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





To Shoot Or Not To Shoot

30 06 2009

Kutima Mulilo mw 

 

If I had a dollar for every great photo I’ve missed because my camera was inaccessible, I’d be travelling the world right this moment instead of sitting at my computer! After a few too many ‘ones that got away’, I bought a small point-and-shoot camera. Sometimes, however, knowing what not to photograph is even more important than knowing what to capture!

 

Katima Mulilo is a town in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip: a panhandle of land in the country’s north-east corner that slices between Botswana, Zambia and Angola. We had stopped for supplies during the long drive from Etosha to Chobe National Park. While our truck went for gas, the rest of us headed for the supermarket. The shopping done, we stepped outside and sat on the curb in the shade with a cold bottle of Coke and watched every day life in this sleepy, dusty corner of Africa.

 

Within moments, the silence was split by shouts and roaring engines and a Casspir came tearing around the corner. It slammed to a halt in front of us and police armed with sjambok whips tumbled out and ran in every direction while more vehicles arrived. The Casspir is familiar to anyone who grew up watching news coverage of the Apartheid struggle in neighbouring South Africa. These high-wheeled high-sided armoured personnel carriers raced into Townships during demonstrations, firing teargas and high-powered water from cannons or dispersing police or army riot squads. It suddenly felt as though I was in one of those news reels.

 

The police ran down the side streets and into stores and businesses, knocking over stalls, dragging people out and throwing them in the Casspir or other trucks. Some fled, chased by the police as they thrashed the air with their long whips, others obediently surrendered. A police officer stood atop the armoured vehicle shouting into a radio and directing his men.

 

Amid all the pandemonium, we remained quietly sat on the curb. We didn’t know what was going on, but thought it best to sit still and not draw attention to ourselves. Instead of attempting to walk away or even stand up, we simply slid ourselves further against the wall in an effort to remain inanimate and invisible while all hell let loose.

 

On my belt was my small point-and-shoot camera. I could feel it burning into my side, screaming to be unleashed and record the turmoil surrounding us. While this may not quite have been Pulitzer stuff, it certainly beat sunsets and picnic tables. I told it to be quiet…while I attempted to dissolve into the shadows.

 

People continued to be pushed and dragged to the vehicles and thrown inside. Some of the detainees shouted instructions to others before they were hauled away. Army-booted feet thundered past just metres away. With great relief our truck returned and stopped on the opposite side of the road. An officer strode over and had a word with our driver before leaving again. Our driver gestured for us to quickly bring the shopping and start loading it into our truck, cautioning us not to get in the way. With everyone back on board, we left the mayhem behind and headed out of town.

 

Our driver explained that it was a police raid for illegal immigrants or anyone without ID papers. Not only did relatively-prosperous Namibia have a problem with illegal workers from neighbouring war-ravaged Angola, but at the time there was also a very odd Caprivi secessionist movement seeking independence for the 400 x 35 kilometre sliver of land and which had attacked remote police outposts and other infrastructure. The police weren’t interested in us, he added…unless one of us had tried taking photographs.

 

“That wouldn’t have been good at all” he added.

 

 

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





Stargazing and the Aurora Borealis

25 06 2009

Aurora Borealis 2 mw

“…and today’s forecast is for green skies with a slight chance of slime.”                      (Aurora Borealis from the International Space Station)

 

When my grandmother was very young, she saw the Aurora Borealis – or Northern Lights – dancing in the sky above her house. By her own accounts, it was quite an incredible sight, if not perhaps a little frightening to a small girl in the pre-internet age of innocence. Her tale whetted my own desire to see this breathtaking natural phenomenon, but being a city slicker, that was easier said than done.

 

One of my favourite things when travelling is gazing at the night sky away from the blinding light of the city. I can stare at the heavens and lose myself amid the constellations and billions of twinkling stars. I get excited by satellites and thrilled by meteors. Although I impress myself by identifying Venus (my brilliance never ceases to amaze me!), I couldn’t distinguish Betelgeuse from a Betel nut and I am therefore that most amateur of amateur astronomers…the astro-moron.

 

Whenever I have been in the wilds of the reasonably-far north or reasonably-far south, I have hoped for a glimpse of the Northern or Southern Lights, but they’ve always proved elusive either due to weather, light pollution, alcohol or my inability to determine direction.

 

Landing in a small airport in Northern Ontario late one Christmas Eve, our car made its way from the airport along pitch-dark snow-covered country roads. As there were no street lamps, houses or businesses to mar the view, I couldn’t resist gazing into the crystal clear night sky at an ocean of stars and the dancing lights of the airport.

 

The airport searchlight was huge and weaved and waved across the sky. It must have been visible for miles…which I guess is the whole point of such a thing. Instead of being a static pillar of light as I had seen elsewhere, it wobbled like a tower of Jell-O and swayed like a drunken stilt-walker on ice, deftly painting the sky with its white and blue illumination. Although quite mesmerizing and captivating, it was also a source of annoyance as it obscured my views of stars that I couldn’t name if my life depended on it.

 

It didn’t seem to matter how far we got from the airport, the light continued to hamper my view of the heavens and all too soon we were back amongst the electric lights of the city and my window of opportunity for stargazing had slammed shut.

 

“Beautiful evening” my hosts said to me upon arrival. “Did you see the Northern Lights on the drive in…all blue and white and swaying.”

 

 

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

Photo by: NASA





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





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