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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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!

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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?

May 152015
 

After a solid 3-4 hour nap I woke up just before midnight, showered, and headed down to the front desk of the Asmara Palace to check out. The travel company had already paid the bill so all I had to do was sign the bill and be on my way. The hotel offered a shuttle to the airport, and it was just me and one other passenger, and soon we were off.

When we got there, the hotel doorman/concierge made a point of walking me to the check-in desk, which was absolute chaos. With Turkish and Qatar leaving within 15 minutes of each other, it was a mad scrum, with no signage anywhere. There was one desk marked business class, but it had a couple dozen people clustered around it who were most certainly not flying business. I (politely) pushed my way to the front, and was checked in all the way to Helsinki in about 10 minutes. Immigration was very quick with no questions asked, except by the driver/concierge: “perhaps you have a tip for me?” Um, no, didn’t ask for or need your help, and you insisted on following me. Grrr!

Security was somewhat silly…regular x-ray machines, and then they insisted on going through each piece of handcarry individually. Usually developing country practices in place, a quick 10-15 second check of your bag (open it up, quick look, close it up) if you were western looking, but if you looked local they basically tore it apart and flung everything out of the bag. Ugh!

Upstairs was the waiting area, which was just one big room for 300+ passengers. Just enough seats for everyone, as well as a small cafe and a couple of small shops. No lounge, of course. I decided to kill the 90 minutes until flight time (hopefully only 60 til boarding) people watching, which was reasonably interesting. Several Australian guys getting rather happy on local beer after local beer, a few exhausted looking development worker and missionary types, and lots of people looking fairly nervous like they’d never been on a plane before…you know, the usual developing country travel crowd.

At about 1:50 the plane arrived and unloaded quickly, and by about 2:30 we’d taken our bus to the plane (no special bus for business class this time) and boarded. Pushed back about 35 minutes behind schedule, which the captain said we’d likely make up in the air.

Qatar Airways flight 1444
Asmara, Eritrea (ASM) to Doha, Qatar (DOH)
Depart 02:00, Arrive 05:20, Flight Time 3:20
Airbus A320, Registration A7-ADE, Manufactured 2003, Seat 2D

Unfortunately, upon boarding we were greeting with the old style A320 seats, which since I’d already been expecting them wasn’t so bad. They’re still better than domestic U.S. first class seats since they have a couple inches of extra legroom, and they’re heaps better than European business class since they’re in a 2×2 configuration. Interestingly, my seatmate was the same guy I’d sat next to on the flight into Asmara two days prior who works in the same field as me, and we knew many of the same people. Champagne (white or rosé), juice, or water was offered before takeoff, along with a hot OR cold towel service. Quite nice! My seatmate was asleep before the plane even left the ground, but I decided to stay awake.

My plan was to get four hours of sleep before heading to the airport, stay awake for the awkward 2.5 hour redeye, and then get another 4-5 hours upon arrival in Doha since it was Friday morning anyways, and everything would be closed for prayers in the morning. It sounded good in theory…it remained to be seen if it would work in practice.

Nice meal service for a short redeye, and only myself and one of the other 12 passengers decided to partake:

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Pre-meal bubbles and nuts…today’s offering was Veuve Cliquot Rosé:

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The prawns and salmon starter, which was super tasty, along with more bread than any one person needs:

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The chicken main which was good, but nothing super special. Most surprising was the mashed potatoes…something which usually doesn’t interest me enough to partake, but which was super good. Must have been the ridiculous amounts of butter:

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….cheese course one of two. Yes, it was that good, and everyone else was sleeping, soooo…. Had it along with a couple of glasses of a fairly nice tempranillo, and just as I finished the sun was coming up outside. It was about 4:15 am and we had about 45 minutes of flight time remaining:

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Then, horror of horrors…there was no dessert left! It seems the passengers on the inbound had consumed all of them, and there were none at all remaining. Seriously Qatar? You don’t cater enough for each passenger in each direction? …and I can’t believe the crew served two each to every passenger on the outbound. Boo hiss! I need my Ladurée. Oh well, my pants thank you at least.

Parked at a bus gate (of course) and took the business class bus to the terminal. Short walk towards immigration (where I spied the creepy giant teddy bear again), and immigration was a breeze. Agent spoke nearly no English, but was anxious to try and chat. “W Hotel! Party! Hot girls!” So, I responded with the only appropriate thing: “na’am…shukran habibi!”  (yes, thanks my friend!) It’s amazing how many situations that basic phrase comes in useful in!

Easy to find a cab to the hotel and my taxi driver Mohammad from Pakistan was rocking out to Pitbull for the entire drive. Just what I wanted to hear at 6am…and 50 Qatari Rial later I was at the W. They’d been waiting for me, and asked when I’d like to check out. I’d asked for the 4pm SPG Platinum late check out, and that was no problem…how much later would I like? Can I do 6pm? “What time is your flight? 1am? Oh, how about 8pm, is that ok?” Wow, very nice job…so I had a dayroom for 14 hours. There’s a reason this is one of my favourite SPG properties in the world.

Plus, they upgraded me to a huge “W Suite”

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Closed the blinds, cranked down the AC which got nice and frigid, and after a shower was in bed just before 7am…and promptly passed out hard until noon. Was very glad to see that my plan actually worked out! Got up, showered again, and walked the four blocks to the City Centre Mall in the 44C (111F) heat…but at least unlike Massawa it was a dry heat and actually felt nice. Got there at 12:30 and everything was still closed for prayer time…I had to wait 30 minutes to get caffeine. NOOOOO! Did laps of the mall for 30 minutes to get the legs moving, and then finally…coffee!

Uh, Jason, Andrez, sounds totally the same…right?

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Walked around a bit after coffee, and found where they hide the skeletons:  😉

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What’s not to love about a mall with an ice rink? Reminds me of Kettler Capitals Iceplex where I play…except the rink is supposed to be on the roof, not in the basement! Really wanted to skate, but with a torn rotator cuff decided to be smart and not risk getting hurt by cheap rental skates and out of control children:

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I couldn’t resist Chili’s for lunch…I’m betting this margarita had no tequila in it, but honestly I was so tired it was hard to tell!

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After lunch caught an uber to the Islamic Museum and wandered around for a couple of hours. I think this is one of the most interesting museusms in the world to me, and actually manages to hold my attention for over two hours which is saying quite a lot for a museum! After wandering caught another uber back to the mall, grabbed another coffee, and then walked back to the hotel:

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Swinging chair in the corner of my room where I relaxed, blogged a big, and killed the last hour or so before heading to the airport for my onward flight. There was a sandstorm blowing in, and I hoped there wouldn’t be serious delays…

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Feb 072015
 

Woke up way too early, had a nice light breakfast in the exec lounge and headed down to the Gautrain to head back to OR Tambo Airport. The airport line of the Gautrain doesn’t go to Rosebank, so had to take the train one stop to Sandton, go down the escalators, and change to an airport train. Nice and easy, and only a two minute wait for the train, so it was very smooth. I’d budgeted an hour to get from the hotel to the airport, but ended up taking barely 30 minutes.

Check-in for Airline is way over in Terminal B, practically halfway to Mozambique. The irony is, once checked in, you have to walk all the way back over to Terminal A for departures. Logical? No. But somehow, I wasn’t the least bit surprised. I guess I was already getting in the Africa mindset a bit and accepting that sometimes (often) things just don’t make any sense.

Security had only one line open, so was about a 15 minute wait to get through. Off to the SAA Business Lounge, for a light pre-departure chocolate muffin and espresso:

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Walking to the gate past some of the shops…oh, good, I’d forgotten my zebra pelt at home so it’s a good thing the airport had them for sale!

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View out onto the tarmac:

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Down the escalator to the bus gates. My gate was swarming with Mormon missionaries. One started chatting me up and asked “what does YOUR church believe in?” Um, no thanks, not interested in a chat. I was tempted to explain the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to her, but didn’t feel like it was worth the effort 😉

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Boarded our bus, and when there were 29 people on board (which exactly matched the seatmap on Expertflyer – it appears for SAA/affiliates at least Expertflyer is completely accurate up until departure) we were off to the plane.

Airlink flight 8252
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Antananarivo, Madagascar (TNR)
Depart 10:00, Arrive 14:10, Flight Time 3:10
Avro ARJ-85 Regional Jet, Registration ZS-ASY, Manufactured 1997, Seat 3F

Business and economy seats on the ARJ-85 were exactly the same, just with a small moveable divider between them. The plane was a 2-3 config with four rows/20 seats in business. Only five were occupied today. I was beginning to wonder if anyone flies on SAA regional flights, as there were only 24 people for about 50 economy seats too. View after takeoff:

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There’s not too many ways you can do towel service – hot or cold, with or without tongs, maybe some lemon squeezed on them, but this was definitely a new way of handing people cold towels:

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Post-takeoff beverages – water and red wine:

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Meal choices were beef strips and chili sauce, or chicken strips and sweet chili sauce. Both were cold. I went with the chicken and it was actually pretty tasty. The pasta salad was good too, and I actually ate all of it. I’m pretty sure that’s a first for something containing mayonnaise on a plane, which usually scares me. Oh, and the berry mousse dessert was fantastic as well. Overall, a rather impressive meal for a short regional flight.

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Landing cards were passed out, which were actually small booklets containing a bit of information on the country as well:

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View out my window on approach:

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Immigration was a mess. There were a few lines, but none of them were marked, so it was completely unclear who was supposed to go where. There was a visa on arrival window, but it listed 0-30 days as free, so I went to the other window, where I was directed to a third window. There were about 20 agents at this third window, and it was unclear who was doing one. First one asked for my onward ticket, ok….then passport…then what was I going to do. She handed my passport to another person, who looked at it, looked at me, and then handed it to a third person. He looked at it, paged through it, and handed it to a fourth person…who didn’t even look at it and handed it to a fifth person. Number Five put it in a stack, so Number Six could stamp it. When he’d stamped it, Number Seven added another stamp….and I was off. Well, that was entertaining…

My driver and guide from Jean Be Tours were waiting for me in the arrivals area and we went to the car to do paperwork. Lots of paperwork. Sign this, read that, stamp stamp stamp, more things to sign, explained the detailed itinerary to me. It was definitely the most legalistic tour I’d ever been on, with everything documented, stamped, and signed. Not sure if this is a government requirement, or just how this company operates.

Then, we were off on the very long drive to my hotel. I’d originally booked the Hotel Carlton but when I found out that it has rather poor internet I looked at other options. Turned out a friend from DC happened to be in town at the same time (what are the odds!) and was staying at the IBIS, so I decided to give that a try for my first night. I could always switch to the Carlton for my second night if I chose to. Some scenes from the drive to the hotel….selling meat and sausages on the side of the road:

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Vegetables for sale:

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There had been very heavy rains most of the day, and the streets were pretty flooded:

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Finally got to the hotel, where I hadn’t made a reservation, but I had confirmed online that there were rooms. No problem, they found my corporate rate, and rooms were a full 50 Euros cheaper than the Carlton as well. Got to the room and was pleasantly surprised at it, so looked like I’d made the right choice!

Met my friend for a drink and caught up for a bit before heading out for dinner. I generally try and avoid hotel restaurants as much as possible so looked online (and on google maps) for what might be near. There was an “Italian” place called Au Stade about 900 meters away which got good reviews, so off I went. Then it started raining. Then there were no sidewalks. Then there were no streetlights. Either I would eventually get there, or I would be abducted by lemurs in the process. Fortunately, after about a 15 minute walk I found the restaurant, where I was one of three tables.

Reviews online raved about the lasagna, but decided I was a bit hungrier so went with a pizza which was actually pretty good. Along with two large bottles of THB – “Three Horses Beer.” Pretty grim beer, but went well with the pizza.

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For dessert, the Crêpe Surprise….what was the surprise? Turned out to be bananas and honey. With a bit of vanilla ice cream it was rather tasty!

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Large pizza, dessert, and two beers was 40,000 francs including a small tip, or about $15. It was quickly becoming pretty obvious that Madagascar isn’t exactly a very expensive destination. Fueled by beer the walk to the hotel wasn’t as bad, plus the streets had completely emptied out so there weren’t nearly as many people (or traffic) to content with plus the rain had stopped. Quick walk back and passed out tired from a very long day, plus…I had to be up early to head to the National Park in the morning to go nature walking!

Feb 062015
 

Check-in at the South African counter was a breeze, and based on the seatmaps on ExpertFlyer we looked to have a pretty empty load going down to Johannesburg today. Up to immigration where I made some nice chat with the agent, she asked if I went to the lake, and then looking at my passport picture quizzically, I said “yep, it’s still me!” Her sassy response? “Yes, and you are wearing same shirt as two days ago.” I was NOT about to let that stand…same type of shirt, yes, but slightly different colour. The agent sitting next to her looked over and told her “you need to examine your eyes! This is orange that is red!” Hahahah…

Off to the lounge…which was closed. Instead, the airport cafe had been converted to the business class lounge. Hmmmm….and the air conditioning was broken. So was the internet. Fortunately, it was cool and I only had a bit over 30 minutes to wait for my flight. The lounge was pretty spartan, but had one of the most delicious flavours of chips I’ve ever tried…good thing I can’t find these in America!

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Caught up on e-mails for a bit and enjoyed the chips (but resisted a second bag) and enjoyed the view of the tarmac:

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Soon, it was time to head down to the gate and board. There was security before the gate, and then there was another bag check where you had to open up your bags and have them hand-searched. By hand-searched I mean open them up, have a hand stuck in them for 2 seconds, and let you go. Security theatre at its finest.

Boarding was via a bus gate, which of course meant the pushiest got to board first with no concern for priority. Flight looked pretty empty today, so it really didn’t matter.

From my seat, looking back to the airport:

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Door closed…and OMG, I’m the only person in business class. 32 seats, and it’s only me. Not having to worry about other passengers totally changes the calculus of where you want to sit.

South African Airways flight 171
Lilongwe, Malawi (LLW) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 13:05, Arrive 15:35, Flight Time 2:30
Boeing 737-800, Registration ZS-SJV, Manufactured 2003, Seat – EVERYTHING! (but sat in 04A)

Earlier, the purser had asked me if I had fun in Malawi. I said “yes, but I didn’t get to see Madonna, so I’m disappointed.” When the door closed and it was confirmed I was all alone, he comes over and says “now you can pretend you ARE Madonna and this is your private jet.” Hahahah! I asked him to take pics to document, and he went nuts, taking 20+ pictures.

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Lunch was underwhelming, but at least the beef was a nice medium and edible. The purser told me there was “plenty more if I want more of anything”:

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That clearly includes garlic bread! 😉 Look at all that garlic bread! A full business class of catering all to myself!

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Landed right on time, immigration was a piece of cake, and headed off to the Gautrain to head into Sandton. I was struggling a bit, so stopped for a triple iced espresso in the airport, and then headed on my way. Quick ride to Sandton station, and then time to find my hotel…the Hilton. For some reason I seem to stay in different hotels every time I go to Jozi, and this trip was no different. I don’t know why I’ve never settled on one hotel, but it is what it is. This time, the Hilton had a pretty good rate which combined with Hilton Diamond status made me go for it.

Walk was a bit longer from the station than I expected at 900m, and that combined with the sun and hills made it a bit of a trek with bags. No worries, checked in, and was given a nice studio suite. One thing about Hilton I’m not overly pleased with is their push to sell “guaranteed” upgrades…which aren’t really guaranteed. You agree to pay for an upgrade if it’s available at check-in, in an attempt to give them to people willing to pay over people with status. It’s annoying, but it is what it is. Anyways, the room was nice, blah blah.

Made some phone calls, including to United, to change my flight out to Madagascar the next day. Recovering from a sinus infection a couple of weeks prior, combined with jetlag, and I was just feeling exhausted…and not ready to spend nights in a forest lodge without modcons. So, I decided to stay in Jozi an extra night. Tickets were easily changed with a few Skype calls, and then I set off to get a hotel.

Unfortunately, the Hilton was sold out, so I wouldn’t be able to stay another night. Everything else I usually stayed at was full as well, or extremely expensive. I decided to go back to the first hotel I every stayed at in South Africa over 15 years prior, the Hyatt. I first stayed at this hotel back in 1998 when I went to Johannesburg with friends to see U2 when they first played South Africa. The hotel had great memories, but I hadn’t stayed there since. Managed to book an executive floor king room with some orphaned Hyatt points, and was all set. Now, to enjoy Johannesburg a tiny bit!

It was already quite late, so I headed up to the executive lounge for snacks and wine. The lounge attendant was attentive…probably a bit too attentive. Every time I turned my back my wine glass was full, and within an hour I think I put down three rather large glasses. So much for my motivation to head out to dinner! Managed to drag myself out the door, walk back to Nelson Mandela Square, and find dinner regardless. Quick dinner of Thai (the only place with outside seating immediately available) and headed back to the hotel and absolutely passed out.

Slept in a bit the next morning, and headed up to the lounge for a light breakfast. After that I grabbed an Uber down to Melville to check out another neighbourhood I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years, and walked around for a bit, grabbed a coffee, and just relaxed. Got back to the hotel after a while, and then grabbed my bags and took the Gautrain to Rosebank to check into the Hyatt.

Got there, up to the Exec Lounge to check-in (which was just as I remembered) and then met up with another blog reader for lunch. He picked me up, and we went to Wolf Pack in Parkhurst for burgers and craft beer. Clearly he reads my blog and knows that craft beer and burgers are a quick ticket to getting me talking! One of the nicest things about this blog has been how readers have generously invited me out to show me their city or for meals and give me a bit of an insider’s look into the city.

Relaxed a bit after lunch, headed back to Nelson Mandela Square for coffee and to people watch a bit, before heading back to the Hyatt to grab a couple of glasses of wine during Happy Hour. This lounge shot is from breakfast the next morning:

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After a couple of glasses of wine, met a friend for dinner at Doppio Zero in The Firs for dinner. It had been years since I spent any real time at the Hyatt, and I had no idea this little courtyard area was located basically just behind the hotel. We had a great dinner and chat, kept it going with after-dinner drinks and catching up, and stayed up a bit later than planned…but it was so worth it. One of the greatest things about travel are the things you can’t plan like tours and such but just happen. Even with staying up a little bit late I managed to meet my goal of resting up a bit and was ready to head off to Madagascar in the morning!

Apr 192013
 

We landed at 10am, and immigration was quick without bags, and we were spared the odd questions about why we’d come to Johannesburg for just 33 hours. Fortunate.

I’ve been to South Africa dozens of times, but haven’t actually visited Johannesburg in over 15 years. I flew into JNB two years ago during my round the world 40th birthday trip, but immediately got in a rental car and headed to Lesotho, so I hadn’t properly visited the city in a long time. I was excited to get a small preview of how things had changed.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. I did do a similar milage run about 5 years ago, when Lufthansa published a DC to Helsinki fare that allowed Johannesburg in the routing rules. So, yes, I did go DC – Frankfurt – Johannesburg – Frankfurt – Helsinki. It was legal, and only like an extra $10 in taxes, but as it was a connection I only had about 8 hours in Johannesburg. I did manage to get down to Sandton for lunch, but had to take a giant share taxi which was a bit of a pain in the butt.

Why am I going on about this? Because everyone I knew from there had told me how nice the Gautrain was. JNB to Sandton and Rosebank in about 15 minutes. Clean, fast, efficient, and relatively affordable. I was sold! We only had to wait about 10 minutes for a train, and it was actually rather nice!

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Short train ride later, we were at the Sandton station, which was located conveniently across the street from our hotel, the Radisson Blu Sandton Gautrain.  Check-in was quick and pleasant, and we were “upgraded” to a business floor room.  Nothing special about the room, except that Radisson Blu’s business class rooms seem to all have Nespresso machines in them.  I was a happy caffeine addict.  Perhaps the strangest part was the picture on the wall outside our room:

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Yes, that’s the Farragut West metro station in Washington, DC, the same station I get out at most every day to go to the office.  Halfway around the world.  Go figure.  It was if the hotel was taunting us!  We took advantage of the Nespresso machine in the room to refuel, and since it was almost noon at this point we headed across the street to Nelson Mandela Square to get some lunch.

We settled on Baglios, mainly because they had a table on the lanai where I could sit and enjoy the 23C sun since it was still cold back in DC.  But first, to start lunch off on the right note, I introduced Phil to Savanna Dry cider!

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Apr 182013
 

A couple months ago, people were posting about a fare from DC to Johannesburg, mentioning that while it was a great fare in business class, it wasn’t really cheap enough to be considered a “milage run.”  Well, I like to be comfortable, and with business fares earning 1.5 times the elite miles it was a no brainer for me.  I tend to think if I can buy a business fare for less than 10 cents per elite mile I’m doing well, and with the limited time off I have it made this a no-brainer.  The kicker was that my friend Dewon was already headed back to South Africa to renew a visa, and I could fly the outbound with him.  A few days after booking, my friend Phil wanted to join me for the crazy milage run from DC, and we had the makings of an adventure!

Of course, since this was largely for the miles I devised the most insane routing I could to maximize the miles, and it went off without a hitch!  All told, it would be around 33,000 elite miles earned, at the cost of only one day of leave…can’t complain too much!  Soon, the day of the trip was here and it was time to go.  I’m going to break this into three parts….  (1) the trip to South Africa aka this post, (2) our 1.5 days in South Africa, and (3) the trip back from South Africa.  Warning, this part of the post will be extremely picture heavy!

Got to National Airport, check-in was fairly efficient, TSA was a non-event due to TSA Pre-Check, and soon we were in the United Club.  I love the historic club at National Airport, not to mention the awesome bartender who makes the most amazing spicy bloody mary…perfect start to a big adventure!

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United (operated by Shuttle America) flight 3523
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Chicago O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 10:35, Arrive 11:44, Flight Time 2:09
Embraer E-170, Registration N638RW, Manufactured 2004, Seat 2F

Not too much to say about this flight…it was a pretty generic express flight.  One more drink, some “gourmet snack mix,” some crossword puzzles, and soon we were in Chicago.

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Whenever I have time, it’s become an O’Hare ritual for me to swing by Chilis for some Tex Mex Eggrolls and a Platinum Presidente Margarita…couldn’t resist this time either.  We had plenty of time, and the other option was to sit in a crowded United Club, so the choice was obvious!

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Nov 102011
 

First off apologies that this will be mainly a text post. I don’t know why I didn’t take more pictures on this leg…but just didn’t.

Got up pretty early to catch an early breakfast at the hotel in Swaziland, which was fascinating on its own. The buffet area was small – a dozen tables or so at the Mountain Inn – and most will filled with large South African tour groups. Regardless, we got a good breakfast, and got ready to head on our way. We’d planned to head out of Swaziland on the northern side via Pigg’s Peak, but there was very very thick fog, and the front desk advised us this route would not only be dangerous, but we were unlikely to see anything at all. Oh well – can’t control the weather!

Headed out via the west, and it was still very foggy. We had to get to Nelspruit, South Africa where we were due to catch a Greyhound bus to Mozambique. The drive was slow and quite foggy, but we still made it in plenty of time. Dropped off the car at the airport, and caught a way overpriced taxi back to the bus terminal. No problems at all – which in and of itself was quite surprising. Bus was even on time!

The bus was half full at most (and a double decker) and in less than two hours we were at the Mozambique border. We had purchased our visas in advance, so the border was a complete nonevent. We even had time for a couple pictures:

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Nov 082011
 

Up early to explore Ladysmith before the long drive to Swaziland. Breakfast at the hotel was pretty uninspired, but given the location and what we’d seen of the hotel the night before that was perfectly fine. It was clean, sufficient, and we were on our way. First stop was the Ladysmith Town Hall to see the museum. Ladysmith was a key focal point in the Anglo-Boer wars in the early 20th century, and had an interesting museum to show for it. Unfortunately, it felt like the town never quite recovered all the way. A couple shots of the Town Hall / Museum:

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Nov 072011
 

Slept in just a little, and woke up and drove up to the lodge for breakfast. It was just far enough that you didn’t want to walk it on a very very chilly morning. Breakfast was on the deck, and it was an amazing setting. I really want to come back here for a bit longer to do some hiking. The area is gorgeous.

After breakfast, we took a slow trip back to the room to pack up…a view of the five individual rooms at the resort: Continue reading »

Nov 052011
 

So, there’s no easy way from Victoria Falls to Lesotho. One of our missions for our trip to South Africa was to check-off the two small countries surrounded by South Africa: Lesotho and Swaziland. Since some of our best vacation memories have been driving around the countryside, we decided to get a car and see if we could pull this off. Lots of friends, especially South African friends, said they would never do such a trip. Too dangerous, too boring, etc. Of course, that only encouraged us more.

Up early for another game drive, and this was the winner. Early in the drive, our guide got a call on the radio that there was a fresh kill…and we sped towards it just in time. We got there right after the kill, and were treated to this!

Don’t you DARE steal my food:

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