The Airport – where your adventure begins.

9 07 2009

NW at DTW

These days we tend to groan at the thought of a trip to the airport. With long and winding check-in lines, less than jovial workers, the necessary strip down for security and too-often delayed flights, we’re more than a little flustered by the time we settle into our snug seats. The airport has over time become little more than a necessary evil to get us from point A to point B. While I definitely understand why, I find it terribly unfortunate.

I remember the sense of excitement I felt every time we’d make our way to the airport. There was something exhilarating about pulling up at the airport while majestic carriers were taking off and landing overhead. Inside the terminal there was always such a buzz of energy, people from all over the world joined together for the common purpose of travel. Announcements rang in multiple languages while people scurried about to their airline’s check-in desk. It was always fun to people watch, to see the carefree looks of those on vacation or the seriousness of those on business. Check-in was where you got the first taste of the carrier you’d chosen and your boarding pass was handed over with your final destination officially in print. It was the start of your adventure.

Airports are often architectural sights to behold. From the modern grass-topped sprawl of glass at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport to the contemporary metallic styling of Seoul’s Incheon airport, architects are constantly pushing the boundaries. Airports often give us our first taste of a country’s culture, through art on display or the amenities offered. Voted the World’s Best Airport this year, Seoul’s Incheon airport operates a Traditional Korean Cultural Experience zone. Travellers can enjoy traditional performances including masque dances and twelve-stringed Korean harp recitals on stage. Some of the finest shopping and dining can be experienced while you wait to take off. Many airports also offer panoramic lounges that offer terrific views of planes taking off and landing. Most airports now have well designed websites that can help with your travel planning and research.

So next time you travel, hard as it may be, take some time to appreciate the airport. A lot of careful thought and planning went into its creation. You might even be surprised to find that you enjoy it!

Photo and Post by: Merav Benedetti © 2009





Nepal Bans Pockets To Fight Bribes

2 07 2009

 

Staff at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan international airport are being issued trousers without pockets in an effort to eliminate bribe-taking. Nepal’s anti-corruption body said there had been a dramatic increase in public complaints against bribery and it was felt that trousers without pockets would help the authorities “curb the irregularities.”

 

Sadly, bribes are quite common in many parts of the world, although often – as in Kathmandu – they tend to be aimed at locals rather than tourists. However, that doesn’t mean that visitors cannot be subjected to this special treatment, and when they are it does present a bit of a challenge.

 

It’s all fine and well to tut-tut at home and say you would never give a bribe no matter what the occasion or location, but it’s completely different when face-to-face with someone of authority, wearing a uniform, in a strange land – or strange language – who has the power to make your life difficult. It takes a strong person to say ‘no’ and stand their ground. Or perhaps just a foolish or naïve one.

 

Not for one moment do I advocate giving bribes and certainly in my own surroundings, I would never contemplate it. We all know that bribery is wrong and that paying a bribe perpetuates the cycle, but no matter how distasteful it can be, declining to pay one can land you in serious trouble and a decision must be very carefully considered. Of course, offering a bribe when one hasn’t been solicited is considerably worse!

 

I have been in taxis in Cancun, Nairobi and Zanzibar and stopped by police. Upon command, the driver handed over his license with a small fold of notes sticking innocently from the corner. The officer checked the license, returned it – devoid of the cash – and waved us forward already looking for more victims. The exchange was made surreptitiously so as not to upset the tourist. But in remote Zambia, the tourists were the target.

 

It was late afternoon and we were approaching a very long, low bridge that spanned a languid river. A lone soldier waved us to a halt on the approach and walked menacingly up to the cab of our truck with a rifle slung over one shoulder.

 

“You can’t cross” he said severely. “Only one vehicle is allowed on the bridge at a time.”

 

Straining our eyes forward, we could see another vehicle broken down on the side of the approach road on the far bank.

 

“He’s not on the bridge” we attempted to explain, as friendly as possible.

 

“Yes he is” said our armed companion. “You can’t cross.”

 

We explained that we were trying to reach Lusaka before it was dark and asked if there was anything at all that he could do to assist us. He looked inside the truck, then back at us.

 

“I am a hungry man,” he said, matter-of-factly, stretching his arms in the air and arching his back leisurely.

 

Two tins of beans and a couple of cigarettes later, we were driving onto the bridge with our new friend cheerily waving good-bye and wishing us a good trip.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





Cracking the Airport Codes

29 06 2009

 YYZ

 

 

You’re not a real traveller until you can talk in airport codes. It’s all fine and well to say you’re connecting in Chicago, but until you’ve texted your friends and said you’re grabbing a hot dog in ORD, you haven’t lived.

 

Every airport in the world has a three letter code. The system was based on one introduced by the U.S. National Weather Service who created two-letter codes to organise the data they gathered from their weather stations around the country. Airlines copied it, but as commercial aviation expanded in the 1930s and airports began to appear in places that didn’t have weather stations, it became clear that two-letter codes were insufficient…and so they expanded to the three-letter system that is today officially known as the “International Air Transport Association Location Identifier.”

 

Many codes are easily identifiable with their cities, like AMS for Amsterdam, CAI for Cairo or SIN for Singapore, or with their proper airport name like CDG for Charles de Gaulle, JFK for Kennedy or LHR for London Heathrow. But some aren’t so obvious, like YYZ for Toronto or EWR for Newark.

 

As the U.S. created the system, they had first crack at the codes. The U.S. Navy quickly claimed all the N codes for their bases, which is why somewhere like Newark is EWR while Canada claimed the Y codes, hence YVR for Vancouver etc. Although don’t be fooled, not every Y is in Canada and not all Canadian airports begin with Y.

 

That would be far too simple!

 

Unless you work for an airline or are in the travel industry, you will likely only learn airport codes through your own travel experiences. As your airport code vocabulary expands, you can start to read people’s luggage tags as you await your bag at the carrousel. “Oh look,” you can mindlessly think to yourself as that large tartan case with the pink ribbon tied to the handle trundles past for the fourth time “they’ve come from Istanbul and are continuing on to Omaha, Nebraska.”

 

Well, it beats throwing paperclips at the security guards!

 

If you have a very small brain like me, you can even amuse yourself by giggling at humourous codes or trying to think up interesting routings just to get a combination of codes onto a plane ticket. For example, did you know that if you flew from San Vito, Costa Rica to Fresno Yosemite your itinerary would read TOO FAT? Or that if your baggage claim tag reads SAY BIE it’s probably not that you’ll never seen it again but rather because you’re flying from Siena, Italy to Beatrice, Nebraska.

 

Apart from the fun you can have, there is a practical reason for familiarising yourself with airport codes and that’s that you can double-check that your bag has been properly tagged by the airline representative when you check-in for your flight. If it at least has the correct destination on it, there’s already a better chance you’ll see it again.

 

But just remember, the next time that airline rep hands you a tag that says BIG BUM on it, don’t get angry: it could just be that you’re on a domestic U.S. flight from Intermediate Airfield, Alaska to Butler, Missouri!

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





The Golden Arches

16 06 2009

 

My name is the Adventure Blogger and I have a problem: I’ve eaten in McDonald’s in more countries than I have fingers.

 

Now, before you denounce me as one of “those” who won’t try local foods and instead always heads to the nearest McDonald’s or Pizza Hut, I should hasten to add that I have never been to an overseas Pizza Hut. It’s not that I am afraid of local food – indeed I’ve eaten sheep’s eyeballs, mopane worms, bottom-dwelling jungle catfish and man-eating Malawi crocodile – but sometimes McDonald’s is just so convenient. Like in airport departure lounges.

 

Although there’s something quite captivating, almost hypnotic and suspiciously addictive about the aroma of McDonald’s fries, I really do prefer many local dishes. Like mouthwateringly fresh feta, delicious savoury samosas or a divine bowl of pad thai. But sometimes it’s easier and quicker to dash into the Golden Arches and order Uno Big Mac or Ein McNuggets than to grapple with a foreign language and end up with raw liver instead of a chocolate croissant.

 

I’m not proud, just honest.

 

There’s one academic justification to frequenting McDonald’s, I’ve always told myself, and that’s comparing the menus or the prices around the world. Austria breads their McNuggets and serves beer; Atlantic Canada offers McLobster in-season and Australia has a selection of deli-style sandwiches – a veritable goldmine of information for social anthropologists. As for prices, a Quarter Pounder in Iceland costs about the same as an entire meal (super-sized…no less!) in Canada.

 

I thought I was a genius to think of using McDonald’s as a gauge of the local cost of living…until I discovered that The Economist publishes the  “The Big Mac Index” every year as an informal way of measuring the purchasing power parity between two currencies. After all, you can’t really use the local price of bananas in a direct comparison between Greenland’s Danish krone and Costa Rica’s colon but a fry is a fry is a fry is a fry…

 

The Economist introduced the “Big Mac Index” in 1986 and although it’s obviously not as scientific as comparing genuine economic data, it’s easier to understand and tastes better. It’s also not necessarily an indication of how much lunch costs in the various countries as a bowl of ramen in Tokyo will likely always be less expensive than a McHappy Meal in the Ginza, but it is still interesting.

 

As of February 2009, the five most expensive Big Macs in the world (converted into US dollars) were to be had in the following countries:

 

  1. Norway (USD 5.79)
  2. Switzerland (USD 5.60)
  3. Denmark (USD 5.07)
  4. Sweden (USD 4.58)
  5. Eurozone (USD 4.38) 

 

And the five most affordable Big Macs were found in the following countries:

 

  1. Malaysia (USD 1.70)
  2. Hong Kong (USD 1.71)
  3. China (USD 1.83)
  4. Thailand (USD 1.86)
  5. Sri Lanka (USD 1.95)

 

Now, please excuse me while I sink my teeth into some more valuable economic research.

 

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





No Spoons For You!

15 06 2009

Elephant close-up mw

“What do you mean I’m over my weight limit? I haven’t even given you my luggage yet!”

I have fortunately never had a problem with my weight, although the people on whom I have sat usually have.  Therefore, I wasn’t especially worried when told to stand on the scales at check-in with my luggage in my hand while my combined weight was recorded by a man with a clipboard…in full view of everyone in the terminal. Judging by the reaction of some of my fellow passengers in the queue, it would be safe to assume that given a choice between their aircraft plunging into the side of a mountain because of excess weight or having their personal weight revealed publicly, many would opt for the mountainside.

 

That flight was on a small turboprop and the total weight of the aircraft was extremely important because our destination was a rutted grass strip in the middle of the jungle. It was basically just a new twist on the old “20 kilograms of luggage” limit that we’re all accustomed to, but it is an indication of how important weight is for airlines. Apart from safety issues, every single kilo that can be shaved from a flight saves litres of fuel…and that saves a considerable sum of money.

 

Given the economy, airlines are striving to reduce their costs, and weight is one of the key focuses. One airline recently – and rather quietly – removed the lifejackets from their flights because they are technically only required on flights that travel over water for a certain period of time. Still, it didn’t exactly seem like a positive announcement and was therefore divulged rather silently.

 

Other airlines are being more creative in their reductions. Northwest Airlines has eliminated spoons from flights if the in-flight meal does not require one, while JAL shaved a fraction of a centimetre off all of its cutlery after calculating the savings from 400 people times 3 meals on each flight over the course of a year.

 

Some have discontinued the in-flight magazine, while others have loaded a digital version of the the duty-free catalogue into the seatback entertainment systems rather than carry a glossy magazine. The days of blankets and pillows for every passenger on every flight disappeared some years ago and little socks and travel toothbrushes are but a thing of the past unless you’re in the comfy seats or travelling on one of the few carriers which still believe in those nice little extras. Many airlines even carry less bottled and tanked water than before.

 

New aircraft are being designed with fuel consumption in mind far more than ever before. This is partly motivated by the cost to the airlines, and partly by concerns for the environment. The weight of everything is carefully scrutinised before new aircraft even go into production and all sorts of composite materials are used instead of  more common metals and materials.

 

While all of this is good news if it helps protect the environment or reduce the cost of your ticket, it’s rather inconvenient for anyone who prefers to eat their chicken wellington and garden fresh vegetables with a spoon.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009 





A to Z of Adventure Travel: U is for Ulaan Baatar

5 06 2009

Mongolia 2

There are few countries on earth whose very name conjures visions of a wild and nomadic existence as much as Mongolia.

 Synoymous with its legendary warrior Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes, away from Ulaan Baatar, Mongolian life seems unchanged from its ancient history. The capital city quickly gives way to the country’s arid windswept steppes, its jagged mountains and pristine lakes and the mighty Gobi desert.

While many visitors to Mongolia travel there as a stop on the Transiberian Railway, an increasing number choose it for its pure undiluted adventure value. Most visits begin in Ulaan Baatar with its intriguing mixture of Mongolian, Russian, Chinese and Tibetan cultures and religions. Although many travellers promptly leave the capital for the wilderness, every year it hosts the Naadam Festival where competitors from throughout the country compete in time-honoured warrior contests of wrestling, archery and cross-country horse racing. This isn’t something staged for tourists, this is the real thing and outsiders feels as though they have travelled back in time to an age when basic skills ensured survival and prosperity.

Given the country’s limited infrastructure away from its main centres, it’s not surprising that many tours of Mongolia include stays in traditional Mongolian gers. These nomadic felt tents have been used on the steppes and throughout country since time began, and still provide shelter and insulation from the winds and cold temperatures of the night. While not exactly luxurious, the gers generally offered to travellers include a few extras such as beds…but likely not flat screen TVs or hair dryers!

Mongolia offers some wonderful and unique hiking. The Khan Khentil Special Protected Area north of the capital provides a wonderful opportunity to explore the region as the Mongolian herdsmen used to: on foot, supported by yaks and their herdsman. This slower pace enables visitors to learn much about the local environment and rich wildlife and also the lives of the people who have called it home for millennia.

A country of rich history and tradition, Mongolia has its own customs and etiquette that should be respectfully observed, especially when visiting nomadic families. In Mongolia, it is expected to keep sleeves rolled down and not to expose bare wrists. Food and drink should only be accepted with the left hand. If a plate is particularly heavy, the left hand should be supported with the right elbow but never also held with the right hand. Everything should be accepted with an open hand, with palms facing upwards. If offered vodka, it is customary to dip a finger of the right hand into the glass and lightly flick a drop once towards the sky, once in the air once to the ground. But don’t use too much of the precious fiery liquid! If you don’t drink, continue with the same custom but put your finger to your forehead, express gratitude and return the full glass to the table.

Although a destination best suited for those with a sense of adventure and a tolerance for roughing it, Mongolia’s rich treasures will provide rewards well in excess of any possible hardship experienced along the way.

 

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Photo by: Mongolia Tourism





Sydney, Sydney or Sidney…Sidney?

28 05 2009

Sydney harbour mw

      “I can’t get over how much it looks like Australia!”    (Sydney Harbour)

Recently, I was in my local bookshop when I spied a book on Eritrea in the Asia section. I contemplated advising the staff member of their error, but decided that simply re-shelving the book in the correct spot was better than being publicly identified as the geo-geek that I am.

Eritrea is a relatively new country so their mistake can, I suppose – and somewhat reluctantly – be forgiven. Finding a CD of Paul Potts in the Cambodia section would be less excusable.

There are many places in the world that share similar or identical names despite being separated by thousands of miles. Like Dakar, Senegal and Dhaka, Bangladesh or San Jose, California and San Jose, Costa Rica. It’s not surprising then that every year travellers end up somewhere other than where they intended.

A famous one was a British honeymoon couple who ended up in Sydney, Nova Scotia…instead of Sydney, Australia. It’s an understandable error given that both are in former British colonies, located by the ocean, renowned for their fresh seafood and overrun with kangaroos. The young couple had booked their flights on the internet and couldn’t believe the bargain price. They weren’t particularly alarmed when their first flight headed west to Canada rather than east to Australia as they assumed they were “…going the long way round.” Their eyebrows only arched in Halifax when they boarded a small propeller-driven 25-seater for the trip to Sydney. When their story reached the media they were treated like royalty by the locals…but I’m still not sure that the affection made up for not seeing the Opera House or throwing another shrimp on the barby.

Another error that made the news was of a London businessman who left a terse message with his secretary to book a seaside cottage in Donegal for a week. The secretary, accustomed to her boss’s requests and armed with his credit card, struggled to find a property but eventually succeeded in making the arrangements. The documents were issued and dispatched. He didn’t bother to look until he was on his way to the airport…at which point he discovered he was booked for a week in Senegal, West Africa and not Donegal, Ireland.

Finally, there was the passenger booked to connect in San Francisco for Oakland, California. He arrived in San Francisco late and dashed to his gate hearing his flight called as he ran. He raced on board as the last passenger, and the doors were closed. It was only once airborne and the pilot announced that their flying time was expected to be 16 hours and 20 minutes  via Honolulu that the passenger became alarmed…as Oakland was only 12 miles away. Once the aircraft had finished climbing he signalled the flight attendant and explained his confusion. She checked his boarding pass – which is more than can be said for the boarding agent – and somewhat sheepishly advised him that the flight was destined for Auckland, New Zealand and that he had gone to the wrong gate. Two days later he arrived back in California.

Rule of thumb here is to ensure that you have a good travel agent…and always pay attention – unless you want two weeks in your Speedo in January in St Petersburg, Russia instead of St Petersburg, Florida!

 

Post and photo by: Simon Vaughan © 2009