Sep 282017
 

Fortunately, there was no line at all at immigration tonight, and I was through in just a few minutes. I had pre-arranged a driver with my hotel (always a great idea in Delhi given the general chaos that is the arrivals area) and soon we were on the way to the car. Hit the 1000 degrees and 1000 percent humidity outside and wilted as usual, as we fought our way through the crowds to the parked car:

Took about 15-20 minutes to get to the hotel, and went with my usual choice the ITC Maurya. I’ve stayed here probably a dozen times, and it’s always a wonderful experience. Unfortunately, upon entering the lobby the entire thing was under construction. This in itself wouldn’t be a problem, but the new check-in area was apparently two tables by the elevators where a couple of agents were struggling with a queue of over twenty people.

I asked the bellman nicely if they could do priority checkin for Platinum members, and was met with a negative, as they tended to more than a dozen members of an Air France crew all checking out and having to settle the cash advances the hotel had given them. I get why airline contracts are helpful to hotels, but given their significantly discounted rates, and knowing there was construction, you would think there was something they could have done for a platinum guest so I didn’t have to wait over 20 minutes to check in. Very bad first impression.

Once I was checked in, it was a huge rush, here’s your key, ok thanks bye, someone will show you to your room. Ugh. Got to the room, and it was super hot and stuffy. Turned on the air conditioning, and even after running for five minutes it sounded like a jet engine. While waiting to see if it would cool/quiet down, I decided to at least get a shower.

Apparently, this shower was made for much smaller people….

The maintenance condition of this room was appalling.

Called to the front desk to ask for a new room, and they told me “wait a bit longer, it takes time.” Um, it sounds like a jet engine no matter how cold it gets. I want a new room.” “We will see what we can do.” Decided not to wait, went to the front “desk,” to the front of the line and asked for the manager. Shockingly, there was no manager available, but a lady directing traffic in the lobby (not sure her actual job, seemed like a concierge or something) took note of the problem, asked me to have a seat while she sorted it.

In fairness, 10 minutes later I had a room that was much better, but combined with the long checkin and changing rooms I’d lost an hour of sleep. Not a huge deal, but considering I was already going to get around six hours best case, I was pretty upset to have lost an hour.

I feel bad leaving such a negative review of this property, because on all previous stays it really was rather lovely and I enjoyed the stay overall. However, this time, they really dropped the ball.

Anyways, I slept reasonably well, and the next morning, of course, my pre-arranged transfer to the airport wasn’t ready and it took nearly 30 minutes even after I confirmed it the night before AND with a call right when I woke up. Overall, a super disappointing experience.



Got to the airport, nobody in line at the Uzbekistan Airways checkin area, and the agents seemed genuinely annoyed that I cared what seat they put me in. They were even more annoyed when I cared what seat I was on on my connecting flight. Oh well, given both flights were full I was very glad I persisted and got the seats I wanted, since there seemed to be no way to assign them in advance, despite numerous calls and emails to all their global offices.

Since I was cutting it close, I opted to skip the lounge today (nothing to write home about in Delhi) and grab some Starbucks to wake me up. Best part of Delhi Airport is the Starbucks in the gate area…complete with heavily armed guard. Hands off my coffee!

Sitting in the gate area, just 20 minutes prior to departure, there were only like 15 people in the entire gate area. Worried I had missed the flight, I asked the gate agent, and she informed me there were only 22 people from Delhi, but the plane would be full from Amritsar. Wow.

Boarding was 10 minutes prior to scheduled departure, but no problem when there’s only 22 people to board!

Uzbekistan Airways flight 422
Delhi, India (DEL) to Amritsar, India (ATQ)
Depart 8:50, Arrive 10:00, Flight Time: 1:10
Boeing 767-300, Registration UK67006, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 95,942
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,472,919

First row centre bulkhead. Flight attendant saw me take this pic, and very sternly wagged her finger at me. Apparently, Uzbekistan Airways still has an incredibly strict no photos policy. How very….quaint.

Didn’t stop me from snapping a few ones on the down low. Plane was in a 2-1-2 config.

As soon as we were 10 minutes in the air, “snack” and water or juice was offered. Normally I would have steered way clear of the cheese sandwich, but couldn’t really resist it with ketchup?!

About 30 minutes prior to landing, the pilot asked the flight attendants to be seated, because we were like to encounter some turbulence. What followed was without a doubt the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced in flight – especially in a widebody – we were thrown from side to side, several sharp drops in altitude, audible screams from the few people on board, and I was honestly making headlines in my head “22 whole passengers killed on 767 jumbo jet in monsoon.”

But, just like that, we were maybe 2-3 minutes from landing, and it was all smooth again. Literally terrifying. As soon as we landed, it was a bit more clear. There was a torrential downpour in Amritsar, and the monsoon was clearly in full effect.

Boarding was via stairs, and I have to admit, it was kind of entertaining watching 200+ completely soaked people stagger aboard. Well over 90% of the passengers were Sikhs, and I’ve heard Uzbekistan Airways does quite a business connecting this flight to their flight to Manchester. If today’s load was any indicator, they do quite well. Seemed to be a lot of families with small children who had gone home to visit relatives, now returning after the end of summer break.

Even with the monsoon and full plane, we were boarded on time, and ready to go. I admit I was terrified how bad the turbulence would be on climb out.

Uzbekistan Airways flight 422
Amritsar, India (ATQ) to Tashkent, Uzbekistan (TAS)
Depart 10:55, Arrive 13:00, Flight Time: 2:35
Boeing 767-300, Registration UK67006, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 96,669
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,473,646

Fortunately, the turbulence, while still pretty heavy, was nowhere near as bad, and well within “ugh” limits, and we were clear of it less than 10 minutes after takeoff. That means it’s time to eat!

Dish of peanuts, “meat”, some veg, bread (on a plate), and some sort of potato or cabbage salad in heavy mayo. Wasn’t really the best meal, but I wasn’t all that hungry anyways, so picked at the parts that were interesting and that was plenty. It was a relatively short flight, so not a huge deal. Kudos to them for at least offering a hot meal on such a short flight.

After deplaning, there was an agent yelling “connections” and then repeating in Russian. She asked me (in Russian) connection? Yes? Where to? I asked her why she asked in Russian and not English, and she said “because you don’t look Indian.” Hah, I guess that’s something?



Apparently, I was the only person connecting in business class today, which seemed kind of odd. I’m not sure where all the Sikhs were going in that case, unless the plane continued straight on to Birmingham and they just went through security and then right back on. Which is entirely possible.

That meant, even with security and the time before boarding the next flight, I would have over five hours to kill in the Uzbekistan Airways lounge. At this point, my cell phone still hadn’t gotten data service, and I was worried it was going to be a very, very long five hours. This was confirmed when I found out that the wifi in the lounge was down.

There were a few power outlets around the lounge so that was good at least, and it was rather spacious and a reasonably cool temperature…especially since I found an AC unit near the wall to sit by.

Quite spacious:

Snacks. I wasn’t thrilled at first, but the small meat-stuffed pastries were kind of addicting, especially after popping them in the microwave for a bit. Yes, there was a microwave in the lounge.

Chatted with the agents a little bit, who were the same ones who had been handling transit earlier. After chatting a bit, it was clear the other reason they spoke Russian with me – they were far more comfortable in it than they were in English. She tried English once to ask about my tattoos, but got flustered quite quickly and switched back to Russian – after which point we had several nice small chats over the next five hours.

The lounge remained empty the entire time, except this fashionista who came in about an hour before I left, wearing  a dress from the 2017 Trump/Putin Prison Collection. She was also fond of the little meat pies.

With about an hour to go, I decided to ask what I might have to drink instead of Fanta. Oh, there’s wine…white or red? Both were from the “Georgian Patio” winery, and had the high endorsement of “wine for restaurants.” Hmmm, yup, tasted about as good as you’d expect. I had a second glass to make sure, however. Science.

Boarding was pretty much on time, and our plane was at a remote stand. The minute I took my phone out of my pocket to try and get a picture of it, I was met with a chorus of NYET! from the several armed police “guarding” the plane. Ugh, ok. I have to say the 787 looked supremely sexy in the green, yellow, and blue of Uzbekistan Airways at sunset, however. You’ll have to take my word for it.

Uzbekistan Airways flight 601
Tashkent, Uzbekistan (TAS) to Moscow, Domodedevo, Russia (DME)
Depart 19:00, Arrive 21:15, Flight Time: 4:15
Boeing 787-8, Registration UK78701, Manufactured 2016, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 98,391
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,475,368

I did, during pre departure beverages, manage to snap a shot of the seats on the 787. Not bad. Not sure I would want these all the way to New York from Tashkent, but they were pretty comfortable, and the nice divider in the middle prevented them from being footsie seats.

Sneak peak across the aisle:

…and the other side.

Laminated menus!

Wow, now that’s what I call a meal. Just kidding…this is just the appetizers. Seriously! The red wine on board was marginally better. We had multiple kinds of bread on a plate. Upgrade from peanuts to cashews this flight. A nice little cucumber/tomato/cheese salad. Cheese plate. Meat plate. Fish plate. Whew.

I went with the beet stroganoff for a main, which was pretty tasty….I mean, it wasn’t gourmet cuisine, but overall I liked the regional flair to the meal, and nobody is going to go hungry on this flight. I fear how much they must serve all the way to New York!

I was pretty full, but kept the plates that could reasonably be considered desert to munch on with a bit more wine while I watched some movies:

Overall, I have to say Uzbekistan Airways exceeded my expectations. I had set them really low, but they exceeded them by leaps and bounds. I mean, the next cheapest option was $700 more…AND a redeye, but it was nonstop and avoided the six hours in Tashkent.

I chose Uzbekistan to save money, to save sleep, and for the novelty factor, and they definitely hit a home run with these flights. They have a way to go to be a serious international competitor, but for the price they were a fantastic option and I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again.

Now, it’s time to take a break for a few days from flying, and take some trains!

Feb 272017
 

I’d planned ahead the night before, and knew exactly what time the first airport express train headed for the airport. Got there five minutes ahead of time, no problems at all, and was at the airport with almost 90 minutes to spare before my flight. Unlike my previous few experiences there was absolutely zero wait at immigration and security (Hong Kong doesn’t have priority security for business/first class) and I had plenty of time to spare. Quick stop at Starbucks for my fix, and then into the lounge.

Nothing says good morning like a glass of Veuve, a nice large cold brew, and a bottle of pretentious French water.

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Decided to eat a light breakfast before boarding, and some maple smoked bacon and poached eggs did the trick nicely.

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Very excited for my first flight in Singapore Suites! The first class section of the lounge wasn’t very big, but plenty big for the five or so people that were in there, including two couples in transit from San Francisco. I had really wanted a window seat, but they were all gone when I booked. I was kind of surprised both couples preferred windows to being together in the centre.

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Short walk to our gate, where my chariot awaited. Normally I find the Hong Kong airport to be a bit of a furnace, but it was nice and chilly at this hour in the morning. So far everything was going great!

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There was already a long queue forming at the gate, but I just held up the boarding pass, and someone ran over and walked me to the front of the line. Now this is the Singapore service I remember!

Singapore Airlines Flight 1
Hong Kong (HKG) to Singapore (SIN)
Depart 8:00, Arrive 12:00, Flight Time: 3:00
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration 9V-SWY, Manufactured 2014, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 12,411
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,376,812

Once boarded, a super wide seat, although I’m not a huge fan of the leather. It can get kind of sticky if it’s warm. Fortunately, the cabin temp was perfect on this flight.

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This morning’s menu:

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There were still three seats open in first when I checked in, but they all filled at the last minute. Not sure if it was upgrades, OpUps, or what, but my seatmate decided the whole world needed to see his bare feet. Taking the “class” out of “First Class.”

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After takeoff, more champagne was offered. It’s always Krug O’Clock somewhere!

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Since I wasn’t interested in seeing bare feet the entire flight, I built a wall…and made my seatmate pay for it!

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Best fruit plate I’ve ever had on a flight. Not a large portion, but every fruit was perfectly ripe and sweet.

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Cereal with strawberry greek yogurt. I didn’t ask for them combined, and when it came like this I asked “how did you know I wanted the yogurt on the cereal?” I got “Well, Mr Jason, we know all your preferences of course!” I doubt it’s really true, but nicely done…

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Braised beef rib. Phenomenal dish! Just the right amount of savoury and sweet, protein and fat, everything about the dish was perfect.

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Next to my Krug and caviar scrambled eggs on Cathay, this has to be the best airline breakfast I can remember. Singapore really hit a home run with this flight. Down to every little detail, like the signature chopsticks:

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The short flight passed very quickly, and soon we we in Singapore and ready for my 12 hour layover. More to come on that in the next post, but I was really curious to see if Singapore could keep this up for 12 hours in transit as well as the Suites class flight to Sydney.

Feb 212017
 

Got to the check-in area, and the agents refused to let me stand at the counter while they checked me in. So I had to go have a seat, have some water, and wait while they do the check-in formalities. Bottled water, with a straw, on a tray, for the two minutes it takes to check you in for your flight.

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View of the check-in desk….with purple parasols in case the non-existent indoor rain or sun get to the agents…

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After being checked in, I was introduced to my personal porter. He insisted on wheeling my bags to the security counter, and from security to immigration. While completely unnecessary, it does make you feel like an ultra VIP.

Post-immigration it was to the escalator to the lounge….where he leaned over the side and said something I assumed translated as “get the buggy ready, Mr. Jason is coming!”

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My buggy to the lounge. Why a buggy if we were already in the lounge? Well, that’s because they drive you the entire length of the business class lounge so that everyone in there can see just how important you are…then out the door on the far side of the lounge, down the hall, and to the first class lounge!

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My lounge experience today, however, felt a bit off. After being checked in I was basically pointed into the lounge and that was it. No offer to take my drink order, no offer of spa services, anything. I finally found a lounge attendant, whose English skills were a bit of a struggle, and was able to confirm I would like a massage.

Eventually, it was all sorted, and there was no wait for a massage today, so a spa representative came and got me and escorted me to the lounge. They suggested I leave my bags right where they were (in the lounge? all alone?) and I agreed…figuring anyone who could be in the first class lounge wasn’t likely to steal from me.

Massage therapist was great, except for the fact she tried to hand me size medium pajamas for the massage. She insisted that was the only size they had, so who was I to question. I did manage to get them on despite being 6’4, and that’s when she realized how ridiculous I looked like a giant thai sausage. She did manage to then find a size large, which while still small was quite a bit better.

I went for the Thai massage over the oil massage, and I have to say it was quite a treat getting a full hour long massage in the lounge. She asked several times about the pressure, and although it was one of the more painful massages I’ve ever had it was amazingly therapeutic. She found some seriously nasty knots in my back and calves, and went to town stretching and working them out. It was amazing. Although it feels a bit awkward tipping on a complementary massage, as hard as she went to down she really put a lot of work into it, so I definitely felt like I should reward her with my remaining Baht.

When I got back to my little room in the Thai lounge, I was a bit hungry, so asked for some spicy pad thai and champagne. Seriously delicious.

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Unfortunately no mango and sticky rice today, but some Thai sweets were suggested instead. They were SUPER sweet.

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After eating I was told it was time to head for the plane, and I thought I would be getting another buggy ride or something. No, just an agent to walk me to the next gate while wheeling my bag for me.

Thai tries super hard with their ground service, but unless you’re the type who likes being fawned over and not having to lift a finger I feel it comes across as a bit awkward. It’s all very well-meaning, but a bit over the top. I feel like investing a bit in communication skills and understanding how to meet guest expectations would go a long way.

That said, I can’t imagine that would be easy. These are not highly-skilled workers in a knowledge economy, Thailand is still a developing country in many aspects, and I’m certain many of the lounge employees cannot fathom the world many of their customers live in with frequent international travel. No fault of the employees at all, who are all fantastic and friendly, merely an observation of what might take it to the next level.

Thai flight 606
Bangkok Suvarnabhumi, Thailand (BKK) to Hong Kong (HKG)
Depart 16:00, Arrive 19:45 next day, Flight Time: 2:45
Boeing 747-400, Registration HS-TGY, Manufactured 1998, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 10,824
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,375,225

Warm welcome onboard, and a very quick offer of champagne. No mention of the brand this time, but pouring “the good stuff’ on the ground is great. I’m always puzzled by airlines too cheap to pay a few dollars of duty who pour much cheaper stuff on the ground.

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Macadamia nuts. Yum.

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Started with the same salad as the previous flight…which I didn’t mind a bit as it was once again seriously delicious.

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I let the awkward skewered prawn alone.

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“Chinese Fish Maw Soup” – it was more mushrooms than anything, and I thought a bit flavourless. Points for originality though!

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Absolutely phenomenal “braised beef shank in green curry” – although it could have used a bit more chili. Also, I don’t know what was with the roti instead of rice. Odd.

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Terrible cheese plate. Felt like the $1.99 special from WalMart.

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More super-sweet Thai deserts. I had a tiny taste of each, but wasn’t a fan. But, offered gold leaf for the second time today, I had to make sure to eat it…

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Overall, a solid product and flight. Thai is definitely a notch up from United and American, but they just lack the polish to complete with the world’s best. The flight attendants and ground service are great, but it’s the little things that are just missing. I don’t think it would take all that much for Thai to truly become world class, but it would require executives with vision who understand their customers. They don’t have to settle for “cheap luxury” – they could be truly world class if they want!

Next up, time for two nights in Hong Kong.

Feb 112017
 

Well, yes, but before we start, I have to acknowledge some things. Work was crazy the last week, and I was putting in 16 hour days to have any chance of pulling this trip off. At the last minute, thanks to supportive management and coworkers, I was in a place to actually consider this trip as long as I could put in a few hours each day remotely. But then, I started thinking…a trip like this isn’t easy. It’s a lot of time on planes (even in first) and it’s stressful on the body. Plus, didn’t I say I would travel less after I hit every country?

This is when I was reminded I have amazing friends. I leaned on a handful of friends pretty hard to talk through it, and ironically they all ended with the same advice: whichever decision you make, to stay or go, you won’t regret it. Just do what feels right. So, when a decision is 50-50, there’s only one way to decide… Sacajawea I stay, Tails I fly I away…

With that, I flipped it across the room at 3:30 am… (yes, I’d been torn on this decision up until the very last moment)

Tails. I go. Better hurry up and pack and get to the airport. No sleep for me tonight!

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Got to DCA about 45 minutes before the flight, no wait for security, so time for a quick “breakfast” in the United Club. Check out the napkin, guess they know where I’m going:

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Time to board!

United Express flight 3637, operated by Republic
Washington DC National (DCA) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 6:00, Arrive 7:20, Flight Time: 2:20
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N731YX, Manufactured 2015, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 612
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,365,013

Pre-departure beverage. Anything was on offer, water was all I wanted. Gotta pace myself.

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In flight snack basket. Diet Coke and Caramello Latte biscotti – not complainign, I’m addicted to these things.

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Landed O’Hare a few minutes early, and having been up all night needed more caffeine. Of course, they got my name wrong again.

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Made it to the United Polaris Lounge, and they now have a cooked to order menu. Veuve Cliquot and eggs benny. Life is good.

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Because once you start you can’t stop, the Latin American Paper Plane cocktail. Talked to the lounge manager, and the mini paper planes that usually get clipped to the rim he orders from some lady on pinterest, and apparently she can’t make them as fast as he needs them.

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Veuve and ambiance.

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Hallway to the showers and washrooms – I like the “stars” on the ceiling.

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Then, it was time for today’s main show. First of many, many flights in first this trip.

ANA All Nippon flight 11
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Tokyo, Narita (NRT)
Depart 10:45, Arrive 15:10 next day, Flight Time: 13:25
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration JA731A, Manufactured 2004, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 6,886
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,371,287

My suite for the 12+ hours to Tokyo. The only downside is that it blocks the windows, making it a little hard to look out if you’re not super tall:

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Long trip, trying to minimize luggage and washing clothes, so looking excited in my ANA PJs. Super comfy!

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The post-takeoff Krug has arrived

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Amuse bouche of smoked salmon and scallop tartar in bouchée pie, pumpkin gnocchi with cheese sauce, risotto wrapped in roast beer, and cheese pepper bar. The roast beef was especially tasty.

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Mushroom bavarois with caviar and cauliflower soup. Sad to see they cut back on on the caviar.

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Beautiful presentation, however.

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Salad with bacon and more Krug? Don’t mind if I do!

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Fillet of beef with shallot cream, escargot sauce. Yup, I risked the beef.

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A perfect medium to medium-rare. Best cooked steak I’ve ever had on a plane.

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Cheese! Gorgonzola, camebert, piave vecchio with a glass of Petaluma Shiraz.

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Warm hazelnut bread pudding with vanilla ice cream. It was delicious.

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Post-dinner chocolates and a glass of Hibiki 21 Japanese whiskey. It was amazing….

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Eventually, staying up all night the night before caught up with me, and I passed out. For eight solid hours. It was glorious.

Not five minutes later, there was hot tea waiting for me.

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Snack time! But first…more Krug!

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Japanese set snack. Kobachi (deep-friend scallop with grated daikon radish sauce), Shusai (Saikyo miso-grilled Spanish mackerel), steamed rice, miso soup, and Japanese pickles. She offered me Natto (fermented soybeans) and I wasn’t going to play the weak westerner so I went for it. Taste was just ok, but they were sticky and gluey, and really hard to eat!

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“This is special shellfish for help digest the alcohol.” What are you saying here…

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More cheese was found to finish it off….along with a glass of shiraz.

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The perfect ending – vanilla and caramel ice cream and a few glasses of the Hibiki whiskey. It was amazing.

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Facebook filters show just how enjoyable the Hibiki was…

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Landed 10 minutes early after a suburb flight. Our gate was right next to transfer security, and right next to the ANA Suites lounges. Can’t get much better than that, after my 1000 meter dash across the same airport in December. View from the lounge:

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After a shower I felt amazing, and it was time to continue the trip. ANA hit a home run in all areas pretty much, and can’t wait for the chance to fly them again. At the end of the trip, I’ll post a side-by-side comparison of all the first products.

Aug 252016
 

One of the most common questions I get about travel regards staying healthy. Not the normal stuff like how do you avoid catching a cold flying in a large tin can filled with sick people, but how do you actually stay healthy in developing countries? This question is usually followed by “oh I could never go to Africa, don’t you need lots of shots?” Well, yes, and no. To try and address some of these questions, I’ll break travel health in developing countries down into three categories: (1) what shots do you need (2) what medications do you need and (3) what is safe to eat and drink?

As a bit of background, two things I need to mention: this isn’t professional medical advice, but much of it is pulled from the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) or other governmental travel health sites. Consult your own travel health specialist for a professional medical opinion. Secondly, this isn’t advice for your next vacation to Paris or London. In general traveling in developed countries (most of Europe, major cities of Southeast Asia, Australia, Japan, etc) doesn’t require too much in the way of specialized preparation as far as travel health goes. Oh, but if you go to Australia the sun is most uncivilized, so you might want to bring extra sun cream due to the holes in the ozone later. Moving right along…

Eating and Drinking

As far as eating and drinking go, the first thing you should always think about is water. You need clean water to survive, and that’s not always the easiest thing to find. The good news is, in most developing countries lots of people drink bottled water for safety, so it’s relatively easy to find. Drinking tap water just isn’t worth the risk – it would be all to easy to at best catch some stomach bug that ruins days of your vacation and at worst you could end up with some nasty parasite. Even if this means getting extorted by your fancy hotel for a $5 bottle of water at the hotel restaurant, do it! Think of how much you spent on your vacation, and the $5 is a small price for staying healthy. Also, when buying water, make sure the bottle is still sealed. If there’s any question that the seal might have been tampered with, don’t drink it! People are of mixed opinions on brushing teeth with hotel tap water, but personally I don’t risk it. It just takes a few splashes of bottled water to brush your teeth, so again, not worth the risk.

Regarding other beverages, in many developing countries you’ll find lots of fruit juices for sale, especially on the street. Generally you have no idea how clean the press making that juice was, so I would personally avoid it. In hotel restaurants and in restaurants with a more middle class group of local people I would say beverages in general are safe. You should be drinking lots of water anyways, but any other sealed and bottled beverages are generally safe as well. Including beer…you should always try the local beer! (unless you think it was brewed in someone’s bathtub…)

Food is much, much trickier. One good rule to go by is to go to places that are popular. Locals usually know the safe (and tasty) places to eat, so anywhere busy that is popular with locals is a good bet. Even better if you see lots of expatriates there – word tends to get around the expatriate community quickly about which places are sanitary to eat and drink at. A few good rules are to always be cautious of salads. Lettuce tends to get washed (if at all) with tap water, which opens you up to all the water problems. Also, anything that’s been sitting out for a long time or that is covered in mayonnaise is also a no-go in my book. I also tend to avoid seafood unless I know it actually came from the sea and is fresh. You’re not going to catch me ordering prawns in the middle of Chad. Best case they came in frozen from somewhere over 1,000 miles away, worst case…well, I don’t want to think about that… If you’re going to eat fruit, peel it first, or at least make sure you can wash the skin with bottled/filtered water.

Medications

Getting sick happens, it’s a fact of travel. Especially colds and other viruses, these things can happen anywhere, but it especially sucks when you travel. Since in developing countries it can be difficult to get basic medications, I always travel with a few basics just in case. A good list of medications is aspirin/advil/tylenol/ibuprofen, something in case your insides go evil…and you absolutely have to leave your hotel like Imodium/Loperamide, and a generic cold/flu medication to treat things like runny nose and congestion. Hopefully they are things you won’t need on your trip, but you’ll be thankful you have them if you do!

Beyond that, there are lots of places it’s super-smart to take prophylactic medication against Malaria. There are several medications out there, and a travel health clinic can advise which is best for the country you’re going to. I personally take Malerone (Atovaquone/proguanil) as I’ve never had any side effects from it, and taken once a day it has helped me avoid Malaria up until now. The CDC has a great map of where malaria is found, but the mosquitos which carry it tend to come out more at night, and reproduce in standing water. It’s not nearly as common in cities as in more rural areas, but consulting the CDC map is a great place to start. Since I have no side effects from the medication I tend to be overcautious and take it if there’s any risk, but it’s a personal choice.

Shots, Jabs, Stabs, and Vaccines

First off, if you don’t believe in science or are an anti-vaxxer please stop reading. I’m going to recommend you get jabbed to protect yourself while traveling. Because…science.

Ok…now that that’s out of the way, vaccines really fall into two categories: those you must get to travel to a country, and those that are optional. Surprisingly, only one vaccine is generally mandatory for travel and that is the yellow fever vaccine.

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Many countries require you to show proof of yellow fever vaccine to enter the country, and if you can’t one of three things will happen: either you’ll be denied boarding by the airline before you even get on the plane (ask Ian his story about this happening to him in Colombia), you’ll be turned around and not allowed to enter when you land, or possibly the worst, you’ll be forcibly vaccinated at the airport by some needle and vaccine of unknown safety…and often charged for the convenience. Spare yourself this, and get the vaccine in advance if the country you’re traveling to requires it. You get a nifty little yellow book (also helpful for recording your other vaccines) that shows where and when you were vaccinated. The vaccine is good for 10 years, and after that you’ll need a booster to be allowed to travel. The medical community is still a bit out to debate on if the booster is really needed, but countries require it to travel, so you’ll need to get it.

Most people probably got a vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella as a child. At least in the US, people generally don’t get booster shots for this, however, there have been recent mumps outbreaks in the US (I know people who got it), so it’s recommended you get a booster if you think there’s a chance of being exposed. Again, your doctor is the best source of advice on this, but most people have it taken care of when small. Another childhood vaccine to make sure is up to date is Polio. There have been outbreaks in recent years, so best to check with your doctor if you should get a booster.

That brings us to Diphtheria and Tetanus, also know as the DTaP, Tdap, or Boostrix vaccine in the US since it also covers Pertussis. Current FDA guidelines say that only one booster dose is needed in a lifetime, but I know many doctors still give additional boosters if you do stupid stuff like step on a rusty nail…I’ve personally had at least three boosters I know of, so best to check with your doctor as there seems to be different advice on this one. You probably got it as a kid, probably had at least one booster as an adult, but best to check with your doctor before traveling to somewhere you might not be able to get a booster if needed.

There are two different Hepatitis vaccines out there as well, covering Hepatitis A and B. Hepatitis A is spread by the fecal-oral route, and is a good thing to have if you’re traveling in developing countries. Food preparation and hand-washing standards might not be up to snuff, and the CDC strongly recommends you get a single dose before traveling…even if you’re going to be staying in luxury hotels. They say to aim for four weeks before travel, but any time before travel is better than not at all. Hepatitis B is blood-borne, and usually sexually-transmitted or through contact with needles or other bodily fluids. This one isn’t really travel specific, but the CDC has a rather long list of people they recommend receive it. Again, check with your doctor….

This brings me to a few less common vaccines that you can decide on for yourself in consultation with your doctor:

  • Typhoid is nasty, and probably a good idea to get vaccinated against. It can be spread by contaminated food and water, and is common in developing countries. Unfortunately the vaccine is only 50-80% effective, but hey, that’s better than nothing!
  • Meningitis is mostly a problem in central Africa, and that vaccine is actually required before you can enter Saudi Arabia on Hajj pilgrimage. Not technically required for other travel, I got this vaccine anyways, because hey…who wants Meningitis? Plus, meningococcal disease can progress from a stiff neck and fever to death in a matter of hours, so prevention goes a long way to minimizing the chance of serious problems. It’s not long-lasting, however, and a booster is needed every five years or so.
  • Japanese Encephalitis is a problem in parts of Asia, but this is one I skipped. It’s usually only recommended if you’re going to be spending a longer period of time in the region. Like most mosquito-borne illnesses, it’s much more common in rural areas.
  • Cholera is also quite common throughout Africa as well as south and southeast Asia. The vaccine, however, is not terribly effective, and both travel medicine doctors I consulted with recommended not getting it. I did, however, get shaken down on the Congo-Angola border and told I had to have it…and the offered to give it for about $3 with their who-knows-how-sanitary needle…or I could pay $10 and just get a stamp and a wink. Cholera vaccine isn’t currently required for travel anywhere, so don’t fall for this!

So that about sums things about – lots to think about, but what it really boils down to is a little prevention can go a long way towards preventing serious illness. What travel health tips have you discovered in your travels that are worth sharing?

Aug 112016
 

Ended up sleeping in a bit…so much that I actually missed breakfast in the Le Meridien lounge. That was no problem, however, because in KL Sentral Station just across the street there was a…you guessed it…Starbucks which did a great job of fueling me.

Grabbed a super inexpensive Uber and headed over to the Petronas Twin Towers…and got there just as the sky was about to open up and dump rain:

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Wandered the mall a bit as the rain let up, and then grabbed another Uber X out to the Batu Caves. The Ubers were so inexpensive in KL that I didn’t mind asking the driver to wait 30-60 minutes while I explored, and he was more than happy to do so. The roundtrip plus nearly 40 minutes of waiting time was still less than $30. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any pictures I was really happy with, so I’m going to recycle some from a trip about ten years ago. The long staircase up to the caves:

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The one thing that struck me in the ten years since I’d been there was the complete absence of the monkeys. The place used to be crawling with wild monkeys:

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To the point they would sell you bananas to feed the little guys, who were not in the least afraid of humans:

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After getting back to the hotel with Uber, I head to pack up for my trip to Penang. On my original itinerary (as booked when I left the US) I had planned an overnight in Penang in case I misconnected. I didn’t want to miss the start of my ticket home. However, I found out that all the flights to Penang were out and back, so wasn’t too worried. Plus, with the originally planned detour to Australia, and now detour to Mumbai, I really didn’t have time for this.

Fortunately, I booked a two night stay in KL, and on the full day it would be easy to fly up to Penang and then turn almost right around. Packed a small daybag with essentials like passport, phone charger, etc, and caught the KLIA Ekspres back to the airport. Security was super quick, and the domestic gates are a short walk away…through the duty free shops of course. I’m not sure I understand the point of duty free shops for a domestic concourse, but it is what it is.

First stop was the domestic Malaysian lounge, which was a sad, sad place. A small buffet that looked like the food had been sitting there for hours, and several kids running around loudly screeching. I opted instead to walk around the rather small (but long) concourse plane and people spotting. At least the view of our plane for Penang from the lounge was fantastic:

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No spitting in the drinking fountain!

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At the end of the terminal two 747s were parked. Malaysia has been “hunting” for the owners of these abandoned planes since December, 2015! SWIFT Air claimed to own them, but apparently Malaysia doesn’t believe them, and now 8 or more months later, they still sit. I mean really, how do you forget you own a 747?

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Back towards our gate, the thunderstorms were rolling in, and things were looking ugly for an on-time departure.

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Torrential rain, thunder, and lightening started shortly thereafter. Of course, neither rain, nor snow, nor other mysterious circumstances shall stop Malaysia Airlines, so we boarded and pushed back right on time!

Malaysia Airways flight 1152
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (KUL) to Penang, Malaysia (PEN)
Depart 16:20, Arrive 17:20, Flight Time: 1:00
Boeing 737-800, Registration 9M-MSG, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,311
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,315,448

Flight was completely full in both classes, but fantastic flight attendant in business offered a pre-departure of anything you’d like. Including nice warm Diet Coke…

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After a super turbulent climb out there was even a meal on the short flight! It wasn’t anything special, but those bread rolls were super addictive!

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Landed in Penang right on time, and went straight to the gate agent to ask about changing my reservation. My flight back to KL was scheduled about 3.5 hours later, and was the turnaround of the next flight. He was super helpful, could see me checked in on the next flight, and was happy to move me to the one leaving in 40 minutes…but did remind me that there wasn’t a meal catered for me, haha! Score, I could arrive back to KL three hours earlier and get more sleep before my early flight!

The domestic departures hall in Penang:

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Our gate today B1 was apparently a fragrance and cosmetic wonderland:

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There was a crew change in Penang, so unfortunately didn’t get to go back with the same wonderful crew.

Malaysia Airways flight 1155
Penang, Malaysia (PEN) to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (KUL)
Depart 17:55, Arrive 18:55, Flight Time: 1:00
Boeing 737-800, Registration 9M-MSG, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,512
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,315,649

Who needs a catered meal when right next to your gate there’s a Starbucks! I like Penang Airport already!

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Even better, there were only two passengers in business class on the return flight so I had an empty seat next to me:

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With that, there’s not much to tell. Super uneventful flight, and I even made it back to the Le Meridien with ten minutes to spare before happy hour ended in the lounge. Even better, the super friendly agents kept the lounge going an extra thirty minutes since there were so many people still around. I have to give high marks to the lounge staff, they really made this hotel extra welcoming.

Everything had worked out well with the side trip to Penang, and now the trip was coming to an end. Next morning, early morning flight to Hong Kong with Cathay followed by a long lounge break and flight to JFK in first…

Apr 142016
 

Yes yes, I know it’s been like a month since I’ve posted – life has a way of getting busy like that!

No sooner had I finished posting my Bangkok work trip from December and then my West Africa trip from New Years than work managed to get really busy again and take me to Cape Town for a couple weeks. That will definitely be my next post – a short review of United, Swiss, and South African on the way to Cape Town, as well as Lufthansa on the way back.

But, it’s no excuse…the lack of posting has been largely driven by two things: work being crazy busy, and planning out the next six months. At this stage, I have only five countries to go before visiting them all, and I’ve been doing a ton of planning. Upcoming trips are now mostly completely booked, and are completely planned.

First will be Tuvalu…my second try. I’ll fly to Fiji on American and Fiji Airways, and give myself two different attempts to get to Tuvalu for two days. Hopefully it works out, because I have an epic trip home planned, which involves Cathay Pacific First, Etihad Apartments, and Etihad First on the 787-9. Fingers crossed!

Then, after working two weeks, it’s off to Mali and Mauritania. Some gross long Turkish 737 flights, but at least they’re in business. Looking very forward to overland travel from Dakar to Mauritania, and attempting to get the visa at the border. Wish me luck!

Then, in July, it’s off to Turkmanistan – with a stop in Crimea on the way back! Maybe I can hold my own Yalta peace conference! Then, from there, on to Novosibirsk. My first real trip out of the US ever was to Novosibirsk, USSR to study when I was 17, so I figure with one country to go it’s the perfect place to go! I’m super excited! Then, of course, I’m going home the long way via Magadan, Vladivostok, and Penang, Malaysia…because that’s just how I roll!

Ok, posts coming in the next couple of days on the Cape Town trip, and then in a couple of weeks…bring on Tuvalu!!!

Jan 202016
 

Our taxi driver showed up right on schedule, and soon we were off to the Gambia/Senegal border. Our transport to the border, photo courtesy of Jordan:

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It looked to be not too long of a drive, and our driver confirmed it should be about an hour, inshallah. Fortunately we had no troubles at all, and got to the border in under an hour. I was expecting some trouble at the border since I’d never been asked to pay for a visa, but nope, super easy and friendly, stamp stamp, and we were out of The Gambia. Our driver was super helpful, and engaged in a bit of negotiation for us.

See, after you get stamped out of The Gambia, you have to drive another two miles to the Senegal entry point/border. However, our driver didn’t have Senegalese/ECOWAS insurance (which we learned was quite common) so he couldn’t take us. He did, however, negotiate a local taxi for us for what came out to be about five US dollars.. Our driver was super helpful, and engaged in a bit of negotiation for us. That driver, however, didn’t want to go all the way to Ziguinchor (the capital of the Senegalese region of Casamance) so we would be going to the local taxi hire and seeing what we could do there.

After dropping us off, he went to find us a “good taxi” – as opposed to a bad one I suppose. This is when all the negotiating started. He had found a good car, but he was going back in what sounded like pretty angry Mandinka with the driver. One spoke French, one spoke English, but they both spoke Mandinka, which left us out in the cold. He told us he had negotiated around 30,000 CFA francs (about US$50) and that sounded good enough, so we agreed. However, when we went to pay him, he wasn’t going to take $5 as agreed because it “took so long.” It was annoying, but only took $1 extra to get him to agree, so it wasn’t so bad.

Once that was done, it was on the road in our rather fabulous ride to Ziguinchor:

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Daniel managed to snap this photo from the backseat. Notice the Senegalese flag steering wheel cover, and complete lack of any other dashboard instruments….

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The drive itself was pretty uneventful, maybe two hours or so, and we arrived in Ziguinchor. Our driver had a bit of a hard time finding the hotel, so he headed first to the taxi station to check in. He needed to go there to get in the queue to go back to Banjul for his next trip, so wanted to make sure to check in before dropping us off. He also used this to get directions to our hotel, which wasn’t too far away.

We arrived at the Le Flamboyant Hotel, where the friendly staff let us know our rooms were ready. They were rather basic, but for less than US$40 per night they were amazing. Good, functional air conditioning as well as good free WiFi and breakfast for like $4. Can’t really go wrong at all! The bed was pretty hard, but given I slept nearly nine hours it must have been pretty comfortable!

View from the balconies:

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After checking in, we were pretty hungry so went for a walk through town to find some lunch. We eventually managed to stumble upon the Kadiandoumagne Hotel, which was serving up lunch still…and had great carvings in the courtyard:

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The lunch special, strangely, was Cordon Bleu…served with either beef or ham. I went with the beef option, and it was rather tasty all things considered. Washed down with a La Gazelle beer it was tasty enough, and fueled me for what was to be an afternoon wander.

Next stop was the local church/cathedral. Unlike most of Senegal, Casamance is largely Christian and animist, which fueled a decades long struggle for independence from Dakar which only ended a few years ago. No signs of conflict here, however, although the church has clearly seen better days:

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We wandered the town for maybe an hour, where I eventually came upon a Total station which had ice cold Diet Coke. It was a message from the gods! I made mental note of it, so I could stop by the next day for snacks before we headed onwards to Guinea-Bissau.

After resting in the hotel a bit, we headed out for dinner at the Le Parroquet hotel and restaurant. Fresh-caught Barracuda was the special, but very small pieces buried under a large pile of chips and salad. At least it was pretty tasty, and they had bananas flambé as the dessert!

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After a relaxing dinner, we headed back through the “well-lit” centre of town to the hotel. Yes, this is bustling Ziguinchor, Casamance, Senegal:

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When I got back to the hotel, they informed me they hadn’t fumigated the room for mosquitos since I didn’t leave my key. I agreed to stay out of the room for 15 minutes, and they went in and absolutely sprayed the hell out of things. I went to dreams with foggy memories of dead bugs, and slept like a rock on the rock-solid bed. Up for breakfast in the courtyard: instant coffee, baguette, and some bissap juice was the order of the day. Daniel tried to get some eggs, but apparently the chickens weren’t around because they told him they didn’t have them today. But what they did have was a very festively decorated African mask hanging in the courtyard:

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After breakfast, our mission was to find the consulate of Guinea-Bissau and get a visa. Why hadn’t I done this in Washington, you ask? Well, Guinea-Bissau is one of like two or three countries that doesn’t have a capital in DC. The others are tiny countries like Tuvalu, but Guinea-Bissau…that’s a unique case. See, they used to have an embassy in the suburbs in Maryland, but somewhere around 10 years ago they ran out of money…and rumour is the bank foreclosed on the mortgage. That’s right…the Bank repossessed the embassy. Even stranger, because you’d think under diplomatic conventions they should be protected against this or something, but whatever the true story, there is no longer an embassy in DC and the consulate in New York doesn’t issue visas.

Since so many people go overland from Banjul to Bissau, general consensus is that Ziguinchor is the best place to get a visa. The embassy had moved a couple years ago because, well, they couldn’t afford the rest on the main street in Ziguinchor, but after a good wander through a residential area with dirt roads, we finally found it:

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There, the consul was very cheery and helpful, and we joined several others getting a visa…all Americans oddly enough. A group of older American women who’d been in The Gambia and decided why not see Bissau while they were in the area (seriously – my heroes!) and a strange evangelical guy from Texas who was going to Bissau to do some sort of missionary work. That said, the consul was great, we had visas in like 20 minutes, and they were dirt cheap at 20,000 CFA francs (around $33) versus the 55,000 francs charged in Dakar!

Walking back to the hotel, I stopped at the Total station again to get some biscuits and Red Bull for the journey (one small packet of instant coffee was not about to cut it) and then we went to pack up. View of the main circle in town from the Total Station:

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After the walk, it was time to get some extra cash just in case the ATMs in Bissau weren’t functional as rumoured online. The first ATM I tried in Ziguinchor was out of service, and then when walking the half mile or so to the next it started raining. Which didn’t matter, because it didn’t want to take my card either. Neither did the third ATM.

Nearly a mile of walking later, we found a fourth ATM, and it started to make very promising noises…which I discovered were the sound of “I’m going to digest and keep your card now…mkay?” Panic ensued…almost. Here I was in relatively rural Africa, low on cash, and no ATM card to improve the situation. Oh, and it was raining and I was seriously soaked. Miracle of miracles, the bank branch was actually open….but when I got inside there were over 100 people waiting to see a teller/agent. I pulled the stupid/crazy/confused white guy, and just walked right to the front of the line and told her the machine ate my card.

Apparently, this is not uncommon. She signed, and asked for my passport. I told her I didn’t have it. She sighed. I offered to write down everything about the card on a piece of paper…she sighed and went in the back. Miraculously, she came back with my card, looked to see that it somewhat matched what I’d written down, and gave it to me. Whew. Huge disaster averted.

With that, it was back to the hotel to pack up and get ready to head to country #187 visited – Guinea-Bissau!

Oct 162014
 

Insanity. I can’t believe it’s almost finally here. I started booking this trip well over six months ago – and I never plan that far in advance. I didn’t expect it would actually come to happen, but figured that I should spend the United miles before they were devalued…so I booked it. So far…everything is still on track.

Then, I realized I return home the Sunday before Thanksgiving. I sort of forgot that and booked a trip to Israel…over Thanksgiving. Yes, I’m going on a 33 day South Pacific trip, and then after 3 days home going to Israel for 5 days…plus an overnight in Zurich on the way back. I get home Tuesday night.

Then, I realized I was a bit short requalifying on United next year…over 12,000 miles short. Europe wouldn’t cut it. It was already going to be early December…I’m out of time. I have a Friday off…so yes, I arrive home from Israel on Tuesday night..and Wednesday night fly right back out to Lebanon.

6 weeks of traveling with a total of 4 nights at home. 73,100 miles. 24 countries, of which 12 will be new for me.  5 flights across the Atlantic Ocean. One across the Pacific. Numerous shorter flights in between. Then, it’s a whole two weeks at home before going to Africa for two weeks as part of my annual new years trip…and 8 more new countries.

I’m already exhausted. I should probably pack.

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Jun 092014
 

Not that I’m seriously considering it any time soon (or am I) but one of the biggest gaps and challenges to my plan to finish all countries in a little over two years is Lebanon (easy) and Syria (very not easy.)

Ideally, of course, I’d prefer to do them together since Beirut and Damascus are relatively close, but this opens up lots of questions:

1) What’s the visa situation? Are Syrian embassies still open, and if they are, are they even issuing visas?

2) According to this map, the road from Beirut to Damascus appears to be solidly in government hands (assuming your driver knows which roads to take) and would be feasible. But, are taxis still running this route? Could I even find one willing in Beirut?

3) Once in Damascus, are their still safe areas? Possible to spend a night, or would this be a daytrip type of thing from Beirut?

4) What direction are the winds blowing? From media reports, Assad appears to be gaining the upper hand again, so it would appear things might get safer, at least in Damascus, over coming months?

5) Is there a “safe and easy” option? A relatively safe area that would be easy to daytrip over from Lebanon or Turkey? A border I could cross with a town on the other side, spend a couple of hours, and go back? The Jordanian border seems to border rebel-held areas, so that looks out of the question. Maybe west from Mosul (which I think is safe from Erbil these days?) into what appear to be “safe” Kurdish held areas like Al-Yarubiyah? Who controls the border here? Visa situation?

6) Latakia sounds to be completely (a relative term) safe these days, but is there any way to get there? From Turkey? The border at Kesab (based on the map above) appears in rebel hands?

Any thoughts?