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

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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





Airline loses 5,017,212 people in one month!

23 06 2009

 

Every time you check in a bag before a flight you wonder whether you’ll see it again. Although a relatively small amount of baggage actually does get lost given the number of travellers worldwide, it’s everyone’s worst nightmare to arrive at a staid conference wearing only a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops, to lie on a tropical beach in a heavy wool sweater and fur-lined boots, or to attend a funeral in your finest Monty Python “I’m not dead yet” t-shirt.

 

The Air Transport Users Council reported that in 2007, airlines mishandled 42 million pieces of luggage and irretrievably lost 1 million.  Knock on wood, I have only had my bag lost once, and it was returned late the following day. Although I know people who haven’t been quite so fortunate, airlines are forever striving to eliminate these losses completely. But one airline recently lost more than just a few dozen suitcases.

 

The Italian airline Alitalia has apologised after ‘misplacing’ the island of Siciliy on the maps in their in-flight magazine. Although other islands like Sardinia were there, Sicily was missing…and presumably along with it, its population of over five million people. Alitalia assured concerned travellers – and even more concerned Sicilians – that the island was indeed still there and that it was just an oversight that would be rectified in the next edition.

 

Rumours that the airline diverted flights from Cairo to Rome to overfly the island and visually verify its existence have proven unfounded.

 

 

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





Of tour guides and car park attendants

19 06 2009

 

It was recently widely reported that a car park attendant at Bristol Zoo in the west of England never missed a day’s work. He was there from morning ‘til night, six days a week, 52 weeks a year. He was one of those unsung local heroes who, come rain or shine, cheerily welcomed visitors as he collected £1 for cars and £5 for motor coaches. Several weeks ago the gentleman failed to arrive at work. It was the first day he’d missed in 25 years. The zoo were concerned and called the city council to see if he was okay and to ask that a replacement be sent. The council replied that they had no idea what the zoo was talking about as the car park wasn’t their responsibility. It quickly became apparent that he was neither working for the zoo or for the council but had been diligently collecting at least £300 every day for a quarter of a century…and was likely now retired to a palatial seafront villa in southern Spain surrounded by a coterie of grape-peeling senoritas.Botanical Garden mw

 

The story reminded me of a visit to Uganda. Entebbe sits on the shores of Lake Victoria thirty miles from the capital Kampala. There’s not much there except for the airport, the lake and the Botanical Gardens. Early one morning with little else to do, I set off to visit the gardens. After entering with a friend, a small boy on a bicycle came alongside. He asked where we were from and slowly pushed his bike as he walked with us. He told us his name and asked about life in our countries. We followed the winding paths through thickets of bamboo, forests, flowering bushes and the reed-filled lakeshore. A beautiful bird flew past and we asked him what it was, he said it was a crowned crane. We nodded and thanked him even though it clearly wasn’t the national bird of Uganda. We pointed to some monkeys in the treetops and asked what type they were. He replied “Monkeys”. Similarly, a nearby blossoming bush with a beautiful scent was “flowers” and a tree with bright yellow bark was…”a tree”. We stopped asking questions. After accompanying us for our grand tour, we arrived back at the entrance and readied to say good-bye. He extended his hand…palm up.

 

“For the tour.” he explained with a straight face. “I was your official tour guide. I have to pay a fee to the park.”

 

“But we didn’t ask for a tour guide.” we explained. “We thought you were just walking with us.”

 

“I was working.” he added, seriously.

 

My friend and I gave him a few Ugandan shillings each. The young entrepreneur inspected our payment, nodded, jumped on his bike and pedalled away, and is likely now in Spain with the car park attendant. Except…

 

In the course of researching this blog, I discovered a very sad footnote to the Bristol Zoo story. A few days after the report was first published more information came to light about the fate of the hardworking car park attendant. After the story generated interest all over the world, an intrepid local journalist attempted to track down the subject and ended up with a story of almost unimaginable tragedy. After following the most vague of leads and using his finest investigative skills, he was devastated to learn that the story wasn’t true. It is simply an urban myth…but as of tomorrow I am ‘working’ in the car park down the street!

 

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





Breakfast of Champions

8 06 2009

Oxpecker mw

“Can’t we go somewhere else for breakfast? I always feel someone’s watching me here.” (Masai Mara)

My Mum has always said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, although we didn’t always see eye-to-eye on just what constituted a good breakfast. For the record, I see nothing wrong with twiglets and Coke.

Many travellers would certainly agree that breakfast is extremely important. It is the fuel that keeps legs pumping during sightseeing, and a great way to avoid expensive lunches – or at least eat less at mid-day. There’s also a certain magic to breakfast that’s possibly due to the excitement of anticipating what wonders the rest of the day holds in store, or of finding yourself in beautiful surroundings so far removed from a quick stale muffin devoured on a cramped subway train on your way to work.

There are many breakfasts that stick in my memory as being nigh on idyllic. Anything on a sun-dappled terrace, patio or balcony overlooking the ocean always qualifies for instant consideration as a Top Ten spot. The daily ritual of a large platter of fresh fruit and miniature oven-warm pastries in Fiji still brings a smile to my face. Daily breakfast in the garden of the Pink Baobab in Victoria Falls accompanied by the roar of the water – and a nearby fence crushed by a wayward elephant during the night – will always be remembered fondly. And for a touch of civility, who could ever challenge a vast spread of cheeses, meats, jams and croissants in a palazzo overlooking a quiet canal in Venice with enormous French windows ushering in the fresh morning air and the sound of church bells?

But the most memorable breakfast ever was simple picnic fare in Kenya’s Masai Mara.

As anyone who has ever been on safari knows, the best wildlife viewing takes place in early morning and late afternoon. The higher the sun, the lower the animals stay trying to avoid the oppressive heat and conserve their own energy. Morning game drives generally set off in the dark, just as the orange glow of dawn seeps along the horizon. At such ungodly hours, a full breakfast is generally out of the question and a simple plate of biscuits and cup of tea is more customarily followed by a hearty brunch upon return. Occasionally though, there is an opportunity for a picnic along the way. Not only does it provide sustenance to quell growling stomachs that might otherwise scare away particularly nervous wildlife, but it also provides some of the most unique and memorable breakfast spots on earth!

After several hours of exploring the Mara’s savannah and being captivated by prides of lions and herds of elephant, we pulled to a stop in the shade of a large acacia tree. The engine was turned off and a large picnic basket removed from the back of the Landcruiser and placed on the hood. From within were withdrawn foil-wrapped cold sausages and hardboiled eggs, bread and jams, bananas and pastries, juices and flasks of tea. No champagne, no gourmet omelettes – but who needed luxuries with such a view?

All around us the great African plains rolled to rocky outcrops and thickets of trees. With naked eyes we could see elephant and buffalo, giraffe and impala, zebra and Tommies. Apart from the metronomic ticking of our cooling engine, the only other sounds were the lonesome song of African mourning doves and our silent devouring of breakfast. Even now, I can still taste those cold sausages and remember the wonder of that perfect morning.

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





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