Jan 192019
 


After landing, I discovered the first unpleasant fact about Riga: no Uber. This meant getting semi-fleeced by an airport taxi on the ride into town, but end of the day it was vacation, and I made a point not to stress about it. The first time I was in Latvia on my every country in the world quest my flight was delayed by 12 hours, meaning that I lost all my time in Latvia, and immediately upon landing the airline had to drive me to Vilnius. I wanted to see more than I did, so was really excited to be coming back for a bit longer!

Hotel was the Radisson Blu Elizabete, which overall was very solid. Nice big rooms, helpful, but not overly warm staff. Overall I’d definitely stay there again because it was a nice location out of the Old Town, but a nice easy walk to it, so overall it was exactly what I expected.

It was already getting a little late, so immediately after checking into my hotel I made a beeline walk into the Old Town of Riga to get some dinner at Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs…partly because they claimed to have a good craft beer list, and partly because on many sites I had seen it was described as a really fun mix of tourists and locals.

What I didn’t expect was just how crowded it would be. The restaurant was several large underground rooms, and was super crowded and noisy – boring it wasn’t! Found a seat at the bar right away, and asked the bartender what she recommended to eat, and the Royal Stroganoff got her nod…it was pretty tasty:

I was super exhausted at this point, and all the travel of the past two months was really taking a toll on me, so it was back to the hotel and early to bed. I wanted to hit the Riga Free Walking Tour the next morning, so in bed by 11 and I thought I’d have no trouble since it didn’t start until 2pm. I chose the “alternative tour” instead of the old town tour, figuring I could always walk the old town myself, but seeing more residential parts was more difficult.

…except breakfast at the hotel ended at 11am, and I woke up at 10:55 haha. Quick breakfast and and getting ready, and figuring out where the tour actually started from, and finally made it just in time to meet up with the tour. Crossing the picturesque river on the way to the walk:

Amazingly, over 100 people showed up for the tour, but fortunately there were two guides, and I decided to go with Kaspars, who just seemed to be really energetic and a fun guide. Off we go, with the first stop being the central market:

The fish section of the market:

Caviar….this is how I knew I was in the right place!

After continuing on, we walked through some much more residential areas, which was cool. I always enjoy getting out of touristy areas and more into areas where people actually live life on a day to day basis. In the short time I’d been in Riga, one thing that had bothered me was just how overrun the old town was with tourists, so I was enjoying getting out of that area. Unfortunately after the market our first major site was a rather somber Holocaust memorial:

The other site of the memorial. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, there was really no recognition of the Holocaust in Latvia, but very quickly after independence many memorials went up.

Next up, the same building you seem to see in Warsaw and every other former eastern bloc city…this time, it’s now the Latvian National Academy of Sciences:

Cool Orthodox church right across the street:

We continued on to the train station, where we took a short break for people to warm up. I really liked the tower with a clock on the front of the station:

After the tour eventually ended, I wandered back to where we started at Saint Peter’s Church for this Brother’s Grimm sculpture:

After a long walk, I was hungry and ready for some dinner, so was off to a place called “Easy Beer” for dinner and some beers. Very ominously named beer called “Do I Have a Contact in Moscow?”

As our president says….

There was a venison burger on the menu, so I had to give it a try when I was told it was good. It certainly looked tasty:

Ok, I totally don’t get this, but just like in Kiev the day prior, my burger came with black gloves. Not one to judge, and when in Rome and all that, I decided to give it a go….since when I looked around lots of other people were. Is this a Ukrainian and Latvian thing? I’ve seriously never seen it anywhere else in the world!

Since the evening was already adventurous, I decided to check out a bar called the Armoury, which supposedly had cases full of guns you could play with while enjoying their extensive beer selection. Went in, sat down, ordered a beer, and it definitely did not disappoint. Who knows what this is?

Two beers later, and the real fun came out. Breaking the cardinal rule of “don’t drink and play with MANPADs…” But hey, when in Latvia….nothing says amazing Sunday like beer, rockets, and freedom!

Ok, fine, you talked me into one last drink….but let me put this down first…

So, Riga (especially the Old Town) was cool, buy way too touristy for my tastes. I’m glad I came back, and I’d especially like to come back and see some smaller towns in Latvia, but it was time to get some sleep, I had a very long 12 hour day the next day of going from Riga to Vilnius via a full day tour!

Dec 062018
 


Slept a little better this morning, but due to being exhausted the night before I still got up pretty early (although with a solid seven hours of sleep this time) and still had a solid two hours before I had to head back to the airport. The nearest Starbucks I’d been able to find that was open by 7am was about 2km away, and although it was already 27C at this hour, it was a dry heat so I decided to start walking. After all, there would be coffee at the end of the rainbow!

On the way, I passed the suspiciously-named “Top Touch Men” salon. Awkward!

It was fortunately slightly overcast as I walked past the office towers of Abu Dhabi…it’s unheard of for me to walk 2km in these temps and barely break a sweat. I love low humidity!

Starbucks was surprisingly hopping at 7am, and I got a tasty grilled halloumi sandwich and my usual iced coffee. Apparently, however, I picked up Mohammad’s iced coffee (PBUH) instead…. I’m guessing when they can’t spell your name they just pick the most common name they can think of?

Back to the hotel, quick shower, felt good about myself for getting a nearly 5k walk in, and grabbed a Careem to the airport. It was only about 60% of the price from the night before, and it appears that’s because there’s a rather large airport departure surcharge.

Went straight through immigration and security which had absolutely zero line, so I had about 20 minutes in the lounge before heading to my gate to board the flight:

Golden rule of travel: no matter where you are, if it’s real champagne and it’s offered to you with no charge, you don’t say no:

The Abu Dhabi airport was guilty of major cultural appropriation with this Christmas display near my gate. I do love the architecture of this satellite terminal with the gaudy gold and green centrepiece:

Over to the gate area, which was very lightly filled, and they were just about to start boarding. Perfect timing!

Etihad flight 604
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (AUH) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 10:00, Arrive:16:40, flight time: 8:40
Airbus A330-200, Registration A6-EYR, Manufactured 2009, Seat 9K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 133,360
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,653,422

After boarding and finding my seat I know it wouldn’t be as nice as on the Dreamliner, but overall it seemed to be pretty close. Take close note on the bottom of the seat…and the indentations…

Seats in the middle section…they were still pretty spacious, although I wasn’t a big fan of how close and exposed they were to the aisle. I could just see people banging into you when sleeping.

Despite being a daytime flight, there was a nice duvet, amenity kit, and menu….overall I was still super impressed with Etihad!

Then, I sat down and had my pre-departure champagne. I would say the seat was like sitting on a brick, but it was much worse. There were clearly a couple of large metal bars in the cushion, and no matter how much I tried, it was still like sitting on a pile of rocks. Uneven, firm, and uncomfortable. I tried another seat, but same problem. In 2,000,000+ miles, these were literally the most uncomfortable seats I’ve ever sat in…even sitting on a pillow, you could still feel it. I don’t know what it was, but they were just awful.

The crew? Well, English wasn’t their strongest suit, and customer service definitely wasn’t. There was no real show of concern or care, and no solutions at all offered. I pretty much had no choice, so put down two pillows AND a blanket, and it was close to tolerable.

That said, at least there was champagne!

Menu was extremely similar to the day before (which was weird, because usually they plan for connections better than that) but that’s ok, there were still plenty of options I wanted to try! I saw the steak sandwich on the menu, and asked them to reserve one for a pre-arrival snack (since in my experience Etihad tends to run out of them) and ordered the smoked duck starter…which was very tasty.

Skipped the beef tenderloin as a main, and went with the Chicken Madbi, given my previous track record of amazing Chicken Biryani on Etihad. It did not disappoint, and was super flavourful and well-spiced. The meal was actually so tasty I almost forgot about how uncomfortable and numb my rear end was becoming…

Cheese plate was just so-so with only two kinds of cheese, but at least there was some chutney!

I flipped channels on the inflight entertainment, and noticed we were right over Somalia. I wasn’t aware that international airlines were ok with using somali airspace now! Usually they stay well off the coast, but apparently they’ve now decided it’s safe again.

Love the engine and wingtip shot over the Somali dessert:

I couldn’t resist finishing it off again with some ice cream and Amarula since it had been so delicious the day before:

Cruising along the Somali coast…

I tried a short nap, and the seat was actually much more comfortable fully reclined, so I spent about four hours laying down and watching my iPad by holding it above my head. Not the most convenient, but at least I wasn’t going numb any longer.

About 90 minutes before landing, I asked for my steak sandwich and a glass of wine, and it was a delicious pre-landing snack.

Ordered the almond and pistachio pudding with butterscotch sauce for a sweet, and with a glass of desert wine it was the perfect ending to a great flight. The crew did what they could to make up for the seat, and I have to say every other aspect of the flight was absolutely wonderful. That said, I promise I will never again fly an A330 with Etihad!

Landed a few minutes early in Johannesburg, absolutely no wait at all at immigration (maybe due to the fact we got a bus gate – I’m not sure) and was soon on the Gautrain to my usual hotel. They were fantastic, and sold out, and gave me a nice upgrade, so overall it was definitely a good day. Went for a short walk, and Christmas was in full swing in Johannesburg!

Also, Heineken, we can agree…assuming you’re not in North Korea…otherwise, we need to talk about how you’re counting countries!

Was fading pretty quickly, but decided to go out for some snacks and beers with a friend, and found this beer with the most amazing name ever:

That said, it was off to bed, and time to get some sleep so I could enjoy my first FULL day of vacation without any planes or flights!

Dec 022018
 


So, I had a one-way ticket to Cairo I had to use up by the end of the year, and I figured what better time than over thanksgiving, since by taking three days off you get a nice nine day vacation.

Now, the challenge comes because the ticket was upgradable – and with the chance to fly Lufthansa First Class that’s not an opportunity to take lightly! I had no idea where I wanted to go, and I figured I could decide that later, so in July I bought a new ticket that went Cairo-DC-Frankfurt figuring I could then use the DC-Frankfurt for New Years.

Two weeks before the trip (when Lufthansa generally releases upgrade space) I was very dismayed to find out that most flights to Germany from the US were already either completely sold out in first class, or getting very close. The only one that looked mildly good was Miami to Munich, which still had seven seats. Only downside: they were holding them back in hopes of selling them. No worries, they can’t possibly sell seven first class seats, right? So I changed my ticket, bought a one way to the Miami area, and the trip was set.

Over the next 12 days, it went from seven seats left…to five…to four…to three…to two seats left four days before the flight. I kept looking at other options, and nothing was good, so it was time to pray. Morning of my flight, it was down to ONE seat, and they weren’t releasing it until the gate. Panic!

The next ten or so posts will be on this trip, and I’m going to try and knock out one a day before…leaving on my next trip!

Up way too early, off to Dulles airport, and time to board my nonstop flight to Fort Lauderdale.

United Airlines flight 1785
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Fort Lauderdale, Florida (FLL)
Depart 08:35, Arrive:11:15, flight time: 2:40 of pure hell
Boeing 737-900, Registration N53442, Manufactured 2009, Seat 5E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 121,284
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,641,346

Literally 50+ people boarded between a large number of senior citizens and tons of families with small children, so by the type it came to Group 1, probably 30-40% of the plane was already on board. A look of terror crossed my face when I saw that the person who had been upgraded into the seat next to me at the gate (per the monitors at the gate) was a parent with a small urchin who was already busy flinging cheerios at people as they boarded.

I won’t rant too much, because I find a lot of children better behaved than over-entitled “elites” but this was not one of them. Not only was a little hellspawn of Satan, the mother refused to do ANYTHING about it, and intentionally avoided eye contact with me the entire flight. By the time we’d taken off it had already grabbed my arm repeatedly, thrown cheerios at me, and screamed loudly and repeatedly. This was going to be a long flight.

I don’t usually drink on morning flights, but lets just say in order to de-stress me and make me not as disagreeable as the little hellion, I had one. Or four. I lost count, but it definitely calmed my nerves.

I got what was described as the “eggs” mostly out of curiosity, and because it sounded better than “rice krispees:”

Of course, the mother and urchin got the Rice Krispees half of which ended up all over the floor. While waiting for trays to be cleared, the little bundle of joy was throwing a fit, screaming, kicking….and eventually kicked over mom’s scalding hot cup of coffee – all over my leg. I pressed the call button to ask for some ice and a towel/napkin to wrap it in…and the mother finally says something to me…and what does she say? “This wouldn’t happen if they put a lid on the coffee like they should.” It’s a good thing I’m not prone to air rage….

Right, enough about that flight.

Onto Fort Lauderdale, where my friend Noah had offered to not only play Uber for me between airports, but also show me a bit of Miami along the way. Yes, in all the times I’ve flown through Miami I’ve never left the airport so I had no idea what I was missing!

After a stop by CVS for some burn cream we were off to a brunch that promised to be MUCH better than what Oscar served me on United. Through Little Haiti and into Wynwood, which was a super cool little artsy district. Spoiler: plans after brunch were to leave and go see the beach, but that’ll have to wait for next time, because Wynwood was just that cool.

Brunch was at Sette Osteria where they served up a delicious eggs benedict with bacon and mimosas. Very reasonably priced and tasty, although what was a “cool” day to Miami locals was a warm day to me, and the heat and humidity were almost too much. Nevertheless, it felt great to have some open-air dining in November!

After brunch, it was time to walk around Wynwood a bit, which is well-known for its murals on the side of buildings. This one was a little…odd.

Have bacon, are happy!

A few blocks away was Wynwood Walls where lots of the murals are collected in one place to walk through. Super cool!

Look who followed me from DC! The best mural ever. It was tremendous. Everyone was talking about it – believe me!

After a bit of strolling we were thirsty, and happened upon J. Wakefield brewing. Ok, not happened upon, but I saw it on the map and since I’d first tried their beers a few weeks ago in Sweden I wanted to go check it out. Unfortunately, they apparently don’t allow droids in their cantina:

Loved the mural outside:

After a few fantastic beers, I chatted with the bartender a bit…who it turns out was the one who packed up the order to send to Sweden for the event I had gone to. Talk about a small world! Anyways, the beers were great, and we lost track of time a bit, and unfortunately there wouldn’t be time to check out the beach.

No matter, on the walk back to the car, we found ice cream instead at a “Craft Ice Cream” place called Dasher & Crank!

I went with the Stone Xocoveza and Cinnamon Raisin Bread, both of which were absolutely amazing. Thanks to Noah for dragging me in there – it was a nice break from the heat and delicious ice cream!

On the way back to the car, we also passed what appeared to be a shooting gallery with a crazy panda ad:

After getting to the airport, Noah dropped me off, and after thanking him I went to the counter to beg for my upgrade. Good news, there’s still one seat left. Better news, I’m #1 on the list. Bad news: they had to wait until 45 minutes before the door closed, just in case someone wanted to buy that seat. Mildly disappointing, but I get it.

TSA PreCheck was closed, AND there was no CLEAR checkpoint. Ugh. Miami Airport. Ugh.

Today we were using the Avianca Lounge, where they attempted to get me sick with shrimps and goat cheese – the two things that I generally don’t eat. No worries, I only stopped in for 15 minutes to get a couple bottles of water before heading to the gate…where 5 minutes before boarding they cleared me into the absolute last seat in first class. WOO WOO!

Lufthansa flight 461
Miami, Florida (MIA) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 18:59, Arrive: 10:20 next day, flight time: 9:21
Airbus A380-800, Registration D-AIMC, Manufactured 2010, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,291
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,646,353

Ahhhhh, so much better once I got to my seat. It was like the weight of the world and that screaming urchin on the first flight just melted away into absolute bliss. Glass of Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle, some macadamia nuts, and a rose. Civilized flying.

Amuse-bouche of a courgette, red pepper, olive, and goat cheese. Glad I didn’t have any in the lounge – there’s only so much goat cheese my system will tolerate.

Nothing kicks off the perfect in-flight meal like a proper serving of caviar.

One small problem: the menus had been mis-printed, resulting in the dinner menu only being in German, and the breakfast menu only being in Spanish. Oops! The three starters today were “fruits of the sea with wasabi peas” which was super tasty, “asparagus, paprika, and feta with truffle sherry vinaigrette” also really tasty, and finally roast beef with chimichurri. Three for three – that doesn’t happen very often. Usually at least one of the three appetizers is so weird I’m not interested.

Main course of a fillet with tomato chili sauce was cooked a perfect medium – not bad for in-flight steak!

Of course, no meal on Lufthansa is complete without their best-in-the-sky cheese cart carved seat-side:

Now that is exactly how a cheese plate should be done!

President Underwood approves of the pumpkin cheesecake for desert with a glass of Johnny Walker Blue. She’s such a basic white girl sometimes!

Ever thought the aircraft lavatory was too small? Not on A380 Lufthansa First – complete with changing area and urinal!

Not much else to say. Fell asleep right after eating, and slept nearly six hours the rest of the way to Munich. Another lovely and perfect Lufthansa First flight in the books – one of the few flying experiences that never gets old to me, and is consistently my favourite experience in the skies. Super excited to have another lined up in just a few short weeks!

We landed 15 minutes early, which gave me just enough time to duck into the First Class Lounge for a shower. What makes the lounge in Munich so awesome is that they have immigration agents stationed IN the lounge, so you can clear passport control while you’re showering. Hand them your passport as you enter, grab a shower, and grab your stamped passport and head to the Schengen exit from the lounge. Yet again, Lufthansa nails this experience!

Lufthansa flight 7234 operated by Austrian Airlines
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Vienna, Austria (VIE)
Depart 11:20, Arrive: 12:25, flight time: 1:05
Airbus A320-200, Registration OE-LBZ, Manufactured 2012, Seat 3C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,512
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,646,574

This was a new one for me – I’ve never seen a flight that was technically a Lufthansa flight, but operated by Austrian. If you clicked on the Austrian flight number,  you got “Operated for Lufthansa.” Strange arrangement.

I do love how even on a 40-50 minute flight Lufthansa and Austrian can serve you a small meal. Perfect since I’d slept through breakfast on the previous flight!

Debated going outside security in Vienna to grab some Starbucks, but didn’t want it that badly, so headed to the lounge where the surliest lounge agent ever growled at me and told me I had to clear immigration and use the lounge on the other side. Yikes, so much for Austrian friendliness!  A few Diet Cokes later I had enough caffeine to function, and it was time for my last flight of this leg:

EgyptAir flight 798
Vienna, Austria (VIE) to Cairo, Egypt (CAI)
Depart 14:30, Arrive: 18:50, flight time: 3:20
Boeing 737-800, Registration SU-GEB, Manufactured 2011, Seat 10A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 127,981
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,647,981

Now, EgyptAir often gets a bad rap. First thing people always complain about is the lack of alcohol. Then it’s their “old seats” and finally it’s the unfriendly crews (which I think is largely a language ability thing). Well, this flight was the opposite, and overall a great flight!

Individual entertainment at the seats…which were a 2×2 configuration with proper legroom (unlike European airlines which are 3×3 with the middle seat blocked and NO legroom):

Even stickers to play with and place on your seat! These are definitely going to end up on my laptop…

Wow, look at that meal for a three hour flight! Also, the steak was a perfect medium rare with a little gorgonzola sauce which was absolutely delicious…and the grilled veggies were also really tasty.

Apple strudel for dessert, with yet another Coke Zero:

Just an hour after finishing our meal, they came around with a snack service an hour before landing. Small tray of danish butter cookies:

…and a small box of EgyptAir branded chocolates!

Bus gate, but a separate bus just for business class. A perfectly wonderful experience, and I was almost sad to say goodbye!

No wait at all at immigration, and I was through in under 15 minutes and off to my hotel – the Le Meridien Cairo Airport which is a short five minute walk from the terminal. Less than 30 minutes after getting off the plane I was in my room and and ready to have a beer or two in the hotel restaurant before passing out. It had been a very long day!

Dec 012018
 


So, despite having been to every country, I’ve always felt a bit bad about the “quality” of my China trips. My first trip was back in 2005, for one night in each direction in Beijing in transit to North Korea. It was enough to walk around Tienamen Square a bit, have dinner, but not really that in-depth.

Then, the next year, back when you could still get a border zone visa on arrival, I took a daytrip from Hong Kong to Shenzhen. This was a lot more memorable, because I remember lots of rural tourists who’d probably never seen a westerner before, and they all walked to take pictures with me (and touch my arms and legs). Yet, I feel bad saying I’ve been to China without having been to Shanghai. Finally…a chance to fix that!

I would fly to Shanghai for five days for work, and then because it was majorly cheaper, take the train down to Beijing for a night before flying home. Domestic train ride and seeing Shanghai. Much better! I’ll cover the flights in another post, but here’s my random stream of consciousness from my nearly one week in China:

Landed late afternoon around 5pm, and first task was to find my way to my hotel. Just kidding, since I still had another 7-8 hours to go before bed, first task was to grab a Starbucks at the airport and THEN grab a cab. Into the cab, and immediately…Houston we have a problem. Driver speaks not a word of English, and getting him to the hotel was not going to be easy. Fortunately, google maps had chinese characters on it, and that was enough to make it work. Whew.

Checked in and had about an hour to freshen up before heading out to meet clients for a kickoff dinner. I normally don’t like cutting things this short, but due to a cold I couldn’t fly earlier, so had to make due. Since Uber is no longer in China I fired up the DiDi Taxi app, and no problem at all they soon had me at the Oriental Pearl Tower for dinner.

At the top….this is a oh hell no place if you’re not good with heights. Yup, those are glass floors….

One more shot from the bottom after dinner. I should also mention that finding the way to the top wasn’t easy, especially because the clients had booked tables for like 100 people, meaning they had pre-paid, meaning I somehow had to explain to the staff at the lifts (when I finally found them) why it was ok to take me up without a ticket. Finally managed, and all was sorted.

All was sorted…except for DiDi Taxi. See, DiDi isn’t good with foreign credit cards. Nor is it good with cash. Nor can you sign up for any of the other forms of payments without a Chinese mobile number or credit card. I learned very quickly that China has a lot of great technology and apps, however, as a non-resident many of them are virtually impossible to use. I may have been to every country, but there are still some places in the world that aren’t “easy” to get around!

Subway back to hotel, passed out, and got up super early the next morning and had a nice workout in the hotel gym before heading down to breakfast…which was an amazing plate of dim sum. I was definitely going to enjoy as much as possible during my time here! This is probably a good place to say I was thrilled with the JW Marriott Tomorrow Square in Shanghai, and the hotel was exceptional in every way. Great location, great staff, great lounge for happy hour in the evening, everything about it was top notch. I’ll definitely stay here again on my next visit!

My clients were way out in the suburbs, but rather than stay somewhere with nothing to do I decided to stay in the city. This involved riding the subway about 10-12 stops (no train changes) and then a short five minute taxi ride. I actually enjoyed this, because it was a chance to get to see a bit more of the city and have a “commuter” experience, so that was kind of awesome.

That night I had free, so with a bit of googling I found Jackie’s Beer Nest which was an amazing craft beer bar. The place was absolutely tiny, maybe 300 square feet / 35 square meters max, and three of the walls were lined with taps:

View of Shanghai from hotel breakfast….gotta love those blue skies!

Client’s campus was also absolutely gorgeous! Where’s that terrible Chinese air you hear so much about?

Best thing I found in Shanghai? Starbucks Reserve Roastery…coffee heaven!

Mmmmm syphon coffee. Yeah, at over $10 for one coffee it wasn’t cheap, but it was oh so delicious!

Amazing pastry selection. There were actually four different bars with food and coffee to choose from. The place was absolutely huge!

I believe this was either been storage, or the actual roastery…yes, they roast their own beans in the store!

Walking around at night, I came across some strange ballroom dance party in the woods in the middle of the city:

See, ballroom dancing in the woods:

One of the cool things about actually googling and finding places for dinner in a city as big as Shanghai is that it got me to take the metro to several different neighbourhoods and see several different parts of the city…so that was very cool!

The beers in this bar weren’t quite as good, but was nice to see China is actually turning out some respectable craft beers of its own now. I’d tap that…

The Radisson Hotel…with a UFO like thing on top!

Back to Jackie’s Beer Nest another night. Apparently, on your second visit, you’re family, and he just points you to the glasses and tells you to serve yourself. Tell him how many you had at the end of the night (everything is the same price) and that’s it. What a cool laid-back neighbourhood place. Good thing I don’t live near here or I’d get in trouble!

I may have gone back to Starbucks one final time before leaving Shanghai. This is just one small corner of the place!

Took the metro to the train station, since it was on the same line as my hotel, and it was super easy. I have to say, Shanghai was set up really easily to get around on public transit. Despite never being there before, and spending most of my time working, I really felt like it was easy to figure everything out.

The train station? Well, it was just a little busy:

There was, however, a business class lounge. I think there were actually several, but this was the one near my gate.

Gate 1B – queuing to board. So, many, people…until I found where business class boarded from. That was a bit better.

Walked to the end of the train to get a picture. Cooooool!

My business class seat. Strangely, you have economy class, first class, and business class. Business class is actually higher than first class. Don’t try and figure it out.

Super roomy, with only 11 seats in the whole car. A 1×1 row in the back, and then three 2×1 rows. You can’t buy tickets online, but I used China DIY Travel to buy my tickets, and they were super helpful and professional. Very, very highly recommend them!

Some green tee and mango ice cream as we get underway and roll out of the station. The tea was free, but you had to pay like $4 for the ice cream.

About two hours into the 4.5 hour ride, they actually came by with lunch! That was unexpected. I got the “beef” which was reasonable for what was clearly a microwave meal.

Arrival in Beijing, there was a rather long queue for a taxi, but once I got one shockingly this driver spoke just enough English to know how to get to my hotel, the Renaissance Beijing Wangfujing. Walking around Beijing a bit after arrival. Well that’s an interesting display in the streets…

While walking around, Fitbit decided to reward me with the “Great Wall badge” for walking 5,500 miles since getting my FitBit. What’s the odds that I would reach this in China!

The next day, my flight didn’t leave until late afternoon, and since it was walkable from my hotel, I decided to go to what was billed as a more local place to get Peking Roast Duck before heading back. Siji Minfu was easy to find based on the large number of people outside…even at 11am! I only had to wait about 30 minutes for a table, however, so it worked out well! I think they found it really strange I was eating alone (I guess that’s not a common thing to do?)

Caramelized durian pudding to start while waiting for my duck.  This was absolutely delicious!

The condiments came soon, and the helpful waitress was great and showed me how they were meant to be used.

Soon out came my duck, which was carved up near the table. Yup, go big or go home, no half duck for me (which was an option) I was going to polish the whole thing off.

My duck, all carved up and ready to devour:

Just in time to head back to the hotel, check out, and head to the airport by subway which was pretty easy to figure out. Overall, I was pretty happy with this hotel, it was in a great walkable area, and maybe the only downside is that the walk to the subway was pretty long. The hotel also felt super crowded, but overall, the quality was great.

Unfortunately, my hotel was about a mile from the subway, so I took a cab to the subway, and then enjoyed the ride to the airport. Beijing’s air wasn’t nearly as good as Shanghai’s and it was actually bit difficult to breathe on my last day there:

So that about wraps up the week in China! Next up, I’ll post about the flights roundtrip on United, and then…I have a trip to Africa to post as well.  Want to knock this out in the next 10 days before I head out for almost a full month of travel that will include Germany, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Kaliningrad, and Berlin!

Sep 182018
 


As I mentioned in a few previous posts I always felt a little guilty when I finished every country that my experiences in Mexico City had been pretty much limited to border regions.

Then, this spring came my first trip to Mexico City for work. Then another trip to Mexico City for work. Then an overnight on an Aeromexico ticket on the way to Chile. Now, it was just August and it was time for my fourth trip this year to Mexico City! I had a couple of very packed days of meetings with clients, but opted to spend the weekend as well so I could dig a little bit deeper. A couple fun shots from the “business portion” of the trip though.

Firstly, the view from my client’s offices of Santa Fe – hard to believe this business/industrial district is almost brand spanking new:

Apparently, it was the season for Chiles en Nogada, or chilis with nuts. A rather different dish served COLD of a chili served stuffed with ground meat and then covered in a nut sauce and pomegranate made to look like the mexican flag. Wasn’t exactly my cup on tea, and unfortunately despite drinking some mezcal to kill any bugs I think this is what did the slow number on my stomach:

A rather unusual sculpture/statue outside the restaurant. Weird, but I have to say I liked it:

After meetings out in Santa Fe, I took a taxi late Friday night into the city so I could spend the whole day Saturday walking around and exploring. Firstly, the weather was gorgeous. Mid 70s, no humidity, and sunny skies. Unfortunately, I got a bit of a food-borne bug, so was feeling pretty sketchy the whole day. Fortunately, I felt just well enough to walk around, and walk I did. Nearly 15 miles during the duration of the day, and I ended up seeing a lot of great sights thanks to some recommendations for friends. I’ll let the photos tell the story.

The Torre Reforma, an office building. I love the unusual architecture:

The other side of the Torre Reforma, taken later in the day. I just find the building really cool:

Continuing my walk from my hotel, and praying that my innards would hold up at least for the stops between venues/sights with baños, I encountered something I definitely didn’t expect to find. The Mexico-Azerbaijan Friendship Park…complete with a large statue of Azerbaijan:

Back side of the monument….

Finally, after a bit over a mile of walking, I made it to the National Museum of Anthropology. Thankful to have not had any…”incidents” along the way, I was greeted out front by a fun group of dancers:

Let me get my one critique of the museum out of the way first. The place is huge. Super huge. No way you can see it all in one day huge. It’s divided into different “halls” around a courtyard by time period and civilization, but beyond telling you what is where, you really have no idea where to start looking for the featured pieces if you’re limited on time. Having a bit of a short attention span for museums, and wanting to see as much of the city as possible, I really wanted to hit the highlights. Thanks to around 30 minutes on google, I managed to find them.

Oh, and since I highlighted my one critique, I should also highlight the biggest unexpected positive: the museum was free today as a “gift” from the new government to the people of Mexico. No, it’s not really that expensive anyways, but it was a nice unexpected bonus, and the place was super crowded.

A Mexica (otherwise known as the Aztecs) death complex sculpture. Something about this one I really enjoyed:

Another Aztec carvin:

The giant Aztec “calendar stone” – I had to wait nearly 15 minutes for a group of people to all take their turn taking their selfie in front of it…so of course I couldn’t resist doing the same. The picture doesn’t show the sheer magnitude of the thing, which was 3.5 meters in diameter!

Statue of Xotchipilli, Aztec God of Art and Games…who by the look on his face enjoyed playing games while totally stoned out of his mind:

Montezuma’s headdress, made of quetzal feathers…although there is significant doubt that it’s the “real deal:”

Jade necklace and mask of Pakal the First, a Mayan ruler…that doesn’t exactly look terribly comfortable.

Overall, I super enjoyed this museum, and spent nearly three hours exploring it, which is probably a record for me in a museum. Normally my attention span is gone well before that time, so combine that with being ill this museum is a definite must-see when you’re in Mexico City.

After re-fuelling with caffeine and carrot cake at Starbucks outside the museum (don’t judge….anyone who’s had stomach issues knows that if you find something that sounds good, eat it!) I continued my walk into the park Bosque de Chapultepec which was right across the road. I always find local birds really interesting:

It was beautiful weather, and lots of folks were out on the lake in paddleboats:

After that I walked up, and up, and up, and up, and considered bailing since I wasn’t feeling great, but at the top finally made it to Chapultepec Castle and the National Museum fo History. I was museum-ed out for the day so just wandered the grounds for a bit and took in the sights. I’ll definitely come back to check it out in-depth another time though.

Great views of the city, however, from the castle grounds up on a high hill:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. See, believe me, lots of problems:

The Altar de la Patria in Chapultepec Park:

I was running a bit shorter on time than I realized, and it was already around 3pm at this time, and I still had one more sight I really wanted to try and squeeze in. I had hoped to take the metro down to the Trotsky Museum, but since I was short on time I took an Uber since it was only like $6. Unfortunately, due to traffic, it still took like 45 minutes to get there (Mexico City can have absolutely terrible traffico) but I still made it with an hour to spare. I loved the entrance of the museum:

Trotsky’s grave:

The Casa de Trotsky – his house – where he lived in exile after being expelled from the Soviet Union. As a student of Soviet history, I found this museum super interesting:

Trotsky’s office, where he worked while in exile, until dying by a pick-axe to the head:

Gotta have a selfie with Trotsky’s grave!

After the museum, I took the nice mile or so stroll to the metro, where I stopped in a mall next to the metro stop for a small snack before boarding the train back towards my hotel. One thing I found really interesting – and somewhat depressing – is that part of the platform in the Mexico City subway is blocked off for women and children only. Interesting, because I applaud them for taking this step to protect people, depressing because it indicates that men are poorly enough behaved that women need to be protected.

Another shot of barriers in another station, along with what the trains look like:

I had to giggle, because it turned out my hotel was apparently right across the street from a string of gay bars, and being Saturday night they were absolutely swarming with 20-somethings. I felt old. But you have to love a place named “The Gayta Pussy Bar” Hah!

After a bit of exploring, I decided to hop back on the metro and check out a bar called The Beer Company. It was about 30 minutes and a short walk away by metro, and being a gorgeous evening I enjoyed a few beers on the patio. The place wasn’t at all crowded, but had that nice neighbourhood bar feel…and the complete lack of English spoken only made it feel more fun.

While “checking in” the new beers in the Untappd App I saw that there was apparently a tap takeover going on at another bar in the city, and despite being tired and worn out I had to check it out. I headed over to Tasting Room which had not only some incredibly funky alien decor (I finally figured out the mysteries of Easter Island):

…but also had an amazing draft list. This place was a gem in Mexico City, and I’ll definitely be back here for drinks the next time I’m in Mexico City.

By this point, I was absolutely exhausted, and really impressed just how much I managed to see for a day when I was seriously not feeling well.

With that, it was time to fly off the next morning for a few days in Minnesota with family for my birthday on the way back to DC…and to get a bit of rest before beginning an incredibly busy travel period – even by my standards!  Post to come on that in the coming days before I head off on probably my craziest two months of travel ever!

Aug 122018
 


By this point in the summer, I was already starting to get worn out from lots of travel. However, as work trips go, it gets a lot worse than two weeks in Switzerland. About all bad I can say about the trip is it was 85-90 degrees Fahrenheit the whole time I was there, and pretty much nowhere had air conditioning…except my hotel which was delightful thanks to some very smart online research in advance!

Rather than go into too many details of the trip (since it was pretty much 10 hour work days the entire time) I figured I’d just share some pics from the evenings and weekends I did manage to have free. I”m going to skip the in-flight pics because I feel like I post too many of those already, but if anyone’s interested in the details of Air Canada 777 business class…sorry “signature class” and the Toronto lounge…or the United Polaris-configured 767 let me know…and I’ll put that up shortly. Now, on to the actual trip!

Takeoff from Washington, National airport for Toronto – this view seriously never gets old to me.

After a flight to Toronto, a flight to Zurich, and then a train to Bern, I arrived at my hotel – the Hotel The Bristol in Bern. Strangely enough, none of my clients (who all live in Bern!) were familiar with this hotel. It was perfectly comfortable, reasonably priced, and had really good air conditioning and friendly staff. Two thumbs up, and since I’ll be returning to this client often, I’ll definitely stay here again…and you know how fussy I am about my hotels! The fact that I not only enjoyed this hotel…but enjoyed it for a two week stay…says a lot. I’m not normally a fan of smaller boutique hotels, but part of the fun lobby:

Anyone who’s read this blog for a while knows I tend to search out the good local craft beer joints, and I definitely found one I loved in Bern. I was a bit surprised, but Biercafe au Trappiste was amazing. Friendly, knowledgable staff, and a great selection of Swiss and non-Swiss craft beers. Plus, really fun taps:

Old town of Bern…it’s hard not to fall in love with the “charm” of European streets:

Bern was amazingly picturesque, and I found myself going for long walks most nights along the river. With views like this you can see why:

There was also a great place to sit next to the river, and with 9:20pm sunsets, lots of time to enjoy:

First weekend, I went up above Bern to the Gurten, a local hill/mountain/park that towers over Bern. Great views once you got off the funicular, which is included with your “Bern Card” – a transit pass that is included for free for as long as you stay in a local accommodation.

Found some cows up on the Gurten…actually, they’re everywhere in Switzerland…and oh so mangey!

Taking the Funicular back down…at 8pm…yup, still nice and light:

The Zytglogge in Bern. Big tourist attraction, but honestly found it pretty disappointing. Tho was cool to see.

Tourists are awful. More concerned with taking pics than actually seeing the site.

Another weekend day, I planned to go up the Jungfraujoch and take Europe’s highest train. Unfortunately, by the time I’d purchased my Switzerland daypass and headed halfway I saw that the peaks were clouded in and it would be a waste. So, instead, I rode trains around Switzerland for the day. This included a trip on my favourite train, the ICE, from Basel to Zurich:

End of the trip I enjoyed some delicious Mövenpick ice cream, rum raisin, yum!

Back in Bern, which comes from the German word “Baren” – or bears – I went to the Bear park where I spotted one of the very lazy bears hiding from the heat the best it could:

Followed by more enjoying of the river….and locals enjoying a swim:

I enjoyed swims in the river two nights, thanks to friendly locals who stuffed my clothes in their drybags and let me float down the river with them:

The river, from a bridge:

Nice warm weather meant lots of dinners Al Fresco:

Dinner by the river one night, and this group had an amazing unicorn floatie:

Since I took several trains around Switzerland in the two weeks, here’s a pic of a fairly standard car:

I ended up flying home from Geneva since it was a better deal, which meant an overnight in Geneva. The Jet d’Eau:

Had to stop by the United Nations for a pic:

Couldn’t get inside since it was a weekend, but I joined the busloads of Chinese tourists to take a pic of the UN and all the flags:

The “Broken Chair” outside the UN, to symbolize opposition to landmines:

Unfortunately, on a Saturday night in August, Geneva proved to be incredibly sleepy, and I couldn’t find a remotely reasonable place to go out for a drink that wasn’t super touristy. So, as one does, I hopped on the train for 45 minutes to Lausanne to have drinks at La Mise en Bière which turned out to be a fantastic hole in the wall craft beer place. My only criticism is that it closed way too early…but I suppose that was good because it got be back to Geneva in time to go to bed at a reasonable hour!

I did spend about four hours in Lausanne, which seemed to be a cool little town, and had a subway system to boot! I wasn’t expecting to add to my list of world subways, but did manage to. Does anyone know a good site that lists all of the subways in the world? My OCD side feels the need to count the ones I’ve ridden…and make plans to visit the others.

On the walk back to the Lausanne train station, I encountered this. Idk what was going on, but my slightly happy state found it super amusing. People say Switzerland is a bit stuffy and formal, but, this pic…

Something about the Swiss trains I just find really elegant:

So, in a nutshell, that was the free time I had in my two weeks in Switzerland. I’m definitely going to manage the Jungfraujoch on my next trip (likely this fall), and hopefully see even more of the country! Next up, a short trip to Brazil for work. It’s been a crazy summer!!!

Jul 152018
 


After a great night’s sleep (but not nearly long enough) I woke up a little earlier than I needed to so that I could fulfil that most important morning duty: getting coffee. See, there’s a Starbucks attached to the Sheraton Maria Isabel, and it was advertised as opening at 7:00, so I showed up around 7:15, went inside…and there were no employees anywhere to be found. When one finally did emerge from the back room, she would only tell me they were opening “later.” Hmmm, ok…at least I knew the airport would have multiple Starbucks, so I would be saved as long as I could survive the un-caffeinated ride to the airport.

At least the early wake-up was rewarded with a beautiful pink sky over El Ángel:

Nice quick Uber ride to airport, under 20 minutes, and I got the honour of queuing to check in. When I say queueing, we’re talking nearly 45 minutes in line to get to an agent. Yes, this was the business class and elite check-in line, and it reinforced my theory of everyone on Aeromexico being an elite of some sort.

When I finally got to the front, the agent pulled up my reservation (it had let me check in online from JFK to Mexico City, but wouldn’t allow me to check in to Santiago) and asked me if I was an Aeromexico employee. Uh, no?  Apparently, somehow, something in my reservation mentioned stand-by status, despite not having this problem on the first segment. It was as simple as telling the agent this, and tap tap, click click, out came my boarding pass. Maybe a language gap?

Onwards to security and the all-too-delayed Starbucks, and I came across this sculpture in the lobby. First the check-in issue, and now this…this airport was definitely doing everything it could to mess with my early morning un-caffeinated brain!

Fortunately security took under five minutes, and the Starbucks was right there. Apparently Justin needs coffee too. One of the downsides to all these Mexico City trips recently is that I got addicted to the Tres Quesos panini at Starbucks. Fortunately the airport location had it, and I was caffeinated, fed, and happy.

Off to the American Express Centurion Lounge, which weirdly is up a rather long staircase, and from what I could tell had no way to access it by elevator. There may have been one, and I missed it. Found Phil who had arrived on the redeye flight from Los Angeles, and in we went. This lounge, unlike the lounges in the United States, is divided into two sides: a “regular” side, and a “centurion” side which is for Centurion cardholders and it appeared certain local bank customers may have also had access. It wasn’t at all crowded with maybe 10 people, and we were actually outnumbered by the staff I think.

At the insistence of the staff we accepted a glass of champagne, since, you know, vacation!

Unfortunately we only had about 30 minutes to spend in the lounge, then it was off to the gate for our flight to Santiago. Good thing we arrived relatively early, because once again there were 50+ people in line for priority boarding.

That said, boarding was quick and efficient, and I was soon at my seat. Overnight, the aircraft had been changed from a 787-8 to a 787-9 so that meant instead of 2-2-2 seating it was 1-2-1. Definitely a superior product, but it resulted in us being split up. Lots of people were in the same boat and trying to get seats together…or get a window seat now that they were single seats, and eventually we just decided to stay where we were…despite the gentleman who was coughing up a storm and seemed on the verge of sudden death between us.

Aeromexico flight 10
Mexico City, Mexico (MEX) to Santiago, Chile (SCL)
Depart 10:10, Arrive: 19:07, flight time: 7:57
Boeing 787-9, Registration XA-ADH, Manufactured 2018, Seat 5J
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 56,377
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,576,652

For those who like such things, the Boggi amenity kit. It was functioning and had all the things I normally want, but wasn’t cool enough that I decided to keep the bag to reuse later.

Meal service was definitely strange on this flight…and was listed as a “refreshment” right after takeoff, and then “lunch” 90 minutes before landing. Hmm, ok. There were two refreshment choices, a “BLT Sandwich” or “Mushroom tamale with green sauce.” Of course, by the time they got to Row 5 there were no tamales left, so it was sandwich, sandwich, or sandwich.

To be fair, it was a pretty tasty sandwich, but in no universe whatsoever can it be called a BLT sandwich! There wasn’t even bacon on it…but there was a tasty little bowl of jalapeños to add to it…and when prompted the flight attendant begrudgingly opened a bottle of Jacquart Brut champagne.

The next five hours passed as predicted. The flight attendants dimmed all the windows and LOCKED them in the dark position (one thing I dislike about the Dreamliner) in order to encourage people to sleep. They also turned up the heat pretty high…ugh. So, I spent five hours in forced darkness watching tv on my iPad…and only once did they come around offering drinks. Not the best in the service department.

Just under 90 minutes before landing at 7pm, they finally started “lunch” service. Once again, it started with a cheese plate. For everything else I was disliking about Aeromexico, the plate of cheese instead of mixed nuts was one thing that I actually loved! Today’s selection was Brie and Manchego:

Dinner choice was chicken breast, “short rib,” or pasta. Given the disaster the pasta had been the day before I opted to go with the short rib. I swear between the side of asparagus and the short rib that this meal had been catered by United…as I feel like half their business class meals are that option. It was pretty much as expected, except the super wilted and disappointing lettuce in the salad:

Another glass of the Montes Alpha Cabernet (which was actually pretty tasty), and a chocolate mousse bar for desert. You really can’t go wrong with a glass of cab and chocolate mousse! The perfect pairing!

Landed about 30 minutes early, no line for customs, and we were pretty quickly in a taxi to the Four Points. Since it was just a short overnight we didn’t see the value in a nicer hotel, so opted for the Four Points thinking it would be nice enough. Well, it would have been, except for torrential rain and multiple accidents on the highway, which made the drive to the Four Points take just over two hours. Ugh. What should have been 30 minutes took four times as long, and by the time we arrived it was much later than hoped.

Waiting in the room was one of the saddest welcome snacks ever. I think it was some sort of cake, but the grey gloopy SPG on the plate made me want to go nowhere near it:

The Four Points was nice enough, however, to give us a couple of drink vouchers for the tiny lobby bar, where we were able to enjoy welcome pisco sours while figuring out next steps.

Fortunately, there were a couple of bars and restaurants near the Four Points. We weren’t terribly hungry after the flight, so opted for a small snack at a place called Sacramento. A delicious tres leches for desert and a glass of Carmenere was just what I needed.

On the wander back to the Four Points we ended up stopping at some rather trendy restaurant called Piso Uno for another drink. The best way to describe would be to say it was sushi, craft cocktails, and most of the bartenders were heavily tattooed with appropriately hipster manicured facial hair. It made for fascinating people watching while we enjoyed a couple of drinks, but was definitely mildly uncomfortable not being dressed for such a place. However, to their credit, they didn’t seem to care at all, and it was a fun way to end the night.

Back to the Four Points, off to get some sleep, and a very very early morning start for our flight to Easter Island!

Jul 142018
 


So, a bit of a background. First, as I’ve mentioned before, this trip came about because of an incredibly good business class fare from New York to Santiago, Chile. Two things that make that noteworthy: first, I had to find a way to get up to New York to start and end the trip. I debated trying to fly standby, but with a paid ticket on the line, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk…so bought a one way up to JFK on Delta, and home on American. Why? Because the timing worked best with a 2:30 to 3:30 layover in New York. Other options would have been too close to risk, or so long it was ridiculous. Easy enough.

Now, two years ago, when I finished going to every country, I always felt a bit bad about Mexico. I’d probably been to Mexico 5-10 times, but always daytrips to Tijuana or Nogales…although I once spent a three day weekend in Ensenada which is actually like 20 miles into Mexico, so I didn’t feel like I’d totally cheated. That said, I also didn’t feel like I’d “seen” Mexico.

So, I was looking forward to an overnight in Mexico on this trip to see a tiny bit more…but then a couple weeks after booking, I ended up with a five day trip to Mexico City for work, which gave me a couple of full days to explore the city. Then, a week before leaving on this trip…another last minute trip back to my client in Mexico City, meaning I would be flying BACK from Mexico City on a Wednesday…and then flying right back on this trip on Thursday. Yes, twice 24 hours apart. Life has a funny way sometimes of surprising us.

Right, so, not much to say. Off to National Airport, no real lines, and boarding right on time. I had decided to risk the upgrade for the short flight rather than pay Delta the extra $150, and I was surprised three days before when my first class upgrade came through. Nice little surprise…until I woke up the morning of the flight to see that Delta had downgraded me again…the usual DCA issue of Federal Air Marshalls taking your seat at the last minute…although they’ll never really admit that’s what happened. 10,000 miles later, Delta had done the right thing – I only hope the government is compensating them for all these clusterfucks…I’ve seen it happen at DCA way too many times.

Delta flight 5937 operated by Republic Airlines
Washington, DC, National (DCA) to New York, Kennedy Airport (JFK)
Depart 11:00, Arrive: 12:29, flight time: 1:29
Embraer ERJ-170, Registration N875RW, Manufactured 2007, Seat 6C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 50,201
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,570,476

Quick flight, no taxi/takeoff delays which is very unusual on a DCA-JFK flight, and soon we landed in JFK. I’ve never flown Delta through JFK before, so apparently I was destined for the complete experience. Landing and parking at Terminal 2, taking the “JFK Jitney” bus over to Terminal 4, and then walking pretty much to Connecticut to the rather remote Delta SkyClub.

I was rewarded with some hummus, grilled chicken breasts, and a glass of wine for my trouble. There was a rather large group of bros in the club who looked like they were heading on spring break, gorging on the chicken breasts like they’d been protein-deprived for months…I think people-watching might be one of my favourite parts of travel…

Of course, the Aeromexico flight was at the far end of Terminal 4 from the SkyClub, so I promptly left Connecticut, and undertook the rather long walk to New Jersey. Stopped at Peet’s Coffee on the way (ok, so maybe I don’t hate Terminal 4 quite so much now) and was greeted with a 100+ person long queue for priority boarding at the Aeromexico gate. I was beginning to get the impression that everyone must be “elite” in Mexico, but no big deal..there would be plenty of overhead space.

Unfortunately, Mexico had just lost to Brazil in the World Cup, and my flight was packed with fans coming off the Aeroflot flight from Moscow who were all in a rather dejected mood.

Aeromexico flight 409
New York, Kennedy Airport (JFK) to Mexico City, Mexico (MEX)
Depart 15:20, Arrive: 19:15, flight time: 4:55
Boeing 787-9, Registration N446AM, Manufactured 2018, Seat 2J
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 52,292
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,572,567

First impression of the seats on the Aeromexico 787-9 was fantastic! Roomy, and quite private.

Impressed from the other side too – the walls are high enough you can’t see the people, and the way the seats are angled to the window you’re not looking at the person across the aisle either. Plus, the seats were nice and wide. What a fantastic product!

Welcome aboard bubbles…the flight attendants were unusually particular about putting the coasters down, and collecting them along with your glass. No, you can’t save one for a souvenir…

Once up in the air, lunch service promptly started. I’m pretty over the mixed nuts that seem to start off every international business class meal, and Aeromexico was definitely out to impress. Cheese as a starter pre-meal with my wine? Aeromexico, I think we’re going to get along just swimmingly!

I can’t remember the time I went with the pasta option for a main, and I regret doing it now. Bland, flavourless, and the quinoa salad was pretty terrible as well. This meal had so much potential…just a bit more bacon on the pasta, maybe a bit more cheese, and a little more cream to the sauce and it would have been wonderful. Unfortunate, because after the cheese starter I had such high hopes!

I know lots of people whine about “packaged deserts aren’t appropriate in business class” but give me some delicious ice cream any day to some dried out piece of cake. Simple is best when it comes to desert in the air!

Landed about 30 minutes ahead of schedule, no line at all for immigration, and soon I was in my taxi. It was absolutely pouring rain outside, but there was no traffic at all (how can that be at 7:30pm in Mexico City?!) and in less than 30 minutes I was at the Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel.

On my previous trip when I had a weekend “downtown,” I chose the Le Meridien, which I found very disappointing. Not a great location with much going on around it (though very convenient for my Historical Center walking tour), and old rooms that loud rattly air conditioning. Add to that a very disappointing and shabby bar, and I wasn’t keen to try it again.

Either my Spanish is getting better, or the staff at the Sheraton wasn’t too keen to practice their English, so I think I managed my first every check-in completely in Spanish, complete with a discussion about all the platinum benefits they offer. Not bed!

Lobby had a giant soccer ball in it in honour of the World Cup…only sad that Mexico had just been eliminated.

Upgraded to a very, very nice suite, with a view of El Ángel right outside my window. Picture taken from my room:

Sleeping area was pretty generic Sheraton-standard, but ice cold air conditioning was very welcome!

Second room of the suite…you could have a party in this room it was so big!

…they must have known I was coming, because a couple of craft beers and some snacks were waiting for me in the room.

Went for a short walk to stretch my legs, and ended up at Fiebre de Malta which I had discovered on my previous trip. I didn’t need a whole lot to eat after the Aeromexico flight, but how can I resist some tacos?! When in Mexico…

Back to the Sheraton, I still wasn’t tired, so decided to have a Patron margarita and enjoy the World Cup decor in the lobby bar. MUCH nicer than the lobby bar at Le Meridien.

The margarita showed up, and was clearly made with fresh-squeezed lime and was delicious. This stay couldn’t have been more night and day compared with my stay at the Le Meridien, and there’s no doubt I would stay here again. I had such a nice stay that I think I need to return again for a 3-4 day weekend and explore the city a bit more in depth next time.

Off to bed, as I had a rather early flight the next morning onwards to Santiago…

May 272018
 


As a fair warning, this post is going to be a bit long and rambling. After my plans to visit Zimbabwe for two nights then Botswana for two nights fell through, I was completely up in the air. The first of four nights was going to get eaten up staying in Johannesburg, since it was nearly 6pm when I landed from Namibia.

Nice night of rest, and woke up, and tried to figure out how to sort out my life. Air Zimbabwe was flying in the late afternoon from Johannesburg to Bulawayo, so I could just as easily pick up my trip! Of course, you can’t buy Air Zimbabwe tickets online, so off to OR Tambo I go with my baggage. The very helpful agent “wasn’t sure if it will go today, or if so when – it gets canceled a lot. Maybe by 11pm.” Uhhh, yeah, that’s not a chance I want to take.

Bit more research, I could pick up Air Botswana directly to Francistown and then drive to Gaborone, but it was going to be more than $800 between change fees for my return ticket and the car, so that just wasn’t happening. Rather than waste anymore time, I decided to chalk it up to “this time, the travel gods were not with me” and head back to my hotel.

Fortunately, I was able to book another night on cash+points, so spent the evening relaxing, scheming, and decided that I was going to make the most of it. Despite dozens of trips to Joburg, I decided I was going to try and dig a little bit deeper. My trip out to Maboneng had been super cool a week back, so I’d use the next two full days to explore until I had to get back to work.

Walking to Starbucks the next morning, fate intervened and I saw the sales centre for the Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus. Quick look confirmed it stopped at a lot of places I hadn’t been, so I bought the two day pass. Why not…I think I’ve only done one of these touristy busses once, and they really can be a good way to see a city in a short time. Plus, it was an absolutely gorgeous 22 degree day, and the next day was forecast to be more of the same.

Pickup/start point was right by my hotel, and off we go. I even got a seat on the upper deck…kinda like a 747…same same but different…

I decided to get off first at Constitution Hill and see the Number Four prison and constitutional court. Unfortunately, lots of the site was closed today due to private group tours, but you could still do a self-guided tour of the Number Four Prison. Entrance had one of my favourite Mandela quotes:

Number Four was built in the 1890s under Paul Kruger and Ghandi spent time in Number Four in 1906.

Shot of the prison yard as it stands today. For some reason, the Orange is the New Black theme started going in my head, and I caught myself humming it. Probably not terribly appropriate…

Pictures of Ghandi and Mandela at various points in their lives…

Solitary confinement cells. Stepping inside and to the back of one sent shivers down my spine.

Hillbrow Tower as seen from Constitution Hill. On my first trip to South Africa in 1997, Hillbrow was always regaled to us as that super terrifying lawless place that you didn’t dare set foot anywhere near.

Waiting for our bus to leave Constitution Hill for the next stop.

Since I’d gotten a late start, I figured I’d ride past all the next stops and stop at the SAB World of Beer which was the last stop. That would allow me to see which of the stops looked interesting for the next day, and would conveniently put me at World of Beer at roughly happy hour time.

The tour was over an hour long, and absolutely…terrible. I’ve been on a few brewery tours , and this was probably one of the worst. It was basically a “history of beer” and honestly….was just bad. Our guide was fantastic, but it was basically 90 minutes of prelude before they let you do the good stuff: the beer tasting.

The tasting was kinda fun, five or six (I forget now) different beers from the SAB lineup, poured one at a time from bottles for the whole group. Apparently if the colour/taste of the beer is just ordinary, the tasting term for that is “unremarkable.” Unremarkable was what I’d call this whole experience, but the tour ended on the rooftop beergarden with two tickets and the VIEW was remarkable!

Next day, I got a slightly earlier start. Back onto the bus, and noted this very hoity-toity private school we drove past:

Then the bus would right through downtown Johannesburg. While undergoing some gentrification and revitalization, there are still plenty of signs that the area has a very, very long way to go. For example, this highrise with a history of fires and busted out windows just sitting empty…though likely home to squatters.

Another building which has clearly seen better days, but has apparently found a buyer:

Springbox jumping over a fountain in front of a casino at one of the stops. This seemed to be the most popular of all stops, and I was tempted to get out for an hour, but how exciting can a casino be?

Winding over a bridge into the central business district, an ad for Amarula – made from Africa!

I got off at the stop for Braamfontein, which along with Maboneng is known to be a “hip, young, and edgy” area of the downtown. Madiba on the side of a building:

Turn of the century building, now a bar:

Found some seats at the patio bar across the street, and ordered a cider while I people watched.

Shortly after ordering a second cider, a 6’5+ drag queen came over and sat next to me…and ordered a cheeseburger. Apparently, her name was Miss Winnie Gets-In-Your-Pants (a nod to Winnie Mandela I assume?) and she’d come from the bar/club across the street. Like was common in the US in the 80s/90s, gay bars were found in the edgy parts of town and this area was very popular with alternative crowds – gays, goths, and just general people who lived outside the “mainstream.” Great lively street scene, and fantastic people watching. I think I spent almost two hours just sitting there and watching the city go by.

Back to the hotel, caught an Uber out to Randburg to check out Craft Beer Library which I’d been told has the best beer list in Johannesburg. The setting was cozy, but lots of fun, complete with shoeless hipster singing…

Definitely a cozy little place, but great beer list and super friendly staff. Definitely on my list of places to return to in JoBurg…maybe as soon as a few days from now 😉

…and with that teaser, couple of days of work stood ahead before the trek home and final part of this trip report.

May 222018
 


After a very long week of even longer days at work, it was time for a bit of holiday before going back to work. Due to prior commitments I couldn’t get all my client commitments lined up in one week, so decided to separate them by a week and take some holiday in the middle. So, Saturday morning arrived, and I was off to OR Tambo Airport to get away.

Every time I’m there I totally want to buy the zebra pelts in duty free as a rug, but at a price tag of 16,000 rand, it’s a bit steep for my budget!

While I waited, I caught a great view of my plane waiting for us. I had opted to go with Air Namibia for the novelty factor, despite their points not being worth anything. The flight time also allowed me an extra 90 minutes of sleep over South African, so that was a bonus as well. Air Namibia used a contract lounge whose name I can’t remember, but it was pretty decent, and I would say about as comfortable as South African’s lounge, which I rather like.

No priority boarding queue at all, and it was a mad scrum of European tourists. I think I boarded maybe #100 on the plane or so. Also, it might be the longest jetbridge in the world. If you look at the pic above you can see the part that connects to the plane, but at the top it zigs left and hugs the terminal building finally ending near the nose of where the Turkish plane is parked. Yes, ALL of that is jetbridge!

Air Namibia flight 726
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Windhoek, Namibia (WDH)
Depart 11:40, Arrive 13:45, Flight Time: 2:05
Airbus A319, Registration V5-ANM, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,026
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,556,088

First impression: I love the cabin. Sure, the seats are super old school leather recliners, but they weren’t lumpy at all and reasonably firm, and….

…look at that legroom! The inflight magazine quoted 54 inches, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was accurate. Extremely generous for a plane that often does 90 minute to two hour flights! You don’t see that often at all!

Sadly, the pre-departure beverage was water, water, or…water.

Flamingo…the in-flight magazine.

After 30 minutes after takeoff, out came the appetizer. A warm piece of what I’m pretty sure was beef, some grilled pineapple, and some orange wedges. Along with a roll…and some South African sparkling wine that was absolutely terrible. I asked to see the bottle, and was met with a “we cannot do that.” Uhhh…ok? At least it was a friendly refusal.

Beef, vegetarian, or fish. I went with the beef, and it was straight out of the United Airlines short rib kitchen. Tasted the same, looked the same, and once again, repeat after me: like grandma’s cooking. Now, remember this meal…we’re going to be coming back to it later…

Soon we were over the amazing landscape of Namibia…

Arrival was about 15 minutes late, which worried me because I only had a 45 minute connection to begin with. I had tried asking the flight attendants if this would be an easy connection, and they didn’t seem terribly interested in helping me.  Encountered probably one of the rudest immigration officials I’ve ever met anywhere in the world who finally stamped me into the country, but not before making very clear that she disliked me.

The path to connecting flights led me…right into the arrivals hall, where fortunately the departures hall was just a two minute walk away. It wasn’t entirely clear if I needed a new boarding pass or what, but there were literally hundreds of people queueing in the checkin lines, so decided to head for the door to security and try my luck. They seemed a bit puzzled with me (since everyone else was going straight from a check-in counter to the door towards security and departures) but apparently after explaining I was connecting that was enough.

Security was pretty quick and easy, and then….immigration counters. Wait, I’m on a domestic flight. Why are there immigration counters. Well, I just walked up and told the guy I was on a domestic flight, and he waved me through. Turns out the one room departures lounge has five gates that handle both international and domestic traffic.

I didn’t have to worry about the close connection since we left over 30 minutes late, so soon it was time to walk to our plane. I tried to snap a pic, but was very sternly chastised by a ramp agent. Ho hum.

Air Namibia flight 715
Windhoek, Namibia (WDH) to Walvis Bay, Namibia (WVB)
Depart 14:30, Arrive 15:10, Flight Time: 0:40
Airbus A319, Registration V5-ANN, Manufactured 2012, Seat 1F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,210
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,556,272

Unlike the previous flight, pre-departure sparkling wine was offered. Unfortunately, it was pretty terrible again.

Nothing to say about the 30 minute flight, except it was absolutely packed. Oh, and we got a “snack”:

Pretty sad…and again…make a metal note of this for later…

Arrival in Walvis Bay was a casual affair, and passengers continuing to Cape Town were asked to remain on board, which seemed to be about 75% of the crew. Finally snapped a pic of our plane upon arrival:

Just walk from the plane to the terminal…it’s out there somewhere…

Finally, the terminal building…one of the smallest I’ve ever seen…and this is the “new” terminal!

I had rented an SUV from Hertz for the five days, and when I arrived the contract price was more than double what my confirmation said. First, there was a one-way rental fee when Hertz Platinum told me there wasn’t. Then there were about six or seven different insurances, etc. The guy seemed confused, but I just crossed out and initialed what I refused to pay for, and he was like “oh, ok.” I figured this would get interesting when I returned it. Oh, and the Walvis Bay location no longer takes AmEx, but he was “pretty sure” they do in Windhoek. He eventually agreed to let me go by writing down the credit card number, and we were off.

Drive into Swakopmund was just under an hour, and finally I found my hotel the Swakopmund Plaza Hotel. I had booked the larger “family room” since it was only slightly more, and it still wasn’t very large, so I was glad I’d spent the little bit extra:

It did, however, have an amazing view of the South Atlantic Ocean:

Oh, and it also had a lovely beer garden right on site which brewed its own beers. Unfortunately, they weren’t very good…

Walking along the beach:

Local house in old german architecture:

Sunset over the jetty bridge:

Africa meets the South Atlantic Ocean waves:

Sunset from the jetty:

More old German architecture:

The Höhenzollernhaus – a 1904 baroque building that’s been during into condos:

Kücki’s Pub, location of tonight’s dinner. First thing that struck me: the staff switching back and forth between Afrikaans and German, with English clearly the third language. I actually didn’t know before this trip that more Namibians speak Afrikaans as a first language than English.

Determined to explore the deliciousness of African wildlife, started out with a springbok carpaccio:

Followed up with an oryx burger and a side of Spätzel:

The first of many malva puddings on this trip:

With that, it had been a long day so I walked back to the hotel and promptly crashed. Only to wake up at 12…and 1230, and 1, and 130….clearly something had gone off (most likely airplane lunch based on timing) and I was suffering one of the most violent cases of food poisoning I’d had in many years. Fortunately, around three o’clock, with nothing much left in my system I finally managed to get back to sleep, and prayed that I would feel well enough the next day to even consider the five+ hour drive ahead of me. I hoped so, or this trip was over before it even began….