Oct 242019
 


Landed right on time in Shanghai around 10am, and my first mission was to get into the country. See, while booking these things, my mind told me “just get your flights booked, the rest is easy.”

My mind also told me: “China? No problem. Visa on arrival for 72-96 hours as long as you’re in transit and headed to a third country.”

The problem? I hadn’t yet figured out how to get from Shanghai to Tokyo…and I had landed…and my phone was having trouble grabbing internet. Shit.

Fortunately, I got a connection after five to ten minutes, and quickly got a flight booked on JAL to Tokyo…whew…sorted. To the immigration area, where I easily found the line for transit visa on arrival, but unfortunately there was only one officer…and many Japanese tourists in front of me who spoke neither English or Chinese.

The agent seemed to get frustrated after a few, and waved me up from like 10 deep in the queue to be next. Piece of cake, Show my passport, onward ticket, stamp in the passport, welcome to China. Whew. Easier than expected.

Since there’s no Uber in China, next thing to figure out was how to get to my hotel. Taxi drivers speak zero English and pretty much take cash only, so off to find an ATM…which wasn’t bad. It even had the Statue of Liberty on the screen….which was kinda funny in China.

After a long 10-15 minute pantomime, finally got my taxi driver to realize where the hotel I wanted to go was, and off we went. It was torrential pouring rain and traffic was a complete clusterfu*k, but eventually almost an hour later we arrived.

Checked in a bit before noon…and….crashed hard for a nap for like four hours or so. This followed my plan of sleeping when I was tired and just enjoying the trip when I wasn’t.

What does one do when it’s 5pm in China and your body thinks it’s morning time? Head to the world’s biggest Starbucks, of course, and get a delicious syphon brew coffee and some tiramisu…at an outrageous price of over $20. But they were doing some kind of demonstration brew, so it was worth it for the entertainment value of watching all the rural tourists snapping pictures in awe.

Oh, and the coffee was awesome as well…it had better be: I literally came halfway around the world for this coffee!

Back to my hotel and the top floor executive lounge for a more substantial snack. You can’t beat sunset views like this!

Snacks in the lounge? Dumprings, sushi, cheese, and Tsingtao. When in China…

I walked around for like 30 minutes after snacks, but was kinda out of it due to the combination of jetlag, drinking a bit much in flight, and the general disorientation of which side of the planet I was on. Decided a bit of a metro ride was in order since I’m a transit geek, and then, I just walked and followed the life on the streets.

Coincidentally, of all things, I came upon Stone Brewing’s Shanghai location. I mean come on, how can I not stop in for a few craft beers? It was destiny!

“Few” craft beers indeed…and I decided I really should head back to the hotel and see about a nap. On the way…I found Jesus. He was in Shanghai all this time. Opiate of the masses indeed.

You really have to love riding the subway in Shanghai. The advertisements are just epic…and hey, “great” belongs to me! How can you not love that!

I totally admit it….I knew there was a little local craft beer place near my hotel, so I stopped by for one…and a bottle of water, because I’d already drunk the ones in my room, and wanted more. I loved this little phone charging machine. Apparently everyone in Shanghai has the same phone?

The stop was both one of the best and worst choices I made on the trip. I’d had just enough to drink I was feeling social and chatty, and just enough that my guard was down a little.

I mean, they were two nice ladies who were “students” despite being early 20s who wanted to practice their English, so it would be rude to not stay at least 20-30 minutes and chat a little…and 30 minutes was about right…because that’s when I realized they were “working” students….yes…do the maths. Yikes…out of there pronto.

Managed only about six hours of sleep (thanks jetlag, you suck) and it was still too early for breakfast, so I went for an hour walk…getting back in time for one of the better hotel breakfast buffets in the world. Fresh OJ, fantastic tea, dim sum, and bacon! Life is amazing!

After breakfast, I went for a walk in the Peoples’ Park. Came across a cute little pond that had amazingly abundant vegetation growing in it.

Then, umbrellas everywhere. Lots of pictures of young people. I couldn’t quite figure it out. My first guess was maybe something to do with Hong Kong because of the umbrellas? But surely they wouldn’t allow anything protest-related in Shanghai.

Oh, I know, lots of young people…it’s a missing persons event. Very sad, all these young people that have gone missing and their families have come to the big city looking for them. One older lady even grabbed my arm, pointed to her daughter’s pic, and was practically begging me for help. Really sad.

…except later I found out I had wandered upon the “Shanghai Weekend Marriage Market.” That’s twice in less than 12 hours that I’d almost ended up with a Chinese lady. This place is the most dangerous place, ever!

Got back to my room with about an hour before I had to head to the airport to grab my flight out…and then just realized that my friend Laurent Perrier had left the Lufthansa flight with me and didn’t have documentation to leave China. Shit. Well, when in China… (yeah, view from my room most certainly did not suck…)

Soon enough, my time in Shanghai was over, and it was time to head to the airport. I was feeling brave and adventurous on my second ever visa to Shanghai, so had the hotel call a taxi to take me to the subway/maglev station. View while waiting on my cab:

Arriving at the Maglev station. I could have taken the subway, but Shanghai subways are not made for rolling bags, and I didn’t want to get sweaty, so for less than $10 it was worth taking a cab. Plus, amazing post-Soviet art!

Buying the ticket for the airport maglev was a piece of cake, and the station was super sleek and modern in that very Chinese way:

Standing at the edge of the station, looking out on the maglev tracks:

Maglev arriving:

So, the Shanghai airport maglev has “VIP Class” which costs double the regular class…for what is like barely a 10 minute ride. But come on, how could I say no! It was less than $10 extra, so I had to try it. 301 kph (it’s capable of nearly 400 kph but for some reason is speed-limited on weekends) and I had the entire VIP car to myself!

Views of VIP class. Very disappointed in the lack of champagne.

With that, my time in Shanghai was sadly over. 57 hours down, 29 hours to go! Next stop: TOKYO!

Sep 272019
 


Talk about a bit of an anticlimactic end to a trip. I had been all excited to fly two long segments with EVA Airways in their Hello Kitty service on the 777, but due to crew strikes the flights were canceled. At least I had an option that would get me home comfortably. No, it wasn’t exciting or new, and certainly not the way I wanted to end this really cook AvGeeking trip, but hey, make lemonade from lemons and all that jazz!

Woke up early after only about six hours of sleep, figuring I could always sleep on the super long flight and crossing 12 time zones my body wouldn’t really know the difference anyways. Grabbed an early coffee before heading to the airport, and what Hong Kong Starbucks called a “croque monsieur.” Close, but no croque…

Off to the airport by train again, and one thing I was looking forward to was checking out the American Express Lounge. The United Lounge in Hong Kong is known to be one of their nicer ones, but I’d also heard great things about the American Express Lounge.

I know everyone loves the AmEx lounges in the US, but they frustrate me a bit. I find them very crowded most of the time, and hard to find a seat. It also really bothers me that as a Centurion Card holder I can barely find a seat when some guy and his family of six with a Platinum Card are taking up seven seats. Anyways, rant over.

So, why was I looking forward to the AmEx Lounge then? Hong Kong, like Buenos Aires and Mexico City actually have Centurion Lounges within their “Centurion” Lounge. I always found it weird that “Centurion” lounges let platinum card holders in, but whatever.

The lounge in Hong Kong was pretty quiet, and had a nice menu to order from. How can I say no to eggs benedict and champagne in the lounge? That’s right…I can’t.

Service in the AmEx lounge was amazing, and it was easily one of my top AmEx Lounge experiences ever. Next time, I’m going to have to make much more time to stop by than just the 45 mintues or so I had before this flight.

Fortunately, my gate was not far from the lounge, and caught this view of my chariot as we waited to board:

The plane was named the “New Spirit of United” but beyond Polaris seats (which I do actually really like) I wasn’t expecting too much.

United Airlines flight 180
Hong Kong (HKG) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 10:25, Arrive: 14:10, flight time: 15:45
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration N2331U, Manufactured 2016, Seat 11L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 78,376
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,770,964

Somehow I think this 8,063 mile flight is going to take a bit longer than 0:00 as the screen seems to promise:

Pre-departure sparkling plonk and water were offered. I commend United on upgrading to actual glass glasses for PDBs, but the Spider Man napkins and terrible sparkling wine were a stark reminder I wasn’t on Emirates anymore…or Qantas…or Thai…or Cathay…or, well, you get the point…

I love planespotting outside the US where I get to see lots of airlines I don’t see every day…today it was Air Mauritius:

Warm nuts were served right after takeoff, with more Spidey napkins. I honestly have always wondered what United “does” to their almonds. They always seem kinda mushy to me and stale.

The salad was a pretty below average offering today, and the appetizer was two rather sad looking shrimp with “yellow mushrooms”. Way to put the class in business class, United. *frown*

I felt like something was fishy with this meal, so I went with the “pan-fried halibut” with lemon caper butter sauce. It was pretty decent, and less heavy than the overcooked beef options, so overall it passed muster.

Cheese and deserts finished off the exactly-as-expected United meal. I would say the cheese was just average today (I never really find interesting or adventurous cheese on United) but the bonus cherries on the sundae were definitely a win!

Having only gotten about six hours the night before, I decided that after lunch was a perfect time for a good long nap….which lasted nearly six hours!

Woke up at exactly the perfect moment! I looked outside and the sun was just rising over extreme northern Alaska. Absolutely gorgeous views!

Pre-landing breakfast was served, with the usual offer of congee, “smoked salmon and spinach frittata” (aka cholesterol and sodium bomb) or “fruit with cereal and milk.”

There was nothing high-end about it, but the fruit and cereal were nice and light and did hit the spot, so overall it was the right choice for me.

Landed at the B Terminal at Newark, which seems to be where all my international Star Alliance flights have been coming into lately. I know SAS always lands there as does Lufthansa, but even my United flights seem to land there now. Is immigration and customs at Terminal C just that busy?

Caught the AirTrain over to Terminal C, and fortunately my flight to DCA would be leaving out of C today and not A so I could spend my layover enjoying the Polaris Lounge, which I hadn’t visited in Newark before.

I asked the bartender for a Paper Plane, but made with Mezcal (thanks ORD Polaris Lounge for introducing me to this) and the bartender gave me the most perfect Jersey “what’s wrong with you” look. She made it though, and it was delicious, and she was an absolute hoot to chat with, so bonus!

All too soon it was time to head to the gate for the short hop to DCA.

United Airlines flight 3434 op. by Republic Airlines
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington, DC, National (DCA)
Depart 15:45, Arrive: 17:17, flight time: 1:32
Embraer ERJ-170, Registration N642RW, Manufactured 2005, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 78,575
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,771,163

When I booked, only economy was available on this flight for an award, but the great agent did waitlist me for first. Oddly, 24 hours before the flight, there were still five seats unsold but still no upgrade for me….it dwindled to four, then three, then two…and held at one…and finally cleared for me at the gate. That was a close call.

Nothing to say about this flight. No drinks, no snack basket “due to the short length of the flight” but I really didn’t care for barely 40 minutes of flight time.

Most notable part of this flight was the beat to hell United plane at the gate next to our arrival at DCA. Get this thing a new paint job!

…and just like that, I was home from an epic 18 day vacation….and when I say home, I meant for 68 hours…because it was already time to head out to Switzerland for work….for three whole weeks! Next segments, coming up soon!

Sep 222019
 


With three nights and two full days in Sydney, I didn’t feel too guilty sleeping in a bit and taking some time to relax. I had pretty much been nonstop go-go-go since leaving home, and despite wanting to get out and enjoy Sydney I also wanted to do some relaxing this trip.

Finally up and going, a look out the window; it’s pretty miserable when you have views like this from your hotel room. Almost makes you not want to leave…

Finally though, seeing the ferries coming and going, I decided that I wanted to get out and enjoy the time I had. One of my favourite things to do is a relatively short hike from Coogee to Bondi Beach, and it takes 2-4 hours depending on your pace, so off I went. I’ll tell the story in pictures, since I’ve posted about it before.

At the end of the hike, I rewarded myself with a late lunch at Bondi Trattoria. Barely seared tuna pasta with chili oil was out of this world, and I absolutely devoured it.

Back in Sydney later in the day, I ran into one of the more terrifyingly-named businesses I’ve come across in a long time. One is bad enough, we don’t need an “alto ego!”

The next day was also gorgeous, so decided on another hike, but this one a bit longer, the Spit Bridge to Manly Beach hike. Again, I’ll tell the story in pictures.

I was pretty inspired on this one, and focused on trying to see what my (relatively) new iPhone XS was capable of. I admit I know pretty much nothing about photography, so if you want to comment with tips I’m happy to hear them!

Bit chilly after the hike due to a stiff breeze, so of course, had to have a flat white to warm up. I love how commonplace good coffee is in Australia!

As the sun set on the ferry back from Manly Beach, the wind whipped up and it was a freezing ferry ride back to Circular Quay. Lots of great shots tonight!

As much as I liked those pics. we did even better!

So, that’s about it. I spent two days pretty much just relaxing and walking around enjoying the gorgeous weather and seeing the sights. I realize that I actually enjoy travel most when temps are 60-75F or about 15-20C, and I’ve been planning my trips more around the weather so I can enjoy hiking.

A great time in Sydney down, it was time to enjoy a little AvGeeking next…with Thai Airways First Class!

Sep 122019
 


So, I’m very aware I’m a bit overdue with a post. Sometimes, work and life get in the way, and there are priorities to regaling folks with tales from magical places and magical flying machines.

Other things that get in the way? Waking up the day before your birthday, looking at award availability not really intending to go anywhere, and eight hours later you’re sitting in Lufthansa First Class headed around the world. Totally normal. I know all y’all have done it. Almost took four days too….so, that’s where some of the time has gone. Anyways, back to writing!

Landed in Sydney at 0h-dark-thirty, had no queue at immigration and the train to the hotel was super quick, and soon I was in the lobby of the Marriott begging for a room at something like 6am. This was a new property to me, having stayed for years at the old Four Points Darling Harbour, then at the Westin, and now with Bonvoy…trying something new.

Not only did they allow me a 6am check-in, I was upgraded to a nice bridge-view room. Got to the room, quick shower, napped for about three hours, and woke up to this. They’re not kidding – what a view:

After a slow start the first thing on my mind was coffee, so I set out to find that…with no real plan for the day. After coffee, I found my way to the Manly Ferry, and got an even more close-up look at the bridge on this cool late morning:

Bit of a walk around Manly and I was getting a little hungry, so stopped for some salt and pepper squid and a beer at Four Pines Brewing:

Wandered a bit, and the single beer had made me sleepy, so I stopped for what I was sure would be the first of many, many proper flat whites over the coming days:

After a couple of hours walking along the coast I eventually caught the ferry back to Circular Quay, and ended up lazing around for an hour before walking out to dinner.

I’m not sure if everyone else is the same, but when I go back to a place I tend to spend most of the first day visiting places I’d been before that I really enjoyed and missed. This time, it was dinner at the Australian Heritage Hotel for some crocodile, emu, and kangaroo pizza:

Fairly early night after the pizza since despite the nap I was definitely feeling the impact of two straight “nights” spent trying to sleep on planes, and I was out cold for a good long time.

Woke up relatively early the next morning, headed out to get some coffee, and on the way realized that someone is trying to Make Australia Great. Seems a rather sad situation, since at least America has been great before and we’re trying to make it great again! *wink*

After a nice relaxing coffee it was time to pack up and head back to the airport. It was time for my whirlwind tour of Australia to begin!

Quick stop in the Qantas lounge in the domestic terminal which was nice, but really nothing special, then off to the gate to board my widebody with proper business class to Perth.

Qantas flight 577
Sydney, Australia (SYD) to Perth, Australia (PER)
Depart 12:20, Arrive: 15:25, flight time: 5:05
Airbus A330-200, Registration VH-EBA, Manufactured 2002, Seat 07K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 61,017
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,753,655

Can you imagine if US airlines had seats like this on domestic flights frequently? I was surprised when I booked a month out that the last row was the only window seat left on this flight (indicating that a good number of folks book domestic business class way out) but despite a seat next to the aisle instead of next to the window, it was a treat for a relatively long domestic flight:

Wow, even a proper menu! I had heard Qantas had been slipping, but there was no sign of that yet:

Plus, a footwell even in the last row with plenty of space for the feet…despite the seat being a little bit beat up.

Delicious roasted almonds to start. Everyone seems to get excited by the “warm nuts” on US airlines, but I often find them kind of mushy, as if they’ve been severely overheated. These? Nice crunch to them and just a little bit of salt.

Soup and salad to start…with artisan butter…and super tasty fresh bread…not like the poor excuse for bread we often get in the US. Stop me now, before I go on a rant about the quality and “realness” of food in the US compared to Australia, Canada, etc….

Presentation sure wasn’t beautiful, but the chicken tagine was really flavorful and a great meal: (yes, with a big more of the good Australian shiraz, of course):

Wait what, a proper cheese course? By this point in the US you usually get a cookie if lucky, and if luckier it’s “freshly-baked” and not pre-packaged. (Though I do love me some Dancing Deer Cookies…are you listening Delta?)

Everyone knows I love a good cheese plate, and while small it was perfectly appropriate for a domestic flight, especially with dates:

…oh yeah, and there was delicious chocolate and salted caramel Maggie Beer ice cream as well. I was in Heaven.

All in all, it was an amazing domestic flight, probably one of the better ones I can remember ever taking, and I arrived in Perth feeling relaxed and rested despite the rather terrible jetlag I was surely dealing with. The sunny and cool day probably didn’t hurt, but I was wide awake and feeling great!

Used Uber to get to my hotel which was a piece of cake at the relatively quiet Perth airport, and soon I was ready to head out on a walk and enjoy the late afternoon in Perth. But first….time to end this post and move on to the next.

May 262018
 


Woke up way too early, turned on the iPhone, and as usual the messages started coming in. Emails, text messages…and the notification from TripIt that my flight with Air Namibia from Windhoek to Harare was canceled. UGH. I was already unsettled about this part of the trip given Air Zimbabwe’s recent fleet problem of being reduced to one airworthy plane, but this was a whole new wrench in the works.

It looked like I might be able to fly to Johannesburg and then to Bulawayo, but of course Air Namibia and Air Zimbabwe took no responsibility, and this would be several hundred dollars out of pocket. Too tired to really focus on the impending problem, I did what any sane person would do, and headed around the corner from the Hilton to Slowtown Coffee.

Ok, in fairness I stopped by the Hilton Exec Lounge first, but the caffeine looked unpredictable, and the lounge was filled with loud americans touting their “status” so I made a hasty retreat. Slowtown definitely seemed to be THE place to be in Windhoek this morning:

Plus, a super tasty iced coffee and a pastel de nata and I was much more prepared to figure out what I was doing with the next few days:

I debated just spending another day checking out Namibia, but after four nights I didn’t think there was that much I was going to see, plus the cost of extending the car might get crazy. I decided to head to the airport, fly back to Johannesburg, and decide from there if I could salvage the trip at all.

Back to the airport, up to the Hertz counter, and guess what? Yes, their credit card terminal was down again, so “please write on this paper what you think you should pay for” and that was it. I basically wrote down the four days of rental plus taxes, and decided to see how things went. No one way drop off fee. None of the crazy insurance they tried to push on me in Walvis Bay. I had a feeling this was going to get bad, but at the same time I was pretty confident that American Express would have my back.

Security and immigration took maybe five minutes today, and the airport was a ghost town compared to a few days prior. How much of a ghost town? This is the ENTIRE departures hall:

Short stop in the generic business lounge, which actually had a reasonable variety of snacks and beverages, and a couple bottles of Savannah Dry Cider later, and it was time to board. Our flight today had a total of 60 people, so it would be nice and relaxed.

This time, no complaints about taking pictures, and was able to grab a good shot of our plane while boarding.

British Airways flight 6274 operated by Comair
Windhoek, Namibia (WDH) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 14:55, Arrive 16:45, Flight Time: 1:50
Boeing 737-800, Registration ZS-ZWJ, Manufactured 2006, Seat 1F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,935
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,556,997

No pre-departure drink at all, but right after take off a glass of sparkling wine and a bag of nuts:

For such a short flight, meal service was still done in two parts, with the salad, cheese, and dessert coming first:

In case you’re curious exactly what it was:

Beef, chicken, or veg, and I went with the chicken. Unusual choice for me on a plane, but not only did I go with the chicken but I opted to stick with champagne. It was good – not great – but I was plenty happy with it. Slightly dry like I expect airplane chicken to be, but who knows…maybe I was feeling just a wee bit healthy?

Landed in Johannesburg almost 20 minutes early, got a bus gate, and it was time to head back to my hotel…and figure what if anything I was going to doing with the next three nights…since my journeys to Botswana and Zimbabwe looked to be at risk…

May 212018
 


After landing in Johannesburg fortunately the passport queue wasn’t too long, and I was off to the hotel by the Gautrain. It might be a slight bit faster by Uber, and not much more expensive, but I feel like supporting the Gautrain is the right thing to do. Don’t ask why, it’s just one of those semi-rational things. Plus, environmentally more friendly?

You know it’s bad when you get to a hotel more than 13,000 km from home and the staff all know you like it’s been since yesterday when they last saw you….and in truth it’s only been a couple of months in reality. Quick check-in, and the first item on my agenda was a three hour nap. It was still early enough in the morning I didn’t feel like it would throw off my sleep schedule too much, and I know it would be a huge help with adjusting to the time change.

Nice and refreshed, I woke up and did a walk around the neighbourhood where the first stop was, of course, Starbucks for some “good morning juice.” Once again, sad, the staff all remembered me. I guess I’m just one of those memorable people… spend the rest of the afternoon just walking around Rosebank, Parktown, and Parkhurst, just to walk off the jetlag a bit and get the legs moving.

I did stop into the Pick’n Pay, and you know you’re in South Africa when there’s an entire huge case of boerewors….

To bed relatively early, and managed to sleep until 7am the next morning which was a Sunday, so great job of getting onto local time. Next stop was Starbucks, of course, where I can’t seem to escape the name the staff seems to remember me by…

While relaxing, I got a call from my client to make plans for Monday, and she insisted that i get out and explore the city a bit more. I’ve been coming here for over 20 years now, and while the city has changed I do feel like I stick primarily to the same areas. Little did I know that this would be the trip that would challenge a lot of those “usuals.”

Since it was Sunday, my client insisted I head down to Maboneng and check out the Sunday Market. Now, just on the east side of downtown Maboneng definitely used to be a “no-go zone” 10-15 years ago, but I decided that my client (who I trust completely after many meetings) knew better than anyone, so off I went. Short Uber ride, and by chance they dropped me right in front of Origin Coffee. How did they know I was still battling jetlag? Yup, quick iced coffee and I was set to explore…

Into the main market, and the stalls were very lively with delicious smells everywhere. It was going to be a really hard call what to choose for lunch!

Maybe some paella with fresh prawns?

In the end, being tired and not wanting to eat standing, I selected a small restaurant with outdoor seating where I could sit down and people watch while eating. Bottle of ginger beer, some boerewors in tomato sauce, and a bowl of biltong with chips. You can’t get much more stereotypically South African than that!

Just as I finished eating the skies opened up, and for the next hour it was a torrential downpour. Was a good excuse to have another beer and another coffee, and as it let up it was early evening and time to catch an Uber back to the hotel.

For anyone who finds themselves in Johannesburg on a Sunday, I highly recommend getting down to the Maboneng Market. As long as you’re even marginally travel savvy you’ll be fine, and get a great taste of how this amazing city is revitalizing. Now, time to work for a week before taking a well-deserved holiday…

Mar 102018
 


At the recommendation of my friend Daniel, I had booked a “Historical Center Food Tour” with Sabores de Mexico Food Tours. I figured that using my one full day to walk around the historic center while eating at a variety of places that were largely unknown to tourists sounded like just my thing – and I couldn’t have been happier with the experience.

At 11:30 I met my guide, Liz, at Oaxaca en México, a restaurant that specialized in authentic cuisine from the state of Oaxaca. I learned here that there were only two of us booked on the tour today, so we could pretty much go at whatever pace we wanted. Fantastic!

Unfortunately times had gotten mixed up, so the other lady doing the tour with us didn’t show up until almost noon. Not a problem though, since I tend to move at a quicker pace normally anyways. Our first dish would be a delicious chicken tortilla with molé and some rice with local Oaxacan herbs. It was absolutely delicious, and I’m pretty sure that I licked up every drop of the delicious sauce.

After finishing the mole, we headed off for a short walk of maybe 15 minutes until we got to the large covered Mercado de San Juan. One of the older markets in Mexico City, it started out as a place to get more “exotic” and fancier foods that couldn’t be found elsewhere. We entered through the seafood section of the market:

Our first stop inside the market was at Delicatessen La Jersey Gourmet where we had some local cheeses and beats on baguette which were served with a variety of jams….and all the wine we wanted. I loved that the plates were covered with plastic covers, presumably to re-use them without washing. Environmentally terrible..

From there we moved on to another part of the market – the “exotic animals” section. Here we stopped at El Gran Cazador – or “the Great Hunter.” First up? Grasshoppers fried up in either garlic or chilis….very crunchy, but other than that the chili and garlic flavours really overpowered the insect.

Next up? A local ant that only comes out of its burrows for a couple weeks a year, which is the dedicated harvest season and as many of them are gathered up during this time as possible. Not much taste to these either… note the grasshoppers closeup underneath…

Pigeons anyone?

Decorative corns in the market…and I can’t help but see this and remember Lisa Simpson saying “or, as the Indians call it….maize!”

Next up we stopped at another stand of El Gran Cazador, where they cooked up wild boar for us….with grasshopper sauce naturally!

To fortify for the long day ahead, we stopped for a coffee from a stand reputed to have the best coffee in the area. It was pretty tasty, and the proprietor was clearly very proud of his coffee.

Final stop in the market was Rosse Gourmet, which was a fruit and vegetable stand. Here, we got a great discussion of the produce – especially tomatoes, from the very energetic Claudia who was clearly incredibly proud of the quality of her produce. Here she is explaining the difference between tomatoes and tomatillos to us:

Look at the colour of those peppers!

Claudia also surprised us with a homemade cheesecake with fresh fruits and a passionfruit sauce…which was absolutely delicious!

Now THOSE are leeks! …and look at the size of the cauliflower!

Next stop was actually at a food truck/cart with a couple of barstools on the side called El Caguamo where we were treated to a tortilla with octopus and prawn ceviche with fresh avocado. Absolutely delicious, but I was a bit nervous eating street food ceviche given that some of the worst food poisoning I ever had was from ceviche. Fortunately, no issues this time!

We were getting a bit parched by this point, so fortunately the next stop was an old school traditional cantina called La Mascota. It was like other traditional cantinas in that you pay for a (often overpriced) drink, and then you get to eat anything on the menu for free – as much as you want! The place was absolutely packed with locals chowing down, so it was a really fun and lively atmosphere.

A mezcal margarita…and yes, it’s as big as it looks. Fortunately, it was pretty watered down so wasn’t that strong. The chicken tortilla was one of the options on the food menu, and was just meh. You clearly come here for the atmosphere, not for the food and drink which was of very average quality at best.

They even had an old compact disk jukebox!

As we continued our walk, we passed a building where some of the stucco had fallen off the day before during the earthquake:

Next up we stopped at a “new school” cantina (to contrast with the previous stop) called Pasagüero. We had an empanada and a small tapas dish which were both tasty. It was absolutely packed with young people and families, and open to the street so had a very lively atmosphere. I’d definitely come back here for afternoon drinks and people watching.

It was nearly 4pm at this point, and we had one last stop – the Dulcería de Celaya – one of the oldest traditional candy stores in Mexico City – dating back over 100 years. Some tasty local treats.

It was about 4pm at this point, and I had booked tickets to see the Frida Kahlo Museum which came highly recommended and had pre-booked at 5pm entrance so after thanking Liz quickly rushed to the metro to find my way across the city to the museum. The other lady on the tour decided to come with me, and together we figured out how to buy metro tickets, went about 10 stops, and then hopped in a taxi to the museum. Much easier than it sounds.

Frida was a Mexican artist early in the 20th century, and was actually close friends with Trotsky. After he was exiled to Mexico they became close friends, and Trotsky actually lived with her for a period. Frida had polio as a child, and a terrible car accident in her teens, and this combination left her more or less confined to the house as she was not overly mobile…and she spent a lot of her time involved in political causes an artwork.

Some of the art in the museum, also known as the “Blue House”:

The gardens:

The blue walls of the house:

From the street outside:

Went for a bit of a walk after the museum, and found an amazing church:

Grabbed an uber back to the area near my hotel, and caught this great shot of the Angel de la Independencia monument all lit up at night:

I was only a little hungry at this point, so decided to head to a local brewpub which had a rather impressive beer list:

The people watching at this sidewalk bar was lots of fun. This guy might be a little proud of his country:

With that it was time to walk back to the hotel (about a 15 minute walk) and catch some zzzzs. I was feeling exhausted from having been ill the previous week and a long week of work, so definitely wanted to make sure to grab some sleep before flying home!

Feb 282018
 


It had been a great vacation, albeit a bit odd for me to spend more than a week in one country! Despite all the rushing from city to city, having to figure out and explore multiple new cities, it actually felt rather resting…last minute train challenges aside.

In order to max sleep I decided I would roll right out of bed in the morning and head straight for the Lufthansa First Class Terminal. What’s the point of getting a coffee/shower/etc when you can do all that at the lounge? I’m not a fan of the 10am flights to the US for this reason (as someone who doesn’t get up all that early) but you do what you have to…

Out of bed, threw on clothes quickly, last few things in the bag, and maybe 15 minutes after my alarm went off I’d already arrived – a bit groggy – although the walk over in the cold morning air did help a little bit. Deer in the not-awake-headlights look:

I won the check-in lottery today, getting selected for secondary screening. It’s a little more tolerable in the First Class Terminal since you get to have a nice seat, there’s no rush, and they do all the work of the explosives scanning/etc for you. This is how security should always be!

By the time I was through the check-in agent was already waiting for me with my boarding pass, and I had about two hours left before my flight, so maybe 90 minutes before boarding. First things first, a couple espressos, some eggs benedict, and nothing says “good morning!” like a glass of champagne!

A quick Instagram and Twitter of the breakfast, and quick reply from Lufthansa’s always-alert social media team:

After finishing up breakfast it was time for a shower and freshening up before boarding. Grabbed a couple of the brand new black first class terminal ducks (how sad is it that one of the first German phrases I learned was ‘can I have two ducks for my (non-existent) children?) and soon after it was already time for a car to the plane. I was only one of two in first again today, and the other passenger and I shared a Porsche to the gate.

Lufthansa flight 422
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Boston, Massachusetts (BOS)
Depart 10:55, Arrive 13:05, Flight Time: 8:10
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYF, Manufactured 2012, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 12,301
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,532,363

Every time I fly Lufthansa first I seem to snap this picture with the champagne and the rose, and it reminds me what lies ahead:

Yet another new colour of Rimowa amenity kit…I simply must stop collecting these…or find a good way to display them.

Turkey tartar amuse bouche…must admit, it was kinda weird… I wasn’t a fan.

Best part of two people in First? All the caviar you want. Extra-large double helping for me today.

Trio of starters: Stuffed beef ham with gorgonzola and date sesame chutney (super tasty!), spiced carrots with curried yoghurt (very bland, but I’ll pretend it was at least healthy), salad of shrimp and green papaya with chili (a bit underwhelming). Only one I finished was the ham and gorgonzola, but the others were worth at least a nibble.

Main course. So on the way over, I had probably the best Lufthansa main course I’ve ever had. This one was a VERY close second: variation of venison, back and bratwurst, lingonberry jus, mashed brussels sprouts, fried curd cake. The venison was cooked a perfect medium, and the lingonberry jus was phenomenal. Lufthansa definitely hit a home run with this one.

Today’s cheeseboard was absolutely amazing: rock salt cheese, Saint Agur, Goat’s cheese with honey (amazing), L’Explorateur, Langres. Served with mango pepperoni chutney. The chutney was definitely a miss and a little weird.

Now that’s what I call a cheese plate! The honey goat cheese was amazing with the sweet biscuits.

I was definitely full at this point, but the crew wasn’t taking no for an answer…and I’m very glad they didn’t. “Warm curd cake with lemon thyme, yogurt oat crumbles, sour cream ice cream flavoured with lime leaves.” Enjoyed with a glass of desert wine it was absolutely amazing.

…and of course, no meal on Lufthansa would be complete without a couple of truffles and a glass of Johnny Walker Blue.

Spent the next few hours relaxing, and watching some REALLY bad movies on the iPad….or was the movie watching me:

Boston is a relatively short flight from Frankfurt, so by the time it was time for the pre-arrival meal I was still pretty full. Eating nothing wasn’t an option, and the fantastic lead flight attendant simply said “I’ll bring you something light.”

To start, something light was some sushi, a pretzel, and some more JWB:

Next up, some delicious Tom Kha Gai soup…I was told it would go really well with a sweet riesling, and who was I to argue. This was easily the best pre-arrival meal I’ve had on Lufthansa yet:

Finished off with apple cake with cinnamon crumbles…and a little more Johnny Walker Blue.

Overall, this was definitely the best flight I’ve had on Lufthansa food-wise, and everything other than the amuse bouche and appetizers were amazing. Easily one of the best Lufthansa flights I’ve ever taken, and almost exactly the perfect length. I know some people could spend 14+ hours on a flight and never get bored, but for me once it comes up to eight hours that’s more than enough to fit in everything I want to.

Now, off to see what awaits me. Ever since my Global Entry was revoked back in September I’ve been using the Mobile Passport app to check in to immigration and customs before landing. It’s worked just as quickly as Global Entry so far, maybe even quicker sometimes. However, this time, I was getting an error message, and not letting me check in. I had high hopes this was just a software glitch, and not something more…

Feb 202018
 


Woke up relatively early since I’d only had a little time to explore Dresden before the sun set the day before. I also wanted to get up in time to catch some of the ski race as well. Headed out of the hotel to grab some breakfast at Starbucks, and right outside the hotel the women’s race was already underway:

I wandered around the old city for a couple of hours, but didn’t really take any pictures. It was a Sunday morning and everything was pretty much closed, so I just enjoyed the time wandering about and taking in the architecture and a bit of people walking.

There was definitely something a bit charming about Dresden, but at the same time it felt quite small-town and provincial. And that was with several hundred international visitors for the ski race. My impression was definitely that it’s a bit of an “out of the way” destination, and it reflects its location in the east of Germany much closer to Poland and other central and eastern European countries. It definitely still felt German, but in a bit less globalized way than major cities like Frankfurt, Berlin, and Munich.

One nice thing about having a BahnCard is that local transportation to the train station is included with most tickets, so I hopped on the tram right outside the Westin to take me to Dresden Hauptbanhof. Arrived with plenty of time before my train, grabbed a small snack, and did some train spotting from the upper level tracks looking down on the main part of the station:

It was probably a bit silly, but I planned most of this trip around ICE train schedules. Since there is no ICE from Dresden to Berlin, I opted to do Dresden first, then backtrack an hour to Leipzig and then on to Berlin. Fortunately, since there were only a few ICEs between Dresden and Leipzig I chose the one that left mid-day so I could have a little extra time in both cities. Train was quick, and an hour later I was in Leipzig. Just enough time to knock out the day’s Duolingo lessons.

Leipzig Hauptbanhof turned out to be located barely a five minute walk from the Westin, which made for a very convenient arrival. Yes, I hadn’t really done all that much research in advance for this trip, and just enjoyed taking things as they came.

The Westin Leipzig was much more modern than the Westin Dresden, which you could tell was a much older hotel which had been renovated. The Leipzig hotel, however, seemed to be very new and modern, and was a highrise. It took a bit of arm-twisting to get the hotel to honour the Platinum best available room benefit, but when they did I finally got a nice (but semi-small) corner suite.

The sitting area with the afternoon sun streaming in:

Another shot of the living room from the other side – you can see the desk, the main entrance door, and the unusual minibar in a column which separated the living room from the entryway, bathroom, and bedroom:

Bedroom was on the small side, but perfectly adequate:

One of the nicest features of the room was that there was a balcony where I could take a good panorama of the area around the hotel:

One of the oddest features was that the bathroom also connected the bedroom and living room. It was in itself divided into FOUR small cubes…each with its own sink. I was beginning to get a sinking feeling this was one of the strangest hotel rooms I’ve gotten in a long time. Starting in the living room, you entered the toilet room, with sink:

Next to that was a sink room…with just a sink. How…useful?

The third cube was a shower cube…which connected the sink room with the bathtub room…this was the only room with no sink:

Then once you pass through the shower cube, you enter the bathtub room…which also has its own sink. Just strange.

Having had my fill of sinks for the day, I wandered out to begin exploring Leipzig. The old town was just a short distance from the hotel, and I immediately decided I liked the city.

I wandered for a couple hours, grabbed some coffee to warm up, and eventually got to the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) which is probably Leipzig’s best known attraction since Bach is buried right inside the church. Trying to get cute with my photography and frame the church with some tree branches:

Statue of Bach outside the church. He’s bringing sexy Bach. Sorry for all the bad jokes….I guess I’m just going for baroque with this post.

Inside of the church, with Bach’s grave in the middle:

Looking the other direction, with the pews:

I’m not certain what this part of a church is called, but I like this shot with the stained glass windows in the back:

The Markt Square and Old Town Hall with the sun beginning to set and a pink hue to the clouds:

After a short rest back in the room, I headed down to the lobby to see what the makeshift lounge had to offer for happy hour. The lobby bar doubles as a lounge for platinum members from 6-7pm with free drinks and a “special platinum snack menu.” Reasonable choice of drinks:

The platinum snack turned out to be some mixed nuts, a small cup of soup, and a rather impression salmon roll. Some good high-quality protein. Overall, it was the perfect offering since I was planning to head out to dinner shortly.

Dinner involved figuring out how to purchase an S-Bahn ticket (turned out to be easy with ticket dispensing machines right on the platform) and some cool artwork in the arrival station:

Dinner may have been walkable if it wasn’t dark and cold, but taking the train was kind of fun too. I headed to the Bayerischer Bahnhof for dinner, which brews their own Gose beer, a style that is native to Leipzig. So, even those gose is far from my favourite beer, when in Rome:

The restaurant is located atop an old train station which sat unused until the S-Bahn was expanded and a new station opened. Now this is more like it! Sausage, potatoes, and a bit of mustard…you can’t get a much more German meal than that!

They refused to take no for an answer on desert, and it was amazing as well:

Back to the hotel where I passed out from a long day of walking, ready to get up the next morning and walk around a bit more before catching my onward train to Berlin. I definitely want to get back to Saxony in the future and explore it a bit more in depth as well as checking out some of the smaller cities – maybe in the summer!

Nov 132017
 


Since this was a work trip, there wasn’t too much time to enjoy Johannesburg, which is actually one of my favourite cities in the world. Fortunately, it had only been eight weeks since the last time I was there on holiday in August. It’s funny how life works some times. Eight weeks prior, when I was there for fun, I had no idea that I would be returning to DC, taking a new job, and immediately being sent right back to Joburg. Guess this is an argument for not overplanning things!

Landed a bit before 9am, immigration was easy, and headed straight to the Gautrain to head into the city. Getting to Rosebank where my hotel was did require one change but I was still there well before 10am. Unfortunately ,they didn’t have any rooms free for check in at this hour, but after a bit of prodding and reminding them I’ve been staying at the Hyatt Rosebank for nearly 25 years I managed to convince them to give me an executive club room which was ready for less than $20 extra per day. Much cheaper than it would have been to book the extra night to guarantee the room was ready upon arrival! I’ve tried a few other hotels in Joburg over the years, but honestly the service at the Hyatt blows them all away – plus, its location right next to a Gautrain station as well as a large shopping mall is hard to beat!

Got to my room around 10am, and after a shower promptly passed out for a four hour nap. Given I woke up around 8am DC time this probably wrecked my sleep for the first two nights I was there, but I was exhausted enough that I didn’t care. After waking up I grabbed a coffee at the brand new Starbucks around the corner before getting back on the Gautrain and heading to Sandton to grab a late lunch.

Wasn’t really sure what I was in the mood for, but it was a sunny day and I decided to sit out on the patio at Wang Thai and enjoy the great weather. I was feeling like green curry, which they had, but then I noticed they also had an ostrich steak which looked great. I asked if instead of chicken or beef they might be able to do the green curry with ostrich, and absolutely – they were happy to try.

Meet the first ever South African Thai fusion ostrich green curry (which was delicious!):

So, from here, it was five days of work. It was a great intro to the new job which I was starting, and each morning before we got going I went around the corner to enjoy some Starbucks. The jacaranda trees were also in bloom, something I’ve never seen in all of my trips to Gauteng. They made for great scenery while I sat outside each morning enjoying my covfefe:

The last day of the conference, we finished a little early, so I headed over to Starbucks to get some coffee before I went out exploring. We’d been doing so well until this point, but….the curse of people not being able to spell Jason came back:

After a long late afternoon walk, I was low on energy so decided I wanted a nice dinner…but also to stay near the hotel. I went with the Grillhouse restaurant in the mall attached to the Hyatt, which I’d never been to before. A nice springbok carpaccio to start:

Main course of boerewors and ostrich medallions, with creamed spinach and mushrooms…and a nice pinotage.

The next day, I had a full day to myself. Due to the way airfares worked out, it was significantly cheaper to go home a day later (even considering hotel/etc) so I agreed to stay for a day and play tourist. Can’t complain about that! Since I’d never been before, I decided to take the Gautrain up to Pretoria for the day and wander around. First stop was the Union Buildings with the large Mandela statue:

Old cannon in front of the Union Buildings:

Pretoria is known for its jacaranda trees, and they definitely didn’t disappoint. The only bad thing about them how badly I’m apparently allergic to them!

The Union Buildings:

Next I grabbed an Uber to Church Square, which unfortunately turned out to be under construction. The statue of Paul Kruger is still in the middle of the square:

After wandering, caught the train back to Joburg and did a bit of wandering and shopping. I kinda felt like I needed to buy this for my next flight:

Ended the trip in the wonderful Hyatt Exec Lounge which does happy hour every evening. Finished up a bit of work while enjoying some wine and appetizers. This is one property where, between the breakfast and the happy hour, it’s definitely worth getting on the executive floor if you can:

Called it an early night on my last night because I wanted to get up early and go for one more long walk before heading to the airport for my flights home…