Aug 162016
 

With 195 of the 196 countries in the world visited now, I’d like to think I’ve learned at least a little bit about different places. Sure, some of these trips have been less than 24 hours and I’ve only scratched the surface of the country, but even in a short time it’s easy to discover that lots of the misconceptions you might have had about a country before visiting just don’t stand up. So, in no particular order, 14 common misconceptions I’ve recently discovered in my quest to visit every country:

10. Iranians hate Americans. The media in the United States repeats it constantly, and Iran’s government certainly doesn’t do much to dispel this notion. However, it’s hard to wander the streets of Iran for five minutes without someone coming up to you, asking where you’re from, and often inviting you back to their home for tea. I found Iranians to be some of the warmest and most hospitable people I met anywhere in the world, and they’re genuinely curious about how things really are in the United States. Sure, our governments and politicians can be pretty easy to hate on both sides…but on an individual level the vast majority of Iranian people will welcome you with open arms.

IMG_1275

9. Africa is full of disease and hunger. Usually when I tell people who haven’t visited Africa about an upcoming trip, their first questions revolve around what shots/medications I had to get, and how will I find enough safe food to eat. Sure, there are tropical and other diseases that are much more common in Africa (malaria, dengue, even HIV), but that doesn’t mean that walking down the street you’re going to drop dead. Regarding food, yes, there’s not a McDonalds on every corner, but you would be surprised how many places you see KFC! There are, of course, lots of hungry people in Africa, but there are lots of hungry people in the United States as well. …and like Iran, the number of times people insisted I come back to their home and join them for a meal was amazing. People may not always have much, but you’re a guest and they’re happy to share it with you.

IMG_0972

8. People in China are pushy and rude. While it’s true that overall Chinese culture isn’t the same as the west when it comes to queueing this is changing to some degree in larger cities. When people start pushing (such as boarding a plane) it’s not an attempt to be rude, but simply doing what one needs to to not get trampled in a society that views that as a norm. There’s no rudeness intended at all, and firmly holding your ground will be respected.

sb2004-206-hong kong

7. The Australian Diet Consists of Blooming Onions, Fosters, and Vegemite. In several trips to Australia I’ve never once seen a blooming onion, and all the Australians I know confirm it’s an American invention. As for Fosters, it’s incredibly uncommon and nobody drinks the stuff. Victoria Bitter (VB) is much more the stereotypical beverage and a higher quality beer costs up to $30 for a six pack thanks to taxes. Unfortunately, the vegemite part is true…and is definitely an acquired taste no matter how thinly you spread it and how much butter you use.

…but you can also get kangaroo and crocodile pizza:

IMG_0338

6. Argentina is Nothing but Cowboys, Steaks, and Evita. While it’s true all three play a huge part making up the Argentine identity, there’s so much more to the country. You can’t deny that modern Argentine politics was largely shaped by Peron and Evita, and you’ll find some of the most mouth-watering steaks in the world, but you’ll also find a vibrant international city in Buenos Aires and amazing skiing in the south and west. Oh, and don’t forget the amazing waterfalls at Iguazu and the Casa Rosada at night:

IMG_3292

5. You Can Get By Everywhere in English. While this is more true than it’s ever been, it’s still not universal. In most major world cities you will have no trouble in English (and in most European capitals the quality of English will be astounding) but there are still places where English is extremely limited. In Europe, Spain and Portugal are exceptions, and especially in Brazil you will find almost no english spoken outside the most touristic of places. Similar in China – get off the few major sites and international hotels, and limited to no English. Plus, if you want to see smaller towns you’ll find English much less common. This also goes for Russia and Central Asia outside capital cities. That’s not to say don’t go – most people will be happy to help, and do their best to communicate with you despite the language gap.

4. South Africa is rife with crime. Yes, South Africa is no stranger to both petty and violent crime. Yes, the stories of carjackings and people being robbed at gunpoint on the street are true. However, the same things happen in major American urban centres if you venture into the wrong neighbourhoods at the wrong time of time. Keep to well-trafficked areas, and use the “women, children, and old people rule” and you’ll be fine. The rule means simply if women, old people, and children are out strolling in the area, chances are things are just fine.

Cape Town sunset:

IMG_6875

3. Nigeria is nothing but Investment Scams, Corruption, and Oil Money. Is there corruption in Nigeria? Absolutely, but there’s also amazing beaches and some of the most amazingly warm people in Africa. One day I was sitting on a deserted beach just outside central Lagos, and the next partying at the craziest wedding I’ve ever been to. I found Nigerians to be some of the most fun-loving and happiest people I met in Africa…and they want you to join in the fun! I highly recommend to anyone who has a Nigerian friend they know in the US – try and get yourself an invite and see the real country. It’s an amazing place!

Very festive Nigerian wedding…the theme was obviously pink:

IMG_0657

2. Japan is all Pokemon, Anime, and Cat Cafes. Sure, all three of those things are very modern Japan, and all originated there and have become global phenomenons. At the same time, however, Japan is still a deeply traditional society with traditions and a history that goes back thousands of years. While Western society is certainly very at home in downtown Tokyo (as attested to by Starbucks everywhere), just turn the corner and you’ll find a temple that goes back hundreds of years that young and old alike still visit and respect. I found nowhere in the world where modern and traditional manage to exist side by side quite like in Japan.

IMG_2564

IMG_2589

1. The Gulf States are Largely a Vast Desert Full of Camels and People that Despise Western Culture. So, first off, yes, there’s a lot of desert in the Arabian peninsula. It gets extremely hot and dry, and yes, there’s a lot of camels – outside the cities at least. Speaking of the cities, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and especially Qatar and the UAE and littered with enourmous shopping malls full of western brands. Dubai has dozens of Starbucks, Caribou, Tim Hortons, Costa and every other coffee shop known to western man. …and all of them are packed with local men sitting for hours and talking over coffee. Like with Japan, Western culture and convenience have been imported and customized for local tastes. Infrastructure and convenience wise the gulf states are some of the most modern places on earth which in some part is owed to the fact that in many of them (especially Qatar and the UAE) over 75% of the population is expatriates!

IMG_1870

IMG_1786

So that’s my list of 10 of my bigger surprises – what has surprised you about places you went? What did you discover that you didn’t expect?

Nov 042015
 

I had to get up early. Way too early. When I booked this ticket, I had all sorts of options for getting from Muscat to Seoul on OneWorld with an award ticket, and the question really came down to two things: redeye flight east, or get up early and take a daytime flight. I really hate sleeping on planes if I can avoid it, so went with the oh-dark-thirty flight instead, which turned out to be a really good call.

Check-out from the W was swift, my Uber arrived within five minutes, and it was a completely effortless drive to the airport. Nice and insightful drive with Uber, and was soon at Doha Hamad Airport Intl Checkin. The Qatar business class checkin queue was completely empty, so I figured I would reprint my boarding pass on proper Qatar stock since they had printed it on generic stock in Muscat. Also switched my seat to the last row of business, hoping it would be a bit quieter back there.

No line at all at immigration or security, and I took yet my third selfie in as many months with the giant scary stuffed bear in Doha airport:

IMG_1969

It was still nearly an hour before boarding, so I had time for a proper breakfast in the lounge. Proper, because I decided it was a champagne breakfast…since it was almost noon in Tokyo after all. When a bottle of something was pulled out, I asked “oh, don’t you have Krug today?” and got “oh yes, but we don’t normally serve it unless asked for by name!” Krug obtained, it was time for a delicious breakfast. Fresh kiwifruit and pineapple, hummous, museli, olives…and Krug!

IMG_1970

I was still slightly hungry, so decided to try the warm options…grilled halloumi cheese (yum!), sautéed mushrooms, and a chocolate muffin which I decided wasn’t worth the calories after one bite. Too dry. Oh, and Krug. Definitely Krug.

IMG_1971

I still had a bit of time, so, well, yeah….Krug! The Qatar lounge is exceptional for a business class lounge, especially when it’s not too crowded, which it wasn’t this morning. It definitely was far from empty, but was quiet enough that it still felt peaceful.

IMG_1972

My gate was the same gate I’d been at a couple months prior for my flight to Eritrea, and required more or less walking halfway to to Tokyo to board the plane. By board the plane I mean the bus to the plane…at least we had a private business class bus once again:

IMG_1975

We were only about 60% full in business class today, so it promised to be a good flight!

Qatar Airways flight 812
Doha, Qatar (DOH) to Tokyo, Haneda Airport, Japan (HND)
Depart 7:20, Arrive 22:45, Flight Time: 9:25
Boeing 787-7, Registration A7-BCC, Manufactured 2012, Seat 5K

Crew was very quick with the towel (hot OR cold) upon boarding, a glass of Tattinger Rosé and some water before we pushed back right on time.

IMG_1976

Qatar’s 787s have WiFi aboard, but the price is pretty much extortion. Either you are very careful with your usage, or it’s easy to run up huge bills. I avoided facebook/graphics, only monitored emails, and did a few facebook chats, and still ran up $25 during the flight. No thanks!

IMG_1977

Right after takeoff, the windows were dimmed by the crew (override – you didn’t have a choice) and breakfast was served. Starting with some warm nuts and more bubbles:

IMG_1978

I wasn’t hungry after breakfast in the lounge, so just asked for a bowl of muesli. The crew was pretty confused by this, but after telling them I’d already had my breakfast in the lounge, the understood much better. In true Qatar style it was order what you want when you want, so they were happy to bring it.

IMG_1979

After this I watched some horrible movie I’ve already forgotten, and napped for a few hours since I’d only gotten around four to five hours in Qatar. Couple of comments on the Qatar 787. I really like the 1-2-1 configuration of the seats, since it means everyone has aisle access. (YOU LISTENING UNITED?!) That said, the seats felt pretty short and squat, and almost a little claustrophobic. That said, even at my height I had no trouble at all sleeping in them and being comfortable, and would be happy to fly them any day. The 787 is a great place, as this flight confirmed, and I was happy to arrive feeling refreshed and alert.

Upon waking, I watched another bad movie and it was time for another “formal” meal service. Although in theory it’s possible to eat whatever you want whenever you want on Qatar, I find they tend to do a formal service once or twice during long flights. You can customize it as much as you like, but they definitely gear up to come around a couple times.

This time, I asked for the Japanese sushi starter first, along with a glass of bubbles. For airplane sushi it was surprisingly tasty, and not at all dry…and the miso soup was quite good as well!

IMG_1981

Next up was a steak sandwich with a chutney. I remember it being pretty tasty, but looking at this picture I think I would rank it slightly below the Air Koryo burger. That said, in my opinion people place way too much emphasis on presentation on a plane (it’s food on a plane after all) and I remember it being tasty, so there you go.

IMG_1984

Had a few chocolates for dessert, along with, yes, more bubbles, and soon we were landing in Tokyo right on time. A few thoughts about landing in Tokyo:

Haneda Airport, like everywhere in Japan, felt horridly warm and humid to me. It was a reasonable walk to immigration, and I was a rather sweaty mess by the time I arrived. Qatar hadn’t loaded immigration cards, so we had to complete one in the arrivals hall, which wasn’t too bad, but I was getting warm and cranky. Immigration was reasonably fast, and then time to line up for customs.

One problem…two flights from Hawaii had arrived right before us, and the lines were outrageous. I got to the front, only to be told I needed a customs form…which they also hadn’t given us and nobody had told us about. Went back to sweatily fill one out, and my patience tried, walked right back to the front of the now super long customs line and just gave it to him. I think the Japanese vacationers were all too polite to say anything, and soon I was through to arrivals.

Found an ATM which accepted foreign cards, took out more cash than I thought I’d need (since I find Japan the most difficult developed country in the world to find ATMs which accept foreign cards), and went to join the taxi queue. It was late at night, so taking the bus wouldn’t be a practical option, and it was off to my hotel in the pouring rain.

Dec 052014
 

Slept through my first alarm, and was running late in the morning. As I rounded the corner from my room, I saw the elevator there and people heading for it. I picked up my pace a bit and ran for it, putting my hand in the doors to keep it open…which caused a flurry of Chinese and some excitement from the already fully elevator. Given the earpieces and the way they all freaked out, I’m pretty certain I was in the elevator with President Xi, lol. You’d think they’d control the elevators so they don’t stop or something?!

Checked out, stopped by Starbucks to fuel up, managed to find the airport bus, and given the relatively early hour it was a nice quick traffic free drive to the airport. Check-in was pain-free as well, and I had a time for a quick snack in the lounge before boarding. I just had a small nibble at it, knowing there would likely be more in flight:

IMG_5837

Got to the gate just as boarding was starting, and was one of the first on board to grab a photo. I’ve actually never taken a business class flight before with herringbone seats, and was curious how I’d like it. Generally, I strongly prefer planes with all-aisle access business class so I’m not having to either climb over people or have people climb over me.

Air New Zealand flight 99
Auckland, New Zealand (AKL) to Tokyo/Narita, Japan (NRT)
Depart 9:45, Arrive 16:55, Flight Time 11:10
Boeing 777-200, Registration ZK-OKG, Manufactured 2006, Seat 4K

First thought, these seats look crammed in there and people are right on top of each other:

IMG_5840

IMG_5841

I usually am very meh about amenity kits, but these came with awesome socks that matched my shoes. Everything goes better with bubbles:

IMG_5845

Continue reading »