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!

Oct 182019
 


Being a work trip, and the third of three back to back longhaul trips, I really wasn’t in a mood to spend any more time than I needed to in Delhi. Combine that with the ridiculous heat this time of year, I was pretty much in a pattern of sleep – eat – work, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Hotel driver was waiting for me in the arrivals area at the airport when we arrived rather late of night, and after what felt like a 1,000 meter walk through the carpark we finally arrived at the car…just kidding…you wait here and I’ll go get the car. That was really pleasant in the stifling heat and humidity.

Right….off to the hotel where the lobby was deserted at this hour, a quick check-in, and I think I was through the shower and in bed less than 10 minutes after getting in my room.

Up in the morning, and of course….decided to test how well uber would work by heading the 1,000 meters or so to Starbucks. Yes, normally that’s totally walkable, but in 99% humidity and more than 30C temps this early in the morning…no thank you.

One of the things I do like about Starbucks is seeing the interesting “local” food options. Decided to go with the “chili cheese toast” this time, what was reasonably good. Starbucks in India is not only not cheap, it’s actually pretty pricey by international standards even. Almost $10 for this.

This would be a good place to talk about the hotel, the Le Meridien New Delhi. Supposedly this “iconic” building is a Delhi landmark, and overall, I have to say the staff was fantastic.

The building was definitely showing its age, and the rooms were a little worn around the edges, but overall it was perfectly comfortable and more importantly: had reasonably good air conditioning. There was also a portable air unit in my room to add to the chill, so overall pretty good.

The hotel was built around a large approximately 20 story high atrium, and I was a bit surprised just how low the glass walls between the corridors around the rooms and the atrium were. I could easily see someone stumbling and plunging 20 stories to their death in the lobby.

Right, that vision out of the way, have a look at the middle picture below. That’s looking up from the lobby, and that black square that looks suspended by four gold bars? Well, that’s the executive lounge suspended over the atrium 20 stories up…and those gold bars are walkways across the atrium. Don’t look down when entering the lounge if you’re afraid of heights.

Didn’t get back to the hotel the first night from work until rather late, so decided to explore the rather crowded lobby restaurant. I was quite struck how many people were eating around 9pm, and I had to wait nearly 30 minutes to get a table. If I hadn’t wanted to people watch room service could have been a much better option. Surprisingly reasonable pizza, however.

The strangest thing about this hotel? In the elevator lobby on every floor there were tvs….playing old Tom and Jerry reruns from 40 years ago. I just…don’t…get it.

Reminder from your friendly Uber driver: NO SMOOKING!

Did I mention it was a little warm in Delhi? Combine this with the humidity and pollution from all the cars, the air….was not the best to be breathing.

We did get out for a team dinner one night, and I was definitely impressed with Farzi Cafe. Seemed to be an incredibly popular place with young and hip Indians, and a bit of an international crowd as well. Plus, who doesn’t like being “that guy” at a work dinner ordering a drink that comes served on top of dry ice?

Back to the hotel on the last night, and noticed…the lounge on the 20th floor? It’s apparently known as the “Flying Saucer.”

My flight the last night wasn’t until nearly 2am, so when I got back from the office the first thing I did? Grab some kulfi in the lobby restaurant which was absolutely outstanding.

I wasn’t really sure if my strategy was the best, but after enjoying the kulfi it was up to the flying saucer aka executive lounge for a few small snacks and a couple glasses of wine. One thing I want to emphasize, the executive lounge staff was fantastic. My wine glass was never empty, they seemed to have made a point to memorize every guest, ask how their day was, and were all around super friendly, helpful, and kind.

After a bit of wine, it was time to see how my strategy would work. Up to my room and in bed at 7:30pm…we’d see if I was able to sleep. Before I knew it, it was 11:30pm and I’d pulled off the four hour nap that I was hoping for. Excellent! That should enable me to stay away the first part of the flight, get a little more adjusted time-wise, and make the trip a little less rough on the body.

Leaving the hotel via the shuttle again, I was thinking: I absolutely love India for what I often call its “delightful chaos.” It was sad I didn’t really have any time to enjoy the city or country on this trip, but there’s something about just BEING somewhere else that is really energizing…even if you’re just “living” and not sightseeing around.

But that said, I was looking VERY forward to nearly a month at home after this trip…but that…all changed for reasons you’ll see shortly. Next up: the flight home!

Oct 122019
 


After just a few days at home, it was time to head out again and cross the Atlantic back to Switzerland. In this case, it was a total coincidence that I was connecting in Switzerland, but keeping in the spirit of maximizing time at home I left for the airport at the last possible minute.

An Uber to National Airport takes me about 12 minutes, and with CLEAR at the A Terminal only taking two to three minutes, I can easily be door to gate in under 20 minutes. So when I left home 55 minutes before the flight, and got to the gate before the incoming had even arrived, I knew I had maxed out every possible minute at home!

I stalked the gate a little bit, since the biggest problem sitting in 1A is no storage space, and you really have to be one of the first one if you want to find overhead space near you. No problem, and off we go.

Air Canada flight 7615 operated by Sky Regional
Washington, DC, National (DCA) to Toronto, Ontario (YYZ)
Depart 12:45, Arrive: 14:12, flight time: 1:27
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration C-FXJC, Manufactured 2009, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 87,495
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,780,083

Takeoff on runway 1 today, and another great view of the Pentagon as we climbed:

Air Canada was mixing up the snack today, and we were offered smoked salmon which was good. Not amazing, and certainly not filling, but good. I feel like this “meal” could have used a small sweet to go with it.

After relatively quick transit security in Toronto it was off to the Air Canada Signature lounge for a more substantial snack and some champagne. Horror of horrors they were out of rosé champagne today (something to do with LCBO being out of stock) but the smoked meat sandwiches more than made up for it!

After finishing up some work it was off to the gate, where the usual chaos of rush-hour boarding at YYZ was already well-underway.

Air Canada flight 878
Toronto, Ontario (YYZ) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 18:05, Arrive: 07:40 next day, flight time: 7:35
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration C-FRAM, Manufactured 2008, Seat 11K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 91,540
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,784,128

Having changed my departure date rather late, there was only one window seat left, so I was curious to see how sitting in the last row – 11K – would be. Turned out, it was actually nice and quiet. The folded napkins were a bit weird to me – is this supposed to be fancy or something?

Shortly after takeoff was the usual warm nuts with some wine.

Sigh. Shrimp appetizer yet again. At least there were five of them so it was a reasonably substantial amount…and they were relatively tasty.

None of the other options sounded all that good today, so decided to go with the beef which was as expected rather overdone.

The usual Air Canada cheese course. Nothing adventurous, but it was tasty enough with a bit more wine.

Ahhhh the absolutely amazing Air Canada brown sugar tart. Absolutely delicious as usual.

Managed about three hours of sleep which is pretty good for me on such a short flight, especially when I knew I’d be napping shortly after arrival.

Woke up in time to have a little bit of breakfast – which I really didn’t need, but it’s just so hard to resist the Air Canada omelet with that unusual salsa and cottage cheese concoction.

Landing was right on time, and there was no line for immigration this morning and soon I was in the train station and headed straight to my hotel where I planned a solid five hour nap before getting up to enjoy a little bit of time in Switzerland.

Had no trouble at all sleeping, and woke up early afternoon and headed out for a short walk around Zurich to enjoy the city a bit and stretch my legs. The hotel had been kind enough to agree to a 6pm checkout (this was the same hotel I’d left just four days prior and I’d arranged this with them in advance) so I also enjoyed a small snack in the executive lounge before catching the train back to the airport with plenty of time before my flight.

I had a bit of drama with my return seats (SWISS had for some reason canceled my “throne” seat and put me back in a regular seat) and spent some time at the airport trying to solve it – but was unable to as the return flight was completely full.

Admitting defeat, I headed to the gate in the satellite terminal to wait for my flight. At least I would have 4A tonight – a throne seat – so I would have an enjoyable flight to Johannesburg.

Wanting something a bit more substantial I found these unusual turkey roll-ups in the lounge that were basically deli turkey, cream cheese, and a bit of pickle all rolled up in a tortilla. What’s not to love!

I spent my time in the lounge obsessively checking the seat map to make sure they didn’t take my throne seat away again tonight, and everything seemed on the up and up, so headed off to the gate to board.

Waiting to board, I chatted a bit in line with the passenger in front of me, an older gentleman who was headed to Zimbabwe. We talked about life in Zimbabwe a bit, how hard things are with the currency situation these days, and soon enough it was time to board.

The gentleman boarded first, and the machine made all sorts of angry noises when his boarding pass was scanned. The agent informed him “I’m terribly sorry sir, but we’ve changed your seat to 1A in First Class. I hope that won’t be a problem.”

I joked with the agent that if it was I’d be happy to take that seat instead…and then scanned my boarding pass…which was also met with angry noises…and an upgrade to seat 1K!

I have no idea what process SWISS uses to do upgrades when business class is full, and maybe it was a psychic wavelength, but I wasn’t going to argue – my first operational upgrade to First Class on SWISS and I couldn’t wait!

SWISS flight 288
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 22:40, Arrive: 09:10 next day, flight time: 10:30
Airbus A340-300, Registration HB-JMH, Manufactured 2004, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 96,751
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,789,339

Warm grüezi on board from the super friendly crew, and was promptly welcomed with a glass of Laurent Perrier Grand Siècle and an amuse bouche which set the mood for what was sure to be a lovely flight!

Tonight’s menu:

Being quite a late departure, the table was set right after takeoff, and it was perhaps the most elegant table setting I’ve seen in quite a while. Loved the wooden salt and pepper shakers.

Decided to go with the balik salmon as a starter. Slightly disappointing that there’s no longer caviar in SWISS first class, but the salmon was absolutely delicious.

The flight attendant was a little hurt I didn’t want a second appetizer, so I decided to go with the meat platter from the Canton of Vaud. Super tasty, and just small enough it wasn’t too filling.

I decided in for a penny, in for a pound, and decided to risk the veal. OMG I’m glad I did, because it was cooked to a perfect medium rare with an absolutely delicious sauce. One of the best steaks I think I’ve ever had in flight!

I was getting pretty full by this point, but I can’t pass up the opportunity to try a cheese plate on a new first class product. I was very glad that I did, because it was an absolutely delicious sampler of Swiss cheeses – once again from the Canton of Vaud. I think that may have been tonight’s theme….

I really didn’t need desert at this point, but it sounded way too delicious to pass up. Layered chocolate cake with salted caramel, praline ice cream, and caramelized hazelnuts. I could have eaten several of these!

Hard to say no to a few pralines with a glass of Johnny Walker before heading off to dreamland.

Still six hours left in the flight, so plenty of time for some shut-eye!

Woke up and wasn’t all that hungry. so decided to have a mini pain au chocolate, some fruit, and being SWISS of course a bit of Muesli. I decided to skip the heavy caffeine in favour of a diet coke since I was hoping for one more short nap upon landing.

With that, a wonderful treat came to an end. I knew how fortunate I was to receive this upgrade, and it really is all about expectations. When you have no expectation of it happening it really is a wonderful treat, and your mood can go from zero to one hundred in an instant.

Now, if only the same could happen on the return….off to my Johannesburg hotel!

Sep 262019
 


When figuring out how I was going to get home from Singapore, none of the options looked overly attractive. EVA Air offered to try and find an option to rebook me, but since I’d paid more than I wanted to for this segment just to fly the Hello Kitty service, I wasn’t really interested in getting a lesser product for that high price.

So, I asked for a refund, and set out to search. There were options, of course, all in business class, and all cheaper than I’d paid EVA – but none of them were particularly enticing. Air China? No thanks. A few other random Chinese airlines that would get me into JFK and I’d have to take the train home? No thanks.

Then, finally, after a lot of searching, I found Hong Kong to DC on United at a standard award level! That will do nicely! No, it’s not exciting, but the Hong Kong to Newark 777 would at least feature the new Polaris seats, so I knew it would be comfortable…and save me a good deal of money.

There was, however, that small matter of how I was going to get to Hong Kong. Paid flights were about $600 which was still much less than I’d paid EVA, but I wasn’t excited about spending that AND the miles from Hong Kong. A bit more searching and I found award space on Singapore Airlines to Hong Kong…but of course United couldn’t book it.

I decided to transfer points from Chase to Singapore Airlines and hope they went through before the space disappeared, and fortunately they did, and I was all set. Whew!

9:55 was a bit earlier than I preferred to get up and go to the airport, but it still wasn’t crazy early. I decided to maximize sleep and then use Grab to the airport and grab some Starbucks once I got there. All that sorted I didn’t even have time for the lounge, but hey – if I have to choose between sleep and the lounge I’ll take sleep every time!

Singapore Airlines flight 856
Singapore (SIN) to Hong Kong (HKG)
Depart 9:55, Arrive: 13:55, flight time: 4:00
Airbus A380, Registration 9V-SKZ, Manufactured 2018, Seat 96K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 70,311
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,762,899

I’ve flown the A380 in business on plenty of airlines, but with a 1-2-1 configuration I was looking forward to seeing how roomy the seats would feel on Singapore compared to some of their competitors. The answer? Very roomy. I could be super happy in this seat even for a 12+ hour flight! Plus…how in the world could I resist the novelty of sitting in seat 96K in business class. One day, someone needs a row 100!

Pre-departure champagne was served – I really liked the simple but elegant glasses that Singapore uses – though with such a small base I wondered how stable they would be in turbulence.

I can’t remember the last time I had a window seat behind the wing, not to mention one on the upper deck. It was fun watching the wing during takeoff, especially once in the air and you could actually see the air moving over the wing!

Not terribly long after takeoff breakfast was served, which started with breakfast breads, a fruit plate, and of course since it was brunch a bit more champagne!

The fruit was followed by a cereal course, where raisin bran was on offer today. I never eat cereal at home, but it was kind of a fun novelty in flight I guess?

After the cereal there was a choice of hot meals, and I chose the cheese omelet, but who knows what happened to the pictures. It’s not like me to forget to take a picture, so I’m going to guess that it got accidentally deleted. Oh well, you’ll just have to trust me that it was tasty!

The meal didn’t end there, however. There was also a strawberry cream cake for dessert. Breakfast with dessert and champagne, what’s not to love about this!

Flight wasn’t really short at four hours gate to gate, but also didn’t feel super long. I definitely could have enjoyed the seat and the Singapore service a bit longer without wishing the flight was over!

Immigration line was fortunately not too bad when we landed, and I grabbed the train into the city. One of the nice things about the W Hotel in Hong Kong is that it’s connected to a mall right above the train station, so a straight shot from the airport and a short indoor walk (read: no need to go outside and get sweaty) and you’re there.

Strange comment at check-in: “we are sorry as a platinum member we were not able to offer you a suite on a previous visit, so we wanted to make sure to get you one today.” Wow, front desk staff that actually looked at guest history? That’s pretty impressive!

I don’t know if I should consider a view of the freeway and water filled with cargo ships a good view or not, but hey, it’s always fun to have something to look at…right?

Protests were unfortunately happening very near the hotel this weekend, and there were quite a few police hanging out near the hotel. The protestors had targeted mainland visitors this weekend, and the mainland express train also left from the mall, so there was quite a bit of action in the area.

That said, it still didn’t seem to horrible, but rather than try and deal with transit I foolishly decided to grab an Uber to head out to get some beers. Unfortunately, the police had closed several streets due to the protests, so the ride was much longer than it should have been, but at least at the end I was rewarded with some tasty beers!

Post-beers I decided to save a bit of time and grab an Uber back to the hotel as well, and snapped this artsy shot looking straight up as I waited for the Uber. There’s something about the dense chaos of Hong Kong that I find really energizing!

Off to bed – I wanted to get up in time to enjoy a lazy coffee before heading to the airport and the excitement that would be a flight home on United!

Mar 102019
 


So, wait, you’ve never heard of Kirkenes? I mean, I’ve been to Norway before, so why am I going back?

Well, you see, Kirkenes is in the extreme northeast of Norway, just minutes from the Russian border. It’s well above the Arctic Circle, and the border crossing with Russia is also the northernmost staffed regular border crossing in the world. How could I skip that.

Just to put it in perspective, Kirkenes is circled below, and you can see Murmansk, Russia just to the east:

Fun sign in the gate area at Tegel Airport…yes, Berlin, you were wonderful and I really enjoyed my week. Actually sad to be leaving!

SAS flight 1674
Berlin, Tegel (TXL) to Copenhagen, Denmark (CPH)
Depart 13:30, Arrive:14:30, flight time: 1:00
Airbus A319, Registration OY-KBP, Manufactured 2006, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,637
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,702,225

So, in general, I do my best to avoid flying SAS. They have the same awful economy class seating as other airlines, but they don’t even block the middle seat! In fairness, they do call it “Plus” and not business, but if you redeem miles for it from United, it’s the same number of miles as business class. I was curious to see what the benefits were, other than sitting in the first row.

This flight was completely full with every seat taken, so thankfully the flight time would only be 40 minutes. Service consisted of a “snack” which was a wrap…either cheese or salmon were on offer. Only choice to go with it was water. Again, short flight so won’t complain too much, but there was absolutely nothing “premium” about this flight at all.

Arrived into Copenhagen and had 1:10 between flights due to an early arrival, so I set out on a mission to find the airport Starbucks. One, because I needed caffeine, but more importantly, I wanted to check the prices. I’m still putting together a listing of the price of a grande filter coffee around the world, and expected Copenhagen to be up there. At 31 kroner ($4.67) it was the third most expensive in the world that I’ve seen behind Geneva and Zurich, which comes in at $5.21 lately. Feel free to send me datapoints!

Walking away from Starbucks, it’s a good thing I didn’t have any longer….a Mikkeller Tap Room right in the airport? This could be seriously dangerous. I did stop for one 2dl beer, which turned into two because they poured the wrong one the first time, and at over $9 for a small pour it’s a good thing I didn’t have to pay for two!

SAS flight 1460
Copenhagen, Denmark (CPH) to Oslo, Norway (OSL)
Depart 15:25, Arrive:16:40, flight time: 1:15
Airbus A321, Registration OY-KBB, Manufactured 2001, Seat 8E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,959
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,702,547

In contrast to the flight from Berlin to Copenhagen, this flight was absolutely empty. Sure, the seven rows in front of me seemed to have all seats full except middles, but rows 9-21 behind me? Yes, 21 rows of “plus” class….and nobody at all in those 10 rows! Strange to see 10 completely empty rows! You’ll note I was also in 8E…a middle seat! Mainly to avoid people in front of me reclining into me…and site the seats on both sides of me were empty it worked just swell!

Beautiful views on takeoff:

Even better, I discovered on this flight that their beer was a nice Mikkeller IPA, which marked a very rare occasion for me of having a beer in flight. Pretty sure the last time I did was when I flew Brussels Airlines and their fantastic beer menu!

Short flight, only an hour, and was time to find the lounge and wait for Ian, who was meeting me there to continue the trip in Norway and Russia. Since Norway is in the Schengen Zone like most of Europe, no passport control at all, however, Norwegian domestic flights were in another terminal since there IS customs between Europe and Norway since Norway is NOT a member of the EU. For anyone who’s confused how this whole Schengen, EU, oh and don’t forget the countries that use the Euro, work, I love this diagram:

Right, so, through customs (so weird to clear customs but NOT passport control or security, and into the lounge. SAS lounges are weird in that they have a “business” lounge which you get into if you’re in “plus” or international business class, but then there’s a gold lounge in the back…which is even nicer…that you can get into as a frequent flier.

I hadn’t had a real meal al day, so decided on some Norwegian nibbles…..tuna, shredded cheese, olives, potatoes and pickles….odd, but did the trick and was tasty.

Ian showed up after a short bit, riding the struggle bus after flying Newark-Frankfurt-Stockholm-Oslo up until this point, so it was kind of nice to not be the one suffering jetlag for once! Off to our gate where boarding was just about to start for the two hour trek up to Kirkenes.

SAS flight 4478
Oslo, Norway (OSL) to Kirkenes, Norway (KKN)
Depart 17:55, Arrive:20:05, flight time: 2:10
Boeing 737-700, Registration LN-TUM, Manufactured 2002, Seat 3D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 10,812
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,703,400

I was determined to put “Plus” service to the test on this flight, so asked the flight attendant when she came around with my THIRD cheese wrap of the day, what else as on offer. Seems Plus means you can have ANYTHING from the buy-on-board menu, and don’t have to pay for it. So, I got some chips and another Mikkeller to go with the cheese wrap, and some high-quality iPad entertainment:

Unfortunately “anything” is a misnomer. When I asked for a second beer, I was told no. Apparently “by Norwegian law” they can only serve one complimentary alcoholic beverage on domestic flights. Seriously?! If I wanted to pay $8 for another I was welcome to it, but nope, only one complimentary. Way to go SAS, you are officially the cheapest non-budget airline in the world.

Disembarking in Kirkenes was at a remote stand. Doesn’t it just LOOK cold:

The Kirkenes Airport…looks more like an ice rink from the outside to me!

Bears at baggage claim! Oh no!

We went to find the bus into town, which was supposed to be like $10 a person, but when we boarded the driver told us it was free! Apparently, we’d arrived during some major festival – the biggest festival of the year in Kirkenes – and this year China was sponsoring the festival. That included paying for the bus during the festival. Whoah – finally – saved by China in all my travels!

After checking into my hotel, the Scandic Kirkenes, I was still pretty alert so went for a bit of a cold nighttime stroll. Getting artsy with snow-covered trees:

Outdoor ice rink! Turns out as part of the festival there was a big tournament of the “Bering League” the next day, but unfortunately we’d leave too early to see it. Bummer!

Sooooo much snow everywhere!

I found the library. You can tell you’re getting close to Russia when the signs are in Russian as well!

Oh look, a sign. Taking selfies to prove I was there!

World War II Memorial. Kirkenes was actually a major front in the war, where the Russians and Nazis faced off.

I found the local pub, which was absolutely packed due to the festival. So packed, that I ended up having to share my table with a local couple who spoke maybe 100 words of English (seriously, which Norwegians don’t speak English?! Ones that have lived their entire lives in Kirkenes, apparently) and a Russian truck driver who spoke no Norwegian OR English. I got to attempt to play translator from Russian to English…and then try English words until we found ones they knew. “Tax” and “expensive” and “price” were popular topics, and we had a great chat about driving across the border for cheap gas and booze. Great cultural moment!

Right outside the pub? Yup, a Chinese gate. Definitely the theme of the festival. Kirkenes was shaping up to be just as unusual as I’d hoped, and I looked forward to the next morning!

Back to the hotel, which was perfectly comfortable, and off for eight solid hours of sleep. Next up, day in Kirkenes and bus to Murmansk, Russia!

Mar 032019
 


Due to the way schedules worked out, and the fact it made no sense to go back to Washington for five nights and then turn around to head straight to Norway….combined with some client meetings in Germany I needed to take care of, I decided on spending six nights in Berlin. I can’t remember the last time I’ve spent six nights in one place that wasn’t for a work trip, so I was definitely looking forward to it!

…looking forward, that is, until I got to my hotel. Now, I’m not really a movie person, and I can probably count the number of movies I’ve seen in the last ten years on one hand, but I was about to very quickly get an introduction to the world of “movie people.” It seems I had arrived right in the middle of Berlinale, one of the biggest film festivals in the world. To make matters worse, apparently my hotel was one of the host hotels, and a huge chunk of the rooms were taken over as makeshift offices by various film studios:

I will give the hotel high marks for how they managed the huge crowds. Other than the lobby being a teeming mass of people from sunrise until midnight, the floors themselves were actually reasonably quiet. Despite half the rooms on my floor having their doors open all day to entertain visitors, the hotel had security posted at the elevator so the only people who could come to the rooms were those who were authorized. Given how big the event was, I was impressed how little impact it had on my stay. Except all the silk scarves in the executive lounge, it was fascinating listening to the conversations.

Right, so most days were filled with nonstop work, partly from my room and partly going on to meet with clients. However, I still had a lot of work to take care of back in the US, which meant working long hours into the evening. That did mean, however, sneaking out for long lunches to see things was totally possible. I’ll post the first couple here, then follow up with another post covering the next couple of days.

Having arrived on a weekend, I had a full day, and after several failures on previous trips I finally managed to book on the Tempelhof Airport tour. One pro tip: despite being sold out online for a couple of weeks, I witnessed several people arrive without tickets, and they were all accommodated. So even if it shows up not available online you might want to chance showing up well in advance and seeing about tickets. Standing at the meeting point outside the old general aviation terminal:

First stop was out on the apron, the first in the world where planes pulled up to the terminal under a covered roof so that passengers could board/deplane regardless of rain:

Main check-in and baggage hall. Supposedly the roof used to be twice as high, but after World War Two the victorious powered had it lowered. Why? Because, and I roughly quote our tour guide, “walking into such a grand hall with high ceilings would invoke visions of German might and power, and arms might inadvertently snap up into a Nazi salute.” Thus, it was lowered, to make it less grand after the war…

You just knew I’d find the VIP waiting room…

Under the checkin hall, a couple stories down, were lots of bomb shelter rooms. This one, apparently, after the war was re-purposed by Lufthansa as a storage room.

Inside many of the bomb shelters, painted on the wall, were passages from common German fairy tales. According to our guide, this was because people would often be sheltered here with complete strangers, and this would give them something common to talk about until the all clear signal was given.

Top floor of the airport was…a basketball court?! After the war, the airport was in the American Sector of Berlin, and the airport was split 50-50 between civilian use and US military base. The two sides were strictly separated, but the American side had a basketball court and other rec facilities added.

From there, we climbed more stairs to the roof of the building, looking down on the apron. Great view, although I could have down without the howling wind and the stinging rain:

Outside the airport, the Berlin Airlift Memorial:

Apparently, not everyone is a big fan of capitalism.  …and, no thanks, too high in fat.

The next day, I made the trek way out to Lichtenberg deep in eastern Berlin to see the Stasi Museum, located in the former Stasi (secret police) headquarters building:

The main building in the complex is where the museum is housed. The whole complex was several dozen buildings, many of which have now been leased out to various companies and businesses.

In the entranceway of the museum was a statue of (I believe) Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Checka, predecessor to the KGB and FSB in Russia.

Behind the office of Eric Mielke (head of the Statsi’s) was a room where he could retire for small private meetings, or as you can see from the bed in the corner, a nap. Rumour was that he would often sleep here at night in the final days, fearing assassination attempts if he left the building.

Waiting room in the executive area of the Stasi headquarters building.

Boardroom where high ranking members of the Stasi held many of their meetings:

Interesting exhibit on “the use of scent differentiation to fight crime” – supposedly when they arrested people, they would place this cloth under the chair of the person being interrogated. Idea was that it would collect their “scent” and that when they had enough of these collected they might be able to predict future criminals. I kid you not…

The “red suitcase” where Mielke kept secret documents that reportedly could bring down Erich Honecker, the President of the GDR. The suitcase allegedly contained evidence of Honecker’s cooperation with the Nazis, although to this day German authorities deny that. Even in East Germany, the head of the secret police keeping a blackmail file on the President would have been….sketchy at best.

The receptionist’s telephone outside Mielke’s office.

Panoramic view of Mielke’s office, with his desk on the far side, a large table for meetings, and chairs around a table for what I assume were smaller meetings?

Transit bear in the U-Bahn station at Alexanderplatz. DC did donkeys and elephants several years back, and Berlin did bears. What other cities have done a collection of statues around the city?

World Clock outside at Alexanderplatz with the Berliner Fernsehturm in the background. I’ve never been up to the viewing gallery at the top, but it’s supposed to have amazing views of Berlin.

Loved this shot of the station at Alexanderplatz.

With that, the first couple of days were over. Many more things to see, which I’ll detail in the next blog!

Jan 252019
 


Landed in Berlin right on time, and despite over a dozen trips my first time arriving by air and getting to experience the joy that is Tegel airport. For an arrival it wasn’t bad – we got a bus gate, the signs to the area to take the bus to Berlin Hbf station was pretty easy, and overall it wasn’t awful. I was later to find out I was deceived.

I’d decided to forego my princess side, and see if I’d enjoy staying at the Moxy Hotel Ostbanhof. Now, I fully knew that I was getting a very basic hotel, and the room would be tiny. Honestly, the room itself was completely fine, even though the neighbourhood was pretty dead. The service, however, was absolutely abysmal. It took over 20 minutes to check in because they were slow as heck, and the complete lack of desk in the room was not something I could deal with for more than one night. I’d booked the one night as an experiment, and sorry to say…I gave up and went to the Marriott after that. I had work to do, and as fun as working in a common lobby area is for people watching…it’s really not conducive to getting work and writing done.

So right…first time at the Marriott since it was my first post-merger trip, and in the past I’d usually chosen the Westin. I have to say, the Marriott was leaps and bounds above the Westin for me – and will definitely be my hotel of choice going forward in Berlin. Great executive lounge with a super long evening happy hour (albeit a bit crowded at times), and cool artwork as well:

Two of the days I was in Berlin I had a few hours free, so went on two long walks, probably about 12-15km each. Some cool graffiti:

Don’t tell anyone, but my guilty pleasure in Germany is the Starbucks Bretzelsnack and a Caramel Macchiato…

Hey Dotard….I found the wall…it’s already been built AND torn down. Plz to open the US Government back up now kplzthxbye!

Continue reading »

Jan 222019
 


Woke up nice and early the next morning, but fortunately not too early since I wanted to still get breakfast before what promised to be a very long day. Years ago when I did both Lithuania and Latvia, thanks to a delayed flight, I got only the briefest glimpse of both of them. Thanks to my friend Naomi who had recently done a similar trip, I found out that a bus or taxi (3-4 hours) wasn’t the only way from Riga to Vilnius…you could actually take a full day tour that stopped at interesting places along the way. Absolutely perfect!

The company was called Traveller Tours, and I booked the Riga to Vilnius Sightseeing Tour Bus. Good thing was, we didn’t depart until 9am, which was good because not only do I hate early mornings, but it was still dark until 9am and I wanted breakfast. Everything worked out though, and at just before 9am I found myself limping to a hostel in Riga’s old town to begin the tour. Yes, the fact it began at a hostel should have been my first warning, but in for a penny in for a pound, and I was ready for adventure.

Limping to the hostel? See, on day one of this trip, way back in Frankfurt, the handle of my suitcase snapped. It was one of those rolling backs with a handle that’s connected to the bag by two telescoping “rods” for lack of a better word….and the handle cracked and came apart….and one of the rods fell into the bag never to be seen again. So I was dealing with a rolling bag that I had to steer with one thin post….on cobblestones…for about 700m. Yeah, now you see how this trip was getting super interesting…

Anyways, got to the hostel, and there were like a dozen people waiting around…but the vans only seated eight people, so it was all very strange, especially since when I booked they told me I got the last seat. Turns out there were two busses today, however, and since six of the people were a family it ended up being eight in the other van and only five in ours…which meant plenty of space! The downside to being with people for 12 hours is that if you have nothing in common it makes for a very long day, but I was fortunately that at least everyone in my van was nice to each other and it all worked out.

With that…we were off! First stop was the Salaspils Memorial Ensemble. Salaspils is a town maybe 30 minutes from Riga where first the Nazis ran a smallish concentration camp (at least compared to others) and then during Soviet times and especially under Stalin lots of people were shipped off to Gulags, many never to be seen again. According to our guide, everyone in Latvia has stories in their family of people who were shipped off during one of these two periods, and this memorial park was meant to commemorate both.

We got there as a light snow was falling, which only added to the solemnity of the site:

Beautiful, but also cold and foreboding…

A large gate that you enter by walking under, and an inscription that translates as “beyond these gates, the land groans”

Seven concrete structures dot the fields, known as  “Mother”, “The Unbroken”, “The humiliated”, “Protest”, “Red Front”, “Solidarity”, and “The Oath”.

More statues…the cold, grey, snow, and wind really added to a contemplative feel about the place…and I could swear I heard a heart beating. Turns out, there was a speaker somewhere playing a heartbeat, but it was just subtle enough that it wasn’t obvious. Eerie…

Close-up of the entrance gate. Seeing the people underneath, you get an idea of just how massive it was…

After that rather solemn start, it was back in the bus and off to our next stop – Rundāle Palace – which was about a 60-90 minute drive from Salaspils, and just north of the Lithuanian border. I’m not much of a museum person, but have to admit it was pretty interesting. Rundāle was originally the home of the Duke of Courland – an independent dukedom. It was built in the mid-1700s, and I had to wonder: why couldn’t it still be independent – I could count it as a new country!

During Soviet times, it was first used as grain storage, and then as a school, and eventually a local history museum. It was extensively renovated after Latvian independence and restored to its 1700s-splendor. From the outside, it certainly looked grand:

Fortunately, the self-guided walking tour with audioguide was only billed as 30-60 minutes – finally a museum that is appropriate for my attention span! A ballroom:

Loved this study – I’m still not sure what the thing in the corner was, but if I recall correctly it was brought to Latvia from China in the 1700s:

The Duke’s bedroom… I always wonder in these old palaces, who wants to sleep somewhere that fancy? When I go to bed, the idea of having “staff” around tending to things gives me the creeps…

After the palace, we drove the short distance to the border, and less than five seconds after crossing into Lithuania, a police car came up behind us…sirens flashing. Seems that despite the Schengen Area having open borders now, the police were conducting random checks, and picked us. First, they went through passports, and decided one of the younger backpacker couples in our van was a bit suspicious…so there was a luggage inspection as well that resulted in…some contraband being found and people being detained. I won’t give details here, but suffice to say some people learned the hard way that just because there’s no mandatory border inspections doesn’t mean you can cross internal schengen borders with whatever you want.

Police detour over, it was on to lunch!

Before the palace, a menu was passed around the van, and we were told to give our order to the driver so it could be ready when we got to the restaurant. Lunch was just over the Lithuanian Border at Audruvus – a restaurant, inn (I think?), and horse club / racing place/ not quite sure but there was a lot of horse-related memorabilia around. I went with the “Lithuanian cheese plate” as an appetizer, because you know I can’t resist cheese, and have to admit I didn’t really expect a platter of cheese cubes. Oh well, when in Lithuania!

Venison was very prominent on the menu, and my venison shashlik was pretty tasty:

Onwards another hour or so, to the Hill of Crosses. Short version, nobody knows just how it came to be that there were thousands or maybe even millions of crosses planted on this hill. Legend says the Soviets would bulldoze it, and every time they did by the next day it was back – with even more crosses. Many people think the number is now well over a million:

Crosses of every shape, size, and type:

There were just a few narrow paths through the crosses, and at my height I frequently found myself ducking to get around them.

About halfway up the hill, I stopped to take this picture towards that bottom that shows just how many there are:

After about 45 minutes at the Hill of Crosses, it was onwards to our final stop – the town of Kaunas – where we were given 45 minutes to walk around and explore the old town. Except it was cold. And windy. And New Years Eve so lots of places were closing up…and dark. But was still fun to walk around and see #Kaunas. By this point, it had already been a long day, and I’d had enough, so was kind of hoping we would hurry up and get to Vilnius. I wanted to get there in time to get some dinner before everything was closed and mobbed for New Years, but tried to make the best of it, and enjoy the stroll.

Christmas tree in the main square of Kaunas:

The old Town Hall:

With that, the tour was at an end, and we had about a 90 minute drive to Vilnius, where we were finally dropped off at about 8pm right on Cathedral Square and Gediminas Castle Tower right by the National Museum:

Grabbing an Uber to my hotel – the Courtyard Marriott was no problem. If it wasn’t getting late, and my bag wasn’t gimpy, I would have just walked the 900m or so, but I really didn’t feel up to strugglebussing with my bag over cobblestones. Uber worked like a charm in Vilnius (unlike Riga) and once again the lingua franca with my Uber driver was Russian. I was pretty surprised by the fact everyone my age or older still used Russian to communicate, and even many younger people I observed speaking it with what I assumed were Russian (or maybe even Latvian?) tourists.

Dropped off my bags, headed out to get dinner, and in Cathedral Square passed by a Christmas tree and market, just getting ready for New Years Eve celebrations:

I ended up at Beerhouse & Craft Kitchen, which was a super cool restaurant in the basement of an old building. But, it wasn’t just one room in the basement, it was like 10. Wandering about to try and find somewhere to sit was an adventure, and I finally found a room in the back with an actual bar I could sit at. Super cool staff who I asked for a recommendation, and I ended up with the schnitzel burger. Tasty, and definitely unique:

After dinner, and a few tasty beers, it was nearly 11pm, so back to Cathedral Square, where the crowds were starting to thicken for the show, which I expected would include fireworks.

The tower all lit up…at 11:55 they started a countdown on the side of the tower…it was super cool.

Another view of the square, and museum in the background:

Happy 2019!

With that, it was back to my hotel to pass out. It had already been a super, super long day, and I had another one ahead! It was off to Berlin the next day in the afternoon, and I wanted to pack in as much sightseeing as I could with the holiday before heading to the airport!

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 102018
 


One thing I love about the Lufthansa flight to Washington out of Frankfurt is that it leaves just late enough that you can sleep in a little bit, but you still arrive at a reasonable hour. Today that meant plenty of time to get a leisurely coffee and breakfast. I have to say, for a simple lounge breakfast, the Sheraton Frankfurt Airport knocks it out of the park…and the convenience to the terminal can’t be beat!

Was nice to have the time to take the morning at a casual pace, but that very rapidly changed when I got to security. I figured that having 25 bars of soap in my rolling bag might look a little unusual, but things turned south when I got the random explosives swab on my bag…and for some reason it came back positive. Took nearly 40 minutes to get cleared, but eventually did, and I was on my way straight to the gate. Fortunately today, we were at the very first gate in the terminal!

Lufthansa flight 418
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 12:50, Arrive:15:50, flight time: 9:00
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYK, Manufactured 2013, Seat 11D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 143,304
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,663,366

Pre-departure champagne? Have I ever said no to that?!

Almonds and a reasonable glass of malbec to start things off…

“Slow-roasted veal loin, zucchini tatar, and mini bell pepper” – despite trying to be overly fancy with the name, it was absolutely delicious.

One of my two favourite seasons on Lufthansa: the time of year when they have “Christmas Goose” on the menu. Delicious as always…hopefully I don’t miss asparagus season in the spring!

Four cheeses AND a chutney? That’s how you do a remarkable business class cheese plate!

Could I really say no to a gingerbread mousse with plum compote? It was delicious…

Slept for maybe three hours, watched a lot of tv and caught up on work, and soon it was time for the pre-arrival meal…which is much more substantial than normal. Salad with parma ham, tomatoes, potatoes, and balsamic, a pretzel, and ginger and lemongrass soup. Can’t forget the chocolate and cherry cake! I actually skipped a red wine which would have gone perfectly with it, thinking I might actually try and get myself to the gym upon landing. Yeah, right…

Normally when I book tickets out of Cairo, I can count on a 2-3 hour grilling minimum by the fine men and women of US Customs and Border Protection, but shockingly today the Global Entry machine spit out my receipt…with no giant X of glory on it. Either they’re finally onto the fact that Cairo doesn’t automatically = shady, or they’ve finally flagged my profile as “he just crazy, not dangerous.” Either way, was glad to be out of the airport and on the Washington Flyer bus home in no time.

So, that concludes the trip. It’s funny, I went into it in a bunch of stages:

  1. Have a ticket to Egpyt I have to use up…hmmm, maybe I’ll just do a quick turnaround and enjoy thanksgiving at home
  2. No, that would be a waste, I should do something super adventurous from Cairo while I’m there…maybe Sinai? Sudan? Somalia? Take advantage of being there?
  3. Nah, I want to relax, and to me flying around is sort of relaxing, so where could I sidetrip from Cairo that I would love?

Johannesburg turned out to be the perfect sidetrip, lots of fun, and super glad that I ended up doing it.

Next up: nearly a month straight of travel, comprising a week in Germany for work, a side-trip to Saudi to take advantage of the fact that they’re offering open tourist visas for the first time ever…back to Minnesota to see family over the holidays, and then finally off to Europe to do Chernobyl, Kiev, Riga, Vilnius, Kaliningrad, Gdansk, and Berlin for Thanksgiving. I’m going to be really happy early January to have a bit of time at home!