where you go to buy wifi cards:

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Then on the other side of the runway, I found the Tuvalu Sports Ground, where a rugby game was in progress:

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For a little “real” exercise, I took a walk down the entire length of the runway:

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On the way back to the hotel, I passed the Development Bank of Tuvalu. Maybe I should apply for a job…

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Sunset from the coral “beach” behind my hotel:

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Another shot of the “beach” where land reclamation is underway. Considering the whole country is eight feet above sea level I’m not sure the point of doing reclamation when the whole country is projected to be underwater by 2050 thanks to climate change:

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Back to the hotel, where tonight’s dinner was “stir fry chicken.” Again, reasonable.

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With that, it was time to head to bed and pray my plane would arrive in the morning to take me home. Tuvalu was pretty much exactly what I expected, maybe even a slight bit smaller. You can see everything there is to “see” in a couple of hours, so bring plenty of things to read and plan on doing relaxing. It was actually quite nice to have the downtime without the pressure of having to be go go go and see things.

Two days was the perfect amount of time in Tuvalu – I think the only other option would be two or more weeks so you could try and get a boat to some of the outer islands (where there are no hotels) and spend some time seeing really authentic rural life and villages. Now, will the plane come back…

May 072016
 

Flight landed just a few minutes ahead of schedule at the Nadi airport, which I found out after boarding was under major major construction. Two good things about landing just after 5am: no immigration lines, and the normally super hot and humid outdoor terminal was still pleasant and breezy at this hour.

Immigration was a snap, no questions, and I was off through baggage claim to get a taxi. Two taxi drivers were waiting, and I picked the first one. Asked him “it’s still $25 to the Sheraton, right?” “Oh no, it hasn’t been that in 10 years, it’s $35 now.” Hmmm, I was starting to smell a scam, so I went over to the other driver…same thing even though he hadn’t heard me talking to the first. Sigh, at this hour there wasn’t much choice. (As a side note, I did confirm later that $25 is the correct fare – grrr!)

Rather short 20 minutes or so ride to the Sheraton since it was Sunday morning and there was still no traffic. Got to the Sheraton, checked in, but was told unfortunately my room wasn’t ready yet. Given it was 6am I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was tired, cranky, and sweaty, and when she suggested “maybe you can go get some breakfast and wait by the pool. Maybe it will be ready by 12 I was less than thrilled.

I asked if perhaps there was ANY room ready now – it didn’t need to be the ocean view suite they had upgraded me to. After going in back and checking – yes – there was another room I could have until mine was ready. Woo hoo! Got a rather boring garden-view room with two beds, but the AC worked and I was able to get a couple hours of solid sleep so that was fantastic!

Shortly afterwards, around 11am they called and told me my new room was ready, and the buggy would come and pick me up and drive me over. That’s the service I remember from this hotel. Not only was it a suite, but it was at the corner of the beach – probably the best of all the ocean view suites the property has based on location. Can’t argue with the view:

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See, here’s where I could pretend I did anything the rest of the day, but… I grabbed lunch at the beach-side restaurant, plopped down by the pool, and pretty much spent the afternoon on and off dozing and reading. Considering I normally suck at relaxing while on vacation, I was pretty proud of myself for doing absolutely nothing. Before I knew it, it was late afternoon, and the sun was setting. Not a bad view from the beach right outside my room:

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That evening, I took the Bula Bus to the Denarau Port for dinner. The Bula Bus makes a loop through all the resorts on Denarau Island (Westin, Sheraton, Radisson, Sofitel, Hilton, etc) as well as the port. The port is filled with restaurants and shops, and probably the best place to go for a bite if you want to get away from the resorts.

I had dinner at the Nadina Fijian Restaurant which I had eaten at a couple years prior. It was just as delicious as I remembered from before, but I don’t think I was able to fully enjoy it because I was so exhausted. I recommend the Kokoda which is a Fijian version of ceviche – basically cubes of raw fish and veggies served in a lime and coconut broth. It’s delicious!

Took the Bula Bus back to the hotel, and promptly passed out for nearly 10 hours – guess I needed it!

Next morning, I got up and grabbed a coffee just outside the front of the resort at Bulaccino. No, it’s not amazing coffee, but given the location it’s a huge step up from the awful drip coffee you get in hotel restaurants, and almost as good as you’d get in a small independent coffee shop in the US or Europe. Highly recommended – and their iced americanos are like rocket fuel – not something that can usually be said for coffee in developing countries! Also, they made a mean eggs benedict for breakfast.

Got back to my room after some breakfast and heard music coming from outside. Turns out the hotel wedding chapel was also right outside my room, and a Chinese couple were having a “traditional” Fijian wedding:

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That was my cue to head back to the pool and read for a bit, before I got hungry again and headed back to the port for lunch. Decided this time to try a new restaurant called The Rhum-Ba which gets great reviews on TripAdvisor. Can’t argue with the view, as the restaurant is housed in the yacht club:

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You can, however, argue with the service and the portions. I had kokoda again, and it was literally three spoonfulls…for US$10. Also, there was a strong wind which actually picked up my glass of cider and sent it flying all over. I suggested MAYBE they could get me another…and he had to “check with the manager if that’s ok.” Service and portions were severely lacking, and although what I did have was tasty, I’m not sure I’d go back.

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After this, I discovered a place that will be my potential downfall in the future. New Zealand Natural ice cream. Supposedly this is a chain ice cream shop, and maybe it’s not that special, but I ordered rum raisin and another flavour called Hokey Pokey. What’s hokey pokey? Basically vanilla ice cream with little chunks of crystallized toffee and honey. It was out of this world…and I might be addicted now!

Back to the resort, where I spent the rest of the afternoon on the beach reading:

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Followed by another absolutely amazing sunset:

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Just after sunset, the power went out. Fortunately, the generators for the hotel kicked back on. But, it was the weirdest thing. They only powered some things, but it seemed like the strangest subset. In the room, all lights worked, but nothing else. No power outlets, no internet, no AC. So, I headed to the Port to get dinner. Unfortunately, the port also had no power, so all the restaurants had closed.

Went back to the Sheraton, and still no power, but fortunately the kitchen was powered by the generator, so the bar was hopping, and I was able to get a sandwich. Not sure powering the band at the bar should take priority over AC, but it was what it was. I was exhausted again, so fortunately had no trouble falling asleep without AC – and fortunately the fan did work, however. I was woken up about 2am when power finally came back on and the AC/TV/etc all kicked back on, but can’t really blame the hotel for the poor power situation. I guess rolling brownouts have become a fact of life in Nadi in recent months.

With that, my two super relaxing days had come to a close, and it was time for my third try at getting to Tuvalu!

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 212016
 

I had a very long weekend coming up, and combined with the American Exec Platinum challenge it looked like a perfect time to get away to my 190th country visited – Belize! There were some excellent business class fares available, and even though they required an overnight in Dallas in both directions it looked like the perfect time.

I had always put off visiting Belize because I wanted to go for a week or more and get some serious diving in. However, with only a little over seven months left until my goal of visiting every country I opted for a shorter relaxing trip so that I had a but more intel for the next trip!

Put in a bit of a half day of work, then headed off to the Admirals Club for the first time in a few years to see what the upgraded food options were all about. There were pepperjack cheese cubes so I was happy…combine that with some decent brownies and some mushroom and brie soup, well, overall a very tasty and substantial snack:

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Soon it was time to board the flight to Dallas for the overnight.

American flight 327
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW)
Depart 15:40, Arrive 18:13, Flight Time: 3:33
Boeing 737-800, Registration N948NN, Manufactured 2014, Seat 5E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 19,248
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,208,763

Despite at 3:40pm departure, it was a dinner flight. Other than London-Chicago a month prior, this was my first domestic American flight in a few years and I was curious to see how they would do compared to United. Was pleasantly surprised to get a new 737-800 with sky interior, and everything felt new and clean. I was also glad to see that wine is still poured in “big boy” glasses, but boo to sourcing split cashews from Smisek’s Split Cashew Farm:

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I had pre-ordered my meal online (a nice feature American offers so you can be disappointed in advance) and I went with the pasta…which was as bland as it looks and sounds. I had a couple bites, and passed on the rest in favour of more vino.

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Mas vino and a pretty good chocolate chip cookie…but rather sad as a dessert:

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Overall verdict? Just like United, it’s a meal that you could get for under $10 in any workplace cafeteria. It’s far from fine dining, but if you’re busy and rushed it will do the job.

Spent a nice night at the Westin DFW. I felt a cold coming on, and the hotel shuttle driver was kind enough to take me a couple miles away to the nearest CVS for Sudafed…at no charge. Definitely high marks to this property on service! Woke up feeling quite a bit better, went to the airport a little early where I grabbed Starbucks (of course) then went straight to my gate.

American flight 2345
Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) to Miami, Florida (MIA)
Depart 7:15, Arrive 11:01, Flight Time: 2:46
Boeing 737-800, Registration N809NN, Manufactured 2009, Seat 5E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 20,369
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,209,884

Unfortunately, my flight attendant was pretty much asleep as well, and dumped my seatmate’s pre-departure beverage in my lap. Ugh, fortunately it was “only” tea which wasn’t really hot…and also didn’t stain. She did apologize profusely at least.

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I decided to go with the mimosa option…I was on vacation after all!

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Another pre-ordered meal, the omelette. Fruit was dry and tasteless. I ate the eggs just for the protein, and left everything else behind…except a second and maybe third mimosa. Another blah and uneventful flight.

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Didn’t have very long in Miami, but since the American Express Centurion Lounge was on my way to the gate I stopped in for a few minutes and a celebratory glass of Veuve. The place was absolutely packed with families so I made a quick retreat on to my next flight.

American flight 2476
Miami, Florida (MIA) to Belize City, Belize (BZE)
Depart 12:35, Arrive 13:50, Flight Time: 2:15
Airbus A319, Registration N90024, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 21,136
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,210,651

Feet on the bulkhead is apparently done in a much more classy fashion on American, with fuzzy pink socks:

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Fortunately, the flight was pretty empty and not all the seats were taken in first despite some non-revs boarding at the last minute, so I was able to swap over to a window seat. We started off with warm nuts and some wine:

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The nuts were, unfortunately, burned and chewy, so I had to give them a pass:

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We were given a snack option of “cheese and fruit” or “spinach dip” – I went with the cheese which was two sad hunks of cheese and a few bruised grapes.

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There was enough for seconds, so I asked to try the hummus…I wish I hadn’t. It was rather foul. One bite and done.

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Soon, we were on approach to Belize:

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Deplaned through stairs, immigration took a bit longer than it should have since it seemed several flights all arrived at the same time.

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Once through security, you were dropped right into the domestic departures area. My hotel had arranged my onward flights for me, so all I had to do was give my name to them, and they put me on the next flight to San Pedro. Flights seemed to leave every 15-30 minutes at peak time, so it was really a piece of cake.

TropicAir flight 76
Belize City, Belize (BZE) to San Pedro, Belize (SPR)
Depart 14:10, Arrive 14:25, Flight Time: 15 minutes
Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, Registration V3-HHL, Manufactured 2011, Copilot Seat
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 21,170
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,210,685

Even better the flight was completely full, so I got to sit in the copilot seat!

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Off to San Pedro we go!

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View out the window just after takeoff:

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Plotting our course:

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About 10 short minutes later, we were on approach to La Isla Bonita:

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Deplaning at San Pedro:

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San Pedro, the only place in the world you will find go cart traffic jams:

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I spent the next three days doing absolutely nothing. Going for walks on the beach, playing in the water, reading in hammocks, basically doing nothing. Well, I did manage a few good eats…starting with rum punch:

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Some conch fritters:

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Some absolutely delicious curried lobster:

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…and to finish it off some key lime pie that Madonna supposedly called “worth every calorie”

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A few days later, I was completely sad to leave. I mean, how can you not miss views like this outside your room:

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Apparently drinking hours were ending, and I was unfortunately going to have to go back to working hours:

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The hammock I spent most of the weekend in, along with a friendly stray dog:

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Home away from home, the Blue Tang Inn…fantastic hosts and facilities, I’d definitely go back again!

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The hotel dropped me back at the airport, and it was nice checking in just 30 minutes before my flight home!

TropicAir flight 91
San Pedro, Belize (SPR) to Belize City, Belize (BZE)
Depart 15:00, Arrive 15:15, Flight Time: 15 minutes
Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, Registration V3-HHI, Manufactured 2010, Seat “3C”
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 21,204
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,210,719

No copilot seat this time, since they used the weight and balance excuse. Still had great views on takeoff:

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Deplaning in Belize City, we were about 5 minutes before the skies absolutely opened up for a torrential downpour that seemed to last forever!

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While waiting on my departing flight, I checked out Jet’s Bar in the airport. Jet is the proprietor who has been running this very small bar for years, and has all sorts of pictures of himself with famous people all over the walls. It feels like a bit of a tourist trap now, but was still cool to see while waiting on my flight.

Unfortunately, it was still pouring when we had to walk to the remote gate. At least American had a bucket of umbrellas for us to use. Didn’t matter, however, since the rain was so strong everyone still got wet. I felt worst for the people in the back of coach who had to wait on the stairway to board the flight as people screwed around trying to find their seats!

American Airlines flight 268
Belize City, Belize (BZE) to Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW)
Depart 17:09, Arrive 20:18, Flight Time: 3:09
Boeing 737-800, Registration N812NN, Manufactured 2009, Seat 4A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 22,393
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,211,908

Dinner time flight, and that meant more warm nuts…this time not burnt:

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Great sunset shortly after takeoff:

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I finally got to try the famous American Lobster Mac and Cheese with Steak, and it was actually pretty decent. One of the best domestic meals I’ve had in a long time!

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Cookie for dessert again. Ugh. I had a couple bites of the better-cooked part, and them passed on the rest.

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Good overnight, woke up a little early to make sure I had time for coffee, and when I looked at my phone it was filled with alerts from TripIt, American, etc. I knew DC had been expecting an ice storm, and due to that, American had canceled my Dallas to DC flight. They’d rebooked me via St Louis since all the nonstops were full. I didn’t have much more faith that St Louis to DCA would operate since it was a regional jet, but I decided to let go and trust.

American Airlines flight 96
Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) to St Louis, Missouri (STL)
Depart 10:15, Arrive 11:53, Flight Time: 1:38
McDonnell Douglas MD88, Registration N963TW, Manufactured 1999, Seat 3E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 22,943
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,212,458

No more than 30 seconds after the door closed on the flight to St Louis, did I get a message from TripIt…St Louis to DCA had just canceled.

UGH.

They booked me on a St Louis to DCA that went two hours later…but by the time we landed in St Louis that flight had canceled as well. Ugh. I got to know the staff of the Admirals Club in St Louis quite well during my nearly 9 hours there, and they were great trying to help me rebook. I think I must have asked at least a dozen times, and I did finally get them to put me on a flight via Chicago and then onto DCA the next morning.

Right before we left, the next morning’s flight to DCA canceled as well. United had seats, and I had to push pretty hard, but eventually they did end up rebooking me on United. Thank God! I even managed to check-in with United online and then do a same day change to a slightly later flight so I could sleep in.

American Airlines flight 3243 operated by Envoy Air
St Louis, Missouri (STL) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 19:05, Arrive 20:30, Flight Time: 1:25
Canadair CRJ-700, Registration N535EA, Manufactured 2010, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 23,201
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,212,716

This was a good thing, because my 7:05p departure was over two hours late, and when we landed in Chicago we had to wait another hour for a gate due to ice there. It was nearly midnight before we rolled into a gate, and I rolled over the the Airport Hilton for convenience sake.

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It was a good thing I did, because I woke up around 7a feeling like absolute death warmed over. Fever, chills, I was pretty sure I was about to meet my maker. Definitely the sickest I’ve been in years. Managed to same-day-change to an even later flight, and roll over for more sleep. By 11:30 I was able to struggle out of bed and put clothes on…and make my feverish way over to the terminal. Security was easy, and because I was dealing with a fierce headache (thanks caffeine withdrawl) I did manage to put down a venti iced americano from starbucks.

I needed food badly, and a McDonalds cheeseburger was the blandest thing I could think of, but after two bites, it wasn’t going to happen so I gave up.

United Airlines flight 616
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Washington, DC National (DCA)
Depart 13:55, Arrive 16:47, Flight Time: 1:52
Boeing 737-700, Registration N23721, Manufactured 1999, Seat 3B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 23,813
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,213,328

I know this flight happened. I know I looked pale. I know that after the first glass of ginger ale the flight attendant kept them coming…I’m sure I looked pretty rough. But, somehow, I made it back home. I’ve never been so thankful a flight had ginger ale on board since I got nasty food poisoning returning from Iraq. Got home, found out I had a temperature of 102.5 headed straight down the street to Urgent Care where the flu test came back negative…and crawled into bed where I spent most of the next 48 hours.

Feb 112016
 

Bangkok has hundreds of hotels, many of them in the luxury or super luxury category. On top of that, many of them have extremely affordable rates by US standards, so it’s pretty hard to go wrong when choosing a good hotel. In the past, my choices have usually been the Sheraton Grand Sukhumvit or the Conrad. The Sheraton is unlike any Sheraton in the US, and is a true 4 to 5 star hotel. Amazing staff, great facilities, and superb location. It’s hard to beat.

This time, mainly to be close to my work event and to try something new, I decided to try a couple of new hotels. I’ll try and give a few thoughts on each, though I’ll admit I would need a couple more days at the W in order to get the whole picture.

After a very early morning arrival, I’d booked the prior night at the W to ensure my room was ready upon arrival. It was, the check-in staff was super friendly and efficient, and when I asked to just get the key so I could go sleep (telling them I’d come down later for the details on restaurants, etc) they were super quick and efficient. Since my flight left Delhi at about midnight (which was only around 3pm in DC) I wasn’t tired, but when I finally got to the hotel in Bangkok around 730p, the lack of sleep was catching up to me. Plan was to take a three hour nap…just enough to make it until evening.

Large pair of giant pink sequined muay thai boxing gloves on my bed that said “lights out” – it’s like they knew I was coming!

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Slept four solid hours, getting up just before noon. There’s a small office building next to the W which has a Starbucks in it, and for anyone who knows me that was a huge plus. 11a coffee, reset the body clock a bit, and I was ready to go! I worked a few hours, then wandered the neighbourhood near the hotel until sunset, and then it was time to see what I could find to eat and drink. First, a few comments on the “worked a few hours.” The W room was great for working, with a large desk, lots of power outlets, and fast internet. Plus, the room had a bit of a view of the city when sitting at the desk so you didn’t feel quite so isolated. Definitely a good room for being productive on top of W’s usual attempts to be cool and hip.

First stop was the W Terrace, a small bar located outside on the balcony overlooking the street and courtyard. It was still quite warm and humid out, but it felt nice to be outside and enjoy my first Singha of the trip. Again, with the coffee table book, it’s like they knew I was coming…

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Jetlag was starting to catch up to me around 8pm, so I decided to just eat in the hotel. Headed to the Kitchen Table restaurant, which was supposed to have a really tasty make your own burger. I hadn’t had a burger in several weeks and it was sounding great, but Thailand probably wasn’t the best place to indulge. The squid ink bun was a bit on the chewy and almost stale side, the beef had a bit of a strange taste to it, but at least the fried egg, bacon, and havarti cheese were amazing…as was the little jar of asparagus bites.

…I almost felt like I was at Starbucks…yet another place that finds Jason incredibly hard to spell:

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Got back to my room, and it was a nice ice cold 18.2 degrees. The AC, lights, and pretty much everything were controlled by an iPad-like tablet, which was kind of a cool feature. More importantly, the AC got plenty cold for me to sleep:

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Woke up, and back to the Kitchen restaurant, where breakfast was included. Not sure if it was my corporate rate, or if it was because I was an SPG Platinum member, but it doesn’t matter. Even if you have to pay for this breakfast…DO IT. In my opinion, it’s pretty much the single best hotel breakfast I’ve had anywhere in the world. Large selection of fresh sliced fruit, eggs made to order, selection of cheeses, huge selection of pastries, multiple chinese options, multiple Thai options, Indian options, several different fresh squeezed juices, yogurts, etc, you get the idea.

For started, plate full of fresh fruit, salmon, cheese, a pastry, and an omelette…along with great coffee and a New York Times:

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Followed by some Dim Sum, a pain au chocolate, and some passionfruit yogurt:

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After breakfast, a little more work catching up on the day’s work back in DC, and then off to the Siam Paragon mall. I was feeling the need to walk around and get moving, but in the heat and humidity of Bangkok there’s only so much you can do outdoors.  The W is connected to the SkyTrain by a series of elevated walkways, and it’s very easy to get to. Less than a five minute walk. Once at the Siam Paragon, there was an elephant exhibit, being auctioned for elephant conservation. Punk Rock elephant:

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Then there was discoball elephant:

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After walking, grabbing some Starbucks to continue fighting jetlag, it was back to the W to collect my bags and head over to the next hotel. First, a wall of lights near the elevators taken from Bangkok’s famous TukTuks:

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The W had given me a 5p checkout, meaning I spent about 32 hours in total there. Overall, this is definitely somewhere I would consider on my next trip to Bangkok. I think the rooms were nicer than the Sheraton where I normally stay, but the location and common areas were a small step down. I think I would probably consider it a wash, and it would depend what I was looking for. Either way, I think I would be happy.

Called an Uber to take me over to the Peninsula (mainly to try out Uber and see how it worked in Bangkok) and it was a piece of cake and entirely reasonable. Check in was a little on the slow side, but when you’re coordinating a conference with 400+ rooms it’s understandable there’s a bit of procedural stuff that has to happen. That aside, however, the staff was fantastic, and there was definitely an air of refinement and luxury at the Peninsula that wasn’t present at the W. For starters, look at this view of the river from my room:

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Went for an evening walk around the local area, and the hotel had a large illuminated poster out front celebrating the King’s birthday:

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Headed to the hotel’s Thai restaurant – Thiptara – for dinner. Someone had canceled at the very last minute, so was given this table right next to the river with an amazing view:

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The restaurant had a highly recommended set menu, with what looked like several options for each course. Turned out, actually that you got a small helping of ALL the options. For example, the amazing appetizers…the shredded grapefruit salad was amazing:

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The whole meal was fantastic, but probably enough for two people. After waddling back to my room and collapsing, it was time to get up and compare the Peninsula’s breakfast to the W’s. Similarly impressed, and almost as large, it might be the second best hotel breakfast I’ve ever had. Seriously, nobody can do hotel breakfasts like the Thai. Another huge plate of fruits, pain au chocolate, and cheese:

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Back to my room to work, while looking out on the river:

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The one downside, in my opinion, to the Peninsula is it’s location. On the other side of the river, there’s not nearly as much within walking distance. It feels like a slightly quieter neighbourhood which is nice, but you need to take the Peninsula’s boat to the other side to get to the SkyTrain and main parts of the city. Again, not a problem, just less accessible for walking around and being casual. Because of this, I decided to give room service a try for lunch. The Pad Thai was to die for, probably the best I’ve ever had, and I finished every little bit. Similarly, the mango and sticky rice was fantastic…the orchid was a great touch too. All in all, a superb lunch:

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After lunch, I check out the Paribatra Lounge. I was hosting a cocktail event later in the week, and the decor in this lounge (according to what I’d seen online) really appealed to the aviation geek in me. First thing I saw, an old Thai Airways model on the ceiling:

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…and another:

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Look at those views from the 37th floor:

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Old Thai logos on the wall:

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View of one section of the lounge:

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Complete with old Breguet 14 control panel:

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Old air routes map on the wall:

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Engine mock-up in the entryway:

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Entryway:

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Little history of Thai’s Boeing 747-400:

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Can you tell that lounge impressed me? I had to hold my event there, and it was right at sunset. Fantastic event, and the staff of the Peninsula were super gracious hosts. Couldn’t have asked for a more special venue with amazing views and decor.

After a long week of work events, decided to cap it off by repeating the amazing room service meal I’d had earlier in the week. Wasn’t at all disappointed with the second go-around of Pad Thai:

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Close-up of mango and sticky rice with super sweet condensed coconut milk:

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Final thoughts – the Peninsula was in a league of its own as far as class and professionalism go. If you’re looking to impress people, and host an amazing event, I don’t think anyone could do a better job. Everything about the hotel was perfect, things ran like clockwork, and they anticipated everything I needed all week without ever having to ask. I’m not sure it would be my first choice, as a tourist, however, mainly because of the location. If I wanted a spa and relax vacation, however, I might consider it. But for an active city and siteseeing vacation there are better options in Bangkok – unless having the pampering of an old-school slightly formal hotel is something that’s important to you.

I was happy to have discovered two more hotel options in Bangkok that were excellent and that I would return to without a second thought. This makes probably 10+ hotels I’ve stayed at in Bangkok now, and never once have I had even a remotely bad experience. It’s really hard to go wrong in this town!

Jan 292016
 

Soooo yeah. I woke up much earlier than I had planned on, due to not just getting a good night of sleep. Or, maybe I was psychic. Decided to check my e-mails and such in bed while I waited to see if I might fall asleep again. It was like 7a, and I had hoped to sleep until maybe 830a or so. While checking my emails, I saw a whole slew of emails from Kenya Airways, TripIt, and FlyingBlue. Apparently, my Kenya Airways flight from Monrovia to Accra had been “re-timed” from about 3:30pm to 9pm…making me miss my connection out of Accra out of Accra at 11p.

Um, this is not a good thing. My ticket from Accra was a crazy low Accra-Chicago-Accra ticket, and missing it would mean I’d have to find another way back from Accra or Monrovia, and also likely eat the discount business fare out of Accra. Ugh.

Hopped out of bed much more quickly than I thought possible, got to the computer, and started searching. Monrovia airport only has like five or six flights a day, and miraculously there was another one to Accra…leaving in just under three hours. Now, keep in mind, the airport is about a one hour drive away, and rush hour was rapidly approaching. The flight was with Arik Air, and of course when I tried to book online it wouldn’t work.

Skyped my travel agent, and she couldn’t get Arik Air to book either. Apparently, Arik Air is almost impossible to book except in person due to the fact that…well…it’s a Nigerian airline. I was down to about 2:30 until the flight, and time to make a decision was rapidly running out. I knew if I didn’t go to the airport, chance of anything happening was pretty much zero, so after telling Daniel and Jordan I was out, it was time to get out of dodge.

Went to the front desk, and of course they had no clue what to charge me for the room, since with all the room changes who knew. They tried at first to charge me for the VIP Suite Jordan had booked, but I informed they guy that “they” told me last night it would be the same as normal rooms. I told him what I was paying, he debated it, and finally wrote me a receipt. Of course the hotel driver wasn’t available, but he did call me a taxi to get me on my way to the airport.

Got to the airport without too much traffic, and then the drama started. I hadn’t negotiated the price with the taxi, but I was pretty sure it would be less than the $20 per person that the hotel charged the three of us to pick us up. Nope, the guy wanted $60 and wasn’t going to budge. I was rapidly running out of town, so paid up and went to the terminal.

I told the lady manning the very long security line to get into the building that I needed to buy a ticket. Yes, for Arik Air. Yes, for the flight in 90 minutes. She acted like this wasn’t strange at all, waved me past the security line, and straight to the check-in counters. The line for economy check-in was nearly 100 people long, so I walked up to the business class counter and told her I wanted to buy a ticket. Right now. Just to Accra. Again she didn’t think this was strange at all, and said, “ok, let me find out the price.”

She called someone, talked on the phone for a few minutes, and then came back with a price. I suggested maybe it was a little high, so she got on the phone and said some more things. She came back with a price $200 lower. I told her to check one more time. Nope, that’s the final price. That’s what you pay. She already had my passport, and handed me a boarding pass. Then, she wanted many hundreds of dollars…so I started to get out my credit card. That’s when she started laughing. This was going to be a cash-only transaction. I was basically screwed.

Then, I remembered the ATM in the parking lot. I told her I’d be right back, took the boarding pass and my passport and baggage (?!) and headed outside. Pretty sure even though I had a boarding pass I wasn’t getting on the plane without paying, so, I had to pray. Unfortunately, the ATM wasn’t working. Nothing I could do would make it take my card. The security guard said “for a tip” he would tell me where there was another machine. Ugh, cost me $10, but he showed me another bank/ATM on the other side of the parking lot.

This one worked…but there was a catch! It would only spit out $100 at a time…at a surcharge of $5! I was going to need this to work several times if I had any hope…and that my bank didn’t find multiple $100 transactions in Liberia suspicious. Fortunately, they didn’t and soon I had the cash! Went back inside, paid at the ticket counter, and was wished a nice flight. Wait, this was going to work out?

Passport control was easy, then it was time for…security. Except, the one x-ray machine wasn’t working, so everyone and their bags got completely hand-searched. It was a pretty low-quality search, and could have pretty easily gotten away with anything. That said, I made it to the lounge about 50 minutes before the flight. The AC was ice cold:

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I was offered “a drink and peanuts or pringles” – and went with water and pringles. Salt and vinegar, mmm….breakfast of champions! I’d been in such a rush to try and get out of dodge that I hadn’t had breakfast. This was also when I realized I would miss my chance to do a day of touring in Monrovia, sigh. Guess I will just have to come back now!

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Boarding was right on time, and despite it being a very short distance to the plane, we got bussed.

Arik Air flight 303
Monrovia, Liberia (ROB) to Accra, Ghana (ACC)
Depart 10:50, Arrive 12:50, Flight Time: 2:00
Boeing 737-800, Registration 5N-MJQ, Manufactured 2009, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 10,331
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,177,369

My first time on Arik Air, and the condition of the seats left a little bit to be desired:

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Very large 20 person business class cabin with good room between seats…and only three seats taken:

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For a short flight, was impressed we even got a meal, and there was a choice of chicken, beef, or fish. She recommended the beef “if you like spicy Nigerian food” so of course, I went with it.

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All-in-one wine bottle and glass. Clever! First the South Africans come up with wine juice boxes and now this!

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Meal was actually decent, and the spicy beef and rice was right up there!

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Landed in Accra on time, and one last look at Arik, who saved the end of my trip! I came away with a very positive impression of them!

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At this point, I had nearly 11 hours until my connecting flight to London now, and there was no way I was going to spend 11 hours in an airport lounge. Previous trips to Accra I’d stayed at the Holiday Inn airport hotel, so decided that would be a good place to go and see if I could get a day rate and some rest.

The Holiday Inn actually has a nice cool air-conditioned arrivals lounge and shuttle, and yes, they had no reservation for me (no kidding) but were happy to take me to the hotel and try and earn my business. The van arrived about 15 minutes later, and when I got to the hotel they gave me a very reasonable day rate for 8 hours. Was happy to pay, went up to the nicely air-conditioned room, and got a nice 90 minute nap in.

Needed some caffeine after that so walked down the road to the local grocery store to pick up some Red Bull. Walked by the La Tante DC 10 Restaurant on the way. I so can’t wait to eat here when I come back through Accra again in May!

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View from my hotel room:

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Pool-view room. I decided it was a nice warm day, so spent about 90 minutes relaxing by the pool before doing a bit of work.

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Panoramic shot of the pool:

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Was a little hungry at this point, so headed to the hotel cafe to see if I could find something light to eat. What could be lighter than “Goat Light Soup?”

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Ordered the soup, and one last large African beer while I waited:

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Soon, it was time to head off to the airport having survived a very drama-filled escape from Liberia, and begin the trek home.

Jan 272016
 

After wandering around, I met my driver to head back to the airport. I decided to use the Radisson’s transfer service again since it made things much easier – no worrying about cabs, boat tickets, or anything. I was starting to feel a little Africa-d-out so easy and convenient made it worth the little extra money. Dan and Jordan hitched a ride along in my van to the pier, and Jason’s visa service, over the course of the trip, expanded its lines of businesses to become Jason’s Visa, Translation, Transportation and Foreign Exchange Services. Soon, it will be like a South Korean Chaebol controlling all sections of the competitive traveler economy!

When we got to the pier, the first thing I noticed in daylight (since the ferry ride from hell the night before had been in total darkness) was the inappropriately named boat…Blessing:

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My ship of horrors from the night before, the Sea Coach Express. Yes, those are windows, but there’s no way to open. Apparently there was a door at the front too, but that must only be fore the captain, because you couldn’t get to it from the inside.

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Apparently we were too few passengers to use that ship again (shucks), so we would be using what they called the “small boat.” He called the first group of ticket numbers right at the time advertised for boarding, and at first I thought this was our boat. One never likes to see “Good Luck” as the name of their boat after the terrifying experience from the night before. (Yes, I know Goodluck Jonathan is the President of Nigeria, but still!)

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Our boat was the same style as that one, and they didn’t pack it full this time. We all had a seat, it was open to the air (to the point I felt confident jumping and swimming for it if things went wrong) plus they made each of us put on a life preserver before leaving. Night and day from the previous ferry. (Yes, pun intended.)

Jordan and Dan, having bought their tickets at the pier, were in the second boarding group, and apparently would not be getting on this boat since we left without them. No idea if they were going to make it or not…tried texting them, but no response.

With that, we pulled away from the Aberdeen Bay ferry port:

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Plenty of lifejackets to go around today…and the ferry wasn’t crowded. I was beginning to wonder if the night before had just been some really, really bad nightmare:

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Soon, we were pulling into the Lungi Pier:

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Lungi appeared to have a very nice beach at least:

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Jordan and Dan made it in a boat maybe 10 minutes behind, and we all piled into a couple of vans to the airport. The van stopped about 200 meters from the airport, and we had to go in a tent and wash our hands. Then, we were allowed to drive up to the terminal. In front of the terminal, there was another mandatory handwashing station.

Then, you entered the terminal and had to fill out two forms. After filling them out, you got your temperature taken, and you were certified as low-risk for Ebola and allowed to check in for your flight. This form was stapled to your boarding pass, and then at the gate they took your temperature AGAIN, and wrote it on the form before allowing you to board:

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Check-in, immigration, and security were a piece of cake. Security tools asked me for a “gift” – I told them I was a tourist and that was a gift to their economy. They laughed.

I went off to find the business class facilities, which were mercifully (and frigidly) air conditioned since we still had nearly 90 minutes before boarding. No free food or beverages, but there were employees from the airport restaurant there who would fetch anything you wanted to order and bring it to you. I shared a few beers with a South African “contractor” who has “been doing some work in West and Central Africa for about 20 years now.” I didn’t ask further questions…

Soon, it was time to board our ride to Liberia:

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Air Côte d’Ivoire flight 759
Freetown, Sierra Leone (FNA) to Monrovia, Liberia (ROB)
Depart 15:05, Arrive 15:50, Flight Time: 0:45
Airbus A319, Registration TU-TSA, Manufactured 2004, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,628
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,176,666

Interestingly, this would be my second flight on Air Côte d’Ivoire, and more interestingly neither time did the flights actually involve flying to or from Abidjan. They apparently run lots of tag-on routes. First one was from Togo to Ghana, and now this one would be from Sierra Leone to Liberia. I remembered being pretty impressed with them the last time in coach, so was looking forward to a good flight. First noticeable changes, a locally-registered plane (last time the plane was registered in France), and this time a local crew, whereas last time the crew was French. Looks like they were growing local talent, so another good sign.

No pre-departure drink, and after takeoff, I was asked if I wanted water. I asked for champagne. She scowled, and said “no, only water.” Um, ok, I think I will have the water then!

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Very short flight with non-existent service, and soon we were on approach to Monrovia:

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We had arranged for our hotel to pick us up, and they were waiting in the carpark when we got through immigration. Immigration was super quick, and since Liberia uses US dollars in parallel with local currency I decided not to get any. Soon, we were heading out of the airport and on the hour long drive into town to our hotel.

On the way, we passed rubber plantations and lots of very, very green scenery. We also passed the Liberia Revenue Authority, which apparently only collects lawful revenues. Whew, I’d hate to think there was corruption!

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After checking in at the Bella Casa Hotel, I got to play musical rooms with the hotel. I hadn’t paid much attention, and knowing my princess needs, Jordan had kindly booked me in the for $220 a night VIP suite. One big problem, however, the air conditioning seemed to be non-functional, and there was nothing VIP about it. So, we tried another room. Then another room. Then a fourth room which they convinced me would be cooler when I got back from dinner. I wasn’t convinced.

Meanwhile, a friend had told me there was a great beach just a couple blocks for our hotel, so we retired there for a sunset beer and Dan and Jordan grabbed dinner. A proper Africa-sized beer:

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Last night together on the beach:

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Great sunset from the beach bar/restaurant, which was aptly named Sunset Beach:

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I left them to enjoy dinner, and met a friend from DC who had recently moved to Monrovia to work for USAID. He was picking me up in his car, so I stopped by the room on my way and found the AC still not really working, so told the front desk to find me a better room while I was gone. ugh! He had a restaurant he’d been wanting to try called Anglers Bar and Grill, so we headed there. Lovely outdoor deck right on the ocean.

We ordered a couple of Savannah Dry ciders to start along with some grilled Halloumi cheese (the proprietors were Lebanese) followed by the tuna steak with balsamic which was absolutely huge…and delicious! A great meal:

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We caught up for a couple hours over dinner, and when I got back to the hotel they notified me they had found me a room that might work better. Fortunately, it was indeed a bit better, and adequate for the night. I had no idea what they intended to charge me, or what “level” of room it actually was, but it had functioning air conditioning and internet and that was the important thing!

Headed off to bed, and tossed and turned all night, having a rather poor night of sleep. Woke up much earlier than planned at 7am due to sleeping badly, which turned out to be a good thing, because…

Jan 242016
 

The guesthouse was nice enough to give me a ride back to the airport, but unlike the approximately 20-25 minute drive to get to the guesthouse in the morning, it took us more than 90 minutes to get to the airport. I had left plenty of time so it wasn’t a problem, but was still mildly annoying. Plus, I got a free long French lesson out of it, since it was just me and one of the owners in the car, so we covered everything from US politics to the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, African dictators, you name it. Quite a good conversation for a couple of folks speaking their non-native languages who had just met less than 12 hours prior.

Air France check-in was no problem at all, and immigration and security were a breeze as well. I was soon camped out in the common-use lounge Air France uses to wait for my flight. It was still festively decorated for Christmas as well:

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Decent selection of beverages, and some pastries that were a bit past their freshness:

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The downside on the beverages…I ended up having three beers, and as I got up to leave and board my flight she came running over asking me to pay for the third one. I don’t have a problem with that itself, but she should have informed me when I ordered it that there would be a charge. Oh well, there were plenty of electrical outlets, comfortable seating, fast internet, and good AC, so if that’s the biggest problem with a lounge in Guinea I’m pretty ok with it!

As we were boarding, nurses were waiting in the jetway, and writing temperatures on the boarding pass to “prove” you weren’t sick at the time of boarding:

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Air France flight 770
Conakry, Guinea (CKY) to Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
Depart 23:10, Arrive 06:25, Flight Time: 6:15
Airbus A340-300, Registration F-GLZK, Manufactured 1997, Seat 6E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 6,445
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,173,483

I had changed my seat right before boarding to 5E, since according to ExpertFlyer there were two seats left to sell, and 5E and 5F were both open on the seatmap. It turned out to be the right call, because even though I was in the last row, I had nobody sitting next to me. Amenity kits came in a choice of colours, and I noticed several of the passengers around me being very particular about which one they got…and the crew seemed to think this was completely normal. Seriously, the contents were the same (I asked) so people were being fussy on the colour?

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Welcome aboard champagne. Yes, champagne. Real champagne. In a glass. Take that United!

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I do love monkfish, and figured if anyone can do it right on a plane it’s the French, so I broke (for the second time this trip) my no seafood on a plane rule and ordered it:

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Not a bad menu for an 11pm departure!

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Dessert and starter served all at once. Mmm, cheese, profiteroles, and fois gras. This has the makings of the best business class meal ever!

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The monkfish was absolutely amazing, and the mashed pumpkin was a tasty addition:

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Managed to get almost four hours of decent sleep, and woke up just before landing in Paris. It was my first time dealing with the situation at Charles de Gaulle outside the United area, and what a mess! So many parts to the terminal, connected by a maze of passageways and trains, but eventually I did make it to immigration where the wait was over an hour in the business class line! They were questioning every passenger very hard – probably due to a combination of the refugee situation and the recent terror attacks. My turn? When I finally got to the front it was a look at my passport “where do you live?” “Washington DC” stamp and go. No questions beyond that, but in my hour of waiting saw at least 20 different people pulled into the office for secondary.

Long hike to the train station to catch the RER, which was a nightmare. There were track problems going on, and four trains in a row got canceled. It took over an hour to get a train into the city, and once we finally moved it took probably 15 minutes between stations. Finally, I arrived at Les Halles just over three hours after leaving the airport. Yes, three HOURS. There were also problems on two metro lines, and the station was more than a little congested:

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To the point people were getting majorly impatient:

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Eventually I made it to my hotel just after 11am, despite landing before 7am. Absolutely crazy. First order of the day was to take a short nap, and then head out on a long walk:

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I usually stay at a small family-run hotel in the Marais, and decided to head out on my usual walk starting first past Notre Dame:

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From there, I continued up past the Pompidou, Louvre, and eventually down the Champs Elyssees to the Arc de Trimophe. Unfortunately, no pictures of that part of the walk since with coffee and pastry stops along the way it was super dark by the time I arrived. I had hoped to have a bit more of the day, but the train/metro disaster kind of squashed that, so I had to settle for just a long walk, which was pretty awesome.

Since it was after dark, and headed into the weekend I headed out to grab drinks with a couple of friends who live in Paris before calling it a relatively early night. I still had to get up in the morning and head back to the airport for Air France adventure part two, and a few more days in Africa. Given how the trains had been operating I decided not to risk missing my flight, so headed to the airport with plenty of time to spare.

Jan 242016
 

I had to get up early. Way too early. It was a struggle to decide…the Radisson ran airport shuttles at either 4am or 5am, and I was really debating risking the 5am. It would still get me there about an hour before my flight, which would be more than enough time if there was no wait at security or immigration. But, I’ve seen well over an hour wait for immigration at Dakar, so eventually common sense won out and I decided to take the 4am shuttle…which meant getting up at something like 315am. Ugh. Even with a 930 bedtime that wasn’t six hours of sleep. Fortunately, I’d stocked up on Red Bull, cheese, and chocolate croissants so I got to have the breakfast of champions before heading off.

Of course, there was absolutely no traffic, and absolutely no security line, so I was at the gate by 5am with just shy of two hours to kill before the flight. Of course, then 640 came, and we still hadn’t boarded. Somewhere, around ten minutes after we were to have boarded the bus pulled up and we finally got to board. Didn’t get a whole row to myself, but the flight was empty enough that all the middle seats were free so couldn’t really complain at all!

ASKY flight 55
Dakar, Senegal (DKR) to Conakry, Guinea (CKY)
Depart 06:40, Arrive 08:05, Flight Time: 1:25
Boeing 737-700, Registration ET-AOK, Manufactured 2003, Seat 15C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 3,572
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,170,610

Uneventful flight, the crew made one pass for beverages – only water offered – and that was it. As recently as three months ago ASKY was at least handing out crummy sandwiches on short flights, so must be budget cuts!

We landed maybe 30 minutes behind schedule, and caught a bus to the terminal where everyone got their temperature checked (thanks Ebola!) before being allowed to enter the terminal. There was also a mandatory handwashing station set up before you could enter the terminal:

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Immigration was a piece of cake, but they were rather shocked to see tourists. Guinea was only declared Ebola-free a few weeks prior, and has suffered a major drop in tourism. He was even more surprised when I told him I was just in transit for 15 hours, and would be flying out to Paris the same evening. A tourist and in transit? He was pretty excited and welcomed me to Guinea. I’d heard lots of not so great things about Guinea. Several folks in the “visited every country club” have said Guinea was their least favourite country in the world due to crime, rude people, things being run-down, etc, so I’d decided one full day would be plenty.

Honestly, the second reason for the short stop was that I had two options for going onwards to Sierra Leone. One was 24 hours or so in Guinea, followed by 12+ hours overland from Guinea to Freetown, Sierra Leone by shared taxi. I’d heard stories the roads were quite grim and the trip rather unpleasant. However, there were also no direct flights. On one engine, when I typed it in it tried to give me an Air France connection via Paris with 36 hours in transit! Wait…

On the off chance, I decided to check Delta’s website. I’ve had just over 100,000 miles sitting around, and decided to see if Delta would let me book this routing. Sure enough, it was happy to sell it to me with miles, and I was going to have my first Air France experience. Not only was I going to get to give Air France a try, I’d avoid a long unpleasant overland trek as well as getting a full day in Paris. Sounds like a win to me!

But, I digress. Our driver was waiting for us right outside customs. Dan had found the Pension les Palmiers online, a small guesthouse located about 10km outside of downtown Conakry. That might not seem like much, but traffic in Conakry is horrendous. However, the owner’s son picked us up and drove us to the hotel for 10 euro each, so it looked like a good base for the day.

While he was finishing getting our rooms ready, I watched a group of local schoolkids doing athletics on the beach:

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Running hurdles:

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Post-hurdles recovery…

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Soon our rooms were ready. Mine was small, rather hot, and had cracks in the screen so bugs/warm air could get in. However, the air conditioning was rather powerful and managed to offset that. It was a good thing I wasn’t spending the night, however, since I imagined being on the water without great screens on the windows lots of flying and biting bugs would get in. I passed out for a solid 90 minute nap, and woke up feeling much better.

I had arranged with the owner to find us a taxi driver to take us on a city tour for five hours, and by the time we woke up and were ready to go he was there. Our first stop along the way was at a local moneychanger, who seemed to hang out on a certain street corner, and when we arrived he ran up to the car window with large wads of cash ready to trade. We got a fair rate, and then continued on towards the city. Streetside view on the drive:

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After driving through the city a bit, we passed the Michelin 3-Star Obama Restaurant:

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For some reason, we decided not to have lunch there, and continued on our way, soon passing the Conakry Port:

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Group of school kids we passed on our drive:

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Political graffiti, of course when I took this picture, the artist who did it ran up and asked to be paid. Ugh.

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We decided to do lunch at Chez Luigi, which was really two different restaurants. Unfortunately, we went in the wrong one first, and when asking for a menu they got really confused and said they only had breakfast food. I was starving so ok with that, but then eventually she asked “do you want something else like pizza maybe?” Um, yes? She then walked us a couple doors down to their sister restaurant which was absolutely packed. Much better!

As soon as we sat down and looked at the tv, I saw this:

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Well now, that didn’t bode well for my flight to Paris! Fortunately, as we were eating lunch the plane did indeed take off from Paris, so it looked like we would be leaving more or less on time. Whew. Hopefully it was a one-off attack and wouldn’t have too much impact on my time there. The restaurant was run by a Lebanese family (there seemed to be tons of Lebanese in Guinea), and had an interesting mix of Lebanese food and Italian. I went with a pizza which was pretty good…and they had Diet Coke, which made me super excited!

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After lunch, we went back to their sister restaurant next door to enjoy some gelato and espresso. Perfectly nice little Italian lunch in the middle of Africa. Who knew!  As we waited for our taxi to find us again, lots of local boys were happy to try and sell us everything under the sun:

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Driving on, even the police were doing their best to stop Ebola:

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Our next stop was the Palais du Peuple, or People’s Palace. There was a float from the recent election parade parked outside:

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Independence monument, which proclaimed that “Imperialism shall find it’s death in Guinea!” Indeed…

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Driving along, anti-Ebola poster on the road.  “I’m reassured….because my family washes its hands with water and soap.”

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Eventually, after a nice hot drive we made it back to the guesthouse where the owner was happy to bring us ice-cold local Guiluxe beers. She was a very charming older lady from France who had moved to Guinea years ago and decided never to leave. Her and her son were great hosts, and the guesthouse was the perfect place to relax for the day. From airport transfers to a nice place to crash, to finding us a great taxi driver to take us around, it was a really lucky find.

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Plus, from the guesthouse there was a fantastic sunset:

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Overall, my impression of Conakry was actually quite good. It was far from the worst place I’d visited, and I wouldn’t even mind going back for a few days some time. Sure, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot to do or see, but that alone doesn’t make a place awful. Everyone I met was perfectly helpful and nice, and while the country obviously has poverty it wasn’t nearly as in your face as many other places. I was glad to get a really good experience in Conakry, but all too soon it was time to head back to the airport and continue my wanderings….